This summer, I started working for an organization called Citizen Schools. We partner with middle schools across the country to help them expand their learning day. Through a “second shift” of educators and a corps of volunteers, we enable schools to offer their kids more time and different content than they get during the regular school day.
Before Citizen Schools, I often relied on statistics to understand what was going on in our schools. Only about half of the students in our urban public schools graduate from high school. On the whole, we send kids to college at about the same rate as comparable nations, but if you were born to the bottom 25% of earners in America, your chance of going to college is only about 7%. As a country we perform about as well as Slovakia in science, and we are, at best, in the middle of the pack in math and reading.
Among a whole bunch of other things I do at Citizen Schools, this fall I taught sixth graders at the Garfield Middle School in Revere, MA once-a-week. My class – an “apprenticeship” in Citizen Schools lingo – was called Imagine Mars! (exclamation point included), and the premise of it was that our class would be the first human settlers of Mars. Through this storyline, we learned some biology, some physics, and some planetary science. We also learned a lot about working in teams and giving presentations.
My experience at the Garfield breathed life into all those statistics from the paragraph above. My 18 students – only half of whom are statistically likely to graduate from high school – came from a wide variety of backgrounds and brought a wide spectrum of skills to the classroom. They learned at different rates, and all had different strengths and weaknesses. Some days we made a lot of progress; other days it felt like we were going backward.
What struck me most was the number of my students who would be the first in their family to go to college and how long I’ve taken something like college for granted. I’ve always known what college is, why it’s important, and what it takes to get there and beyond. Where somebody just put that knowledge in my head before I had a care in the world, my students had to learn all of that stuff at the same time as they were trying to digest facts about the composition of Martian soil and understand the effects of low atmospheric pressure on the human body.
Trying to tackle both of these things at once was hard. It was hard for me, and it was hard for them. But it was also vital. Without someone to show you where it can take you and how it’s connected to real life, school has no meaning and nothing to offer you.
So now that I know all these statistics and I’ve met all these kids, where do we go from here? Well first, the urgency of the challenges we face in education has never been clearer to me because now those challenges are faced by kids I know. Kids named Nelson and Dzenana and Martin and Jovana. But just as important, to me fixing this has become a clear question of justice. We know how to give kids a chance. We do. It’s hard and the progress is slow, but we know how to do it. And so it’s just a question of committing ourselves to it.
With much appreciation,