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A Lesson for Public Schools From Steve Jobs

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Picture the kid who set off an explosive underneath his teacher's chair in grade school. Before he graduated to that, he set off havoc by making "bring your pet to school day" posters and convinced other kids to give him their bike lock combinations so he could switch all the locks.

The troublemaker's name? Steve Jobs.

Fortunately, for those of us who love our iPhones, iPads and iPods, Jobs attended schools that accommodated his childish behavior and rebellion rather than criminalizing it. But what if Steve Jobs had been Jamil Jobs?

If Jobs were attending a typical urban public school today, chances are high that he would have been suspended, expelled, or at the very least, put on a track aimed at failure rather than success. In Oakland, California -- where I live -- the schools primarily serve poor youth of color. When students act like Jobs did, they typically face disciplinary action and often are charged as delinquents. Data from 2009-10 released this year from the Department of Education confirm this. They highlight the stark differences in the way black and Latino students are disciplined in school as compared to their white counterparts. The data is from 72,000 schools in 7,000 districts, serving about 85 percent of the nation's students. It shows that black students comprise 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions, although they only make up 18 percent of enrolled students.

Even students who do not misbehave are rarely recognized as gifted or talented. While black and Hispanic students made up 44 percent of the students in the survey, they were only 26 percent of the students in gifted and talented programs.

Here is what happened to little Steve, according to the biography by Walter Isaacson. He was put into the advanced class in fourth grade. His teacher, Teddy, figured out how to engage him in the learning process. Admittedly, she "bribed" him with lollipops and occasionally even cash, but after a few months, he no longer needed these incentives. According to Jobs, "I just wanted to learn and to please her."

Most people can relate to the idea that we all come to crossroads in our lives. We make decisions that take us in one direction or another, but when we are children, decisions are made for us. In the case of Jobs, he was given a sense that he was special. His father challenged the school to engage him to his full potential. His teacher, Teddy, discovered what it took to motivate him.

This approach should become the norm in our schools and in every child-serving system. Not just for the exceptional Steve Jobs of the world, but for all children. Even if their faces do not fit our biases about where potential lies. For too many students, today's schools resemble prisons more than they do learning laboratories.

The vast majority of brown and black children who fill juvenile detention are driven to the juvenile justice system from other youth-serving systems which neglect to provide appropriate support or services. Once in detention, we spend more than $200 per night locking them in a place that, research shows, has a negative impact on their life outcomes. Not only is this morally unacceptable, it is fiscally unsustainable. Instead, we should be working to ensure youth are learning, employable and connected to their families and communities. We should be putting resources into their schools and communities so that they are places of opportunity rather than places where some young people of color succeed "in spite of" their surroundings.

The 2010 census shows that 12 states and D.C. now have white populations below 50 percent among children under age five. At current growth rates, seven more states will flip to "majority minority" among small children in the next decade. As a society, we cannot afford child-serving systems that do not support every child to reach their full potential.

Every child should have the opportunities that Jobs had to become the person that he became. He says, "I learned more from [Teddy] than any other teacher, and if it hadn't been for her I'm sure I would have gone to jail."