The whole Ark may yet sink. Catastrophic state budget cuts and Federal standards of oversight may yet make the perfect storm. The third ingredient in this perfect storm? Teacher and public indifference. We’ve come far enough to know progress can be made, and it’s never too little too late—it’s just never quite enough.
My students would be variably proud and aghast that I employed such an allusive and dorky metaphor in the Ark. But like the biblical Ark, we too hope to survive the ordeals facing every teacher and every student across every city in the country, though it seems too impossible a task. Similarly to the biblical Ark, all the creatures have been gathered up for rescue and sent off into an uncertain future, but not without great heaping hope for a better, sunnier, drier day.
State and Federal haggling over budget and control remain insufficient efforts to right the ship, but the crew may yet wage a mutiny and take back control not only of the institutions that claim to serve them, but also of their destiny. Grandiose? Yes, but not as grandiose as using too many metaphors and rhetorical questions in a single essay. My students are by now disappointed in me.
Whether through charter schools, city school board and department reform, massive voter activism or community organization, parents of at risk students are seeing the progress in their children, who themselves stand to become better educated and potentially more successful than previous generations of their family. Many students will be the first high school graduates ever. Millions of people are rooting for these kids, the vanguard of a massive class movement.
But the public remains largely unaware of what progress really looks like. We are all keen to look skeptically at standardized test score for students, but when it comes to how schools are measured, it quickly becomes clear that the test-prep mill with the carefully groomed, hand-picked student body will appear superior to other schools with fewer privileges and opportunities for glamorous achievement. There are many such schools who futures lie in the hands of politicians and accountants, all refusing to measure the whole student, the whole school experience, the impact of groups of people who suddenly care for, respect and nurture even the least desirable students—those who pose the greatest risk to themselves and society, not to mention the school where they drop out.
I do not mean to say that no one understands the at-risk youth population. The needs of at-risk youth in the south Bronx are profound, numerous and myriad, to say the least. Young students who are already at risk of dropping out not only of school but also out of productive society all together face mounting challenges throughout their young lives. It is no wonder that so many kids, mere kids, are simply crushed under the weight of prejudice and indifference: it is, under the circumstances, the easier, more sensible solution to simply disappear and turn away from the apparently insurmountable challenges facing them. The definition of the so-called ‘at-risk youth’ is too limited to totally encompass the constellation of doubt and aimlessness that pervades every moment of their lives. It is vital that we move from the label to the understanding of the inner-city youth’s larger condition.
First, let’s define the concept of ‘at-risk youth’. The website www.at-risk.org offers not only a workable definition but also some of the categories that affect the risk factors facing youth today. The site argues that it is a complex of factors facing kids today that defines them as particularly at risk. For instance, teens facing the usual problems may not be especially at risk of falling off the right track. Rather, teens “experiencing more than four” adverse conditions like school suspensions, family struggles, motivation trouble and legal involvements may now be classified as particularly at risk. Of course the list goes on and most of the teens I work with have struggles numbering well more than four including violent behavior, depression, sexual promiscuity and gang affiliations. It is important to understand that much of these at risk conditions are not only limited to social relations and may include psychological components as well. Anorexia, ADD, drug abuse and suicide are among the psychological components to characterizing at risk youth and may in themselves be manifestations of other factors. The question now revolves around what can we do about it?
Some would argue that there is nothing to do be done; such is not the point of view of this author. Others would argue that more resources, like money, should be spent. However, noted scholars as Alvin Poussaint would indicate that spending has never been as high as it is today, yet the return value on that investment is hardly present since kids are in as great a crisis as ever, if not even greater. Yet others would suggest that schools need dedicated teachers and programs as New York Teaching Fellows and Teach For America have been successful only in training temporary workers for an average term of service of 2 years in only some of the neediest schools. Besides that, there have been few Black or Hispanic hires and virtually no retention. In one of my former schools here in New York, 6 years later they continue to experience 40%-50% yearly turn over. So the question remains: what are we doing about the critical reality that today’s youth are more at risk and dropping out and fast becoming consumed into the permanent underclass?