click to enlarge Setting kids up for success
Sarah Oglesby, left, director of programs for Compass for Kids, with executive director Molly Berendt.

Nostalgia makes for lousy public policy.

When I was in high school, my best friend's dad was outraged that the state of Illinois mandated that students be taught consumer education.

"My parents taught me how to calculate interest on a loan; why does the state need to mandate a class to teach something that basic?" said the father, who also happened to hold a doctorate in economics.

More than 40 years have passed since we had that conversation, but I can still hear the outrage in his voice. And I haven't heard a parent grumble about consumer education mandates for decades.

Today, controversy swirls around whether schools should be teaching "social and emotional education." I'll be honest, when I first heard that term, I didn't have a clue what it meant.

Often, they are called soft skills: the social and emotional tools that help students make good choices, manage their emotions, create positive relationships and collaborate.

According to National Public Radio, since 2021 there have been disputes over social-emotional learning in at least 25 states, ranging from legislation trying to remove the concept from school curriculums altogether to meetings where vehement parent rights' advocates denounced it.

It seems to have become the latest touchstone in the culture wars. I'm not quite sure why.

So, I spent some time talking to the folks with Compass for Kids, a terrific organization that works in partnership with Springfield Public Schools. There are programs to help youngsters after school and during the summer.

"Our goal is to set kids up for success in life," said Sarah Oglesby, director of programs for Compass. "So, we have dentists come in and teach them about oral health and the importance of brushing their teeth. We've had community partners come in recently from the local health department who have taught them about how germs spread and the importance of washing their hands."

I found myself asking the same question my friend's dad did 40 years ago: Why aren't parents teaching this?

Molly Berendt, executive director of Compass, explained it this way: "Just because a child is experiencing homelessness, or a child is in the foster care system, or a child is experiencing abuse or neglect – which is our population – it doesn't mean that they don't have caring, loving parents who want the very, very best for them and who are trying their best to provide everything.

"But there are kids who are experiencing neglect, and there are kids who don't know basic hygiene. ... We provide toothbrushes and toothpaste because sometimes not everybody has their own toothbrush. ... If you're not in relationship with people living in poverty, you don't necessarily know the hardships that they face."

And there is the rub.

The critics of social and emotional education usually aren't people living in poverty themselves. They are that reading-writing-and-arithmetic-only crowd who view any deviation from this mission as an apostacy.

Like it or not, with the rise of single-parent households, drug abuse and other factors, the nature of families has changed. It would seem some of those nostalgia-seekers would like to pretend that everything has stayed the same. But even having a meal together is no longer the standard for many families.

"One afternoon a week, the kids get to enjoy a family-style dinner along with the volunteers," said Berendt. "Because so many of the kids and families that we serve are food insecure when they leave Club Compass for the week, they leave with a bag of food through what's known as our 'backpack feeding program' that can help bridge those gaps when school lunch isn't available."

The most basic function of any society is to prepare children for productive futures. And that is just the preparation youngsters are receiving through social and emotional education programs like those provided by Compass for Kids.

Further, as a society we have developed a greater understanding of challenges we face. For example, in earlier generations autism was seldom discussed. Today, autistic youngsters benefit from social and emotional education.

One of them is 13-year-old Alex Haworth, who attends Franklin Middle School in Springfield.

"I am a child with autism, so it really did benefit me to be in the program," he said.

He said he was impressed when a wildlife rescue group came and spoke to Compass.

"I found it very interesting, because I want to go into zoology. So, I like to understand how the things work with the animals."

Later this month, Compass will expand from serving strictly elementary-school children to also helping middle-school and high-school pupils.

"I am excited about that because hopefully with this new program, we can learn more about choices that have to do with college and what steps we would need to take to get these choices done," Haworth said.

It's hard to argue with that optimism.

As societal challenges evolve and our understanding of how to address them progresses, we need to embrace change.

Scott Reeder, a staff writer for Illinois Times, can be reached at [email protected].

About The Author

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder is a staff writer at Illinois Times.

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