Pivotal forces: Community support, parental education

Long before the days when standardized testing was the criteria for whether a school was successful or not, I was co-founder of The Father’s Heart Urban Prep School in Trenton. Our students were the children of poverty, many coming from families broken by addiction and abandonment. Based on what we saw was needed for this population, the curriculum we chose to develop was designed to create stability through teaching values, strong core curriculum and creative arts.

Texts were carefully chosen to introduce diverse cultures, and films were shown to give a visual reference. Many of these students had never left inner-city Trenton and seeing the films, with vibrant discussions afterward, was an eye-opening experience. An emphasis on enrichment and creativity included many field trips and some had the chance to experience life outside of the city though a connection with Farm and Wilderness Camp in Vermont. Visitors to the school often remarked on how strongly the students exhibited confidence and verbal acuity.

Unfortunately, charter schools in New Jersey needed to be ground-up to be approved for funding, and many fine schools that had been limping along with limited resources either had to start over from scratch or face closure. Sadly, Father’s Heart school lost its financial support and was unable to continue.

Now, some 15 years later, former Father’s Heart students are in their late 20s. In just the past few weeks several have contacted me, wanting to reignite our relationships. Most have remained in Trenton and still know one another. What is most poignant is how important the school was to them, and how they, as adults, have used the tools given to them in school at a young age to traverse the difficulties of inner-city life. Although the sample is very small, I also have spoken to other teachers of that time who have become frustrated by our test-laden curriculum. They agree that money spent on testing would have been better spent to teach teachers how to design a curriculum that gives students a foundation for success in life.

The zeal many state and government officials have for standardized testing of children as a means to grade whether a particular school and/or teachers are failing continues unabated. Designated failed public schools, which were once centers of their community, have been closed, and administrators and teachers fired. Charter schools have replaced them, and magnet schools which, unless they target only students who score high on tests, will eventually close, as well, for failing to produce. The fear of possible job loss leads to teaching toward the test, inflated scores and outright contrived results.

In a recent “New York Times” opinion page piece, “Waiting for a School Miracle,” Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, addressed the emphasis on testing as a means to evaluate schools, with a consensus that we have missed the boat in fixing our educational system by neglecting the truly pivotal forces in helping children to thrive: community support and parental education. (www.nytimes.com/2011/06/01/opinion/01ravitch.html?scp=2&sq=diane%20ravitch&st=cse).

Ms. Ravitch points to several highly publicized school turnarounds that, when judged specifically according to test scores, have never lived up to the initial expectations. In fact, scores were often lower than in the public schools they replaced. Her thesis also underlines the achievement gap between children from different income levels which exists well before children enter school. “Families are children’s most important educators. Our society must invest in parental education, prenatal care and preschool.” Sadly, early childhood programs with a strong parent education program are among the first to be slashed when budgets are cut.

”Of course, schools must improve; every one should have a stable, experienced staff, adequate resources and a balanced curriculum including the arts, foreign languages, history and science,” said Ms. Ravitch. As the arts and enrichment programs have been dismembered to make way for more testing, a balanced curriculum is a thing of the past in many school systems. Teachers forced to teach to tests are caught in a vortex that permits little flexibility and creativity. It is no wonder teachers become frustrated and burn out.

Just last week I received an e-mail from my daughter’s fourth-grade teacher. This would not have been extraordinary other then she is now close to 40 years old, and he taught her back in the early 1980s. A warm creative and energetic instructor, James Tobin, has never been forgotten. Bernadette’s first few school years were spent as a student of the private and storied bastion of progressive education, the Walden School. With its reputation for excellence, I was not worried about her transition to PS 41 on West 11th Street when we moved back to Greenwich Village after I completed my doctorate at Columbia University. All went smoothly with her first PS 41 teacher, a woman (nearing retirement), who once aspired to be an opera singer and greeted students with a different aria each day. Knowing his reputation, when it was time for the fourth grade, I hoped her teacher would be Mr. Tobin, and I was overjoyed when this turned out to be true.

Now almost three decades later, that same Mr. Tobin e-mailed me in search of my daughter and any other students in his class that I might still have contact with. He was in the beginning stages of writing a book about the creativity in the classroom. I was glad to assist and thought back to what a happy place PS 41 was at the time. Teachers had autonomy in creating learning environments that reflected the needs and aptitudes of individual students — rather than a focus on generic testing for evaluation.

I know some of the children in that fourth-grade class, now as adults, and can attest to Mr. Tobin’s methodology and the spirit of the times. Amongst the students are one has long served in Africa with programs such as Doctors Without Borders; another graduated from Stanford Law School and now practices and teaches Brazilian martial arts; one is a movie star; and others work in finance and in the arts. A diverse group, they were given license to be themselves and encouraged to find their own niche, a classroom practice often absent from the test-driven education world today.

My reason for including a look into the past is that many educational ideas and the spirit of community involvement of the 1980s and early 1990s could have created real educational reform. Ms. Ravitch finishes her op-ed piece by saying that the true miracle in education would be “if all children came to school well-nourished, healthy, and from a stable family with a steady income.”

The way to improve schools is by addressing the needs of our communities, challenging teacher preparation, and establishing high expectations for all students. Unless educational programming is considered holistically, as part of a community, student achievement will not markedly improve.