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Teacher Becky Peterson sets up her new fourth-grade classroom Aug. 30 at Lafayette Elementary School in Albany.

David Patton photos, Democrat-Herald

And so, just like that, another school year is underway (or will be in a day or so) in the mid-valley. It does seem as if every summer goes by faster and faster, and yet: How is it possible that students have apparently forgotten so much over such a short time? (We'll get back to this topic of the so-called "summer slide" in another editorial.)

In any event, given skillful teachers (of which we have an abundance), those students will be back up to speed in a bit. But with students flocking back to school, teachers and administrators and staff members offering extravagant welcomes, and parents and guardians breathing sighs of relief, this is a good time to reflect on all the many things we ask of our schools and what we can offer them in return. 

It's not really much of an exaggeration to say that education has been a source of deep controversy in the United States for as long as we've had public schools. The good news there is that we fight so hard over our schools because we understand how much is at stake. The bad news is that the continuing battles tend to be wearisome if you're caught in the middle — after all, it's unlikely that most of the people working in our schools didn't start their careers because they wanted to be on the front lines of the battles over national educational policy.

No, the people working in our schools started their careers because they thought they could make a difference in the lives of students. And, of course, they still do that on a daily basis. You can doubtless recall teachers who shaped your life. The very same connection between students and teachers is being forged every day in mid-valley schools.

And there's a lot more than that going on these days in every school, and that's part of the challenge educators face. Today, we ask our schools to help us solve behavioral issues with our children. We ask our schools to educate students in areas that used to be, for better or for worse, the province of parents. They are where students who grew up speaking other languages learn to speak English. Schools have become places where our children can go if they need to be fed — and, unfortunately, the number of students who fall into that category continues to rise. Schools have become essential resources, places of respite, for children who are homeless. Those numbers continue to rise as well. 

Of course, that's just a partial list. And then add to that the fundamental mission of schools — to give students the skills they need to function as adults in our society — and you can see why our debates over education are so volatile. To add an extra layer of challenge to that, it's not exactly clear what sort of skills students will need to prosper in 10, 20 or 50 years.

So this business of educating students, never an easy task, isn't getting any easier. But you can help.

For one thing, parents and guardians can set the tone for their children: School is important. Regular attendance is important. That message needs to be loud and clear to students, and it starts with parents. And research makes it clear: Involved parents are a vital ingredient for successful schools. If you have the time, consider volunteering at a school near you. If you don't have the time to volunteer, be sure that you're attending parent-teacher conferences and other school events. Make sure you at least meet the people who are teaching your children. Schools already are carrying a heavy load, but they can't do it alone: This business of educating our children is a partnership. (mm)

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