Talk of the District: Even the Best of Schools Face Challenges

My favorite thing to do is visit a classroom and see the smiling faces of kids and teachers as they learn and grow together. Their energy and passion is contagious, and I feel motivated and inspired by them. Yet, these visits also make me aware of other things happening in our schools. Things that aren’t so positive. I see a small number of our children in distress. I see concerned teachers doing all they can to help. I see other students confused and unsure of what to do.

There are some real issues within our school system and within schools across the country. I see them, our staff sees them and our students and families see them, too. You might read about some of these on social media or hear about them in the news. A few in our community would like you to believe schools across our district are in chaos, and they cite the occasional negative incidents in our district as a direct result of past decisions, fiscal mismanagement or poor leadership.

What is often overlooked, however, is that challenges existed prior to this administration and this school board. And they’ll exist long after. Schools are complex organizations, and the children that we serve within them have challenging, varied and ever-increasing needs.

The reality is, for many students and families in our district, things have improved in the past year. I receive regular feedback from parents across the district who are having amazing experiences in our schools this year. Just this week a parent shared that this is the best year his family has ever had. His child’s fourth grade class is smaller than any they’ve had before – more in line with class sizes other schools have seen for years. We’ve heard from many families with middle school students who love the way their children are now being supported emotionally and academically. High school parents are raving about the opportunities their ninth graders have had this year, and crediting programs like BARR and Link Crew with helping their children transition into a new school community.

Past decisions, as difficult as some of them have been, have allowed us to do what we set out to do. This year we’ve been able to get rid of class size highs and the lows to bring all elementary classrooms to a more equitable size. It’s also allowed us to ensure all of our elementary students have access to at least one counselor, psychologist or student advocate in the building all day, every day – this was not the case in years past.

While we’ve made significant changes in our district recently, we know it has not been enough to solve all of our challenges. It’s only the beginning. Our students come to us today with greater needs than we’ve ever seen before. Some are coming to school hungry, anxious or depressed, tired and combative. Others have behavior and emotional challenges, mental illness, and trauma. Our schools are not fully equipped to handle some of the realities we’re now seeing. Frankly, few schools in the nation are properly equipped. We need more training for our teachers; more skilled mental health providers, counselors and school psychologists; more specialized behavior interventionists; and ultimately, we need more funding to pay for these new positions.

We’re not blind to the challenges that continue to persist in schools and classrooms in our district. We are deeply moved by the stories we hear from our students, our families and our own staff. We see for ourselves what is working and what isn’t. Every day our leaders and staff  are working alongside parents and community members to address issues when they arise and develop solutions that are desirable, equitable, sustainable and feasible.

We are optimistic and proud of the progress we’ve made, but we recognize there is much more to be done. It is easy to point to what isn’t working. What is harder to do is to acknowledge the challenges schools face and come together as a community to create solutions.

In the coming weeks our school board will be digging deeper into the budget, and engaging in difficult discussions about our priorities moving forward. You can follow these conversations online at stillwaterschools.org/budgetconvo.

We invite you to continue to share your concerns with us, but more importantly, we ask you to weigh in with your ideas and solutions. The needs of our students are very real, and we cannot solve them on our own. We need your help!