As the old adage goes, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
The word village evokes other related concepts: community, leadership, connection. We imagine an idyllic world in which our leader does not reside thousands of miles away in a gated home you need written access to enter; we imagine our leader as our peer, someone who walks amongst us and operates with openness and integrity. We imagine a democratic body in which everyone in the village attends decision-making meetings. We imagine a world in which citizens participate in local politics by voicing their concerns to their responsive leaders. In an ideal world, our villages look like that: democratic, participatory, and transparent.
At the moment, however, our village does not look like that. Most people don’t know their local leaders or how to get in contact with them. According to Johns Hopkins University, fewer than 20% of people can name their state legislators and nearly one-third didn’t know which state officials they voted for beyond their state’s governor. As a result, citizens often don’t fully understand the role government has in their lives or the ways in which governmental programs can be utilized as a resource. Another study examined in The Washington Post found that most people aren’t aware of all the ways the government helps them every single day. How do all of these factors affect the “village” that raises our children?
Simply put, it has caused a centralization of our village. While most families do not see or interact with the leaders of their community, they do often interact with another large public entity: schools. Schools have become a hub for many social welfare programs and community involvement. According to The Edvocate’s article, “The Role of Public Schools in the Advancement of the Communities”, “schools have played a significant role in helping communities evaluate issues concerning child welfare and eliminating situations that impede children’s progress.” In other words, schools have become the best conduit for local and federal governmental agencies to engage with citizens. Schools operate under one main goal: eliminate barriers to learning and increase student success. However, to do so, schools must recognize that students’ personal lives play a large role in their academic performance. Thus, schools cannot simply operate as a transactional institution where students come, learn, and leave. They must deeply entrench themselves in the communities they reside in and meet students where they are. As a result, students and their families benefit from these entities and engage in their “village”.
In 2014, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio started the Community Schools Initiative, a way in which to educate and assist students in low-income areas through a whole-child approach. Yes! Magazine’s article, “Are Community Schools The Future of Education Reform?” highlights P.S. 67 in Brooklyn, NY, a public school where 99% of students are low-income, as an example. The school currently partners with Food Bank NYC to stock a food pantry for students and their families. The pantry opens twice a month and gives out groceries and cleaning supplies for families in need.
Even without a food pantry, schools play an important role in providing consistent and filling hot meals to students during the school week. As of 2016, over 30.8 million students participated in The National School Lunch Program, a federal program that provides free or reduced lunches to students at or below 130% below the poverty line. As one can assume, a household that earns less than $21,720 a year probably does not have a fully stocked fridge (U.S. Federal Poverty Guidelines). Business Insider cites over 12 million children live in food-insecure homes, meaning there isn’t enough food in their home to feed every inhabitant sufficiently. As such, meals placed quickly on a styrofoam tray and gobbled down in 45 minutes or less are pivotal to students’ health and well-being. The Food Research and Action Center states that receiving free or reduced lunch reduces food insecurity, obesity rates, and poor health.
However, school lunches aren’t the place schools have engaged their community. P.S. 67 also offers “onsite dental exams, vision screenings and an asthma case manager.” High poverty areas more often see schools that provide more extensive services to the community, often called full-service schools or community schools. According to “How Can High-Poverty Schools Engage Families and the Community?” full-service schools may offer many different types of services such as, “social workers, physicians, dentists, vision and hearing specialists, grief counselors, and family counselors on site.” Full-Service Schools: Where Success is More Than Academic cites Thomas Edison Elementary in Port Chester, New York, as an example of a school meeting the needs of its students. Only 23% of the students at Thomas Edison Elementary had proper health insurance. As a result, school leaders formulated a partnership to host a health center at the school so students and their families could receive primary care, dentistry and nutrition counseling. As the article states, “these partnerships enable agencies to reach children where they are, and the assistance frees up teachers to teach and —ideally— students to learn.”
When students and their families’ most basic needs are met, students’ education comes into focus. With full bellies and healthy bodies, students can thrive. With a community center doubling as a school that engages both the family and the child’s needs, parents find solace. When parents feel safe and comfortable at their child’s school, they are more likely to get involved. And we know that parental involvement bolsters students’ GPA, improves attendance, and students’ self-esteem.
So while our village may not be as small or as simplistic as it once was, our village still exists. In it, we benefit from our leaders’ programs, our community’s services, and our student’s academic life. We learn alongside our students with our communities to educate students, break cycles of poverty, and improve public health. It is our job to ensure that schools like these continue to exist, so we can continue to improve our village, help them grow, and make them better for future generations.