Originally published as “Create an environment where poor students can succeed” in Albany Times Union, Oct. 20, 2015
This month, I received numerous emails concerning my recent commentary published in the Times Union about the struggles of public education to succeed with children living in poverty. The main question asked, “So, what is your solution?”
For context, let me restate that I believe public educators need to stop using poverty as an excuse for our shortcomings. Many critics direct blame toward unions, parents, or the students themselves for the vast swath of children from impoverished areas condemned to generations of poverty with no way out.
However, circumstances are more complex and require us to dig deeper and reinvent ourselves.
Teachers are trapped in a system not designed to address the modern needs of impoverished children. This dysfunction, codified in law and collective bargaining agreements, beats teachers down while providing very little flexibility to address the needs of the students they love. Only through legislative change allowing for a flexible, responsive public education system will we create the capacity to turn this scenario around.
Examples of success do exist. These educational “experiments” capture the imagination of students and parents in poverty and motivate them to succeed.
First, we built our new system with the understanding that, for many people in impoverished communities, a high school diploma is no longer a ticket out. An education system that succeeds primarily for middle class kids while closing the door to poor students alienates those looking to overcome poverty. Buying into a system that does not meet your needs or apparently even care about you is foolishness. Impoverished people understand this and being poor does not equate with being stupid.
Impoverished students and their communities need a true alternative to their present reality. Tweaking what doesn’t work or relabeling it and calling it “fixed” does not meet this threshold. Instead, K-12 education needs to look more like a 21st century Google-inspired environment than it does the Henry Ford assembly line model we still use today. The K-12 endgame must be more than just a high school diploma.
In HFM BOCES region, students can go to a public school whose programs lead to a college associate degree in one of five career pathways. They do not sit in stereotypical rows of desks with teachers droning on with content barely relevant to their lives and future. Students work in a paperless environment in project-based learning teams using high-tech tools to solve real-world problems presented by the business community at large. Common Core educational standards are interwoven into each project.
We learned two things from this experiment, now in its second year. First, when we remove impoverished children from their traditional learning environment with low expectations and intense micromanagement from the state down to the classroom teacher, and empower students to set and achieve their own ambitious education goals, their growth is astounding.
All students who entered our program last school year returned this year. Including the new freshman class, we now have 105 students. All of them were deemed “at risk” by their school districts. Seventy-five percent of our students are eligible for free and reduced price lunch; 25% are special education students. Nearly 70% join the program two grade levels or more behind in reading and math.
The results have been inspiring. The 8th grade attendance rate for our inaugural class was 76%. In their first year in our program, the attendance rate for the same students jumped to 94%. Academically, 98% earned six high school credits towards graduation, while 97% earned six college credits. All of our students earned at least three college credits. While we wait to hear state average scores for Common Core Algebra and Earth Science Regents exams, we are confident our students’ performance beat the state average.
We are also learning that special education students grow socially, emotionally, and academically in this environment. They do not need the layers of support typically provided to students with learning disabilities in the traditional setting. We have approached the State Education Department suggesting a study of this phenomenon and look forward to sharing the results.
There is no silver bullet for reinventing public education. Our program at HFM BOCES is one example of how a region can work together given the flexibility and funding through a P-Tech grant to create an environment and culture where impoverished rural and small city children can succeed.
Dr. Patrick Michel is District Superintendent of Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES in Johnstown , NY.