Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities

I believe I have a unique perspective of having tutored several hundred children of millionaires in the 1990's and early 2000's and several hundred low-income students since then.  After teaching and coaching at the Edmund Burke School from 1980 through 1990, I started a tutoring business out of the basement of my house.  In 2003, I heard a speech by Irasema Salcido, founder of the Cesar Chavez Schools , and my life took a right angle turn.  I founded RICH.

I still tutor for-profit students, although that will greatly decrease for the first time this fall--a subject for another post.  These students generally attend schools with spectacular facilities and equipment--new sports fields, parking garages, Smartboards, and fundraisers that can pull in well over $10,000 in one evening.  Our inner city public school students attend schools with teachers who are just as good as their private school counterparts, but there isn't always money for graphing calculators or even graph paper.  Heck, even plain paper can be hard to find at Anacostia High School, where the teachers have learned to bring their own paper to the copier. 

Inner city school buildings are slowly being transformed into modern facilities, but some of the renovations took many decades.  In the meantime, students have entered dingy buildings with poor landscaping outside and rodent infestations inside.

And what are the academic expectations of the students?  The private school kids are expected to do 3-4 hours of homework/night, or they risk being snowed under in their work.  A low test score results in an email exchange between teacher and parent.  Tutors are often hired, sometimes as preventative measures.

The public school students need only show up to get a B in most of their classes.  Very little outside work is required.  There are exceptions to this generalization:  some of the better charter schools, like Ms. Salcido's Chavez Schools, do get a fair amount of work out of their students.  Even so, an SAT subscore above 500 is considered high, whereas a score below 600 for a private student is considered low and might deserve free classes from the SAT prep class the family no doubt hired.

Almost all the students I tutor from private schools get a 4 or 5 on their AP exams.  Among public school students, none have earned a score that high.

How big a problem is this?  As our ability to spend for our most needy students declines, what should our priorities be in the next 5-10 years of public education for DCPS students?

1.  Facilities are getting better.  But we need principals such as Chavez's Daneen Keaton and Yvonne Waller who are holding their students to higher standards than they have ever had before.  If we can continue to find such talented principals, then schools can be led out of the wilderness.  Ms. Keaton's Capitol Hill campus has an alley to serve as its playground and virtually no greenspace, but it is hard to find a more cohesive school community.

2.  We are attracting young, talented teachers in unprecedented numbers, but they need to know they are not going to change the world in 1 year or even 5 years.  Thanks to Michelle Rhee and other reformers, we are doing a better job of ridding ourselves of inferior teachers, although DCPS has a long way to go before their teacher evaluation system, IMPACT, makes sense across the city.  (You cannot evaluate a teacher at Anacostia High School in the same way you would a teacher at The School Without Walls.)  We need to be able to keep good teachers longer than 2 years.  Give them meaningful professional development opportunities, and make them feel supported.

3.  We need mentors for many more students than we currently have.  The mentors do not need to have the same ethnicity as our students, but it would help if they are young and can relate.  At some of our schools, one quarter of the students have stopped attending on a regular basis.  We need to better connect the school community with the community at large, with more home visits by teachers and mentors.  RICH is doing a small part of this, sponsoring monthly Friday afternoon home visits by the dedicated staff at Anacostia High School.

4.  We need to follow these public school students beyond high school, keep up with them, talk to them, direct them toward a college or career path.  Whether they are in selective colleges, like some of our POSSE scholars, or in community college, pursuing their GED, or just watching BET, we need to keep track and stay on top of these students.  Just in the past two weeks, I have visited one of our POSSE students at Pepperdine University and also talked with and met more than a dozen students who are either in college or looking for something better to do with their lives.  We need to know about programs such as Year Up, which can redirect students toward meaningful career tracks.

All of these students are at-risk, but they are also at-promise, and their story can end as happily as their wealthier suburban and private school counterparts.  They need to know it does not matter what happened before, that they can control their destiny from now on and make something out of themselves.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Our Invisible Children

We at RICH work with students who overcome a lot of personal and emotional hardship.  They come to school almost every day, do almost all of their homework, are respectful, and earn spots on their school’s honor rolls in disproportionate numbers.  These are our immigrant and first-generation students, almost all of whom are from Central and South America.  At the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Capitol Hill campus, approximately 14% of the students were Latino when school started in August.  Now there are 16%, since 1/6 of the student body has left, but only a few Latinos have.

In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that immigrant students have the right to attend high school, regardless of their documentation or status, overturning a law in Texas.  They  wrote that the law was "directed against children, and impose[d] its discriminatory burden on the basis of a legal characteristic over which children can have little control," ie that children were brought to the United States without their control.

Today, most of our immigrant students do not have access to college as we know it.  Our high school graduates with a few thousand dollars handy can pay cash for out-of-state tuition rates at community college, without financial aid, and work their way through college, but it takes many years to just get through two “normal” years of schooling.  

