I found a home at a really great charter high school in Los Angeles and spent two years working there alongside many passionate teachers and administrators. We didn’t necessarily get the highest test scores, but between picking up the remnants of a decade of poor education and combatting all of the symptoms of poverty, we had one hell of a job to do.
We did our best, but all the love in the world can’t fix the broken system.
The school was huge, with close to 3,000 students, 92% minorities, mostly Hispanic. It’s a Title 1 school, meaning at least 40% of students live under the poverty level. They were a tough group, to say the least…
As I mentioned in Elementary and Middle School, (internal link) many of them lived in broken homes or were in foster care or group homes. We had students who didn’t have homes at all and lived on the streets of LA. We had drug dealers, we had drug addicts. We had gang rivalries and race wars. It was black versus brown, and everybody picked on the few white or even white looking kids the worst. We had kids with kids. We had three students who were victims of sex trafficking and were forced to do pornography as minors.
As if high school wasn’t bad enough on its own, throw in all of the problems that come with poverty. Crime, abuse, hunger, mental illness, violence, and more all conveniently bundled into one unbounded life of poverty!
Eldar Shafir says in an NPR interview,
“When humans don’t have enough of something, that fact dominates our consciousness.”
Do you even have to ask yourself why they can’t pass your tests when they have to worry about what they will eat, where they will sleep, and whether their fathers will come home drunk again tonight?
Half of them haven’t had a clue what’s been going on in class since the first grade. We passed them on from one grade to the next, knowing damn well they didn’t understand. How could they learn to multiply if they haven’t mastered adding? How could we expect them to learn to write a paragraph when they can’t write a simple word? I had high school students who were reading at a first-grade level. How is this even possible?
Many teachers working in impoverished schools blame the common core. There is space for individuality in these blatantly biased standards. Why are we teaching in English to non-English speakers? Some schools in California have started instructing in both English and Spanish. Why are students whose parents all graduated college and students whose parents are second-grade dropouts expected to learn the same material? The common core is geared towards college preparedness, but most of my students won’t go to college.
So what should we prepare them for?
If we were to level the playing field, we would go to a school in a wealthy neighborhood and start teaching in Spanish, after only giving a few highly confusing Spanish lessons. We’d get frustrated with them for not understanding and label them stupid and incapable, and they’d believe us, and they’d give up dreaming, they’d give up trying by the fourth grade.
…But some of them won’t give up. No matter how hard we beat them down.
We asked my students to write an essay on what it means to be an American. Many of them wrote passionately about opportunity, freedom, and safety. The world looks so beautiful through a child’s eyes, the same world who robbed them of every opportunity.
To all the teachers who devote their lives to helping these kids climb over the hurdles society has built just for them, you are appreciated. To all the students who stand strong each morning, bravely facing a day of adversity and disadvantage, and proudly salute a flag which doesn’t salute you back, never sit down, never give up, and one day you’ll show them.