The Challenge for Schools: Connecting Adults With Kids

The students heading back to school this month will be among the most tested, measured, and analyzed in the history of American education. They could also be the most alone.

As a result, many kids are making dangerous choices involving illegal drugs, alcohol, sex, and violence - and their parents rarely have a clue what is going on.

That is the conclusion of Patricia Hersch, whose recent book, "A Tribe Apart" (Ballantine), takes a close look at the daily lives of eight teens in the picture-book suburb of

Reston, Va. "Kids have been growing up without a substantial adult presence in their lives for years, and we're only beginning to see the consequences," she says.

The book is not another exercise in parent-bashing. Nor does it plunk all the blame on the schools. But both parents and educators will find much to ponder in the stark and riveting accounts these kids give of their lives. In the end, caring teachers and parents make a difference.

We meet Jessica Jones (not her real name) at 13. Her parents are loving and attentive, but friends' parents offer access to empty bedrooms, drugs, car keys, and liquor. A friend's rape prompts her to rethink sneaking around and boozy nights. Brandon, a Boy Scout, resents coming home to an empty house and worrying over money after his father's job loss. He turns to pushing drugs and tagging underpasses as a graffiti artist. Charles's parents are successful black professionals, but their achievements can't shield him either from racist slurs or the trash-talking "ghetto boys" at his high school. Joan attempts suicide, and Jonathan succeeds.

It's a tough world these kids describe, and more threatening than its tree-lined streets would suggest. The message that comes through speaks to what is becoming the heart of the education debate in the United States: how to reconnect with children.

"I am troubled by the fact that so many young people in America are growing up disconnected. They are growing up almost alone," said Education Secretary Richard Riley at the Safe and Drug Free Schools Conference in Washington last June.

One of the most extensive surveys ever done on drug use, sexuality, violence, and suicide concludes that young people who feel connected to their parents and schools are less likely to engage in high-risk behavior, he added.

A rise in high-risk behavior

For now, many trends are headed in the wrong direction. High-risk behavior for kids is up in the 1990s, and it's moving into ever-younger grades, according to a study released by the National Center for Education Statistics last month.

The percentage of students reporting illicit drug use, for example, increased substantially between 1992 and 1996 - up to 26 percent for 12th-graders, 23 percent for 10th-graders, and 15 percent for 8th-graders. More than 1 in 3 10th-graders reported that they had been threatened or injured at school during the previous year, according to a recent survey by the Washington-based National Education Goals Panel. Adding to a sense of urgency in this debate are recent schoolyard killings in Springfield, Ore., Edinboro, Pa., Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., and Pearl, Miss.

As schools gear up to reopen this month, many districts are adding metal detectors, more police, safety audits, and early-warning guides for teachers to ensure safer schools. But the cornerstone of this effort must be reestablishing ties with students, educators say.

"We must commit ourselves to one very basic idea: that every child in America in a school has a positive and caring relationship with at least one adult. This simply has to be the new standard we set for our nation's schools and communities," says Education Secretary Riley.

A work-at-home mother, Ms. Hersch says she began to develop ideas for "A Tribe Apart" when she realized that she was one of the few adults in the neighborhood when kids came home from school. "I ended up driving kids everywhere, and I began listening to what they talked about in the car," she says.

One conversation particularly moved her: "I once asked a 15-year-old girl what she did after school, and she said, 'I go home. I have a snack, talk on the telephone to my friends, do some chores.... I guess you could say sometimes it's really lonely.' "

She began research for the book by spending a year observing classes every day at a local middle school. She contacted the parents of 60 kids for permission to talk to their children. ("I worried about how easily some parents granted permission - some didn't even want to meet me," she says.) Eventually, she narrowed the focus to eight, and spent three years talking to them.

"Many parents start to think that it's OK to leave a good kid at home for a while at about age 10, as long as you say 'Don't go out of the house after school until we get home.' But nobody has considered what it means to have eight years of huge blocks of time without meaningful adult interaction," says Hersch, who raised three sons in Reston. "Things are worse now for my younger son than for my older sons: The vacuum surrounding kids has gotten deeper and more extensive," she adds.

Her study does not claim to be scientific. The children's accounts are not tested for accuracy, and the parents and teachers who come under the severest criticism are not afforded equal time.

In Reston, Stuart Gibson is urging colleagues on the Fairfax County School Board to take the Hersch book and these issues seriously. "The message of this book is counterintuitive: We always thought that when our kids got older, they needed less attention, less care. But as kids have more choices, parents need to exercise more responsibility that they make good choices," he says.

There are practical steps schools can take to close down that window of isolation, such as a later start to the school day so that stretches from 2:20 p.m. until parents return from work isn't such a looming block of time, he says.

Making time to listen

In Alexandria, Va., Riley and Attorney General Janet Reno met recently with students about safety at T.C. Williams High School. Students spoke of the need to listen. "I have lots of friends who get into trouble in school, and I ask them, 'What did your parents say?' and they tell me that they were too busy or didn't care," says Mohamed El-Hassan, whose family moved from Sudan five years ago.

"Some parents work two or three jobs, and they really don't have any choice," he adds. "But I can talk to my dad about anything, even though he works two jobs."

Many credited the school's crisis coordinator, Barbara Finney, with helping them. "If kids see that you don't have time for them, they move on or just put you in the category of all the other adults who didn't have time for them," she says in an interview.

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