As per our invitation, we are presenting op-eds from the candidates for the May 1 local elections in Norfolk, Newport News, Williamsburg, Chesapeake and Hampton. The articles will appear in the order in which they are received and exactly as they were sent to us
It Takes a Village to Raise a School
By Jesse Scaccia
The first figure gives the number of students enrolled in ninth grade in Norfolk public schools last year. The second number tells how many were in the senior class.
The reasons for this skewed ratio are too complicated to lay out in one op-ed, but we all can agree about one problem it spells out: our schools need help. They need it badly, and they need it now.
Our first instinct might be to turn to the budget in search of more money for our schools, and yes, we should do better in that regard. This year the Norfolk city council authorized increasing the schools’ budget by a whopping 1.23% over 2011 numbers. You don’t need an economics degree to know that when your budget increases aren’t keeping pace with rate of inflation, you’re in trouble.
In a city that sits with a straight face as a private developer proposes a $76 million renovation to a building that, last I checked, is actually still fully functional, more of our financial resources should certainly go to the schools. But money won’t be enough. Money has never been the answer when it comes to raising our children the right way, and it’s not going to be how we fix our ailing school system.
Children learn when they are given one-on-one attention, when they have adults to look up to, adults who are asking them what they learned in school that day. Children learn when they are taught in the singular way their beautiful brains learn best. Our students are our babies; in an environment of love they thrive, and in the absence of love and attention we cannot blame them for their failures as they grow up. We can only blame ourselves.
So without money to hire more teachers and aides (135 positions are already slated to be cut) how do we give our students the attention they need? What’s the answer?
The answer is us.
We need to shift our cultural compass from thinking ‘When are they going to fix the schools?’, to ‘How are we going to fix the schools?’
I’ve taught in public schools in Brooklyn and San Diego, have a master’s degree in secondary education, and spent what amounted to a school year volunteering as a teacher and mentor at a home for young men in Cape Town, South Africa, so I know what it’s like to be in a teacher’s shoes. I know how overwhelming it can be, how you can feel like you’re stuck at the mouth of a hose turned on high, desperately trying to hold on while knowing what you really need to do is slow down to tutor students individually, to start the lesson over, or to just let the class breathe for a moment. But that’s not an option 2012. Not with the next unit about to start. Not with standardized tests coming up. Not with another 20-to-30 kids about to walk through that door expecting you to teacher them something.
Our schools need us. They need our time. They need our energy.
I’m proposing a program called ‘City in the Schools.’ The mission is to facilitate bringing educated adults into the classroom to help out on a regular basis. Depending on their professional experience and education they might do everything from tutor one of the electives that have been cut, like art or creative writing, to just being on hand to give personalized tutoring to a student who has been falling behind. Remember, we’re not talking about astrophysics. In elementary school they learn things like addition and state capitals. These are subjects any of us can help a young person discover.
The goal, from a metrics point of view, is to double the amount of volunteer hours being donated to Norfolk Public Schools by the end of the first year. To accomplish this, the City of Norfolk would begin giving its employees the option of a flex lunch of two hours one day a week (or biweekly or monthly depending on what’s feasible.) This gives them enough time to get back and forth, while staying long enough for a class period. But this opportunity wouldn’t be just for city employees. Citizens from across all walks of life—from college students to retirees–would be recruited to participate.
The idea isn’t new, of course. Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, for example, has their Tutorial and Literacy Partnership Program, in which they allow their employees ‘administrative time’ to head over to Portsmouth Public Schools to tutor students. The program “continues to encourage its participants to commit to personal excellence and compel others to do likewise.” On the national level, the program is similar to a program called Communities in Schools which helps 5,000 professionals across the country reach nearly 1.3 million students a year. According to the Academic Development Institute, “Independent research demonstrates that Communities In Schools is one of a very few organizations proven to keep students in school and the only one to document that it increases graduation rates.”
This project would take some effort. Background checks would need to be involved for those who haven’t already received them through their job. There’d need to be at least a 2-hour training course where basic ground rules are discussed—contacting a student outside of school will be strictly forbidden, for example. A program like this will need a manager, so there will be hard cost involved as well, but I believe this is a cost that someone in our private sector would be happy to cover.
There’s one thing all of us who have been teachers can agree about: for every ounce of energy you give the kids, they give you two back. Being a teacher is a blessing, and one that more of us should share. A program like City in the Schools gives us all a chance to stop complaining about them, and to start being a part of the solution ourselves.
Jesse Scaccia is a candidate for Ward 6.