Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Optimist or Pessimist in Education -- What I've Seen

From Ash:

Do you remember that horrible school shooting -- I think it was last November? Right around Thanksgiving? What a tragedy – a 16-year-old boy shot right in front of the school while recess going on – hundreds of kids who were playing were now suddenly running for their lives. What? You don’t remember hearing about it on the news? But it had all the makings of network -- school shooting in broad daylight -- a fatality -- little kids screaming in terror --

But the teen who died was black. And the terrified little kids were black and brown. And it was the third murder in Mid City Los Angeles in a single week. In other words, it didn’t even make local news.

Not that I had expected it to. Because it wasn’t the first time I had children from that school sobbing in my arms after a shooting. No one wrote about that time, either. Not even me. Of course, I couldn’t think of anything to say except, “It’s gonna be okay, Honey” -- all the time knowing that was probably a lie.

Yes, I get to be the pessimistic one again. But a pessimist is just a broken-hearted optimist, in case you didn’t know that. At least, that’s what’s happened in my case. I was optimistic -- but now I’m broken-hearted, exhausted, and more than a little pissed off. In other words, a pessimist.

Actually, I’m -- well, comparatively -- optimistic about American education on the whole -- how far we’ve come in just a few decades. But at the same time, I’m terribly concerned -- over the fact that we’re also creating a permanent educational underclass.

Today’s Washington Post has a diary of a few high school students in a famously-demanding school with classes in quantum mechanics and a real observatory for astronomy class. I think I’m supposed to feel sorry for these overworked, overachievers ready to storm Harvard and MIT. But I don’t.

Because the kids I know don’t have homework on the weekends, because they aren’t allowed to take books home with them. The kids I work with don’t have pencils. Yes, you heard me correctly. Kids I know just sit in class watching the others take notes, because they don’t have anything to write with. Day after day, they get an “F” on the homework they didn’t do -- because they didn’t have anything to write it down on. There’s no special room in the gradebook for children too poor to buy paper.

Of course, whenever I hear about something like that, I quietly hand the kid’s mom all the cash in my wallet and order her to go straight for school supplies. But there’s only so much cash in my wallet . . . . And I know that there are a lot of kids -- millions -- just like them that I don’t even hear about.

The fact of the matter is that one-third of U.S. school children are poor enough to be eligible for the free- or reduced-fee school lunch program. 29 million children are fed each month. There’s a poignant WalMart commercial about a child who is hungry in his school cafeteria, so his friends give him parts of their lunch. In my experience, it isn’t just one kid -- it’s every child in the community. And the question isn’t “Who needs help?” The question is just “Which kid’s the worst off this week?”

The high school graduation rate has risen in recent years -- and the achievement gap between black and non-Hispanic whites is still there, but it’s narrowing: 80 percent of black adults have high school diplomas compare to 89 percent of non-Hispanic whites. For Hispanic adults, however, just 57 percent of them have a high school diploma. That’s a “less developed world” figure, people, that we should consider a national crisis.

Do we just write off almost 10 million people from ever having an education?

Apparently, the answer’s yes.

And do we stop this from continuing? At least save the next generation?

Apparently, the answer’s no.

I’ve been running a small, free, volunteer tutoring program in inner-city Los Angeles for about seven years now. And, well, I think “start a tutoring program” is pretty much a definition for “optimism.” Since then, we’re a ragtag group, and I basically suck as an administrator, but we’ve helped over 300 children -- some for just an hour or two, some twice a week for five or six years now.

Our tutoring “poster child” was flunking out of second grade when she first arrived. After just six sessions of tutoring, she found herself with the school’s highest score on the annual Stanford achievement test and the 98th percentile in the state. And she’s been at the top of her class in the seven years since.

Am I proud of that? Does all that make me hopeful? No. I’m proud of her. But, mostly, it just pisses me off. Because it’s proof of just how little it takes to change a child’s life around.

And we just aren’t willing to do it.

Everyone says, “We need to do something about our inner city schools” – but when you tell them about an actual opportunity to make a difference -- something as easy as spend an hour to help a child read -- they pretend they didn’t hear you.

We move to neighborhoods so our kids can go to better schools -- then we send our kids to even better private schools. And it’s not that I blame anyone for that: if I was a mom, I’d probably do it, too. Of course you want the best for your child.

But there are millions of kids out there who not only don’t get the best, they get shit. And I mean that fairly literally. Since some of my kids have gone to schools known for bathrooms that don’t have running water. The schools in the best parts of town are the best financed. The kids who already can have private violin lessons get more of these riches in school. My kids need the best school twice as much because they don’t have those resources anywhere else.

In some ways, that the poverty and poor education is so pervasive, perhaps it’s a blessing, because the kids don’t know how bad off they are. Until, that is, they accidentally brush up against the rest of the world. A high schooler I know started crying when an actress asked if she could learn the girl’s pronounced barrio accent: the girl had never before known she had an accent. And more than once a child has come back from a miserable time in Mexico, because they were openly laughed at for how badly they spoke “their native tongue.” I took a promising young 8th grader to a private high school that I knew gave full scholarships. Instead of being thrilled by the school’s endless resources, he was just intimidated by the rich, white faces around him and got the Hell out of Dodge as fast as he could.

So we just lower our expectations. If they don’t write themselves off, we do it for them.

One angelic tiny kindergartner absolutely refused to learn to read. When we asked why, she said it was because her teacher had told her that brown people didn’t need to read anyway.

No, I’m not very optimistic today.


Anonymous tirzah harper said...

Ashley, if you weren't optimistic at some deep level that you really *can* make a difference, you would have quit your volunteer work long ago and gone over to the corporate world of the god of big bucks.

12:28 PM  

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