Part I: Keys to Success
The success of Pedro's parents
My parents are immigrants, mother from Jamaica, father from Trinidad and Venezuela. Met in New York, where all six of us, my siblings, were raised, born and raised. Father was a police officer, New York City, and a taxi cab driver. Mother worked intermittently, mostly raising six kids.
I would say both of my parents really emphasized education. Although neither of them graduated from high school, both of them really believed education was very important. I remember once coming home with a B in an algebra class that I really worked hard for, and told my mother, and she was, she reacted, "Why are you happy with a B?" (laughs)
And I was so surprised by the reaction because I had really worked hard for the B. But that I think was indicative of the way she felt about education and the importance of doing your best, and my father was very similar. And even though neither of them could help us in terms of the schoolwork or navigating the college process, they both really encouraged us, and not surprisingly, we all did well.
My elder brother went to Harvard, I went to Brown, and we have a couple who went to Columbia, Berkeley, so for a family like mine, I think that speaks highly of what my parents were able to do.
A free education with a library card
My father believed that you could get a free education with a library card, he told us that, and he practiced it. He was an avid reader. He didn't just read novels; he read history, geography, and he would often quiz us when we went on long drives, and ask us questions about the world and about culture and geography.
And that really did have an impression, I think, on all of us. I know for me in particular I developed a love of reading early, my parents used to require us on Saturdays after we did our chores to take this bus that would pass through the neighborhood and go to the library. And I was lucky because when we got to the library, there was a librarian there by the name of Mrs. McDonald, a Panamanian woman who would greet us, and then spend time talking to you and figuring out what you were interested in.
And then she said, "I have just the book for you." And she would have this uncanny ability to identify books that she thought would be of great interest. And I remember one of the books she got for me was A Wrinkle in Time when I was a 4th grader. A book I would have never opened on my own because I thought I didn't like science fiction, but which I ended up loving. And I'd say people like her really did develop within me a love of reading.
I had a few teachers along the way who were influential to my development. I often remember Mr. Weiss in 7th grade who pushed us to read very challenging texts including Beowulf, I remember. I remember a Ms. Covas taught Spanish, used a lot of music and song as a way to encourage us to learn the Spanish. Ms. Harris, who was an algebra teacher, I often say Ms. Harris, if you acted out in her class or you struggled in her class you had to sit next to her (laughs) and she made sure you learned it.
And so there were a number of teachers like that over the years. In 10th grade I was taking honors geometry and struggling, and once I went to Mr. Messina. I wanted to pass the state Regents and he said, 'If you are willing to work for it I'm willing to help you." And I stayed after school with him for the next month and ended up acing the Regents test.
And I attribute that largely to his patience in teaching the material. So I was lucky to have some very strong teachers along the way.
A message for teachers
I always say to teachers it's important to remember why you got into this. Most teachers don't go into the profession for the money (laughs), or even for the glory and the stature because that's not, unfortunately, that is not what it's about in this country. It should be, it should be that it's a high status occupation, it should be a profession that we hold in much higher regard than we do.
But until that happens I think teachers need to remember they got into the profession because they generally think it's a way to have an impact, a concrete impact on the lives of children. And that opportunity is always there. I always say that teachers have enormous power, and that gives you the opportunity to be creative. It gives you the opportunity to be inspiring, it gives you the opportunity to help children understand how to use knowledge to solve problems in their lives and hopefully to understand that knowledge is a source of power. And when children begin to get that it has a long-term impact on their lives, and a long-term impact on their ability to continue to use knowledge and learning to empower themselves and to create a better life for themselves.
And so that is a power that teachers have and I think it's when teachers lose sight of that that they see themselves as small and limited and they focus on all the things they can't do and all the things that constrain them. And they lose sight of all the power they still have.
"What keeps me going"
Well, what keeps me going is the understanding that schools are the key to a better future. Recognition that education can transform our society just as it transformed my own life, that it can be a way to create a more just and equitable country. And that keeps me motivated to stay in the field, it keeps me motivated to continue to work with educators, and with schools across the country because I see lots of people out there who do understand that, who haven't given up, and who continue to approach their work with a sense of passion, dedication, and conviction, and that inspires me.
Part II: Community schools
Poverty and student achievement
Poverty impacts student achievement in a variety of ways. The most obvious and important is the instability it creates in children's lives, children who don't have stable, secure housing, children who are not eating regularly, children who don't have access to good healthcare, and who have other needs not being met, social, psychological needs, basic needs like being able to see a dentist, or get eyeglasses. All those things impact learning, impact the child's development, and invariably will undermine efforts to achieve and to learn in school.
