The second semester started this week at our school. As I write this post, more than 50% of all students at each grade level are failing one or more classes. That’s an outrageous number. I’m appalled at that failure rate. But it speaks to one of the traps that exist in inner city schools. It’s the clean, quiet, and safe trap. Students, parents, teachers, and principals all fall into the trap of believing that a clean, quiet, and safe school means it’s a good school. Unfortunately, that’s where the bar is set for a school like ours; clean, quiet, and safe.
I don’t want to belittle those three indicators, because to be honest, we haven’t always been all three. It’s taken an incredible amount of hard work from my teachers and from me to get us to the point where we can call ourselves clean, quiet, and safe. Some city school communities call clean, quiet, and safe a win. For me, it represents the floor-the minimum expectation we must have to ensure the conditions exist for our students to learn.
Back to the failures. I’m working with my teachers to help them understand that we need serious interventions to decrease our astronomical failure rate. I’ll write about why so many students are failing in another post. Most of my teachers have come to the understanding that we need an extended day for many of our students to give them the instructional support they need. So last week, we were discussing an after-school intervention program. One of my teachers said, “We need real consequences for students who don’t show up to the after-school intervention program.” We were in the midst of a brainstorm, so there wasn’t really an opportunity to discuss the statement, but it was clear from body language and the nodding, that many, maybe most, of my staff agreed with the statement.
I should say that it’s rare for a student to fail only one course at our school. Students either pass everything, or fail multiple courses. Rarely is a student only failing one class. So all these students who need interventions are already on track to be retained; some of them for the second and third time. Retention for some of these students means dropping out. I don’t have the data in front of me, but the reality is sixteen year olds who haven’t yet made it out of ninth grade are extremely unlikely to graduate from high school. Yet some of my team believe we need more consequences if the students don’t show up for help and support.
The truth is we need the opposite of consequences. We need our students to feel more cared for than they have ever felt before. We need them to believe with all their hearts that this time will actually be different than all the other times they’ve failed. We need hope, and we need to nourish and care for that hope for our students, until they can carry that hope on their own without fear of losing it. Consequences? Not a chance. Hope, support, and more opportunities to learn is what we have to provide.
But we don’t really know how to as a team...yet. Some of my teachers can offer hope on their own. But we don’t know how to work together as a school community to offer students hope...yet.
I do understand where my teacher and those who agreed are coming from. My teachers try not to be, but sometimes they are angry with our students. My teachers are working incredibly hard. Frankly, they are working much harder than the students. But the staff doesn’t see the results they expect from the work they believe they put in. “I taught it, they didn’t learn it” is a blog post unto itself. But sometimes I can see my teachers’ perspective. I don’t aways agree with it, but I understand where they are coming from. The teachers choose to come to this environment each and every day. Most pour their hearts and souls into their teaching; in the best way they know how, if not always the most effective way. And the students aren’t learning. Another common inner-city experience, or maybe it’s a common experience when working with teenagers, is to hear, “I didn’t fail the class. S/he failed me.” But it doesn’t always come out using those words. In our environment it’s often said with yelling, and cursing, and extreme anger. So my teachers get angry too. And the result is a belief that we need order and more consequences, because we will show those students that even if they pretend not to care if they are passing, we’ll find something, anything to punish them with, to make sure they care. Especially because I'm not going to work this hard, and have students show me they don't care.
Clean, quiet, and safe. It’s so much easier to measure our success based on those indicators and not on learning. But then we fail our kids. And in our school, when our students fail, are retained over and over again, or simply don’t learn; it dooms them to a life of poverty. Clean, quiet, and safe have to be our minimum set of expectations.
Tomorrow, we’ll meet again as a staff and I’ll lead a discussion about instructional interventions, learning, and about hope. We won’t be talking about more consequences.