If you are like the parents I talk with, you are worried about the impact of school budget cuts on your child’s schooling. Districts throughout the Hudson Valley have presented budgets for next year that cut back on extracurricular activities, capital spending, salary increases, administrator jobs and, unfortunately, student services, classroom teachers and aides. In response to significant reductions in state aid to education, districts are tightening their belts, snipping, slicing or slashing everywhere they can.
The educators I work with are as concerned about this as you are. They are already under tremendous pressure to successfully educate all children in their schools. Every day, teachers build lesson plans that incorporate ever-changing content that they must deliver in new ways. They and their colleagues must deal with the dynamics of the classroom: students who want attention; those who need attention because they are struggling; students who are gifted and seeking a faster learning pace. Then there are children whose struggles can become disruptive to the classroom environment, as well as those who are barely hanging on only because they are working very hard just to keep up.
What happens when class size increases or other forms of educational support, such as aides, pre-K, and special education services, are cut back or eliminated? Educators have less time per student to recognize and address individual needs and learning styles. It becomes more difficult to provide support to a child who is struggling. Once a child starts falling behind, it becomes harder and harder to catch up.
So there is a conflict between the demands we place on our educational system and our willingness or ability to pay for everything we require or want. Are we headed towards or already in an educational crisis? I’m not willing to say that yet. However, I am ready to say that our educational system is creaking under the pressure of having to do more and more with less and less.
Schools are struggling to meet the requirements of well-meaning legislators and bureaucrats. For the most part, educators are doing their best to find the most efficient and cost-effective methods for reaching the most possible children. There are bright spots, where districts are beginning to help teachers work differently with students and using new methods to reach the majority of children. Change is happening.
At the same time, no matter how your own school district is coping with the new reality, the roles that educators play and the rules by which the system functions no longer align with our old understandings. In an era of change, where “less” is the rallying cry of legislators and taxpayers alike, how can you, as the guardian of your child’s future, ensure your child’s success?
Schools can only do, and are only willing to do, as much as they have the budget to do. Increasingly it is your role to do the heavy lifting. To be a successful advocate for your child, you need to develop an understanding of his or her educational needs. Learn what a school is legally and financially obligated to provide under what circumstances, and be prepared to ask for changes. Be ready to draw on all resources available—within and outside of the educational system.
Most of all, if your child is struggling at all, do not indulge in “magical thinking.” My best advice is to be proactive and smart about your child’s needs. Start by working within your school’s system for extra support. Be persistent in getting updates and asking for tangible measures of progress. For many children, this help is enough, but some children need more intensive services. To have the best chance at success, I always recommend that parents seek the help most effective for their child.
Isn’t it ironic? Like your child (and on their behalf), you have to work hard and do your homework. After all, failure is not an option.
Dr. Soifer, director of The Soifer Center for Learning and Child Development in White Plains, has been called “Teacher of Teachers and Friend of Kids.” For more than 35 years, she has helped parents, children, educators and physicians to understand learning, behavior, communication and the nature of language functioning in academic performance and success. Her column will be published twice a month.