Parents, teachers should be tackling student unhappiness

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In Jay, as in many towns, students are regularly surveyed on all kinds of social issues. It’s important to peek into their world so we can better spot trouble as it unfolds.

In a study released last week, 92 percent of Jay elementary students say they enjoy going to school; 8 percent do not. In the middle school, 76 percent say they like going to school. By the time they get to high school, only 47 percent of students like school; 52 percent do not.

That’s a discouraging trend that is not unique to Jay.

Comparing Maine to national figures, we have teens dropping out of school at faster rates than the norm and fewer of them are working once they leave school.

The easy answer is that school gets tougher as expectations rise, but the reality is that these kids are unhappy for lots of reasons beyond homework and group projects.

Adolescence is tough, even for the more resilient children. It’s a confusing, confounding time when students are easily swayed by peers, for the good and bad.

The same Jay survey noting happiness with school also reveals that by the time Jay children are in high school, 61 percent of them believe their peers are having problems with drugs and alcohol. While a significant drop from the 66 percent figure teens reported last year, it’s still much too high for comfort.

Several years ago, in Shapleigh, middle school parents gathered for a Parent-Teacher Association-sponsored meeting to talk about the results of the annual Maine Youth Drug and Alcohol Use Survey. That survey, which students take anonymously, shocked parents with the number of students who admitted to smoking, drinking and using hard drugs in the previous 30 days.

If we look closer to home, about 30 percent of 7th-graders in Oxford County reported using alcohol in 2004; 18 percent are smokers and 12 percent have used inhalants. In Franklin County, the numbers are just about the same and, in Androscoggin County, the numbers are noticeably higher.

For a complete picture, log on to: http://www10.informe.org/maineosa/survey/home.php

Shapleigh has the right idea. What better venue to talk about students and their habits and happiness than at a PTA meeting?

The stated mission of PTAs is to promote children’s welfare, help parents with skills they need to deal with their children and to encourage parents to get involved in schools. What usually happens, though, is PTAs focus on raising money for playgrounds and other amenities and they never talk about what can really help their children: keeping them sober and smoke-free. If we do that, we will have happier children.

We encourage PTA members to research the drug and alcohol use statistics in their schools and use those frightening numbers to mobilize their communities to figure out if unhappy students are resorting to drugs, or student use of drugs is making them unhappy. For each community, the answer is likely different. But, without exploring the problem we will never stumble on a solution and our children will continue to grow increasingly unhappy between that first giddy day in kindergarten and their high school graduation, if they even get that far.

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