Oct 30, 2011

One Size Never Fits All

Image Credit: Flickr/Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)

This week a struggling high school student visited my alternative program asking about how to enroll himself. In a nutshell, here is what he said:
  • I am a senior and I really want to graduate this year.
  • I struggle with reading and writing, but when I ask for additional help from my English teacher she tells me that she's already explained things to the whole class and she doesn't have time to explain it to me again.
  • I am really, really good at math. My teachers just need to show me how to do a problem once and then I can do it in my head. But I've flunked almost all of my math classes because I don't show my work; or when I do, I don't do the problems the same way as the teacher wants them.
  • My school seems to think that one size fits all when it comes to learning...but their ways of teaching don't fit me! I wish I could go somewhere where I could test out of math classes and get extra help in English. I wish I could go somewhere that offered more hands-on learning because I learn better when things are hands-on.
I was so impressed with this student's self-awareness and motivation! He wants to graduate, he knows his academic areas of weakness and his academic strengths, and he knows how he learns best. These are all qualities that will benefit him greatly in the world of work. But in a traditional school setting, those same qualities are forcing him to consider dropping out or getting a GED. There is something very wrong with this picture!

This student is exactly the kind of student I recommend for enrollment in my alternative program---but due to constraints of the educational system, he cannot enroll.  Why? 

The student who visited me does not attend one of our partnering schools.  We are an alternative program not an alternative high school. This means that we do not offer our own high school diploma; instead, we partner with traditional high schools in our area. They dictate the graduation requirements for their students and provide funding to support our offsite program. When students have met all graduation requirements, they receive a traditional high school diploma from their home school.  If this student attended our program, any work completed in our program would be worthless because it would not count toward a high school diploma from a partnering school. 

Why doesn't the school just partner with our alternative program so that this student can earn a diploma? In this case there is one main reason: the school the student is enrolled in has its own alternative program. They don't want to send someone to another district when they have their own alternative classroom. The problem is that their alternative program only offers computer-based instruction for at-risk students. Their alternative program adopts a "one size fits all strategy" that is different from the traditional school's strategy, but still only offers one style of learning for all of the kids enrolled.

It is frustrating for this student to know that there is a program like mine that would offer him choices when it comes to learning, that would offer him more one-on-one assistance if he needs it, and that would allow him to graduate on time with his class--but he can't enroll because he doesn't live in the right district. It is frustrating for me to see a kid who so clearly exhibits qualities that will make him a successful adult, who is motivated to do what it takes, but might not graduate because of school finance and residency issues.

A lot of people talk about school reform. A lot of people talk about issues relating to teachers and how they are paid, about standardized testing and failing schools. But what about the kids? Where is the ed reform plan that focuses on the kids? The student who visited me is one of many, many kids who want to learn, but feel lost in the system. No amount of standardized testing or teacher salary-adjustments will help him be successful in our current educational system. At what point do we stop trying to fix the small stuff and realize that it's time for a system-wide change? 

In my dream world, that student would walk into our school building and be welcomed with open arms. Home address and financial partnerships between districts wouldn't matter. A kid wants to learn and a school wants to help him--that's all that should matter. How can we make that dream come true?

Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker)Akbar Sim (voorheen Meneer de Braker

Oct 26, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: Consequences of Motherhood

Image via Zazzle

What we lose in memory, we seem to gain in shoe size....

Image Credit: lFlickr/lauratitian

and there is proportionate loss and gain for each additional child.

(Since becoming a mom, I have a smaller memory, bigger feet...and a LOT of love!)

Oct 23, 2011

The Liebster Blog Award

Earlier this week, Anituke from Yes We'reTogether -- a great blog sharing stories and thoughts meant to challenge people's perceptions of interracial romance -- left a comment on my post Being African-American in Iowa:Economy. She wrote that I'd won the Liebster Award! After doing some searching to see what that award means, I discovered that it is legit, and is a way to showcase blogs that are worthy, but have less than 200 followers. 

Thanks much to Yes We're Together for linking empatheia with your excellent blog! It is totally an honor to be listed with the other blogs you chose--you named some of my faves. And I'm happy to find two new blogs to follow, too! 
The purpose of the award is to give visibility to worthy, lesser known blogs with fewer followers.

