Falling Through the Cracks

School children head to class in temporary classrooms.

It is a tough time to be a kid. No generation before has grown up with smart phones so readily available, with the threat of terrorism and gun violence in every day conversation, and with social media bringing bullying and social stressors to new heights.  Meanwhile, kids today have been subjected to more standardized testing than any previous generation. Young students are expected to read earlier and complete homework in earlier grades than ever before. Homework in preschool is not uncommon! While technology and policy have driven some of the changes for today’s youth, other changes have resulted from the last decade’s economic recession. Over the past 10 years (2007 to 2017), the percent of students in Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) receiving free and reduced meals (FARMS) has increased from 24 to 37 for elementary, from 21.4 to 31.8 for middle school, and from 13.3 to 28.6 for high school – more than double!  While using FARMS does not necessarily indicate that a student is living below the poverty level, it does indicate that the child’s family has significant economic stress.

In addition to technology, policy and economic changes that have reshaped the landscape of adolescence, the political climate of the past few years is increasing the stress on certain groups of students. Students of color have been particularly impacted. Black and Latino students have experienced an increase in racism. Muslim students have heard and experienced more hate. Undocumented immigrant students who were hoping to receive the benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) have suffered a crushing blow under the current presidential administration.

As an AACPS teacher, I have witnessed the impact of these changes on our community’s young members. Increasing numbers of students do not have a regular home and move between family members or parents’ friends. Students are experiencing more food insecurity. Economic stress results in increased anxiety for many students and their sense of well-being is diminished. All of these circumstances can result in irregular or poor sleep.  The combination of all of these circumstances puts a large strain on children whose bodies and brains are still developing. Looming funding depletion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program (known as CHIP) will likely add strain to families who earn slightly too much to qualify for Medicaid. Furthermore, threats to Medicaid funding could undermine families who rely on it for health insurance. Special needs students are likely to be hardest hit as special education programs rely on Medicaid on cover costs.

Meanwhile, financial support for the main community institution that supports children, our public schools, has stagnated over the past decade. During that time period, student enrollment in Anne Arundel County Public Schools has grown by 11 percent. Meanwhile, not one of the major groups of school employees that work directly with students has kept pace.  As a result, class sizes have ballooned and caseloads for non-classroom school personnel has grown.  Some elementary school counselors now see student caseloads approaching 800 students, despite the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation of a caseload of no more than 250 students per counselor.

Finally, mental health providers are in short supply countywide and this shortage impacts people of all ages, including children.


Number in 2007-2008 School Year Number in 2016-2017 School Year Change Percent Change
Students 73066 81379 +8313 +11%
Teachers 5617 5783 +166 +3%
Principals and Asst Principals 270 281.5 +11.5 +4%
Guidance Counselors 206.1 211.7 +5.6 +3%
Pupil Services Employees* 106.3 113.5 +7.2 +7%
Instructional Assistants 783.6 658.9 -124.7 -16%

* Includes school psychologists, social workers, pupil personnel workers

Data source: http://reportcard.msde.maryland.gov/ and AACPS’s 2017 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report.

The bottom line for all of these changes is that we have created a perfect storm to push students through the ever-widening cracks of our social safety nets.  More difficult family economic circumstances, increased racism and hatred, reduced support in schools, and reduced social services are a recipe for disaster.

So what does this all mean? It’s very hard to quantify because every single child has unique circumstances. That said, here is what I observe as a teacher. Academic performance begins to suffer. Students facing too many challenges outside of school become disengaged. Sometimes they misbehave in school out of anger or sadness. The school-to-prison pipeline expands. Sometimes disengaged students begin to suffer depression and fall into substance abuse. Sometimes they begin seeking peer social bonds to replace weakened family bonds. Sometimes those new bonds are healthy bonds that help them stay on track, other times they are not. Sometimes students look to find their sense of family as part of gangs. Sometimes those gangs engage in violent, criminal activity.

The situation for undocumented immigrant children can be even more dire. First, it is hard to even comprehend some of the horrors that children crossing the border to the US have witnessed in their home countries and on their trips North. Beatings, robberies, rape, murder, horrible accidents for children riding atop trains are reported every year. Then they arrive in US schools, sometimes many grade levels behind and speaking little or no English, and sometimes even unable to read or write in their first language. They fear for family members back home and for family members in the US who are trying to make a living while dealing with major trauma and dodging threats of deportation. Then comes the end of DACA. Children and teens attending school, already struggling, are all of a sudden deprived of all hope of a future in the US. While some persevere and continue, others give up and find low-paying work under the table, fall into gang activity or become victims of gang activity.

I haven’t even mentioned the impact that chronic underfunding in our county has had on teachers.  But if the outcomes for our children are acceptable to us, we can just stay on this path to nowhere. If, however, increases in high school dropouts, increases in crime committed by youth and young adults, gang activity, and a general loss of hope is not what we envision for our community, we must take urgent and substantial action to change course. We need to bring staffing in our public schools to levels that address the increased needs. We need to ensure that young people have opportunities to spend time in meaningful ways with other kids outside of school. We need to make sure that kids have transportation to get to activities after school hours. We need to help young people make the transition from school to jobs through paid internships and affordable higher education.  We need to work on increasing the standard of living and healthcare for working families.  We need a Congress that will restore CHIP funding.  We need to make sure that people from all parts of society understand how to have a voice at the table and express their needs to elected officials and public institutions. We have a lot of work to do. Let’s get moving.

Lisa Rodvien is a former Education Law Attorney who currently teaches in Anne Arundel County Public Schools.  She is also a candidate for the Anne Arundel County Council – District 6 (Annapolis and surrounding areas).  She can be reached at lisa.rodvien@gmail.com.

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