Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Legislators need to walk in these shoes

2013-07-25T00:00:00Z 2013-08-12T12:56:33Z Sarah Garrecht Gassen: Legislators need to walk in these shoesSarah Garrecht Gassen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

I have this fantasy: Every elected official in Arizona, particularly those in the Legislature, spends two weeks straight as a substitute teacher in a public school whose students live in poverty - a place like Walter Douglas Elementary School.

Walter Douglas, on Flowing Wells Road between Miracle Mile and Prince, serves a neighborhood where one in five people live below the federal poverty line, where one in five households has no vehicle available, and where the median value of owner-occupied homes is about $69,000, according to the U.S. Census.

I say two weeks because it's long enough to get past the novelty of being the "new" person in the classroom. Good behavior will be replaced by real behavior - which may very well continue to be good, or it might not.

Two weeks is long enough to figure out that each child learns differently, and at a different pace, and you have to make sure each one of them gets it.

(And part of the fantasy, of course, is that the students wouldn't be harmed by spending two weeks with an unqualified teacher.)

Two weeks is long enough, I hope, to feel the weight of what it means to be responsible for every child who comes to school carrying the weight of a life in poverty.

Part of that responsibility is creating a place where students learn - and doing everything possible to strengthen that connection so kids have a sense of security in at least one part of their often chaotic lives.

Think about these kids:

The teacher could tell something was off that day - the little girl wasn't acting like herself.

She took the girl aside, asked if she was OK.

"My mom died this morning."

Amid the confusion and sorrow that had filled her home in the early hours, she'd gotten dressed and come to school.

Walter Douglas Elementary School was her safe place.

A boy, a first-grader, announced that his mom and dad had just gone to jail. They're gone now, he said.

The father of another boy was in prison. Mom didn't know how to tell the kids, so she just said that "Dad was at work" - for months.

This boy had become very emotional and clung to his mom and brother. Little wonder.

A woman came to the school office, plunked down a 2-year-old and told the staff that she was supposed to watch the kid but she has to leave. Now. The baby has an older sibling at Walter Douglas. Then she left. The school called the police.

For the kids involved these aren't extraordinary or shocking details, they're facts.

They're life.

Walter Douglas teachers, students share a lot

Walter Douglas Elementary School faces the same pressure as every other Arizona school - to take every child from where he is academically and move him to where he needs to be and beyond.

Sounds simple enough.

If only it were.

Walter Douglas has the benefit of being in the Flowing Wells Unified School District.

New teachers - and that means new to Flowing Wells, not just first-year teachers - go on a bus ride around the district so they can see where and how their students live.

They take courses to help them understand the teaching philosophy and methods of Flowing Wells. It's not for everyone - sometimes teachers who've worked in other districts have a hard time adjusting. But the shared outlook makes Flowing Wells cohesive.

Years ago educators noticed kids would often begin the school year at one school but end it at another - frequently with a couple of stops in between.

Attendance rolls from August through the beginning of May show that no week went by without students enrolling in or leaving Walter Douglas.

In the school's fifth grade alone, at least one student enrolled or left in 19 out of those 33 school weeks.

It happens districtwide. So to keep kids from getting off track academically with every move, Flowing Wells years ago put every grade school on the same overall lesson calendar.

Walter Douglas pairs each new student with a buddy to show him around and be a friend.

Kids who live in the stress of poverty feel safer when they know what to expect. And a student who feels safe can better pay attention in class and learn. Each teacher at Walter Douglas writes out the schedule for the day where everyone can see it.

One longtime teacher says she learned to never take something out of a student's hand - not a piece of paper, not a pen, not a book. Never. They lose too much in their lives already, she said.

She learned that when she, without realizing what it meant, took something out of a child's hand. He reacted instantaneously and forcefully.

"Always put out your hand and ask the student to put whatever you're asking for in your hand," she said.

In that moment, with her action, she'd become just one more person in that boy's life who took away something important to him. She'd created loss, and he'd shut down.

Kids who shut down can't learn.

Sensitivity to kids' needs crucial, necessary

Adults may be able to separate work and home - or at least convince ourselves we can - but kids aren't good at compartmentalizing emotions.

If there is stress or fear or anger, it comes out.

It has to.

Special-education teacher Debbie Baldner makes sure she talks to her students at their eye level. She has a keen sense of what her kids need. She has honed her radar over 30 years in the classroom. She retired in May.

"Do you need attention?" she asks. "If you need attention, just raise your hand and I'll give you a hug. Do you need a hug? Yes? OK."

Sometimes it takes a little more reassurance. A kindergartner presents her finger to Ms. Baldner and announces that it hurts.

Quick inspection, all is fine. The girl smiles. So does Ms. Baldner.

"And remember, we don't stick that finger out."

Cathi Whitehurst-Capley, who grew up in Flowing Wells, has spent so many years behind the steering wheel of a school bus that today she's driving kids of the kids she drove when she started.

"It's 20 years of 'Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round' but you know, it's our kids," she said after finishing her afternoon route on a warm April day. Others in the transportation office hear our conversation and nod.

Earlier, watching kids hop off the bus and walk toward home, she paused.

"I'm the first person they see in the morning and the last person they see in the afternoon," she said. "If they have a bad time here, the rest of their day is rough."

Miss Cathi, as students know her, sees everything. She watches her kids board the bus. She reads them in an instant. When things are hard, she sees it.

And she has a system for kids who want her to know something but don't want to say it out loud - or who don't want to be seen telling. Write a note. She'll find it. She knows her kids experience more than their share of stress.

"Kids act out - they need to get all that out somehow."

That's one reason she doesn't pay much attention to the noise. "As long as they're sitting in their seats and not killing each other, they can be as loud as they want," she said, laughing.

A small boy comes on the bus and presents a scraped knee. Miss Cathi tapes it up with a bandage. "You're the mom, the dad, the brother, the sister, the friend, the teacher, the psychologist," she said. "You're everything."

Nothing on the bus happens without an audience. And every child is curious. A girl asks about part of the first-aid kit. What's that for?

"For if someone throws up, there's powder so it doesn't smell," Miss Cathi explains.

"What do you put the throw up in?"

She points to the kit. "There's a red bag that's in there."

A kindergarten girl is sitting on the brown vinyl bench seat behind me. Her small voice cuts through the din of students clambering onto the bus.

" Miss Cathi. Do you sleep talk in the night?"

"No."

"Hmm. Me neither."

And they smile. Together.

About the project

Columnist Sarah Garrecht Gassen is writing about Walter Douglas Elementary School as part of the Star's in-depth look at poverty in Tucson and how it affects kids,

Gassen spent time at the school in the Flowing Wells School District from mid-March through the end of the school year in May.

This is the second installment.

The first piece appeared last Sunday and the final piece appears this Sunday on the editoral pages. To read last Sunday's piece go to azstarnet.com/walterdouglas. The Star's week-long news series on poverty begins Aug. 4.

Contact editorial writer and columnist Sarah Garrecht Gassen at sgassen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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