Saturday, December 29, 2012

"How Many of Your Kids Go to College?"

This is a question we get a lot from prospective funders, and even current ones, and also media types who want to boil a lot of what we do to an easy factoid to bring back to their bosses. Unfortunately, it’s too simplistic to ask this question or to analyze what we do according to this statistic.

What needs to be known first is:  What does it mean to be one of our students? 

If we take a student to get eyeglasses or tutor them for at least 4 hours in a 2 month period, then we consider them a student of RICH, following their progress and helping them as much as we can get to the high school finish line and beyond, if necessary.  If we tutor a kid but for less than four hours or assist a student’s class but don’t meaningfully interact with the student, then we do not count the student as one of ours.

There are approximately 100 truant students each year we try to get to come back to school.  Most of them have already made up their mind to stay at home and not come back, for various reasons like they have children of their own or their reading levels are so low they are too discouraged.  We don’t count these as “our” students unless they start coming back and receive tutoring or mentoring services.

When you add up the number of unique students we work with every year, it exceeds 300, such as kids we have in our math enrichment program known as “MATHletes”, kids who are in Cesar Chavez’s Saturday Academy, and all the kids we are helping keep up in their classes, like our ”Endangered Theses” program.  The vast majority of these students, more than 90%, say they are going to college. 

However, perhaps 1/3 of our students, particularly the graduates at Anacostia High School, intend to go to college but have reading and math skills at the middle school level.  Unless they continue to receive tutoring support, they will not succeed in college.  Financial obstacles can get in the way as well.  Paul Tough, in his brilliant recent book, “How Children Succeed,” outline yet other obstacles, the non-cognitive skills that students need in order to succeed.

Even our more proficient students at Anacostia High will say that we need to do less cheerleading for college than to give them the skills to succeed.  The last time anyone measured a cohort of Anacostia freshmen, Teach for America measured the entering class of 2000, that is the college class of 2008, and found that only 3% of those students have finished college.  The first graduating class of KIPP, perhaps the most successful high school network in the country for low-income students, in 2003, did about twice as well as the national average, with 21% students finishing college.  Considering that academic skills are not an issue for anyone graduating from KIPP, that statistic is alarmingly low.

So can we be proud that 90% of our students are going off to college?  Not really.  We need to continue with the basics of teaching reading, writing, and the math skills students need, as well as the non-cognitive skills students need as outlined by Paul Tough, and we need to work toward putting each of our students on a path to a livable wage, whether it is college or through a worthwhile job training program, like Year Up or the So Others Might Eat Center for Employment Training.  Ask us in one or two years how many students RICH has rescued from the college scrap heap and pointed toward a career beyond minimum wage jobs.

The Non-Cognitive Traits of Successful Students

In his brilliant new book, “How Children Succeed,” Paul Tough integrates some important research over the past few decades regarding how low-income students can better their chances to stay in college.  Tough, who withdrew from both Columbia and McGill and never achieved a degree of his own, helps explain that pure cognitive ability isn’t enough for students to succeed in college and in life.

Since 1994, the KIPP charter school network has become the paradigm for how to get motivated low-income students to improve their academic skills.  It was a shock, therefore, for the first high school graduating class of KIPP, in 2003, all of whom graduated from high school at or close to grade level, to flounder when it came to finishing college.  Only 21% of that graduating class has finished college, about twice the national average for low-income African American students but disappointing nonetheless.

Tough tells the story of how KIPP co-founder David Levin had to sit down and figure out how our low-income students can do better.  Simultaneously, teachers and counselors at all schools across the country began to examine how to better instill non-cognitive, or “character” traits in their students.  An ‘aha’ moment occurred when we learn of the research by James Heckmanof the University of Chicago.  Heckman found that kids who drop out and get GED’s later have virtually the same outcomes later in life as the pure high-school dropouts.  That is, the same underdevelopment of non-cognitive skills that prevents kids from sticking it out in high school come back and hinder them later when they need to keep a job or persevere, or adapt well to their environment. 

