Before the winter break, a principal friend commented that winter holidays are a middle class privilege. She’s right. Despite our status as the most charitable nation on earth, our families are the most impoverished, by percentage ranking, of all the industrialized nations in our peer group.
The data on homeless children and those living in poverty reflect a magnitude of disregard for poor children within the American community that overwhelms the senses. Homeless children who live on the extreme edges of American poverty represent 7 place digits of young faces. Expected to learn in schools as middle class children do, they do not go home over the holidays to shelves full of children’s picture books or a new iPad loaded with the best apps for work and play. In the cities in which they live, they don’t often walk into museums or libraries unless it’s to warm up and get off the street for a while. They are expected for the most part to carry on invisible lives apart from the middle class. They’re only distantly touched by most of us when we, in our Pavlovian response to the clanging bell of the Salvation Army, drop a buck or two in the red buckets hanging in front of the big box stores or hit the donation button on a web page dedicated to helping those in need. Our acts of charity salve the American conscience as we load our cars with presents for our own families or click the “okay purchase” button on website after site. But not everyone forgets the faces of poverty over the winter holidays.
Teachers and principals and, yes, even superintendents carry the faces of poverty with them through the break, wondering about children who may lack food, shelter and medicine or who’ve been left home or on the streets alone. We worry about children such as Rudy in San Francisco who need us the most for all the right reasons we chose to become educators.
We superintendents know winter as the budget season. It’s a time of numerical constraints when we look at dollars saved, expenses reduced, revenues diminished, all of which translate into spreading resources thin once again for a fourth year in a row. In the triage we do to sort programs and people into those we save, and those we can not, we do everything we can to not take away possibilities and opportunities for children, especially those with the greatest need for support. We anticipate that this current budget season likely will bring a new chapter in the story of losses to public education across the United States in 2012-13 – another round of cuts to teachers’ jobs, arts programs, intervention support, professional development, health and retirement benefits.
Despite it all, I want Americans to believe in the magic of educators who make a difference for children against all odds rather than corporate heads, media, and politicians who don’t begin to have the solutions they purport to have. I see glimmers of hope that “we, the people” are beginning to wake up and realize that public educators are not the problem, the failure lies in the system itself, not the people who work inside it. We’ve allowed more than a decade of multiple testing and test prep curricula to define our educators as the problem rather than the lack of safety nets for children who come to school hungry, sleepy, sick, stressed, or anxious about where they will spend the next evening. The real story that needs to be told by America’s media, addressed by America’s politicians, and “resourced” by America’s foundations isn’t one about the failures of schools. It’s one about the failure of America to create an adequate safety net for children living in poverty, a story that’s not a new one to our nation.
We need a new beginning to the public education story as told through the lives of children who enroll in our Statue of Liberty Schools. What if our measures of success were framed through the accomplishments of young people who grow up to build bridges, skyscrapers, and rocket ships of the future? What if we dreamed of children who wake at night and imagine themselves becoming the next Maya Angelou and, yes, even Lady GaGa? What if our children were driven to learn through their experiences as creators, inventors and designers in their work, not driven away from learning by the dreary repetition of filling out worksheet after worksheet?
We can’t write a new story by attempting to restore a past that never worked well for many kids who came through the doors of public schools, especially those who live in poverty of any kind – rural, urban, or suburban. We need courageous, intellectual politicians who are willing to admit that they’ve been proposing the wrong answers and asking the wrong questions. We need to get the right questions in front of politicians and the media. We need to look far beyond the industrial plant model as a rehashed solution for educational challenges. Our kids don’t go to work in factories anymore. The robber barons outsourced that model decades ago and “offshored” their corporate profits, too. That’s what I’ve been thinking about over break.