Another Shooting. The Same Answers.

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.

akein scott

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.

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  1. Awesome post. Seriously. I think about this all the time. Years ago I helped out with the adopted son of family friends. By the time he was adopted he had been seriously utero by his drug addicted mother and then later physically/mentally/emotionally by his foster family. He had burn scars over about 35% of his body. I knew him first when he was 5. And I feared it was already too late for him. I’d like to say with love and patience that he turned around but I’d be lying. And while we don’t really know what has happened to him or where he is, my parents and his mother hope that her efforts have at least turned him from the path of murder…if nothing else.

    • I don’t think we can turn every kid around completely, but teaching them that violence isn’t the way–that’s a good lesson. Teaching them that there are good people in the world? Another good one. I also think that human beings have an incredible capacity to overcome and that alone makes the effort worth it.

  2. Wonderful post! Thanks!

  3. Wonderfully written. As a Mom with a child who had a decent IQ, but struggled with reading processing I know how HARD I had to fight to get him services between middle school and high school. By the time he was at the end of his Freshman year he was dejected and felt stupid. The school district instead of providing services told him not to take college prep courses, but to take tech skills because he needed to work in a factory. His Sophomore year was difficult as he just didn’t care. He had tried and tried for so long only to be told his dreams could never come true. By the grace of God I kept pushing, got him into tutoring and by mid his Junior year we had a new Special Ed director who knew exactly what he needed.

    She gave him his confidence back. She also helped give his dreams back.

    All of what you say is so correct. He had both his parents to fight for him and push him when he was ready to give up. So many don’t have that.

    I’d also like to add that we as a society need to change the view that a welder is an honorable profession as is an other tech job INCLUDING a factory worker. The stigma in schools (or at least here) is that Oh they will only be this so lets not pay attention or give them encouragement. We need to not bring shame or embarrassment on children who will not or can not attend a 4 yr University.

    My son went on to the Army Reserves. He obtained a 2 yr welding degree & has been in a successful well paying welding position working on pipelines for 3 years. He recently just landed a job with a government contractor to work overseas. He still plans to go back to college after his contract is up & he still dreams of becoming an Air Traffic controller. I will keep doing all I can to encourage him to that dream.

    I thank that special ed teacher he got his Junior year for giving him his confidence back. She hung the moon to me.

    • I completely agree, Laura. We act like some degrees are better than others, and it’s not even based in reality. There are a lot of college degrees that you can get that you can’t even get a job with, and then you have to go to more school! It’s nuts.

      I’m so glad you son was able to regain his confidence in his abilities–it’s so important for people to have that.

  4. Greenwave says:

    I appreciate your sentiment and your argument, but it does not make sense in the Akien Scott context. He graduated from Miller-McCoy and enrolled in college. It would not seem to apply to him at all.

    • Greenwave: I wrote this before we knew much about Akein Scott, but I think the overall idea still holds true–today’s youth need support and we can’t depend on their families to provide it. One of the things that researchers have discovered about people who get out of poverty is that they will have a support person who is a part of the socioeconomic strata that they hope to the enter. The reason is because they will lose most of their friends and many of their family members as they make the transition.

  5. Very sad and so very true. My Mom just retired from teaching after teaching elementary school children for 38 years. She loved her work, but it was time. And she could tell you stories about how she would go to the system and to the parents and tell them that their child needed special attention for whatever the reason…. but it falls on deaf ears. It needs to start with pro-active parents, but that’s difficult for those who are working full time at two jobs in order to make ends meet. I don’t know the solution either, but it’s not to brow beat the teachers. I think we’ve lost the touch of respect. That’s taught in the family…

    • They say that the most successful schools are those with involved parents. I think that if we had more community volunteers that might bridge the gap some that it left by parents who are working too hard or are overcome by other life circumstances.

      I actually find that it’s not respect that is missing–it’s knowing how to express it correctly. These things do have to be taught and we can’t expect every child to show up knowing the correct way to behave in a classroom. I spent a lot of time talking to students about not arguing every point with me when disciplined and it really did pay off–they would change their behavior.

  6. When my son was a sophomore in high school, our school board, in its infinite wisdom, decided to eliminate all general-education classes at the high school and make everything college prep or above. Around the same time, they did away with most of the shop classes. The feeling seemed to be that if you just assume everybody is academically above average and college-bound, it will magically happen. Since my son was classified, he was able to take math and English in the resource room and got by. I can’t imagine what happened to the kids who were just passing or really struggling in the general-ed classes. How anybody thought this was a good idea is beyond me.

    I’ve always thought that if we could just get inclusion and differentiated instruction going in all classrooms, it would catch a lot of these kids who are not classified for special education but are not succeeding in regular education. It would take some re-thinking of their needs and a willingness to remove the requirement for classification to get help, but there’s a potential there to do good for all kinds of kids.

    • Terri:
      This makes me think of something I learned in a Reading Strategies class in 2003 or so. Before NCLB (No Child Left Behind), a reading level was the average level of children in that grade–so 50% were above that and 50% were below. NCLB suddenly wanted everyone reading “on grade level.” So basically, they wanted half the students to catch up magically just because they made it policy. It doesn’t make sense.

  7. Nicely said. Great post.