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The Key to Education Reform? Better Parents

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It's first period, 8:05 A.M., and I'm taking attendance. The late bell rang five minutes ago. Twelve students are present and seated, though my class roster indicates that 38 should be here by now, in their seats and ready to learn. Most will show up eventually, with or without basic school supplies. They'll shuffle in more than halfway through the period and in various stages of irritability or somnolence. Some have tardy passes; most don't.

This is a twenty-first century L.A. public high school classroom, located in a gritty San Fernando Valley enclave. Its streets are lined with mile upon mile of dingy strip malls, cell phone stores, and auto body shops. On their way to and from school, most of my students will be assaulted with billboard images of carnie-barking personal injury attorneys ("Abogados! Dos, dos dos...dos dos dos dos!") and buxom "gentlemen's club" vixens. They will also pass virtually endless rows of nail salons, doughnut joints, pawn shops, hookah bars, and Thai massage parlors - though not one museum or library.

In my classroom each year, you'll find a paucity of (mostly decrepit) desks and a sea of slouching teenage bodies, many of whom are in urgent need of real solutions to an array of maddeningly complex problems.

There's X-Box Boy, who magically appears halfway through the period, head down, nestled deep between crossed arms on his desk. He plays "Gears of War" online every night and rarely makes it to school on time, if at all. When I ask what his parents think of his excessive gaming, he likely responds with an insouciant shrug, adding, "They don't care" before plopping his head back down on his desk. Not they don't know: they don't care.

Hulking and brooding, The Tormented One is a kid who stews in his seat for entire class periods, glowering at fellow students and refusing to do a modicum of schoolwork. Frequently clad in tattoos or gang attire, his inappropriate (and at times, unintentionally humorous) comments, such as, "Do you have any drugs I can have?" suggest a young life of turmoil and bad decision-making. He typically arrives to class with no supplies or will to learn.

The P.O.'s Nightmare is a variant of The Tormented One in that he prefers to physically isolate himself from other students whenever possible and only speaks his mind when the opportunity arises to possibly intimidate another kid. Unlike the tormented one, however, his classroom presence is purely a function of a judge's decree and an agreement with a court-assigned probationary officer that he will earn passing grades in exchange for his freedom. This pact typically proves unsustainable, and he's usually pulled from class within several weeks.

The Flatline is one of the kindest individuals you'll ever know. Intelligent, soft-spoken, and thoughtful, he's a magnanimous listener who rarely speaks out of turn or disrupts class in any way. An old soul, when he does speak up, students listen attentively to his insightful commentary. Unfortunately, he rarely attends school and hasn't handed in a completed assignment since October. The term "flatline" derives from the now defunct paper attendance rosters whose usage of horizontal dashes to denote student absence resembled an EKG "flatline" across the page.

In contrast to The Flatline, who rarely comes to class, The Phantom never misses one. However, this is somewhat deceiving, since, for all intents and purposes, she's never fully cognitively present. Much like X-Box Boy, The Phantom spends most class periods either sleeping or staring vacantly at the floor. Her sole purpose is to get through an entire class period without being acknowledged by anyone.

Trail of Tears is the most tragic case. She is a girl who has likely become severely damaged by her associations with adults and often enters class with her disconsolate face buried in her hands. Red-faced but trying to avoid spectacle, she weeps quietly in the back of the room, often alone but sometimes attended by a small huddle of girlfriends. The Trail of Tears has understandably let the despair in her life leak into her schoolwork, the quality of which is routinely sub-par or worse.

These are the kids who stream through the gaping cracks of public education with little commotion. At most, their stories are manifested as standardized testing statistics on spreadsheets, revealing cold designations such as BB (below basic) or FBB (far below basic). As high school students, they often go unnoticed by teachers, administrators, and more ambitious peers, and unmentioned in LA Times or CNN pieces on school reform. This may be because their issues - chronic laziness, low literacy, truancy, video game or Internet addiction - come without easy fixes and are emblematic of more ominous, unwieldy social ills that can't possibly be encapsulated in sound bytes or half-hour cable news exposes.

