The Magnificent Five:
Students Who Prove That Public Education Is Worth Saving
by Jill Jenkins
As a retired teacher with 39 years of experience in public schools it has been my privilege to interact with many incredible young people. The spirit, resilient, and perseverance of many students astonishes me. Since some in the political arena who have never set foot in a public school or met these amazing students would like to destroy the public schools with a financially handicapping voucher system. Even though many average students would not be negatively affected by vouchers, the most vulnerable students would. I would like to introduce them to five of my former students who have greatly benefitted from public education dispelling the myths that public education is a cesspool as Ms. DeVos would have you to believe. Using public school money for a voucher system in Michigan has ravaged the public schools in Detroit leaving the schools in such vile physical conditions that the teachers willingly walked off the job to draw public attention. As a result, I feel compelled to show the world the spirit of American young hoping the public might recognize its value. The names of these five students have been changed, but the stories are true.
A.V.I.D. helped LaShondra
While teaching in San Bernardino, the administration recognized that although 90% of the students were Black or Hispanic, less than 10% or that population were enrolled in honors or advanced placement classes. Analysis of this situation led the administration to conclude that many of these students were from either single parent homes or economically deprived households where both parents worked long house to support their family making it difficult to monitor their children's schoolwork. The solution was to identify bright students from these subgroups who were not performing to their expectations, enroll them in honors or advanced placement classes and support them with a study skills classes. The program was originally called Century Club, but after evaluating the study skills methodology in the A.V.I.D. program (A Visa In Determination), it was changed to AVID. LaShondra was one of the students selected. She was bright, but sheathed in anger. Sometimes she exploded at classmates, but most of the time she seemed to be smoldering in insolence. Each morning I arrived an hour before students to prepare my classroom and lessons. One morning, LaShondra was sitting on the floor in the hall outside my door waiting to talk. She told me how she grew up in Florida with a single mother who was addicted to heroine. When her mother needed drugs, she would sell whatever furniture or assets the family owned. When the assets were gone, she would bring men home and exchange sexual favors for drugs. When LaShondra was as young as ten, her mother would bring men home to sleep with her daughter in exchange for drugs. LaShondra's mother would disappear for days at a time leaving LaShondra to care and feed her five siblings. One day LaShondra's mother did not return. Days turned into weeks. Soon there was no money, no food and the rent was due. Frantically, LaShondra telephoned an aunt who lived across the state. Her aunt retrieved LaShondra and her siblings, contacted each child's biological father and sent each to live in different homes across the country. LaShondra was sent to San Bernardino to live with a father and step-mother who had four small children. She had never met her father and had only heard terrifying stories from her mother. She has frightened, but discovered they were a loving family. LaShondra was frightened and lonely for the siblings she had raised and wanted to know where they were and where her mother was. I took LaShondra to the school counselor and sat with her while she shared her story again. The counselor helped her share her story with her parents who helped her locate and contact her lost siblings. Unfortunately, they discovered LaShondra's mother had died of an overdose. Regardless, with the help of her parents, LaShondra began to heal. She became a happy, successful student who went on to have a successful career in the military like her biological father. Public schools can not solve the social problems students face, but they can help students develop skills to cope. Without proper funding to public schools, schools would be forced to eliminate programs like AVID, a program that played a key role in helping LaShondra.
I taught at an Alternative School in Livermore, California where most of our students were failing in regular school and many would have dropped out without the emotional support of the smaller setting. Some felt isolated because of their sexual orientation . Some felt isolation because they had been physically, emotionally or sexually abused. Some had one or both parents incarcerated and had to accept the role as adults before they were mature themselves. Some were fourth generation gang members. The one who stands out in my memory was Nadia. Nadia was not outgoing or angry. She did not disrupt class or miss school. She was silent. She sat like a stone statue in class showing no emotion. As assigned reading, the class was discussing Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine where the narrator is saying goodbye to his childhood. As a writing assignment, I asked my students to think of something or someone important to them that they have had to part with and write a farewell letter expressing what they have lost and why it was important to them. The next morning, Nadia and her guardian were waiting to talk to me. Nadia's guardian explained to me that Nadia was her goddaughter and she had only recently moved to Livermore. A few months earlier Nadia had been living in Puerto Rico with both of her parents. Her parents had contacted a AIDS and had both died within a month of each other. Nadia had never met her godmother and had had a difficult time articulating her grief, but the assignment had allowed her to express her sorrow. Her concern was that Nadia's paper was so touching and personal that she felt uncomfortable sharing it with the rest of the class. I told her that I was happy she had made the assignment meaningful to her and I would respect her wishes. Alternative schools allow teachers the freedom to help struggling students in ways that meet their individual needs. Vouchers would make the expense of providing alternative program an impossibility.
