Posted in Catholic leadership, School Leadership

Open Doors to Our Neighbors

Sometimes I know people judge us for being a Catholic school.  Sometimes it’s the specific tenets of our faith, but often it’s because we’re told we take all the good kids and the public schools thereby have to suffer.

Of course, I believe all kids try to be good.

This last week, something happened that might illustrate how my school matters, even for the public school kids down the street.

A young girl from the neighborhood stopped by on Monday.  It was 2:00, and the public school actually gets out later than we do, and we were still in session for another hour, so it was odd, timing-wise.  I let her in and learned she needed to go to the bathroom and that mom called her home early, but this was the first day.  On her way home, she pointed out where she lived.  I thought nothing of it.

The next day, she came back, and this time, she didn’t need the bathroom, but she did ask if we had candy or gum.  We didn’t.  We said goodbye and sent her back out on her way.

It was odd, but given the relatively high crime rate of our neighborhood, and given we’re on the way home from her school, I figured it was good she stopped by, even if it meant she stopped by every day.  If she visited, then we knew she at least had gotten to our place, enroute to home.  One thing people don’t always know is that while “after school” until 6 (when, presumably, parents come home) is one of the most dangerous times for kids, being on the street alone during the school day can be worse.  We have a lot of sex predators in our neighborhood, too.

On the third day, she arrived at around 11, and she wasn’t alone.  Instead, she had her three-year-old brother with her.  We knew that her school had a program for four-year-olds, so he was too young.  Something wasn’t right.  Fortunately, our Title I teacher happened by.  Title I is a program where students who live in high poverty areas get extra help in reading and/or math if they need it (we’ve always been a high poverty school, but we are at 100% poverty this year) and the private schools share a public school teacher who provides our Title services.  This particular teacher also used to be a principal and her own office was in the building this little girl attended.  She started getting on the phone to the public school, and we started unraveling the story, likely faster than we would have since they knew our Title teacher so well.  No, she hadn’t gone to school that day (they verified).  Yes, she was on early release (often used for behavioral issues in this district, which is a sign she is lashing out at her own school), but yes 11 was definitely too early.  Her principal tried to calm her down over the phone, but the little girl was adamant: please don’t tell mom she was there.

The principal didn’t tell us what to do, but gave us the social services number.  They didn’t want to advise us one way or another.  Our Title teacher said, I’d keep her here and call.

We did.  Regardless, she was truant, and we learned during the conversation, she was only 9 and if she was minding a 3-year-old and wandering around the neighborhood, there was a chance she wouldn’t make it home and given mom was at work (the girl said), she’d go to an empty house.

Mom doesn’t work.

By the end of the day, there were social workers in my school, and, after a brief conversation with social workers, mom grabbed her kids and tried to flee when they wanted to detain her.  My kids had been playing in the gym with the little girl and her brother, and were shocked to see a mom yell so much and so terrifyingly loudly about how they needed to come with her.  They cleared the gym and headed to the cafeteria quickly as we were trying to get the police to help.  Eventually two squad cars came, and called backup (two more!) and they and the social workers headed to mom’s house.

We don’t know what happened exactly, and we don’t know what all they will uncover.  What we do know is that this little girl and her brother are getting help now because mom made the most obvious tactical error: running after being asked to stay by the social worker.  We also know that it all started because this child decided to stop at our school on the way home, possibly to delay her arrival at home from her early release.  That they came so quickly suggests that someone at her own school had called in at least one report in the past.  So, while it’s tempting to blame the public school for missing this, they probably did all they could.  They only had pieces.  When a little girl shows up at the wrong school with a pre-schooler in tow, that gets attention, especially if coupled with previous reports of concern that filled in more gaps.

My own kids handled what could have been a scary situation for them really well, and were glad we’d let the kids in.  “They were nice,” one of my students said, and the others agreed.  They even felt bad for mom because they understood that when you love your kids and get scared, sometimes you yell.  They also understood that they were safe here at school and were glad they were at a place where this little girl could come to find help.

We are praying for them all and hope that somehow mom gets help so they can be reunited someday, but for now, we pray the kids have a safe place where they can take a breather.

I know that some Catholic schools have a big wall around their school. metaphorically (though, sometimes, literally) and not just anyone can get in.  We try to do better than that, though.  We try to reach out to the neighborhood, if we can, and about 25% of my students live within walking distance.  All live in designated “low-income” neighborhoods, even if they’re further away.

This wouldn’t have happened before I arrived, though.  There was a tacit understanding that the neighborhood kids were “bad” (nevermind that some of our kids do come from this neighborhood) and they never would have let them in.  We’re glad we opened the door, and would do it again.



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