The rules of accepting and receiving The Liebster Blog Award are:
1. Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog.
2. Link back to the blogger who awarded you.
3. Copy & paste the blog award on your blog
4. Reveal your 5 blog picks.
5. Let them know you choose them by leaving a comment on their blog.

It is very hard to narrow this down to 5 blog picks...I subscribe to many, many blogs in my Reader feed. These are some of my favorites. A couple of them are written by people that I consider friends because of connections we've made through our blogs; others I am still getting to know, but I greatly admire. Please give them a visit and consider following their wonderful worlds.

1. Is That Your Child? is a blog that accompanies the podcast of the same name. Both the podcast and the blog teach me something new each week about the world we live in.
2. De Su Mama is filled with the beauty of a mixed family who inspire me. Besides the wonderful photography and beautiful love letters to the author's daughter, I am also inspired by Vanessa's Personal Identity Project.
3. Ezzy Languzzi is a true friend who is teaching me Spanish, sharing unique images captured through photography, and inspiring me to read and re-read books that broaden my  horizons.
4. The Lifestory of a Bookworm is filled with stories that challenge me to think about "otherness"--supernatural beings, unexplained cultural phenomena from Chicano culture, and the personal stories of the beautiful spirit who writes them.
5. Life Behind the Wall fascinates me. A black woman living in China? I am learning so much about how cultures can intermix and about courage. 

Oct 16, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Economy

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. The series returned in September 2011 to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality.  I plan to blog about my thoughts on each of these issues and how they relate to my family's experiences in Iowa.

Image via Davenport NAACP
According to the Iowa Public Radio podcast Being African-American in Iowa: Economy, 2,200 African-Americans in Iowa own their own businesses. Most African Americans in Iowa do not own their own businesses, though; instead they try to work for other people. Overall unemployment rate in Iowa is 6%. However, the unemployment rate for blacks in our state is more than twice that, at 13%.

The average income for a white family in Iowa is $61,000. The average income for a black family in Iowa is $27,000 (source: Status of African Americans in Iowa report). The poverty rate in 2008 for the African American population was 35.6%. The corresponding rate for Iowa as a whole is 11.5%.  These numbers echo a national trend. Using the demographics tool at the National Center for Children in Poverty's website you can select from a list of factors and compare poverty rates among the 50 states. In EVERY state, half or more of the African-American population lives in poverty.  Considerably less than half of white people in every state live in poverty.

Many families are trying to make ends meet, trying to go to college and live the American Dream...but they are finding it hard to make that dream become a reality. A mother on the podcast tells the story of her lost faith in the American Dream, and her story echoes the story of many people--especially young mothers--in my own neighborhood.  Many of the parents in my neighborhood came to Iowa from Chicago trying to make a better life for their children. Neighborhoods here are safer, housing is more affordable, and (for a while) decent jobs were available. Our community is home to an excellent community college and a state university, so there are opportunities for residents who aspire to better themselves through higher education.  A lot of young mothers who move to Iowa from Chicago enroll in school, work part-time jobs, and strive to achieve the American Dream. And like the mother interviewed for the podcast, they struggle.  Fast food restaurants and motels seem to be the top employers for those new to our community, and the average pay at such places is not enough to support a family.

Why are the numbers representing economic status of African-Americans so disproportionate when compared to the numbers representing the economic status of European-Americans? How do we improve the quality of life for African American families, both in Iowa and in the nation? How can we revive the American Dream? Like the founders of our nation, most people today are trying to make a better life for their families. Why is it so much harder to achieve that dream for African American families than others? The Iowa Commission on the Status of African Americans is trying to answer those questions, and to provide resources for African Americans in Iowa, such as listings of grant opportunities and employment opportunities.

What can others do to help? First and foremost, consider your own perceptions of African Americans in your community. Do you make assumptions about the abilities of African Americans? about their education? about their interests? Do you look black people in the eye when you walk by? Do you speak to them with the same respect you speak to other people? In every day situations, do you approach African Americans without fear?

