Just when the stress of the summer season starts to ease up for most Islanders, it's a whole different story for teachers and children in the school system.
For them, the advent of yet another academic year brings with it the pressures of high-stakes testing and the inevitable conflicts that play out in the classroom or in the teachers' lounge. Put simply, school can be a tough place, and the top brass in the system not only knows it but plans to do something about it this year.
They've adopted a new theme and new program for the year and dubbed it, "Preserving Respect and Compassion for Each Child and Each Other." Already implemented in 400 school districts nationwide, the program will be a counter-attack on the cruelties that seem to come with childhood, such as teasing and bullying.
"Kids and educators are very stressed today," said school superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash, who added that along with higher academic accountability, there needs to be a "human side" put on education as well.
The program was created by two nonprofit organizations, the Cambridge-based Educators for Social Responsibility and a group founded by folk-singer Peter Yarrow called Operation Respect. Mr. Yarrow is best known as one of the three members of Peter, Paul and Mary.
And while tapping into this project does not technically cost the schools any money, the goal is to raise $6,000 to offset the cost of materials. In that effort, Mr. Yarrow is coming to the Island next Tuesday to give a concert at the high school Performing Arts Center. With donations from concert-goers, school officials hope to reach their funding mark.
The next day, the majority of Island teachers will undergo a crash course in how to put Mr. Yarrow's ideas into action. The curriculum is titled, "Don't Laugh At Me," and not surprisingly, the singer has also composed a song with the same title and heartfelt message.
But as this project gets under way, the question for school leaders is clearly why now and why the Vineyard? While Mr. Cash won't say there's an epidemic of bullying in Island schools, he does say that teachers are seeing enough of it that it needs to be addressed.
Mr. Cash traces the problem back to influences in the home and in the media.
"We have kids sleeping way too little: two, three, four hours a night. Families are under duress," he said. "And no one's putting the kids to bed on time. That's not all over the board, but we do see that."
Again, Mr. Cash returned to the word stress and the emotional fall-out that comes with it for Island families. "A lot of the stresses coming into homes can contribute to increased bullying, verbal, physical and other kinds of violence percolating in schools today," he said, pointing specifically to trash television shows such as Fear Factor.
While this year's new theme attempts to combat those trends both in the home and in the media, Mr. Cash said there are other social trends, ones that require Island schools to embrace differences and eradicate hurtful behavior like teasing. He pointed to "dynamic shifts" in the Island demographics. "There are new populations of children and families and inherent challenges with that," he said.
Besides the impact on children and students in the school system, a climate of stress also takes its toll on the adults, making the job of teaching much less enticing.
"We have a professional crisis looming in education," said Mr. Cash. "Attractiveness to the profession is at an all-time low. I'm seeing teachers thinking about getting out early and leaving the profession. I don't want my veterans to leave because I don't know if I can replace them."
Ideally, a kinder and gentler component to the school day could ease the emotional drain on teachers. But school leaders are quick to say they don't want this project viewed by anyone as just another add-on. Rather, they want to "shape the culture" on campuses Islandwide.
The curriculum guide that comes with the program is geared to all the grade levels and the adults in charge. "Adults will have to model it, too, by being polite and civil," said Mr. Cash.
And like recent strides to align the curriculum in schools across the Island, this project also has the potential for streamlining, ensuring that teachers use consistent approaches as they deal with the ever-present problem of kids being mean.
Mr. Cash said it will also mesh with a similar initiative already in the elementary grades called the Responsive Classroom, a program piloted five years ago in Oak Bluffs and now used in most of the grade schools. "All this will complement the psycho-social environment," he said.
Edgartown School principal Ed Jerome, who lobbied to bring the Peter Yarrow program to the Island, said the curriculum is teacher-friendly. "When a certain bullying issue comes up," he said, "a teacher can just turn to a page for support and bring kids together about it."
Mr. Cash shied away from describing this project with the common buzzword known as character education. "I don't like the term. I don't want schools being the primary ones to teach character and values to the children," he said. "That should be happening in the family first."