My New Year’s Wish, a school for every child and a community for every school

Snow Day Photo: Courtesy of Kati Walsh

Snow Day Photo: Courtesy of Kati Walsh

My first snow day of the season began with a phone call just before midnight. Having an adult-child in the house frequently means answering the phone in my sleep. This night, it meant putting on my snow boots, shoveling out my car, and trekking out to retrieve him so that he would not endanger his life on treacherous roads. Anyone who knows me knows that I will do anything for my son. However, this didn’t prevent me from composing a lecture en route.

As I pulled up in front of the address in my phone, my headlights shone on a series of snowballs and laughter. The car doors opened and not one, but three young gentleman jumped into the car. My rehearsed lecture was shortened to, “Seriously!?” Six eyeballs pleaded with me as I learned that one adult-child needed a ride home and another needed a place to sleep for the night.  As my son pled their case, I was convinced that he must have been either a lawyer or a social worker in another lifetime. I pulled away and decided to make the best of it by making conversation with the new arrivals. Of course, my conversation turned quickly to education.

I learned a lot in my short, snowy drive. My son’s friend, in this post referred to as Devin, was currently enrolled in Madison Area Technical College’s (MATC) High School Equivalency Program after dropping out of a local high school. Unfortunately, the story was one I had heard before. He hadn’t bought into his high school education. He had begun skipping school and found it impossible to keep up. At the time, Devin hadn’t seen himself as a learner and didn’t relate to others.

But, what really caught my attention was what he saw as the defining moment in his decision to walk away from school. He explained that he had been caught up in a pattern of skipping classes, but he had gotten up one morning and decided to turn things around. On his way to class, he was greeted by a teacher in the hallway. She asked him where he was going and his reply was, “I’m going to class.” Aware of his truancy issues, Devin remembered the teacher smiling and saying, “You’re not going to class.” He felt his efforts were being met with disbelief. So, Devin got angry, swore at the teacher, and walked out the door. He says that at the time, he thought that this would hurt the teacher, that he would save face. Now older and more mature, he sees that this action only hurt him. By attending MATC, Devin is now planning on getting his future back. He understands the need for an education.

Teachers have an impact on their students. For this impact to be positive, they first need to meet the students where they are. The teacher that day did not know where Devin was, or she clearly wouldn’t have made light of his efforts to get himself to class. Our high schools have gotten to be so big that too many students are falling through the cracks. So much so, that the Wisconsin State Journal recently reported one out of four black students are chronically absent from high school in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). We need to make some changes; the following is where we should begin.



Stop Blaming Teachers (button by Northern Sun) 

Stop Blaming Teachers

Teaching is a profession grounded in self-reflection. Teachers go into this career to make a difference in the lives of children and a difference in larger society. However, the current political climate has made this self-reflection extremely challenging. Due to privatization, the expansion of school voucher programs and charter schools, attacks on teacher unions, and a focus on standardized testing as a means of evaluation, teachers find themselves increasingly playing defense.  To honestly evaluate and criticize ones work takes a safe environment and a healthy dose of courage. While teachers continue to take these risks, decreased morale and a hostile political environment act as barriers to change.

Create Small Learning Environments

With 1 out of 4 black students chronically absent in MMSD and increasing alarm over the achievement gap, it is obvious that teachers must employ culturally relevant teaching practices. These practices begin with getting to know your students and their families – a practice that necessitates smaller learning environments. According to UW professor, Alice Uldvari-Solner, “Teachers who uphold the dynamics of culturally relevant pedagogy are practicing inclusive education as they impart influential messages that each child brings value to the classroom and that each child is powerful in directing his or her own achievement.” (Creating an Inclusive School, pg. 100)

Unfortunately, as our students grow, the learning environments become larger and less-personalized. A primary teacher spending most of the day in a SAGE school in a classroom of 14 can get to know his students quite well. Contrast that to a high school teacher teaching five sections of 30+ kids. Individualizing the education process is seemingly impossible. Students need to feel a sense of worth and belonging. Reestablishing smaller learning communities that focus on relationships and team-work will create safety nets for students feeling lost in the crowd.

