I have been thinking a lot about safety and fear in schools.
I went to more than a few open houses at the private school I used to teach at, and at every one the head of school would come before parents and prospective parents, and talk about how important it was to create a nurturing environment where students felt safe, and where they could learn to take academic risks knowing they would be supported. He would talk about how the science shows that when we are full of anxiety humans are unable to learn as effectively, as our flight and fight responses placed mental blocks that impede education. The school as a culture did a lot of things to mitigate this for students... small class sizes, co-taught classrooms, buddy grades, an emphasis on experiences and progression rather than summative evaluations, handshakes from the head of school to start the day, and efforts to keep parents involved at a level that created an atmosphere of community and unity. It had its faults, but the efforts on the parts of the school had what I perceive to be a highly positive effect on the students. Most of these students came from affluent homes with highly educated parents. In my last few years there the school had also been making an efforts towards diversity in its student body, faculty, and practices. The idea that an armed guard should have to be on the premises would have been insane to us.
One of the students I supervise just finished her student teaching in a challenging urban environment here in Columbus. They are strapped for cash, the administration constantly changes and rearranges classes and schedules, and the facilities are not particularly suited for the classes that occur within them. Fights are common, between students as well as parents, and at time can be extremely dangerous. I was unable to ever observe her teach in this environment, but I have had it described to me by many people and my impression is that it lacks a feeling of community and safety on every level. I also suspect the emphasis is rather more on the students being able to pass what are seen as basic tests than the willingness to take academic risks. The student I supervise had something of an epiphany in the realization that what many of her students needed from her was not a place to learn about the classics of art or the secrets of media, but a place to feel safe and to express what was silently eating away at them. I can see from publicly available data that 99% of the students are economically disadvantaged.
In this comparison I make conclusions that make me uncomfortable. If the claims and beliefs of my former school's head (not to mention well known voices like Freire's) are to be believed, than the quality of safety that allows the students at one school to flourish is also a source for the numerous challenges of the students in the other. The price of that safety was quite high, and the parents who chose to send their students to us believed enough in it that they not only paid for that environment but volunteered time and expertise to continue working at making it a community they all felt invested in. The parents of the students at the school in Columbus are often sending there students there because they feel they have no choice, and the comments I find online regarding said school makes me believe their principle goal is to find a way to escape that community rather than improve it. What is more is that since the private school is not beholden to the testing programs of a public school, teachers are much more able to innovate when it comes to their disciplines.
The idea that a child's safety, ability to learn, and ability to be a part of a learning community can be so interwoven with a monetary amount makes me extremely unhappy. I realize there are ways around this equation, but it is also clearly not "fair."
From Drew: As teachers and public education are under attack by many critics, the statements above point out a vital point that is ignored- the scope of the role of schools in the lives of the students' and community. Although test scores and funding are the headlines, schools are quietly responsible for much more than educating. Many schools provide before and after care (babysitting), breakfast, lunch and dinner, character education, health screenings, and other service. These important (perhaps life-saving) services are rarely mentioned when American test scores are compared worldwide. That said, welfare and security at school is at least a minimal standard to meet before any education can take place. We have also learned that nowhere, regardless of economic standing, is absolutely safe, but the above statement highlights how much work has to be done to put students' needs in the forefront.