Friday, August 10, 2012

Thinking Numerically in Connecticut

Wondering if I ever will make sense of the world.

This fall I will have the fortune to work with incredible teachers and kids through professional development on writing funded by the National Writing Project. The school where we will work together is labeled "high needs" and  multiple obstacles stand in the way of traditional scholastic achievement: poverty, administrative turn-over, a state take over, poor facilities, and life on the streets. Yet, when I visited today, several incoming 9th graders were participating in a summer program to get a jump ahead on their freshman year. I was moved by their dedication, drive, and desire. The teachers and Build On were pumped for a new year.

So, why am I thinking of numbers?

Well, I'm saving gas because of a new car and consequently saving money. I have also looked up what my salary would be if I went back to Kentucky to teach with my doctorate. I would be making more than I'm making now. Of course, I also financed the new car and thinking economically (after all, I spent the last four years with little money). That is why  I'm trying to figure out how we (all of us) can have so much but so little at the same time.

Lopez Lomong posted on Facebook today, "Each day the average American uses 130 gallons of clean water, while 783 million people use as little as 5 gallons of unclean water." Whether this is an accurate account, I'm unsure. Even so, I thought about these numbers as I drove to and from the school where I'll do work. The haves and have-nots (Starred Bellied Sneetches) are ubiquitous in our country, too.

It is predicted that over 50% of the kids I visited today will drop out of high school (closer to 70%). It is noted that their progenitors at the school achieved the lowest Reading and Writing scores in the state (20 miles to the northwest schools achieve the highest numbers in the state).  The vast majority of youth at the school I visited are on free and reduced lunch, but all came there hungry to learn and know more about their world. Their reports state that everything Gallagher writes in Readicide is accurate - schools have killed literacy for these young men and women.

The teachers, too, are driven to help the kids succeed, but have endured the agendas of others who dis/respect their professionalism. So, where is the disconnect? The kids want to be successful, their teachers want them to be successful, and yet all of them reported stringent rules keep them from teaching and learning. Somehow, teachers are not given authority to do the work they want to do and students aren't given opportunities to pursue the knowledge they need. Is this a lack of money? time? leadership? This is in the U.S. and nowhere near the conditions Lopez once knew. I can't help but think Jonathan Kozol is 100% accurate - we have apartheid in America.

In a week I will visit my cousin, Mark, for his annual Hoops 4 Hope benefit to once again experience the incredible work he does in Africa. Similar to Lopez, he acts locally to support global efforts. Perhaps this is why I am thinking about many of the schools I've visited in the U.S.  and of my teaching in Kentucky. I worry that nationally we are not resolving the issues urban (and rural) schools face. I am thinking of Stephen Smith (2005) and how we might not only address the vast inequities of people around the globe, but even some of those occurring a few streets over or around the block of our own neighborhoods. I believe the National Writing Project model is a good start: invest in teachers as leaders and allow them to advocate their needs, their dreams, and their success stories of working with a heterogeneous nation.

This post is not only numerical, it's historical and political, too. After all, the 90 youth attending a pre-September institute for 9th graders chose to be at school during their summer vacation even when it was over 100 degrees in their classrooms and very difficult to breathe. I hope the enthusiasm stays with them, but numbers predict otherwise. I recall Oprah did a story on the disparities of schools in America and I know many of my friends and family contacted me thinking what she reported could not be true. I was shocked that they didn't believe it (because they have not visited such communities in the U.S.)

We can do better. We need to do better.

That is why I believe in the support of the National Writing Project (and chose a career to work with the movement in Connecticut). The teachers teaching teachers model validates the voices of educators and youth in school - it is not top is bottom up. It is best practice and it works. Politicians at the local, state, and national level should invest in teachers. That is the way to improve academic achievement in schools.

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