And I think we don't pay nearly enough attention to that, even though it seems obvious, but in a country with very high poverty rates, much of which is concentrated in particular communities, both urban and rural, poverty is still largely ignored as a social problem and as an educational challenge in America today.
And I often say that given our focus on the achievement gap, we should be much more concerned about poverty and how it impacts children and the way it impacts schools, because schools that are serving large numbers of impoverished children are usually the schools that are struggling the most. And they struggle because often they are overwhelmed by the needs of the children and lack the resources to meet those needs.
The impact of poverty on public schools
Well, in this country our public schools are the only institution that cannot turn away children, that is obligated to meet their needs and those needs go beyond the educational needs. For many children, the public schools is the only place they'll be guaranteed a meal, maybe two. It is the only place where they're guaranteed heat in the winter, where they're guaranteed adult supervision, and if they're lucky even maybe access to a school nurse.
And so for many kids, particularly poor children, the school is the social safety net, it is the place where there's going to be some degree of support, and protection. But schools are overwhelmed by those needs, because in addition to meeting the learning needs, they are struggling to address those non-academic needs, and most teachers and educators know that you can't separate a child's physical and emotional needs from their academic needs. And they come in the same person. So consequently many schools have struggled to try to find ways to take on more services and to take up on a more comprehensive approach to addressing the needs of a child.
Which is admirable, and many times necessary, but in many ways puts a burden on the school that a school often can't meet because they don't have the resources or the personnel to coordinate all of those services, and particularly if you're in a rural area, you may not have access to a health clinic or to a food pantry, and so it is I think not fair to expect that schools should be the only institution that's responding to these issues.
We need to take a much more societal approach to addressing poverty, which was at one time the commitment of this country. This is the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, and that was the commitment at that time in '64 under the Johnson Administration. We haven't had a similar commitment since and we're feeling the effects of it. We're seeing schools that are overwhelmed by children's needs.
Well, the community school strategy has been around for a while now. It's the idea is you bring services into the schools so the school is functioning much more like a community center than as a traditional school that focuses strictly on academics.
So there are social workers, there are health services provided, there's an attention to nutrition, to adult education, and that kind of an approach, that kind of more integrated strategy tends to have a more, more of an impact on children and their family, and make it possible for schools to begin to mitigate some of the effects of poverty on children.
The role of the local community
Well, the larger community needs to understand that they also have an interest at stake in the schools even if they don't have children there. Their property values are often affected by the quality of the school provided. But beyond the property values, there's the question of whether or not private businesses will locate in a community and chances are if there aren't good schools there, they won't think that's a place their employees will want to send their children.
They won't think that that's a place where they can attract and hire good employees and so there's this symbiotic relationship between school and community that often goes unrecognized. In too many communities, schools struggle getting bond measures passed because the adults in the community don't believe that it's their children being educated there, particularly if they're retirees or if many of the adults are more affluent and don't send their children to the public schools.
And when that happens what you see is that schools deteriorate and it impacts the entire community. Communities need to take pride in their schools in the same way we take pride in our sports teams and make sure that our schools are invested in so that our children will received a good education, and that impacts the quality of life in the community invariably and often results in that community being a more desirable place to live.
Adult role models
Well, there's often a shortage in many schools of adult role models and adults who can mentor and who can tutor and who can provide other kinds of support, internships to children. And in many communities those adults are in the community, they're working, they're in business, they're in other roles, and that's a resource that schools need to tap, it's a resource that can help children because all children need adult guidance, they need adult guidance that goes beyond what happens in the classroom but to help navigate the world of work and of life, and that's a reason why many schools need to embrace their community and think broadly about how to work with community, because when those connections are strong schools benefit.
And there often are people out there who would love to be involved with schools but simply are never asked and need to be actively approached and recruited. And so they can support the children and support the schools.
Students and community service
I think community service can be an important part of a child's education. It can be a very effective way for getting children to understand how knowledge can be used to solve real problems and challenges in their community. It can also help children to develop a sense of leadership in how to address social and economic challenges facing their community and even the country.
And so when you build service into, service learning into the curriculum, you find that children become more able to see how what they're learning can be applied in the world and they gain all these other things, leadership, discipline, a sense of social responsibility as a part of their education, and those are the qualities that have value that go well beyond their performance in school and hopefully extend throughout their lives.
Students' roles in school improvement
In most schools children are, they're seeing a lot, they're seeing a lot about what's going on in the school, they have insights about the school that a lot of times the adults are not privy too because they occupy just a different kind of world than the children do.
The children know if a school is safe and if it's not, why. They know which adults really care about them and which adults are challenging them and encouraging them and which ones don't. They might even also have insights about how to make the school a better place to be. And so tapping into children as a resource is an effective way of changing the culture of a school.
