In my work in education, I’ve been faced with some undeniable truths: We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more livable. We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more equitable. We can make people smarter, and not compel them to learn together. Smartness has its place, but we must remember, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” The needs of our children—and our communities—are far greater than math and literacy achievement.
Another Sophie B. Wright High School student, Marcus Stepter, said it this way,
Love is an important part of learning and community. Unfortunately test scores cannot measure what it takes to educate many students at high levels. Some of us live several miles away from our schools and participate in numerous after-school activities. We appreciate the love that goes into transporting students with complicated lives. Our school purchased its own buses to make sure we could get where we needed to go.
But even with buses, I can’t tell you how many times a teacher, coach or administrator disrupted their own lives to make sure we pursued an extracurricular activity or a non-school activity that was important to us. Love gets people to do things when money, power and prestige can’t. By love, we mean that we are all in this together. If we are going to make it in life, sometimes a school has to act more like a family. A family is a close-knit group of people who take care of themselves in good times and bad. Although the traditional notion of family is connection by blood or marriage, Sophie B. Wright students are connected by commitment to academic success. Most of the students in our school have legitimate reasons to give up, but our love gets us through the challenges.
One such challenge occurred during my sophomore year, when a student named Charles Sawyer was shot five times while waiting for the bus one morning. The tragedy really hit the students of Sophie B. Wright hard, but the principal, Sharon Clark, called an assembly to deal with all of the grieving going on. She used this time to come around to students individually and help them cope with the loss of a loved one. She acted as a second mother at the time. This act of kindness showed her love for the students and the school, and proved that she was not just a principal, but also a family member.
Assemblies can be very powerful tools. Assemblies bring people of different walks of life together for one common cause that they all share. At Sophie B. Wright, assemblies are used not only to get a message across to the students but to also instill positivity and comfort back into the students. Communities can learn a lot from schools. Why can’t community leaders call assemblies after a death so people can come together and get help with the grieving of their loved one? Creating a family-like atmosphere in the community could ultimately create peace.
Why can’t City Council members use the power of assemblies whenever someone gets murdered? The assembly would be an opportunity for the neighborhood to heal.
Schools don’t fix communities; communities fix schools
As important as our current school reforms are to the future of New Orleans, the impact of its graduates won’t be felt for decades. Two-thirds of New Orleans’ 2025 labor pool is adults who are currently of working age. Meaning, if we want to become a more literate and productive city, we must make significant current investments in today’s workforce. We have to train, employ, and most importantly trust the members who share a common fate.
Unfortunately, there is often resistance to investing in adults. People who can readily acknowledge that New Orleans schools have failed several generations of students, nevertheless want to hold these students responsible for their lack of opportunities once they reach the age of maturity. This makes no sense. Not having faith in adults supports an illogical notion that schools fix society. Really, societies fix schools. When we don’t trust community, we don’t find ways to see its members as part of the solution. Again, residents don’t disappear. When you have a focus on community, both adults and children have to be part of the solution.
Given the magnitude of our community problems, everyday citizens must unlearn how we made disengagement an acceptable behavior.
None of these arguments is meant to disparage data. As a social scientist, I have to believe in empirical evidence. As a social scientist, I’m encouraged by test score growth. However, as a practical addition to achievement data measures, I propose that we make the city the unit of analysis and that we measure growth in terms of equity.
What will we gain? Consider the example of Kwame Floyd, who was born in New York to a drug-addicted mother and a father whose whereabouts were unknown. Kwame bounced around in foster care for approximately four years after his birth. The data say that not having a permanent home is one of the strongest predictors of academic failure, poverty and social decline. Kwame was adrift in the tricky web of people, homes and bureaucracy for a total of six years.
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