Being a superintendent is essentially a three-part job: supporting students and teachers; community engagement; and managing the district’s resources and people. My time isn’t spent equally among these three priorities. Neither is my interest.
I don’t spend nearly enough time in schools and at activities. I try, but I don’t make it to all of the events on my schedule. Meetings and decision-making get in the way. Still, the time I get to be around kids is what feeds my soul and informs my work.
During the first few weeks of the school year, we’ve had ball games, fun activities at schools, and countless memories made. Several of those have come this week, both in the schools, and at community events.
At one event that received a decent amount of publicity, I had the privilege of watching a group of very young children listening to celebrities read them a book. Two students, both five years old, sat at the back of the room with one of our staff members. Those with cameras knew that we couldn’t photograph these children.
They laughed and smiled. They listened intently. Well, when they weren’t clinging to the staff member’s neck, they listened intently.
Some students come to us with with labels that say, “Handle with Care.” They may have health problems or family issues that impact their time at school. Some come to us with instructions that say, “Do not Photograph.” Some of these are students who just have protective parents, which is fine. Others, sadly, have DHS case numbers, including many in foster care.
Whether they’re tiny, as these two were, or they’re teens, as are many I’ve known through the years, the stories are often just tragic. I remember once as a principal reading the permanent record of a foster child new to our school and having to shut the door to my office and compose myself. I don’t remember how many schools this student had attended (or not attended). I just wanted to make our school the best school for her.
Back to this week: I’ve seen so many pictures from this event. The organizers even asked me to be in some of them, which was nice. Not pictured, though were these two little girls.
While the other students were asking the celebrities questions and trying to get their attention, the two girls at the back of the room just wanted anyone’s attention. One in particular was clinging to an adult who was standing towards the end of the event when I walked over to say hi.
She reached out quickly and grabbed the front of my hair, and she laughed.
“Does that feel funny to you?” I asked.
“No, it’s fancy. And haaayaandsome.”
And you know what, most days, that’s way better than what people say to me. I’ll take fancy and handsome any day.
She laughed again and moved on to the next adult. I’d show you a picture of how happy she looked, but again, I can’t.
I don’t know her back story, and I didn’t ask. Some days, I’m happy not to know that much detail about some of our kids.
I’ll also probably never know her STAR reading level. If she stays with us throughout her school-age years, I probably won’t know her grade point average.
Come to think of it, if she stays with us for 13 years, she’d be a major outlier. That’s just not what happens to the majority of students in the foster care system. To verify what I perceive to be true, I looked up some data from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
From July 1, 2015 to June 1, 2016, DHS opened 939 new foster care homes and 89 new therapeutic foster care homes. That’s a lot of child displacement.
Just under half of these were new foster care homes. I guess that doesn’t mean that the children all move around frequently. The truth is that I don’t really have a way of knowing what is typical for children in foster care. Maybe there is no typical.
All I know is what we see at school. Some are just looking for a place to feel safe and loved. Between school and home – whether it’s a temporary or permanent placement – we just hope they find two such places.
This is why, with all the budget cuts in all the agencies that serve this state, none of us who advocate for public schools have wanted to take all the available money. We want to restore the services that help our kids. We also want the other agencies that serve our kids to have the resources they need too.
During the times when my leadership team and I have to decide whether we’re going to cut A, B, and C or X, Y, and Z, these are the moments that guide us. We think about the kids who need us, the ones who cling to our necks. They’re fragile and confident and amazing and full of all the potential in the world.
I’d show you if I could.