Friday, February 12, 2010


By Diana L. Chapman

The other night, an acquaintance moaned about the struggles of running an after school program at a Los Angeles Unified High School.

The problem wasn’t with the San Pedro High students he prepped for an upcoming academic decathlon on a volunteer basis. In fact, the kids blew Tom Butler away with their speech abilities; they climbed far beyond his expectations.

Shortly before the decathlon, Butler was stunned when two of his students were yanked from the team due to a little known policy that basically halts students in middle school and up --who average below a C -- from participating in field trips, after school programs and any other extracurricular activity.

This policy reminds me of the Berlin Wall; the time for it to come down – was yesterday.

As the school board marches forward with a revolutionary change in the district – beckoning charter schools to bid on 24 brand new campuses because they might educate better than some in-house officials – I am branding this policy with a big red X to remind the board this too should fall under the new revolution.

Instead of acting as an incentive, for many students this is just another nasty reality nail pummeled into their educational coffin for these reasons:

--The school district has 718,000 students, nearly two-thirds of whom qualify for partial or fully subsidized lunches, a way that marks out the poverty level of many LAUSD students. On top of this, hundreds of our students come from broken homes, live in criminal-ridden neighborhoods, have gangsters, drug addicts or alcoholics for parents, and more issues than most of us will have in a lifetime. Telling kids like that they can’t attend an after school program – the very thing that might change their lives around – makes no sense whatsoever.

In case school officials have missed it, this policy obviously isn’t working since we have a near 50 percent dropout rate and an average SAT scores of 450 in both English and Math.

Here are the reasons I opposed the policy the way its written now:

· --Teachers frequently say that field trips can make remarkable changes in students, who still have yet to find their niche or their interests. It gives teachers another tool to reach kids who are going nowhere quickly and often goes something like this: Johnny’s science brain – which has slept at the wheel for the past eight years – suddenly came out of its slumber on an expedition at sea to study fish and other sea life. This happens routinely on outings – and that’s why teachers will often like to take those sleepy heads on projects outside of school.

· --In my years of volunteering at schools, the one word I’ve heard repeated over and over again from many students is that they are “worthless.” It doesn’t make them feel any better about themselves to be banned from field trips, after school programs or other activities – and believe me – this doesn’t go unnoticed by their peers – who understand perfectly why a student is not allowed to attend. Yikes! Just add another nail hammered in, because now the student is embarrassed, humiliated and starts to see no reason to go to school.

· --After school programs can be just like field trips. They help a child explore areas in school that they might not take otherwise – such as dancing, sports, art and music – when its offered. One non-profit apparently helps students study for the written portion of the driving test after school. For the same reason as field trips, we should not ban this completely to students with poor grades.

I have come to see this black-and-white rule – which needs to transform right now – as much more painful, harmful and humiliating than the incentive it was meant to be. It reminds me once again that huge pieces remain missing from the giant tapestry that educates a kid; words such as inspiration, nuturing and creativity have fallen by the wayside and been replaced with the mighty all test scores.

Test scores are the monitor for intelligence, but wasn’t it Albert Einstein who flunked math! ?

Instead of honing in on students strengths, we – the adults -- are not letting them forget their weaknesses – and in fact – air them out on the clothesline by punishing them further. For students whose confidence already is fragile, school just provides them with one more dead end.

If our job means helping kids find themselves, then let’s figure out where their talent is and direct them using carrots from after school programs as incentives.

Take for instance, this kid:

Ramon, (whose name has been changed) was a middle school student who had tremendous athletic abilities, was a leader among his peers and was on the border of becoming either the athlete he could have become or a gang member. His grades were poor and many of his family members were in gangs. Due to the C policy, Ramon was not allowed to participate in the very thing that may have saved him – sports.

And he definitely had something worth saving. Other students liked him immensely. He was hilarious and if you were a friend, he’d save you from just about anything. One day, he spotted some students bullying a special education student around and was so outraged, he had to be forced to sit down to stop him from intervening.

The point is this: we should have used incentives for Ramon, such as allowing him to practice after school with the team – but not allowing him to play without bringing his grades up. After awhile, it got to the point for Ramon there was just nothing left for him at school. Last I heard, he dropped out and joined a hard-core gang.

I can’t help but think he won’t make it past 18.

There are many Ramons and I’ve met them over the years. But even worse, are the middle of the road students who seem to believe they have no value – the boy who saw his best friend shot by gang members in front of him, the teen whose stepfather told him he was “worthless,” so he believed it, the girl that considered school her savior because her homelife came with parents on meth.

These are the same students – I watched turn their lives around over night with a bit of help from programs such as the Boys and Girls Club College Bound program.

These are the same students who don’t need to be punished any further. They already have been numerous times.

So I’m asking LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines and the school board to allow administrators, teachers and coaches -- as a team to keep this on the up and up especially when it comes to sports – to use the very activities they’ve banned – as incentives to keep kids in school, keep their minds ticking and encourage them to bring their grades -- “a hybrid,” or a compromise as one school official noted.

Yep, it’s a bit more work, but it will be worth it.

I know every kid has a talent. Teachers know this too. So don’t take their tools away that just might be the key to unlock a kid’s heart.

As far as the decathlon, Butler said they lost the first event (winning later), but he was more dismayed the district missed the point. The students probably learned more studying for the decathlon than in the classroom.

I can’t sum it up better than my friend, a former culinary teacher at San Pedro High who wrote about a student she calls Hector who was big, bored, uninterested in football and gangs, had poor grades and was just trying to get by. He lived in the projects and no one in his family had a high school degree.

Within a few weeks of her cooking class – in his senior year – Hector at last came to life.

When the stovetop turned on “Hector was hooked…He could not get enough, ” she said.

“He filled out an application, wrote an essay, got letters of recommendation and was accepted into a cooking competition!” Sandy Wood wrote. “He stayed after school almost every day for weeks to practice. He won a scholarship to a culinary school in New England! …He called me after a week or so and said, “There are no Mexicans here!” I told him,: “There are now!

“I have seen many Hectors, and Lisas, and Matthews, and Jennifers. I have seen the fire move from the stovetop into their hearts.”

So we don’t lose these students, let’s keep the fires going and the stovetops burning – instead of stamping them out. Let’s revise that C policy now.