Our schools, our future

I attended a town hall meeting today at St. Cloud City Hall. The mayor, Dave Kleis, invited anyone to come that had something to discuss.  Not surprisingly, out of the 10 or so folks that were there, most of the attenders had one thing to talk rant about: Somalis.

“Somalis are always running stop signs and trying to hit me on the road.”

“Mayor, what about those Muslim apartments they are building on 33rd?”

“How come all Muslims get free health care?”

As I heard the way the meeting was going, I introduced myself as Natalie from #unitecloud, a social media campaign attempting to unite our fair city. That declaration was met with some eye rolling, some “I told you that was that girl from the paper….here we go”, and folks declaring that my head is in the clouds and I don’t know what is REALLY going on in St. Cloud – and how one day….one day very soon….I’d see this all for what it really is.

I went on to say that it looks like, both in person and online, a lot of people in this town are reacting based out of fear of some new(er) neighbors of ours from Somalia.

“Don’t you tell me what I feel, miss,” one lady said forcefully. “I do NOT base my reaction on fear of these people.”

“No?” I said. “OK then….what do you base your reaction on?”

She stood up, pointed her finger at me, and raised her voice to say “I base it on anger and injustice because they won’t assimilate. ” 

“That’s right!” was heard from several people in the room. “Thank you for saying that!” another woman said. “Yes, yes!”  a couple men said sitting next to me.

I realized I was a sitting duck. 1 “head in the clouds” Natalie, 9 “realist” St Cloud citizens.

I think Mayor Kleis hit the nail on the head when he said: “What we are dealing with here is a lot of misinformation.” He also explained that his office deals with public safety (police, fireman, etc) and infrastructure (roads, parks, etc). He said that he has not seen his budget affected by the recent boom in immigrant populations. He went on to say that the areas that are probably affected the most monetarily are the schools and the social service organizations. The schools are run by the school district, and social services are county based.

Yes, schools. Let’s talk about schools for a bit.

I am a strong believer that our schools are one of the main places where community relationships can be restored, refreshed, and reinvented.

1. School is a place where everyone matters.

No matter what a child comes into school struggling with, it is a teachers job to let every child know that they matter. I heart teachers. Scratch that. I super heart teachers.  Teachers are among the bravest in our community. They go to work each day knowing that they must help 20+ students succeed. To do that, they must decide what succeeding looks like…and for every child, succeeding looks different. There’s the high learner who is grade levels ahead of their peers in reading. There’s the student who is struggling with reading and was just diagnosed with dyslexia. There’s a student that just came to this country last month and does not speak English. There’s the student who didn’t sleep last night because his parents were up all night fighting so he just can not concentrate today. And that’s just 1/5 of a 20 kid classroom! Teachers are the great equalizers. They see the students…I mean REALLY see them. They meet them where they are at and they help them succeed by whatever means necessary.

2. School is a place where basic needs are met.

  • FOOD – The truth is, during the summer months, some kids in our community do not get regular meals. Thank goodness for the school breakfast and lunch programs that give our kids 2 meals a day during the school year so they can be nourished and ready to learn. I, for one, am glad that my tax dollars help out families that can’t afford school lunches through the free and reduced lunch program.
  • COUNSELING – When my son had problems with anger (related to his Asperger’s diagnosis) he was able to go to social learning groups. He learned how to problem solve without yelling. He talked with his peers that struggled with the same issues. Most importantly, he felt safe enough to admit he had an issue and work towards overcoming it.
  • CLOTHING/SUPPLIES – At Stride Academy (a local charter school), there is a fund set up for those that can not afford school supplies and also a clothing donation area where families in need can gather clothing for their kids. Across St. Cloud, many stores are taking donations for those that can’t purchase their own supplies this year and there are charities and groups like Promise Neighborhood that help students in gifting them supplies. Want more info on the who’s and the where’s? Look here!
  • SHELTER/WARMTH – I often think about the kids that live at places like Anna Marie’s (a battered women’s shelter) or Place of Hope (a ministry helping with the homeless and hurting). I don’t WANT to think about kids that may be homeless in our community or kids that may not have heat in their homes in the middle of winter. But, this is the truth of our world and of our town. Yes, our town. The warmth and safety of a classroom is taken for granted by most kids, including my own. But for some, it is a safe haven.

3. School is a place where our community has to be together.

I’ve seen many times that, when it comes to diversity, kids just get it. Sure, my daughter understands that there are girls in her class that wear a hijab. But, it doesn’t mean she is any less likely to play with them on the monkey bars. My boys know that their Muslim friends attend “Koran school” a few nights a week. That doesn’t mean that they refuse to be with them in a science group. I believe wholeheartedly that the generation that we are currently raising will not have the problems that we currently have in this town with fear of/anger towards someone that is different than us. Parents at school functions….well….we’re not quite there yet with the whole accepting everyone thing. Graduation ceremony drama proves that. How are we going to get past that? When will we be ready, as a community, to talk about issues like this and discuss solutions as adults instead of labeling it as a “hopeless cause”?

So this month, as you are getting your kiddos ready to go back to school, marveling over how much your grandson’s school shoes cost, or getting your classroom ready to receive your next batch of learners, take a moment and marvel at our school system. Throw away all the criticisms, if only just for a minute, and open you eyes to the beauty of a country where education is free and open to everyone. And, while you’re at it, thank a teacher and high five a student!