A Matter of “Class”

A recent article in the New York Times provoked a strong response from me, both personally and professionally.  In Helen Ladd’s and Edward Fiske’s opinion piece titled “Class matters: Why won’t we admit it?” (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/12/opinion/the-unaddressed-link-between-poverty-and-education.html) the author’s raise a very important question: “So why do presumably well-intentioned policy makers ignore, or deny, the correlations of family background and student achievement?”

The authors offer a few possible suggestions as to why the link is very often ignored, from overwhelming faith in our education system to “offset the effects of poverty” via innovations such as charter schools, to the belief that if all schools are held to increasingly high standards they will somehow meet those high standards and propel students to success.  Yet such beliefs mask uncomfortable truths – charter schools as a whole are not doing exceptionally better than public education and high standards often mean the deliberate teaching to the test or to specifically target a group of students (at the expense of others) that can be the difference to a school on the margins of failure or success.

As a mother of a five-year-old experiencing the joys of kindergarten, I am acutely aware of the advantages my daughter has over other children.  In her short five years, she has been on more plane rides than I ever took before going to college 3,000 miles away from home. She has been to countless museums, debating whether the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum is better than the ShakeZone at the Kidspace Museum. She is a whiz on computers, moving seamlessly between desktop and laptop, but with a preference for my smartphone.  She has been exposed to multiple languages, knows what a French horn is and believes she can be a scientist-ballerina-doctor-chef-astronaut when she grows up. The advantages she has today are directly attributed to the education both my husband and I have received, the knowledge we’ve gained from our professional networks, and the jobs we have that make it possible for us to pursue our interests and widen hers.

Unfortunately, as the article rightly points out, not all children have these opportunities and not all schools can make up for what they don’t have.  As a teacher for many years, I worked with children whose families never set foot outside the 5-mile radius of our city.  Other children in my classes had never seen the beach, had never touched snow, did not have a library card and had very little understanding about the notion of “going away” to college. Our limited field trip budgets only allowed for 1 field trip per year per class, limiting the connections we could make between knowledge learned in texts with knowledge gained from the real world. Because we could not offer sustained music and art classes, and get to other vital subject areas like science and history because of the importance of math and reading, our classes were split up during what we called “mix time.” During this time, a single grade level would split up their classes for a two-three week period and teach subjects that simply could not be taught during the regular school day.  I was lucky to be teaching in a grade level with seven teachers where we could offer music, art, dance, science, physical education and other exploratory subjects.  Other grades were not so fortunate.

I am no longer teaching and it saddens me to see what is happening to teachers and the constraints imposed upon them. I am dismayed by the budget challenges and the ongoing slashing of funds to both education and social services.  Yet, during this time of fiscal constraint and questionable education policy decisions, the importance of exposing kids to new opportunities and new ideas has never been greater.  The demand for a workforce that can compete in a global economy is considerable, yet the experiences and knowledge students gain in the classroom are insufficient preparation to meet this demand.  They need the kinds of experiences my daughter has had in her five years of living – experiences that expose her to new opportunities, enrich her perspective and allow her to believe she can grow up to be anyone she wants to be.

The authors say, “Since they can’t take on poverty itself, education policymakers should try to provide poor students with the social support and experiences that middle-class students enjoy as a matter of course.” At LACEF, we take this mandate to heart and aim to provide students from underserved communities with the opportunities and experiences that they do not and can not receive from home, from their schools and from their communities.  At Blue Sky Meadow, we offer programs that enable students to see what it means to do science like a scientist.  Through our work with the juvenile justice system, we pilot innovative career technical education programs that position kids who have not done well in a traditional school setting to capitalize on their talents and develop skills that boost their confidence and lead to viable futures.  Our recent summit on school health centers with leaders in the public, private, government and nonprofit sectors made clear the importance of being healthy and have access to health care if we expect our students to do well in school and in life.

Why LACEF does this is for the same reason I do this for my daughter. First, we do this because we believe in our kids and we need them to believe that they have something very special to contribute to this world.  Secondly, we do this because it makes sense. Kids are our assets – among them are the next doctors, inventors, artists, etc – and it is our moral imperative to provide them with the kinds of opportunities and experiences that fulfill their potential.  As a mother, I am the champion of my child. As LACEF, we champion kids and their infinite possibilities – family background or circumstance will not stand in the way.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

Leticia Bustillos, LACEF Director of Programs