Let’s Talk About the Elephant in Homeroom
Tom Kerr, Asheville Freelance Writer
When you were in first grade, kids and teachers in your school may have sized you up pretty fast. The principal may have known your mom when she was a kid and made the honor roll. Maybe some teachers went to the same church or synagogue as you and knew that your brother liked to misbehave. Perhaps the coach’s kid played with your sister at the YWCA and knew she was a wonderful little girl. In this case, you’ll get along just fine, and on the first day of school most kids are already excited and not too homesick, looking forward to the adventure of making new friends and learning new things.
Or, maybe when your parents filled out your application to start school they gave an address or other information that betrayed you, because you lived in a neighborhood that has a long history of high rates of crime, gang violence, abject poverty, and dependence on subsidies.
Your mom may have applied for free and reduced meals at school to ensure that you had adequate nutrition at breakfast and lunch, but now some people may perceive you differently, in a negative light. You may later learn that these indicators mean you are a member of a perceived underclass. If you knew it in kindergarten, you’d be embarrassed and wouldn’t want to speak up in class for fear that your peers will find out you are struggling and ill at ease, but you’re just a little kid. Little kids grow up.
The System Supports Many But Fails Others
There are children enrolled in our public schools who are knowingly or unknowingly perceived as underachievers or troublemakers, early on in their education. Their parents went through the same system, so they are now poor, and poorly educated, and (relative to more affluent and educated parents) are unable to effectively advocate. Nationally and locally, there is institutionalized racism and classism at work that is now woven into the fabric of how we implement policy and programs in our schools.
Let’s Get One Thing Straight
The folks we are referring to are our neighbors. They are hardworking Americans, good parents, and often have well-behaved, respectful children. They represent the diversity our city loves to celebrate. They have every right to the support systems that local, state, and federal agencies offer citizens, and it is their birthright in the Land of Opportunity to get a quality education and an equal chance at success.
Parents: We know you are often working two or three jobs to come close to “living wage” , just to keep a roof over your children’s heads and food on the table. An overwhelmed school system seeking greater efficiency, and higher scores on standardized tests in order to secure more funding, may categorize your kids as predictable problem learners. Before these kids have a chance to prove themselves, they are identified as “students of low expectation” – and funneled into groups and programs that will reinforce that self-identification, while other kids hop on a different conveyor belt that academically and socially challenges them and suggests at every turn, “be all that you can be”.
Taxpayers are Paying to Fund the System
Whether they have children in our schools or not. Many graduates go on to lead highly productive lives that benefit the greater community and contribute to the economy and tax base, and others do not.
Asheville’s Socio-Economic Paradox
Now let’s talk about issues that are really close to home. There are students who earn diplomas from Asheville High School, for example, who go next door to AB Tech community college and cannot pass the entrance requirements. They are told to go back and take remedial reading classes.
Others wish to proudly move on to serve their county in the U.S. military, but can’t pass the ASFAB entrance exam – which is a fairly low measure of success for high school graduates in America.
These students – and the taxpayers who funded their education – are legitimately frustrated to find out, too late, that some graduates are functionally illiterate. That’s an embarrassment to students, an insult to their alma mater, and an unacceptable outcome for Asheville – which touts its proud reputation as a progressive city with a forward-thinking community vision.
Meanwhile, in the shadows of Asheville’s prosperity and growth, there are whole communities of people living in multigenerational poverty. The parents of today’s students experienced the same frustrations in their tenure in city schools, and then entered the workforce ill-equipped. They struggled then, and they struggle now – while they strive to give their own children the opportunities they missed out on, or were flatly denied.
Call to Action
This cycle perpetuates itself, to the detriment of everyone, because brilliant, creative minds are stunted instead of stimulated. Poverty-induced learning differences go undiagnosed and students – our own citizens and the future of our world – continue to be underserved, frustrated, and humiliated.
It is no wonder that some of these kids lose hope, act-out in school in order to camouflage their learning disabilities, and eventually drop-out of school to lead unfulfilling lives – which add to the social and economic burden of the community instead of helping to build a stronger, more fair, and dignified Asheville.
The Solution is Ours to Find
The intellectual and financial resources are obviously abundant in our community. We have a locally-focused and successful multi-million dollar art museum. We have private schools whose capital campaigns surpass goal and also top out in the millions. But, though public schools also have millions of dollars to spend, schools and local agencies don’t seem to be able to create the dynamic partnerships needed to measurably improve outcomes for the most at-risk and fragile children.
Contributing to the problem, teachers are grossly underpaid, micromanaged, and overworked. Morale is low, attrition rates are high, and the troublesome issues keep getting pushed aside – just like many children and their families are marginalized – while Asheville is lauded as one of the Top 10 Most Desirable Places to Live.
It is our shared responsibility and moral mandate that kids who are knowingly, or inadvertently, denied an equal shot at success, and at offering their own natural gifts and talents to our community, have that chance. Paramount is the need to invest in leadership and educational tools that measurably support them. The least we can do, in other words, is to make sure that they have the tools do the most they possibly can. As my grandpa said, they can’t be expected to dig out the basement with a spoon.
To push for that kind of solution is an exciting, spiritually satisfying effort. Each of us can speak loudly, passionately, and use our influence and truth to illuminate the embarrassed and aged elephant in the room. Then we can replace the elephant with curiosity-fueled, eagerly engaged, students getting the classroom attention they need and deserve from teachers who have the training, administrative support, and resources to excel as educators.