All around Mountain Home today there are smiling, joyful faces celebrating the start of another school year.
On parents. The kids, not so much. Their mugs are a little more dour in most cases.
But if you're a parent... it's happy hour.
It would be nice to think to think that those smiling parental pusses were overjoyed at the chance for their children to renew their educational opportunities.
Unfortunately, for most it's simply the chance for the school district to take over babysitting duties.
We tell our kids that they "have to go to school," not that they "get to go to school."
A hundred years ago, it was relatively rare for anyone to even get a high school diploma. Today, failure to do so should never happen. More importantly, the first 12 years of school should not be seen as a completed project, but merely as a prep tool for advanced education. Whether it's a trade and technical school or going on to college, today's world requires far more education beyond high school to be successful.
We ask a lot of our public schools. We ask them to teach our children how to read and understand what they're reading, how to write properly and effectively, to be able to do math at a level sufficient to make change and put together a spread sheet (which requires at least basic algebra).
We ask them to learn enough about our history to understand how the world works and how we got to where we are today. We ask them to understand the basic principals of government (Congress needs a refresher course).
In a world of rapid technological and scientific change we ask them to understand the basics of science and the scientific method.
We ask that they be exposed to the arts and the literature that are such an important part of the foundation of our society, and the expression of that society.
We actually ask kids to learn more today, and more complex material, than we were asked to learn when we were kids. With the world we live in today, they need that extra material.
But that's not all.
For some parents, it's the place their kids can get a nutritious breakfast and lunch (nearly half the students in this district qualify for free or reduced lunches).
Unfortunately, for other parents, it's a place where their children learn manners, proper behavior and, hopefully, a work ethic. It's amazing how many parental responsibilities get passed along to the school district to accomplish.
We ask a lot, and by and large, it gets done.
When a parent gets involved in their kids' education, it help a lot. That means making sure they do their homework and helping them with it, doublechecking their work. It means monitoring how that child is doing in school. Not all that many people actually do that. Historically, the first parent-teacher conferences of the year draw only one-third of the parents. The second one draws even less, and the biggest complaint of teachers is that all too often the parents who show up aren't the ones they need to see. Most of those parents have kids that typically are doing fairly well. Far too many times it's the kids who are struggling who don't have their parents show up.
The school district makes a serious effort to provide opportunities for parents to get involved in their children's education. Besides parent-teacher conferences, parents can ask that homework assignment lists be sent home. They can visit the classrooms to observe. They can meet face-to-face with the teachers. And on the district's website, for those with computers, there is a "Parent Portal" that lets them see both the assignments and grades their kids are getting, plus an opportunity to e-mail the teachers.
The district wants parents involved. It knows the kids whose parents make it clear education is important, and who support their children by monitoring their education, tend to do better in school.
The district is all about helping these kids achieve success.
In recent years, that's been more and more difficult as the state has cut back on educational funding. Extra counselors are gone. Some of the remedial classes to help kids get caught up are gone. The number of elective classes that can get a kid fired up about school have been reduced. It's been an uphill battle with fewer and fewer resources available.
There are some politicians that are convinced the school system is failing. So they cut funding, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are people who say their kids can't read or write, but how much do they help those kids? Do they work with them or get them tutors? Why was it a sudden surprise that come their senior year they're struggling? Why weren't they monitoring those first 11 years?
They blame the teachers, but I always told my kids, whether the teacher was good or bad made no difference, they were still expected to learn the material. If the teacher wasn't any good, they'd just have to work harder.
Fortunately, this district enjoys a large number of very good teachers. There are far more eagles than turkeys out there.
But to do the many tasks we ask of them well, the educators in their lives need help -- from parents, from the legislature, from everyone.
We can't just give lip service to the need for better education. We have to believe it ourselves and be willing to pay for it, in both time and treasure. But most importantly, we have to convince the kids that it is vitally important, that we care how they are doing, and that every member of this community has a stake in supporting them.
Because not every student is going to grow up to be a president, a governor, a congressman or a legislator. The rest of them are actually going to have to be smart and knowledgeable to succeed in this world -- and to build a better world for the next generation.