Don't Write Them off

You'd have to have a heart of stone to turn away from the beautiful, trusting children in Waiting for 'Superman'.

Those children and their families know education is the pathway to the life they want -- a life with dignity and choices. They desperately need a school where their dreams can be realized. And they know that their local, neighborhood school isn't doing the kind of job they need.

Part of why the movie has struck such a chord is that just about all Americans -- left, right, and center -- agree that a good public education is the birthright of every child. Many of us are simply baffled by how things could have gotten so far off track. After all, we collectively spend a lot of money to provide schools in even the poorest, most remote areas of the country. Why, we want to know, aren't all schools doing their job of teaching kids well? How can we have thousands of high schools that can legitimately be called "dropout factories"? And how can anyone write off children as engaging as Anthony, Bianca, Daisy, Emily, and Francisco in Waiting for 'Superman'?

In some ways, those are complicated questions that reach deep into our history. But it seems
reasonable to say that, as a nation, we owe our kids -- all of them -- something better.

It sounds simple enough, but how do we get from where we are now to where we need to be?

I don't think we have all the answers. But I know where to start looking: in schools that succeed where others fail. Schools that take in kids like Anthony, Daisy, Bianca, Emily, and Francisco and make sure they read, write, compute, solve problems, think creatively, and have a strong foundation in science, history, and the arts -- every day, every week, and every year.

We have such schools right now in big cities, small towns, and rural areas. Granted, there are far too few of them, but they do exist and we need to learn from their success. Some are charter schools, but let's be honest: There are some extraordinary charter schools and others that deliver results as disappointing as the worst traditional schools. And there are some traditional neighborhood schools that help their students learn at levels that other schools, even schools just a few blocks away serving kids from the same communities, couldn't dream of.

Take, for example, George Hall Elementary School in Mobile, Ala. Its students -- almost all African American and almost all poor -- achieve at levels that surpass those of many schools serving only wealthy, white children. Its teachers know their students can learn if they do what is necessary to teach them.

Some of that is making sure that students' experiences range beyond what their families can provide. For example, the children at George Hall live 10 minutes from the bayou but many have never even seen a boat. That lack of exposure to the outside world leads to limited vocabularies and insufficient background knowledge that, if unaddressed, could stunt academic achievement. So what do teachers do? Says one: "We take them on a boat." Teachers like those at George Hall know that it is up to them to provide the kind of experiences that allows students to transcend poverty.

George Hall was one of several schools honored last year by The Education Trust, which every year recognizes schools that succeed in helping low-income students and students of color achieve at high levels with its Dispelling the Myth Award.

These schools are doing what some naysayers say is impossible, which makes them worthy of careful study for the answers they can provide. None of the teachers and staff in these schools say what they do is easy. In fact, they say it is difficult and requires constant thought and creativity.

But the students in these schools are living proof that low-income kids and kids of color can and do learn at high levels when they are taught at high levels. We don't have to give up on Anthony, or Daisy, or Bianca, or Emily, or Francisco, or any other child in America. Each of them deserves to attend a good school.

As a nation we need all our schools to be good. And they can be. But, as Terri Tomlinson, principal of George Hall, says, "First, we have to believe it can be done."