Fire in the belly

100_6297 Am I an elitist? Am I looking down from the perspective of a middle-class ivory tower when I write about education and the need to reform our education system in innovative ways to help graduate more students who are better equipped to compete in the new global economy? I’ve certainly sometimes been accused of that over the last 7 months of writing for 3 Quarks. It’s a criticism that gives me pause. My children can read above grade level, aren’t having discipline issues, aren’t struggling with math; is this why I can afford the luxury of worrying about whether or not they are having their right-brained skills nurtured, whether or not they are being encouraged to not shy away from failure, but instead to use it to learn and grow? One of the comments suggesting this went “We can't even motivate a large percentage of children to finish high school, and now we are suppose to prepare the (obviously elite) students to work toward better life goals.”

First of all, I think that this comment misses my larger point: if school were less about rote memorization and instead involved a more integrated, creative curriculum, perhaps we would be better able to motivate more children to finish high school. But the comment does I think hint at a darker criticism: that I’m spouting some liberal, white, elite fantasy that is totally inapplicable to the kinds of educational issues that many schools, teachers and children face in this country, particularly in poor, urban areas.

I don’t agree, and I think to make that claim is to just throw in the towel rather than continuing to advocate for the right of every child to have the best possible education. Consider the Lyons Community School, a middle/high school in Brooklyn.

It has 340 students in grades 6, 7 and 8 in the middle school and grades 9 and 10 in the high school. The school population comprises 41% Black, 56% Hispanic, 1% White, and 2% Asian students. The student body includes 14% English language learners and 17% special education students. To quote from the NYC Department of Education Quality Review Report on the school, “This school embraces a continuous improvement model and fosters the growth of a life-long learning community. The school’s goal…is to give students a strong liberal arts education and to expose them to new experiences…Excellent staff and student relationships, linked to a strong system for guidance and support, create an environment where a high standard of teaching and learning takes place.” Reading their website, and talking to some of their faculty, The Lyons Community School is clearly providing an innovative, creative, supportive education to lower-income, urban children who are thriving under its care. I’m sure there are many other similar examples scattered throughout the country, and indeed the globe.

Another interesting news article I read this month, which I think also indicates the rewards of trying something new in urban, traditionally challenging schools, told the story of Pedro Santana, the principal of Middle School 391 in the South Bronx. The piece describes the school when Santana first arrived there four years ago, “Fights were frequent, windows were slathered over with paint. Only 11 percent of seventh graders had passed their most recent state math tests.” Mr Santana brought to his role a revolutionary way of dealing with the children. He has turned his office into a sanctuary, somewhere the kids want to go and hang out, “sixth-grade boys with good behavior are rewarded with lunch in Mr. Santana’s office, where they talk about “guy things”. His explanation for his innovations in school management, “I started thinking about kids in a more creative way…I saw the kids and knew there was a better way to manage them.” Many of the changes made by this principal are little things, but they’re things that make the students feel respected and cherished and inspire them to do better. The results: “Last year, 59 percent of its seventh graders passed the state math test — below the 81 percent who passed citywide, but enough of an improvement to help the school earn an “A” on its report card. Suspensions have plummeted and attendance has improved, though problems persist.”

Here’s another, different story, but one that I think also illustrates the importance of using innovative techniques to inspire; the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (OPDV) has partnered with Verizon to launch the Domestic Violence Entrepreneurship Program in New York State. This program provides one-time grants, ranging from $500 to $2,500 per applicant, to would-be entrepreneurs who have escaped the cycle of domestic violence. The program is based on the premise that “domestic violence survivors, through their past experience and the coping and problem-solving skills they developed to escape the cycle of violence, are uniquely prepared to step into an entrepreneurial role.” In the words of Amy Barasch, the Executive Director of the New York’s OPDV, “Current system responses provide strong emergency support for victims, but often require that victims start ‘from scratch’ to renew their lives, and offer few opportunities for long-term self-sufficiency. There is a strong likelihood that many domestic violence survivors (victims who have achieved safety) are particularly well-positioned to benefit from self-sufficiency programs that focus on entrepreneurship models over traditional job-training options. DV survivors have strong coping and problem-solving skills, many were employed prior to the violence, and all have a strong incentive to be self-sufficient and violence-free.“

What I love about this story is that it really illustrates the power of a “fire in the belly”; if innovation comes from pain and failure, who understands failure and pain more than victims of domestic abuse? Who understands it better than kids in the South Bronx? The argument that, creative educational solutions for the development of the innovative workforce of the future is a luxury that educators in the trenches with the most socially and educationally challenged children can’t afford, doesn’t do justice to the kids or the educators. It is an attitude that will further exacerbate the social and financial divide in the US, as the necessary skills for work in the 21st century are increasingly only taught to kids who’s parents can afford to pay for it, either by sending them to private school, or by being in wealthy school districts, such as Scarsdale, NY, that can choose to have more control over their curriculum and testing.

Ultimately, if the things that are written about innovation have any credibility, and diversity of experience and the ability to deal with and learn from failure are really some of the key drivers in realizing the value from creativity, then there would seem to be whole new vistas of opportunity opening up for children who have the cultural agility, the determination and strength to overcome adversity. Those with enough fire in their bellies.