THIS THING CALLED SCHOOL
“We are not a security force in any way, we are just fathers who are changing the narrative on campus.” - Michael La’Fitte II
The above quote might just be the best thing that has been said all week.
For JOY listeners and for you, my newsletter friends, this week is dedicated to exploring the IDEA of school.
Musician Bono from U2 has a well known quote about America. He says something to the effect that America is not a place, but an idea. And I think we have reached the point where the same holds true for school. Schools have wandered greatly from the purpose to educate. Education is something that can happen at a school, but just being a school does not intrinsically mean that education happens there. Perhaps school is the place, but education is the idea.
As a person who generally hated school, despite excelling academically, socially, and athletically, I managed to put myself through a lot of it. I certainly looked like someone who thrived at school, but to be honest, I struggled. Even through graduate school. I was constantly overwhelmed by social drama, frustrated by having a creative mind and not understanding my specific learning needs, and always feeling like there was a whole lot of deciphering I had to do to make use of what was being presented to me as education. I spent a lot of the time exhausted. I knew I was capable of more, but school made my ability to access my full potential really difficult. And ultimately this shut me down.
Still though, I will never give up on school. I continue to take classes, seek out certificates, and complete trainings. Because I LOVE to learn, and as you'll hear in the THEORY JOY episode this week, one can love to learn but also hate school. Again, because school and education are actually two separate things.
An important news story about school caught my eye this week that seemed to illustrate this difference in narrative.
SOUTHWOOD HIGH SCHOOL
In early September, fighting between students at this Louisiana High School became so heightened it resulted in 23 arrests on campus. Not surprisingly, due to the fighting and the witnessed consequences afterwards, a number of students reported to their parents they didn't feel safe going to school. It is important to note that like many schools, Southwood High School called upon police presence at the school following the increase in fighting to act as a deterrent to student aggression and make students feels safe. It did neither.
At an emergency meeting organized by parents in the community, following the events on campus, a group of fathers of students banded together to create change. Dads on Duty was formed by Kenneth Henry Sr., David Telsee III, Tracy Harris, Merge Johnson, Michael La’Fitte II, Michael Morgan Sr., and Zachery Johnson to address the concerns of safety on campus.
Each school day, in two shifts between 8am and 1pm, members of Dads on Duty greet students as they arrive to school. They offer words of encouragement, high fives, or handshakes. They walk the halls saying hello and helping students get to class on time. And that's basically it. That's the magic sauce. They are friendly, available, adults. And it has helped. A lot. Imagine that.
The experiment has gone so well that the group of 5 dads has grown to 25 and has now inspired similar groups across the country. I want to draw attention to the critical importance of intent here. The goal of Dads on Duty was not to stop the fighting, but to show up for the kids. To be present and help the students feel safe by taking up space at school as caring community leaders. For both the kids who were fighting and the kids who weren't. And this intent makes a big difference. And this intent works.
As Mr. La 'Fitte II said, Dads on Duty have changed the narrative on campus. And what they so brilliantly did, was to change it from one of a school, to a place where education can happen. They shifted the story from one of a place where children outnumber adults 26 to 1 (the average for Caddo Parish County LA), where aggression is met with police force, and the general energy of the students is traumatized (this is not unique to Southwood - ALL schools are currently facing a student body with collective trauma - you can read more on this here) to one where education might be possible. And it is working. Since Dads on Duty has been on campus at Southwood High School, there has not been another similar aggressive incident.
There is a lot to break down in this story. First I want to mention that Dads on Duty is aware of the complexities of having parents on campus. Not all parents or adults are safe for children. Dads on Duty has taken measures to ensure that volunteers are safe adults to be interacting with children. Also, the group has reached an agreement with the school board, are welcome on campus, and are considered partners with administration and staff.
It is important to mention that my views on school and education being two separate entities is in no way due to the lack of effort by teachers and school staff across the country. Teachers, school staff, and admin work their asses off. The separation I suggest is due to a system that doesn't work and it doesn't work because we fund it less than we fund anything else (I'm using “we” here on out as societal “we”). And what this reads as, is that we do not value school. Fair enough. If we did, we would choose to fund more teachers, full time counselors, full time school nurses, learning specialists, and other caring professionals and adults who would narrow the student to adult ratio and provide kids with the simple notion of availability. Availability to learn and availability to grow. If you've been the sole adult in a classroom full of 26 students you know this kind of dedicated availability is a fantasy.
We also do not value children. Fair enough. If we did there would not be an argument about the importance of maternal health, parental leave, student loans, free community college or all college for that matter, and accessible day care. Also, we would fund the spaces children inhabit for up to 8 hours a day 5 days a week. The pandemic has been an illuminating event in terms of how we value children, their body autonomy, and school. The Atlantic's Katherine Wu interviewed Sallie Permar, the chair of pediatrics at Weil Cornell Medicine regarding the FDA authorization of the Pfizer vaccine for children 5-11. I found this excerpt from the interview quite thought provoking:
KJW: Getting vaccines down to young kids took a very long time, and we still haven't reached the under-5 crowd. What can we learn from this? Did it have to be this way?
SP: It is a travesty that we sent kids back to school without this vaccine available to them, while adults were benefitting from vaccine immunity, going to restaurants with our vaccine cards. We should not leave children to the very last.
It feels good to think we value children as a society, but our actions tell us otherwise.
Additionally, we use language about school that supports the nightmare of the school-to-prison pipeline. I found several articles about Dads on Duty and the discrepancy in the way events are described is pretty telling. Here is a local version of the story to be compared with the headline in the Washington Post. Ouch. Long story short, the Washington Post blows it. Big time.
I do not know what the full answer is here, nor do I claim to have a solution to what has become a deeply systemic failure. I truly wish I did. What I do know is that there is something significant in the act of availability. The availability of interested and attentive adults when it comes to healthy childhood development is paramount. And right now the way the system is set up, availability at school is next to impossible, despite best efforts. And school for most kids is 5 days a week 6 hours a day. Throw in before and after care and school is a full time job. And that's a lot of time to spend anywhere, even if it actually meets their needs.
While commendable and an incredibly creative solution, I'm not even sure that Dads on Duty is the answer, but it is certainly an idea. A good one. And right now Dads on Duty appears to get Southwood High School closer to a place where education can be part of school. And that is exciting, something to feel good about. And a really great place to start.
Check out the links to the articles about Dads on Duty. Let me know what you think. Send me your thoughts on school and education. I'd love to hear your experience as a student, teacher, administrator, parent, or both. I'm going to be doing more writing on this. Let's start this conversation. Hit reply to send me your thoughts.