(This column took first place in opinion writing at the Journalism Association of California Community Colleges Convention in Burbank, Calif. Schools from all over the state competed)
By Glenn Wohltmann
As Benjamin Franklin said, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” So it is with issues of race and diversity.
Lately, it’s been a trend to have “positive conversations” and “dialog” about equity in education. Which is nice and makes us all feel better, but doesn’t address the real issue: poverty.
At a recent presentation, Nayra Pacheco, program manager for the Santa Barbara-based organization, Just Communities, did exactly that. Pacheco talked. She spoke about the need for what she described as “the three R’s of equitable and effective education.” Those, according to her, are relationships, relevance and rigor.
Pacheco said that teachers who build relationships with students wind up with better performance in class and score higher on tests. She suggested that teachers build in materials that are more “culturally relevant,” which makes sense. And Pacheco made a case for expecting the best, citing a school district that put all incoming high school freshmen into honors English, then provided them with support so they could live up to those high expectations.
Those are grand ideas, but unfortunately, Pacheco only touched briefly on what she described as the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
In conversations with a number of teachers over the years, every single one said they knew by the third grade whether a student would be successful. Those students nearly uniformly came from what professionals are now calling “socio-economically disadvantaged” families, which is the politically correct way of saying poor folks.
The problems associated with being poor go beyond the classroom. Families that are poor can’t afford preschool programs, so their children enter their first classes without knowing their numbers or letters. They can’t count to ten and they don’t know the alphabet. They often – literally – don’t know their left from their right. They can’t name colors.
Those students are behind from their first day and face a constant uphill battle, trying and often failing, to catch up with their peers who have had the advantage of early education.
Beyond that, those students face the more important issue of nutrition. More than half of those receiving public assistance in the form of food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are children, according to statistics from the Urban Institute. Those students frequently come to school hungry. Not hungry for knowledge, but hungry for breakfast. And often, these students live in food deserts, where convenience stores are the only places their parents can shop. Where healthy food choices are not an option. It’s hard to imagine even the best mind flourishing under those circumstances.
Those same students are on the wrong side of the digital divide, frequently without Internet access in their homes, and the idea of Googling something is a foreign concept. Smart phones have made a dent in that divide, allowing for some to at least be able to get online for homework or to do the research that’s often needed for class. But data plans are restrictive and can lead to massive phone bills for the people who can least afford them.
There’s also the issue of unconscious prejudice. A local high-performing school district recently studied the different races and incomes of students. That district found that teachers – despite their education, their awareness and their white middle class guilt – were steering poor students away from high education and into blue-class careers.
There are programs that work. Geoffrey Canada has been uniquely successful in his program, the Harlem Children’s Zone. Students are provided with preschool education and food. They’re provided with centers where they can get Internet access and homework help. Those students are expected to do well in school, and they do.
It’s healthy to talk about race and diversity. It makes us more aware of the problems that students from different backgrounds face. But it’s unlikely that any real progress will be made until the problems that are associated with poverty – early childhood education, nutrition and access to technology – are addressed. As a minister friend of mine is fond of saying, sometimes we need to put legs on our prayers.