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So last week I tweeted this:  “I just had a 17 year old ask me how to spell “stress”. Our education system has failed our inner city children.” 

I didn’t get much of a reaction on twitter but a few days later I read THIS response from a friend/blogger of mine, Susannah.  If you have time, please click on the link and read. 

Now, let me start by saying that I have IMMENSE respect and admiration for teachers.   But my comment on twitter isn’t in reference to teachers like Susannah or even the system she teaches in.  I am referring to inner city school systems and they ARE, in fact, FAILING in a monumental way. 

I think to make my case I need to back up a bit.  Perhaps Susannah doesn’t know what I do for a living, or, for that matter, the settings in which I’ve been immersed for the past 4 years.  I have counseled in a homeless shelter, a women’s prison, and an inner city school.  I also did a year of in-home therapy in the worst of the worst neighborhoods in this city.  I now work with teenagers, mostly from those same neighborhoods, in a residential facility.  I do, what alot of people in the “helping” professions call… “in the trenches” work.  The world I enter when I go to work is so foreign from the world most of you live in, it might as well be a third world country.  I live and work in a city that is consistently in the top 10 most dangerous cities in the country.  And the areas in which I have worked are the reason for that statistic.  I have seen people I have worked with on the evening news…and most recently one was shot and killed.  I have been in homes with no furniture…where 8 children were sleeping on 2 mattresses in the floor of one room…just bare mattresses with no blankets or pillows.  I have shown up for “in-home” therapy sessions to find intoxicated parents.  I have had things thrown at me.  I have been spit on, threatened, called everything in the book…. and yet I get up every single solitary day and do it over and over and over again.  Because it is my passion and my purpose.  Most people don’t last in my position…I have lasted longer than any of my predecessors.  So all that to say, I believe I am uniquely qualified to speak on this matter because I live it every day.  I am as close to these kids’ “situations” as anyone outside of their family can be.  I sit and listen to their stories on a daily basis and I ride the roller coaster of emotions with them.  I cry with them, celebrate victories, grieve, dream and hope with them.  I feel so much of what they feel, that I dream their stories at night and I cry myself home after work most days.  

What I meant, specifically, in my twitter comment is that our education system is broken.  It is SEPARATE and UNEQUAL.  When you look around most “inner cities” in this country, specifically their schools, you will see we continue to live in a horrifically segregated country.  Let’s take schools in Birmingham for example.  We have Shades Valley IB, The Alabama School of Fine Arts …we have the Vestavia school system, Homewood…some amazing schools that regularly rank among some of the best in the country.  Then you have Birmingham City Schools.  A school system that is so bad, kids attending have a greater chance of going to jail than college.  Schools that are known for violence, gang activity, drugs, and, most notably, horrible academic achievement.  Why?  How is it that Woodlawn high school is mere minutes from Shades Valley and yet they are light years apart in terms of student achievement and success.  Because it’s in the ghetto.  Let’s be honest.  Inner city schools get less funding, fewer resources and, most often, run off the few quality teachers they have.  Is this a racial issue, a class issue, a cultural issue – it’s all of the above.  BUT although growing up poor and black and from the ghetto in our country, statistically speaking, usually means your future is doomed – it doesn’t mean poor, black, urban kids aren’t intelligent and can’t learn.  BUT that is the message they are sent.  Did you all read my blog post about the Culture War?  If not you should.  But anyway, when trying to press the issue of education with my clients or trying to encourage them to dream outside of their neighborhood, the common responses I get are, and I quote, “those things won’t happen to me because I’m not white..” and “Ms. Katie I’m from the hood, you don’t understand.”  These kids have been taught that black and poor = less opportunity, lower quality education, dead end future.  Period.  They don’t believe their life can be any different than what they know in their own 5 block radius.  And often, to try to believe any different garners criticism from peers – please see Culture War blog for that one too.  BUT what I do know is that giving kids hope makes the difference…if they have something to hold on to…a dream that they believe in, a dream that others foster in them, and a safe place to dwell in that dream….anything can happen.  For many kids…school can be that place.  It was for me.  I didn’t grow up black and in the ghetto…but I grew up poor for many years, in a single parent household.  I was a latchkey kid, I had little family involvement, little support at home (insert defense of mom who was a workaholic to make ends meet).  I’ll spare the details, but I witnessed a great deal of domestic violence and abuse as well.  My story is nowhere near as bad as that of most of my clients…but, statistically speaking, I shouldn’t be as educated as I am today.  So how did I make it?  Because school was the ONE thing I could do.  I couldn’t play sports, I was fat, I was depressed, I was a very lonely kid…but, by god, I was smart and teachers saw that in me and they encouraged me.  School was my refuge and my sanctuary.  When I was there I was safe.  School is the reason I am where I am today.  PERIOD.  And I was fortunate enough to attend some REALLY good schools.  Had I been black and from the ghetto, had I not attended suburban schools, would my story still be a success story?  