The traditional high school structure arose at a time when many people would seek jobs in labor or agriculture rather than secondary education. The first high schools were built in wealthy areas. The high school model was created in an environment that meant to cater to the upper class and academically elite. At the start of the 20th century, it became commonplace for high schools to have entrance exams as a means of weeding students out. The majority of students were expected to take on a trade after completion of junior high. Simply put, the traditional high school model was not created to serve all learners.

By the mid 1900’s, advances in science and technology brought about the need for a larger, more skilled work force. This made attending high school a necessity. Comprehensive high schools became common, which gave more students access to a free education. Yet, the original structure of the high school itself changed very little over time.

Honor All Learners

We live in an increasingly diverse society; it is one aspect of our societal wealth. With groupings that span ages and abilities, students are opened up to a wide array of opinions, ideas, and perspectives. This sort of learning environment mirrors the possibilities in our communities and work places. We grow through exploring our differences and carefully examining our own thinking. This is what it means to be a student in the 21st century, or at least it is what it should mean.

Exhaust Assembly (in the ilving room?)

Exhaust Assembly (in the ilving room?)

We have a diversity of learners, but the only pathway that is typically valued in our schools is a one size fits all, academic course sequence. Students who are tactile learners, good with their hands, and thrive in courses such as metal work or automotives are only offered these courses as electives. Some students who could be drawn in by careers and internships in the trades get lost in the mix, because their pathway is less clear and less valued in a traditional setting. These students rarely see the connection between their academic coursework and these “electives” and honors courses tend not to be offered in their own area of strength.

Sadly, tracking still exists in our schools. We’ve simply renamed it as AP or Honors coursework. MMSD students enrolled in honors courses are on an entirely different track from their peers. When my former students come back and talk about their high school experiences, this is obvious. Those in honors courses face rigor and feel challenged. They see themselves as learners and are surrounded by peers with a similar focus on academics. On the other hand, students not enrolled in honors courses share their frustration with boredom, isolation, feeling undervalued, or are distracted by the misbehavior of their peers. If we are truly to honor all learners, why do we continue to only nurture some of them as honor students?

Engage Our Community

Schools do not operate in isolation. Many of our families face homelessness, joblessness, and poverty. Kids spend nearly 55 hours a week watching television, texting, and playing video games. During this time, they are bombarded with negative images which some take on as part of their identity. As time with media increases, the time spent outdoors and with family decreases. Kids arrive at school tired and unavailable for learning after late nights with video games. Even worse, today’s student expects instant gratification and entertainment at the tip of their fingers.

Building Healthy Communities

Building Healthy Communities

Whether it is working in a community garden or learning a new skill, students need more opportunities in the community to make a difference and interact with others. It is up to us to combine the efforts of teachers, community centers, families, and area businesses to offer these opportunities.

When a family hurts, the students feel it. It is no longer okay for businesses and community leaders to merely sit on boards and fund initiatives. They must also be a part of decreasing unemployment and homelessness and fighting for all families to earn a living wage. Lifting everyone up to a level of dignity and respect in our community sends a powerful message to students and makes everyone more able to contribute to the education of our youth.

Never Give Up

It is time to stop the cycle of blame. We can blame teachers, society, families, or the students. But this won’t bring us closer to making my New Year’s wish a reality. Each of us must put our best foot forward every day for our kids and for their families. Rather than asking what someone else is or isn’t doing for education, we need to ask ourselves what we have to offer. Solutions only come through hard work, commitment, and dedication. There is nothing more important than educating our youth, building a strong workforce, and creating global citizens. Never give up; children are a lifetime investment.

Links to Further Resources

Principles for Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Differentiated Teaching Strategies

Schools We Can Envy, by Diane Ravitch

Small Learning Communities in 5 Boston High Schools

In Madison high schools, 1 in 4 black students chronically absent (Wisconsin State Journal)

Parent, Family, Community Involvement in Education

Starting a Community Garden

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