Consider your perceptions, and if you see a difference in the way you treat African Americans from the way you treat the people from other cultures, please investigate why that is. True change begins within. Offer yourself the opportunity to experience a shift in perception. I believe that seeing all people as worthy human beings is the starting point for helping all people to achieve economic equality.

If you see people as equal to yourself,  you will begin to treat people as equal to yourself. 

Oct 8, 2011

Imagine: White Students Suspended Disproportionately More than Blacks

Imagine this headline in your local paper:

Report: White Students Suspended 59% More than Blacks

Imagine the response of a typical American  community to this article:
White students in the City School District tend to get suspended at a higher rate than students from other ethnic groups, according a recent report from district officials.  
According to the report, white students accounted for about 59 percent of the 929 suspensions school administrators handed down during the 2010-11 school year, even though they make up only 16 percent of the district's 12,000 students. 
District administrators denied it is a case of racially profiling white students even though the district's teaching staff is overwhelmingly black, with only 13 whites among the district's 918 teachers, said the district human resources director.  
A successful white student athlete in the district says that most white kids he knows don’t feel singled out for being white. Kids who behave poorly receive their due consequences. “White kids just need to realize that they can still be white! They just have to act more professional and try to fit in."

Imagine if you looked at the comments online for this article and saw many comments like this:

If you were a white parent who had white children in this school district, would you be concerned? Would you worry about how your children are being treated? Would you want the school to invest in programming and training to help teachers become more culturally aware of white behaviors?

Would you fear for your children because of the comments? Would you wonder if those who comment using the anonymous login or a pseudonym would ever take the next step and do something in the real world that targets your children--just because they are white?

The headline above did appear in an Iowa newspaper this week. The article above is a paraphrase with only racial categories changed from the original. The comments are real. 

To white people in Iowa and in many other parts of the country where you are still the majority race, I ask you to think about these questions:
  • How would you respond if you read that your kids are being disciplined more than any other group in school?
  • How would you feel, knowing that you are powerless to do anything about that disproportionate punishment of white students because the same statistics about whites that occur in schools, also are the norm in our judicial system? 
  • What lessons would you teach your children about how to survive in a world where brown people are the majority? 
  • How would you feel about having to teach your white children survival skills so that they can exist in a brown world?
  • What would be important to you? If your children were surrounded by brown people all day, every day, and rarely saw other white people, what would you want them to learn about white culture?
The questions I ask above are the questions that parents of brown children have to ask every day. Stop and think for just a moment. Read any story in your local paper that deals with race. Substitute "white" for "black" or "hispanic" while you're reading, and imagine how you'd feel.

Think about it.

Oct 1, 2011

Being African-American in Iowa: Education

Iowa Pubic Radio (IPR) correspondent Rob Dillard (@IPRDillard) has been working on a year-long assignment on diversity. In March-April 2011, IPR ran series of stories on Being Latino in Iowa that highlighted the Latino experience in my home state. Dillard covered stories on the effect of Latino populations on small towns and the importance of Latino food and culture. This week the series returned to focus on a different population in our state--African-Americans.  According to IPR, U.S. Census data show there are now 90,000 African-American adults living in Iowa. According to state department of education enrollment figures, there are almost as many African-American children enrolled in our public schools. My husband and his family have lived in the state since the 1960's and I found it interesting to hear what Rob Dillard learned about Being African-American in Iowa in 2011. His series was divided into five parts: education, economy, politics, health, and spirituality.  I plan to blog about my thoughts on each of these issues and how they relate to my family's experiences in Iowa.

Both as a teacher and a parent of school-aged mixed race children, I found it very interesting to listen to Rob Dillard's piece on education (You can listen to it here:  Being African-American in Iowa: Education.) The piece centers on the Waterloo School District and spends time in a pre-k through 5th grade elementary school called the Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence.  Named after Iowa's first black principal, Walter Cunningham is a public school where 92% of 400 students are black. School officials in the state department of education and the Waterloo School District say that No Child Left Behind data point to a huge gap in achievement between black students and white students.  For every 10 white students in the district, 8 are proficient in reading and math. For every 10 black students, 5 are proficient. District officials, like many other educators in the country are focused on the question,  "How do we close the achievement gap?"

