Did you know that ninety three percent of Missouri schools are performing adequately or above expectations? It may be surprising to some that that number is so high. You would think, with all we are changing in our public education, that the number would be much lower, say around twenty five percent. But the fact is, we have been trying to "fix" the seven percent that aren't doing so well, and those seven percent are, by and large, in our urban areas in St. Louis and Kansas City. Just look where the schools have lost accreditation and you will see what areas we are trying hardest to fix. Both those cities could exist in any state. The inner city school seems to be ground zero for academic failure and many in the education intelligentsia have proffered their reforms to change the student scores in those schools. Because we no longer believe in targeted strategies, but have preferred to aim for education equity, we find ourselves in teh situation we are in today where we are changing what schools do everywhere to fix the problem in our inner cities.
John Kuhn, in a stunning frank but well written article, explains why most of the reform efforts aimed at inner cities schools don't work, and how contextual accountability might be the better approach. He writes,
Every school is a microcosm of the community it serves—that is, every school that serves any and all students in the neighborhood. Peaceful schools are nestled in peaceful environs. If there are drugs or violence in the streets, educators will contend with drugs and violence working their way into the school like crickets through unseen cracks. If there are racist or misogynistic attitudes in the homes, they will manifest themselves on campus. And so it goes. If there is materialism, superiority, entitlement, narcissism, coldness, anti-intellectualism, vanity, laziness, or greed ensconced in the hearts of the parents or grandparents or neighbors or pastors or businessmen or family friends who act out their human dialogues in the public space shared with students, then students will bring traces of those attitudes with them into class and the air will hang with secondhand dysfunction.
Educators spend entire careers—some without even realizing it—trying to accentuate and play off of students’ positive outside influences and minimize or at least sidestep their negative ones, just to prepare the groundwork so they can teach their content. Teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, an obvious fact which bears repeating only because it’s so common to hear people go on and on about teacher quality as the ultimate driver of student learning. Too many experts spout the mogul-endorsed “no excuses” mantra reflexively when the conversation turns to the context of student lives, and in so doing effectively refuse to talk seriously about the increasingly debilitating conditions of that context.He pokes holes in the argument that charter schools are a fix for the environmental problems inner city kids face.
In reality, the quiet secret to their [charter schools] trumpeted success is simply a strategic divorce of cultures. Via lottery-purified enrollment, high-hurdled parent involvement, and hair-trigger expulsions, the highest of the high-performers embrace select children from the neighborhood while flatly rejecting the broad sweep of the neighborhood’s culture, preferring to substitute their own pre-manufactured culture-like products... Tragically, creatively-selective charter schools portend national blindness to the suffering our policies foster.
I highly encourage you to read the entire article for it speaks the truth that so few in the education reform movement are afraid to speak. What is needed in the inner city schools is a personal connection to the students and their families that cannot be quantified by psychometrics and institutionalized by a public bureaucracy. That one-on-one that comes from the heart goes farther than any free lunch, idyllic curriculum or state of the art technology could.
At about that time, a woman became involved in the school. She didn't want to just send money to buy things for the kids. She wanted to see what she could do to help, so she took a tour of the school with the Principal Terry Houston who wondered what this white woman thought she was going to do for an inner city, predominantly black, school. After seeing the conditions there the woman decided she was going to let these students know that they were special, that somebody out there cared about them and wanted them to succeed. It was important that they hear those words from someone who wasn't playing them and who had nothing to gain personally.
So she decided to share this message at a birthday party for all the kids. Knowing that everyone would want their birthday recognized she showed up Friday morning with 10 sheet cakes and shared 800 pieces of cake with the students in the cafeteria. They of course wanted to know who this woman was and why was she bringing them cake. She told them that each one of them was a special human being, with gifts and talents that they might not yet have discovered even themselves, someone who had the ability to succeed and achieve something greater. Sadly, this was a message that many of these kids had not gotten.
Knowing that the message itself was only part of what these kids needed, this woman also worked with Kimberly McCurdy who opened KidSmart in 2002 to supply basic school supplies like pencils, paper and crayons to 90,000 kids in St. Louis who could not otherwise afford to buy them. KidSmart distributes the supplies through teachers who shop at KidSmart’s Free Store once a month. You can't be expected to do the work without the tools.
She also worked with Judge Jimmie Edwards in the St. Louis Juvenile Court. Judge Edwards was a national finalist in People magazine's 2011 People Readers' Choice Hero campaign. Innovative Concept Academy, which he created in 2009 in the abandoned Blewett Middle School, as an alternative school for juvenile offenders. There were so many negative influences on these kids lives: gangs, poverty, single parents etc., that it looked like crime was inevitable for many of them. Judge Edwards and this suburban white woman did not want to see that come true.
She continued delivering sheet cakes to Roosevelt each month for the next six years and quickly earned the moniker "The Cake Lady" which children would happily shout as they saw her walking down the hall laden with her ten packages of sweet celebration. She was a constant reminder to the students of Roosevelt that someone out there cared about them and was watching their progress. Through a business connection she was involved in, out of last year's graduation class of 130, 110 had jobs to go to after Roosevelt.
What it takes for kids to succeed is for someone to take an interest in them and reinforce the idea to them that they can succeed. Kids know when you're paid to do it and when your heart isn't in it, but they knew The Cake Lady was the real deal.
By the way, the Cake Lady is gubernatorial candidate Dave Spence's wife Suzie Spence. Wouldn't it be great if everyone who wanted a pubic office had a personal history of selfless dedication, who actually got in and worked with the people they claim to want to help once in office? Think of what public policy might look like if that were the case.