As 2014 draws to a close, it’s a good time to ask once again if it’s fair to ever expect schools serving students from extreme poverty to be able to compete with schools serving students from the middle-class. That question came to mind after I read about Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, N.Y. (“A Brooklyn School’s Curriculum Includes Ambition,” The New York Times, Dec. 12).
For readers not familiar with the neighborhood, Brownsville is the poorest in New York City. Nearly all 191 students in grades six through eight are black or Hispanic, and more than 85 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Given the demographics and the geography, it’s a wonder that Mott Hall Bridges has done as well as it has. I’m referring to its rating as “proficient” by the city’s Education Department in October, which was based on its ability to establish a culture of learning and high expectations. Yet the school’s students still performed far below the citywide average on state English and math tests.
I know that charter schools and Catholic schools in similar neighborhoods post better test scores. But it’s important to bear in mind that students in those schools are there because they have parents who are involved enough in their education to apply for admission. Parent involvement at Mott Hall Bridges is practically non-existent. I say practically because there are a few who show up for year-end parent-teacher conferences to pick up their children’s report cards.
I got a small taste of the importance of parental involvement at the high school where I taught for my entire 28-year career. Twice a year, there was an open house, when parents were invited to come to school from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. to meet teachers and ask questions. At the start of my career, there was always an impressive turnout. But as the neighborhood and the city changed, I was lucky if there were six or seven parents for all of my five English classes. Whether the parents were moonlighting or simply too exhausted to attend, I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that letters sent by certified mail to parents requesting a conference were rarely answered.
The point is that if the state tests now in widespread use had been given to my students, I seriously doubt if they would have performed even remotely close to the students I had when I began teaching. Poverty is not destiny. But it affects learning. That’s not an excuse any more than gravity is an excuse for why objects fall to the floor.
The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check 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.