Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lingering Questions about SLA, Magnet Schools, and Exclusivity

This is a stream of consciousness, be forewarned....

I came to Philly in the middle of a stream of thoughts about my own situation at school. My school, JN Fries Middle in Concord, NC, is smack dab in the middle of a transition from a traditional middle school to a STEM/IB Magnet school next year. As I type this, applications are being filled out, submitted, analyzed, and either spit back out or accepted for my school.

Let me give you some background on me. I've always taught and worked in high poverty schools. My first 8 years were spent at rural Vass-Lakeview Elementary, I spent a year in impoverished Rockingham County Schools, and the past 3 years at JN Fries, which has a large population of kids that do not have a lot. I've loved working with these kids. These are my kinds of kids- the kids that need help most. I'm just one of many teachers/educators that have bought backpacks, writing materials, covered field trip fees, and on and on for these types of kids. If you've never worked with these kinds of kids, let me tell you- it is both extremely rewarding and heartbreaking. It just is. There's no way around it. You want to give them everything they don't have when they arrive at the school's doorstep.

Which is why it pains me to see and hear what has been happening at my school the past few weeks. I've started asking kids if they're going to apply and come back to JN Fries next year. The overwhelming response is "No way- it's gonna be a school for the smart kids." Over and over, this is the reaction- Science, technology, engineering, and math? Nope....not me- not smart enough. When we've held parent nights about the school, we have received an overwhelming positive response....but a shocking lack of diversity in income level. What I see is a bunch of upper/middle class parents rushing to get their students into a school that will challenge them and push them.

Which is all well and good. But my point is, ALL kids deserve a challenging, project-based, real-life centered school. And I can't tell you how disappointed I feel when I think about all these kids at my school that will no longer be there next year because they don't know that this is exactly the type of school environment they would THRIVE in (finally, for a lot of them). So I've been on a mission this week, handing out applications and pushing kids towards applying- the standards to get into the school really are not that stringent, academically speaking (for STEM, anyway- the IB program carries it's own stricter set of standards). I think a lot of them will take me up on it, but we'll see.

Which all leads me back towards Philly. You see, the students of SLA told us that in order to get in, you needed to have all A's and B's in middle school (with one allowed C) and also have a project that you have done in middle school to show what kind of student you are. Students are screened and interviewed (this year, there were 1,000 applicants for 150 slots), then either accepted or declined. This is awfully exclusive. Which, of course, is completely in SLA's right. But my worry is that magnet schools that function in this way will only serve to WIDEN the gap between good schools and bad schools, the "smart" kids and the "not smart" kids.

It bothers me to think that at my school we're going to be offering a much better program, with much better materials, with a dedicated staff...as soon as all the current students leave. That just feels wrong to me. And I'm going to try my hardest to convince as many of these kids as I can to stick around- and, in the future, I'm going to push hard to spread good strategies out so that every student can have the opportunity at creating, working with their hands, and being challenged on a daily basis by school.


Mr. Chase said...

Yes, you're absolutely correct. But let's do away with the either/or dichotomy. Let's open magnets that are tricked out and only accept the lowest achieving kids. Let's say we're going to give you everything you need to succeed. I've worked in a school like that and it was an amazing place. At the same time, let's keep building schools like SLA. Let's build schools that are circuses of learning for all of our kids and designed to give them access to an inquiry-based environment that meets their specific needs. All the while, let's keep in mind the pieces that aren't public. Let's keep in mind that SLA has a decent number of kids who are reading below grade level, who are struggling with poverty, death and illness who would otherwise not have a chance to focus on their learning without the environment they find in SLA's walls. So, let's keep building schools that give SLA a run for its applicants. While I reject the business model of education, I'm all for that kind of free market of education.

edtechsteve said...

I'm definitely on board with doing away with the either/orness (yep, new word and I'm keeping it). I had another rambling idea on the plane ride home (I swear I'm not usually this scatterbrained)- what if we were able to identify 10% of kids from 10 schools that were the least motivated, least engaged kids in their respective buildings and built an inquiry/passion driven "circus of learning" (love that) for them? What would that look like? How much success would it find? I'd love to build something like this and give kids like that a real shot at finding themselves and their true potential...

And thanks a lot for stopping by Zac- you really did an outstanding job this weekend and your kids are impressive.