I like to keep my classroom rules fairly straightforward:
1. Be polite.
2. Show up on time and ready to learn.
3. Healthy snacks only: no soda, chips, candy, etc.
Rule No. 1 is pretty easy to follow. Most kids are nice and want to be polite, even if they donít always know how. But rules two and three really challenge them. Unfortunately, our school district has a policy that makes following rules two and three nearly impossible, particularly for freshmen and sophomores: open campus.
If you ever wondered why there were so many young teens wandering around Durango during the school day, open campus is the reason. All Durango High School students, freshmen through seniors, are allowed to come and go at lunch as they please. Not all kids leave the school for lunch. Some bring food from home and sit and chat or study in the halls and library or with their favorite teachers. About 220 take advantage of our fantastic cafeteria each day, which offers tasty, healthy (and often locally grown) food at incredibly low prices Ė just $2.85 for a lunch. But most kids leave campus by foot or packed into cars and buy food somewhere else. This policy is cherished by the students of DHS, some of their parents and especially by nearby fast food restaurants and gas stations. But it is detrimental to students and makes rules two and three on my classroom list very difficult for lots of kids to follow.
Recently, for instance, I taught a class right after lunch with 29 enrolled students. Eight of them were tardy, and six never bothered to show up at all. Itís nearly impossible for a sophomore without a car to get to a fast-food restaurant on foot, eat and get back to school on time. Itís almost as difficult for one with a car.
Two of my students who werenít late walked into my classroom toward the end of lunch today. ďCollins, is it OK if we eat in here?Ē they asked. They were carrying two enormous tubs of fast-food fried chicken and two 64-ounce sodas. The chicken was bad enough, but 64 ounces of soda? Thatís crazy. Drink that much soda and then try to learn history afterward? Not going to happen.
Many parents are reading this and thinking, ďHmmm, I would never let my child drink a 64-ounce soda. Those poor children must have awful parents!Ē But youíre wrong. These kids have good parents who give them $20 at the beginning of each week to buy healthy, soda-free lunches at school. But these boys are 15 years old, have typically underdeveloped frontal lobes and $40 burning a hole in their pockets. So what do they do? Buy $36 worth of fried chicken and soda on Monday.
I wish that was the worst of it, but itís not. Many kids, particularly underclassmen who canít drive, buy ďlunchĒ at the gas station. This ďlunchĒ often consists of a 16-ounce energy drink and a bag of chips or a candy bar. That energy drink contains about 340 milligrams of caffeine and 110 grams of sugar. How much learning happens after a kid consumes one of those? And if that were the worst thing that an unsupervised 15-year-old consumed during lunch, we might still be OK.
But it gets worse still. A very few drink alcohol, a few more smoke pot and a few more smoke cigarettes. None of this is healthy, and none of it is conducive to learning.
What can parents do to make sure their kids make good choices during an open-campus lunch? Virtually nothing. Unless you come to school and eat with your student or have remarkably obedient kids, they are on their own out there, free to make good or bad choices that have real and immediate consequences on not only their ability to learn, but their health and safety as well.
Luckily, there is a simple, albeit unpopular, solution: close the campus, at the very least, for freshmen and sophomores. It presents some logistical issues, but no issue that hasnít been dealt with successfully by thousands of other schools across the country. We all want our kids to have some freedom, to make positive choices, to be responsible. But 14- and 15-year-olds donít do this very well yet; thatís why they arenít adults.
Itís time for us to be the adults now and recognize when enough is enough.
Elizabeth Collins teaches social studies at Durango High School. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.