THE BLOG

Retire the Slogan of 'The Same Students in the Same Building'

11/05/2010 02:40 pm 14:40:00 | Updated May 25, 2011

"Reformers" do not seem to understand how hurtful it is to teachers when they repeat the false soundbite about schools that kept "the same students in the same building" and yet were "turned around." Their inaccurate slogan is equally offensive to students because it minimizes the traumas that too many of our kids have faced.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan made that misstatement in Oklahoma City, claiming that the 123 students retained by the KIPP Moon Academy were the same students in the same building as the 501 students in the old Moon Middle School that was featured in Harper's Index after 80 percent of the sixth-grade class was suspended due to a lunchroom food fight. The old Moon had a poverty rate that ranged between 90 to 100 percent, and its special education population ranged between 24 to 33 percent. It took seven years for the new KIPP school, with a poverty rate of 85 percent and with 7 percent of students on special education IEPs to reach an average daily attendance of 236.

Many students who attended the old Moon would ride on my back as I swam the width of the pool until I was too exhausted to climb out of the water without the ladder. When I visited the crack houses where some lived, I negotiated with their guard dogs. Some chastised me for driving off a white junkie, and they did so in a way that will always remind me of the kids generosity of spirit. The soundtrack for those years was Spike Lee's Do it a Cappella and our favorite song on it was "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." I have never doubted those kids' abilities to succeed in a system that celebrated their full humanity. The new KIPP in the old Moon building does a great job, but only for some of our children.

The Wall Street Journal told part of a Romeo and Juliet story of a young Hispanic couple, Ivan and Laura, to illustrate how the "same" students from a unionized neighborhood were transformed by a charter school. Ivan prospered after transferring to Santa Fe South charter school "which had a firm policy of expelling students who fought or carried drugs on campus." The Journal did not report that the last year that the charter reported its full data, 2008, Santa Fe South had a poverty rate of 77 percent, and 8 percent of its students were on special education IEPs. The charter suspended seven students.

Laura attended Capitol Hill High School "which was once featured on the History Channel series 'Gangland' and where two police officers are assigned to the school." "'We play by different rules,'" said the Capitol Hill principal, not mentioning that his neighborhood school had 962 suspensions and expulsions, and 140 arrests. Six staff members were assaulted. Capitol Hill served twice as many students. Its poverty rate was 95 percent with 22 precent being on IEPs. Another 34 percent were English Language Learners, which was 7 percent more than the charter served. The neighborhood school had 58 percent fewer "Gifted and Talented" and its mobility rate was twice as high.

Laura worked nights, her brother went to a reform school, she moved in with her grandmother, and she suffered through the deaths of her grandmother, grandfather, and uncle. According to the Journal, "while Laura didn't strive for academic success, she helped organize school festivals and a blood drive. She volunteered at the Salvation Army. She was voted senior class president." Her counselor was too swamped with "managing special-needs students and helping homeless students find shelter" to assist in college plans. Caring adults at both schools paid home visits to students, and the article cited committed educators in both schools including a "Teacher of the Year" at Capitol Hill and a $25,000 "Milken Educator" award at Santa Fe South.

I was pleased by much of the message delivered by Secretary Duncan in Oklahoma City. The delightful KIPP students he showcased deserve the opportunities they have been provided.

But not all poor children of color are the same. I had been bloodied at school that day, subduing a student who knocked another kid unconscious. Both of my students, the victim and the assailant alike, need and deserve far more supports. If the Duncan administration wants to help all children from tough neighborhoods, it will retire its slanderous soundbite.