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.

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