Wednesday, January 23, 2013

SBCSC, a two tiered system?

I wrote this about five years ago when we were contemplating Sarah's options for Kindergarten.  Little has changed.

As mentioned in the Kennedy Academy cattle call post, I started thinking about larger issues involving what happens to children in our education system locally.

It occurs to me that our magnet school strategy, left as it is, could lead to a two tiered public education in South Bend.  The fine arts and Montessori programs are just rolling out, so it’s not possible to speculate much about them.  But the academy and traditional programs have been in place a while. 

If this is a transitional phase leading to a complete reworking of the school system, then it might be just the ticket.  But if we focus just on the Kennedy program and the current conditions – there are things to talk about.

The phrase “students ready to learn” echoed in my thoughts and not just because it was used so many times in the presentation.  This is the key factor in admissions, and the fact it is stressed emphasizes that many children entering Kindergarten aren’t “ready to learn”.

I can’t claim any in depth analysis I’ve done to prove what I’m about to claim, but I have a pretty clear impression that students who come from stable homes, full of books, where learning is encouraged, valued and recognized seem to do pretty well in our system.  My impression that these higher achievers are identified and funneled into honors programs and some eventually to Advanced Placement (for college credit) programs.  That’s pretty much what happened to me in the 1960s and 70s, and it began (to a minor extent) in first grade.

But the Evanston, IL school system had a lot of money, and the students whose learning pace was slower seemed to get the attention they needed and do OK.  At least, I think so.

In South Bend it seems clear to me that they do not.  Little else would seem to explain our low graduation rates.

So, we have a program for those kids who are good to go.  It seems to me we need a comprehensive program aimed at children who aren’t.

I used to be a mentor in the Dream Team For Unity Program , a program I highly recommend.  I met weekly with James while he was a fourth and fifth grader.  Generally mentors meet with students for lunch, but my schedule didn’t allow for that, so we met after school.  There were reasons for James to be in the program, but he was very smart and school came easily to him.  I’m guessing he’s doing fine – but I can’t say I know.

At the beginning we met privately, but in the second year we met in his classroom.  His teacher ( the same woman both years) held after school sessions with a group of half a dozen students or so who needed extra help.  These children were not ready to learn -  most wanted to be, but weren’t.
Their neediness was almost suffocating.  They didn’t have mentors, and so envied James.  When their teacher was free, it was almost like watching a nest full of recent hatchlings beseeching Momma Bird for sustenance.  It was heartbreaking.

I am ashamed that I don’t remember this valiant teacher’s name, but I will never forget her expression of fatigue every single week I saw her.  She never let it stop her, though.  She would be there every time – ready to help.

Some readers may be aware that I supported John Edwards for President.  As part of a tapestry of policy proposals to create or restore (depending upon your point of view) a condition of One America he proposed a very aggressive education component.

This proposal had many things to commend it, but if we focus on the early childhood portion, he proposed universal pre-K (as he called) for four year olds as well as beefing up nutrition, healthcare and childcare programs for younger children.  This pre-K would be a natural point to get our children “ready to learn”.  Unfortunately, I think we can all agree we won’t be creating such a thing locally out of whole cloth any time soon.  And that’s a problem.

Our daughter Sarah has been attending St. Mary’s Early Childhood Development Center for two years now.  It is a fantastic program, but far from cheap (I just did our taxes).  Not much doubt if she’s ready to learn.  So to speculate that she has a leg up on getting into Kennedy really isn’t speculation at all.

When you are told the objectives of Kindergarten at Kennedy, it mostly has to do with reading and spelling and writing and math and operating computers.  This is more aggressive than I’d prefer, but it will probably be fine for most of the children admitted.  But some will need more of a foundation, and may end up leaving the program.  For those kids and the ones not admitted…here’s what I think.

Since there are and will be children who have no educational experience prior to Kindergarten as well as those who have challenges despite some preschool, we should agree that Kindergarten’s focused priority be preparing our children for learning.  Anything else should be secondary.  What does that mean?

It means rewarding curiosity, making learning fun and fostering early critical thinking skills.  It means encouraging creativity, early problem solving, collaboration and compromise.  Any human with this skill set will learn faster and face a better outcome in later life than those who lack it.  We should not want our children getting past Kindergarten without the confidence this foundation would give.

This may mean that Kindergarten classes need to be smaller – which, of course will make them more expensive.  If so, so be it.  The ripple effect of prepared students in the later grades will bring down many ancillary expenses.  Prevention is always cheaper.

And more young adults will enter careers that are more rewarding and have lives more fulfilling – which is what they’re going to need when they have to deal with all the problems we’re likely to leave them.

That’s how I see it.

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