Pay now, or pay later; don't give Alternative/Outreach the short shrift

Half-BakedA few years ago, my buddy Phil (a youth pastor) and I led a group of high school students on a church mission trip to Monterrey, Mexico. For nearly two weeks we split time working with various construction projects and interacting with younger kids in various areas around the city.

It wasn’t your typical church youth group. Somehow we ended up with about 20 kids that weren’t your stereotypical strait-laced, industrious, clean-cut church kids. Many in our group had issues … at home, at school, and especially at church.

To say we were a bit nervous about the expedition was an understatement. And maybe it wasn’t fair to the kids that they exceeded our expectations, but it was one of the best experiences of my life. We watching these kids who largely were “outsiders” at home, that people saw as goof-offs, or Goths, or out-of-whack for various reasons, absolutely shine. They worked themselves to exhaustion, loved the kids they encountered with kindness and grace even though they didn’t share the same language, had their eyes opened both by desperate poverty and a joyful hospitality of the people they met.

You’d think they would have been celebrated as heroes when we got home, but instead many in that church still saw the outer trappings of troubled youth and didn’t want them staining the furniture. Many of those kids left that church and haven’t been back to that church … or any church.

So it was with a mixture of sadness and anger that I heard many of the same kinds of comments at last Monday’s Tonasket School Board public hearing about the failed bond measure regarding the students that attend the Alternative and Outreach School (two different entities that serve similar purposes to separate groups of kids). Apparently there is a segment of constituents in our community that voted against the bond primarily – or exclusively – because it contained funding to replace the dilapidated old portable that they currently meet in.

Why couldn’t the kids be put back into the mainstream? What’s wrong with them? If they have problems at home, why does the community have to deal with them? So what if the way some students learn doesn’t fit the old mold that was “good enough” decades ago?

Those kids are in that school for a variety of reasons, many of them unique to the individual students. Whether it be issues at home, difficulty integrating with society at large, learning styles that don’t function well in a traditional class setting, or just about anything that might be akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

As a public school district, Tonasket has an obligation to educate every student that comes through its doors, whether it be a well-adjusted middle class high achiever or a kid that shows up hungry, smelly and hangs out on the fringes of being a functional human being, and everywhere in between. The highly-motivated average students, or the brilliant ones that may someday change the world, if they can just survive middle school, or figure out how to graduate while raising a 2-year-old.

To question the validity of the Alternative School on that basis is to bring into question the value of these students as unique individuals, as people. This is not about bricks and mortar, but about keeping these kids engaged, in school, and on course for a productive life.

Without the Alternative School, many of them might not stay in school at all. Maybe it’s not taxpayers’ fault that these kids don’t fit into church kids’ clothing or fit into our local culture’s vision of what a well-adjusted kid looks like. But it is our problem if they drop out of school and end up unable to read, on the dole, in jail, or raising families that are distanced yet another increment from productively functioning in society at large.

It’s a lot easier to pass judgement on what these kids appear to be from a distance – because we wouldn’t want to get to close, would we? – than it is to contribute something of ourselves or what we earn that gives them a fighting chance to succeed.

I voted for the bond, and I respect many of those who did not. But let’s be clear about one thing. Voting against it because it includes funding for the Alternative School does not save any of us money.

Whether it’s to invest in these kids’ futures, or to clean up the mess if we don’t, we are all going to pay