Posts Tagged family

Without Strong Communities, Schools Will Fail

Published by EducationNews.org — Chaotic families can wreck their kids’ lives despite a school’s best efforts.  So what can rescue the family?

(Photo: In the Hive 2012)

In the world of school reform, there are two ways of thinking about kids’ families and backgrounds.  A 2013 movie called In The Hive shows why we need a third.

Approach #1: Focus all possible energy and resources on the kid herself.  Working with families can seem like a black hole, with seriously low return on investment.  Better to concentrate on equipping kids to transcend their backgrounds with a strong academic foundation and disciplined habits.  The KIPP schools and Success Academies are education examples of the save-the-kid strategy.  These strict, so-called “no excuses” schools have long days, demerit systems, and practices that resemble military-school environments.  The students who can stick with it do better than their peers on tests and college enrollment.

Approach #2: Acknowledge that kids can’t really thrive without bringing the family along. Dedicating resources to help families overcome obstacles to their children’s learning not only promotes academics but also builds the kid’s support system.  Unfortunately, programs like home-based visiting serve only “at risk” little kids, sending trained support people into homes to help families develop healthy routines.  Without similar social services help for older kids, schools are left with taking over family support.  Save-the-family schools have a delicious, welcoming school climate and rich family engagement.  The students in these often home-grown and stand-alone charter schools perform better than average, but not as well as “no excuses” schools.

But both these approaches have pitfalls, because they operate in a vacuum. 

Approach #3: Back up and look at the bigger picture.  The community is the field in which these kids and families are growing.  Its modeling, nurture and gifts are the conditions for all its people thriving.  Invest in the community that supports the family that supports the kid.  This approach seems to be creeping back into fashion, as Approaches #1 and #2 are increasingly showing their limitations.

Separating kids from their loved ones is an obnoxious idea no matter how messy the family. But given schools’ limited resources, chaotic families can wreck their kids despite schools’ best efforts.  Social conditions are deteriorating. In 2000, 16% of children under 18 lived in poverty.  Today it’s 22%, with 45% considered “low income.”  And income is only one form of social poverty.

In The Hive shows both the kid and the family isolated from a community context.

The movie’s protagonist is a 16-year-old black youth named Xtra Keys who’s committed a dumb but serious crime. He’s been given a choice between juvie prison or an alternative school for delinquents, called The Hive — a loving portrait of Approach #1. Xtra is so street hard that he might have taken the prison route if he didn’t want a better life for his infant son so badly.

The Hive pulls no punches. In a powerful moment, an administrator, Mr. Hollis, completely loses his cool trying to get the boys to face their plight. He crams all but a few boys into one corner of the room to emphasize how most will fail — drop out, go to prison or die on the streets. He adds more boys to the crowd until just Xtra is left. Hollis hasn’t singled him out for salvation, but constructed a living graph of the odds young boys of color face when already in the judicial system. The Hive can only help to a point.

Xtra’s home is a superb example of why Approach #2 seems futile. His scary dad is in prison. The substance-addled mom can’t hold a job and is mostly useless to her kids. Xtra’s live-in girlfriend feels that he’s growing superior to her with his fancy schooling. Eventually she leaves, taking his precious baby.

At the end, no Hollywood triumph nor tragedy.  It’s just a quagmire.

Whatever Xtra’s learned from the school, his family will drag him back down. He’s seen a better path, but so what? In a final shot, his face shows only a bad feeling about what comes next. The school can’t bring back his son, or deal with his mother, or raise his brothers and sisters.

So where’s his community — the neighbors, church, other functional social network? How’s he supposed to manage, never mind thrive? Public social services could remove all the kids from the dreadful mom, but that would only traumatize them more without denting the source of Xtra’s various problems. Rotting in prison, or even rotting in the Hive, doesn’t help him give back to his community the repair he owes, having committed a crime. He needs to rebuild his place, his neighborhood, while it rebuilds him. A new report makes the same point, but notes that so little thought has gone into bringing whole communities back to health that there are few examples.

What we have here is a failure of imagination. A numbed public can picture a kid or a family. But the public has a far harder time seeing the many children who are growing up in nutrient-free communities that yield a scant harvest of successful adults.

America’s sad performance on international tests is far more an indictment of the quality of our communities than it is of the schools themselves. The Hive, like other schools, doesn’t exist in a vacuum any more than a kid or a family does.

