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Class Notes
Schools often are ‘extended family’
(Published December 2, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

A surprise box office hit, the independent film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, presents a compelling portrait of the power of family. One can't help but be charmed by Toula, the bride-to-be, and her throng of Greek relatives, complete with never-ending meals, flowing wine, profane translations and a grumpy patriarch who believes Windex to be the panacea for all medical ailments. During the wedding preparations, Toula's father's reluctance to allow her to marry a WASPy boyfriend causes her enormous distress, but it is also a sign of his genuine love and concern for her future life.

As the winter holiday season approaches, families prepare to reunite for similarly festive gatherings. Traveling by car, train and plane, relatives who may spend the rest of the year separated by large distances converge for celebrations of Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas and New Year's. The joys (and conflicts) of these annual occasions highlight the importance that families hold in our lives.

The structure of family in this country has changed steadily in the second half of this century. According to Child Trends Databank, a demographic research organization, the percentage of children raised by two parents has declined during the past 30 years from 85 percent to just under 70 percent. For whites, this number is currently at 75 percent; but among blacks, only 38 percent of children live with two parents. I was shocked last year in a substitute homeroom class when I looked at the student information forms which asked students to identify their parents' addresses and occupations. Of 19 students, not a single one lived in the same residence with their father. Two did not even know their father's name.

Teen pregnancy is actually on the decline in every demographic group in the United States, and is at its lowest rate in the past 30 years. Child Trends Databank reports a 9 percent pregnancy rate for all females between ages 15 and 19; but for blacks in the same age group, the pregnancy rate is nearly double: 17 percent. Half a dozen of my female students in the past year have had children, and all of them have been able to stay in school, thanks to in-home visiting instructors during their pregnancy. The joy of giving birth to a child is for many people the most important event of their life, and carries with it enormous responsibilities.

In most of the cases I have seen, the father of the child has provided no economic or emotional support, while grandparents are burdened with the bulk of care-taking, and the mother is forced to sacrifice opportunities to join extracurricular activities, find a job, go to parties and generally enjoy the many freedoms of an adolescent lifestyle.

Many of my students who do not have children of their own contribute significantly to childcare in their families. When I recently asked a student with a failing grade to stay after school, she replied that she could stay only a few minutes because she had to babysit her nephew - a daily ritual that occupies most of her afternoon every day of the week and often keeps her awake until after midnight. Some of my students miss school to take a younger sibling or cousin to the doctor or to daycare. When I hear such an excuse, I am torn by frustration and sympathy. The childcare responsibilities that some of my students undertake are more than any high school student ought to bear.

Research shows that the structure of the family has strong influence on the health, education and welfare of the child. Parents and educators need to respond to changes in the family unit and be prepared for the challenges these evolving demographics may have in store. The school cannot fulfill every function of a family - spirituality, morality and love generally lie outside its jurisdiction. But there are many functions of family that schools are equipped to provide.

First, as educational institutions, schools have a responsibility to teach all students about family planning and health, especially related to sex and pregnancy. We cannot tell students when they should have children or how many they ought to have, but we must educate them about the responsibilities and consequences that come with the birth of a child. Students especially need to be aware of the risks of sexually transmitted diseases and how these risks may be reduced.

Secondly, school traditions can help students place themselves in history. Just as older relatives in a family connect a child with his or her heritage, by studying and participating in the activities of ancestral societies, a student can find a connection to the past.

Finally, the family support that helps children build self-confidence and cope with misfortune can be strengthened by community-building efforts at schools. Organizations for athletics, drama, arts and service create support networks which can become an "extended family" for students.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, last week homeroom classes at our school created baskets of food to donate to needy families. Students in my homeroom contributed canned food, vegetables, bread and cake, and I added two medium-sized turkeys to our decorated box. In all, our school contributed 30-plus baskets for the effort. The donations did not go to anonymous recipients far away, but instead to families right here at our own school who otherwise might have had difficulty celebrating this holiday with a festive meal. My principal told me the story of one student last year who broke down in tears of joy after hearing the news that a donated basket would allow her family to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner.

I hope that more students will see their "family" at school make a difference in their family at home. In this holiday season, let us give thanks for families - of many kinds - that help us through the times when we could not survive alone.

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Wulsin is a second-year chemistry and physics teacher at the H.D. Woodson Academy of Finance and Business. Please send stories, comments, or questions to wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator