Opinion: United front needed for age-appropriate learningAs a class assignment for a graduate American history course I am taking along with 48 other educators through the University of South Dakota this year, we are reading “Arc of Justice” by Kevin Boyle. In it, Boyle tells the story of the “Great Migration” of large numbers of blacks from the South to the North during the first decades of the 20th century. That trek was fraught with prejudice, discrimination and violence, proving that racism was not an institution peculiar to the South.
By: Joe Graves, Mitchell superintendent
As a class assignment for a graduate American history course I am taking along with 48 other educators through the University of South Dakota this year, we are reading “Arc of Justice” by Kevin Boyle. In it, Boyle tells the story of the “Great Migration” of large numbers of blacks from the South to the North during the first decades of the 20th century. That trek was fraught with prejudice, discrimination and violence, proving that racism was not an institution peculiar to the South.
But even the most telling of facts and statistics on such social ills truly fail to fully communicate the human reality of what transpired. Which is what makes Boyle such a compelling writer. While not ignoring the full sweep of history, he makes a more tangible case for this era through the story of one particular black man, Dr. Ossian Sweet.
When we first meet the main character in the book, he is a 13-year boy living in a backwater community in Florida. He has finished the inadequate schooling available to him there and has nowhere else, really, to go. Except that his parents won’t accept that fate for their son and so pack him off to a four-year preparatory high school program at Wilberforce University in Ohio where a scholarship is supposedly waiting for him. When he arrives, he discovers that no such scholarship is available to him. Unable to contact his parents, he must make a decision: find a way to still attend the school or head home on the next train. And at 13, Ossian Sweet finds a job and enrolls. Much of the rest of the story is classic Horatio Alger in which Sweet finishes prep school, graduates college and becomes an M.D., the only black man in America to become a medical doctor that year.
I imagine that when most people read the book, they focus on the issues of race and the teachers in this class definitely do that as well. But one of the points a group of educators picks up on is also the fact of this child’s ability to travel halfway across the country, find a job, go to school, live basically on his own and succeed at all of it with little meaningful ongoing parental involvement. This is one resilient teenager.
I spend a lot of time thinking about the factors that lead to student success. It is my goal — and frankly the goal of everybody who works at a school — to see every student succeed both during school and after graduation. While most do around here — the numbers who don’t are small compared to national statistics which show that dropping out of high school is really quite common — the fact remains that even one is too many. In the Mitchell Schools, we are always looking for one more way to keep students actively involved and consistently engaged in school, whether that be through excellent teachers, advanced technology, invigorating extracurriculars, or challenging coursework.
But we also know — and the research is pretty clear on this — that the number one factor in student success at school isn’t at school. It’s at home. While Ossian Sweet may be a wonderful counter-example, the number one factor in student success at school is actively involved, consistently engaged parents.
A step to boost such involvement was taken recently in Watertown, Conn., when the superintendent of schools announced the week of April 26 as “Bring Your Parent(s) to School” week. It’s a wonderful idea and inviting parents to school is something we frequently encourage here as well, though the response tends to be much, much stronger at the elementary level than, say, at high school. It is a fine idea, nonetheless, though one not always possible for many parents who have their own work obligations during the school day. And, frankly, more important than coming to school with your child one day in April is the less noticeable but more effective day-after-day, week-afterweek, year-after-year effort to hold your child accountable for completing their homework punctually and well and to consistently communicate with the school about your child and his/her work, something that has become much easier in the age of e-mail.
Modern technology has, in fact, made communication so much more efficient that while the early parts of the last century saw some parents, as in Sweet’s case, available only via interstate rail, today commentators see many overly involved guardians, calling them “helicopter parents.” These are the mothers or fathers, constantly hovering nearby their child, shielding them from accountability, robbing them of any sense of autonomy, and probably living vicariously through their progeny. I suppose I can think of an example or two of such parents over the years, but they are certainly less common than some make them out to be.
And, in truth, neither end of the continuum gets it right. Sweet’s unavoidably absent parents did the best they could but his resilience is far beyond anything that can be expected of the normal 13-year-old. The helicopters err on the other end, calming the waters but illpreparing their child for life’s later tempests.
What the school needs from the parents and the parents need from the school is an ongoing stream of constructive communication and a united front to hold children responsible for their ageappropriate learning. If both sides hold up their end of the bargain, the result will be what we both hope for, highly educated graduates ready to succeed in an increasingly competitive world.