Reflections on School Visits: Challenges in Education Today

“These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods and these children are our children,” explained a distraught President Obama to a grieving public in the wake of the Newtown shootings. Indeed, as a public, we are all invested in the success of our schools and children– in times both of trial and triumph. Our neighborhoods and communities thrive when we support our schools and children. But it is no easy task, and one certainly easier said than done.

Senator Brownsberger has undertaken an effort to visit all of the schools in his district by the close of the school year. As a member of his legislative staff who focuses, in part, on education policy, I accompany him on these visits. School administrators have graciously provided tours of the school facilities and explained the host of challenges they face, as well as the methodologies and strategies they employ to improve the student experience as well as outcomes in achievement. We have had the opportunity to observe and, in some instances, to participate in class.

School systems are increasingly expected to provide more services to more students. Schools are no longer simply sites of academic teaching and learning (if they ever were). Now, schools  provide (and are expected to provide) mental health and psychological services, as well as instruction in social skills. Teachers often fill the role of a parent in addition to that of an educator. Children have also felt the impact of the economic downturn, and school psychologists and counselors have seen an increase in the number of students with anxiety and other mental health issues.

We have seen wide variation in the types of challenges faced by schools in the district. The condition of school facilities is certainly not uniform; they all seem to be making do with what they have, but could all stand to see improvements. Even at Boston Latin School, which enjoys a high level of financial support from alumni and has beautiful facilities, students expressed their concerns about fluctuating temperatures in their classrooms and non-functioning toilets in their bathrooms.

Special education services also vary widely, according to the needs of the population of the school. The McKinley Schools serve only special education students in the Boston Public School system who have been diagnosed with psychological, behavioral, and/or emotional concerns. At the Cunniff Elementary School in Watertown and the Daniel Butler and Winn Brook Elementary Schools in Belmont, we observed different approaches to special education. Some special education students were included in a regular education class with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan and, sometimes, a one-on-one aide. Other special education students received instruction outside of a regular education setting, while still others were integrated into a regular education setting for purposes of music, art, or physical education classes.  The due process and civil rights of special education students, including the processes for determining a special education student’s placement, are outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, codified at 29 USC § 794, and their implementing regulations. The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, provides a “one-stop shop” for information on the IDEA and its associated regulations.

Schools face the challenge of educating students with varying abilities. All of the elementary schools I have visited with the Senator employ a Response to Intervention model, which seeks to meet students’ differentiated learning needs by targeting specific areas in which a student is struggling and directing that student to work with peers and (often a different) teacher on those specific areas. Senator Brownsberger sees educational technology, particularly in the form of online learning, as another way in which schools will be able to serve students’ differentiated learning needs and to allow each student to reach his or her maximum potential- wherever they may fall along the ability spectrum.

All schools are faced with the gargantuan task of preparing students for a future that is ever-shifting. Most students will likely at some time in the future hold jobs we are unable to fathom at this time. Conventional wisdom holds that a college degree is an important factor in determining future success, and, in fact, the U.S. Department of Education, in conjunction with the Department of the Treasury,  published a report last week to make the economic case for higher education. A student’s low cognitive ability could stand in the way of a college education, however, and legitimate questions remain as to whether a high-priced college education is the best investment for all students. What remains clear is that our secondary- and, to a lesser degree, our elementary- schools are left with the task of preparing all students to be college- OR career-ready. We seek to support them in this task.

Anne Johnson Landry
Committee Counsel and Policy Advisor
Office of State Senator William N. Brownsberger

Published by Anne Johnson Landry

Anne works as Committee Counsel and Policy Advisor to Senator Brownsberger.