Chaos in the classroom: Too many kids not ready and able to learn

Veteran teachers and school officials are on the front lines of the crisis of the growth of children coming from poor families, many with just one parent at home. Their experiences show the impact of the changing face of the Maine family.
Tom Ward poses for a photo in a school hallway
Dr. Thomas Ward, Superintendent of Mt. Blue Regional School District.

Kids who come to school dirty, hungry and unable to even sit at a seat. Kids who spend hours in the bathroom, screaming. Kids who throw a chair out of frustration. Kids who are in school, but in such deep trouble at home they are nowhere near ready to learn.

To one veteran educator, there was only one way to put it all: “We’re in a crisis,” said Althea Walker, the recently retired principal of Farwell Elementary School in Lewiston.

Wilton Academy Fourth grade teacher Brenda LaVerdiere in her classroom.
Wilton Academy Fourth grade teacher Brenda LaVerdiere in her classroom.

And she has a warning she wants Maine to hear.

“People need to wake up,” Walker said. “It’s awful.”

It’s not just a problem where she worked: Teachers and school officials across the state are dealing with the same problems to one degree or another.

Those problems are showing up very early. In a recent survey by the National Center for Children in Poverty, 92 percent of Maine preschool, daycare and Head Start teachers reported that they each had an average of five children in their classrooms who were so badly behaved that they could not learn well and whose behavior diminished the ability of other children to learn.

Walker said the kids she taught in the 1990s in Richmond, Maine, arrived at school ready to learn. Now, they show up at school with so many problems, they can’t learn, she said. Students’ lives are chaotic, their parents’ lives are chaotic and, as a result, classrooms are chaotic.

Althea Walker, former principal of Lewiston’s Farwell Elementary School.
Althea Walker, former principal of Lewiston’s Farwell Elementary School.

“It’s gotten to the level that students in kindergarten are coming in, there’s no guidance, they’re almost feral. They don’t know how to sit at a seat to eat, they don’t say please, they don’t say thank you,” said Walker.

“They just don’t have those basic interpersonal skills that you need, don’t know how to take turns, to problem solve — the way they do it is knock some kids upside the head or throw a chair. One girl would just go in the bathroom and scream for hours, nothing would help to calm her down.”

What are the families of these students like?

“They’re very transient, in poverty, single parents,” said Walker.

That the children of single parents — overwhelmingly single mothers — do less well in school and in life has been systematically documented by a range of academic studies over the past 20 years. One scholar, Mark S. Barajas of Western Michigan University, concluded in 2011 that, “a large majority of studies reviewed show that children from single-parent homes score lower on tests of cognitive functioning and standardized tests, receive lower grade point averages, and complete fewer years of school when compared to children from two-parent homes.”

Beyond the problems faced by children in single-parent homes, schools have to deal with children — some from single-parent homes, some of them not — whose families are experiencing a hellish list of problems. Those include drug-addicted parents, poverty, a violent mother or father, child abuse, periodic homelessness and isolation from friends or family.

The crisis is not only hurting the children and making teaching increasingly difficult — it’s also undermining the future of Maine’s communities and economy that depend on the next generation becoming productive members of society.

And that worries public officials such as U.S. Sen. Angus King, the former two-term governor of Maine. He’s worried enough to have taken up Walker’s invitation to visit her school in 2015.

U.S. Senator Angus King.
U.S. Senator Angus King.

“I went quietly from classroom to classroom and saw what was going on,” said King. “I talked to teachers and the principal. What really stunned me was the number of kids that were damaged. In the hallway of the school they had what amounted to a rummage sale, a clothing table — shoes, boots, jackets — I’d never seen that in a school before. The teachers and principal described these poor kids coming in where they’d seen violence in the household, or only one parent, a lot of drug use, no food, no breakfast.”

“This is a huge looming problem because you can’t educate kids in this kind of situation,” said King. “The schools are being asked to do so much more than just teach.”

“The teachers said: ‘This is new.’ There have always been poor kids, but the extent of it and the depth of it is something that they haven’t seen before.”

The “really scary part,” said King, “is what is the likelihood of these kids being able to break out of it? The odds against them are very high, because they have very limited role models, experience, mentors. Education is the traditional pathway out of poverty, but can they benefit from the education if they’re so compromised going in?”

Building trust

Living in poverty causes many of the problems the schools are seeing, and families headed by single mothers make up a large proportion of those poor families. If the problems in schools are getting worse, it’s because the number of Maine families living in deep poverty is increasing. Deep poverty is defined as an annual income of $12,000 or less for a family of four. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national charity that researches children’s issues, the rate of deep poverty in Maine has nearly doubled between 2000 and 2014 — from five percent to nine percent of Maine’s children.

You can find a lot of those children in the Mt. Blue School District in western Maine. The district educates the children of ten towns in Franklin County: Farmington, Weld, Temple, Wilton, Chesterville, New Vineyard, Industry, New Sharon, Starks and Vienna.

Those towns in recent decades have experienced some of the worst effects of the decline in the state’s manufacturing and natural resource industries, as the region’s employers — tanneries, shoe shops, lumber mills, dowel mills and paper mills — have shut down or moved, taking with them the engines that drove the area’s economy. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, one in three children in Franklin County lives with a single parent, and one in four Franklin County children lives in poverty.

Thomas Ward — who has a Ph.D. and is called “Dr. Tom” by everyone — is the Mt. Blue Regional School District superintendent and has been in or around the district for 40 years. He works from an office suite right inside the high school, near several classrooms and next to a soaring two-story central hall.

Leaning back in a chair, Ward spoke of the developments that have made it more and more difficult to educate the district’s students.

