Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Faith Network: Hope For Children Now

 I was incredibly honored to give the keynote address for Faith Network's annual gala earlier this month. I have been working with the staff of Faith Network to try to get out the stories of these amazing kids in Oakland and to come alongside them.

Quite a few people have asked me what I talked about, so I'll share here. I mean every word of it from my heart.


I am so excited to have this chance to tell you about our kids, these wonderful kids in our community who have so much potential, and who flourish they’re provided with the love and support they crave and deserve.

Let me tell you about my experiences teaching in Oakland. I taught at Lockwood Elementary School, in East Oakland, right by the Coliseum, for eight years. This school was in a particularly rough part of Oakland. I didn’t know this before I taught there but the police called this neighborhood the “killing zone” due to the high number of murders that took place there. Although I left that school ten years ago, we unfortunately have many of the same challenges today in our schools.

I was 24 when I started working at Lockwood and I was not at all prepared for the level of need at that school. Like any group of people, my students had a variety of family situations. However, the level of financial need was consistent: it went from fairly low-income to desperately poor, and life for all of my students’ families involved the difficulties that came along with raising children with so much financial stress.

I was also not prepared for the level of violence that these kids had to live with every day. Most of my students’ families had no personal connection to the violence nearby but they did have to live with the repercussions of it. The first time I got a note requesting that I excuse an 8-year-old from doing her homework because she had to hide from the drive-by shootings that were happening that night… well, I started to realize that these kids were dealing with a lot more than most people were aware of.

I was honored to meet, and grow to love, students and families from many different cultures and backgrounds. There was a wide array of talents, experiences, knowledge, and skills, but there was also so much need.

I had students who came to school hungry every day. We had a free breakfast program, but it wasn’t very healthy. In addition, if a student’s parent worked nights or was preoccupied with younger children, it could be difficult for that student to get to school in time to take advantage of this program. For some kids, lunch was the only substantial meal they’d have and, like school lunches almost everywhere, they were not high-quality. This obviously led to issues like lack of attention, low energy levels, and more. In fact, I had one colleague who ran an experiment on herself, eating the school lunches every day for a week. She reported back to us that she felt tired, sluggish, and a little ill all week. The kids who most needed nutrition supplementation were not getting it. Unfortunately, the quality of school lunches today is still a concern for educators in many regions, including ours, and the effects on learning are exacerbated in lower income areas.

Many of my students were far below grade level academically, for a variety of reasons. Some had non-English speaking parents, so they entered kindergarten without speaking any English, much less reading or writing it. If their parents couldn’t speak English, they were unlikely to be able to help with homework that had English directions, so young children struggled to complete homework on their own. This often made the students feel like they were, in their words, “stupid,” when truthfully, they just needed some guidance, like every other child. Some of their parents had had children when they were very young and had not had the chance to complete their own schooling. And of course, many of the parents were working multiple jobs and just didn’t have the time, money, or energy to help their children or provide enrichment opportunities.

I want to be very clear - NONE of this was because the parents didn’t care about their kids. But if you’re concerned about your children having food on the table, a roof over their head, and basic safety, their academic concerns are just not what you’re going to be able to focus on.

In addition, our school was in bad shape. The playground, which was really just an asphalt yard with some broken basketball hoops, was actually crumbling. There was no grass and very few trees - the yard looked more like a prison yard than a school yard. Because of the area, we had trouble finding teachers and administrators, and many used our school as a stepping stone and then, as they would see it, “advanced” to safer, more affluent areas. This constant turnover affected our students and families, who couldn’t build important relationships with school staff.

We had a different principal every year for the eight years that I was at Lockwood. How many of you can remember your principal’s name from elementary school? I can: mine was Mrs. Goodwin. The kids I taught quickly gave up on learning the principals’ names because they knew they’d just have to meet someone else the next year. We have a new dedicated, homegrown superintendent in Oakland Unified and many passionate principals and teachers. However, hiring and staff stability is going to remain a challenge for at least the next several years due to severe budget limitations.