Too many people think inner city kids just can’t learn, that they are just “bad” and trying to change their beliefs is useless.  I have heard professionals in my own field talk about our kids in this way.  They’ve given up and believe they can’t change…it’s too ingrained in them…culturally speaking.  Susannah, in her attack on my twitter comment, essentially made my point for me.  She said that there is more going on with kids not being able to learn than just a bad education system…I quote:  “maybe they have a low SES.”  Well my response to that is – why should SES matter?  Why does “low SES” = can’t learn.  You’ve made my point.  We automatically think that children who come from underprivileged backgrounds can’t achieve.  There is nothing more frustrating and infuriating than when I get a kid into my program who, despite being the victim of horrific child abuse, coming from a violent home and “bad” neighborhood, is HIGHLY intelligent.  And yet there is NOTHING I can do to get that kid into a decent school or even ensure they will have a family to go to when they leave my program.  Despite their high intelligence, they will, more than likely, be shuffled to another facility or group home, never settling anywhere permanent and, eventually, not even gra
duate.  The majority of the kids I see already settle for their GED rather than pursuing a diploma because they are “too far behind, there’s no way they can catch up.”

Susannah argues that there is more going on…that this problem begins at home.  True.  And that’s mostly my usual area of focus…BUT…let’s stop a minute and discuss some places where, despite being poor and black and from the ghetto, kids are learning, excelling, overcoming academic deficits and changing the entire trajectory of their future – BECAUSE OF THE SCHOOL THEY ATTEND.  I’m sure many of you have heard of the recently released documentary about education in America titled “Waiting for Superman.”  Oprah did a show recently on the film and discussed some charter schools that were making great strides.  Now let me state, for the record, that I acknowledge that not ALL charter schools are getting it right…but some are…and they are proving that simply being “low SES” doesn’t mean you are doomed to a dismal future.  For example, YES Prep Charter School in Houston had 100% of their graduating seniors accepted to 4 year colleges and 90 percent of those were the first in their family to go to college.  Several of the others featured had taken children that were 4 or 5 years behind and were able to catch them up in 9th-12th grade and prepare them for college.  Going from a 1st grade reading level to 100% proficient by the time they graduated.  And most had 95-100% acceptance to 4 year colleges.  These are kids that are, again, mostly black and poor, but are finding they CAN learn and CAN dream bigger…why…because they have a safe place to do it, adults who believe in them, and a school that WORKS. 

A recent study shows that this generation will be the FIRST in history to be less literate than the one before it.  Our inner cities are getting poorer and our inner city schools are getting further and further behind.  Dropout rates among african american high school students are staggering compared to their white counterparts.  WHY? 

So the point I was trying to make, in a very simplified 140 character tweet, was this…  our education system continues to be mostly segregated, with the majority of money, resources and quality teachers going to the richer suburban schools.  The result = less educated, poorer, inner city kids who are more likely to succumb to gang and drug activity and end up in jail than college.  I don’t have the solution.  I’m a therapist, not an educator.  But I do know that it takes people with dedication and passion who are willing to fight in an environment that is very resistant to change.  I have been fighting resistance in my own system (residential care and the foster care system) for quite some time and there are days that I just don’t think I can keep going.  I complete my license in a few weeks.  The license that will allow me to go into private practice, independently, if I choose and make more money.  I will be free of the heartache and struggle of fighting a system whose dysfunction in SO deeply ingrained in the way it operates and sustains itself, that it seems it will never change.  But will I walk away?  Probably not.  I can’t see myself ever walking away from these kids…I believe I will always work with them in some capacity or another. I might dabble in other ventures, but I will keep my feet “in the trenches” in some way, shape or form. 

In closing, I would like to reiterate that I have immense respect for Susannah as teacher, a working mother, a blogger and a friend.  My blog wasn’t an attack on her …although I think hers WAS an attack on me 😉 …but it was simply an explanation of my point of view.  I don’t think Susannah has a clue what’s going on in our inner city school systems, or, for that matter, how VASTLY different they are from the type of school she teaches in.  Maybe she does.  But I don’t think simply being a teacher in a suburban school system means you understand, and fully grasp, the magnitude of the problem in our urban schools.  I live in the city of Birmingham and Eric and I have already discussed the fact that, unless 1 of us gets a huge salary increase, and can send our future children to private school, we will be forced to move out of the neighborhood we love when they get to school age…otherwise they will be zoned for Birmingham City Schools.  That, unfortunately, is the reality.  And, again this was a 140 character tweet, but I NEVER said it was the fault of the teachers.  It is the system in which they work.  Susannah is a good teacher, it doesn’t mean all teachers are, but due to the way the system operates, we aren’t able to fire ineffective teachers OR compensate effective teachers more. 

So go see the movie “Waiting for Superman,” get involved in trying to make a quality education something that is “equal opportunity.”  Don’t just be thankful that YOUR kids go to a good school.  Think about the kids that can’t.  Think about how much better our society, our nation, will be if EVERY child in America has the opportunity to go to college.  Maybe our math and science jobs will stop being outsourced to China and India.  And maybe we’ll have more urban african american kids who make it out and can go back and show upcoming generations what is possible for them. 

If you are interested in seeing the Oprah show on “Waiting for Superman” you can view it on You Tube by clicking HERE.  The show is divided into 5 parts but one automatically starts after the previous one ends so it’s pretty seamless.  If you don’t have time for the whole show please take a few minutes to watch part 4 of 5 …beginning at about 4 minutes in. 

Before the criticism starts flying, let me reiterate again that I know this is not an ALL black or ALL urban problem.  There are schools or poor rural areas that are under performing as well …but I’m speaking in generalities and from the perspective that I see on a daily basis.  I haven’t seen the documentary yet, but from what I can tell, some of the major issues being discussed in the film are the politics of the education system, tenure, teacher pay, holding teachers/schools accountable, the need for longer school days and more teacher involvement, a better way to evaluate effective vs. noneffective teachers, etc.  Go see the movie when it comes out.  I plan to.