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Tag Archives: Alumni
It takes a village. Really?
Since I became an educator about 15 years ago, I have had a sinking feeling every time I have heard the famous West African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” I’ve actually felt sick to my stomach hearing it while immersed in the culture of our school system. I could never pin down exactly why until I had the opposite feeling on October 18—the night of our first alumni reunion.
I’ve had that sinking feeling because I’ve known, even though I have not been able to articulate that knowledge, that the box we put ourselves in when we think about “school” doesn’t create the environment we mean when we talk about a village. In terms of school life, our reunion was countercultural. Three years—middle school, practically a lifetime—had gone by, but there were our babies, all growing up. Reveling in their individuality, they told us how proud they were of where and who they were, and how prepared they felt after graduating from Harlem Link.
And there we were for the strugglers, playing the role of critical friend now that we don’t have to be the enforcer. Because we are no longer in a position of authority, we can engage in a safe, different and productive way those few children who reject seemingly all behavioral interventions.
“I don’t have to tell you what to do anymore,” I told one scholar who had been asked to leave two schools since graduating from ours. “And you don’t have to take my ___ anymore, either. I’m still going to tell you the same things I used to, but now you can be sure it’s because I care about you and not just because I am doing my job and bossing you around.” She smiled—sheepishly.
Where is the village?
Not only do our peer schools not keep up with alumni, but legal interpretations of the FERPA law actively discourage us from being involved in the lives of our students once they leave; under current federal regulations of FERPA, former schools are no longer “interested parties” with a right to access student contact information. More important, and I think one reason for this regulation, staying in touch and staying involved are not values of the school system.
I’ve never been to a West African village (the proverb is generally attributed to the Igbo people of Nigeria), but because of my own experience living among a swarm of relatives as a child, I’m going to guess that those villages are organized sort of like my own Italian immigrant family.
Let me focus on one aspect of my childhood: intergenerational relations. In my family, old people continue to be part of the fabric. When their kids have grown up and moved on, when their careers have come to an end, when they don’t need as much living space as they used to, they don’t go off to a nursing home to die. They move in with their children.
My grandfather lived with my aunt and her husband for the last 15 years of his life. Discharged from intensive care in a hospital when a medical storm seemed to have passed, he died at home, sleeping on an easy chair, as peaceful as the breeze. I was 10 years old.
Nonno wasn’t some distant old man whom we made special trips to visit; he was as much a part of the family as the aunt and uncle he lived with, or another aunt and uncle who lived next door to me.
He transmitted faith in a way no religion possibly could. I knew that Nonno prayed to his wife’s memory and for her peace, while looking up at a old, brown photograph of her hanging in his small room, every night from when she died suddenly in 1956 until his last days more than 30 years later.
He was the genial, appreciative father figure who watched cartoons with me every Saturday morning while my older sister was off doing activities. He didn’t understand English, but he understood joy and love, and he gave them even more than he received them.
When he died I didn’t understand shock, so I wasn’t sure why I didn’t cry for three days, but then I couldn’t stop. We were at my aunt and uncle’s house when it hit me that he wasn’t coming back. My cousin took me to her room and laid me down on the bed. “I’m not a baby,” I thought, “but, okay, I will lay down and cry.”
My mother had had a zia in Astoria who lived with her daughter and son-in-law until she died not long before Nonno did. So the concept of death wasn’t new to me when Nonno died. But there we all were, in mourning in our own ways together, and unsure how we could deal with life without him.
Nonno was important to each of us in a different way. Whether he was giving guidance to his children, handing out orange Tic Tacs to his 11 grandchildren, making funny attempts at broken English or showing the example of a life faithfully and earnestly lived to everyone, he gave something to everyone in our family.
I do not see this in our school system. In fact, I don’t see anything even remotely like it. The impulse of most adults in the school system seems to be to care, just not too much. I was told about this boundary over and over again when I started teaching.
This is the advice I heard: Don’t get too involved in the lives of your students, because you are bound to be disappointed. And anyway, who knows where they are going to end up? What could you, their third grade teacher, do to keep them out of prison? Their home life is such a mess. And don’t go visit to learn about it first-hand; take my word for it. Besides, it’s probably dangerous.
I hope it is self-evident how destructive these words are.
But it isn’t just the attitude that’s the problem. It’s the structure—or, rather, the lack of structures that encourage longitudinal thinking about children and meaningful, ongoing relationships with them.
With test-driven accountability as a sole measure of a child’s progress, everything is placed on this year’s teacher, as if Johnny walked in to my classroom as a blank slate. Calculating “value added” by considering where Johnny scored last year and how far his teacher can move his score this year (rather than his final test score alone) addresses this problem the way Google Translate would have helped Nonno learn English. It would have been a nice tool (had it existed in 1987), but what was really needed was the human connection. Value-added data formulations acknowledge that children have actually had prior experiences with other teachers, and that’s an important start, but they do nothing to address the future relationship between today’s teacher and tomorrow’s alumnus.
