Working parents of school-age kids live with an uncomfortable truth: Teachers and school staff spend more time with their kids than they do.
Perhaps it has always been this way to a certain extent, but our dual-income economy requires longer working days out of parents, and consequently, much more out of schools.
In Michigan the expectation is that schools pick up parental slack.
Astronomical day care and preschool costs now mean that 5- and 6-years-old kids start punching the 8-hour school clock as kindergartners — before they know how to tell the time.
If they don’t have breakfast or money for lunch, the school provides both, free of charge, as well as daily snacks and backpack meals to go home on weekends.
If they struggle to meet basic classroom expectations for academics or behavior, the school provides a host of specialized support services to get them through the day — a day that stretches long beyond eight hours with expectations to provide latch-key, extracurricular programs, nutrition programs and parent education.
Every child must walk the tightrope of growth. But if they teeter, schools now — more than parents — are expected to be the catch net beneath them.
We are supportive of our educators who care for our children in so many ways.
But we know this setup comes at a cost.
In our state, education funding and academic achievement has slipped, while growing mental health needs of the students is outpacing both.
Currently, one in six U.S. children between 6 and 17 years old has a treatable mental health disorder like depression, anxiety or attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, according to a 2019 analysis of data from the National Survey of Children’s Health published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
The same analysis found that nearly half of those children don’t receive counseling or treatment from a mental health professional like a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker.
It’s worse in our state. Michigan places 49th with a 741:1 ratio of mental health professional to students. We are one of 20 states that doesn’t require counselors at K-12 schools, and one of five without a mandate for counselors in elementary or secondary education.
Our local schools strive to do better, and Traverse City Area Public Schools’ ratio is 536:1.
But we cannot expect to drop this issue at the schoolhouse door and have it turn out well.
People who have “been there” like suicide-attempt survivor and advocate Shenandoah Chefalo call for a more expansive approach.
“We can’t say that it’s just the school’s fault. We can’t say that it’s just the government’s fault. We can’t say it’s just the parents’ fault,” Chefalo, a Traverse City resident, said in a recent Record-Eagle report. “It’s about how all of us tend to ignore a problem and point the finger at a bad guy when it happens and then stop talking about it. Even if we say the school is responsible, what are we going to do to change it? How are we going to fix that? What are the sustainable changes we’re going to make?”
We agree that the blame-game only goes so far, and that it will take an “accept-responsibility-and-build-from-all-sides” approach.
Simple things, like holding a listening session where kids hold the microphone — as what happened in Kingsley after three students died by suicide — or a business owner opening his A. Papanos pizzeria to kids after school, can spread around the big job ahead of us.
So will recognizing that the system we’ve created puts distance between children and parents, parents and schools, children and community.
It’s time to close that gap.