A Tale of Two Classrooms

Capacity: The maximum amount that something can sustain.

Raleigh N.C., real estate developer Bill Fletcher shared with us that the decision to integrate schools socioeconomically in Raleigh was a decision about capacity. Not building capacity or funding capacity or cafeteria capacity, but a teacher’s capacity to teach (and a student’s capacity to learn). Fletcher saw clearly that teachers in urban Raleigh classrooms did not have the capacity to meet all the needs of students in front of them.

It is a tale of two classrooms. One of my daughters was educated k-12 in the Webster Central Schools; the other began kindergarten in the city and is now a senior at the School of The Arts. Their respective third grade classrooms tell the tale. The Webster student began third grade fully meeting state standards, having arrived in kindergarten already able to read. Her classmates, by and large, were similarly prepared and encouraged to learn as teams working on class projects.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

My special needs student arrived at her third grade “inclusion” city classroom to a chaotic mess. District policy required 6 special ed children in her class of 22. My child is deaf and her special need was for a quiet learning environment in order to learn how to access sound via a Cochlear implant. The other 5 special ed students in her class had a range of behavioral needs that resulted in a classroom of continual emotional explosions. No student, not even the best general education student, could learn in this traumatic environment. As one student bit another, a third would scream obscenities or tear up learning materials. The teacher would spend hours and hours after school filling out the necessary forms to get the biters and screamers to a more appropriate learning setting. These were hours taken away from time she would have spent grading, planning lessons, communicating with parents, and attending staff meetings and professional development events. As a teacher, the toll of not being able to reach (let alone teach) your students is defeating. In this classroom, a student’s capacity to learn is subverted by the brain’s need to convert to protection mode. Learning doesn’t happen here.

Yes, there are buildings within the City School District in which classrooms are not chaotic and learning does happen consistently (Let’s replicate these!). And there are exceptionally gifted teachers in the district who take as part of their call the hours and hours of time outside the work day meeting their students’ extraordinary needs. Bless them. The reality, though, is that most students do not graduate on time, if ever.

In Raleigh, folks realized that urban teachers were being over utilized and suburban teachers were underutilized, given the needs of each population of students. Here in Rochester, our children’s capacity to learn is limited by the chaotic environment in which we’ve placed them. Our teachers’ capacity to teach is overwhelmed by the needs in the classroom. The Great Schools for All coalition’s research shows that classrooms in which fewer than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch (FRPL) are classrooms in which all students learn to their full capacity because their teachers are able to spend precious energy on helping students learn.

Here are comparative graduation rates for the 2013-2014 year:[i] [ii]

School District Grad Rate for General population Grad Rate for African-American Students % Free or Reduced Priced Lunch Students
Webster Central Schools           93            96              12
Wake County Public Schools           83            74              33
Rochester City Schools           43            42

85

A case can be made that teachers in suburban classrooms with a few FRPL students are underutilized and that urban teachers with classrooms filled with FRPL students are drowning. Why are we at the Great Schools for All coalition so passionate about socioeconomic integration of classrooms?

Because we strongly believe that every child can learn and each child deserves a chance.

 

[i]2013 | NY STATE – Report Card | New York State Education Department Data Site. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

[ii] ACCOUNTABILITY AND TESTING RESULTS. (n.d.). Retrieved August 30, 2015.

 

 

Quality Summer Learning programs proof of a ‘sharing community’

A year ago, eleven of us traveled to Raleigh, N.C. to see what deconcentrating poverty looks like in a large urban school district. Schools don’t look different in Raleigh. Teachers don’t teach differently. What is different is how the Raleigh community feels about education. Every child in Raleigh is a child of promise, rather than a child at risk. School buildings are sharing communities. Because most schools in Raleigh are designed to cap the number of children from poor families (defined as those eligible for free or reduced price federal lunches) at 40 percent of the student population, 60 percent of families in a building have resources to share. Think about that. This deliberate 40/60 composition is a reflection of the community’s commitment to sharing. Walking into Joyner elementary school, I see a rack of clothes for those in need. The Joyner PTA stuffs backpacks with food each Friday afternoon to give to students at the social worker’s discretion. Sharing is part of the Wake County Central School District’s DNA.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

Beth Laidlaw teaches philosophy at Monroe Community College and is a member of the GS4A leadership team.

But it’s not about the stuff. The Great Schools for All coalition here in Rochester has been working on concrete action steps to eliminate high poverty urban schools because the needs of so many poor children can overwhelm a school’s staff and resources. The same principle applies to summer learning: a socioeconomically diverse program reflects a commitment to sharing that will benefit both the poorest and most affluent children.  We’ve learned that a quality summer learning program (QSLP) engages students by weaving summer learning through a well-designed curriculum, exercise and enrichment and assessment of student progress. Some students in Rochester learned last summer through building rockets, learning scripts, and playing building-sized board games. Quality learning requires a lot of stuff. But Raleigh’s success is not about the stuff, it’s a mindset of caring about every student.

If you are paying for a 6-week QSLP (at The Harley School, or Nazareth College, or Lego Camp, for example), your child can expect quality instruction reinforced through exercise and enrichment (field trips, plays, rocket launchings). The City School District reports that as many as 12,500 students will be involved in some form of summer learning, but very few of those who need quality summer learning this year can afford $1000 or more for summer programs like those above. Maybe two in ten of our city’s children will be lucky enough to be selected for a free QSLP.

Hundreds of city children will attend day camp through the YMCA – a fun experience, but not a QSLP. Only 64 students from Schools 33 and 8 will be chosen for the Y’s free QSLP held at the Carlson branch. Many many children each summer sign up for Monroe Public Library’s Summer Reading Program which tracks the amount of time and number of books a child reads. Only 300 students, though, will be selected for the Library’s QSLP run by EnCompass. Only 700 children will be able to participate in the City School District’s premier QSLP, held last year at the School of the Arts, where the entire building became a game of Clue as students puzzled out a mystery.

And for our children in extreme poverty who find their way to a QSLP, the lack of food, clothing, and transportation continue to be barriers to learning. If your only meals are the breakfast and lunch served at school, you may choose not to eat. The directors of QSLPs report that some students squirrel away school meals in backpacks so that their siblings will have something to eat when they get home. Other children sit pool-side during swim time because they don’t own a swim suit or towel. And if transportation is not provided to the QSLP, students don’t go.

Scaling up the few free excellent quality summer learning programs in Rochester to fully enroll all the students needing them is not about getting more stuff, it is about sharing. If we adopted Raleigh’s perspective that each child is a child of promise and that schools are caring communities, we could leverage education and foundation dollars to support this critical learning. Join us on Tuesday, May 5th, from 8:00-12:30 at the GS4A  at Mt. Olivet Baptist Church as we hear action steps proposed by the Summer Learning work group as well as five other work groups from the Great Schools Coalition. In this atmosphere of promise and sharing, a caring Monroe community will discern ways to wrap our arms around our city’s children. It’s not about the stuff, it’s about the caring.