The older residents of the village
I would like to see us reframe our thinking about the outcome of “school.” It’s not only about this year’s test, or this year’s graduates, or this year’s teaching and learning. It’s about the impact of our work and our relationships on the lives of the children in our care. And those lives extend far into the future, rather than coming to a full stop at the end of June.
The older residents of the village, it turns out, aren’t the people you picture when you think about a school community. I’m not talking about the gray-haired principal, or the wizened special education teacher, or the grandfather who volunteers with the PTA. I’m talking about the alumni, who are now downright invisible.
In a time when schools and communities are clamoring for more support, alumni are a powerful untapped resource for our school system. And they are continually ignored, because to many members of our school communities, they seem irrelevant—or, worse, threatening.
I believe alumni are also ignored because it’s so darn hard to pin them down. How would you evaluate the impact of a teacher and a school on a child 20 or 30 years into the future? That task is even more confounding when we live in a time when a third or even half of a school’s teachers might have moved on to other schools or careers by next year.
If it truly “takes a village” then why does our definition of village end in June? How can we preserve the relationships that teachers form with their students longitudinally at a time of so much change and movement?
I don’t care about the difficulty of answering these questions. Even a cursory examination of them reveals that they raise all sorts of interesting questions about assumptions we are making.
The problem is that no one seems to be asking them.
If there is any question about meritocracy when it comes to educational resources for children, who have no say in their parents’ income level, look no further than this morning’s New York Times. An article about the increased centrality of fundraising in private schools states:
Tuition, more than $40,000 at some schools, typically covers only 80 percent of the cost of educating a student. So schools need additional fund-raising to cover financial aid, maintain and expand facilities and broaden program offerings.
We also find that the state tuition pays only about 80% of the costs of our school’s program, with its various academic interventions and antipoverty initiatives. But that tuition checks in at one-third the level cited in the article: $13,443.
The Haves don’t only benefit from more money spent on helpful adults, fancy technology and state of the art facilities; the main idea of the article is that private schools now as a matter of course incessantly research parents’ lives to determine how much money they could give to the fundraising campaign. It does not mention giving by alumni and the tracking of their data by schools, but this practice is of a piece with parent data collection and usage.
Wouldn’t it be nice if all schools kept track of their alumni at such a high level?
Where are the kids 10 years later?
Do you even know?
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.
It seems like eons ago, but last summer I wrote about a former student who I had finally tracked down after a nearly ten year search – in prison. I learned from Tom that in the ten years since he was in my class, he bounced from school to school and agency to agency. Ultimately, no one in the system took responsibility for guiding him, never mind assuring his academic success.
The juxtaposition of that experience and Harlem Link having our first graduating class in 2010 made me all the more resolute to develop one aspect of our mission that, until having that first graduation, we have been unable to pursue: following our alumni. It strikes me as sad that in independent schools, the tracking and supporting of alumni is routine, but in most public schools, once students graduate it’s “out of sight, out of mind.”
Not to say that students who graduate from public schools aren’t welcome at their alma mater (although my guess is they wouldn’t think to use that term to describe their former school or even the term “alumni” to describe themselves). When I became a teacher, I arranged a visit to my old fifth grade teacher at P.S. 23 in Staten Island, and of course he remembered me and welcomed me with open arms. I’ve had the privilege of seeing graduates come back through the doors of schools where I have worked or with which I have shared space in Harlem to visit. The problem isn’t (generally) that public schools aren’t welcoming to alumni, it’s that they are not systematic about keeping in touch with alumni. The kids who are doing well will always find a way to come back if they want to or need something, and they will be embraced; it’s the kids who are finding themselves tracked for prison who really need that support and guidance from people and organizations that knew them when they were smaller and not yet labeled by society.
But with time and without nurturing, the associations fade. Advantaged kids attending independent schools or public schools with serious fundraising aims (like my high school) have the benefit of an institutional connection that builds on the personal relationships and that provides support in a variety of ways throughout their lives, not only while Mr. Dugan is still teaching fifth grade or Mr. Evangelista is still working in the Hans Christian Andersen Complex.
All this is to say how excited I am about next Thursday’s Alumni Night at Harlem Link. We’re bringing back three of our graduates to sit on a panel and share insights into what life is like on the other side of fifth grade graduation. We are inviting our entire school community, but focusing in on the fourth and fifth graders who are going through their various stages of middle school application and research right now. The sixth grade panelists are excited to serve. They should be; it is an honor to be chosen to represent the world beyond elementary school.
A program for alumni would probably not have helped Tom avoid prison. The fact is that he was not officially an alumnus of the school where I taught him; he was transferred out in the fourth grade to a “special school downtown” (these vague words being the last I’d heard of him for those nearly ten years). But if we are designing systems to support kids through all of the stages of their childhood and young adulthood, a program for alumni is the lowest hanging fruit. If schools aren’t doing this work for the kids who make it all the way through their complete program, you can be certain there’s nothing systematic in place to help the kids like Tom, who have no one to speak for them.
So I’ll see you at Alumni Night on April 7, at 6 pm, and be patient: I’ll also see you at our first alumni reunion, already scheduled for October 2012. We’re not stopping our work when our kids leave our doors!