School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Children Left Behind

By Denise Gelberg — October 02, 2009 4 min read
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It’s been a tough year for this retired veteran teacher. In the past several months, three of my former students—all of whom I taught as little boys—were arrested and incarcerated after pleading guilty or being found guilty at trial. Their crimes were serious: luring a teenage boy into a home and then sexually assaulting him, robbing a man while holding a gun to his head, dealing crack cocaine.

Lest you think I live in a high-crime urban area, think again. I spent my entire career teaching in a bucolic college town often found on lists of the “10 best places to live.” In our little burg, education is the No. 1 industry and top employer. The school district is nationally recognized for its excellence. I was considered a good teacher, a master teacher by some. I worked hard and smart with each of these little boys. It was obvious even at their tender ages that these youngsters were at risk for having a hard time in school and in life. That made me work all the harder.

One boy, a very sweet and gentle child, suffered from a severe learning disability. When I taught him in the 3rd grade, he had the reading skills of a kindergartner. But I had a lot for hope for Sam (whose name, like those below, I’ve changed). He was smart. He came from an intact family, and his mother worked in the school district.

I explained to Sam’s parents that he had a tough road ahead of him. I told them that he would receive the best special education services available, because our district spared no expense for children like him. But their job in parenting a child with a severe learning disability, I warned them, would be both difficult and critically important. They would have to support Sam emotionally over the many school years ahead. It would be hard for him to believe that he was smart when it was so difficult for him to master what other children did with ease.

A few years after Sam left my class, his family fell on hard times and broke apart. Sam is now serving time as a convicted sex felon.

I had reason to hope, too, about Mike. Although he was born to an 18-year-old addicted to crack, the last in a series of foster parents adopted him when he was a preschooler. Mike was handsome and athletic. His parents were devoted to him and stressed the value of education.

Mike arrived in my 1st grade class with a seriously impaired visual memory. He was unable to remember letters or numbers, despite the many and varied teaching strategies I used. He was also indiscriminately affectionate with any adult who entered the classroom. The school social worker guessed that he suffered from an attachment disorder because of his rocky early years.

At 16, Mike ran away from his adoptive family to live with his birth mother and four of the five children she had given birth to after him. He was arrested twice shortly after that. Then, at the age of 18, he held a gun to a man’s head, made him kneel by the side of a dark road, and robbed him. Mike is now serving a long prison sentence.

And I had so much hope for David. Although his mother was a teenager when he was born—and two more boys followed before she was 21—his no-nonsense grandmother lived with them and imposed a sense of order on the family. David’s dad was in jail, but his mom was emphatic about her boys’ having a better future than prison. She was determined to raise her three sons well, despite social barriers she openly acknowledged they faced. David left my class achieving on grade level in reading and writing. He was a darling child, and could be motivated to work hard when he saw success was within his reach.

At 17, David was arrested for dealing crack cocaine, having already been found guilty of robbing homes as a youthful offender.

The national debate on education policy intrigues me. I hear politicians, commentators, and business leaders clamor for “schools for the 21st-century global economy.” I hear scathing criticism of teachers and districts that cannot raise tests scores for every child. But what I never hear is how teachers and schools can help children like Sam, Mike, and David. I rarely hear anyone discuss the fact that even the best schools cannot fix the lives their troubled students live.

Each day, the staff members of good schools—ones like the school Sam, Mike, and David attended—work tirelessly to help these students overcome the odds. After being on the losing side of that crusade too often over the past 30 years, I reluctantly conclude that schools alone do not have the tools or the power to do battle with problems that originate beyond their doors.

We are living in a time of great political change. President Barack Obama is facing a fundamental decision about how to improve our children’s outcomes, in school and in life. He can carry forth the fiction propagated by President George W. Bush that schools alone are responsible for every child that does not do well. Or he can recognize the depth of the problems facing too many of our kids and assemble a multifaceted approach to helping them have a good childhood.

Schools play a critical role in a child’s life, but when children do not succeed, the heartbreaking failure cannot be laid wholly at their door. I can testify to the fact that, all too often, a teacher’s hard work and hope are just not enough to save some children from being left behind.

A version of this article appeared in the October 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Children Left Behind


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