Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Difference a School Makes


I've talked before about the two kids that a friend and I hang out with, or I guess you could say "mentor" in a way. I'm forgetting the pseudonyms I have them so I'll call them Jorge (the older one) and Luis (the younger). I had Jorge in my class in third grade and he has had it rough. He's the oldest of six children and was born when his mother was 14. His mom is frequently in rehab or jail, although she seems to have been out for the last couple of years. If she's clean or not is anyone's guess. Jorge helped raise Luis, at their grandmother's house (the rest of the kids live with other relatives). He's always been super over-responsible, stressed out, and had way too many adult responsibilities.

About a year ago, Jorge started to crack. He was 13, which isn't fun at the best of times, he finally didn't have to look after his younger brother so much, his mom and dad were both separately getting involved in his life but then flaking out when he needed them, and he started fighting with his grandmother. Oh, and he was dating a 16 year old who wasn't going to school and looked like she was at least 18. He got rude and insulting (never to us but he said some pretty awful things to his mother and grandmother). He started breaking things when he was angry, and knocking over chairs and tables.

In the middle of this, he got into trouble at school. Jorge was going to a large, old middle school that is desperately trying to overcome its reputation as a bad school, and not succeeding. I've never heard anyone say anything good about it or send their kids there for any reason other than they just didn't know there were other options. He wanted to be a thug and started dressing and acting like your stereotypical wannabe gangster. And even a gangster in training in this neighborhood is terrifying.

His teachers looked for any excuse possible to kick Jorge out of class. And he gave them plenty, from flicking rubber bands at people to wrestling in the hall to talking back to telling a teacher that he had a gun (he didn't). At one point, the school tried to expel him (a DHP for those of you in the industry) but my friend and I brought him to the hearing and the teacher and principal didn't show, so Jorge "won." We also went to a meeting with his counselor and acting principal and explained his home situation, how he was desperately behind and wasn't getting the help he needed and how that contributed to him acting out (it's way less humiliating to get kicked out of class for threatening a teacher than it is to have everyone see you can read very well), etc. Both the principal and the counselor promised to do everything in their power to get him the help he needed in the form of counseling, extra math and reading help, checking on him personally, and helping him get organized. They gave us their email addresses and phone numbers and urged us to follow up. Then they never responded to one of our (many) follow-up inquiries.

I'm not sure how much I can blame the administration and teachers on this one. Knowing this child as I do, and knowing what is at his heart if you can get to it, it frustrates me immensely that they didn't take the time and energy to really see what was going on. Jorge is very sensitive to respect or the lack of it (as many kids are) and knew that his teachers did not respect him, nor did they have time for him. Also, I'm really frustrated by the counselor and adminstrator making promises that they didn't/couldn't keep.

I also understand, however, what they're up against. They have a school full of kids who are statistically almost certain not to succeed and are facing less funding and support with more mandates. I know how exhausting it is in every way to really give these kids what they need, which is a LOT. But I did it for eight years, and when I couldn't do it any more, I left. I can't tell if being in a similar situation makes me more or less empathetic to the teachers, actually.


In a nutshell: Jorge at old school: slouching, rude, hood over his face, pants sagging down to his knees, face always either in a scowl or laughing at someone else's expense (he was getting mean, and that is not who he is) -- someone who the teachers wanted OUT.

Imagine my surprise when I get a phone call from the assistant principal at his new school saying that Jorge told him that he had this third grade teacher and other adult in his life. Over the next week, I got positive emails from Jorge's principal, assistant principal, counselor, and a couple of teachers. Seems like the minute they met him, they somehow saw his potential, and he responded. (Really, I PROMISE, kids will live up -- or down -- to your expectations). In email after email, I read that he was respectful, on time, working hard, etc. Even the email talking about how disorganized he was involved him accepting help in getting more organized!!! And each person seemed to honestly care about this kid who had only been in their school for a week.

Today, my friend and I went to meet the assistant principal and check up on Jorge . Now, I've seen a lot of middle schools in this district, and when I entered this one, I felt like I had walked into the Twilight Zone. It was clean. It was bright. It had a mural, student work up and no graffiti. It felt lighter that any middle school I've ever been to. Jorge got pulled out of his class and... there are not words. I wish I had a before and after picture. He was wearing a uniform of khaki pants and a white shirt, he wasn't sagging, he had nothing hiding his face, he wasn't slouching, and he was GRINNING. He looked like a different kid. I mean, the kid was standing up straight for the first time in years!

Jorge told us about how he was getting help on his multiplication tables -- and he wasn't angry and didn't call himself stupid for not knowing them. When the assistant principal broached the subject of maybe repeating 8th grade because he had all Fs up till now, Jorge explained to us why it would be a good idea for him. He told us about a field trip that he's taking to various UC campuses. I'm writing so much because I can't adequately express the change. It was astounding.

Now, this is not a kid who trusts easily. That whole first week -- if he had an idea, even for a second, that a teacher didn't want him there or didn't respect him, he would have been right back to his old habits. I am blown away by how incredible the staff must be for him to react like this. I don't generally include the names of schools I'm talking about, but it seems this one should be in the papers.

I've asked many people to pray for this kid (by his real name) and I hope you will continue. I am so thankful for where he is at this moment.

1 comment:

Jessamyn Harris said...

woohoo! that's a very great story, thanks for sharing it.