Sunday, May 10, 2015

Leveling the Playing Field

Leveling the Playing Field

By Jill Jenkins

     For the seventeen years of my career, I taught in inner-city high schools where students often struggled.  Some were homeless; some worked eight hours a night at an after school job to help support their families; some watched younger siblings while their single parent worked two jobs; and one was raising his younger siblings because both parents were incarcerated.  Excelling in academically demanding classes was difficult for them and so was participating in extra-curriculum activities.  Properly preparing for the rigors of college is difficult for a student who has to negotiate with the gym teachers to shower at school because his water has been shut off.  For twenty-three years of my education career, I taught in an affluent, suburban neighborhood where helicopter parents not only ensured that their children arrived at school everyday with their homework in hand, but insisted that they received every educational advantage that their child was eligible for.  These students were tutored, took voice, violin, dance and guitar lessons.  They played sports outside of school and had private coaches.  They traveled the world and attended workshops and camps in the summer where they learned about computers, science, biking, swimming, basketball and the arts.  When these students graduated, they had already completed two years of college in concurrent enrollment, or A.P. classes while applying for several colleges, visiting campuses with their parents and applying for every available scholarship.  These students are prepared for the rigors of college; however, they are stressed from their parents’ high expectation and relentless pushing.  How can we level the playing fields, so students with language or financial barriers have an equal change for a quality education?

A Visa In Determination, AVID, is a program that teaches students critical skill, learning skills, literary, and math skills.  It supports teachers with new methodology and it provides students with a mentor teacher who supports his/her learning and helps him/her set goals for higher education.  This means that students who do not have the support system at home to develop their skills and establish high expectations for the future education can get that help at school.  By keeping class sizes small, students individual learning and motivation issues can be answered more effectively.  If you are teaching in an urban school with students who struggle, AVID could provide support for those struggling students.

Collaborating, Caring Staff

Students may choose only a few staff members with whom they share their struggles.  If those challenges are going to be solved, that information needs to be shared with all of his/her teachers and support staff including the counseling staff, social workers and outside agencies designed to assist at-risk students.  Working together and given the freedom to think outside the box, the collaborating team can help the student overcome his/her situation.  For example, one of my past students was forced to attend my school by a father who wished to take him away from the influence of a gangs in his home school.   Because he was unhappy about the situation, he was often withdrawn or arrogant.  Since we were aware of the situation, the team made an effort to help the student adapt, but just when he began to flourish, his father died from a drug over-dose. Since the teachers were all made aware of the situation, each member of the team could give the student a little leeway in completing assignments and offer him emotional support. Regardless of the students’ economic situation, all students can benefit from individualized attention, but students in urban schools more often encounter complications in their lives that are better addressed by the collaborative effort of a caring staff.  This also means that poisonous teachers who ridicule and bully students need to be identified and relieved of their position.  Such teachers can do damage that is difficult to undo.  In many urban schools, teachers are the only stable adults in students’ lives.  As a result, it is important that these adults are well-adjusted, caring role models.

Identifying Talented and Bright Students
            Students who attend more affluent schools often have parents who spend considerable resources identifying and developing their child’s talents.  Students who feel successful develop the confidence to improve their abilities in other areas.  For example, students who are given music lessons young develop both sides of their brain. According to Psychology Today, “Musical Training Optimizes Brain Function” when a child is given musical training before the age of seven, the child communication between different parts of the brain increases. This means that these students perform better in their other disciplines.  However, when funding for education becomes difficult the arts are often the first cut.  This means that students in elementary schools in most inner cities rarely have an opportunity to learn to play an instrument.  By identifying students’ talents and helping them develop those skills, students feel successful and proud of their abilities.  When students have a sense of accomplishment, they are motivated to try harder and as a result become more successful.  It doesn’t matter where the student’s talent lies; help him find it and develop it.  Schools need to offer classes not only in music, but sports, the arts, technology, shop, home economics, foreign languages and solid academics.

Respecting Each of Other and Cultural Differences

         Since most urban schools have diverse populations, it is even more important that students’ learn to respect each other and the cultural differences.  Giving each ethnic group an opportunity to share their culture’s music, food, and customs is the first step.  Teachers need to continually reinforce the importance of treating other’s religious beliefs, customs, food, and music with respect.  Often conflicts occur when students’ are ignorant of other’s beliefs. They need to learn in embrace differences and accept others with differing views. Sometimes there will be disagreements.  Giving students’ skills to respectfully disagree with another student is a life skill that will serve them in the real world.

Access to Technology

      Research shows that at-risk students are enhanced by technology, but many of these students lack the resources to afford computers or the internet to complete their studies at home.  There are resources that teachers can use.
·      The Gates Foundation
·      Public libraries offer computers and internet resources
·      Many corporations have offered grants to increase technology in school according to Latino Magazine. Com.  They include:
o   Cigna
o   Comcast
o   National Instruments
o   National Grid
o   BP
o   Symantec
o   IBM
o   Shell
o   Samsung
o   Lockheed Martin
o   Ingersoll Rand
o   Northrop Grumman (Exxon Mobil)
Writing grants to help your students have the resources they need and informing parents of the resources available to them can help students have access to computers and the Internet. 

Comprehensive Language Development Programs
            Finally, for students to be successful they need a well-developed vocabulary and a solid grasp of the English language.  Many students live in homes with limited access to books and with parents who have little or no education.  Many students live in homes where English is not spoken.  It is difficult for these students to compete with students from more affluent neighborhoods where parents are professionals with advanced degrees and who have had access to books long before they entered school.  For this reasons, teachers in all disciplines must make a concerted efforts to make teaching vocabulary part of their curriculum.  Reading a variety of genres with also help to expand students’ vocabulary.  Mainstreaming students who speak little or no English in traditional classes of 40 students will do little to help them develop the language skills they need.  These students require a ESL language class where they can receive the help they need to learn to speak, read and write in English.  The instructors of the ESL classes must be well trained and certified to help these students develop the language skills they need to be successful.

In Conclusion
            Furthermore, counseling staffs need to walk students through the process of selecting colleges and applying for them.  The entire staff needs to become the student’s advocate helping them make appropriate decisions to prepare for a successful academic career beginning in grade school through high school.  Providing these services for all at-risk students will not be cheap, but it is a good investment.  Students who are not prepared are condemned to live in poverty, and often either fall prey to crime or perpetrate it.  Solving these problems create expenses that far exceed the money needed to prepare these students.  Furthermore, “a human being is a horrible thing to waste.”  It is time to level the playing field and help all of our students succeed.