Seven years ago I walked through a classroom and spotted a student I knew needed help. I was an inclusion teacher at the time. I worked in other people’s classrooms with students who needed special education services. I might read passage aloud to kids with reading disabilities. I might pull kids out for further instruction. I might shorten assignments to make them more manageable. I wasn’t certified to do the job, but I think I did a pretty good job at it.
One day I spotted a new student I knew that he should be mine. He had that look–he didn’t know what was going on and you tell just by the look on his face. I looked in on him a few more times–sometimes he looked spacey, other times he seemed a little hyper, but one thing was clear: he wasn’t engaging with the material. He was a transfer student, so I took the time to go downstairs and pull his file to see if he’d been identified as needing special education. Usually we were pretty up-to-date on this, but sometimes a child’s status could get lost in the transfer process.
When I found his folder I discovered the dreaded yellow paper. The yellow paper meant that someone else had seen what I saw–a student falling behind–but the child had no qualified for special education services. There are many different way a person can qualify for special education–some children qualify because of learning disabilities, which is a proven gap between I.Q. and performance. Other children qualify because their I.Q. is too low. On average, an I.Q. of 90-110 is considered average. Most children with an 80 or above will do fine in school. Not great, but should be able to pass. Kids 69 and below qualify for special education. In between 69 and 80 are ten points. Kids in that range have almost no chance of success in school. Their I.Q.’s show you that they don’t have the foundation that they need to be successful in the upper. they’re not allowed extra help or shortened assignments, though. Instead, they are left to languish in the school system until they either flunk out or drop out.
So when I saw that yellow piece of paper my heart sunk because i knew that there were very few option for this child. Someone with a low IQ may achieve a great many things–but this is with a fantastic support system. I have seen it, so I know it can happen, but I was working in a low-income school and most of my students did not have a fantastic support systems. In fact, they were in need more than the average kid–may of my students didn’t have enough supervision, food, heat, or beds.
The child I spotted that day failed for the year and was held back. If you don’t know, getting held back almost guarantees that a person will never finish high school–it’s the death sentence of a person’s education. Still, we lock them into the same track as everyone else and hpe that things will be different. That somehow this child will beat the odds when they are already up against so much.
I saw him in the hall one day during his second go at the eighth grade and the light had gone out from behind his eyes. I don’t know if he was using drugs, but he was blank when you looked at him. He stood in the hall blatantly breaking a basic school rule and I was forced to intervene. I have worked with criminals and gang members and very little phases me, but this child made me nervous. He just didn’t care.
I don’t know why Akien Scott shot into a crowd of people on Mother’s Day. I do the expression on his face reminded me of a boy a knew six years ago who had given up.
We fail children almost every day.
We fail to meet their need for an education that is appropriate for their abilities.
We fail to give them took to help them be successful and productive adults.
We fail to provide them with a support system that could guide them to meaningful adulthood.
We shove them into a one-size-fits-all education model that is a bad fit for many.
We place them in desks and tell them to be quiet.
We let them know that if they ant to be something like a mechanic or a welder that first they must fail many times in the traditional system. They must be demoralized for years before they can become something.
We ignore their innate gifts.
Before this, parents will fail. After this, the criminal justice system will fail, but there are things we can do. We can support the trades and the arts as much as we support traditional academics. We can stop supporting the idea that a cookie cutter education serves anyone. We can volunteer with after school art and music programs. We can tutor. We can be a big brother or big sister. We can support Boy’s and Girl’s club. There are things that can be done–perhaps we keep the door from shutting on these young lives. Perhaps we can turn some of these stories around.
Right now in New Orleans and in other parts of the state, we are busy creating a secondary school system–one that will effectively shut the door on these students much earlier. If you only see your mom three times a week, what are the chances she’s going to go and fill out an application to get you into a Charter School? If you have trouble reading and writing, no voucher in the world is going to make a private school keep you. If you’re disabled, they won’t let you in in the first place. If we reward teachers for high test scores, where’s the incentive to work with the students who need the most help? People want to know WHY and there are many reasons, but this is one of them. We chip away at a person’s self-esteem until they are convinced there’s nothing left to lose. This is something that we can address. Instead, we want to blame everyone else. It may be someone else’s fault, but they’re not changing any time soon. We can. We want to think that casting a vote will change what is, in essence, a problem of an entire community–of an entire nation. We create these children together and together we suffer the consequences.
I don’t know all the answers, but I know this–children that need help should be helped. Before we get another reminder of how badly they need us.