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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Tantalus' Reach: Luis Goes to College

If you've been reading my posts for a while, you've probably determined that success, as it is normally defined in education, is a rarity in my program. It is rare, but it does happen and Luis is a success.

Luis is going to college.

He's been asking for help with his FAFSA and EOP. He's been coming to school with his pockets stuffed with forms and envelopes each morning -- he used to carry a backpack, but when his bike got stolen he couldn't make the four-mile walk to school in the dark with a backpack without getting robbed.

So all his forms are folded in squares.

Today he was doing his EOP questionnaire, which asks him to explain his financial situation. He started his answer like this:

We are poor. Not just "don't get to go out to dinner once a week" poor, but "might not get dinner at all" poor. We are poor.

Like everybody else around here, he's poor. The thing that he doesn't put on his form is that he's a recovering crack addict who's been clean now for almost a year. It doesn't make it onto the application because when it asks for extra-curricular activities, he chose to put band and church instead.

But he's college bound now and is an exciting success for all of us who've worked with him over the years. He's applying to California State University schools and will most likely be accepted -- which makes him one of the lucky ones in so many ways.

As a society, we are quick to tell students that they must go to college and it's true -- students who attain a college degree are more likely to be employed, less likely to depend on government assistance, and will have an average lifetime earnings benefit of $1,000,000 over their non-college educated peers.

But it is quickly becoming Tantalus' Fruit.

You see, this year California public high schools will push another 350,000 graduates out of the nest. Luis is in direct competition with 349,999 other students who are all trying to come up with a viable plan for the coming year.

Imagine if the entire population of Minneapolis, Minnesota, had to completely change their lives between June and September.

And most of them, like Luis, are going to try and go to college.

There will be spaces for only the top 35,000 of these students in the University of California system. These ones will have to come up with an average of $30,000 per year to pay for their education, room and board.

There will be spaces for another 56,000 of them in the CSU's -- which make them overcrowded and make it difficult for students to get the classes they need. A four year college career, for many of them, is a thing of the past. But even so, a crowded CSU beats the other alternatives, so these ones will come up with an average of $16,000 to pay for education, room and board.

And the other less lucky or less well-prepared or less well-motivated or less well-situated 265,000 newly minted graduates are going to have to find a job, do nothing, join the military, start at the community colleges or succumb to the syron song of the For-Profit Loan Harvesters.

There are very few jobs.

The military is downsizing.

So most will try and squeeze into one of the 100 community colleges that dot California.

Graduates plan. God Laughs.

Tantalus' Fruit. That's what we're offering because classes are full. Programs are packed to the gills. Here in California, there are nearly 2.5 million students enrolled either full or part time in our 100 community colleges and 41% of them are competing for the bottleneck classes necessary for associates degrees and transfer programs.

The upshot? A two year program is no longer two years. A full course load (necessary for maintaining a subsidized loan) is often impossible to arrange.

Completion rates are dropping.

The For-Profit Loan Harvesters are stepping in to profit off the damage.

And the student loans just keep coming due.

If Luis were the average student, he would need to borrow nearly $70,000 to pay for college if he goes to a CSU -- which I'm hoping he will -- and he will have no money from home and no home to commute from. But he's not normal -- he's Luis and I'm sure he'll find a way to scrape by with much less.

And I am thrilled for him. The next four years will cost him more than his family has earned in the last eight, but Luis is determined and that's enough for me to believe that he's going to make it.

And I don't mention my worries about how much he's going to owe when he's through.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

When One of "Those Kids" Goes Back to Jail

Another one of my kids got arrested today. Outgoing, pretty and with a golden smile, she looks like an all-star, but she's one of Those Kids who's have some difficulty with the basics of school: she can't seem to stop talking. Now she's back in jail and that's not going to help her be a better student.

There's a poem, one of those sappy teacher-poems that gets sent around by and for teachers every once in a while, that I think about when things like this happen. It's called "I'm The One," and it's by somebody named Cody Moree. I don't know who Cody is, but I appreciate his poem because it is one of the only ones out there that is bent on reminding us that Those Kids, the knuckleheads in our classrooms, are the ones that need us the most.

And many of my students now are living examples of what happens when Those Kids don't get what they need.

