John Florez: It's the invisible baggage that prevents learning

Published: Saturday, March 23 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

We want all children to come to school ready to learn, but what about those that are not? What about those that come to school every day with backpacks full of "invisible baggage?"

They are the survivors who make it to high school. They show perseverance, the gift of life and hunger for knowledge. They show what the resiliency of the human spirit can do in spite of all odds. They come to school eager to learn, though overloaded with the “invisible baggage” they carry on a daily basis throughout their young lives. Because they seldom complain, some teachers driven by timelines and test scores overlook them. And those that do see a kid in need of help — where do they turn to help them?

These are the kids who must endure the “invisible baggage” they carry on a daily basis — poverty, hunger, poor health, whether it be mental, physical, or emotional, vision and dental problems, no clothing, cramped housing, homelessness and no transportation. They have no adults that can take them to or pick them up from school because they too are struggling to obtain the daily necessities to survive. They often have single parents who hold two jobs and have little time or energy to help their child with schoolwork.

Unlike most homes, there are no reading materials, books, newspapers or computers to use as learning tools, yet schools are structured where it is assumed that such support exists at home. Many of these children live with adults who are experiencing their own troubles, unemployment, divorce, drugs, alcohol, physical and mental health, and domestic violence. While we still have images of dinner table talk with children, for some there is no dinner, and no talk.

With the new economy, our schools are not organized to deal with many of the challenges parents face in educating their children. The old assumption that all children come ready to learn is not true. We now have more single parents and/or two parents working trying to make ends meet, more latchkey and unsupervised children, and schools are stuck in an old economy. School counselors now seem to be in a never-ending cycle requiring them to spend more time checking credit and graduation requirements, and completing Student Education Occupation Plans, than getting to know individual students’ needs.

So if a family or a student needs help with the “invisible baggage” that holds them down, who in a school is there to help? While there is panoply of social agencies and professionals to help, students and parents must discover them on their own. There is no one to reach out to who could help them navigate through the field of specialists. We have created an industry of specialists to help families, where individuals are processed, rather than actually helped to deal with the daily problems of meeting their basic human needs. You can’t learn on an empty stomach.

Everyone says, “It’s not our problem, it’s the family’s,” yet we spend more money on social agencies that purport to help needy families. History has shown hiring individuals as paraprofessionals from the same community who care, understand and have experienced similar problems, are often best able to help unburden families of the “invisible baggage” their students carry so that they can succeed in school.

It’s time for our education system to step up in a way that helps students and families empty their backpacks of their “invisible baggage” so that all children come to school ready to learn.

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