Schools face ‘few’ challenges as new year begins

As the 2017-18 school year begins on Monday, the local theme, unfortunately, appears to be one of fewer.

Students tomorrow will return to 41 schools, one fewer than last year at this time as West Lumberton Elementary remains closed, and apparently will never again reopen. Its staff and students will continue to be located at Lumberton Junior High School, which has made room for them since Hurricane Matthew destroyed the elementary school last October.

The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County appears committed to building a new school as well as a central office, but there is a lot of detail that has to be determined, such as how much money will be available for the construction. As for the central office, the only thing that appears certain is it will not return to its spot on N.C. 711, beside the Lumber River.

The numbers aren’t hard yet, but it appears that there will be as many as a thousand fewer students in the local system when the best count is available, about 10 days into the new year. About 24,000 students began the 2016-17 school year, but the number of students at the end of the school year was 22,593, the lower number primarily the result of families that were displaced following the hurricane who have not returned to their previous homes.

Perhaps the most disturbing number, however, is that classes begin on Monday with the system 43 teachers short of being able to put one in every classroom. We don’t have the numbers for adjoining school systems, but teacher shortages are not unique to Robeson County, although we believe the system is hurt by a local supplement that is on the low end when compared with systems across the state, as well as the school board’s reputation for dysfuntionality that has only grown following the recent debacle in the failed search for a superintendent.

We remember a day when there was a teacher in every classroom, but the profession has become less attractive in recent years, and pay is just one of the problems. In North Carolina, there has been a move by the General Assembly in recent years to improve teacher pay, but Republican legislators, who control both chambers, are generally viewed — fairly or not — as being hostile toward education.

There are other reasons why the profession, which was once so highly regarded, has suffered, including the long hours, what is perceived as a lack of administrative support, and also the difficulty in instilling discipline in the classroom in a society that is so litigious.

We recall a two-panel cartoon that really isn’t that funny, but does capture the problem.

In the first panel, labeled “Then,” two parents, their child and a teacher are depicted, and the obviously angry parents are shaking their fingers at the child who has done something wrong. The second panel, labeled “Now,” depicts the same two parents, their child and teacher, but in this case the parents are wagging their fingers at the teacher as if the problem is her, and not the child.

The times have changed — and not for the better.

But the beginning of a school year is an opportunity to wipe clean the chalkboard and begin anew. There are obvious problems afflicting the local system, many of which are systemic and will take years to fix.

But there also exists an opportunity for all of the 23,000 students or so, which is to work hard, learn and position themselves for a better life after the final school bell rings.

Their chances are greatly enhanced if they have two parents at home who are pushing them to do all that.