Thanks to Joe Sacramento's recent post, I've been mulling my former teaching career and the idea of what keeps kids in school anyway? I won't rehash the statistics but essentially, Natomas Unified is failing to keep kids in school. Why is that and what can we do to make it better?
I stumbled across an old Dept of Ed article called "Manual to Combat Truancy." This line in particular jumped out at me "I've never seen a gang member who wasn't a truant first," says California District Attorney Kim Menninger. Based on the crime stats in Natomas and ongoing problems as the economy sinks around the nation, we're obviously not doing enough to keep kids in school. The article has a few ideas of programs that have worked but none seem to focus on the real problem at hand: Why should kids care about staying in school?
The answer is simple to adults and complex to kids. If you have only seen your family treated poorly, suffered hunger, gone to school in clothes that were dirty, walked miles because you can't afford a bus pass, then you have low expectations. While working at an alternative school, I had a student who traded sexual favors for food from a neighbor. It was the only way to feed her 4 year old brother who was often left in her care for days or weeks on end. She came to school every day because it was the only bright light in her horrid life. This happens every day to kids right in our own neighborhood.
But those kids are a mere fraction of the statistics represented in Joe's report. The rest are simply kids that got left behind. I've seen undiagnosed learning disabilities that were so severe that kids in high school were still functioning at a 4th grade level. They worked so hard, for so little. I've seen others who had to work at night to help pay rent, others who failed year after year but got passed on anyway. I've seen gangsta kids who thought the streets had a better life with more money available to them. Do you know where I saw them all? SCHOOL.
And here's the simple answer. What keeps kids in school? Having an adult they trust who they believe cares about them. It's that simple. It can be a parent, teacher, family friend, pastor, principal, school counselor, even school safety officer. But they have to feel accountable to someone and feel like they matter. Will someone know if they don't show up at school? Will someone call their house and track them down? If not, one easy day turns into 100 then a failed exit exam then jail. It really is that simple.
You can throw money at the problem all day long but essentially, it boils down to time. I was lucky to be a teacher in two schools that encouraged me to give my heart and soul to my class and to take time. Miss a staff lunch because someone is crying in your classroom? No big deal. Want to plan a life-changing field trip with no money? We'll make it happen. Too many teachers are hog-tied by regulations, restrictions, low-esteem and the "no way it'll work" administration. Why do so many new teachers leave in the first five years? Because too many people tell them they can't change the world.
Second to that, schools need to have freedom to design a system that works for their students. Since Brown vs. Board of Education, a vastly different population of students has entered a system that was designed for wealthy white boys in the 1800s. The system hasn't changed to meet the needs of the students. Why do charter schools work? Because they are individualized to what a small group of students need. Our system needs to be more diverse, more understanding and more broadly defined, not less. If your student needs online school, homeschool, big classes, single-sex classes, alternative schedules, block schedules, gifted acceleration, remedial tutoring,- you should be easily able to find it within your school district.
With enough parental pressure, Natomas Unified and every district in the state could easily meet these needs. If only the administration would stop saying "No."