A Quiet Crisis

March 24, 2014

North Dakotans are a hardy bunch! We have to be. Not only do we have to put up with some of the most radical weather changes in the lower 48 states, but we are required to hold up under all kinds of psychological onslaughts.

The latest dig in a long history of digs comes out of the mouth of Charles “Sir Charles” Barkley. Saul Phillips, the North Dakota State University head basketball coach, wept during the press conference following NDSU’s defeat in the 2nd round of the NCAA “March Madness” Basketball Tournament at the hands of San Diego State University. Phillips’ emotions at the news conference were in stark contrast to the upbeat persona he had displayed prior to the defeat. In seeking to explain Phillips’ emotions in defeat, Barkley for the most part articulated a heartfelt understanding of the deep camaraderie shared by those seeking and working toward the same dream – to win a national basketball championship.

But predictably, at least to North Dakotans who happened to be listening, his speech did not end there. Barkley added at the end of his soliloquy another justification for Phillips’ shedding of tears. Barkley said, “He is not crying because of the loss. He is crying because he has to go back to Fargo! Wouldn’t you cry if you had to go back to Fargo?”

I have to admit; I hardly reacted when I heard Barkley’s punch line. Why? My reaction was part North Dakotan stoicism, part expectation, and part Phillips getting what he deserved. Huh? Hey, we North Dakotans don’t act like Phillips. Bouncing around, telling jokes, making faces only seen on circus clowns! I mean, let’s be realistic; we North Dakotans are reluctant to overtly greet each other even when asked to do so by our ministers during a Sunday church service! Saul Phillips a typical North Dakotan? Hardly!?

We North Dakotans know how we are to act. We know we must show little animation and no emotion! We aren’t, after all, New Yorkers! Or heaven forbid, Californians!

So…it should come as no surprise to anyone that a current crisis in North Dakota is quiet. That little is said about the crisis. That few questions arise to address it. That there are few, if any, who wish to tell the story, and even fewer who are willing to listen.

What is this crisis?

Small, rural schools in North Dakota have reached a critical time in their history. It is a time of great danger for them, their students and their communities. It is a time when North Dakotans’ decisions about this crisis will determine whether bad consequences will follow.

The causes for the crisis are as complex, as they are numerous. But like in most crises, it would do little good to address the causes at this time. Now is not the time to seek out the root causes. Now is the time to confront the crisis. Now is the time to admit there is a crisis. Now is the time to do something about the crisis. Later, we can seek out root causes, and make permanent changes.

The crisis is that small, rural schools are in trouble. What kind of trouble?

Small, rural schools are struggling to find highly qualified teachers who are willing to apply for the teacher openings the small, rural schools have available. This situation might be expected in some of the hard-to-find subject areas like Math and Science, but the lack of qualified applicants is not restricted to those areas. The shortage of qualified applicants now extends to every subject area and every grade level. Small schools that had been working hard just to provide the standard courses required for graduation and perhaps a limited amount of electives, are now in some cases unable to provide the electives, and in the most severe cases, are unable to provide the required courses.

But that only tells part of the story. The crisis is made worse due to the lack of help. If a small school can’t find a teacher, to whom can it turn for help? What resources (money and services) are at their disposal to address the crisis?

It doesn’t take a small school long to understand that there is no cavalry coming to help. It doesn’t take long to understand that for a small school (or large school, for that matter) in North Dakota, you are on your own. And if you should be so bold to ask for help, you may achieve more hurt than help. Case in point – it became very clear to a few, bold souls who had the audacity to speak to the North Dakota’s legislative leadership last session about the crisis, that the Legislature’s help would not be forthcoming, and that a different agenda was afoot. One of the leaders quipped, “There isn’t a shortage of teachers in North Dakota; there is an overabundance of schools!” For those from small schools, the legislator could just have easily replaced his words with those infamous words from history – “let them eat cake.”

So…the crisis remains quiet. We North Dakotans don’t cry; we don’t whimper; we don’t scream and yell. To do so would not be stoic. To do so would not be North Dakotan, especially rural North Dakotan.

And good Christians that we are, we know better than to covet the several billion dollars available in our state’s treasury. We know it would not be right for us to go to the state capitol to demand academic equity for all kids in North Dakota, regardless of their locations and regardless of the cost. What would our fellow North Dakotans think?

Barkley didn’t know about the quiet crisis in North Dakota. If he had, and had Saul Phillips’ first grade child attended a small North Dakota school that could not find a qualified first grade teacher, his quip would no longer have been humorous. If he had known, he might have appreciated that the truth is sometimes very sobering. He might have recognized that sometimes humor only covers up a dark and nasty truth. What did Twain say? “There is no humor in Heaven.” Humor isn’t needed in Heaven.

I love North Dakota from the bottom of my heart. But regarding our collective treatment of small schools in crisis, I cannot love our actions.

For its part, NDCDE has pledged that it will do everything it can possibly do to help small schools at this time of crisis. It will do so without reservation and without judgment. And it will do so, while remaining present for the rest of the schools in ND that are not small. NDCDE believes we North Dakotans (as well as Minnesotans and South Dakotans, and Montanans, and all the rest) can stick together in times of crisis, and that we achieve better results when we do. NDCDE knows this first hand, because NDCDE has recently experienced, and has worked its way through, its own crisis. It is stronger today than it was yesterday, and so it will continue. NDCDE will use that strength to help others find their strength.

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