Harlem Link’s first annual Alumni Night was a spectacular success. Our three sixth grade panelists – part of Harlem Link’s first graduating class of 2010 – answered questions posed by the current group of seniors about what to expect in middle school. The questions covered every area of school life, from uniforms and homework to social life and bullying.
This event was the first formal event in our long-term initiative to support our graduates all the way through college. I started the event by telling our families, alumni and students who had gathered for the occasion that “this is what rich people do”: keep in touch with their alumni networks to increase their own resources and access to opportunities. Schools that raise private funds of course also have a material interest in alumni. I’m disappointed that most urban elementary schools (and most public elementary schools for that matter) don’t think enough of their graduates that they will one day grow into a source of revenue for the school. Not I. I told our students and alumni that night: “I expect you to grow up to be rich and powerful adults who will give money to Harlem Link!”
Our three alumni beamed with pride at the opportunity to share their testimony about middle school life as expert witnesses. What was most revelatory about their discussion was just how disparate have been their experiences, already! We purposely chose three stellar students who attend a variety of different middle schools – a no-excuses charter school; a large, traditional middle school in the Bronx; and a smaller Upper West Side middle school.
At graduation time, we were concerned about the child attending the Bronx middle school. We trusted the family who in turn trusted the middle school, which was conveniently located close to grandma’s home and held the promise of a science and technology focus. After a disappointing experience, mom is in the process of transferring her child out to a safer and more rigorous school. And we have one more school on our “red alert” list, to which to warn families not to apply.
Consistently, across every single question, the range of their responses echoed the three bears from the Goldilocks story: two extremes and one in the middle. I don’t think I have to tell you which student said which – or that safety and rigor are far more important than bed size and porridge temperature. Some examples:
- Do you have uniforms at your school?
- “Yes, and we have to go to detention if there is anything off about our uniforms. It’s very strict. We wear them because it helps us focus and eliminates competition over silly things.”
- “We have uniforms.”
- “We have a uniform rule but nobody actually follows it. For example we’re not supposed to wear gang colors but people do anyway.”
- Is there bullying?
- “Kids pick on each other but we all know each other so we can work it out.”
- “There is bullying. We have a counselor we can talk to.”
- “There are fights every day. The eighth graders are really scary.”
- How long is recess?
- “Ten minutes, at most.”
- “Twenty five minutes.”
- “Forty five or fifty minutes, depending on when we get out of the cafeteria.”
I had a hard time sleeping that night thinking about our placement of a child into a school that would allow fights to occur throughout the playground and school every day, that doesn’t take safety seriously and doesn’t have a high expectation for student learning (all of which came across during the course of the evening).
Fortunately, the number of students from our 2010 graduating class who chose to enroll in schools that we do not trust and we do not think give them the best chance for future academic success is exceedingly small. Most of our graduates are thriving at their new schools – making principal’s lists, demonstrating leadership, and running academic circles around other kids. Some attend the most sought-after public middle schools in Manhattan, and a large number attend high-performing charter schools.
As we learn more about the middle schools that our kids attend, we are armed with more information to share with families of current students as we go about guiding these crucial decisions – and continuing that process of supporting them as part of our growing alumni community.