Students do not even have to be undocumented to face this issue.  Students from El Salvador, which accounts for 17% of the immigrant population in the District of Columbia (Urban Institute), are in an interminable queue for permanent residency.  They can use social security numbers for work, but they cannot use these numbers to apply to FAFSA to get Pell grants, federal loans, or work-study jobs. In the District of Columbia, you cannot gain access to funding from DCLEAP or DCTAG unless you have filled out the FAFSA form.

The end result is there seems to be as many legal as illegal immigrant children virtually shut out from college access.  Attached is a survey we have made of the last four graduating classes at the Chavez-Capitol Hill campus.  Included are students who are legally documented but whose parents do not have legal documents.  These students also cannot apply to the FAFSA form.  According to these data, forty percent of immigrant and first generation children are affected.  If we extrapolate that to the entire population of immigrant children in D.C., approximately 3,000 of the 8,000 children are affected.  About half are in the country legally.

Amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, Mayor Gray has no clue that this problem exists.  Appearing on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi's show on January 7, 2011, Mr. Gray said, referring to recent applicants at the University of the District of Columbia, "There were very few people who did not qualify either for a loan or some kind of financial aid."

The D.C. City Council has also shown virtually no interest in this issue.  We have made several trips to the Council's offices, most recently to Council Chair Gray's Committee of the Whole last year, with no results.  The OSSE, which prides itself on providing information on financial aid, has shown little initiative in trying to make college financial aid more available to Latinos.

Lawmakers in Maryland have shown more interest than those in D.C.  Governor O'Malley is expected to soon sign a bill that would allow Latino immigrant children in Maryland, no matter their status, to pay in-state rates for community and state colleges and universities.  These students would still not get financial aid, but paying half-price out of pocket is better than paying full price out of pocket.

So what gives, D.C.?  Do we want to continue to disenfranchise thousands of innocent children?

Friday, April 22, 2011

He Was On Our List. They Are All On Our List

After eight years of RICH's existence, Garey Gordon was the first student of mine to die suddenly. As you can read here, his death was unnecessary.

Although Garey's death does not haunt me, I often ask why he died.  I think first of the facts:

1.  He was an 18-year old tenth grader at Anacostia High School who just barely passed geometry in the fall semester.  I had called his house in January to try to get him to do more geometry work to get his grade up to a C.  He seemed willing to meet me at the library to do this if he could get a ride from his uncle, but he did not show up.

2.   Garey stopped coming to school in February.  During this time, we at RICH met several times with the attendance counselor at the high school and other neighborhood groups to brainstorm on how to get more students to come to school.  The best tactic we came up with was home visits by teachers on Friday afternoons.  

3.  Garey was not the only truant.  By January, fewer than 60% of the students at the Matthew Henson Academy, the subset of Anacostia that he attended, were coming to school on an average day.  School-wide, there are approximately 200 students who have stopped coming to school on a regular basis.

4.  On February 25, about a dozen families had meaningful visits from teachers.  Other families were not home.  About half of those students started coming back to school.  Not a huge number, but a start.

Garey was on my list, but I did not get around to visiting him and his mom.  There are a lot of students whose parents I would like to meet to either tell them how smart their child is or tell them that their child has not been coming to school.  Time and money constrain me and RICH from visiting everyone we would like.  Most of the phone numbers we have for these students are inaccurate.

The word on the street is that Garey had eight friends at home at the time of the shooting, that there was an argument about shoes, that he was shot in the back, that he was propped up against a window to make it look like a drive-by before someone called 911.  He was shot by his girl friend's friend.

For the younger teachers, some who are less than half my age of 53, Garey's death was difficult to handle.  It is hard for them to fathom the massive financial and intellectual poverty in their students' community, and hard to appreciate the incremental progress that they are making with their students.  I like to tell them they are moving the ball slowly down the field, that they are building great relationships with the students who do come to school, but it is hard for them not to think of the negative outcomes they see.

Garey needed almost daily mentoring.  I did not know him well, but there is a reason most students stop coming to school.  They might be depressed; they might have to take care of a relative; they might not have any clean clothes; they might have an addiction.  The other 199 truant students at Anacostia also need constant mentoring.  Multiply this number by approximately 20, and you have, citywide, a rough number of students who are close to the edge of dropping out.

What happens to these dropouts?  The American Youth Policy Forum, in documents such as this , tell a grim story.  Half become incarcerated by age 35.  Deaths such as Garey's are not uncommon. 

Is RICH helping?  Yes, and that is what keeps me going.  It is a tremendous challenge to try to figure out how to best use our time and resources.  We are at war on this poverty, forty-plus years after LBJ popularized the phrase.

Another boy, whose initials are PH, is back in school because of our intervention.  When we visited his home, we found out his mom had not paid the water bill.  No water means no clean clothes, and while some students do not mind wearing the same pair of pants two weeks in a row, not every boy will do this.  Now, every time I see PH in school, I smile and punch him in his stomach, gently.