Each legislative session, some major issues seem to take the spotlight in Pierre – and education is dominating this year’s conversation. Much of SDPB’s coverage relates to funding schools and teachers, because lawmakers are trying to find ways to fairly and adequately fund education. Despite a goal to provide the same opportunity for all kids by doling out the matching funding for students, children walk into classes facing a wide range of challenges. A visit to one Sioux Falls school reveals some of those differences.
George McGovern Middle School is on the northwest edge of Sioux Falls. Fields surround a two-story brick building with a curved front entrance peppered with windows. The façade appears as a typical example of public education in the area, but McGovern is different from most South Dakota schools. White students are in the minority; they make up 47 percent. Hispanic, black, and Native American students make up the majority.
Inside a classroom on the first floor, students of varied backgrounds start Tuesday working on Greek mythology. Twenty-three kids learn about Greek culture. Six bright orange chairs reflect the fluorescent lighting. The seats are empty. One fifth of students on this roster aren’t in school this morning.
Principal LaVonna Emanuel says some kids lack reliable ways to get to class.
"Sometimes the biggest problem that we have is having a full house, so we have attendance issues," Emanuel says.
Emanuel says instability at home makes showing up at school every day – and on time – tough. About 750 regular students are enrolled at McGovern, and one-fifth of kids are highly mobile. Emanuel says that uncertainty causes physical stress and mental struggles.
"They’re not quite sure where they’re going to go, or maybe they’ve come from out of state and they are living with somebody they don’t know very well," Emanuel says. "Maybe some of the brothers and sisters have been left behind. Sometimes they’ve lost things like pets or prized possessions. They just feel a real sense of loss."
Emanuel says McGovern Middle School accesses support services and professionals to help students cope with volatile circumstances outside of school beyond their control. She says educators pay specific attention to students’ mental health, but they also try to meet growing physical needs. At this school, more than three-quarters of kids qualify for free and reduced lunches. Even then, some of them don’t have enough to eat.
"We can always help a child who’s hungry. The biggest obstacle is for us to know that, and so a lot of times we will ask that question," Emanuel says. "Our lunch program and the folks that are behind the scenes, they are incredible. If we run out of things here to tide a student over until lunch, we can go visit with them go directly to them and they’ll get us some breakfast bars or some milk to get them through to lunch."
Emanuel says her students experience problems that stem from poverty. She sees some of those issues in an immersion program McGovern hosts to support students brand new to the United States. Federal funding covers most of the education costs for those students for two years; then state dollars help to bridge the gap with specific money for English language learners.
Emanuel says children in the program are sometimes the only English-speaking members of their families. They’re striving to function in a world where the food is strange, people dress differently, and their experiences in refugee camps or war-torn nations offer stark contrast to a public school on the prairie.
"We sometimes have students come to us that have never held a pencil. They have no idea what a bell schedule is like. They come from places where capital punishment is practiced – it’s a common practice – and it takes them a long time really to acclimate to America and to Sioux Falls. They’ve never seen snow," Emanuel says.
About 75 students try to adjust to a new reality in the immersion center. Emanuel says the personal hardships they endure are usually connected to their immigration. The middle school principal says she sees other devastating versions of indigence.
"What we see with foreign-born poverty is it’s more situational poverty, whereas American-born poverty is generational, and there are significant differences. So in a foreign-born poverty situation, that’s situational. That may be 10 to 12 years. They didn’t always grow up in poverty, and they believe in the American dream of education is the ticket out and they trust the school system. And you just don’t see as much of the mental health issues as you do with American-born poverty," Emanuel says.
Emanuel says she watches born-and-raised South Dakotans struggle to concentrate on math or science as their families grapple with decades of deprivation.
She says these students often come to school after hearing family members argue about how to pay for food or gas. She says they confide in their teachers that they’re sad or scared when parents fight. Emanuel says middle schoolers face home lives where their primary caregivers wrestle with substance abuse or self-medicate.
"Midwestern people with Midwestern values would say, ‘These parents need to be more responsible for their children, and it’s the parents’ fault that the child isn’t highly educator or is suffering in any way.’ But I would say, these are children," Emanuel says. "Let’s take away who the child belongs to. You know, from the hours of 8 to 4, they’re under our care, and they should be receiving services from an institution that sets them up for success. So let’s take away the parent equation, you know, take away the blame game, and let’s give these children the same access to opportunity that all the other children have."
In one classroom at George McGovern Middle School, some students sport faded sweatshirts and well-worn shoes. Others have fine school supplies and brand-name clothes. Some appear well-rested and showered; others likely consider school a sanctuary from chaos. These kids don’t look the same, but each child receives identical state funding so state leaders provide a level of fairness.
Principal LaVonna Emanuel says caring for students beyond their worksheets and test scores doesn’t offer some kids extra. Emanuel says it’s about giving children who are underprivileged the same chance other people take for granted.