Thursday, October 07, 2010

Principal for a day. . .

On Tuesday I enjoyed the privilege of serving as "Principal-for-a-day" at Rufus C. Burleson Elementary School, a DISD school located in Pleasant Grove. 

While it may be true that there are poor schools, bad principals, unruly children and rotten teachers, I certainly did not see anything remotely resembling those characterizations during my day at "Burleson," as the students refer to the school. 

The building is old, but immaculately maintained and cared for. 

The atmosphere conveyed a sense of calm, quiet order. 

Students were well-behaved, teachers well-prepared. 

I visited classes from Pre-K to 6th grade (E. B. Comstock, the middle school in the feeder pattern is too crowded to accept this oldest class at Burleson).  In every setting the students were attentive, actively engaged in their learning activities and very respectful of their teachers and one another.

I sat in on band practice. 

I visited a great computer learning classroom where students worked hard on math skills. 

The PE class was fun. 

The art teacher a real creative sort. 

As I left the building, I ran into Yolanda Knight, the real Principal of the school.  She was walking the property with DISD planning officials who were evaluating the property for improvements.  Ms. Knight was lobbying hard for her kids. 

"Give this lady anything she wants," I counseled as I left.  "She knows what she's doing if what I just saw is any indication of her effectiveness."

What a great experience. . .except for one defining reality with which every one of these students must struggle:  poverty. 

Burleson's atmosphere couldn't be better.  Tweaked maybe, but not made substantially different or better.  The school reminded me of my elementary school experience.  Caring teachers.  Attentive students.  All of it. 

Then, I took a moment to look at their test scores. 

On the TAKS scale of "met minimum requirements," the older students seem to have improved slightly over the past three years, likely a tribute to the Principal and her team. 

The younger children who continue to use the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (I took that test!) and, in terms of performing at grade level, under-perform badly in math and only 61% read at grade level. 

Among older students (3-6 grades) 43% are college ready in math; 34% in reading; 40% in science and 65% in writing skills.  In terms of involvement, 93% attend classes 90% of the time.  Only half of the 5th graders are on track for middle school. 

What's going on here?  I had to ask myself that question. 

I think I know.

It's not the school. 

It's not the kids.

I don't think it's the parents or families, though I know popular wisdom would lay blame at their feet almost exclusively.  While parents must share in any blame game scorecard, they too are trapped in the same web of enduring difficulty. 

It's the entirety of the social milieu, the oppressive fabric of life lived in a complex community of urban poverty that stands behind the test scores, the limited expectations, the shortened personal possibility horizons and the realistic prospects for change. 

The parents of these children work very hard to keep their families housed, clothed and fed.  Most don't really make it, always playing catch up to keep things moving.  Burleson serves breakfast and lunch to its students, an indicator of both the income levels of their households and their persistent struggle with "making ends meet." 

I saw bright-eyed children in very worn clothing. 

Several years ago a candidate of DISD School Board asked me what I thought was the number one issue facing Dallas schools. 

My one-word reply surprised him.  "That one is easy:   poverty." 

My experience as a principal reconfirmed my idea. 

To improve public schools we'd better get serious about eliminating poverty. 

And, our ideas need to be larger than the enormity of the challenges we face in this regard. 

Much larger. 

Who's up for the battle?


Dean Smith said...

That's why we (Urban Connection Austin) are helping to bring Family Resource Centers to middle schools in Austin. This program brings focused social services to families in crisis to help move them to stability and, eventually, self-sufficiency. Presently, we are working out of J. Frank Dobie Middle School on the north side of Austin and hoping to expand to become a one-stop center for helping families, if we can secure the support required to do so.

Larry James said...

Thanks, Dean! You approach is on target!

Chris said...

How could 3-6 grade be college ready?

Larry James said...

chris, on a track, based on current expected mastery of learning, to be headed for college. Cynically, some states predict and project prison cell needs based on 4th grade reading scores.

Jerry said...

You are right on target, Larry, with your analysis of the impact of poverty on schools. Some schools are not dealing with the issues they face nearly as well as evidently Burleson Elem. is, based upon your report. But, they all struggle with poverty. The other social factor that is likely number 2 on the list is primary or native language. Those two issues together are the overwhelming issues for most urban public schools. Those schools that cope best with these issues do the best with their students' academic progress. But,what if they did not have to start with so many students from poverty? No doubt the entire educational system would benefit greatly, as would our society as a whole. Thanks for sharing your insights.

rcorum said...

Larry, this is where I really disagree with you in one major area, parental responsibility. Unless I am totally misreading the literature, our welfare system simply does not encourage fathers to be a part of the home, and that has major consequeces. I really want to know why the single mother birth rate in the African American community is over 70%, at least that is the number in the Memphis area. I want to understand and I want to be part of the solution, but if the home is not functioning well then that might very well be the core of the problem. Something is perpetuating poverty, and I am just not convinced that another government program is the answer. I am also not expecting other people to accept my value system, but what is happening now is just not working. I also think that another part of the problem is the general inefficiency of the federal government with it comes to their efforts to bring people out of poverty. Lately I have heard many people suggest that some people just make too much money. I don't necessarily disagree with that, but when I look at what Bill and Melinda Gates have done with their money and think of what would have happened to that amount of money in the hands of the government thru taxation I wonder why anyone would think that the government can spend the Gates money better than themselves.

On a more positive note. I am thankful that you took the time to spend a day in that school. No matter what the full solution might be it can never hurt for people in the community to invest in the lives of children in a personal way. This year our church gave every new teacher a substantial gift card to every new teacher at a middle school where we help out.

Larry, I hope you might come up with some compromise about anonymous posters. Cope's blog seems to handle it well, but he uses Word Press. Go Rangers.

Larry James said...

RC and Jerry, thanks for the comments. Jerry, having been a teacher and superintendent for a large, urban school district, I know you understand all of this far better than I ever will. So, your confirmation is gratifying.

RC, for the sake of this conversation, let's say you are correct. Now what? Let the kids continue to languish and fail? And, now that you mention it, why so many single mothers? Why so many absent dads? How does poverty and our economic system with its opportunity rules and realities, our criminal justice system, how does all of this relate to the problem of public educaiton. You see, in my view, you can't pull out one factor and hold it in isolation from all the rest that is going on in the urban context. One thing feeds off another. We must be comprehensive in our approach and we can't let the reasons for educational failure paralyze us. Poverty is the culprit back of all of these social challenges--I guess that is my whole point. Poverty and hopelessness breeds dispair that destroys communities.

rcorum said...

Larry, I do believe that the children should not suffer for any issues the parents might have. An educated child is a child with a real chance. My issue has to do with the best ways to fight poverty, and I am afraid that our current welfare system at times seems to foster the unintended consequence of contributing to a degree to multigenerational poverty. I think, based on views you have expressed on this blog, that we would differ on some fundamental issues attached to attacking poverty in our country. I think that it is safe to say I have a much greater appreciation for the works of Milton Friedman than you. When I reread your post I could not find one thing that I really disagreed with. Poverty is everything you say it is, but the real question is about the plan of attack. Can government programs end poverty? I would love sometime to hear your opinion of the works of Thomas Sowell, especially his book, "Basic Economics." By the way, I heard of Sowell and Walter Williams long before they were mentioned by Rush Limbaugh. I am not an economist and I know that my intellect is no match for you nor many others that have posted here, but these writers, especially Friedman and Sowell, have really spoken to me. My parting question is, "Can conservatives and liberals find common ground in attacking poverty?"