by Dr. Gladys I. Cruz
District Superintendent, Questar III BOCES

Last week, we welcomed thousands of children back to school. This can be a bittersweet time that triggers a range of emotions, from excitement to anxiety.

I speak from experience.

As a child, my family often moved between my native Puerto Rico and Albany, N.Y. This meant two different systems, languages, and cultures. In New York, I was limited English proficient, while I was limited Spanish proficient in Puerto Rico. School was difficult and, at times, I felt like an outsider caught between systems.

My life changed in fifth grade. Two of my teachers recognized my potential and encouraged one of their colleagues to give me time to improve.

In turn, I saw the influence of teachers on the lives of their students – and the power of education to enable me to accomplish things others in my family could not because they lacked the opportunity.

By the time I finished sixth grade I was one of only two high-honor students in my class. I just needed time, encouragement, and for someone to believe in me.

Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Fifty years later, I still remember how those wonderful teachers made me feel and how they forever altered my path in life. I see this same story with the time and attention local teachers and school staff provide to students – a job that is tougher than ever.

In education, we often hear “Maslow before Bloom” – or the idea that we should meet our students’ basic needs for safety and belonging before turning to academics. The reality is today we need to do both. A national survey released last month by Qualtrics found that only half of students said they felt belonging in school, so there is still work to do.

We have faced considerable challenges over the past 31 months. Some of our students still deal with food or housing insecurity or feeling disconnected or alone. School provides respite from things they may not be able to control or in some cases, do not understand – and the means to uplift, enable and enrich.

Or, in my case, a young girl with limited language skills obtaining a doctorate and becoming the first Hispanic female BOCES District Superintendent in New York State and the first BOCES District Superintendent to become the AASA President is proof that education can change lives and help one realize dreams.

However, it also demonstrates success cannot be achieved alone. It takes many working together. Thank you to everyone who makes this possible – our students, families, staff, board of education members, volunteers, taxpayers, and others. This community is critical in sustaining our public schools.

Ultimately, each one of us has a stake in our schools, whether we have children or not. What we teach and what our students learn define who are and what we will become as a society.

Our parents, guardians and caretakers are true partners in this journey and the research is clear on the importance of a healthy school-family connection. Students perform better if their parents or guardians are more involved in their education.

Today, this means looking beyond the walls of our schools and exploring and employing innovative teaching methods that address the needs of each individual student. It also means engaging students in the learning process so that they learn how to learn and become co-authors of their journey. After all, learning does not end in high school. Today’s students need to be capable of lifelong learning as the world changes around them.

Best wishes to our students, staff, and families on a successful school year. I hope you feel equally energized and excited for the new beginnings and possibilities as we greet our students with open arms, knowing that each one is unique and capable of great things.

This column appeared in the September 14th edition of the Register Star/The Daily Mail.

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