As noted earlier, poverty is a major problem in Baltimore City. Many of our young people are severely malnourished. Many are obese. According to a Baltimore Sun article from last year, some are both malnourished and obese, because they eat so much low quality food.  It is not uncommon for a student to come to my 1st period class at 8:15 am with four bags of different types of potato and corn chips, and share those with two or three other students. The school lunches are often bland and unhealthful, sometimes downright offensive. Rather than subject themselves to those lunches, these young people may not eat anything besides those chips until after school. At that time, it is likely they will go to a fast food restaurant (either a chain or a local carry out) or go home and eat whatever is for sale at the grocery stores in their neighborhoods. In either case, the food break down amounts to mostly salt, sugar and carbs. Again, this is not, for the most part, a problem of parents not caring what their children eat, or even not knowing what nutritious food is. Much of Baltimore City is classified as “food desert,” meaning there is limited access to fresh, healthful food.
I have often heard teachers acknowledge this as an obvious reason students have trouble concentrating or staying awake or staying civil, depending on the child. However, for most teachers, the best we can do to alleviate the problem is to bring in some relatively healthful kind of packaged carbohydrate. This may help the student focus in the short term, but it does not nourish the growing body of the child.
That is why it is so vitally important to have a holistic health practitioner at the center at all times. There are a few schools experimenting with this idea,  but in our school, the role of this person will be closer to a school nurse and counselor than any of the models I’ve seen.
There will be a kitchen/ dining/ living area, which the students are ALWAYS welcome in. They can get up out of class whenever they need to and fix a nutritious snack. Students who are truly engaged in what’s happening will plan their snacks for break times. The healthcare provider will be in the kitchen when they are not involved with something else. They will be on hand to suggest specific foods to help students heal their own bodies, letting food be medicine. For example, a student who frequently suffers from heartburn will be uncomfortable, and may have trouble focusing as a direct result. They may also be irritable, and pick fights. They may know that spicy foods can cause heartburn, and be actively avoiding them, but they may not know that tomatoes can be a culprit. Someone on hand who can have casual conversations with students and staff as we come to get food will get to know each of us, and will be able to help each of us to eat more healthfully.
They will also frequestly drop into the classes. They will, therefore, see when students are not engaged, and when interpersonal conflicts are brewing, and will be able to talk with students one-on-one or in small groups.
It may seem foolhardy to permit students to leave class, but in fact, in most suburban schools, students can leave to go to talk with someone when they need to. It is a sad reality that many of our students experience extreme violence on a regular basis. From the violent language that pervades our culture to gun violence in the streets to violence and neglect in some homes, many of Baltimore’s children experience a lot of trauma.
I once asked a young man why he wasn’t reading his assigned text, and he told me his friend had been shot to death the day before over $5 worth of marijuana. That young man could be forced to look at the page with the words on it, but there is no way to force him to learn anything except some awful lessons about the value of black life in America. In a well funded school, he would be offered a pass to see the guidance counselor. In an underfunded school, the guidance counselor is almost always doing much more than their job, and often has no time to talk with students.  As it was, that was one of the last times I saw that student that school year. He is currently in grave danger of dropping out of school.
A well trained, sensitive counselor, with an understanding of the realities of poverty and the philosophy of the program will be able to help the young people talk through their trauma, and help them find positive, creative outlets for their hurt, anger, and frustration. They will also be able to identify students who are looking for ways out of learning and get to the bottom of that problem. They will be able to test for learning differences and disabilities, talk through students’ learned mistrust of education, mediate interpersonal conflicts, and diagnose physical ailments.
If a student is determined to be “cutting class” without good reason, that will be brought to the group’s attention during group therapy and group meetings. The students and adults will be able to encourage that young person to work up to their potential for their own benefit and the benefit of the group.
This summer, Paul Tough published his provocative second book, How Children Succeed.  In it, he suggests that difficult experiences can have a net positive effect on the lives of young people, provided that they learn to bounce back. He also recognizes that many of the nation’s poorest children, facing the most intense difficulties, do not have the space to learn and grow from them. These young people live from crisis to crisis, without ever having much time to heal, let alone ponder the deeper implications of their actions and the actions of others with an eye to more positive outcomes in the future.
By making space for students to deal with problems in positive ways, we will help grow a community of young adults who can turn their hardest times into stronger character.
1. Enwonwu, c. (July 5, 2009). Obese and Malnourished. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved on October 12, 2012 from http://articles.baltimoresun.com/2009-07-05/news/0907030077_1_malnutrition-obese-living-in-baltimore
2. The Daily Heal. (June 17, 2011). Holistic Health and Meditation Take Charge in Canadian High Schools [Web Log Post]. Retrieved on October 12, 2012 from http://dailyheal.com/meditation-news/holistic-health-and-meditation-take-charge-in-canadian-high-schools/
3. Frenette, L. and Mulligan, B.(May 31, 2009) Why Each School Needs its own Social Worker.New York Teacher. New York State Union Of Teachers. Retrieved on October 12, 2012 from http://www.nysut.org/newyorkteacher_13052.htm
4. Tough, Paul. (2012). How Children Succeed. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.