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Virginia Journal of Education

You Asked…

In Bristol, a teacher responds to a question posed by Gov. McAuliffe.

By Tracey Mercier

I’ve been teaching special education for 23 years in our great state, 22 of them in Bristol, and the first thing I want to say is thanks for saying you’re going to make K-12 public education a priority in your budget.

You recently asked, “What are the barriers to student success in school?” Please allow me to share some of what I see daily in my classroom, my school and my community.
Hunger: Many of our students receive their only meals at school. It is utterly amazing that Snickers can have an advertising campaign using the slogan “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” but our hungry students are supposed to do as well as those who never have to worry about food.

Homelessness or lack of a stable home environment: I once had a student I’ll call Chad. Chad typically arrived at school late and hungry, so I started keeping food in my room. He usually didn’t sleep in the same place each night, so homework or studying were not his main concerns. Finally (after many calls), DSS decided to remove him from his mother’s care. It happened during the school day, when his new foster family was unable to pick him up because they had other foster children. He was given the address of the foster home and told to ride a different bus. His eyes were wide with fear. He was trying very hard not to cry. I walked him to the bus, assuring him the family was awesome and would take great care of him. As the bus drove away, he turned and looked at me as long as he could. I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through his mind and heart.

Lack of cleanliness (students who don't regularly bathe are often shunned by their peers, which affects their ability to learn): A couple of years ago, I had a student, David (not his real name), who came to school filthy. His fingernails were encrusted with dirt and you could see dirt on his arms, neck and face. The stench was almost unbearable. Sometimes, cockroaches would crawl from his sleeves. His living conditions definitely affected all my students. That children are living in conditions like these is gut wrenching. But the fact that I no longer think twice about trying to snatch a bug from student’s head is a sad commentary of how common this has become.

Abuse (physical, emotional and sexual): Currently, I have three students who are involved with court systems because of abuse. Two had been living for at least two years locked in a room with thin, filthy mattresses on the floor, covered with urine and fecal matter. We’d called DSS, but it took a neighbor calling the police to finally get them removed from the home and the parents arrested. Another one of my students transferred to our school this year, after moving from Russell County via Illinois. While her mother was incarcerated there, the mother's sister cared for her children, and the oldest daughter was sexually abused by a 17-year-old cousin. My student has given recorded testimony, and is now living with the fear of having to go back to Illinois to testify against her cousin.
Stresses of poverty: One of my students, along with his brothers and sister, was living in a house with no running water. My student, whom I’ll call Scott, came to school filthy, unfed and exhausted. Our school nurse and counselor taught him how to give themselves a sink bath. One morning, Scott was washing his feet, when suddenly in a frantic voice he called “Mrs. Boswell, Mrs. Boswell…come in here, something’s wrong with my feet.” She knocked, slowly opened the door, and asked what was wrong. He pointed to his right foot and said, “Look…my foot doesn’t look right. It’s pink.” She looked at his foot and said “Oh honey…that’s what your feet are supposed to look like.” He’d been filthy for so long, that he’d forgotten how clean feet should look.
An additional stress of poverty is a diminished vocabulary. By the time a child in poverty is school-aged, they’ve used five million fewer words than a child growing up in a home with parents who are professionals. Not that there are five million different words, they don’t hear words enough times, if at all, to attach meaning to them, and typically the words they hear are negative and basic functional vocabulary. For instance, most of our first-graders didn’t know the meaning of the word pleased, but they all could define lonely. Heartbreaking.

Those are some of the barriers our students face. There are very few high-quality public preschool options. There are some state grants, but localities typically have to match the funds to some degree. Many cannot, and even if they can, most don’t have the additional classroom capacity. Too many legislators refer to preschool as babysitting. For the record, child care is babysitting children, and pre-school is educating children…huge difference.

Another powerful barrier is lost instructional time because of the “almighty SOL test,” which no college or military institution even regards when considering enrolling students. In order to get ready for the test, we have to have benchmarks tests, and even pre-benchmark tests. Then there are diagnostic tests, given three times yearly. In most school divisions, three to four instructional periods are lost to benchmark testing, per subject, each nine weeks. For diagnostic testing, the testing time can range from three instructional periods to five in reading and math. In reading, you’re looking at losing up to 41 instructional periods in reading/English and the same amount for math. Students are losing almost 25 percent of the school year to testing--and that doesn’t include the actual SOL tests.

Testing has changed teaching. Before there was so much emphasis on testing, I was able to get to know my students, really get to know them – their families, their favorite foods, animals, TV shows, foods, sports teams, their fears, their motivators, etc. I was able to develop real relationships with them and their parents. Now, not so much. I was able to build trust with my students, and they would tell me if they were happy, or being abused, or sad, or thrilled. Now my fear is that more and more students will live in abusive situations because there’s not enough time to develop trust with their teachers.

Of course one can’t talk about barriers to student success without mentioning funding. Over the course of the past three years, Bristol Virginia Public Schools has lost 50 positions because of budget cuts. These numbers mean larger class sizes, less remediation and intervention, fewer class offerings, fewer school counselors, less support personnel, functionally obsolete buildings, fewer experienced teachers, and outdated buses.

Academically, there’s been a cost too. Creativity has been sacrificed on both the parts of the teachers and students. Teachers differentiate instruction daily, but now we can’t differentiate it too much, because it doesn’t match what the test format. Our students have varying learning styles, but that doesn’t matter when it comes to testing time.  Why should we differentiate instruction, when the test is standardized? Why are we preparing students for standardized tests when life is anything but? All this testing comes with the immeasurable cost of not cultivating artists, scientists, entrepreneurs and philosophers. Is that a price any society should pay?

It is with the utmost respect that I ask you to reflect upon what I have shared with you. Thank you.

Mercier is co-president of the Bristol Virginia Education Association.




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