Tuesday, November 20, 2012

This Isn't Right

In the world of teaching at-risk teenagers, the odds of students achieving what we in 21st century America define as "success" are slim-to-none. For many of my students, college is simply not a realistic or relevant next step, although that's what educators like me are conditioned to believe students should be striving for. We hold these unrealistic and unfair expectations and are then shocked when year after year, familiar faces disappear and become names on paper. And eventually those names become statistics. Something is very wrong with this.

In my first year of teaching, I couldn't believe teaching at-risk students was like investment banking: a numbers game. Teachers worked their asses off, giving 110% everyday, but ultimately we knew the return rate of success was slim. In banking, we'd pitch merger ideas to a plethora of clients, hoping one would bite. Eventually someone would like an idea, and all of of our hard work would transform into a lucrative deal. In teaching, our student successes were also small in number, yet each success felt more than just lucrative. Each success was amazing. Fulfilling even. A big, fat, lingering middle finger to the system that tried to bring that student down.

When I received word that a former student whom I had penciled into the "success" category had fallen from grace, it broke my heart. The words, "motherfucking piece of shit" came to mind.

Esmeralda's story resonates with many of the at-risk teens I teach: raised in a variety of foster homes in different states, traumatic childhood experiences, and constantly in financial distress. On top of that, Esmeralda got pregnant when she was in high school, and decided to keep her child. Her spirit was strong, and after working her ass off at the alternative high school I worked at, she proudly graduated with a high school diploma.

Esmeralda was determined to become the first member of her family to graduate college. Her dream was to become a social worker for children who that weren't receiving the support they needed (like her). She started undergraduate studies at a community college and frequently updated me on her progress via Facebook and text. Her last text:
"I withdrew from school, I'm going through a lot right now."
I stared at the text. Rage flowed through my veins. Rage and a growing sense of hopelessness. This actually wasn't the first time a former (successful) student withdrew from undergraduate studies. In fact, there have been many. What's depressing though, is how few of these students actually make it out of high school, only to withdraw later again.

Esmeralda's situation hurt me a bit more than others. And so did JR's, who also recently withdrew. Years back, I wrote about JR on this blog. JR was my first victory; I'll never forget him and will always consider him a friend. JR was undocumented, which means his parents brought him over to the U.S. illegally. You wouldn't have guessed though, because he looked, talked, and dressed just like any other urban teen into rock music. His parents brought him over from Mexico when he was two years old. The only colleges that considered his application were the local community colleges. After a lot of hard work, one of them eventually accepted him. Unfortunately, he withdrew due to financial distress and other constraints.

Esmeralda has obviously been plagued with problems her whole life. As a single mother with no support, she needs to do whatever she can to support her and her son. JR has also had to lead tough life without documentation. Obviously, I'm not mad at either for them for withdrawing out of college. I'm mad at our education system. I'm mad at the school-to-work track our country has set up. It's the worst.

What we're doing isn't right. Our system is corrupt, designed to work best for those raised within the right circumstance, unless the kid has a strong, type-A personality. If that's the case, then maybe the kid has a chance of making it through.  Somehow, we as at-risk educators have grown okay with others making the rules. We've grown okay with ignoring facts. We ignore our students' poor attendance histories, their traumatic pasts, and their lack of discipline. We assume that if we just "show" them how to get to college, that they'll actually get there. And that they'll actually succeed if they get there.

Many of my at-risk students perform mediocre at best in an alternative high school where there are bells, flags, and whistles designed to keep the student in the building at all times (because many are frequently tempted to cut class). There are counselors calling home. There are privately hired hallway monitors and school safety officers on patrol. Is it really then fair to assume these students will survive college? College doesn't have these checks and balances. They're not designed to support the lifestyle or habits of at-risk teenagers. Somebody please do something, I can't deal with my former kids feeling like shit because life happened and they had to drop out.


Elizabeth Brown said...

I love the analogy...I just said today "That's it guys. I put forth 150% and got back 2%. It got their attention. They paused, quieted and some even worked hard to finish the next task. There is hope. It just takes an enormous amount of retraining these kids to think like confident human beings. Stumbled onto your blog! Great stuff!

Yo Mista said...

Thanks for thoughts Elizabeth!