Education Opinion

Eating an Elephant

By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — November 30, 2007 4 min read

Wednesday, I woke up at about 7:30 a.m. and went straight to the computer. I had questions in my head that I needed to get on paper (or on the computer) before I forgot them. The questions were part of a Middle School Student Academic Survey for the 7th and 8th grade students at our school. I’ve been concerned about some to the behaviors that I heard about from the teachers. The purpose of the survey was to give us a better profile of our children and the baggage they may be carrying that keeps them from being successful in school. I emailed the survey to the Special Education Coordinator and asked her to let the children complete it during their language arts period, if possible. She had all of the completed forms for me Thursday.

The survey asked for names and birthdates. The students filled in the names of every school they attended beginning at Pre-K (Age 3) through the current grade. I asked if they had repeated any grades and which grades were repeated. They had to fill in their favorite and most difficult subjects in school. I asked what type of grades they usually earned on their report cards. If they had failed a LEAP test they wrote in which one. Finally, I asked them which high school and college they planned to attend. The survey ended with a question about career plans for the future.

Statistics tell a special kind of story. The eighth grade story is disheartening. It was hard to digest and I had to stop several times to think through what I was learning about our children. We have two eighth grade classes with 15 and 16 students respectively. One class has three students who are already 15 years old and two others who will be 15 within the next two weeks. The other class has three students who will be 15 before Christmas. They are two years behind their peers and should be attending high school dances, instead of lining up on the yard with our Pre-Kindergarten students.

Fourth and Eighth grade are our high-stakes grades in Louisiana, so the large number of failures in those grades did not surprise me. Twenty-three of the thirty-one students, 74%, have failed a grade; half of the failures were in 4th grade. Five students repeated more than one grade. Six are repeating 8th grade. In these two classes the percentage of students who have not had to repeat a grade is a dismal 26%; 5 in one class and 3 in the other. I suspected that we had a large number of students with a history of failure, but I had no idea the level would be so great—3 out of 4 students have been held back at least once and most of the students have attended 4 or 5 different elementary schools. As a result of the Diaspora created by Hurricane Katrina, most of the students attended two or more schools in 2005-06 then returned to New Orleans to attend 1 or 2 different schools. Our total student body includes transfers from over 114 different schools across the country and around the state. We have a culture of failure to overcome with our senior class. They are in a crisis!

The surveys showed that the students could not spell the names of the schools they attended, including ours. Don’t teachers require headings on student work anymore? Some of the students stated that they had repeated grades but did not know which grades they had failed. Very few students admitted to making grades of less than “C”. A few could not spell the names of their favorite or most difficult subjects. (I’m going to insist that the school name and the names of their subjects be added to everyone’s Spelling lists.) So many boys wanted to be football players for the NFL that we could probably start a new league. Amazingly, 25 of the 31 students stated that they intended to go to college. How hard will that be?

Most of the children had some idea of what they planned to do when they finished school. Cosmetologist, engineer, chef, singer, lawyer, construction worker, brick mason, gynecologist, artist, basketball player, and pediatrician were mentioned by the students who were not trying out for the Saints. I know we need to have a well planned career day soon and some opportunities for students to shadow workers. But, I want them to have realistic experiences and expectations. There are jobs that they can do to earn a living, but they aren’t aware of those opportunities. Besides, I want my own biological children to have careers, not just jobs. Shouldn’t we have the same goals for the McDonogh 42 students? Don’t they deserve careers? What kind of future will our children have? How much can we accomplish in the 6 months that are left in the school year? How many of the overage students will become dropouts? Shouldn’t someone tell the students that their goals of becoming doctors, lawyers, or engineers are too high when they can’t spell the word “science” correctly?

I went to bed with no answers last night. I woke up with these children on my mind. I haven’t looked at the surveys for the seventh grade students yet. I think that I’ll approach the mammoth problem step by step. How do you eat an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time. Once I gather all of the data, I’ll share it with the principal and ask her to present it to her Leadership Team. Maybe they will be able to start planning for the next wave. I am very worried about the current 8th grade class, very worried.

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.