Sunday, February 22, 2009

Safe Schools

I am a professional grant writer. The only other professional grant writers I know are colleagues I have met through my own grant writing work. I have never gone to a party and asked someone, “What do you do?” and had them answer that they are a grant writer. I would wager that most people haven’t a clue what I do all day. Because I have fallen into a groove of writing a lot of U.S. Department of Education grants, this time of year has become my busy season since a lot of the Dept. of Ed. grant announcements and deadlines happen now. One of my big bread-and-butter grants is the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative, due on March 4 this year. I am simultaneously working on Teaching American History and also Improving Literacy Through School Libraries grants, both of which are also due the first week in March. Once I complete this batch, the next group up are the Readiness and Emergency Management in the Schools grants to help schools be prepared to deal with any crisis situation. These became popular after Columbine.

Much of the work I do involves gathering data to support the need for a project. My clients provide much of it, but often they only know what they see and don’t have the hard facts to back it up. I dig up the statistics to show that yes indeed they have a problem with violence or drug use. I had one client a few years ago in an affluent school district who wanted to show need based on the fact that the students had staged a food fight in the cafeteria, which was a mess to clean up and showed considerable disrespect for the school and the faculty. While I was writing her grant, I was also writing a grant for an economically disadvantaged district where one in three students wound up in the juvenile justice system and students smoked weed in the classrooms daily while teachers looked the other way. Yes, I do discover the most startling truths about what is going on in our schools during the course of a day’s work.

My cousin works in an urban school district that will remain unnamed. In 2007, her district’s high school was on the Dept. of Ed.’s short list of “persistently dangerous schools.” Now this is interesting because there is federal funding to assist persistently dangerous schools. It is available to schools that got on the list because of the data they provided. The reason why there were only a dozen schools on the 2007 list is because most districts falsify, distort, or otherwise use selective practices to gather their data. Let’s face it, what district wants to be labeled persistently dangerous? But a few districts each year give up, and report the data necessary to get on the list so they can apply for the funds. My cousin told me that two years ago the district installed a metal detector at the entrance to the high school over the summer. On the first day of school, students were shocked to discover that they had to go through the metal detector to get into school. With no other choice, students unloaded weapons they were carrying on the front lawn. It looked like an arsenal. Knives. Guns. Large guns. They have a lot of children in this district who have fled with their families from war-torn regions of the world. These children are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and they continue to fear for their lives. Add that to an active gang culture and high rates of violence in the community and there is your arsenal on the front lawn of the school. Frightening? Very. It gets worse. Once they knew there was a metal detector, the students started to unplug it, walk into school carrying weapons, and plug it back in behind them. The school security staff looked the other way. Teachers looked the other way. Why? Fear and discomfort. The staff didn’t want to deal with it. I am presently writing a grant for a district that experiences physical fights on their high school and middle school campuses every single day. Every single day, more than 20% of their students smoke weed on campus. When my contacts at the district went to find data for me about student violent behavior, they were shocked to discover that the number of assaults by teachers on students was extraordinarily high.

I look at this data. I look at these communities, and I am grateful for my quiet little rural town where I raised my children in relative safety. If I am lucky, my grants will be funded. I will walk away with my grant writing fee, and the dedicated folks at the district will have their work cut out for them, as they do every day, climbing uphill, trying to make a difference in the lives of children, teenagers, and their families. That is how I make a difference, I help them get the funding to implement the programs they know will make a positive change. Inch by inch. Child by child. Family by family. So it goes. But I will tell you what I have learned in nearly ten years of doing this work with communities in over twenty-five states: the best communities are the ones that make their highest priority the health, education, care, and nurturing of their children. That’s what makes safe schools, safe communities.

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