During our much-needed break in Colorado, I was fortunate enough to visit my friend Ms. Cantrell’s 1st grade classroom at a beautiful brand-new charter school in Reunion, CO. I spent the day wandering around, popping in classrooms and getting ideas. What I saw really struck me.
They have larger class sizes than at my school.
They have less technology than we do.
They don’t have big goals posted all over the place.
They don’t have class-wide standards-based tracking all over the place.
And yet, those first graders blow my second graders out of the water.
Why this harsh achievement gap? I thought long and hard about it. It’s not the teachers. I saw those teachers (many of whom are also first-years like me) doing similar things to what I do in my classroom. It’s not the curriculum. They teach the newer version of Open Court, and as near as I could tell there were very few differences. Certainly it could have something to do with the population, given that Reunion, CO is a middle-to-upper class White community, and Alum Rock, CA is a lower-class predominately Latino community. But that can’t be all of it because there is direct evidence that all races, all ages can succeed academically. I’ve seen it in my own classroom (my students have already grown a year in reading- how about that?) No, none of these things can account for the stark differences in these two schools. After much thinking, I identified the two key things that can explain this: 1. A strong, supportive administration that puts its money where its mouth is. 2. Parental investment and involvement in the entire school, not just one classroom.
When Ms. Cantrell introduced me to her principal in the morning, I was immediately struck at how composed, well-spoken, and in-charge she seemed. She immediately made me feel like I was the most important person in the room, and I could sense that she had that way with everyone. She was very interested in my teaching and in Teach for America. At the school’s morning assembly, she introduced me to all of them and let them know that I would be coming around. (Just to be clear- that is something that would never happen at my school. People I don’t know come in all the time without warning.) It was obvious that the kids felt safe around her and the multitude of parents who were at the assembly must have felt the same way. The students rally around each others’ achievements: she talked about the CSAP which is starting for the upper grades this week, and how everyone needs to be super respectful of them so they can do their very best. Again, something that would never happen at my school. There is so much support for those teachers it is incredible. I think the achievement gap would start to seriously close if every principal were like that.
The other thing I mentioned was parental involvement in the entire school. Parents help out in classrooms all the time, but at this school it feels much more like an entire community. There is a special room in this school just for parents to hang out in and talk to administrators or each other. You can’t make this stuff up. The attitude here is that the parents are like our customers, and we are going to do everything we can to accommodate them. Parents that are happy with their child’s school are more likely to work with their children on schoolwork at home. Children whose parents help them at home do far better in school. Therefore, shouldn’t every school in America be striving to involve its parents in the community? And I don’t just mean a few times a year at stupid pageants or awards ceremonies or whatever. I mean, weekly, if not daily, involvement on some level. Even if it’s just coming to the morning assembly (which doesn’t exist at my school- yet) once a week. Even if it’s having coffee with the principal once a month. Seeing the students’ work in the hallways (another thing that doesn’t exist at my school- yet) and feeling like a part of the community will dramatically increase their investment in the school, their kids’ achievement, and hopefully, actually improve that achievement.
Now- the real problem here is that in communities like the one I teach in there is a very large barrier to this kind of involvement. I’m talking about the language barrier. For whatever reason my district has decided that truly involving its parents in the schools is a bad idea, so it is left up to the teachers to get the parents involved. However, most teachers do not speak the language that the parents speak. This is, naturally, a problem. So, can I really explain to my parents how to truly get involved in my school? Of course not! I can barely explain to them why their kid got another citation today, or how they’re doing in my class, much less explain the nuances of school involvement.
So, since the language barrier is somewhat within my control, I am going to make a concerted effort to learn as much Spanish as I can before next year. I’m going to see if my district will fund me to do this. And I’m going to try to get as many other teachers involved in this as possible- because if all teachers could communicate with all parents, what a different place my district would be.