Students With Disabilities
Throughout my career I have taught many students with disabilities: students with autism, visually impaired students who require special tools to see, student with learning disabilities and students with physical disabilities. Two students, Juan and Bryan stand out because of their indomitable spirit. In Salt Lake City I taught Juan who had lost both arms when his parents were escaping arrest during a political topple in South American. Juan's mother threw Juan, then two years old, out the window of a third story apartment to the waiting arms of his father. Unfortunately, as Juan fell his outstretched arms hit high tension electrical wires severing them both above the elbows. Juan was in the tenth grade when he attended my English class. He had not only overcome his language barrier by then, but had developed skills writing long, coherent essays with the stub of a pencil in his mouth. He carried his books, his pencils and his notebooks in a backpack. Although anyone would help him, he would accept no help retrieving his books, pencils and notebook with his chin and replacing them into the backpack in the same fashion. Furthermore, he was always smiling and amused the class each day with his "joke of they day."
Like Juan, Bryan shared his amazing attitude. I met Bryan when I taught in South Jordan, Utah. Bryan suffered from Muscular Dystrophy, a condition that slowly deteriorates the child's muscles until the muscles cannot support the heart or the lungs and the child dies. When Bryan was in the seventh grade, he was healthy and happy. He careened around the hallways in his electric wheelchair at high speeds and worried teachers that he would crash when spinning around a corner. As a ninth grade student he was gaunt and pale, but he still raced down the hall. Even though Bryan qualified for an assistant like Juan, he refused the help. The school counselor advised me to help him get his books, notebook and pencil out of his backpack and place the pencil in his hand which I did each day. He preferred a student help him, so I buddied him with an attractive girl who put his materials away the last five minutes of class. Bryan's ability to speak loudly was diminished by ninth grade; however, since the school had installed an audio enhancement system in my class, I had two microphones: one that I wore and one that students passed around. I or a student held it for Bryan when he shared his imaginative stories and poetry with the class. Recently, I learned of Bryan's death at 18. A former colleague sent me his obituary. In it, his parents had shared a poem he had written in my class where Bryan referred to himself as: "I am the calm and caring cripple ninja." He was. Despite Bryan's refusal of helps, others need it. If public education funding is reduced by vouchers providing help may be impossible.
Many of my past student have suffered trying to learn English in school districts that provide little or no ESL support. San Bernardino was the exception. They not only provided ESL teachers and classes to support students, but those teachers were a great resources to the other teachers. (Thanks Bobbi Houtchen.) As a result, many students who might still be struggling became star students in academic areas. Benito was a student who excelled in all of his classes. He was bright and articulate and often told me that it would be wonderful if he taught advanced classes in other languages to help those just arriving in the United States. When the time came for him to take his A.P. tests, his family did not have the money, so all of his teachers chipped in and paid his fees. When the time came for him to apply for colleges, his mother had thrown away the family's documentation during a domestic dispute, so the principal paid for an immigration attorney to get the documentation Benito needed and hired him as tutor at the school to help with his tuition.
When I hear people defame public education as cesspools or insult public educators as uncaring, indolent slugs, I become outraged. Public schools and public educators work very hard to provide a quality education to all students. If public schools lose funding programs like AVID, Alternative Education, aids for students with disabilities, special education and ESL classes will disappear. Students like LaShondra, Nadia, Juan, Bryan and Benito will suffer. Millions of students will not be given the quality education they deserve and as a result will not live the quality of life that they are capable of living.