Teacher in a suburban school: “I can’t wait until Tuesday, I need the Thanksgiving break.”
Ed: “Tuesday, isn’t your school open on Wednesday?”
Teacher: “Most of my kids took Wednesday off, families flying somewhere for the holiday, visiting relatives, and a few days in the Caribbean, the school board decided to close on Wednesday.”
At the other end of the economic spectrum, in an inner city school, Tuesday was a thrilling day; a principal had a contact with a clothing company who donated fifty winter jackets to the school.
“We had to construct a consent form for the parents so they didn’t think their child stole a coat, the kids looked stunned, one of the kids asked, ‘Is it Christmas?'”
The school was deep in the hood, the principal tells me all his caregivers receive some type of public assistance, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) or food stamps, very few have intact families, usually a single female parent or grandmother or relative; its commonplace for a child to be shuttled from house to house. Some kids live in shelters, group homes or in the foster care system.
“We’re do lead the city in something,” the principal told me, “It’s homicides, plenty of my kids have someone in their family incarcerated, the only white people they know are cops, social workers and teachers, few have ever traveled very far from the projects.”
“For most of my kids the best meals of the day are school breakfast and school lunch, there are no supermarkets in the neighborhood, lots of Chinese take outs and fast food places, I thought about giving out turkeys until I realized that many apartments in the projects didn’t have working ovens.”
I told the principal about the school in the suburbs in which kids flew off for Thanksgiving. He replied, “I have to give the parent roundtrip metro cards to get them to come to School Leadership Team meetings – bus fare – five dollars is a lot of money for my parents.”
And the gangs, “All of my kids have some sort of gang connection, some are active members, others live in a Blood or a Crip building, gang membership is generational, kids belong to the same gangs their parents belonged to.”
Over the Bloomberg years the city created two categories of schools, “winners” and “losers” based on the geography of poverty and policies that separated the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
David Bloomfield, in Chalkbeat writes,
In his renewal plan for struggling schools, Mayor de Blasio has mistakenly fallen for a myth usually promoted by his conservative adversaries: that failure is the fault of individual schools, not the school system.
But the main reason the myth is attractive is because it is an easy way to avoid looking at systemic problems. Research demonstrates that the scale of New York’s “failing schools” is caused by district policies that lead to concentrations of highly mobile, low-achieving students. Too often, New York City has pre-determined “winners” in its school policies without admitting that other schools will lose in a trumped-up competition to cast the central administration in a positive light.
Inexorably, the city opened charter schools that attracted parents with greater social capital and concentrated poorer students in fewer and fewer schools; creating a downward spiral of low achieving schools.
Education Week, reporting on a study by the Center for NYC Affairs writes,
Poverty is not just a lack of money. It’s a shorthand for a host of other problems—scanty dinners and crumbling housing projects, chronic illnesses, and depressed or angry parents—that can interfere with a child’s ability to learn.
Researchers found that 18 factors in a student’s school and neighborhood strongly predicted his or her likelihood of chronic absenteeism and the student’s scores on New York’s accountability tests that are aligned with the Common Core State Standards. Taken together, these indicators create a measure of the “risk load” in each of the Big Apple’s elementary schools.
If you think about the community context, you would be able to better understand when students come into the school building, what they are carrying with them,” said Kim Nauer, the education research director of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, and an author of the study.
18 Risk Factors
The Center for New York City Affairs identified 18 school and neighborhood indicators that contribute to high risk in urban schools with high concentration of poverty. The indicators are intended to help administrators and policymakers find areas for improvement, such as high teacher turnover or student suspensions.
1. Students eligible for free lunch
2. Students known to be in temporary housing
3. Students eligible for welfare benefits from the city Human Resources Administration
4. Special education students
5. Black or Hispanic students
6. Principal turnover
7. Teacher turnover
8. Student turnover
9. Student suspensions
10. Safety score on the district’s Learning Environment Survey
11. Engagement score on the Learning Environment Survey
12. Involvement with the city’s Administration for Children’s Services
13. Poverty rate according to the U.S. Census for the school’s attendance area
14. Adult education levels
15. Professional employment
16. Male unemployment
17. Presence of public housing in a school’s attendance area
18. Presence of a homeless shelter in a school’s attendance area
The New York study also recommends that Mayor Bill de Blasio work with all schools to analyze child-welfare agencies system-wide in light of the indicators. “I hope it will be helpful in making [school] principals aware of the questions they should be asking,” Ms.Nauer said. “The whole endgame here is to make school as positive as possible for the little guys and make sure they are not in a cycle of failure by the time they get to middle school.”
I am not implying that poverty is an excuse; poverty is a culture that impacts the lives of children and families. Schools cannot be expected to thrive when the community around the school is in chaos. Yes, we need the finest principals and the best teachers, professionals that commit to a career, not a few years before they flee to law school or roles in school policy creation. The state has created examinations to separate the wheat from the chaff, to set a higher standard for prospective teachers; the problem is we have no way of knowing if the exams will produce that result. We do know that prospective Afro-American and Hispanic teachers fail the exams at a considerably higher rate than white aspirants.
The results of a decade-old study are disturbing,
… we actually know very little about how differences between a teacher’s race and those of her students affect the learning environment. This study makes use of data from a randomized field trial conducted in Tennessee to produce higher-quality information on this controversial subject than has been available previously. The results are troubling. Black students learn more from black teachers and white students from white teachers, suggesting that the racial dynamics within classrooms may contribute to the persistent racial gap in student performance, at least in Tennessee.
At the same time our political and educational leaders ignore the disparity in education funding across the state, children in the highest wealth districts receive the highest per capita funding, New York State, disgracefully, leads the nation in the inequitable funding of schools.
Mayor de Blasio’s emphasis on Community Schools is a beginning, not a solution. Until the feds, the state and the city change verbiage to deeds schools will struggle. A beginning is jobs. A beginning is removing the moats that isolate the poorest of our neighbors. The lesson of Finland should not only be the quality of teachers, the lesson of Finland should be the absence of childhood poverty.
The rate of childhood poverty in our nation is pitiable,
A new report by the United Nations Children’s Fund, on the well-being of children in 35 developed nations, turned up some alarming statistics about child poverty … the United States ranked 34th out of the 35 nations, beating out only Romania.
Governor Cuomo, sadly, fails to understand that blaming teachers, or tweaking the teacher evaluation plan will have no impact, aggressively leading a new “War on Poverty,” is the only path to severing generational poverty.
Thanksgiving is an American holiday, an opportunity to reflect on the bounties of our nation, and an opportunity to sit down at the table with our family and be thankful. Yes, sadly, some of us can fly away to white sand beaches while others shiver in cold of the oncoming winter.
Instead of seeking solutions our leaders are obsessed with test scores, an obsession that is pathological.
The Campaign for Educational Equity report, “How Much Does It Cost? Providing Comprehensive Educational Opportunity to Low -Income Students,” provides a pathway for schools, I suggest the governor and the commissioner commit themselves to a comprehensive approach that acknowledges that spanking principals and teachers or threatening parents is futile, the governor appears to be changing our state motto from “Excelsior” to Dante’s description of the Inferno, “Abandon Hope All Yee Who Enter.”