POLL: Do schools' extra duties detract from academics?
Hunger among some students has become so common that one elementary school teacher keeps a bagful of Froot Loops near her classroom door.
When kids arrive with clothes too ragged or dirty -- or don't come at all because they lack clothing -- schools make sure they have something decent to wear.
And when neglect has left the occasional youngster so unkempt that his hygiene affects others, school nurses have even taken to bathing them.
Teachers see these as small but necessary gestures, because kids who are hungry, dirty or unwell have more to worry about than learning. But these acts point to the increasingly complex nature of public education.
Nowadays, school isn't just about academics. It's a place where all of society's problems come through the door. And when things go wrong in the community, like Chattanooga's front-and-center gang violence, schools are one of the first places decision-makers look to fix the problem.
"The definition of education is changing," said Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith. "It's not just about content anymore."
Public schools' to-do lists keep growing:
• Regulate what and how much kids eat.
• Make sure they get enough exercise.
• Manage chronic diseases like diabetes and asthma.
• Screen for vision and hearing problems.
• Help kids cope with extreme poverty, neglect and even abuse.
• Make sure kids pull up their pants and learn to speak properly.
• Teach them to speak English for the first time.
Those and many other tasks are piled on top of increasing academic standards at a time when teachers and schools are under immense pressure to improve student performance and close achievement gaps.
Of 19 recommendations in the Chattanooga Comprehensive Gang Assessment, a dozen of them were centered on schools.
Local research released last month pointed to a problem of teen dating violence and recommended implementing new programming in schools to help keep boyfriends and girlfriends from hurting each other. Still, one researcher warned against piling all the responsibility on the school system.
"Every single social problem, we go to the schools and say, 'You need to fix this. You need to fix this,'" said Helen Eigenberg, professor and chairwoman of the criminal justice department at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
In many ways, schools are an easy target. And a regular one.
"The school is always the first place you turn to, particularly for problems that have to do with children and adolescent youth, because they're a captive audience," said John Puckett, education historian and professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education. "You've got whole batches of them in the same place on a regular basis at the same times. It makes schools easy prey for this."
When addressing a problem as deeply rooted as gang violence, Puckett said, school-based programs alone will never be enough. Social and health plagues should be dealt with across the entire community because laying one stand-alone program on top of another has proven ineffective, he said.
"It is such an incredible mess. And we've created that mess," Puckett said. "And we haven't provided the resources at any level to support what we were trying to do, which was probably too much to begin with, because there was no overall plan or vision."
Still, schools are trying to do more and more.
Federal regulations changed this year, dictating strict calorie, salt, fat and sugar counts for school lunch programs. The change was an effort to provide healthier meals and curb childhood obesity, though some have said the rules are creating a nanny state.
Schools are trying to hang onto physical education classes, even with tight budgets. And some teachers have even started using exercise in their classrooms in an effort to stimulate minds and keep bodies fit.
Some programs send students home with food at night or on weekends because they know school lunch could be the only meal some of those kids get. Each weekend, about 200 students in three Bradley County schools go home with snack packs filled with two wholesome meals.
And school nurses are now helping to provide a spectrum of care, from tummy aches to chronic diseases.
While Hamilton County had six school nurses in 1997, the system now employs 76 at a cost of about $2 million a year, said Sheryl Rogers, coordinator of health services for the district.
Instead of just fixing boo-boos, nurses now spend most of their time treating and monitoring diabetes, asthma and seizure disorders.
"Those are the driving force behind the nursing budget," she said.
Nurses keep track of students' maintenance inhalers, monitor blood sugar and use complex insulin pumps. They also treat problems like lice or poor hygiene.
"It's just like a little clinic," Rogers said.
At Orchard Knob Elementary, some teachers say they relish the chance to provide and care for kids, doing far more than just teaching.
Third-grade teacher Rosalyn Tiller said she works first to build relationships with students and families. That way, she's more likely to know when a child is hungry, sick or preoccupied with what's going on at home. If she can address those problems, a child is more likely to pay attention to math, reading and science.
"If I give a child something to eat, I get what I want, too," she said.
Orchard Knob teachers have helped connect students with after-school programs, housing opportunities and medical care. Ellen Craig, an English as a second language teacher, said the school acts as a community hub, because it's often where issues are first noticed.
Craig once introduced a Hispanic family to an inner-city ministry and after-school program, which helped them get connected to Habitat for Humanity and find housing. She heard of a child with no furniture at home and put the family in touch with a community organization that provided beds and mattresses. She has even learned to navigate TennCare, helping kids get new glasses.
"If you know what's going on and you're the only one that knows, you've got to get involved," Craig said.
Poverty is driving much of the change.
As more families struggle with poverty at Chattanooga Valley Elementary in Flintstone, Ga., students come to school with more and more issues. Principal Heather Culberson said the school tries to give students everything they need.
But poverty can cause kids to come to class hungry, tired or distracted.
Or sometimes, kids don't come to school at all.
Several children from one family recently missed several days of school, not because of illness, but because they had no clothes to wear. On their return to school, the youngest came dressed only in pajamas.
"That was all he could find to wear," Culberson said.
So the school found someone to buy the children shoes and socks. And underwear.
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.