Education

The Sensitivity Deficit, Bridging the Achievement Gap, and the Naked
Chef’s Crusade

By Rich Shea — April 01, 2005 3 min read
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It’s tough to imagine living on the Red Lake Indian Reservation right now. After the shootings that left eight dead at the high school on March 21 and amid the funeral processions, residents discovered that the tribal chairman’s teenage son had been arrested for conspiring to aid Jeff Weise in the rampage. Although the FBI didn’t provide details, there were rumors that other students may have known of, or been involved with, Jeff’s plans, too. The school’s principal, Chris Dunshee, says he learned about the recent arrest from reporters, adding, “I’m as befuddled as everyone else.” But Victoria Brun, sister of the school security guard who was shot and killed, isn’t so much befuddled as fearful. “I won’t feel safe,” she says. “These kids won’t feel safe. This community won’t feel safe until they’re all brought in custody.”

Regardless of whether Jeff was acting alone, arrests won’t solve the larger problem of preparing teachers nationwide to deal with emotionally disturbed students. Six years ago, after Columbine, everyone was on alert, resulting in beefed-up security, increased sensitivity training, or both. But today, we’re back to square one, with most new teachers taking only a class or two in child psychology before heading into schools. And their primary backup, guidance counselors, are stretched to the limit tending to an average of 478 students each, nearly double the professional guideline. Add to that a Bush budget proposal to eliminate $440 million in state grants promoting “safe and drug-free schools,” and you have institutions without the resources to focus on individual students. Katherine Newman, a Princeton University professor who’s written about school shootings, says, “People are always going to say the school should have done something, but their repertoire is narrow. We don’t like to come face to face with the fact that our remedies are limited.”

There is one group that’s decided they’ve had enough of limited remedies: African American parents. Nationwide, they’ve teamed up with educators and community members to combat the achievement gap by exchanging information on enrichment programs, test prep, and good old-fashioned politics. In Harlem, the focus is on helping needier families, those often overwhelmed by a system more easily navigated by the affluent. Harlem Children’s Zone, a social service outfit, has taken a public awareness campaign to front stoops, churches, and barbecue dinners, letting parents know that simply dropping off their kids at school isn’t enough; they have to be activists. Aisha Tomlinson, a single mother, has bought into the plan. “I only went to the school when I was called,” she admits. “Now, I go to the PTA meeting because I want to know what’s happening.”

Another New York-based effort is being replicated, with mixed results, in the City of Brotherly Love; it’s called the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows program. The one-month boot camp puts career-changers into classrooms as replacements for those who’ve left midyear. They started in early February at $38,000 per year, and thus far, six of the original 60 have resigned. But the 90 percent retention rate is on par with Philly’s average, according to the program’s site manager. And Angelo Williams, a 46-year-old pastor who has let his special ed teenagers know that he’s just as tough and streetwise as they are, says, “I’m having the time of my life.” Perhaps Bill Boesenhofer, a former electrical engineer, is more representative of the program. The 49-year-old, who’s teaching high school science, is struggling to captivate his bored students. He has relied heavily on the help of his principal, who says of Boesenhofer: “He never gives up. That’s the battle, really.”

It looks like the battle to serve British kids healthy school lunches (known as “dinners” in the UK) is just about over. The English government announced this week that it would provide an extra 280 million pounds (more than $500 million) to promote healthy eating habits and change menus at schools, from fried to organic. The announcement came just before Jamie Oliver, aka the “naked chef,” was due to arrive at 10 Downing Street with a petition demanding the funding signed by more than 271,000 people. Oliver has been on a healthy-lunch crusade for months, and his British TV program Jamie’s School Dinners, in which he helped one school cafeteria alter its menu, is credited with provoking a nationwide parental protest. This being an election year in England, the politicians responded.

Now if we can just get Oliver to cross the pond and do the same in the States.

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