'Children can't learn on an empty stomach'

Rick Wagner • Jan 2, 2020 at 1:30 PM

GREENEVILLE — Sullivan County’s school board recently had a spirited discussion about what the school system does for children beyond its core mission of providing them access to a quality education.

The system’s beliefs, in its strategic plan, include a statement that all children can learn and that the system should provide equitable learning opportunities for all those children.

Board member Jane Thomas kicked off a discussion at the annual board retreat when she talked about Title 1 schools, which because of a preponderance of students eligible for free and reduced meals, get additional federal funding.

“We may feed them at school, but I guarantee they all have a big-screen TV,” Thomas said.

Chairman Michael Hughes responded that he was eligible for and got free lunch when he was growing up in eastern Sullivan County.

“Jane, children can’t learn on an empty stomach,” Hughes said.


Tennessee School Boards Association Executive Director Tammy Grissom, who facilitated the meeting, quickly said school systems across Tennessee and the United States have single-parent homes and that the state’s opioid epidemic is a city-county government problem but is handed over in large part to public schools. She said in some rural communities, industries and businesses have all but closed, and public schools are “all that is left.”

“Societal problems have become the problems of public schools,” Grissom said.

She said a kindergarten student in Middle Tennessee spent a weekend with the bodies of the mother and father, who overdosed on drugs, and that a preschooler answered the door for a welfare check because the mother had overdosed. In another instance, she said a pre-K student missed the bus but rode a bicycle across town in heavy traffic to get to school.

“He wanted to go to school because it was the best place he ever knew,” Grissom said.

She recalled another time a first-grader held his mom in her arms as the woman died of an overdose.


Board member Mark Ireson of Colonial Heights shared the story of a Sullivan County friend who fell on hard times, losing his job. That made his child eligible for free lunch. The man contacted Ireson and said, “Would you please ask them to leave me alone?”

He said the man felt “the only reason you’re asking me is to make your system look better,” which Thomas said gives individual schools more access to Title 1 federal money, although it comes with strings attached.

Randall Jones said he understood the points of Ireson and Thomas but said that it is a fact Title 1 schools get more teacher assistants or aides to give children remedial help, something he said is needed at all schools.

“I’m not saying it’s good or bad,” Jones said. “Our kids shouldn’t suffer because of the politics.”

Hughes said, “I wish we didn’t qualify for them (Title 1 designations).”


Ireson said his father died when he was 5 and his mother raised the family without asking for or accepting public aid. Member Paul Robinson of Bloomingdale said his father told him in no uncertain terms how to get ahead in life.

“My daddy raised me if you want something, go get it,” Robinson said. He said the root of the problem is with parents, not the children.

“They’re going to think for the rest of their lives that handouts are there,” Robinson said.

On the state level, Grissom said the TSBA has wanted a meeting with Gov. Jim Lee for months on issues like poverty and opioid abuse.

Aside from state help in dealing with the societal ills, she said another part of the solution is that all students should have an IEP (individualized education program) to provide methods of learning that meet them where they best learn.

Among other things talked about at the retreat were a teacher pay and benefits study, a five-year facilities plan tied into the strategic plan, better communication of the school system’s successes including the possible hiring of a public information officer that would be partly funded with money freed up from recently ending a marketing contract costing $25,000 a year.

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