Opinion: Moving kids is no shortcut to educational equity

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A sign at a protest by hundreds of the Howard County redistricting proposal. Photo by Scott Ewart

Here is one of the commentaries we have received about Howard County schools. Opposing comments and viewpoints are welcome. Send to Len@MarylandReporter.com or use the comment feature at the bottom of the article. The voices of opposition and protest are often louder and more persistent than the voices of support.  

By Shobhit Negi, M.D.

Howard County, Maryland, is the most integrated school district in the region, according to the Maryland Equity Project of the University of Maryland.

As a practicing child and adolescent and forensic psychiatrist, I have significant concerns related to Howard County School Superintendent Michael Martirano’s recommended Attendance Area Adjustment Proposal for the sake of promoting educational equity.

Education equity means that every student has access to the educational resources and rigor they need at the right moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, family background and/or family income.

However, from my perspective, the recommended area adjustment plan is a shortcut approach to a larger issue that our society faces.  It is analogous to applying a Band-Aid over a wound while letting it bleed internally.  My concerns related to the biological and psychological ramifications associated with implementation of the superintendent’s recommendation.

Sleep deprivation in teens

Since eternity, teenagers have faced a widespread chronic health problem: sleep deprivation.  Sleep deprivation impairs one’s ability to be alert, pay attention, solve problems, cope with stress and retain information, which has consequences not only inside the classroom but also on the athletic field.  Both quality sleep and quantity of sleep at the right times is as essential to survival as food and water.

Taking into consideration the best interests of the child standard, many schools across the country are working to synchronize school clocks with students’ body clocks, so that teens are in school during their most alert hours and can achieve their full academic potential.  Biological evidence indicates that adolescents have later circadian rhythm timing, which is based on melatonin released by the pineal gland, a pea-sized gland located just above the middle of the brain.

Melatonin secretion occurs at a later time in adolescents as they mature; thus, it is difficult for them to go to sleep earlier at night.  Plus, the melatonin secretion also turns off later in the morning, which makes it harder for adolescents to wake up early.

Psychiatric problems for teens

Adolescence is also a time of increasing incidence of several classes of psychiatric illnesses, including anxiety disorders, mood disorders, psychotic disorders, trauma and stress-related disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, etc.  Studies conducted by the World Health Organization indicate that half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14.

The pathophysiology of these disorders is being increasingly understood as arising from aberrations of maturational changes that normally occur in the adolescent brain.  With our growing recognition of sleep as a major player in several essential biological functions, students currently zoned for River Hill High School or Wilde Lake High School do not want an “avoidable” change in there already hectic schedules to further disrupt the natural sleep-wake cycle bestowed on them.

Research indicates that 38% percent of high schoolers engage in distracting activity, such as texting while driving.  Chronic sleep deprivation coupled with the inexperience of driving and engaging in distracted behavior while driving, such as talking or texting or checking social media posts, can be especially deadly for teen drivers and others.

If given a choice, my assumption would be that most Howard County residents would prefer sharing a road for five minutes with a teenage driver sipping coffee along the way to stay alert and intermittently checking social media posts, rather than the same teen driving 20 to 25 minutes to school.

Schools are our second homes

From recent conversations with folks residing in polygons that face disruption, my long-held personal belief that our public schools are our second homes has been validated.

Our schools connect us and our community in meaningful ways.  It takes time to build a sense of community.  Parents selflessly want that to happen because we know that students in schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to be academically motivated; to act ethically and altruistically; to develop social and emotional competencies; and to avoid several problematic behaviors, such as drug use and violence.

When most of us think back to our time in school, our stories tend to include the teachers with whom we had real, lasting connections.  Our favorite teachers often changed our outlook on learning, made class fun, and inspired us to push beyond what we thought we could do.

Several children currently attending their polygon associated high school have forged relationships with high school staff, spanning from academics to athletics.  The role of a teacher goes well beyond the traditional three R’s of reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic.  It also encompasses relationship building, inculcating a sense of responsibility, and helping regulate an already tumultuous adolescent brain.

Evidence suggests that school environments that foster perceptions of connection, particularly in the form of teacher support, are associated with students displaying greater emotional competence. Telling a junior or a sophomore that they might be attending a different high school due to no faults of their own is akin to someone being evicted from a house they love.

Parental involvement

Parental involvement represents parents’ commitment of resources and time to the academic spheres of their children’s lives.  Most parents make a good effort to attend school functions and support the educators who work with their children.

Dr. Martirano’s recommendation contradicts policies being developed nation-wide to develop comprehensive parental involvement and family-school partnership strategies.  Unlike a physical health checkup performed by a pediatrician on an annual basis, parental engagement in a child’s academic learning is a process that takes place each day. Digital communication is a poor substitute for the human interaction that people need to foster a more meaningful connection with others and build credibility, trust, and loyalty.

Our ability, desire, and need to communicate face-to-face, with our voices heard, is an important part of what makes us human.  Volunteering, attending parent-teacher conferences, participating in sporting events, etc., will pose challenges for majority of the working-class families residing in polygons facing displacement.

Shift the narrative

We need to shift the narrative from Free and Reduced Meals being one of the propelling factors to promote educational equity to a more pragmatic approach that will reap long-term benefits, such as providing resources to students and families residing in their respective polygons.

According to the Aspen Institute, in addition to distribution of funding, other factors that contribute to educational equity include access to high-quality teachers, rigorous coursework, support services, supportive school climates, and extracurricular opportunities.  Equity does not mean creating equal conditions for all students, but rather targeting resources based on individual students’ needs and circumstances and respecting students’ voice and agency.

A recent report from the Council of Chief State School Officers indicates that funding for public education is a foundational state responsibility and that states and districts often invest less in educating low-income students and students of color than they do in educating affluent and white students.

It is the duty of our elected state officials that they advocate for fiscal equity and use their political influence and authority to allocate resources for closing opportunity gaps, rather than depriving students and their families of their second home that in addition to fostering academic learning, also promotes social-emotional learning.

Shobhit Negi, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent, adult and forensic psychiatrist