If you saw a child drowning in a river in front of you, you’d rescue the child, right? And then if there was another, and another? For 25 years, my church (First Unitarian Church of Rochester) has been reaching out a hand to city school students who need help to succeed in school – and in life. It’s critical work and it makes a difference in children’s lives.
I’ve been wrestling with the root problem: How do you prevent children from winding up struggling in the river? You want to go upstream. Stop whoever is pushing youngsters in, or fix the weak place where they’re falling in. But I don’t see one cause of urban education failure that can easily be fixed.
The long list includes broken families, lack of jobs, crushing poverty, teen pregnancy, child abuse, language barriers and the stress of a parent’s mental illness or drug/alcohol addiction. Don’t forget racism, prejudice, inequitable incarceration policies and unequal school resources. It’s not so easy to walk to school if your neighborhood is unsafe.
I think many people throw up their hands and try to ignore the river. But we need to consider our role, as a society, in creating the river. And lately the waves have gotten bigger with tougher standards.
Imagine a long staircase. Many poor, urban students start on the first step, arriving at kindergarten without knowing letters, how to count or sometimes even the names of colors. One study found that by the age of 4, children in poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than the children of professionals. But in a middle-class setting, many children start kindergarten already about six steps ahead, so it’s not hard to get them to “proficiency” on, let’s say, the seventh step. When low-income students work hard and have great help from teachers and volunteers and climb from the first to the fifth step, they’ve made incredible progress. But they’re still failing in the eyes of the state. Now the state has raised the bar to expect everyone to reach the eighth or ninth step.
Why has our community created school district boundaries that effectively segregate poor students? How do we expect to educate students who start out so far behind, and have great stresses in their lives, at the same costs as more advantaged students?
While wrestling with the big picture, we can’t ignore the children who are struggling right now. The first step toward change is to form connections. By being in the schools, tutoring students during the school day, we get to know people and better understand the issues and the needs.
In the past two years, we’ve tripled the size of our school volunteer program. I am proud of the dedicated work of more than 100 volunteers last year to help children climb out of the river and up the steps.
More volunteers are needed. For information, see www.rochesterunitarian.org/22UUCS.html