“What I’ve seen for changes since my early years is tremendous mental health issues with students, special education issues. The numbers have grown tremendously for both, particularly in the more recent years, many mental health issues.”

The problems are showing up early in students’ lives, said Ward.

“Our elementary kids are a good example,” he said. “I look at them get off the bus in the morning. How did that child get here? He or she hasn’t eaten, hasn’t been bathed, has dirty clothes.”

“We feed them, we have them shower and we have a clean set of clothes for them. And then we can maybe teach them something.”

But the teaching doesn’t cover reading, writing or arithmetic at that point.

“It starts with social behaviors,” said Ward. “We’re teaching social skills.” That means how to get along with other people.

His district schools now step in where parents used to tread — a refrain heard over and over from school administrators and teachers across the state.

Brenda LaVerdiere, who teaches fourth grade in the Mt. Blue district’s Academy Hill School in Wilton, said she’s called on “every day” to do what families once did for their children.

“What I see is kids who can’t stick with something very long, they have a hard time to concentrate,” said LaVerdiere. “Kids who live in poverty quite often do have problems and challenges making friends.”

The children she’s taught also have “trust issues,” said LaVerdiere, and it “really takes time for kids to feel like they belong and then they move a lot.”

“A lot of each of our days is spent talking to kids about what’s bothering them, teaching kids how to deal with their emotions and supporting them emotionally,” said LaVerdiere, who has been teaching for 38 years. “We care about our kids, they’re important to us, and I’ll bet if you interviewed every single teacher in the state of Maine, they’d tell you they buy clothes for kids, they buy food, they take money out of their own pocket so kids can do things.”

W.A. Mallett School nurse Katie Hallman sorts foods that are available to students and families in the pantry she organized at the Farmington school.
W.A. Mallett School nurse Katie Hallman sorts foods that are available to students and families in the pantry she organized at the Farmington school.

Ward led an effort to join other regional districts to pay for hiring an expert on poverty, Donna Beegle, to conduct sessions on “raising poverty awareness” for school staff, he said. By doing that, he hopes ultimately to have the community and its schools work together with poor parents to help them raise children who come to school ready to learn — not lacking in food, clean clothes and social-emotional skills.

Some of that work includes establishing food pantries in the district’s schools; there’s one now in the high school. At other schools in Maine, administrators and teachers conduct campaigns to solicit clothes for their students. In others, teachers buy food directly for kids in their classrooms.

“Whether we like it or not, as school districts, we have to do this reaching out to these families,” said Ward.

“I think there is enough will, I’m not sure about enough money,” he said. Adding more services and more staff to deal with students’ problems costs more money, he said.

But “the bottom line is the old adage,” said Ward: ‘You pay me now or you pay me later.’”

Which translates into more programs for younger and younger children in the district.

“We’re trying to bring these students, these children into our schools at earlier ages so we can provide them with the support they need,” said Ward. “The earlier we can get to these children, the less it will cost us down the line.”

An escalating crisis

The school where Althea Walker served as principal until this past February is 40 miles down the Androscoggin River Valley from Ward’s office in Mt. Blue High School.

Walker was principal at Farwell Elementary School from 2008 to 2016, when she retired. She said that when she took the job at the school, it had a modest program to deal with children who had behavior problems: Just three classrooms for a small number of students.

“These were kids who were kind of like Fonzie — punky, nobody (you) had to be afraid of, just tough bravado,” said Walker. “As long as they knew I wasn’t afraid and wouldn’t back down, I was fine.”

Within a couple of years, she had suffered a torn shoulder rotator cuff from a student who jammed her into a wall. And four or five years later, she said, the school needed five special education classrooms for kids with problems.

“We realized we had to get in different techniques to use for the kids because what we were using to de-escalate wasn’t working,” she said. “Then we decided we needed a psychiatrist, a clinician, for things the kids were dealing with,” like violence in their homes.

Graph of Maine Women Age 15-20 with a Birth in the Past Year by Demographic Characteristics.
Maine Women Age 15-20 with a Birth in the Past Year by Demographic Characteristics.

“It was going downhill,” she said.

What does Walker see as a solution to the problems in her students’ lives?

“Do you want to hear my Democratic answer, or my Republican answer?” asked Walker, with a small smile.

She gives both, focusing on single mothers.

“My Democratic side is like, you know, these people, they were probably children of poverty themselves … They don’t know any different life. And until they have that sense of hope and that sense of belonging and personal respect, self-confidence, nothing will change. We need to have social services that truly help, that don’t just enable; that are able to look at the whole person — is she a drug addict, has she been raped, has she been a victim of incest — and provide her with the support and information and guidance that’s going to allow her to decide that she wants to do something different.”

Walker continues:

“The Republican side of me is like, ‘You know what guys, enough is enough … I don’t care what you do about your personal life behind closed doors, but don’t bring any more kids into this world that are neglected, hungry, abused, because it’s not fair to them. These little kids, their little faces, how can you look at a little four or five year old and they go ‘Mrs. Walker I’m hungry,’ or they go, ‘Mrs Walker, my arm hurts,’ and it has a huge bruise.”

Walker doesn’t say which approach she’d choose. What she does let on is simply what it feels like to witness the pain of the children in her school.

“It just, just, just breaks your heart.”

Reporting for this story was supported by grants from the Samuel L. Cohen, Hudson and Maine Health Access foundations. Demographic analysis was provided by Andrew Schaefer, Vulnerable Families Research Scientist, Carsey School of Public Policy, University of New Hampshire.

This is part three of a five-part series. To read more about what went into the reporting of this story, click here.


Naomi Schalit

Naomi Schalit is a co-founder of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting, which operates The Maine Monitor.
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