Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Contrasts in Education

Education has become a passion. Perhaps it has always been in my blood, being the daughter and granddaughter of educators. It is the thread of my life quilt. It is this passion that have infused my love for words, love for books, and love for learning.

Learning has allowed me to mentor and tutor in my new community of the last two years. It have become a summer academy principal of sorts, a community educator, a chair of an area education committee, and a consultant bringing workshops into areas public schools.

It is the combination of those things that is on my mind right now.

In the small community that is now my home, education is more than a passion, it is a mission. There are plenty of teachers in the classrooms. The elementary schools have active PTOs, my daughters' school just receiving new playground equipment for the 2009-2010 school year. Even at the high school where my son attends, the PTO and Mother's Club are fueling the fire of education with their dedication to all things Warrior.

A new superintendent was introduced to the community through an official school board reception last night. It was an easy gathering of people coming in and out of the varsity gym lobby. The cookies were gourmet and the conversation was light. The new super and his wife seem to be part of this western suburb and are quickly learning names. All seemed well until I thought about where I spent the morning.

I am an outside consultant with the Girl Scouts of Eastern Missouri. In this role, I bring workshops or topics to children in the St. Louis Public Schools through programming offered by the Girls Scouts. These schools are inner city schools without on site Daisy, Brownie, or Girl Scout troops. There are stark contrasts between the locations.

The elementary school I visited yesterday was in an inner-ring, north suburb, just barely over the line from St. Louis. The children were all African-American except for a smattering of mixed-heritage children. The only white faces were the two white female teachers who were manning a 2nd grade class and a 3rd grade class and a white male manning a 3rd grade class. The command of learning was so diverse just with those three. The male run class was orderly, the children were seated in learning positions, they asked pointed questions and gave great examples. The two white female led classes, both of these women appearing young enough to be my daughters, was more unruly with less learning positioning. They were in lessons but the women seemed to struggle to gain control. I noted the difference in giving choices verses giving commands for respect and obedience. I also noted the black female teacher in the kindergarten class, the black female teacher in the 1st grade class, and the black female teacher in my last 3rd grade class. There was more command of the room and directing of the learning.

I noticed something else as well.

The striking lack of resources.

I talked about the topic of bullying so naturally threw in a few points of being on the playground. It was not until I left at the end of the day that I realized this school lacked greenspace and there was no sparkling new playground equipment from the PTO. Recess was happening for one of the older classes when I left. There was no kickball game, no double dutch, no jump rope, no swinging, no basketball, just kids trying to come up with a game on a playground that resembled a fenced-in parking lot. There was nothing entertaining about it and it made me sad as I walked away.

The drive back out to my little community had lots of thoughts racing through my mind. I thought of the rows of shiny Apple computers that line my daughters' classrooms. The images of the brightly colored and decorated walls with learning cues danced before my mind as I merged into the afternoon traffic. The cubbies with the brightly colored boxes filled with crayons, blocks, and math manipulatives played with my memory. My children are blessed. They are in environments that stimulate them mentally and challenge them developmentally. Their minds are free to soar to the highest heights.

It was from the lofty position of watching girls in their classrooms today that took me back to a recent education committee meeting. There were people, African-American like me, who were arguing for a change to the curriculum in this community. I could understand their passion, having graduated from high school in 1982, black studies wasn't a part of my lexicon back then. Yet, as I was driving home from my consulting gig, I thought of the all black schools in the city that were sharing nubs of chalk and lacking an in- class library. There were no brightly colored bins of learning tools or row of shiny computers. They were using what they had.

Then the challenge of education in this community rested on my mind. If the child can not read, they can not learn about black history or any history. There are children in this privileged community who have small classrooms, lots of tools,and whose parents still choose to not be involved. Is that something that should happen? I argue that they are not in the city schools. All the children here have an opportunity, something starkly lacking in a lot of the city schools. The children here have the light still on in their eager eyes, ready to absorb, even in this predominately white environment. They are blessed here more than they realize.

Perhaps next week at the next meeting I will challenge the voice of protest to spend a day in the all black school and see what changes he would make. I am a strong proponent of parental involvement. Black schools, white schools, all schools need the parents doing their part to use the resources at the table to make learning happen. That was the good thing I did see at the city elementary school. Even without shiny computers and brightly colored walls, the children were challenging their intellect and pulling knowledge from their teachers.

Education is a stepping stool and a divider in this country. I hope to live long enough that the disparities between city and suburb schools, city PTO gifts and suburban PTO gifts are not a strong. An education is a right, like breathing air. And when your child is at the best, it is your job to make them do their best, otherwise, you are spitting in the faces of the ones who wish they could. That is my thought on the contrast in education. There are no excuses anymore.

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