Ferguson schools prep for emotional first day back
The following post originally appeared in the New York Times. It was written by Motoko Rich and Mosi Secret.
By: Motoko Rich and Mosi Secret
As schools in and around Ferguson, Mo., prepared to open, Tom Lawson, chairman of the social studies department of McCluer High School, planned to ask his students some very basic questions.
“How are things going?” said Mr. Lawson, who teaches government to seniors. “What is there that I can do for you?”
Those innocent-seeming questions, typical for any first day of school, will carry special freight given the extraordinary local events of the last two weeks, when the shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer triggered nights of protests and severe law enforcement response in Ferguson.
The school year in Ferguson was scheduled to begin on Aug. 14, but the opening was delayed because of the unrest that followed the killing of Michael Brown five days earlier. Public schools will open on Monday, and teachers and administrators in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are eager to establish some sense of normalcy.
At University City High School, in a nearby district that opened on schedule, April Pezzolla, a sociology and government teacher, said she had invited students to conduct a free-ranging discussion on the first day of school this month. “They were able to deconstruct the issues in terms of looking at things like poverty, education, the militarization of the police department and the perception around the country and the world that St. Louis was in turmoil,” she said.
Ms. Pezzolla, who has taught for 12 years at the school — where more than 90 percent of the students are African-American — said, “I have never been prouder to be a teacher than this past week.”
By contrast, a district across the state line in Illinois was reported to have asked teachers to “change the subject” if the events in Ferguson came up in class. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the principal of Edwardsville High School in Illinois had sent a memo to the staff saying that discussions of the protests “have caused students and parents to lash out, which is not healthy.” A spokeswoman for the school referred questions to the school district. Ed Hightower, the superintendent, did not return a call seeking comment.
In Ferguson itself, educators expect to talk extensively with the district’s 11,000 students about the turmoil in their town. Many of their students live in the apartment complex that was home to Mr. Brown; Mr. Lawson, the social studies teacher, said some of them probably had known him personally.
On Thursday, all 2,000 district staff members, including teachers, administrators, office staff members, security personnel and bus drivers, attended a training session on how to identify signs of stress in children. Counselors from the University of Missouri and local nonprofit groups came to offer suggestions on how to deal with students who were withdrawn and those who might act out.
“We know that many of the kids are going to come to school with shirts that say ‘Hands Up’ and we might hear that in the hallways,” Mr. Lawson said, referring to a chant used by many protesters. “We don’t think that this is something that we should just kind of avoid, but rather this is something that needs to be discussed.”
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