Act locally, but think globally - for your kids

by Timothy G. Kremer

On Board Online • September 4, 2017

Timothy G. Kremer
NYSSBA Executive Director

As we educate young people and send them out into the world, we have to ask ourselves: What kind of world? Domestically we are polarized, and internationally there hasn't been such tension among the leading nations since the height of the Cold War. How can elected school board members demonstrate leadership as we develop the next generation?

The answer is that you have to treat the main thing as the main thing. That means working with your superintendent to develop the best educational program possible. At the same time, school board members are moral leaders who set the tone for their school districts. If you care about something and keep talking about it, other people in the district will care about it, too.

With that in mind, here are five priorities you should have this school year. These are issues in all school districts - upstate and downstate, wealthy and poor, big and small, relatively homogenous or very diverse - that we all must be prepared to address:

1. Refuse to tolerate bullying, discrimination or the spread of hate. Bigotry and prejudice have always existed in this country, but it was shocking - and nauseating - to see the video of marchers in Charlottesville carrying torches and chanting, "Jews will not replace us." Such displays of neo-Nazism and assertions of "white supremacy" could influence disaffected young people and inspire copycat forms of expression. In late August, swastikas and anti-Semitic messages were found spray painted on walls, doors and windows of Syosset High School on Long Island.

Under the Dignity for All Students Act, school principals and other administrators must make tough choices regarding what is bullying or otherwise subject to discipline and what is free speech (see story, page 3). They need to be able to rely on school polices that make it clear that the district is committed to providing students with a safe and supportive environment and refuses to tolerate discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment or bullying.

2. Pay attention to students' emotional well-being. We've all seen reports of an increase in mental health issues among students. Perhaps that's why state lawmakers added a requirement, effective in July 2018, that schools include mental health in their health education programs. NYSSBA called attention to this issue last May when we co-sponsored a summit called, "Your Role in Addressing the Growing Mental Health Crisis among Students." A second such summit is being planned for March 2018 on Long Island. We must do what we can to remove the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues that are common among youth, including depression and other highly treatable disorders. In each school district, the entire school community needs to recognize the importance of caring about every person.

3. Be equitable when allocating resources. A student's educational opportunity should not be limited by the color of his or her skin or how much money his or her parents have. But sometimes schools in wealthier areas of a given district get more spent on them. Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, school boards will have to provide building-level per-pupil financial information by June 30, 2019. These disclosures likely will result in intense conversations within your community about how fairly your district resources are being allocated. Anticipating those conversations should begin now as part of district budget planning discussions. NYSSBA will be hosting a series of six budget planning workshops for school board members this October and November.

4. Prepare for possible teacher shortages in certain subject areas. A report published by NYSSBA in May concluded that teacher shortages in New York are concentrated in a handful of subjects and regions of the state, most notably science, special education, foreign languages, mathematics, and English instruction for students whose primary language is not English. Shortages appear to be more a mismatch in supply and demand: the types of teachers coming out of teacher preparation programs do not match the demand in the field.

5. Support climate change instruction. Instruction on climate science within multiple grade levels is required by new state science standards modeled off the Next Generation Science Standards. NYSSBA just released a report called "When Politics Enters the Classroom: Teaching Climate Change in Schools," that addresses the challenges of teaching about climate change. Although NYSSBA has no position on climate change, I think scientific evidence supports what common sense would suggest - that burning of fossil fuels and other human activity puts a lot of carbon in the air, and that has a relationship with weather, natural disasters and climate change.

The start of the school year always brings a renewed focus on the hopes and dreams of the students in our public schools. While the world is full of tumult, we can make our schools safe havens for learning, growth and development.

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