Amidst the Worst of Times Are the Best of Times: Acting Quietly in the Interest of Children

All too often in the education debate we trade in the currency of generalities.

I suppose that is unavoidable since the problems are so vast and diverse and since so many people engaged in the debate spend little or no time in a public school and even less time in a classroom. Politics -- especially bumper-sticker/Twitter tweet politics -- is a rhetoric that turns vague notions into sweeping and sometimes cynical policies.

So when someone from the inner circles of power acts quietly in the interest of children, it ought to inspire hope -- along with, perhaps, some surprise.

Perhaps, though, it is no surprise that former secretary of state Warren Christopher understood that we have to save education one child at a time.

Almost twenty years ago he set up a fund that would provide scholarships for exceptional high school students who had overcome extreme adversity and were still having to contend with acutely difficult circumstances but were nonetheless successful in school.

And he awarded the scholarships to those students at the end of their sophomore year in order to give them extra motivation to stay in school and prepare for college. The Christopher Scholarship program also provides mentoring and other supports.

So last week, at the end of a school year of diminishing resources, reduced instructional time and staffing cuts that put a lot of us on edge, it was a much needed boost for me to attend the Christopher Scholarship awards ceremony in Downtown Los Angeles and see one of our students being honored.

And see all ten of these scholars from schools across our city get recognized for their hard work and determination. Each had a story that was inspirational and moving, even to this twenty year inner-city veteran.

Warren Christopher had such a story. His father died while he was in high school and if not for a scholarship he would not have been able to attend the University of Redlands. He never forgot that someone's generosity had changed the course of his life.

Last year's Christopher Scholarship recipients, including another of our students, got to shake hands with the former Secretary of State. This year's scholars shook hands with Christopher's son next to a portrait of Warren Christopher.

I don't know about all of the chosen scholars but the young man I know from my sophomore English class seemed transformed by the events of that day -- as was the young woman from last year's class who stood on the same stage in June of 2010. She came away with new and higher expectations for herself and her life and this past year she has continued to excel and become a leader in our school and in her community, despite deteriorations in her living situation.

Perhaps more important is the influence of these two students on their peers. Last year's Christopher Scholar returned to school last fall not only setting the bar higher for herself but for her peers as well. She has even become more demanding of her teachers -- including me!

I don't want to exaggerate the influence of this one scholarship on our educational community -- or the potential influence of ten scholarships on the youth of our city. We all still have plenty of unmotivated -- or at least undermotivated -- students who come to school to "kick it" with their friends and sometimes try to disrupt the learning of others or don't come to school much at all.

But there is, I believe, a lesson in the triumphs of these few students, one that most experienced teachers know very well -- success is the great motivator, even a little of it can save a child from alienation and self-destructiveness, and the lack of sufficient opportunities for many students to feel successful is a big reason why so many large urban high schools have such high rates of failure and drop out.

Perhaps no structural problem in education is more acute than the seeming impossibility of creating opportunities for individual success and recognition in a middle or high school of two or three or four thousand.

But there I go spewing my own generalities.

I suppose I ought to concentrate on the hard-enough task of providing opportunities for individual success in my own classrooms, thirty to forty students at a time and pay homage to the legacy of the late Warren Christopher.

Perhaps if he hadn't been so busy directing foreign policy, negotiating the release of American hostages and trying to bargain for peace in the Middle East and on the streets of Los Angeles, he might have made a really good secretary of education.