For most of Those Kids, school isn't about learning, or the future, it's about the people and right now. It's about their friends, sure, but it's also about the teachers and the janitors and the security guards and the principal.

Unlike elsewhere in Those Kid's lives, school is one place where the adults have rules (For all the teachers being total scumbags in the news these days, we need to remember that the overwhelming majority of people who work in education are good souls who are trying to make lives better) and kids can trust that, for the most part, the adults will follow them.

For many of Those Kids, these safe adults are their lifeline.

Those Kids come to school looking for teachers and other adults who understand why they are the way they are and who are willing and able to work with them, without judgement and without exasperation, as they learn how to do the things that come easily to other kids. The need to learn how to be a student in class. How to choose against their own impulses.

How not to give up on themselves.

But there aren't all that many teachers who have the time and inclination, or the freedom to do these things.

A couple of years ago, I left my job as a traditional classroom teacher in order to work with Those Kids full time.

I have the time, the freedom, and the inclination.

But I work with older kids and by the time they come to me those kids are no longer kids. More than I can count have already had their first tastes of how the rest of the world deals with somebody who can't sit down, shut up and behave.

About a third of my students are on parole for offenses that range from vandalism and possession to prostitution, weapons violations and robbery. Each one of them was popped for doing something that they should never have done Each one of them is now a criminal. Each one of them is now in the system. Each one of them started out like the kid in "I'm the One." "Those kids" are the cargo on the school to prison pipeline.

Like I said, the Sheriff's department took one of my students today. Right out of class. Everybody got really quiet and looked away. Nobody thinks it's cool. It's not exciting to them. To them, it's simply inevitable.

I've asked many of them why the do things that they know are criminal. The answers have all been variations on a theme:

"Why Not? They're gonna bust me for things whether I've done them or not. It don't matter what I do or don't do, so sometimes I do it.

While in some cases this is simply an excuse and in others it's simply a lie, what lies beneath it are truths:

A system that tells kids to be individuals, but rewards conformity.

A pervasive sense of powerlessness that comes from a lifetime of unexpectedly finding one's self on the wrong side of somebody's rules.

The ubiquitous sense of injustice that comes from seeing rules being applied unevenly and not in your favor.

And an ever-present sense that, really, I Don't Matter.

And when these are truths, even simply truths of perception, Those Kids begin to feel:

"Why Not? They're gonna bust me for things whether I've done them or not. It don't matter what I do or don't do, so sometimes I do it.

And so it begins.

It starts with trips to the office, but if there's not the right teacher involved, it seems to end too often in handcuffs.

"I'm The One" by Cody Moree

This is a poem that circulated a while ago. I've been thinking about it recently because it relates to another issue I'm going to be writing about and thought I'd reshare it.


Have you ever stopped and asked yourself
Just what you're working for?
Some might say fame and some say fortune,
But I hope there is something more.
You see, I'm the one you see at school,
And I'm not like the other kids.
I don't always say the right things
Even though I wish I did.
I am the one that's always late-
The one who can't stand still in line.
And I know it's me you're talking about
When you say you're losing your mind.
I can't help you win awards
Or become staff member of the year.
I can't help you do anything,
At least that's what I hear.
You see, I'll never make straight "A"s,
A "C" is about the best I can do.
But I might turn my life around
If someone were proud of me too.

If you work in the principal's office,
You see me almost every day.
Yeah, I'm the one always in trouble
And always in the way.
I'm not real pretty, I'm not real smart;
I don't fit in with the crowd.
I'm a little too angry, a little too slow,
And sometimes a little too loud.

I know you all get tired of me,
And you wish I would go away.
And you know that doesn't shock me now,
Because that's what my parents say.
So even though I have nothing to offer,
I need to ask you something now.
Would you please come back to school tomorrow
And put up with me somehow?
'Cause if you don't, no one will;
You may be my last shot.
And I know it's way too much to ask,
But I need someone to give me all they've got.

I'll tell you right now I won't remember
The things that are in the book.
But I promise I will never forget
The extra effort that you took.
If you'll just love me in spite of myself,
I might just make it through.
And I know there are others who can do so much more,
But all I have is you.

So if someone ever asks you why you work so hard,
Why you do all that you've done.
If you ever have a reason to be in education,
Look at me, I'M THE ONE.

By Cody Moree