Children need to feel respected, they need to feel safe, they need to feel included, they need to have a sense of community in a school, and when that happens, children perform at a better level because they believe they are cared for, they believe that they are part of something that's not simply a kind of generic school that they show up to because they are required by their parents or the law.
And so you want to create deliberate communities that children are a part of, and when children are respected in those ways, it develops a sense of citizenship and a sense of awareness, social awareness about their role in society that I think goes beyond school, and can translate into their role as citizens and voters and members of the greater general public.
We know from research that there's a huge gap in minutes of learning, you know that is that middle class children are simply getting more time. Sometimes it's because they have a longer day or a longer school year. In many cases, it's because of the summer learning loss, the fact that the kids from middle class families are more likely to be in summer camp, more likely to be in enriched academic programs, more likely to be reading at least part of the time in the summer.
Poor kids often are not getting those experiences, and so they start the fall behind already because there's been this gap, this lapse in their learning, and so there's a relearning that needs to take place and it's something we need to address. If we want to see these gaps, these disparities in performance reduced, we need to find ways to enhance learning opportunities in the summer and after school for that matter so that children are constantly being challenged and stimulated and nurtured.
It doesn't mean more school, per se, I think that's important, it's because children need to have interesting learning experiences, experiential learning experiences, so we need to be creative about what that might look like, but I would say that finding ways to make summer a more meaningful learning opportunity for kids could help us considerably in reducing some of the disparities in achievement.
Schooling for Resilience
So yes, we just wrote this book, Schooling for Resilience. We wrote it because of the growing concern throughout the country about what's happening with African American and Latino males. President Obama has recently spoken about this, launched an initiative called "My Brother's Keeper."
We thought it would be important to look at the schools that are serving these young men to try to understand what they do, understand how they work, understand how they approach the needs of the children, and I think we uncovered some things that will be helpful to other educators. Not all of what they do is working, right? And I think in too many cases they have underemphasized the importance of the academic needs of the children and put much more emphasis on the social and the emotional aspects, which are also important.
But in many of those schools there is a very clear narrative that they are saving these boys that is also influencing the boys, that they are trying to prepare young men for life. And that is encouraging and inspiring to see that these are schools in many cases where kids are coming from difficult circumstances, where boys like them are at great risk to violence, great risk to crime, and to gangs. And these are schools that are having an impact on that.
And for that reason we should be learning from those schools and should be figuring out how to do more of what works. It doesn't mean that we need to separate boys, in all cases, but it does mean that we need to have a very deliberate strategy to address what's going on with these young men of color because the data is very clear: this is probably one of the most vulnerable segments of our population in terms of life chances, in terms of employment, in terms of the criminal justice system, and unless we do something about it, it affects our entire society.
Broader, Bolder Approach
I was one of several people in 2008 launched what we called the "Broader, Bolder Approach." We did this through an ad in The New York Times as a way to call attention to the Congress and to hopefully the next president that when No Child Left Behind came up for authorization, reauthorization, we needed to do something different. We needed to do three things at a minimum: expand access to preschool, like most other countries that are outperforming us, expand access to healthcare for children because health is a learning issue, and expand learning time for children because again too many poor children are being shortchanged in learning time.
The president has recently come out in support of universal preschool. Mayor de Blasio in New York City has been a big advocate for preschool and because of that I think the debate is shifting. We are seeing more cities, Seattle, Boston, several others now coming up with strategies to bring universal preschool to more children.
We're also seeing more schools that are developing extended learning opportunities for kids. So some of the ideas from the "Broader, Bolder Approach" are taking hold, I think, impacting many local communities and even some states.
Part III: Succeeding with ELLs and Their Families
Building relationships with ELL families
Well, for English language learners in particular, and recent immigrants, I think the big issues are you need personnel who can communicate with the parents in their language who understand the culture, who are also understanding that many immigrants are more deferential to schools. They are more likely to not know that they need to be advocates for their children.
And particularly if they're working hard, which many immigrants are and have long hours, don't have the time to be as involved, and don't understand the importance of being involved in their child's education. And that's the reason why it's essential that schools engage and hire personnel who do have the language and cultural skills to build relationships with parents.
They approach this as organizing of parents to get parents understand they have to play a role in supporting their children and supporting that school. And helping them to understand what a good education is so they can advocate for their children, which might seem ironic, but you want, there's a healthy tension that you want between parents and schools.
You want parents insisting on a good education for their children. When that happens, usually schools perform better and we see that to be the case in most middle class communities where parents are very clear on what they're entitled to, and usually are very clear about how to advocate for their rights. When that happens in immigrant communities, schools improve as well.
