As a youngster I always looked forward to the first day of school. I couldn’t wait to see my friends again, stop by to say hello to my old teachers, meet my new teacher, and even stop by the office of the big chief on campus — my principal. To me, the first day of school was an exciting time, and I finally understand one of the reasons why.
As someone who grew up poor in a single-parent household, I know what instability feels like to a child. It’s something I tried to escape. The sense of not knowing what to expect next was a feeling I ran from, and the only place I could find refuge was at school.
School was a place that made sense to me, a place that provided a system of normalcy, a system I could figure out and understand. Back then I didn’t know why I liked it so much. Today I completely understand why many times I earned perfect attendance. I had to be there. School was the place I could thrive. It was a place where children from unstable backgrounds could form long-term and stable relationships with adults. These adults would actually be there again tomorrow and could actually articulate how proud they were of me when I achieved.
It was a world where the adults poured all their attention on me and were not allowed to express their worries of unpaid bills, relationship problems, and neighborhood crime. I was their kid. Their focus was on my growth and on my academic achievement. I soaked it up. I loved the environment so much that as summer break approached, I found myself not as excited as some of the other kids because I knew that summer meant I must say good-bye to stability.
Today, I believe that same stability I found within public schools is now much harder to find.
Not only are poor children walking to school every morning escaping an unstable environment at home, but too many arrive at their school for the first day after a long summer asking, “Where did our school principal go?” and “Where’s Mrs. Williams, my teacher from last year?” The fact is principals are being snatched up and placed at other schools after just one or two years while many of the best teachers also leave their old classroom to follow that same principal into a new one. I found this to be the case during a recent analysis of some of Florida’s most critically low-performing schools.
Most of these schools serve students from communities similar to the one where I grew up — communities where stability is nonexistent and is sought after by children as if it were ice cream.
Unfortunately these same schools, all of them high-minority and poor, have revolving doors attached to their classrooms and front offices. They are all well above the state average in principal and teacher turnover. It seems like once a principal shows success at one high-minority school, she is yanked out, placed at another school, and asked to accomplish the same. It seems our school district administrators have forgotten how valuable a familiar face is to a child and how valuable long-term relationships and developed trust can be for our students. And we wonder why our dropout rate is so high? I now know that the reason I wanted to go school everyday as a child had everything to do with the familiar faces of school staff and my relationships with them — not just my classmates. Unfortunately today children in our poor communities are losing their teachers, their principals, and ultimately their only hope for stability.
We need to do better.
We must stop shuffling principals and teachers from one high-minority school to another as if they were “floating checks” used to improve a school’s letter grade at the expense of the school they just left behind. Instead, let’s train more school principals and teachers to fill the void within these schools and provide them with valuable incentives designed to keep them there long term. This is how we do better. This is how we encourage more students from poor communities to thrive and earn perfect attendance. Let’s give them stability in every way possible.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.