The first day of school is a big deal for most parents and students. Sometimes emotional when your kindergartener is going off for the first time. And sometimes a relief as your middle-schooler gets to take their awkwardness and fidgeting to a place where people are trained not to scream.

We videotaped every first day until our boys were of an age to revolt. When they got back home they were debriefed concerning new teachers, new classmates, subject challenges and the cost of books, activities and classes. At our house we appreciated the Augusta County schools our sons were privileged to attend.

While most are pleased with the County’s educational opportunities, some opt out. In Waynesboro and Staunton even larger percentages pick home-schooling or tuition required options, over their city’s system.

The Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service does an annual report revealing what portion of a locality’s children, ages 5-19, attend their public schools. Of Augusta County’s count, 82% are enrolled. This participation rate is significantly higher than the 72% for Staunton and the 73% for Waynesboro.

Significant if you believe each school systems could benefit from approximately 360 more students and the $2 million of state funding that would accompany them. And revealing when you consider how many parents are choosing the effort (though undoubtedly rewarding) of home-schooling, or the cost of private schools, over largely free public education.

More parents not choosing “free” should worry the School Boards and Councils of both cities. Schools are the mortar for the bricks building a community. Realtors will often cite a favored school district as an important factor in home sales. Industries will closely evaluate the local schools when considering new plant locations. Schools seen as less will impact the value of the entire community.

I believe in our public schools. I want them to not just succeed but soar. I once chronicled that a Buffalo Gap graduate now does cutting edge CRISPR research at Stanford University. But I don’t believe the county schools have teachers any more qualified, any more caring, than those in our cities.

Staunton and Waynesboro schools do have some greater challenges. Their school populations are under more financial stress as more than half are designated for free or reduced lunches. The impact is more students with needs beyond just education.

We, as a good people, want every child to be given a fair chance. So we challenge our schools to feed the hungry, shoe the shoeless, discipline the unruly, protect the threatened, and make allowances for every difficulty. And also teach to the test.

But the schools need help, especially in the areas where the tasks go beyond educating. They could use more tools for dealing with physically aggressive students and more support when confronted by particularly hostile parents.

The student who disrupts, speaks profanely, who has zero interest in learning, cannot be endlessly accommodated. While we can sympathize or rationalize why they may be acting out; we cannot sacrifice critical teaching time for the many because of the disruptions of the few.

Here the parents must be involved, early and often. And if the parents are damaged, inflicting damage on their children, this is for Child Protective Services or law enforcement to address not just the first grade teacher.

Schools will be better with fewer bad apples but they will also benefit by having more students coming just to learn. I encourage our schools to be more welcoming of home schoolers. If a student wants to attend an AP class beyond mom’s capability: open you doors to them. Reach out through their associations letting them know what is available.

(Of course we should expect state reimbursement for the work being provided. Let’s say 20% of annual state compensation for each class attended. It can be made to work for all.)

Reaching out to the home-schooled should be seen as smart. Putting up barriers to the Faithful, not as bright; if attracting more students is a goal. Staunton’s ending of WRE (Weekday Religious Education) was off-putting to many and attractive to far fewer. Certainly there are areas where having this program would seem out of place. But not here.

I miss the processes associated with school openings: the scavenger hunt for a particular teacher’s list of supplies, the new clothes, the small sleepy faces scrubbed up and sent off. If you still have the joy of seeing a little one off, I envy you and wish for your budding scholar a safe, productive, and crazy fun year.

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Tracy Pyles, a former chairman and member of the Augusta County Board of Supervisors who lives in Augusta County, is a columnist for The News Virginian. His column is published Sundays.

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