Sunday, January 17, 2010


By Diana L. Chapman

Pleasssssssssssssssssseeeeee….give them something. The kids that is.

It makes no sense that our state plans to solve the erratic, up and down, swiveling roller coaster of our educational system – a dress up, drop down overhaul without this – digging at the root of the problem.

The root starts with the dregs and earthen layers of poverty combined with the fact that we’ve failed to move the educational system into the 21st Century.

But let’s start with what our state legislature did first in the “Race to the Top” to get national dollars from President Barack Obama.

They closed their eyes to what I’d call true reform.

Instead, the state legislature’s newly enacted laws this January to get tough on schools really only addresses the delicious icing on the cake – but not the rotting inside. Under the new laws, parents can yank their kids out of poor performing schools, demand the changes of principals and participate in the firing of a staff of failing schools.

I’m all for parents becoming a much larger part of the “partnership” educators keep talking about. But we already know some givens.

Kids with good parents, for the most part, do better and often achieve despite the system they are in. They have a support system. But a majority of our children – 50 percent in California – live in dire poverty, are often immigrant children and have parents struggling to put food on their plates. Or their family are gang members. Or they live in a drug-infested, cockroach ridden neighborhood. Or they reside in a chaos and turmoil in their own homes. Or there’s five children and one mom. Or they live with all the above. You get the point. Not much of this is addressed by the state.

And because children live like this does not mean they don’t have major, raw and untapped talent.

Here’s some of my ideas for more realistic reform:

· --Toss the whole principal idea out the door. It’s not working. Instead, let’s make a leadership ring for each school, consistent with a team leader and a collaborative that embraces students, teachers, administrators and parents to address the specific needs of individual schools. If a campus then fails – we can only look at each other.

· --Helloooo up there in Sacramento: Consider this, you must, because it’s the reason our educational system is a mess; We’ve failed to move education to the 21st Century. By this, I mean most parents, good, bad or indifferent, are working all day long by the thousands – and yet, school still typically runs from about 8 to 3 p.m. Schools need to remain open until 6 p.m. if we want to keep kids off the streets, prevent them from becoming latchkey kids, gang members or video game freaks, or from straining our libraries after school – turning librarians with master’s degrees into babysitters.

· --Another issue Sacramento: Understand that our schools are now a second home for our children. For some, it will become the only place they will learn values and social skills because many are not getting it at home, and never will. Keep them after school in a safe haven and give them guidance. We don’t need educators all day long, but we can focus on more fun but focused after school programs, such as an array of sports, cooking, written driver’s education classes, art, dance, music, all things that can explore other talents they may have.

After working with scores of students on a volunteer basis for more than a decade, I’ve learned this:

· --Many good kids live in a war torn neighborhoods (drugs, gangs, crime) or in a household filled with turmoil or they have both – a lifestyle many of us can’t begin to understand.

· --Every student has a gift to offer and we, as adults, need to help them dig to find their gold.

· --Students are often resilient and need just a bit of guidance to get ahead. But most do need direction. Offered that, thousands of kids can turn on a dime. Yes, in fact, the very kids we ignore daily.

The answers aren’t always just in the realm of money, but about looking for ways to plug up giant holes our youth endure on a daily basis.

While I could give you scores of examples, here’s one student who turned her life around with help from the Boys and Girls Club’s College Bound Program and my volunteer writing class there.

Rose, a sprite 16-year-old girl, who wrote for her personal essay on a college application that “maybe” she could perform well, “maybe” she could become a lawyer someday and that “maybe” she could raise her brother and sister. Rosie and her siblings lived in a household where the parents had such dramatic fights that police and social workers grabbed the kids routinely and plopped them into foster homes. When angered with Rosie, the parents punished her by not allowing her to see her siblings, who she cared for and raised.

While I was reading her essay, where she put herself down more than up, I could still see her pure grit and determination to make it. She did tell some extraordinary facts about herself.

She wanted to be a judge. She took business law classes at a community college at age 16. Because of her career choice, she enrolled in a police cadet program for the challenge. Her grades were high along with her test scores. The list was endless.

But in her writing – she buried her gold with self-effacing words like maybe. Finally I asked: “Rosie, if you don’t sell yourself, who will?” It was as though someone opened a gate and gave her permission to realize her amazing talents.

From that moment on she shined, winning a $100,000 Riordan scholarship, partially with an extremely self-assured personal essay and the College Bound program helped her obtain a full scholarship to study law at USD, a school she attends now. Ever since, she hasn’t quit –receiving. She’s now on a fellowship to study women and the law in Washington D.C. for three months and will soon attend Harvard for one week to study policy and the law, also on a full scholarship.

And yet, we could easily let this talent slip past us, had it not been for the Boys and Club’s College Bound program.

I could continue on and on about the students who have turned their lives around over night with just a bit of direction. One night, when I was teaching a writing class, a girl wandered up and asked me what I meant about using “adversity,” in a personal essay to explain the question how the world had shaped them.

“Would that include if both your parents are meth addicts?” she murmured.

My mouth dropped open. She further continued how school had become her “savior,” and she was sad to admit she only had a 3.5 GPA. My mouth fell open wider. She still dreams of becoming a doctor, especially because she wanted to take care of her younger brother who was damaged by her parent’s drug use. She was 16, but seemed like 50.

I can’t get that kid out of my mind and pray she won’t become someone we miss. Unfortunately, our state’s new laws won’t prevent that. So I ask again: Please give our kids something – after school programs, more mentors and more college bound programs. Let’s get out there and find the talent.