By Christopher Paslay
Compulsory education laws make it extremely difficult for administrators to address the startling level of violence in Philadelphia's school system. The law says that all students have a right to an education, and that right extends even to the most troubled and unruly children. Simply throwing chronic rule-breakers out of classrooms and onto the streets is not an option.
Violence in schools, however, is not totally unmanageable. Here are 10 ways district officials could help improve safety and foster a better learning environment in the city's public schools:
Respect everyone's right to learn: The needs and challenges of the troubled few shouldn't take precedence over the education of the many. Resources are limited, and the rights of all children - especially those who are diligently pursuing their schooling - must not be compromised.
Open alternative schools, not charters. Instead of building charters that skim the best students from neighborhood schools, leaving the majority behind in tumultuous environments, district officials should expand alternative schools that specialize in remediation for misguided youths. That way, violent students will get the help they need, and traditional neighborhood schools will finally be free to educate the masses.
Use school counselors better: School psychologists and counselors should be therapists, not paper-pushers hired for liability reasons. Both state and district officials should work to reduce the bureaucracy and paperwork they have to deal with. And principals should push group counseling over individual therapy so counselors can serve more students.
Require conflict-resolution classes: Programs that teach tolerance, anger management, and peaceful problem-solving should be graduation requirements for all Philadelphia schoolchildren. They could be taught by counselors at both the primary and secondary school levels.
Reward as well as punish: Schools must strive to be active rather than reactive. Adults should promote and reward good behavior instead of waiting to punish children for misconduct.
In addition, teachers should take the extra time to show students how their actions affect others and provide them with chances to make up for wrongdoing.
Enforce the Code of Conduct intelligently: Disciplinary rules must be accurately interpreted and evenly enforced, but punishments also must be handed down with common sense.
The district's "zero tolerance" policy on violence should be revised to make it less arbitrary. And truly violent students who are "permanently expelled" should not be afforded the option of eventually returning to their neighborhood schools.
Promote responsibility: Teach students to be responsible for their own behavior, rather than conditioning them to blame their misdeeds on outside forces.
Some advocates complain of students' being "criminalized" by an unjust school system. Although this may be an issue at times, the best way for students to avoid "harsh" discipline is to obey and respect the rules.
Encourage students' interests: Teachers must work harder to help students explore their interests, find hobbies, and channel their energy.
Overhaul the curriculum: District policymakers must balance academics with trade and vocational education. Not every student should be forced down the same career path. Giving students a broader range of options at school will help them stay more engaged in learning.
End educational romanticism: Just as interests vary, so do abilities. The fact is that when it comes to reading and math, there will be a significant segment that doesn't do well. Likewise, some students cannot and should not go to college. Teachers must have high expectations for all students, but we mustn't set our students up for failure through stubborn idealism.
Ending violence in city schools won't be easy, but it isn't impossible, either. These changes in district policy would help make the city's learning environments safer.