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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Cycle Isn’t Broken

By Peter DeWitt — January 20, 2012 4 min read
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“All kids can achieve if they are given the correct opportunities, but currently, that is not happening. And that needs to change.”

There are so many outside influences affecting our students these days. Many of us cannot fathom ever living the way some students have to. There are parents who are incarcerated for drugs, robbery or murder. Even saying it out loud seems like it cannot be real. Focusing on school is hard when the situation at home is so difficult.

I grew up in a middle class suburb north of Albany at the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. My first teaching job was in a small private K-8 school in a wealthy suburb of Albany. It was culture shock for me to see the wealth that some families had, but all in all their children were really good kids. They grew up differently than I did and had the opportunity to take trips abroad and see things I never thought I would see.

After being there for a little over a year I took a job as a first grade teacher in a school on the city line of Poughkeepsie, NY. Although the district was a large suburban school district, the school where I taught was considered the city school in the district and my students came from a variety of backgrounds. It was culture shock on the other end for me. I realized at the time that I finally saw the various situations that children grew up in.

I considered myself an urban teacher, which was funny to Anna, the special education teacher I worked with because she was from the Bronx. The school we taught at was suburban in her perspective. In the mid-90’s when I taught there we had a special education meeting with a parent who did not have a job but he had a cellphone and PDA. You know...the one with the stylus that was all the rage. This was long before everyone had a cellphone.

We talked at the meeting about trying some interventions and we had to schedule another meeting. The father stopped to check his PDA to make sure he was available. I was happy for him because I thought he had gotten a job and was checking his availability. Through a conversation with my colleagues around the table I found out that he was a drug dealer.

It took me a very long time to get used to those situations because they were not an experience I had ever had before. Teachers often have to learn to separate the child from the parent. They often have to throw out sympathy and replace it with empathy. Educators need to understand where their students come from and provide parameters in the classroom because no matter where children come from, they can learn.

The truth is no one can judge people unless they have experienced a small part of their life. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer and break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy but the truth is that in schools across North America that cycle has not been broken.

On Tuesday, January 10th I attended a rally sponsored by the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) at the New York State Assembly. There were close to 600 educators, parents and students who attended the event. Most of the attendees were from NY City and the other big four cities (Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse, and Yonkers) because they are, and have been, experiencing high teacher turnover, high class sizes and a lack of educational funding. As many schools talk about incorporating innovative technology, these schools are worried about basic needs.

As a rural/suburban school district administrator I have seen a cut in funding and two years of “one time” budget elimination gaps. Some schools are fortunate enough to have millions of dollars in their fund balance but many rural schools have depleted their fund balance in an effort to not raise school taxes for taxpayers. Those rural schools also lack a commercial tax base to offset the other taxes.

It’s Hitting the Burbs
As I looked around at the assembly, and reflected on my former urban school teaching, I saw hundreds of people who are frustrated by what seems to be another negative circumstance hitting their children. They have spent decades being stuffed into overcrowded classrooms and they are continuing to see a lack of funding. Being labeled a school in need of improvement is nothing compared to what their students see at home and on the way to school.

The cut in funding is being discussed more and more now because it has hit the suburbs. With our present economy many suburban schools are seeing an increase in free and reduced lunch rates as well as homelessness, and it is about time suburban schools wake up to the issues that urban schools have been seeing for decades. That is not meant to pit them against one another but it is a reality.

There are students who lack good parenting, regardless of whether it’s a one parent or two-parent household. Schools may have tried to break the cycle of illiteracy and poverty for some students long ago but now those former students are parents, and their children are entering school ill-prepared. The home lives that some students have would make people shudder, much like it did to me when I began teaching.

Which schools should sacrifice the education of their students? Which kids are no longer good enough so educators can start to focus on those students who will succeed? For decades there have been students who have been receiving the short end of the stick and now it is creeping into all school systems, no matter if they are urban, suburban or rural and that doesn’t feel good for many educators, and it shouldn’t. No one should have their education sacrificed.

The best part about public education is that it is open to everyone but that’s the hard part as well. All kids can achieve if they are given the correct opportunities, but currently, that is not happening. And that needs to change.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground 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.