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New year requires new solutions to aging problems in area schools

New year requires new solutions to aging problems in area schools
“Schools are increasingly called upon to help stem the alarming increases in student anxiety, depression, drug use, self-harm and suicide,” says columnist Patrice Apodaca. (Getty Images)

One of my traditions every January is to examine the educational landscape and try to determine which issues will dominate in the coming year.

This year, the last of a tumultuous and consequential decade, offers many controversies on which to ruminate. So, with a nod to the reality that this space provides room for only the briefest of mentions regarding difficult, complex problems, I offer a quick rundown of what to expect in the coming months.

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Inequality

Why do educational outcomes vary so greatly from one school to the next? There’s no easy answer, but there is increasing evidence and acknowledgement that poor outcomes are far less a failure of educators and are largely a result of entrenched economic and societal hardship.

We’ll continue to hear ideas about this subject in 2019, including discussion on how to create greater opportunities for students from impoverished backgrounds. Our new governor, Gavin Newsom, quickly weighed in with a proposal to spend $1.8 billion on programs to boost early education to help close the educational “readiness gap” between children from affluent families and those of lesser means.

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Safety

With the epidemic of school shootings showing no signs of abating, the goal of keeping students secure will, sadly, be the highest profile and most hotly debated issue in education this year.

Discussions will generally continue along two tracks. The first centers on creating physical obstacles and protection, and includes such items as enhanced fencing, redesigned entry points, metal detectors, locking systems, video surveillance and a wide range of technology-enabled products.

The focus on school security has already led to a surge in spending, fostering the growth of an industry that now stands at $2.7 billion — and counting.

But critics view this spending spree as rash, and point out that the effectiveness of new technology and products remains largely unproven. While some rethinking of campus layouts and security measures is warranted, they say, efforts should mainly revolve around people-oriented solutions, including additional resource officers, staff training, and developing more trust with students to try to head-off potential threats.

This ongoing debate leads us to the next topic of concern.

Mental Health

Schools are increasingly called upon to help stem the alarming increases in student anxiety, depression, drug use, self-harm and suicide.

In one chilling finding, last spring the Centers for Disease Control reported that the suicide rate among U.S. youth, ages 10 to 17, had increased by 70% between 2006 and 2016. In California, surveys have shown that 1 in 5 students have considered suicide.

A state law was passed in 2013 that required school districts to develop suicide-prevention policies, which were to be operational by the last school year. But efforts won’t stop there, and this year we will see districts continue to address this distressing problem; specifically, they’ll look for more ways to identify troubled students, intervene early and aggressively and provide ongoing support for at-risk youth.

STEM vs. liberal arts and humanities

It’s no secret that in recent years schools have been pressured to boost instruction in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) — or STEAM (the aforementioned subjects, plus art).

This push has been fueled by the perception that today’s students must be proficient in these subjects in order to be prepared for tomorrow’s workforce.

Schools have responded in a number of ways, such as by developing academies more tightly focused on STEM. Concurrently, traditional liberal arts and humanities instruction lost favor.

Increasingly, however, we are seeing a push back to the STEM-centric, liberal arts-bashing mentality. Many colleges and universities, for instance, have launched campaigns to lure students back to liberal arts and humanities by emphasizing their positive attributes and relevance to the job market.

In November, UC Irvine announced that it is leading a national study that aims to identify the value of a liberal arts education. Look to schools to promote the findings, when available.

Grading reform

This makes the list every year. And, as usual, I expect more talk and precious little substantive change toward making grading systems more fair, relevant, consistent and useful.

Rating schools

There has been change on this front. Adopted a couple of years ago and updated in December, the California School Dashboard offers a color-coded system that measures school performance on a variety of metrics, but it remains controversial in part because of the way it tracks growth in standardized test scores.

Will we ever settle on the ideal system for grading schools? Don’t count on any answers this year.

New leadership

New trustees were elected to local school boards in November, many of whom ran on platforms of change and promises of greater transparency and accountability. They’ll bring their vitality and fresh ideas to their districts this year.

Despite such laudable goals, however, a word of caution for the freshmen board members and their constituents: Public officials typically learn that the job is much different on the inside than what they imagined while outside, and good intentions often run headlong into the realities of what is actually possible.

Teacher discontent

Across the nation, teachers are rising up in protest over poor working conditions, inadequate compensation and other complaints.

While that movement hasn’t touched our local schools, we should all be cognizant of the fact that teachers are a highly undervalued resource. That’s something worth thinking about in 2019.

Patrice Apodaca is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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