My childhood relocation from Italy in the early 1970s could have easily made me a student who succumbed to the risk, storm and stress that many children face every day. As such, I have committed myself to a hypervigilance about understanding the why and how students drift away from public schools.
My recent visit to the Palm Beach County Jail afforded me the opportunity to speak with young inmates — all dropouts prior to incarceration — about circumstances that led to their walk away from school.
Each described a true love of learning and recalled teachers by name who influenced their lives.
Unfortunately, the fond experiences were not enough to support them in facing what seemed like life-shattering events. This is where we must stand in the gap. Over-aged students, dying parents, the inability to set goals and make good decisions are not insurmountable problems for education professionals capable of helping students navigate pitfalls. The growing complexity of student issues requires that we lead with culture first and commit to modeling relationships as a priority to our school leaders and teachers.
But how is this accomplished when many of our school leaders and teachers are like firefighters, running into classrooms every day, with no end to the perpetual crisis that some students face?
In my many conversations with incarcerated young adults in Florida and Georgia, I believe the answer is twofold. First, we must shift our attention to student potential and away from the things that make us feel sorry for, or create excuses for, students. Potential has no ZIP code, no income level, no race, no gender, no disability, no favorites, no labels. Every former student I have encountered, incarcerated or not, consistently references teachers who would not allow for excuses or less than their best. Conversations with and about students and their potential shifts the conversation away from the obstacles and toward the goals. Every student has potential, and it should be the common denominator in all conversations and relationships. In Palm Beach County, I am working with our leaders to maintain an asset mindset and not a deficit mind-set.
Finally, wraparound services and systems are critical to keeping students in school. Teenagers should never face decisions about whether they stay in school or care for a dying parent. When our students walk away from their education, our jail inevitably becomes the social service agency for the community.
My teachers, coaches and particularly my family helped me succeed. But what about those students who aren’t surrounded by caring and loving people? What role can the community play in mitigating the storm and stress many of our students endure? I believe our community can support our students when their family structure fails. We all have a role in unlocking student potential.
ROBERT M. AVOSSA, WEST PALM BEACH
Editor’s note: Robert M. Avossa is superintendent of the Palm Beach County School District.
Potential has no ZIP code, no income level, no race, no gender, no disability, no favorites, no labels.