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It’s the end of August and new academic years are opening across the United States.

Like my own 5-year-old granddaughter, Jasmine, preschoolers and their families will experience the laughter and tears that are part of the rites of passage, as children take their first steps into a new world. Little girls and little boys move from the familiar surroundings of home, childcare centers, or baby-sitters into preschools like St. Helena Primary.

These days, the infectious laughter of third-, fourth- and fifth-graders on the playgrounds of St. Helena Elementary School can be heard all the way to Main Street. Crowds of kids, not yet jaded by their school experiences, greet old friends and new teachers with hugs and stories of carefree summers. Principal Andy Cline welcomes new and returning Dragons, with a bright smile and a staff of dedicated teachers.

Over at the beautiful RLS campus, rapidly maturing (and barely awake) middle schoolers are dropped off by parents, who strain for responses to their repeated good-byes, or reach for a now-awkward kiss that was always part of earlier morning curbside rituals.

At St. Helena High, young men and women arrive for the first days of school, wearing their studied nonchalance and teen coolness with the same casual flair as their fashionably tattered clothes. High school students continue on their journeys of learning, growth and development in an environment that blends the accomplishments of a homogeneous suburban school and the challenges of a diverse high school.

At times like these it seems important to ask, “What’s It All About?”

As an on-campus educator for nearly 30 years, I know it is easy to lose sight of the primary role our schools play in the lives of the young people and communities they are meant to serve. There are the never-ending struggles to find resources in tough economic times, as well as efforts to develop a challenging curriculum, but one that responds to our students and community as they are rather than as we might wish them to be. There are also the politics that are part and parcel of any organizational venture that includes human beings.

At times like these, it’s important to recall that schools are not just in the education business, they are also in the dream business. It is in St. Helena’s schools where girls and boys grow into young women and men who imagine the lives they want to live. With the support of their parents, families, teachers, and peers they come to develop the plans that can make those dreams come true.

Long ago, the American author and historian Henry Adams observed, “Teachers touch eternity. They never know where their influence stops.”

Certainly, instructional faculty are formally designated as teachers; however, there are many others in the campus community who are also educators and/or who contribute to creating an environment wherein students can move toward their personal, educational and other goals.

Teaching well done takes place primarily in classrooms, libraries and laboratories. However, meaningful lessons are also taught and learned in counseling offices, career centers, on the courts and playing fields, and in community service programs.

Furthermore, when people talk about how beautiful St. Helena’s schools are, they are talking about the people who mow the lawns, clean the classrooms, paint the buildings, and make sure the lights and heat work.

When parents and community members talk about how caring and friendly the schools are, they certainly are referring to our teachers, counselors, and coaches. Just as often, however, they are talking about the administrative staff who answer the phones, greet them when they visit, and help resolve everyday problems.

St. Helena Schools also enjoy a remarkable level of support and involvement from parents, family and other community members. As it takes a village to support parents and families to raise their children — our children — it takes a community, working together with our schools, to educate those children.

This is the primary work of our schools. Let us never lose sight of the dream business, which is what education is and should always be about.

(Tom Brown is a St. Helena resident who served as a dean at Saint Mary’s College of California for 27 years. He currently is a consultant and speaker at colleges and universities that are seeking to keep more of the students they enroll. Send comments, questions or suggestions for future columns to: thedean@tbrownassociates.com).

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