To this end, newspaper stories about kids marinating on the couch all day long, plundering bowls of Cocoa Puffs and playing Modern Warfare 2 until dawn, probably wouldn't make for very lucrative copy. ("Kids Choose Cocoa Pebbles, Napping Over Biology Class" simply does not tear apart the fabric of society in the way that "Schools flounder as Teachers Founder" does.) It's not empathetic enough, at least not for the primary consumers of news media - middle-class Americans - many of whom were purportedly raised with a baseline of discipline, personal accountability, and purpose.

And yet pundits constantly forget where those values came from when they lay the blame of failing schools on the shoulders of teachers. Were we all just born feeling the pull of 8 A.M. Chemistry class? Or the drive to comprehend the function of lysosomes? Or the burning desire to give a second-period oral presentation on the Sherman Antitrust Act?

Be honest: if your 15-year-old self could have whiled away any school day she desired, playing Nintendo, ravaging bags of Doritos, and watching Ricki Lake, would she have gone through with it? What about if she could have gotten away with sleeping through first period a few times a week, talking back to her teacher with impunity, or ditching classes simply because she deemed them boring or "retarded"?

The fact is, for most of us, these questions are moot: None of this behavior was ever tolerated. It's not that we didn't want to do these kinds of things, and it's not that some of us didn't try. But whenever we dabbled on the dark side, it was invariably countervailed in the form of admonishment, outright punishment, or the teenage hell of all hells: a stern talking-to.

Not that we liked any of it. Some of us even pondered the possibility of rebellion for no fewer than ten full minutes before grudgingly realizing that it was probably a good thing to have an adult around who genuinely gave a damn, someone to set boundaries lest we inadvertently destroy our bodies and minds prior to our eighteenth birthday.

But many of my students don't have this. There's no one minding the store, no pushback for inappropriate, ill-advised, or destructive behavior, no disciplinarian to impose limits and expectations. And so they falter, choking on their own leash of unfettered freedom, turning unlimited possibilities into chaos and failure.

I would've done the exact same thing had I not had caring, invested parents who, undaunted by the likelihood of appearing unfair or uncool in my eyes, were unafraid to occasionally establish order.

I love my parents - and always have - but I didn't exactly like them all of the time. Moreover, is that really the purpose of a parent? To be a buddy? An indulging fair-weather playmate with whom a child can share his darkest secrets and grievances? Some of my students' parents think so.

"They're afraid," says school counselor Jessica Chai, referring to many of her more troubled students' parents. "Afraid of getting their kids mad, afraid of their kids not liking them. They always ask me, 'What do I do; how do I get through to them,' and I say, 'Take their phone away - take their iPod away.' For some of them, a light goes on; for others, they say, 'Well what if they get mad at me?'"

Incidentally, where are these parents of whom Chai speaks? Out my 140 students, nearly a third are currently failing my class, some in truly spectacular fashion. And so I continue to wait on the deluge of angry phone calls from deeply concerned caregivers - calls wherein I justify everything from my instructional pedagogy to my grading criteria to why I have a poster of that damn hippie John Lennon on my wall. But the calls haven't come. They never do.

Even more disturbing was our school's most recent open house night, just last week - one of only two occasions throughout the school year in which the campus' steel reinforced quadruple padlocked gates are temporarily opened for parents to interact with teachers - whereupon only three parents showed up at my classroom.

Administrators can delegate and teachers can teach, but how can we even begin to address the genesis of student failure when the most powerful influence in students' lives has willingly removed itself from the equation?

I'm still haunted by an exchange with a student who strode into my class after missing two straight weeks of school. Because so many kids come and go - getting expelled, switching foster homes, leaving or entering the criminal justice system, and transferring to adult school when they turn nineteen - I was genuinely shocked to see that he'd returned.

"You're here!"

"I know."

"You know, you've been gone a long time. That's not good."

"I had a cold."

"For two weeks?"

"My mom wasn't around to take me to the emergency room, so it got worse. When it got better, I figured I was so far behind it didn't matter anymore. What did I miss?"

As a teacher, as a mentor, as a human being, these things you never forget. Ever.

And who knows - maybe he was telling the truth. Or maybe he was ditching for two weeks, going to Six Flags every day with a bunch of delinquent buddies. Or maybe he was on drugs the whole time or in deep depression, or attending the birth of his son. I'll never know, but, either way, the level of neglect and parent-child disconnect is tragic.