Regardless of the fact that Maria Goodloe-Johnson and the five members of the Seattle School Board who voted for closures last month will get what they hoped for, the deep anger and sadness experienced by so many of our community in the vote's aftermath marks a significant failure on our part to recognize real human needs.
Goodloe-Johnson, our School Superintendent, is a self-proclaimed data manager. She is rigorous in her application of data to address our failure to provide excellent education to all kids. Truth be told, it is data that has helped policy makers understand the extent of our achievement gap in public education and which schools need the most help.
Our children, however, embody far more needs, emotions, and aspirations than any spreadsheet could contain. Children have as many different learning styles as they have names. And families will always have an innate loyalty and love of their community schools, and the buildings that house them.
As this closure process so painfully revealed, more and better data is insufficient in addressing the challenges in our community. Can we even attempt to put a price on the suffering of a special needs child who, because of structural decisions, must change schools yet again?
I propose that solving the enormous challenges we currently face at all levels of government requires putting the "human" back into the systems we humans have designed to serve us.
Even the simplest acts matter. One of the parents who attended the board vote Jan. 29 remarked that administrators repeatedly chose to use the words "students" instead of "children," and "staff" instead of "teachers," denying those in attendance an opportunity to actually experience this decision for what it is: a jarring and painful upheaval for thousands of real people.
The inability of the district's leadership to humanize their analysis wasted much precious capital with parents and teachers and left a bitter wound that will be difficult to heal.
Where else does this propensity to dehumanize occur? You name it.
Almost 30,000 children in this state have a parent in prison. These children are suffering by almost every measure. And it's no wonder. In her book All Alone in the World: Children of the Incarcerated (New Press, 2005), Nell Bernstein cites national data showing 70 percent of children present at their parent's arrest watched them being handcuffed and 30 percent were confronted with drawn weapons (thank you data).
Worse yet, many police officers do not even acknowledge a child at the scene of an arrest. Many will be taken away in police cars or left behind to fend for themselves. In one particularly egregious case, a two-year-old in Florida was left alone for nearly three weeks after the arrest of her mother before anyone discovered her.
It is hard to imagine a more debilitating experience for our children, and one that leaves an indelible mark. Except in rare circumstances, and only in a handful of cities, we have done little to change the way our criminal justice system handles these experiences for children. Once again, a system driven at all costs by data fails us all without the modifying effects of "human impact."
And then of course, there's health care. A close friend of mine, facing a life-threatening diagnosis, found herself immersed in the health care system. Recently she discovered one of the drug regimes she was on had, in fact, further exacerbated her illness. Her anxiety and frustration reached the high water mark as she struggled to make sense of all the data presented by the countless specialists involved in her case.
It was only at an appointment with a new acupuncturist, also an MD, that she ever heard the word "healing" used by any physician in a conversation about her health. It was a cathartic moment for her as she realized healing was, in fact, the end game. She could finally imagine herself as integral to the process and not just a statistic on one of these specialists' many charts. Use of this one word has, in fact, changed her life.
The question is: What keeps us from inserting the human element into systems designed to serve us? Why do we put so much distance between us and those very real human needs and emotions so essential to human functioning and development? And what kind of world will we inhabit when this propensity to cut ourselves off from our own humanness continues unabated? A scary one indeed.
Ironically, the inadequate school closure process may become a catalyst to change course and create a world still inhabitable by, yes, humans.