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One Down, Forty-nine to Go

One of my pet peeves (the list is rather long) is that educational policy decisions are frequently made without the thoughtful consideration of children. Kids don’t have lobbyists to promote their special interests. Kids don’t have a voice when decisions are made about how education dollars will be allocated and, eventually, spent. The system’s “clients” don’t get to weigh in on what they will study and which text books, along with supporting materials, will be adopted to achieve the goals of the system. In fact, the very children that these systems are created to serve, rarely have their input considered about what the system’s goals for them should be.

Okay, I hear the doubters in the wings and their suggestion that children, as children (especially young ones), lack the experience and perspective to offer meaningful input. But, what about their parents or caregivers? Do they have meaningful opportunities to advocate for the interests of their children? Rarely. If a system is to be brutally honest with itself, it would acknowledge that, frequently, parental input isn’t requested until the decision train has left the station. When that opportunity does occur, the input requested is not “why” something is important or “what” should be done in the best interests of our community’s children. Rather, the question usually involves “which” of the pre-determined options presented would be the least offensive. Public education is one of society’s arenas where the desires and interests of the end user are not considered. Curious. Curious and wrong.

Enter the state of California, who in recent weeks has punched a huge hole in my argument. Not once, but twice. Neither of these actions, in and of themselves, are game changing, mind bending, solutions. They don’t cure cancer. They don’t guarantee a 100% on time high school graduation rate. But, they offer something else, something very important. Both of these legislative actions are focused on the welfare of kids. I wish I had been a fly on the wall as these topics were deliberated. I can only surmise that key to the discussion was the question: “What’s best for children?” I’ll even admit to being naive, and I know there were political implications imbedded in each of these actions. But, I’m hopeful. Both put kids first.

First, it is now illegal for schools, and school systems in California, to shame children in the lunch line. Imagine, you are ten years old. You are face to face with the lunch lady who declares that you can’t have what’s on your tray because your account is (ahem) in “arrears.” She says it to you, but those in front of you, and behind you in line, hear her words. They hear the implication of her announcement, and they witness your humiliation and shame as you are served the “alternative” option (typically a slice of American cheese between two pieces of white bread) that is reserved for kids whose parents either can’t, or won’t, pay the bill. And, to a quiet degree, they understand the hit this inflicts on your social capital and the practical implications of being deprived of nourishment. (Or worse, they don’t. And you, instead, experience torment and ridicule.) That ends! No longer will this be allowed in California. All children, regardless of their ability to pay, will be entitled to a full reimbursable lunch. (A young man and his generous contribution of his allowance money toward this problem may have served as a key motivator.) There are so many reasons that support this as a sound decision. The research on the correlation of nutrition and learning is compelling. But, so is the understanding of the enormous impact that shaming can have on children.

Adolescents need sleep. There should be no debate on this topic. Everything about this stage of human development, all of the relevant research, reinforces the notion that kids require a minimum of 8-10 hours of sleep every night to be productive and functional. So, try this scenario on for size. Jacob gets home from his after school soccer practice at 5:30 PM. Dinner at 6:00 followed by a favorite sitcom, he heads to his room to complete assigned homework at 7:30. Assuming that he doesn’t have a test to cram for, he closes the books at 10:30. Following a quick shower, he’s in bed by 11:00. The alarm is set for 5:00 AM because the bus arrives at his stop at 6:03 and there has to be time to make a lunch and grab something for breakfast. His first class starts at 7:40. Repeat this every day.

At best, Jacob is averaging six hours per night that are dedicated to rest and rejuvination. Jacob is sleep deprived. Jacob, due to a schedule beyond his control, is disadvantaged. Even highly capable kids cannot perform to their optimal levels when they’re tired.

Despite all of the critics and naysayers, California has decided that the first class for high school students cannot begin earlier than 8:30 AM. (For kids in middle school, 8:00 is the earliest start time.) Does this fix everything? Of course not. Jacob still doesn’t have the benefit of the hours of sleep that researchers have concluded that he needs. But, this action suggests that legislators are familiar with the research and that they are attempting to consider the needs of students in their decisions. (I lost an argument about rolling back a 7:40 AM start time to 7:30 in the service of assumed transportation department needs. Research was ignored. The educational needs of kids was ignored. I fully understand that school systems are complex machines, but shouldn't the interests of kids be at the head of the line? It was a classic example of the “tail wagging the dog.”)

Kids first. That was always the pronouncement to my staff as we considered any challenge or decision. “How will this affect Anthony?” (Code for my “kids first” priority: well known to my colleagues and the subject of a previous post, December 3, 2018, Our Moral Imperative.)

Are there any other states ready to put kids first? Forty-nine to go.

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