The documentary shows, students after student, harrowing stories of what kids endure outside of school that then shapes their approaches and successes in school. I could fill up this blog post with their stories, but my focus is on what the school’s program calls to mind for me, a teacher sixteen years in who has been inundated with initiatives for more data, more STEM, more apps and more results. The common chorus from administrators and some teachers is that we cannot control the students’ home lives, not matter how deplorable, and that all of our focus should be on the 6.5 hours a student spends at school and then how much “school” we can get them to do after they clock out.
Instead of retreating behind the threshold of the school house, Principal Viland and her staff grapple daily with what their students endure. Sure, they are unable to fix drug abusing parents or provide stable housing to chronically homeless students, but they engage. They sit down with students and talk with them about the obstacles outside of school; those obstacles are taken seriously by the staff and kept in mind with working with the students. The staff does not have all of the answers, but by sitting down with a student who is having a tough time because his mom’s new boyfriend is using meth in the house and bringing other dangerous individuals to “party” till 3am, the student knows that the staff cares enough to acknowledge the problem, trouble-shoot it as best as they can, and to listen. These actions tell the student—repeatedly—“You matter. We know what you are dealing with, and we are proud of you for being here.” How many kids in school ever get that that humanist support. In all of my travels as a teacher, I can name only one program that aggressively deals with the obstacles a student faces outside of school: The FOCUS program at Guilderland High School in New York.
What matters most to me from what I saw in the documentary is the school’s focus. Black Rock’s focus in uncompromisingly on the welfare of its kids. That welfare includes post high school plans and skills to be sure, but, in a very Maslow way, welfare needs to first deal with physical and emotional needs. Think about it: these kids come to school every day, in a system where they have never had success, where they have few proven skills, to work for hours where they rarely fathom how the material will be important later, when they come from financially poor homes (or after sleeping in a bus stop) where the allure of a minimum wage job is very tempting…and they do it. They do it, grinding out a modicum of success because their school is alive with a belief in them. At staff meetings, the discussion is not on AYP or testing or what the data shows about teachers “X’s” abilities. No, the focus is on the kids; who is doing well, who needs a home visit, who is homeless again and can we get them gift cards for food, who needs to be reminded that he can complete this program. Their talk was about kids…not themselves…and not data.
Data-driven decision making has its place in our grander school mission as we try to advance and evolve our collective practice, but we need to be very careful that we do not allow the focus pendulum to swing so far that we forget why we are here: for the welfare and success of our students. As the GOP is rolling back free-and-reduced food program for poor students, coupled with our increased reliance on technology to teach kids—which is a seductive surrender on ours parts—more pressure will be on kids who have little at the same time we are staking out ground that is further and further from them. It is a well-known lynch-pin of academic success that a student will make it if he or she has a strong connection with at least one staff member, one person at that building who they know cares, notices an absence, a change in friends, clothing, appearance, attitude and who can, from that vantage point, push the student to keep the faith and finish the race.
We need to keep in mind and then in focus that there are skills that transcend the common core:
1. Supporting each other: we need to model this and shows kids how to do it
2. Interpersonal problem solving: we need to teach kids how to deal with problems at home and with each other. A paucity of this skill will undo any amount of academic success.
3. Coping with simultaneous obstacles: we need to teach kids how to prioritize and solve multiple problems at once. We tell them that everything is important and to not fail to get it all done, yet we never teach them how. And, no, they are not learning this lesson at home because often their parents –like most of us, including me—at not good at this themselves.
4. Focus and perspective: we need to teach students how the tasks we give them add up not only to graduation but to a more successful and full life afterwards. We need to teach them how focusing on temporary obstacles (e.g. getting dumped, not feeling supported at home, not liking English) can derail progress on long-term goals. We demand that their life outside of our classroom not interfere with work inside the classroom. This is both cruel and impossible, especially when we do not try to teach them how to accomplish the Herculean task.