Parents as partners
I could think of several schools that do this well. A school I work with in Brooklyn, New York PS24 is a school like that where parents are very involved, most of the immigrants are Mexican immigrants, and it's part of Bushwick, Brooklyn, but very involved at every level from supporting the reading program to working with large number of learning disabled students, helping out at lunch time just in a variety of ways. And I was very impressed.
I was asked to speak at the graduation a few years ago and it was run by the parents. And it was also, it's a testimony to the school because they welcome parents in, they allowed parents to feel as though they could be part of the school. And because of that, parents were very involved and very supportive of their own children and so in a community that was serving what would in most cases be a very high-need, at-risk population, this was a high performing school.
And I would attribute that to a large degree to the involvement of the parents. What we want are parents who are partners in the educational process with their children who are very clear about their role in supporting their children but also very supportive of the school, and when that happens children tend to do better academically.
We want parents to be partners in the schools. We want them to understand they have a role in reinforcing the importance of learning at home and we want them to be supportive of the school and help that school to provide high quality instruction to their children.
How parents can help their kids succeed (Spanish subtitles included)
For the parents, I think it's important they understand that they are the child's first teacher. That what they do with their child at home will lay the foundation for learning throughout a child's life, and that even though the schools have an important role to play in reinforcing, they must, as parents, continue to stay involved in the child's life, so the child understands why this is important, the child stays focused on the education. And they cannot, as the child gets older, give up on that responsibility.
What often happens is parents are very involved when their child is young and as the child gets older, they start to reduce the contact and the communication, just as the child is entering adolescence when they're even more vulnerable. So it's very important that parents stay involved in their child's life and be aware of what's going on in school, be aware of who their friends are, be aware of what they're thinking and continue to communicate.
And many parents struggle with maintaining healthy communication, particularly with their teenagers because the teenagers have trouble communicating with them and they often get into a lot more conflict.
And so it's very important that they not allow that to occur. The children need them — they may not tell them they need them, but they do need them for guidance and support, and for a different kind of relationship that evolves as the child gets older.
Well children, particularly children who come from families where the parents haven't gone to college, need a lot of awareness about college that starts early, they need to be exposed to what it takes and why to get to college and why it's important, and that's more than simply bringing in a college recruiter senior year.
It needs to happen from elementary and be reinforced throughout. It really helps if you bring people, college students who are from similar backgrounds to schools to talk to students about their experiences, so to demystify college, to let them know how it works, how financial aid works, why it's important, what it's like.
All that helps to make college more tangible and concrete. A lot of children will say they want to go to college, but really have no plan or clue on how you get there. And so you need to make it real and you need to make it something that parents as well understand so they're reinforcing that with their children.
It is something that can be I think made accessible, college readiness if in fact we do more work to build awareness early for children.
Supporting young Latino men
I think young Latino men face enormous pressure in many communities to work, to work to support their families, and that pressure often results in them dropping out of school eventually because the need to work starts to take priority over the need to stay in school. And particularly if they're undocumented and they don't think that college is attainable anyway that becomes yet another driver pushing them out of school.
On top of that, in many communities, there are gangs that are particularly prevalent amongst recent immigrant communities that are providing social support to children that are not receiving that within school and so Latino males in particular may be drawn to that if those gangs are prevalent in their communities. And so it really calls upon the educators who are serving Latino males to understand who they are, what their needs are, what are the challenges they face outside of school, what do they need to do to make school more compelling, more engaging.
It could be sports, it could be other things, opportunities, career academies that show children, for example, how or what they're learning can be applied in the workforce, lead to good paying jobs so they're not stuck permanently in low wage jobs, all of these can help to make schools where Latino males are more successful academically and more likely to stay and pursue their education.
Advice for new ELL teachers
I think the most important thing and we need to just first of all acknowledge that English language learners are a large diverse population, they don't all speak Spanish. Some speak Hmong, some speak Russian, and a number of other languages.
At the basic level of working with a child who is learning English is a need for patience. There's a need for recognizing that learning a second language takes time, and it takes an ability of the part of the educator to understand the learning challenges in children and to work with those challenges. And to recognize that there's a vocabulary that is related to the particular content of what you teach and unique to that content. So the vocabulary of math is very different from the vocabulary of social studies or of science.
And so teachers need to simply be aware of language and how important it is to learning regardless of the subject they teach. Otherwise we will see English language learners continue to not perform at the levels they should, and in some schools it happens because we actually perceive them to be less capable. We think of them as having a kind of learning disability, which I think results in them being marginalized in many schools.