Helping troubled students a challenging task

By Bob Satnan Contributing Columnist

May 9, 2014

The message came and I am embarrassed to say I was relieved. But after an exhale, the disappointment set in.

Jane (not her real name) was assigned to my Personal Finance class at Smith-Cotton High School – you’ll note that I don’t say that she was a student because that (in my mind) requires a base level of attendance and engagement. On those days (which had the frequency of a lunar eclipse) when she would make it into my class, I would stop what I was doing and gather the work she needed to do to catch up with her classmates – in essence, I put 22 students on hold so I could answer a collect call from her. Why? I wanted to give her a chance to succeed – maybe a taste of achievement was all she might need to realize the potential she was wasting.

After weeks of Jane showing up once, maybe twice a week, and a least a couple of five-day stretches of in-school detention, notice came that she was being removed from school. I thought, “Finally,” and let out a selfish, exasperated sigh. No more saving assignments for weeks at a time, no more stopping the day’s planned lesson to try to get her caught up.

But then disappointment washed over me, because I just don’t foresee a positive future for a kid who seems to be following all the wrong people and paths. Her best shot at a decent life was to be engaged in all of the support systems available in school, and she threw that away. The sad fact is this is a scenario that has repeated itself a few times for me this year.

Absenteeism is a symptom of other issues, and children today face challenges and situations that many adults have difficulty comprehending. Some older residents are quick to dismiss today’s teens, but those elders should think about every issue from their high school days – peer pressure, academic expectations, economic struggles, relationships, substance abuse, and so on – and imagine them tossed into a microwave and multiplied. That is what today’s youth contend with on a daily basis.

But teachers, administrators, counselors, social workers and other school district employees are on the lookout for behaviors that indicate potential problems. And then they set in motion a litany of programs and outreach efforts to help the youth re-engage and to ensure they have all the necessities for success at home and at school. But none of it matters if the teen chooses to remain disengaged. Try as we might, we cannot make them care.

In the Sedalia 200 district, counselors and administrators will try everything from altered schedules to night school, connections to public assistance to application for enrollment in Whittier High, our alternative education option. They work to get at the root causes of the teen’s disassociation from school and learning. The amount of time and energy they expend on individuals is remarkable.

“As a public school administrator, I will do anything within my power to help a student make it through the educational system,” said S-C High Principal Wade Norton. “I will go above and beyond for any kid. I understand that students will make mistakes and sometimes not follow through on plans made for them. I am OK with starting over and making a new plan. The student just has to be willing to try.”

Carmen Brock, counselor for the Class of 2014, strives to keep those students motivated.

“But it does get frustrating when we want the education for the student more than they want it,” she said. “I think the thing that keeps me going is that a lot of times those dropouts come back after a few months when reality sets in and they realize how hard it is to have a future without a high school education.” Seemingly endless amounts of time, energy and resources are devoted to each of these children in efforts to figure out what it will take to get them to show up at school consistently and ready to learn. But as Brock noted, the student has to want it for themselves. And whenever a student drops out or is removed from school for truancy or troublemaking, everyone from the principal down to the teachers and aides in the classrooms wonders the same thing: What else could we have done for them?

My fears for Jane are that she will become yet another statistic of this region: a pregnant teen hooked on meth. No education means little chance for employment, which means no hope. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“We do sometimes find students who have everyone working for them, but they don’t work for themselves,” Norton said. “These students sometimes drop out. This hurts. We only ask for them to be a part of the plan. We can’t and won’t do it all for them. We always tell these students that we still care for them. They just have a roadblock they won’t let us help them remove.”