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Archive for Monday, February 16, 2004

Schools adapt services to families’ needs

February 16, 2004

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— Half an hour before classes begin at Chase County Elementary School, dozens of children congregate in the gym, their conversations creating an overpowering din. Dozens more eat breakfast in the adjacent cafeteria.

More than 80 percent of the school's 160 students, kindergarten through fourth grade, typically remain at school into the evening -- reading, playing games or learning to dance while their parents work.

The school occasionally acts as a clothing bank, handing out a warm coat or a change of shirt or pants. For two weeks this month, Chase County Elementary even will serve as Cottonwood Falls' only roller-skating rink.

In both rural and urban communities, schools play similarly broad roles, dispensing medicine, offering counseling, attempting to build character and keeping children out of trouble in the afternoon.

At Chase County Elementary, Principal Diane Dodez said she learned early in her five-year tenure that telling families their children couldn't come to school early didn't do much good. Parents dropped them off anyway, because of their work schedules. Opening the gym early, therefore, serves a larger community need.

"That was an important thing to do for families," she said.

Increasing demands

Educators say demands on schools have increased over the past decade because communities, parents and the state want schools to combat social problems. Those demands also are a reason some education officials have felt squeezed financially in recent years, even though the state spends $2.6 billion -- more than half of its general revenues -- on public schools each year.

Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has proposed an increase in school funding of $304 million over three years, to be financed through higher taxes. A consulting firm reported in 2002 that it would take an additional $852 million annually to provide all Kansas children a "suitable" public education. More recently, a Shawnee County judge concluded that the state should be providing $1 billion more each year on elementary and secondary schools.

Fourth-graders learn to play the violin at Chase County Elementary
School in Cottonwood Falls. Instruments are donated to the school
so that interested students can learn to play. Chase County
Elementary is an example of one school that steps in to provide
many services to students and their families beyond curriculum. The
school serves meals, enrolls children in after-school clubs,
operates a clothing bank and serves as roller-skating rink, among
other things.

Fourth-graders learn to play the violin at Chase County Elementary School in Cottonwood Falls. Instruments are donated to the school so that interested students can learn to play. Chase County Elementary is an example of one school that steps in to provide many services to students and their families beyond curriculum. The school serves meals, enrolls children in after-school clubs, operates a clothing bank and serves as roller-skating rink, among other things.

Educators say that support services are important to a suitable education, because a child who is hungry or stressed cannot concentrate on history or math.

"Most people don't understand that schools are a microcosm of society," Tamara Cotman, the Wichita district's assistant superintendent of elementary schools, said during an interview. "Everything that happens in the world comes into the school."

A growing list

The role of schools in meeting children's noninstructional needs is almost as old in Kansas as Chase County Elementary, which opened in Cottonwood Falls, about 20 miles west of Emporia, in 1904. A state mandate that students receive annual dental exams, for example, dates to 1915.

But in recent decades, the list of required services has grown. Among them are special education, which became mandatory in 1974, and breakfast programs.

"Schools have become far more full-service institutions than they were when I started," said Ron Cronkhite, principal at Topeka's Landon Middle School, who began his career as a teacher in the late 1970s.

Chase County Elementary began its breakfast program in 1992, one year before breakfasts for eligible students became mandatory throughout Kansas.

Every student to attend Chase County Elementary since Diane Dodez
has been principal leaves a mark with a handprint on the school's
walls. Dodez, who calls social services officials about once a
week, says she sometimes cries in her office about the social
problems she must confront in her job.

Every student to attend Chase County Elementary since Diane Dodez has been principal leaves a mark with a handprint on the school's walls. Dodez, who calls social services officials about once a week, says she sometimes cries in her office about the social problems she must confront in her job.

About 50 students eat at the school every morning, though the count can spike when a student favorite such as breakfast pizza or biscuits and gravy is offered, said head cook Patsy Crutsinger.

Crutsinger said the need for the program became clear as hungry children kept complaining about stomachaches.

Extra services

"Many times, teachers would be sending their kids down here midmorning," Crutsinger said, referring to the cafeteria.

Most of the pupils who eat breakfast at Chase County Elementary get the meal either free or for less than the $1.25 price the school quotes.

Meanwhile, about 30 percent of the 461 students in the Chase County district as a whole qualify for free lunches. Those students are considered at risk of failing in school.

Clothing banks are another service for poor or at-risk students.

In Wichita, Cotman said, schools in poor neighborhoods keep extra sets of clothes on hand because some families cannot afford to buy enough shirts and pants that meet the district's dress code, and children sometimes wear the same set to school several days in a row.

Students roller-skate in the gym at Chase County Elementary School
in Cottonwood Falls. For two weeks this month, the school will
serve as Cottonwood Falls' only roller-skating rink.

Students roller-skate in the gym at Chase County Elementary School in Cottonwood Falls. For two weeks this month, the school will serve as Cottonwood Falls' only roller-skating rink.

Chase County Elementary keeps six boxes and a dresser of clothes in the teachers' workroom. Mostly, the stockpile is a hedge against spills, mud and other accidents, but staff members sometimes see students who aren't dressed warmly enough.

Leaving a mark

Dodez, the principal, worries about the future of after-school clubs because a three-year, $1 million grant from the state Juvenile Justice Authority runs out at the end of the school year.

Some of the clubs are academic, providing instruction in math or accelerated reading. Others are offered with pure fun in mind.

On a recent day, 7-year-old Jennifer Switzer entertained her second-grade class with a version of the Macarena she'd learned in her dance club.

Regular physical education classes also provided a diversion during the past week. Students roller-skated in the gym, using rented skates trucked in from Oklahoma City. Fourth-grader Chris Mushrush said he probably wouldn't have an opportunity to skate otherwise, and, "It's fun."

But Dodez often has more serious concerns. She said she calls state social services officials about once a week because she is worried about a student, and once a month she meets at the county jail with law enforcement and social services officials to discuss troubled families.

Every student who has attended Chase County Elementary since Dodez became principal has left handprints in colored paint on the school's white walls. Each September, new students and staff add theirs, and Dodez admitted to crying sometimes in her office over the social problems she's forced to confront.

She said the school and the larger world are "all tied together," so that community problems become the school's problems -- and vice versa.

"It's not like we can send the problems elsewhere," she said.

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