Our neighborhood met with members of the school board and administration last night. Our task was to keep our neighborhood elementary school open. The administration has some metrics that they work to achieve. These metrics are designed to provide a diverse and rich education to the children of our city. The administration’s argument is that, for them to provide a variety of programs, they need schools of a certain size. If schools fall too far under that size, then they cannot provide the programs and still stay within their budget.
This is a tough nut for any school system. City school systems are having their budgets cut as students leave for suburban schools. Poverty plays a huge role in the exodus of students. Poor kids have more academic problems and more discipline problems. It is much more expensive and time consuming to teach some of these kids. When you add the language challenges of new immigrants, “No Child Left Behind” requirements, and unfunded mandates, passed down from Washington, you break a school’s back.
Without proper funding to teach this pool of children, the city schools are destined to fall behind in academics. Failure in academics leads to an exodus of the “easy kids” and the cycle continues.
If you could devise a strategy intent on killing an urban school, you could find none better than cutting it’s funding. When you cut school funding, under the guise of reallocating assets to schools with better performance, you set in motion a dynamic of self fulfilling prophecy. Once students leave, the funding is cut more. What remains are the more difficult students with fewer resources to teach them. They, of course, struggle to meet standards, and more students leave.
On the other side of the equation, there are some schools that perform well despite these hurdles. Our elementary school is one of them. We have 53% of our students in poverty. 59% of the students are minority. Almost 30% are English language learners. Yet we have test scores in the top 10% in the state. Two years ago our school test scores were the third best in the state for English and second best in math.
How could this be? One word, “community.” We have a supportive community that helps the school with what it needs.
We are also a small school, and that might help. Every kid knows every other, no matter what grade they are in. The teachers know all the kids in their school and most of the younger siblings that will soon be attending.
In our school, when a kid is in trouble, the community steps in to help. Our community center runs after school programs to help kids with homework. It is staffed by grand parents, college kids and graduates who tutor. The community taps into the resources, and expertise of parents, for programs like the arts and music. We are sometimes too small to have these programs provided by the district, so we do it ourselves.
The school also provides a vibrant adult education program. While the kids are downstairs in class, their parents are upstairs learning English, computers, and finance.
Most families can walk to the school together. Our neighborhood may be inner city and, in places, poor but it is safe. When you go to our school it is not the white kids at one table and the black kids at another. At our school they all sit together.
This year, for Martin Luther King Day, my wife and I had to explain, to our son, why Rosa Parks was not allowed to sit in the front of the bus. He truly had no idea, and had wondered about it all day. We explained that it was because her skin was darker. He looked at us like we were crazy. We might have just said that Rosa Parks was not allowed to sit in the front because she was short, or had brown eyes. To him it was a revelation. What my son learned, this MLK day, was that adults can be very arbitrary in how they set up rules.
One day this Fall I picked up my son from school. He was on the play ground, squealing with delight, as two equally happy Somali girls chased him. The girls wore long skirts, hijabs covered their hair. None of them knew that most adults in America would find this scene stunning. I found it delightful.
Our school is very successful, because our community tries hard to make it work for all it’s residents. Some of us are poor and some are upper middle class. Our skins range from the deep black of Africa to the soft tones of the Middle and Far East. A minority of us are of northern European ancestry. Most of us grew up in America but about 25% are recent arrivals. We get a great deal from each other and celebrate our differences. Everyone in America should be so lucky.