(Photo: In the Hive, 2012)

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Christmas Is About Belonging to the ‘We of Me’

Published by EducationNews.org — Sadly, in our fragmented society, adults often find families optional.  Not the kids.

christmas

In one of my favorite plays, Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, 12-year-old Frankie is frantic with loneliness.  She calls herself “unjoined.”  Her mother died in her childbirth; her father has little attention for her.  She craves membership in a clique of older girls who shun tomboys like Frankie.  The play aches with longing to belong.

Not only was my own coming of age plagued with such pains, but I felt them later in life too, when yearning for friends and a place to fit in at college, or in a new town.  The holiday season can also kindle loneliness with images of other people’s warm loving hearthsides.  Belonging to others is a basic biological requirement of our mammalian brains.  Detachment hurts, or when sustained, it numbs.  So this longing to attach is often McCullers’ theme.

Frankie’s companions are her 6-year-old cousin, John Henry, and Bernice Brown, their African-American caretaker. John Henry inhabits the childhood Frankie now wants to outgrow.  And while Bernice has been her de facto mother, she’s not a peer.  The story revolves around Frankie’s clueless fantasy that after her beloved older brother and his girlfriend are married, she can belong to them.  In words that have haunted me for decades, Frankie declares that they will become “the we of me.”  Along with Bernice, we sigh, knowing what’s coming.

Frankie packs her clothes and installs herself in the honeymoon car.  So when the wedding ceremony is over, her father and uncle have to drag her from the car kicking and screaming.  Without the “we” she imagined, she runs into the night with her father’s pilfered pistol.  She doesn’t kill herself, but scares the daylights out of everyone, and returns home more humiliated and alone than ever.

But Frankie has attachments.  In the last scene of the play, months later, Frankie’s looking forward to her family moving in with Dad’s relatives.  And she’s made a friend named Mary.

Lizzie didn’t get so lucky.

A modern-day urban teen, whom we’ll call Lizzie, has those same yearnings, but lacks McCullers’ articulate dialogue.  Lizzie’s language is acting out.  Her maddening behavior is a perverted effort to connect, but it’s off-putting, to say the least.  At 14 she’s over-aged for her grade, having been held back once or twice while shifting among various relatives and various schools.  Like so many highly-mobile kids, her educational foundation is like Swiss cheese.  And no one’s stopped the assembly line to fill in the holes.

Frankie’s complaints were legitimate, but she did have consistent adults in her life.  Lizzie does not.  Lizzie has a bed of her own, but chooses to sleep on a mat next to her current guardian’s bed, in a seemingly desperate gesture of belonging to someone.  The guardian is a distant relation, now old and quite sick.  Lizzie’s next step will be into the public child-protection system, where she’ll have slim odds of ever trusting that she belongs anywhere, to anyone.

Like Frankie, Lizzie wants to be accepted by kids much older than she.  But Lizzie has found some who will take her, and give her drugs, a place to hang out, and promises of future “employment.”  Hey, if it were me, I’d be thrilled to have enough freedom and choice to find my own “we.”  God knows none other has presented itself.

We empathize with Frankie’s desperation.  But no one feels warm and fuzzy about Lizzie’s aggressive language or disruptive antics.  She gets in the way of traditional schooling.  Public institutions are not designed to address her biological need to connect and stay connected.  Through no fault of her own, she is truly unjoined.

Christmas raises questions about belonging.

Every year the press and dinner-party conversationalists bemoan the materialistic orgasm that our Christmas mornings have become.  Now a major driver of the economy, the gift-giving originated from the ancient practice of leaving practical things for the baby’s newly-expanded household.  Christmas fused that custom to the idea of light and love coming into a dark world via the baby Jesus.  It’s a sweet tradition gone bananas, to be sure.  But I don’t think the gifts are what make kids so nuts around this time, however much parents and charities try to ensure that poor kids get stuff just like the comfortable kids.

No, it’s about belonging.  Some of the poorest families I know happily gather in numbers inappropriate to their small homes.  Sure, kids like the stuff.  But when asked what they look forward to, they enthuse about cousins coming, or that the clan is going to so-and-so’s house.  It’s not the stuff; it’s the belonging.  Sadly, in our fragmented society, adults often find families optional.  They’re inconvenient, sometimes maddening.  The kids don’t care.  They’ll take the belonging, almost whatever the cost.  That ache that Frankie articulates might seem subtle to adults.  But if we’re honest, we have it too.

It might be inconvenient, but all kids deserve a “we of me.”

 

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at juliasteiny@gmail.com or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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