A PBIS assembly at my children's school. Image credit: Bobby Duncan
In the school district where I live, we are seeing a similar gap in achievement that correlates closely with race/ethnicity. Like many other schools both in Iowa and across the country, educators in my home district are talking about how to close the gap. Some things they are trying at the Walter Cunningham School for Excellence and at other schools include: an extended school year (to prevent the loss of proficiency that occurs in all children over the summer),  Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports (a program of setting clear behavioral expectations and rewarding students for meeting them), and an instructional strategy called Differentiated Instruction (individualizing instruction to meet the abilities and needs of each student.)

There are several things that the Iowa Public Radio piece did not discuss. First and foremost is the fact that in Iowa (as well as throughout the rest of the nation) our schools are largely segregated. In the IPR-featured Waterloo school district, Walter Cunningham School is 92% minority. Across town in the same district is Poyner Elementary, which is only 12% minority. In the district my children attend, one school has 13% minority enrollment while another has 70% minority enrollment. It is important to note that in my children's school district (and across the country) poverty and ethnicity correlate: schools with high minority enrollment also have high levels of poverty. Like other school districts in the country, poverty and ethnicity also correlate with lower achievement.  Schools want to close that achievement gap, but are meeting a lot of resistance from parents --largely from white, European-American, educated and middle class parents.

Map via http://www.remappingdebate.org/map-data-tool/new-maps-show-segregation-alive-and-well

Many white, European-American parents are worried that their children are being exposed to a dumbed down curriculum, are being treated like lab rats in a behavioral scientist's research study, and are not receiving the kind of instruction that will permit them to be competitive in the global marketplace.  There is no evidence that the use of research-based practices to close the achievement gap will harm middle class European-American white kids. In fact, the opposite is true--for example, PBIS and Differentiated Instruction research data show that those programs and teaching methods help ALL children--regardless of ability, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. So why are European-American white parents so resistant to changes that will close the achievement gap?

Here is what I know about my own children's education:
They attend a school that has more than 50% minority enrollment, and more than 50% of the students enrolled live in poverty. Their school is in its fifth year of using PBIS and the staff believes the program is making significant positive changes for both them and for students. They are working really hard to close the achievement gap by using PBIS to teach behavioral expectations to all students, and Differentiated Instruction to meet the academic needs of all students. Every student in the school shows tremendous growth each year. Those that start out below proficiency show significant improvement in math and reading by the end of the school year. My own children are usually already at or above-proficiency level when they start the school year, but that doesn't mean that their teachers stop teaching them--they are still learning and growing. There is no shortage of opportunities for them to be creative, to learn, or to move forward to more challenging material. There is no doubt in my mind that my children will go on to be extremely successful at whatever they decide to do with their lives because they are receiving a quality education. The methods used by my neighborhood school not only help to close the achievement gap, but they also work to help students like my kids--those who are already proficient in their grade-level materials.

When there is that kind of research and that kind of testament to the success of programs that help close the achievement gap, and white parents don't want their children exposed to them, I am left wondering...Why?  Why are you so against schools using research-based practices that will improve the future for children of color (who will represent a majority of adults by the year 2042)? How can you be so against it when those same practices will also help your white, European-American children? At the very least, those parents exhibit a selfish interest in "my kid" rather than showing a vested an interest in "our nation's kids."  At the very worst, their resistance may be an attempt to protect their white privilege and/or further our nation's history of institutionalized racism.

We all care deeply about our children. But we need to think about their lives in the future. The U.S. Census predicts that by 2042 our current minorities will be the majority. Kindergarteners today will be adult leaders in 2042--old enough to run for the office of President of the U.S.A. Do you want the majority of our country's adults in 2042 to be the product of schools that settled for less? Should we just leave those kids behind and allow the achievement gap to continue? Shall we just cast aside what research says will close the achievement gap so that the white folks can remain on top and in power? It is time to worry about more than just your own kid. We need to worry about all of Iowa's kids, about all of our nation's kids. Let's close the gap.

Flickr image credit: zimpenfish 


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