Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Alma Mater

"There’s a land of rushing water
where once a forest grew
And the dark trees trailed their branches
in the river’s dusky hue.
There the BEAVERS built their houses
in confidence serene.
And the sunset was the orange
and the forest was the green."

That's my high school's alma mater - Beaver River Central School.  The home of the Beavers.  When I was a kid, I was never impressed with our school colors or our mascot - not very impressive in some eyes.  But something changes when one graduates.  If my blood wasn't orange then, it certainly is now.

I attended BRCS from Kindergarten straight up through my senior year.  I never knew another school, another building, other teachers, other programs.  Beaver River was my life.  It still is.

You see, in addition to my siblings and me, my husband graduated from there ... as did his siblings, and my parents, and two of my grandparents.  A third grandparent even received an honorary diploma there several years ago since he wasn't able to finish high school due to his service in WWII.  One grandfather and my father each served on the Board of Education in past years.  Today, my three children attend the school and my husband and sister-in-law are two of their excellent teachers.

So you see, I really do bleed orange.

I realize all schools are facing challenges right now.  Budget cuts are everywhere.  But it always hurts more when it hits home.  Yesterday, home was hit.

Notifications were made to 19 faculty and staff that their positions will likely be cut.  Nine others were told that their positions would be cut to half-time.  That's 25 adults losing their job or significantly taking a cut in their salary.  25 may not sound like a lot to you.  For us, a school with less than 1000 students, that's HUGE!  Roughly a third.

You see, we live in a very rural community.  Our school houses K-12 in one building.  And because of our rural locale, this school is an integral part of our daily lives in this community.  This school is not just a school.  This school is our home, the students and staff our family. 

And what happens when your family is attacked?  You fight.  You fight to protect and to save.  You give all you got.

I don't "got" much.  (That's the way a lot of us talk around here.)  "We don't got much."  But today I have my words.  My thoughts.  My prayers.  So that's what I'll give.

Today I wrote my first letter to the editor, my first letters to my government officials and agencies.  This is not me.  And it's not something I should be proud of (the fact that I've never done it before).  But my family is hurt and I need to fight.  I don't know if my words will be read.  I don't know if they will be "heard" or understood or considered.  But I need to do something, right?

To Whom it May Concern:

That’s such a cliché … to whom it may concern. Especially when it seems the concern isn’t there. Which is the reason for this letter.

I am writing to you regarding the impending crises of the Beaver River Central School community. I realize that school districts everywhere are facing some of the same situations. But I am asking you to use your position and your voice to help us; those of us here in a small community in northern New York that most of your colleagues have never even heard of.

I am proud to be a Beaver River graduate, as are my husband, my siblings, my parents, and my grandparents. Our three children now attend Beaver River and my husband and sister-in-law are two of their excellent teachers.

Because of the size of the size of our community, Beaver River in an integral part of our daily lives. Much of our social life revolves around the school. Concerts, sporting events, benefits, and various other activities.

One such event that will forever remain in my heart concerns my immediate family in particular. Last fall, I was planning a benefit to raise money for medical expenses for my sister who was going through chemotherapy in Virginia. Less that one week before the benefit was to be held, my sister had a cardiac arrest and my brother and I immediately left with our father to be by her side. (My mother was already there.) My husband and sister-in-law graciously stepped in to finish organizing the benefit in my absence. But more importantly, countless teachers and other Beaver River staff members stepped in right along side of them. So many helped plan and organize and set-up and serve the meal and count the money and contact winners of the silent auction. They did not have to do this. It was not their family in need. But in a way it was, because we ARE family in this district. And that’s what family does: they support each other in times of need.

There are less than 1000 students K-12, but that doesn’t mean we have less heart or less need. Our students, faculty, and staff are just as important as any other.

As it stands now, approximately 25 faculty and staff have been notified that their position will be cut either entirely or to half-time. 25 – that’s roughly the equivalent of our entire elementary teaching staff. We are losing administrators, teachers, assistants, and support staff; from elementary, middle school, and high school; in all program areas, including the core courses.

Our school is losing excellent educators. Our community is losing friends, family, and tax-payers. The economic ripple effect of this will be never-ending and far-reaching.

More importantly, though, our students are losing favorite teachers and mentors and programs that they love. Music, art, ag, and tech classes, sports – they may be the “extras” that can be most easily cut, but for some of our children, they are the incentive for going to school in the first place, the one thing that they feel they are good at or find enjoyable.

I remember over 20 years ago, being involved in a student “sit-in” in the pool lobby of Beaver River. The budget must have been in a similar state and our entire sports program was threatened. I was too young at the time to really understand, but now as I look back, someone noticed us. Someone took another look, a harder look. Someone took the time and energy to find another way. Someone helped us to keep the sports program that we so dearly loved.

We need someone again. We need to be re-assessed. We need to be taken off the “wealthy” list, because anyone knowing this area even a little bit knows that is not the case. I realize this takes more money that the state does not seem to have. But the effects would be so worthwhile. Stop spending money in useless places and put the money where it matters. (For instance, no one in the north country needed a grant study to learn that if more maple trees were tapped, maple producers could earn more money. A five-minute conversation with any local maple producer would have given the same results.) Someone somewhere can make the decision to use our money more wisely. Someone needs to step up and do the right thing and stop worrying about political agendas.

There are so many other places that cuts can be made. Please don’t make them in our education system. Our children need us to support their future … they ARE our future.

Please be that person or organization or government official. Please help save our teachers and our staff and our programs. Please help our community. Save our school.


Erika L. Smith
Beaver River Family Member

Our students are also stepping up.  The support I've seen come from them in the last 24 hours has been amazing!  Signs, banners, posters, streamers.  Their motto has become SOS ... Save Our School.  So many wore white T-shirts today decorated with those letters - my kids included.  The most amazing ones also mentioned on the back that "our God is greater" than all of this.  And He is.  We need to remember that.  We need to count on that.

There was one shirt, though, that made me sad as I saw streams of them in the hallways this morning.  One high school boy had the SOS on his shirt just like the others, only his first "S" stood for "sink".  My own heart sank reading it.  Given all the emotion he must have seen yesterday, I can't imagine what kind of heart he must have to make and wear that. 

I wanted to ask him what his dream was to be when he grew up.  Then I wanted to tell him that the teachers he sits with every day had a dream, too.  Their dream was to become a teacher, his teacher, and to touch the hearts of kids just like him.  To touch their hearts and train their minds.  To teach and guide and mentor and encourage them to become everything they want to be.  To reach for their dream! 

I hope someone will be bolder than I was this morning.  I hope someone will gently encourage him to reconsider his statement.  And I hope that he does.

Because these teachers, these administrators, these assistants and other support staff ... their all feeling like their dream has been ripped out of their hearts.

Save Our School.  And if you don't live here in our district, do something to save yours.