Tuesday, March 2, 2010

School Kids Gone Wild

The man next to me at the CPAC meeting was complaining angrily about the kids at the Hedgepeth-Williams school. Let's call the angry man "Lou." Lou said the kids play ball in the street, and they have mouths on them that would put a ship of sailors to shame, and they threaten the neighborhood's senior citizens when they ask the kids to move along. He, too, has been threatened with guns and knives in his attempt to keep the peace on his street. Lou is very tired and implored the officers to intervene on the community's behalf.

"My seniors," Lou said, "like to take their walk around the block, and they can't do it anymore because of those kids. Something needs to be done!" Lou's voice was urgent.

A number of thoughts hit me simultaneously. First, I thought maybe I should have had a few drinks before the meeting, which was slow-moving and dry before Lou's passionate demand for police intervention with the kids. Also, I figured it's rare that the kids actually break any serious laws — and, if they do, they can run about 20 times as fast than it takes a law-abiding citizen to explain the problem to the police dispatcher — so, can the cops do much about the unruly kids just let out of school? Lou's talk about his seniors turned my thoughts to my own nana, who will be 92 on her next birthday. She enjoys things "just so," and "orderly," and it would never occur to her to take a stroll during school's rush hours. Unless you're a teacher, you have no desire to be around that many kids at once, anyway. So, why can't Lou's seniors just pick another time to walk around the block, maybe some other time when they won't encounter many mouthy, ball-throwing kids? Sure, it would seem that Trenton's schoolkids can come and go as they wish, the truth is, if you're looking to stroll during the day, you won't see many kids until afternoon, when the drop-outs and truants get out of bed.

I feel badly for the kids in Trenton, since so many of them have started life with so much less than I can imagine. And, the enduring cry of kids throughout the ages is that there's nothing to do. But for kids in Trenton, for a variety of reasons, there is even less to do (note: I did not say "nothing." There's always something to do). They can't even play ball easily because the parks aren't safe, the yards are small, and it's illegal to do so in the street.

Lou might want to suggest to his seniors that they take their walk at a different time of the day. And the police may not be able to do much about the problems caused by the school children, so it's very likely that Lou wasted his energy complaining at the CPAC meeting, but I didn't disagree with anything he said. We practically have martial law in the city schools, and kids are still finding ways to stab each other and the security guards inside the school buildings. For those of us along the school path, we absolutely see and hear our share of antisocial and inappropriate and occasionally, scary, behavior, as well.

The Trenton schools are some of the worst schools in the state. That's a fact. There are shining students who make it out and find success in the world, but it's not because of what the Trenton school district has to offer. Their successes are in spite of it. The bulk of Trenton kids, sadly, are very nearly an academic write-off. "She smell like garbage truck juice and vinegar!" we heard one girl say to another, last year. Generally speaking, these children are failing academically, but have a creativity — if utterly misguided — that has not been tapped properly.

I used to think I could tell the difference between "good" rowdy kid noise, and "bad" rowdy kid noise, but I've been burned a few too many times. Once, I could hear a few young voices outside my fence, talking about the library and a school project that was due later in the week, and they wondered aloud when their friend was going to catch up with them. I peeked out and saw one kid help another adjust his book bag where my garage and fence meet. "See," I thought, "there are some nice kids here."

My husband got home from work a half hour later, and he asked me, "Did you see anyone hanging out by the fence?"

"Yeah," I said, "a couple of kids on the way to the library stopped to adjust their backpacks out there."

"Well, the garage has been graffitied."

The problems caused by the school children are occasionally the police department's domain, but usually the responsibility is murkier than that. Kids will be kids. But they'll be even worse when they have parents who don't care, and live in a community where the members bury their heads in the sand whenever something bad happens, and/or don't want anyone to get in their "business." The icing on the cake is an inept school board, appointed by Mayor Douglas Palmer, rather than elected by the people. This board is not interested in public opinion, since they're accountable to the mayor, not the public; and the members of the board don't have children in school, so they have no vested interest in what happens there.

Disinterest on behalf of public officials in Trenton is pervasive. Not only are the officials not listening, but that disinterest trickles down: the same is true for many of the citizens of Trenton. If you have a complaint with how things are run in Trenton, there's a good chance the mayor will tell you to check yourself, or call you a hater. If you complain to your neighbor about her child, she'll tell you, more or less, the same thing. The rest of us, the good citizens of Trenton are too complacent. We let Palmer run the city as he wished; we let our neighbors, in some places, get away with murder.