In many more affluent schools, parents and PTAs join with teachers in providing books and supplies. Our school didn’t have a PTA and most of our parents couldn’t help out much, although they did when they could. And supplies and books were more important for kids who didn’t have them at home, so teachers used their meager paychecks to buy these for their students.

My first year teaching was hard, for all those reasons and more. It was really hard. In my second year of teaching, there was an announcement at my church that Randy Roth, former pastor of First Covenant Church in Oakland, had started an organization meant to support students and teachers in Oakland. I heard his talk and cried throughout it. This was what we needed - we needed a community to come alongside us and help. We needed to not do this alone.

Randy told us about the schools Faith Network had started working with and I knew them. They were needy schools, but they weren’t on our level. We had consistently scored 59th out of 60 in elementary school testing, and we were in the poorest and most violent neighborhood in Oakland. Through my tears, I begged Randy to come to our school. He told me that he wanted to, but that the neighborhood was so dangerous that he couldn’t get volunteers to come. This was in Faith Network’s first year.

Seventeen years later, I am thrilled to say that not only has FN been at my former school for many years (even through it changing into two small schools) but that they’ve spread throughout the East Bay, and that I have seen and heard of their good work from teachers, kids, parents and administrators. They have provided mentors, reading partners, math tutors, science labs, and much much more. Most importantly, they have created a team to come alongside each school community, because every single one of these kids needs and deserves a team of people on their side.

This is not simply about getting kids up to certain academic standards. It’s not about providing pencils and books. It is literally a matter of life and death. Let me tell you what can happen without a team of community support behind these wonderful kids who are at such risk. I have two stories that are hard to share and hard to hear, but they are important.

Jorge was a child who was intensely aware of how much he needed help. He told his second-grade teacher that he needed help “learning how to be a good person.” He explained further that other kids had parents who could help them learn to be a good person, but that he didn’t. His dad was missing, and his mom was dealing with the stress of East Oakland by using a variety of substances. It’s a long story, and Jorge gets a whole chapter in my book, but the upshot is that he continued to ask for help in every way he knew how, and we just didn’t have the resources to help him. Eventually, anyone in his position would have gotten beaten down by the circumstances. He was pushed even further by witnessing the murder of his friend, at 13, and gave up and joined a gang. And if you think about it, of course he did. He was craving community and people on his side. If he had had those people on his side in another context, I don’t think our tax dollars would be paying for him to be in Corcoran State Prison for 19 years.

Fred was another child who was very close to my heart, and who also cried out for help. I had Fred in both first grade and third grade and, while he was known as a terror around school because of his behavior, he would come to me when he was upset, telling me that he couldn’t deal with his feelings and that he felt like no one cared about him. He was expelled in elementary school and incarcerated as a teenager. As a young adult, trying to leave the gang he had joined, he was shot and killed. I recently found his journal from third grade. I haven’t had the strength to read it, but I remember him writing profusely, because he wanted so badly for somebody to listen. I firmly believe that if he had had the type of support offering by Faith Network, he would still be with us today, making the world a better place.

Both of these stories were completely avoidable. These kids were at a crossroads, and if there had been a team of people to advocate for them and help get them over the hurdle, we would not have wasted these precious lives.

Now let me tell you a different story. Stephanie had more family support than Jorge or Fred but even more than that, she had community support. She had a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters. She had teachers who helped her out, following her from year to year to make sure she never fell through any cracks. She had a church community and knew that people in her community had her back. While Stephanie dealt with the same violence and poverty as all of my other students, she had a village around her, supporting her and building her up. Last year, Stephanie graduated from Howard University and is currently in a double master’s program: education and biology, while serving as a teacher intern in Baltimore. THIS is what can happen when a child knows that people believe in her.

