OPINION: Making high poverty schools high priority

By Katje Lehrman

This post originally appeared on Lehrman’s blog, “From the Robes of the KinderQueen.” Follow Katjewave on Twitter.

It takes a village to raise a child.

It’s a very simple idea, but it really needs to become the central theme of education reform. For education reform to be effective, all stakeholders; teachers, administrators, students, and parents must work collaboratively.

We need to begin with the belief that all children can learn and want to learn. This does not mean that all children can accomplish all things equally, but it does mean that we have to hold high expectations for every child and that all stakeholders must have these expectations. I would like to say that I have never heard a parent or a teacher tell a child that they are not smart enough, but that should be the goal. The worst four letter word I’ve ever heard a child say is CAN’T.

After we’ve agreed that all children can learn, we need to examine and fix the causes for children not learning.

Poverty is probably the greatest cause of children not learning. Poor children are not inherently unable to learn, but a child who comes to school hungry or sick cannot learn. It is hard to hear the sounds of the letters when your stomach is rumbling or your head is throbbing. If we re-envision schools in high poverty areas as community learning centers and provide for the basic needs of the children (and hopefully provide access to services for families) we immediately make education more accessible. Fixing poverty is not going to be easy, but even in the current economy we are a rich nation and children living in poverty must become a national priority.

We then need to move beyond the racism of low expectations. Having different pigmentation or home language does not render a child unable to learn, but restricting their curriculum to ‘basics’ does impair their ability. Having spent two decades teaching minority students I am personally offended by educators saying that “our students can’t do what their students can”. I love words and my kindergarten ELL students frequently use vocabulary that many non-ELL elementary school students can’t use. “Ellos no pueden” (they can’t) is more despicable than “I can’t.”

Next, we need to provide all children with comfortable, safe, healthy learning environments. I recently noticed that not all my students can sit correctly at their tables because some of the old wooden chairs are too tall. There are several that wobble because they have lost the ‘glide’ from one or more legs. These aren’t enormous problems, but they create unnecessary distractions. Some schools have falling tiles, mold, insect infestations, and some schools lack heat, air conditioning, working bathrooms, etc. It would be wonderful if all students could attend beautiful, well maintained, ergonomically designed schools, but all students deserve to at least be safe, comfortable, and healthy at school.

Now we can finally look at curriculum. Curriculum must always consider the developmental stage of the learner. I had noticed that many of my students have difficulty making slanted lines unless I provide dots for beginning and ending the lines. I just read that 5-year-old children may not even be able to recognize slanted lines. No wonder Ashley’s ‘A’ looks like an upside down ‘U’! Perhaps it is time to rethink the time honored tradition of grouping children by age and move to groupings of academic and/or perhaps social maturity.

Finally, we need to always remember that education is about the students. Earlier today I read a tweet that if you are struggling to keep children on task, perhaps it is time to rethink the task. If we can engage students, they can achieve incredible things. Let’s encourage them to think, to explore, to read, to create, to grow, and to embrace their possibilities.