But, there's a change coming soon. I'm not so na├»ve to think all our problems will be fixed once the new mayor and council are sworn in. But there's hope and potential. I'm hoping the new officials will agree we need a new school board as well, a board responsible to the people of the city; one that's willing to put their own egos aside, and explore what's working in other urban schools around the region, and implement those ideas. It's my hope the new government of this city will be able to rebuild after 20 years of decline, and bring some jobs back, which might help improve family life, which will have a positive impact on the schools. In the meantime, those of us in the community cannot continue to be so complacent. We need to open our doors and blinds and face — as kindly as possible — the kids walking to and from school every day. Kids need to know people care, and if we went out more to sweep our sidewalks and trim our hedges and look at each others' gardens, perhaps we can end the vicious cycle of decay. We have a lot of work to do.


Patricia Stewart said...

Very well written with an excellent solution. Many of my neighbors do not run errands in the afternoon when school buses are on the road. And many noise complaints are, well, too much. I've heard oomplaints Trentonians about the noise kids make while walking to school!! My answer is usually, the only totally quiet place is the grave! PatriciaStewart

Anonymous said...

Could you explain what you mean by Trenton students suceeding in spite of the school system? For example, are the kids that are succeeding only doing so because of outside resources, etc.


Chrissy said...

Anonymous: admittedly, I should and will look into this for some hard facts. In the meantime, I've heard from a couple of teachers at the HW school that they are nothing more than babysitters and that the bad kids are so intimidating/persuasive that most of the average kids wind up becoming bad students. Sad. My bet -- and maybe I'm wrong -- is that the kids who simply go on to college and then get decent jobs, and become good citizens, all came from solid families, with family members who encouraged these kids. The exceptional kids who do even more than quietly go off to college, MUST have had good families.

By good, I don't mean two parent, necessarily, though that helps. I don't mean rich either. Just loving, supportive people who provide a proper example of how to function in society. When parents are unemployable -- for reason other than our lousy economy (like, say, drug addiction, lack of education, poor attitude) -- it's not really possibly to provide a good example, OR basic necessities to get by. That stess, if coupled by addition, fear of getting busted for illegal activity, etc. creates chaos in the school. School requires the ability to function in a society, and rule-following, and if that can't be done, there's no foundation for early adulthood. I guess what I'm saying is that there are a lot of addicted, broken, dysfunctional homes in the city; they crank out more of the same.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the response. It seems to me you are blaming ineffective parents more than the actual school system itself.

I graduated from Trenton High within the last decade, and I can tell you from personal experience that the students who have succeeded have done so in the face of all sorts of challenges. I agree with you that parents need to be involved for the reasons you stated, but aside from child rearing, they are responsible for putting effective leaders in place. Obviously we haven't done that, which is why I question whether the solution is moving from an appointed school board to an elected one. It's hard for me to fathom that the individuals who would run for a board position would actually be qualified. (Just look at the great candidates running for office now) Secondly, we should have held Palmer accountable for the school system's failings in the first place, but somehow the few Trentonians that actually vote kept him in office.

Change hasn't occurred because there has never been a significant amount of people that have demanded more from our leaders and no one has tried to organize the city to do so. It's a sad cycle that I hope one day will change.

Chrissy said...

Oh, I definitely blame the parents. But society and families are connected. Right now, conditions in society make it difficult to earn a living; politicians have been so short-sighted to take easy "solutions" to balance the budget for one more year, without planning for the future. We have a lot of poor people here, without many options. Still, an individual has much control over his/her fate, and if that person decides to get high instead of a job, it's not really society's fault. If a person decides s/he is too good for that entry level job, and opts to sell drugs, that is an individual decision. However, the officials, including the school board are aware that this is our reality; leaders are supposed to lead, fix, inspire. That, obviously, has not happened.

I think you're right: an elected school board certainly poses challenges, and may not be a solution. But we're insane if we think things will get better continuing down the same road. I'm glad you read my post and offered your thoughts. The dialog, especially with someone with firsthand experience in the school, is helpful. Best to you.