Obviously Howard University is a nationally recognized university and I’m so proud of her. But I’ve had other students take a different path to success, and in a way, they have achieved even more than Stephanie. Saafir is one of those. Saafir has actually fallen through the cracks in many of his schools but he had a Faith Network volunteer when he was in my third-grade class and she made a huge difference. She brought him and his classmates healthy snacks, worked as a team with me and his 4th grade teacher to make sure he didn’t get lost, and believed in him. When he was in high school, she was even able to hire him for an internship! He got a little lost at Oakland Tech and ended up transferring to a continuation school to finish high school. He agonized about this decision, and it would have been easy for him to drop out during his senior year. But he had this history of people believing in him and I am SO proud to say that he is studying at the College of Alameda. I got to be at his high school graduation and it was one of the proudest days of my life.

If you have ever had the pleasure of working with any of the kids at the schools Faith Network serves, you know that the benefits are not just for the students. The volunteers are set up for success with training and controlled environment, which makes a huge difference. Setting the volunteers up for success this way makes them able to really focus on what the kids need: academic help and positive, supportive relationships with adults.

Let me tell you what I’ve seen as a teacher, and more recently, as the former Director of Education at Harbor House Ministries, from these tutoring relationships. I’ve seen kids who could barely recognize letters at the beginning of the year excited about reading at the end of the year. I’ve seen kids who didn’t believe any adult outside their family could possibly care about them end up totally secure in their relationship with an adult from a completely different background than themselves. I’ve seen teachers who were not thrilled about having a group with “Faith” in the name moved to tears because of the generosity of FN volunteers and staff. I’ve seen volunteers bring food to kids who hadn’t eaten a substantial meal that day, or possibly that week. I’ve seen a group that doesn’t come to schools and tell them what they need to do but who humbly asks what they need. I’ve seen kids who I thought would drop out of school before 6th grade (yes, that is frequent) bring books to me and say, “Guess what! I can read this!!”

Again, this is not simply a matter of getting kids up to grade level, although that is important. This is a matter of helping children and youth at a key crossroads in their lives. If they get the help they need, it will make all the difference in the world. This is a matter of life and death.

We’ve all heard that third grade reading levels are used to predict prison population. As a teacher, I could look at a child in my class and know, with depressing accuracy, if they were going to make it to 25 alive and out of prison. Do you know what the one thing was that would surprise me and prove me wrong? It was intervention by someone who cared.

Oakland has a tremendous community spirit and I am so excited to see community, like many of you in this room, who are making a dramatic difference in these children’s lives. It’s not hard to do - two hours per week by one member of this community, supported and trained by Faith Network - can change two children’s lives forever, over the course of just one academic year. And that’s not even counting the amazing changes that take place in the volunteer’s lives!
There are many people in the Oakland community with wonderful hearts and a desire to make a difference in a young person’s life. If everyone in this room made a point to talk about the need and how to help, whether by volunteering, donating, advocating, or spreading the word, we could have ALL of the volunteers and resources we need to help the next generation of children. Imagine that. Imagine the potential in these kids becoming fully realized. I am hopeful that, as a state and a nation, we will someday establish our priorities to have all of our schools finally resourced as they should be, but until then, it’s up to us here in this room, and our greater community, to make the changes.

There are about 1,600 third grade students in Oakland Unified who are reading substantially below grade level. That’s a lot. But… if Faith Network could increase their 150 reading tutors to 800 - 800 people volunteering only two hours a week - we could wipe that out. We could have the vast majority of the third graders in Oakland reading at or above grade level. As a former third grade teacher, this idea gives me chills because it has so much potential. Third grade is a crossroads. This is the last year that anyone helps them learn to read; after that, it’s all reading to learn. Increasing individual tutoring could change everything and empower so many precious children.

Please continue your support and help us to spread the word. These kids are amazing and deserving and they ARE our future. It’s actually very easy to make a big difference. Thank you for listening and caring so deeply for the children in our community.

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