Worcester’s increase in state funding should primarily be spent on new curriculum and teaching methods, more classroom teachers, para-professionals, guidance/adjustment counselors, support services for teachers, as well as after-school and summer offerings for students.

Given the challenges of teaching in an urban environment all teachers and school personnel are overburdened with too many demands that hit them all at once; this happens especially to special education and English as a second language teachers. Overly large class sizes constrain teachers from giving much needed individual attention to students, even when desperately needed for emotional stability and/or academic excellence. However, more teachers and para-professionals in the classroom, alone, will not lead to dramatically better outcomes – academically or emotionally.

What is needed is a re-appraisal of what “learning” is, one which significantly changes our current orientation of measuring a student’s and school’s success primarily by standardized test results. Specifically needed is recognition that learning is both an emotional and academic endeavor engaged in by students and teachers alike. Replacing the status quo policy, which incorrectly assumes that the motivation to succeed is something (1 a student basically arrives at school with (or not), or (2 that a teacher never loses her or his motivation, is necessary.

Schools need a comprehensive re-orientation that views students, teachers, and staff members as a “whole or total person,” with varying family, economic, and cultural issues; and motivation which derive from these particular circumstances. A new educational model is needed which recognizes that students and teachers alike require assistance to achieve success and to not quit on themselves or each other during the process.

In an urban school setting, where children are more likely to bring outside issues into the classroom, it is extremely draining for teachers who have to teach academics while struggling with students displaying behavioral deviance. Too much of this struggle will tire out even the best of teachers and will threaten the commitment they made to press students to succeed.

Thus, teachers and students need social workers and guidance/adjustment counselors to take emotionally and/or disruptive students aside to allow learning to exist for them and others. Teachers must be allowed sufficient recuperation time and training so that they retain the energy and commitment not to accept student failure. Caring about staff well-being and their learning and personal growth also must be prioritized.

Simply assuming that student will or will want to achieve great things in their own is insufficient. “Selling” the attributes and attractiveness of the learning process is absolutely necessary. Tying real world applications and career exploration to a student’s personal goals is essential for many students in order to get them to commit to learning and growing. We should use methods like Project Based Learning, which is a teaching method where students learn by actively engaging real-world challenges and personally meaningful projects. We need to meet students where they are in the learning process, sometimes with academics, sometimes with technical training, sometimes with emotional and psychological support, all to get students to buy into the learning process.

School environments need to support the well-being of its students’ and teachers’ with a multi-tiered curriculum and assessment. Developing social-emotional learning skills, and measuring students’ development on this scale with both behavioral support and progress monitoring is a radical departure from traditional curriculum and goals; but a vital change. A professional development commitment, however, is only useful if it is on-going and monitored to ensure that new approaches are actually practiced. Real changes in the goals of teaching and the measurement of these new learning objectives will require radical determination, patience and financial resources.

Moreover, teachers need more help from specially trained people to assist students in MCAS and SAT’s so that they can concentrate on teaching both traditional and innovative subject matter. Special Ed teachers need more time to do IEP’s.

Training in culturally responsive teaching is also necessary. The achievement gap for students of color should be seen as an opportunity to enhance learning to make up for past inadequate solutions and/or racism.

Further, civic education and voter participation needs to also be emphasized in schools. Religions of the world should also be taught in a non-sectarian way as the ethical constructs religion advocates should be taught as ideas to which religions adhere. Better food in the cafeterias is also needed.

A more nurturing, yet “excellence oriented” environment is needed, one which incorporates academic demands with emotional security and growth. The challenges of urban education are different than suburban education. Worcester’s schooling challenges are different in type than 35 years ago, as is true for American urban education in general. New, innovative ways to redefine learning and teaching must be found.

—Randy Feldman has been an immigration lawyer in Worcester for the past 30 years.