This is a true story from Bellingham Public Schools, in one of our teacher’s own words:
“We had a magical moment in 5th grade...We’ve studied: Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, to name a few. Students began to think of our community and conditions they’d like to help change. The conversation turned to homelessness. A fifth grader raised his hand and shared that he was homeless last year. The classroom fell silent. Then a second student shared that she, too, was homeless in her past. A shy student then spoke up saying, ‘I had no idea that it was possible for someone in our school, or in my class to be homeless, I’m so sorry that you went through that.’ Students asked questions and brainstormed ideas to support homeless kids. Thanks to a couple of courageous students, our class had a heartfelt conversation today that prompted kids to take action.”
I share these stories to increase awareness that we have many students and families right here in our community with significant basic needs.
It often surprises our community that we ended last school year with 561 students who were homeless. And, nearly 40 percent of our students and families live at or below the poverty level.
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This fall, some staff from Birchwood Elementary School hosted a barbecue at the mobile home park near Bellis Fair Mall, where more than 60 students who attend our schools live. It was another magical moment of school and community engagement where we built relationships together. Two of our elementary schools – Alderwood and Cordata – have started a food bank pantry for students and families in partnership with Bellingham Food Bank.
During this national American Education Week, I share these stories to increase awareness that we have many students and families right here in our community with significant basic needs. Because state and federal funding is grossly inadequate to fund our schools, most school districts in our state rely heavily on voter-approved levies and bonds. Many communities have foundations, like our Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, to help close gaps. And parent organizations, schools, athletic teams and music programs also have fundraisers.
Fundraising is a big issue. Unlike the funds we receive from levies, bonds and our Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, fundraising often further breeds inequity. If you’re a family with resources, you likely have extended family, neighbors and friends who can purchase a magazine subscription, cookie dough, fruit baskets, wrapping paper, raffle tickets, program and yearbook ads, etc. But if you’re not, it can be embarrassing and stressful to attempt to do your part. Children have missed out on many incentives for not participating in fundraising.
The result is that fundraisers from the 2015-16 school year brought in five times more dollars in one school than in another school just across town.
Our four middle school PTSAs recently recognized this problem and decided to band together to fix it. Instead of selling magazine subscriptions this fall, they asked for donations and split the proceeds evenly among all middle schools.
This was an unprecedented move toward what we call One Schoolhouse, a way of operating as a collective community with a desired outcome of equity for all. I cannot thank our middle school parents and the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation enough for their leadership and hard work, which netted $50,000. This was a big win for all middle schools – more than they’ve raised with magazine sales – and all of the profits went to our schools.
My request is that we build and expand upon this bright spot. Let’s think big. Some communities like Seattle and Portland have passed a Children’s Levy at the city or county level for universal preschool for all or to meet other basic needs of families in those communities. We have some community members who are starting an initiative called The Bellingham College Promise. It’s being modeled after Promise Indiana, a Hoosier program that starts a college savings account for every kindergartner.
We believe our community needs to ensure that all students have the opportunities to achieve the outcomes of The Bellingham Promise, our strategic plan. We should not delegate this to our kids. We should not ask them to go find the funding, to sell products, to ask for money. We, the adults, should promise to take on this responsibility. It is supposed to be our state’s paramount duty to ensure an ample education for all. If the state chooses not to fulfill this commitment, then we the citizens of Bellingham should and will stand up and ensure the youths of our community are not denied this fundamental right of an outstanding educational experience. The Bellingham Promise calls upon all of us to help achieve this dream for our children.
Greg Baker is superintendent of Bellingham Public Schools.