The question then arises:  What traits do we value, and can they be taught or instilled in our low-income students?  Levin collaborated for several years with Riverdale Country School’s head, Dominic Randolph.  Using research from multiple sources, Levin and Randolph arrived at the following seven traits:  grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.  Psychologist Angela Duckworth has devised a two-page questionnaire for teachers, parents, and students, to help evaluate students in these traits.

RICH is going to pilot a focus on these traits with the MATHletes and follow Dr Duckworth’s research on how best to improve these traits.  Only 3% of Anacostia’s class of 2004 graduated from college, according to Teach for America, the last time a cohort of Anacostia was measured.  In the meantime, KIPP’s high school graduates are holding steady in the 40’s, percentage-wise, for graduating from college, not far from the national average for all kids.

The Forgotten Homestead Grays

2012 was a year of rebirth of baseball in Washington, seven years after the official return of professional baseball after a 33-year absence.  The Nationals had the best record, 98 wins, in the National League, 17 more wins than they had ever accomplished before.  The first half of the year was a bit like the book, “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant,” which was turned into the classic musical play, “Damn Yankees.”  In the story, an aging player sells his soul to the devil and becomes a superstar, leading the Washington Senators to glory.  We Nationals fans kept having this feeling, “Can this really be happening?”

Then, in the second half of the season, two phenomena occurred that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  The Nationals have a fragile superstar pitcher, Stephen Strasburg, who was pitching after a long layoff due to elbow surgery whereby his ulnar collateral ligament was replaced by a tendon elsewhere in the body, so-called “Tommy John surgery,” named after the first pitcher to receive it.  Strasburg, the Nationals decided, could only pitch for about five months and then would have to sit down.  Unlike the Atlanta Braves, who delayed their recovering star pitcher’s return so that he was available through October, the Nationals engaged in obfuscation, convolution, and deceit to try to explain their strategy regarding Strasburg, which was to have him stop pitching with about one month before the end of the regular season and not have him available for the crucial playoffs.

As an adult, I could get over such poor planning and behavior on the part of sports executives, who should have just admitted, “We didn’t know we would do this well so soon.”  The second phenomenon to occur still hurts.  To the Nationals’ credit, they honor a controversial landmark year outside their Stadium, with a giant baseball with “1948” engraved in it, the last year the Homestead Grays won the Negro Leagues Championship.  The Grays split time between Pittsburgh and Washington throughout the 1940’s, but they almost always played in the Negro World Series, and they always outdrew the white baseball team, the Senators.  Both teams played at Griffith Stadium where Howard University Hospital currently sits.  Since Clark Griffith, the owner of the Senators, was the last owner to allow a black player, Howard refuses to erect even a marker to indicate where the Senators and Grays once played. 

Newspaper readers may not recall reading much about the Grays last fall when the Nationals qualified for the playoffs.  For some reason, every major news source I could find consistently stated that the Nationals were bringing postseason baseball back to Washington for the first time since 1933, for which a similar baseball outside Nationals Park commemorates the Senators’ last World Series berth.  I wrote about six emails to various Washington Post sportswriters and even the editor of the paper.  I got no  response.  I called the sports desk a couple of times to ask them if they knew about the Grays or just didn’t care.  (I tried to be nice.)  When I tried to correct NPR on their web site after they made the 1933 mistake, the comment was taken down.

It was almost as if the storyline of the first playoff team in 79 years was too good to pass up, that even talking about the Grays would be too complicated.  It didn’t matter that the Grays were better and drew more fans.  For the purpose of this storyline, they did not exist.  I can't help but think that this ignoring of black baseball is an another example of the disenfranchisement of African-American citizens in general.


Before I knew it, I had semi-adopted two teenage brothers who live two blocks away.  I first knew the older boy, identified as a top math student for our MATHlete program two years ago.   He is now an eleventh grader, and his brother is now a ninth grader.  When I moved into Anacostia last winter, I knew I would be closer to my students, but I didn’t know how close.

The relationship changed from merely student-teacher when the older one kept texting me that there wasn’t any food in their house, and could they come over.  Feeding picky teenagers is a new challenge for me, as my diet ranges from the Moosewood Cookbook to the Vegetarian Epicure with a little beer or wine thrown in occasionally.  Except for the Caesar’s salad (a “black” salad, the older boy jokes), I have not been able to get them to eat vegetables.

