The first graduation ceremony I attended as a teacher was back in 1994. I was excited. All around our one city block campus neighborhood entrepreneurs set up tables selling balloons, teddy bears, and flowers with proclamations such as, "Congratulations, Graduate!" and "Class of '94". Parents rented limos, girls bought formal gowns, and boys rented tuxes. Announcements were sent out by families to extended family members and friends announcing the "Graduation" with elaborate party to follow. My excitement became inversely proportional to the excitement of the others in attendance as I remembered -- this is all for the completion of eighth grade.
I wandered around the gathering crowd and wondered aloud, "Why such a big deal?" One of my fellow teachers, an alumna from this school told me, "For many of these students, this is the only graduation they'll see -- and their parents know it." Two of my eighth graders giddily ran over to me and gave me a hug proclaiming, "I can't believe we did it! We made it!" These two students failed my class. I'm pretty certain they failed all of their classes as they rarely turned in any work or studied for a single test. What exactly did they do? Grow a year older? Were they celebrating just that -- surviving another year in East Los Angeles? Is this truly an accomplishment in their community -- survival to the end of their eighth grade year? It was a recognition that little was expected to warrant a grand celebration.
The attitudes of the adults had worked their way down to the students. If their parents and family members attach so much importance to the event and the administration and teachers do the same (hours upon hours of work by the graduation committee as well as entire half days spent for rehearsal), then in the students' eyes, it must be a monumental accomplishment. Several things are troubling:
- Students possess low expectations for themselves when middle school culmination may be the only type of celebration they have related to schooling. These low expectations are created and amplified by the adults in their lives. The more I spoke with other adults, the more I realized my ignorance that this may be the educational terminus for these students and should therefore be celebrated. No wonder more of these students dropped out of high school than graduated. Only a fraction went on to college. The systemic lowered expectations of an entire school community made it easy for the adults to accept these substandard results for children.
- Students often live in an environment where survival is so difficult that it is deemed worthy of reward without any form of true achievement. A veteran teacher at the school once told me not to push the students so hard, because their lives are tough; yet, the harder their good teachers pushed, the better the students did. Through the years, the school made some attempts to require "eligibility" criteria for students to "walk in graduation" but these were rarely enforced and teachers would routinely change grades when appealed to by crying students, parents, and school staff on how "difficult it was for this student just to show up everyday". I do not dispute that students struggle with the environment they live in and it makes their educational attainment more difficult. It's beliefs such as this that reinforce the cycle of poverty for children and families in low income communities.
- What's more is the amount of money spent to celebrate this occasion by parents and families of students who could not afford to bring a notebook to school or an umbrella for the rain (99 percent of the students were eligible for free or reduced lunch.) I tried to be accommodating to students without means for paper, pencil, and ruler, by stocking up at Target before the school year started. It was disturbing, however, when the same student who would take all of the "free" things from me would show up in a limo at graduation and adults would think it acceptable.
During this college graduation season with high school graduation right on its heels, it is incumbent on the adults to set a proper tone for middle school culmination. I went to graduation this past weekend at Loyola Marymount University. At the Kente Ceremony for African American students, celebration was warranted and deserved. The jubilant environment mimicked the one back in 1994, but this time it was based on true accomplishment and achievement. Downplaying the pomp of eighth grade culmination ceremonies may do little for the circumstances of students living in poverty; however, the expectations that adults have for students can help change such circumstances and eighth grade culmination is as good a place to start as any.