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Searching for the Invisible, Forgotten Students

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Public education is a wonder. We have managed through federal and local funds to provide a free education to the children in our nation.  It is an expectation that a student will be educated, free of charge, no matter where they live, no matter their income. But, how do schools meet the needs of all students when they are structured so all students fit as fully as possible into one single design? How do schools manage to reach the invisible children when they are built to address the visible ones?
How can we be sure we are seeing the invisible needs, hurts, scars, worries, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses of all students in order to be sure they are thriving, learning and living in the school environment? 

The Imbalanced Reality

The imbalanced reality is the fact that a child's home often decides the quality of the public education available. Neighborhoods determine the vintage and resources of the school buildings and sometimes the quality of their teachers. Those children also experience a lack of continuity resulting from teacher and leader mobility. Salary differences are a part of the cause for this.  Turnover hampers a school community from knowing the children and its culture from preserving values and developing and sustaining the trust.  All these are necessary for an environment in which students can learn well.

Fit into the box or remain invisible unless....

The children who attend those schools can become invisible to the rest of us. They are the story we acknowledge but not the eyes into which we look. If we don't visit those schools, walk through those neighborhoods, understand the challenges those children have, they remain invisible to us.  We are unable to contribute to the solution if we don't put ourselves into the problem.

Most children fit into the box schools have created through design, mandate and tradition. They learn how to work in the box and master the system.  They can 'do school' and be coached easily to perform in the box.  Then there are the gifted ones. Not only the ones blessed with high IQ's, but those who can learn, in our model, with or without our support.  They have the determination and the organized mind that allow them to learn easily. 

But, even some of the gifted students find themselves among the children on the fringe. There are the invisible children everywhere. This doesn't change by neighborhood or by the degree of school success. Sometimes they are disruptive and get attention in that way.  Then there are the obviously troubled students.  Struggling to work in the box or defiantly resisting it, they are offered counseling by guidance counselors or social workers with the hope that they can learn and choose to fit back into the box. Sometimes these invisible ones are silent and don't demand attention. When they slip away, we hardly notice. These are the ones whose secrets, scars, thoughts and fears are hidden deeply. They may appear not be trying, or to be less intelligent, or uncooperative.  We have all known these children in our classrooms.

What does 'all students' mean to you?

In this day of mission statements boasting the education of 'all' students, the summer is a good time for leaders to think about what 'all' means. Do we know who the invisible ones are in every school? Is there an effort to call them from the fringes into our minds' eyes?  This is not a call for another program, service, or staff member to provide a service...rather, it is a call for a scan of the children. What do we know about the invisible children in our school? They may not be the same everywhere. Different factors may drive them to the fringe.

Helping students conform to a framework designed for them to learn and succeed should not be the top of the list.  What needs to come first is knowing the children.  We have come to a place in education where public schools are established and predictable. All within them and those in their communities knows how they function and have an expectation of what they will look like.  The time has come to both celebrate their success and to take advantage of the steady successes so far, and now consider the rest.  Are children the same as they have been for two hundred years? Are their worlds the same? Yes and no.  

Leading a 'Shift' Matters

How can those invisible, hurting, numbed and sidelined be seen and cared for so they can be part of the larger success? How can schools do this without adding staff or program?  We think it is in the very structure of how schools think and behave.  Yes, we return to The STEM Shift here, not to advocate for a focus on subjects, certainly not.  We return to it for the last word...shift.  We do not advocate for abandoning current practice. We do believe that we can learn from models that have changed the way they think about children and their education. Shifting invites all learners to have successful experiences because very child has value to add and to expand.

The skills needed after graduation have been established. Communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking have been established as central. We do not prepare students for graduation if we sustain structures and practices that prevent them from learning how to live and work in an environment where problem solving requires connections among subjects, among skill sets and among people. Keeping students at the center, considering those invisible ones while reflecting on the mission statement that includes 'all' students, one can find motivation to challenge the way things are done, and find new ways to make 'all' students a reality. Perhaps we can take a bit of inspiration from Professor Joe Murphy at Peabody College, Vanderbilt University when he reminds us about our field and how and why we do this work.

The Gift Giver 

To unsettle and alloy that bewilderment with joy
To allow flight and provide an unseen scaffolding
---of support
To hold tightly while letting go

To correct with precision and warmth
To reveal mysteries and provide ladders for
---climbing to understanding

To challenge, to exhort, to demand
To push, to pull, to carry
To build, to empower
To respect and acknowledge, to ennoble

To place one's own heart on the altar and one's
---own hands in the fire
To remember the forgotten

To feel, to share
To dance in celebration
To pass into the shadows

To teach

 Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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