There is no TV or cable where the boys live, just two bedrooms for mom and seven children.  I have watched more BET in the last year than in the rest if my lifetime.  OTOH I have taught them both how to use Google as a research tool.  I have turned the older boy into a Nationals fan, which I consider a personal triumph.  I have gotten him eyeglasses, which he didn’t have for five years, while he couldn’t even see the board while squinting.  I have talked him in to staying with his high school football team, when he was dead set on quitting.  Now he wants to keep playing sports to stay eligible for football next year.  I am helping the younger boy, a 15-year old reading at a third grade level, with his homework every night.

What are the boys like?  They are smart, funny, football fanatics--one Redskins, the other Cowboys--and they make great decisions every day as they walk through a neighborhood filled with trash and not a lot of hope.

Fortunately the younger boy qualifies for a new tutoring program RICH is running at Anacostia High School for freshmen who are 5+ grade levels behind in their reading level.  I have been able to help him enough with his homework so he might even make the honor roll second quarter, which would be great for him but a strange statement for a system that promotes, year after year, kids who can’t read.

The boys and I discuss incentives like a cell phone or an IPod.  We go shopping for clothes they pay part of through their work around the house or if they learn a certain number of SAT vocabulary words.  We talk about learning how to drive on my car.  They go home every night at 10 or 11 pm, but they have become my surrogate sons.  I have taken them to Gettysburg, Philadelphia, New York City, and the Delaware beach.

Last June, the day before Father’s Day, the two boys, their older sister and female cousin all went with me to wait in line three hours before a Yankees-Nationals game.  When we finally walked through the main gate, we were a magnet for the Nationals’ photographers, who always ask for a picture when I come in with black children.  The next day, I looked up the picture on the web site.  Our photo, like all the rest, had a caption underneath with the words, “Happy Father’s Day.”  I can’t imagine the range of emotions each of them has on Father’s Day.  None of the seven children in the two boys’ family, nor the eight children in the cousin’s family, knows their father.  I told the two boys on Father’s Day I would be proud to have them as sons, although I realize I can never fully replace their father and completely fill the void in their heart.  They were grateful and are always grateful.

I can count on one hand the number of children we work with at Anacostia who has a meaningful relationship with their biological father.  These students have become the kids who were left behind, another reason Anacostia is thought to be a bottom feeder in D.C.’s public school system.  Their emotional and cognitive needs at times seem overwhelming.  Fortunately we have some tutors for RICH who aren’t going anywhere, and we can make a difference for those hearts we do touch.

"They Don't Care"

Every time America has a stop-dead-in-your-tracks tragedy like Columbine, Katrina, or now Newtown, I wonder where all the media are when a young black man or woman gets killed.  Two of our ex-Anacostia students were killed last winter, and you cannot find any substantive coverage of the murders in the Washington Post or any of our television outlets.  The lack of coverage actually prompted a local theater company, Pinpoints Theatre, to write a play about the subject.

Twenty-eight people were killed in Newtown, Connecticut, on Friday, December 14, with a weapon and purpose that the Framers of the Constitution probably weren’t thinking of when they conceived of the SecondAmendment. National media outlets, as well as our government and non-government agencies, are taking a long, thoughtful look at Newtown, and rightfully so.

But what about the dozens of African-American kids who get killed each week by gun violence?  Washington, D.C., has calmed down to a certain extent, but just two weeks ago there was a shooting in my neighborhood in Anacostia.  The Washington Post had one brief story but no follow-up once the suspect was locked up for other crimes later in the week.

In Chicago this year, more than 500 people have been killed in nearly 2,500 shootings.  National news outlets tend to visit only once per year to issue a report.  One exception is The Daily Beast, the news outlet formerly known as Newsweek.  Here is a particularly good report on the Chicago’s efforts to stem the violence: . Other than The Daily Beast, there is a huge vacuum.

Back home in Washington, I asked one of my students about the discrepancy in coverage.  Hundreds of young black men get gunned down in Chicago, and it is never on the front page or a lead story on TV news or internet news pages.  “They Don’t Care,” he says with equal part anger and frustration.  It is hard to argue with him, except to tell him that I care, and the hundreds of people who stand behind RICH care.