“No Child Left Behind” is a joke.
Most of the urban and rural students, primarily from families below the poverty level, are not getting even a rudimentary education. In fact, according to a recent study released by the America’s Promised Alliance (an organization chaired by Colin and Alma Powell), the U.S. has a 30 percent rate of students failing to graduate high school. But the really upsetting data is that in urban settings typically 50 to 70 percent of the students fail to graduate! (see story here) This is more than an embarrassment. This is an epidemic of failure that costs America billions of dollars in lost productivity and high crime rates.
What needs to be done is quite clear. Strong superintendents like Michelle Ree in Washington, D.C., Joel Klein in New York City, and Arne Duncan in Chicago, to name a few, have made significant progress with some combination of the following: take power away from the unions and ineffective school boards; require longer school days and longer school years; eliminate tenure for teachers and offer merit pay to the best teachers; fire those who can’t teach effectively; certify teachers without degrees in education but who demonstrate the ability to teach effectively (which also increases the percentage of minority teachers for schools dominated by minority students); fire principals whose schools are ineffective; fund charter schools; and offer school choice. So the path to success is known. But it is blocked by a recalcitrant bureaucracy and a stubborn teachers union that prefers the status quo. That’s why it takes exceptional leadership to effect real change.
So while there is hope that the efforts of some of these educational reformers and the few politicians who actually seem to care might gradually bring real change to urban education and to U.S. educational policy across the land, what do you, as parents and concerned individuals, do in the meantime? The rest of this article will be devoted to describing some amazing heroics by individuals and organizations that refuse to accept the hopeless fate of these children…our children…for we are all one very large family.
A personal story will provide the lead-in to some compelling examples of communities helping lost youth. Last year my wife and I decided to change our charitable giving philosophy by eliminating nearly all donations to large local and national organizations. Instead we decided to search for grassroots programs where our money and, perhaps, time, could really make a difference. Our efforts to find such programs led us to an exciting foundation, The Lenny Zakim Fund. LZF was created by his family and friends as a deathbed request by this amazing man who did so much for the people of Boston that they named a bridge after him. Itself a grassroots organization, it raises money for programs committed to social change and social justice in the Greater Boston area. Their small but numerous grants have a significant impact on the lives of people who are struggling to find a place for themselves in our society.
Our initial involvement centered on their site visit program which does on-site evaluation of the more than 150 applicants for funding. My wife and I participated in a number of these evaluations and I want to describe a few that are related to turning around the lives of our youth. As you read about these programs and share, hopefully, in my excitement about what they are doing, please try to keep two things in focus: it is amazing what one, or a few, dedicated individuals can accomplish; consider how much you could accomplish with even a fraction of such a commitment and the change you could bring to your community.
The Boston City Singers
“The mission of the Boston City Singers is to provide comprehensive music training to children and youth in Boston’s disadvantaged, inner-city and neighboring communities. We believe that by exploring the world of singing, our members develop stronger leadership and teamwork skills, experience the power of self-esteem and self-discipline, and enjoy the beauty of artistic expression.”
Their programs include entry-level chorus training for over 200 children ages 5-12 from inner-city neighborhoods; a middle school program that focuses on youth with demonstrated skills; a citywide Concert Chorus that provides intensive training for 60 youth, ages 11-18, which has performed all across the country as well as internationally. Their current application was a request to develop a teen mentoring program that would train teens to provide more intensive support to the younger children. This afterschool program is very demanding on the time of the children, the staff, the volunteers, and the families.
Perhaps the most amazing, and important, statistic that underscores the success of this program is that once a child enters chorus training, 80 percent of the children remain in the program until they are too old to continue. It becomes a central part of their lives and the gains are exceptional. They connect the children to tutoring programs; support college goals, including ties to a foundation that offers college scholarships; and assist many of their students, through an intensive program that includes summer tutoring, to get into stronger schools, including some of the best in the city that require tests for entrance. Teachers from the schools that these children are attending when they enter BCS are involved in the program as volunteers and become an important link in the process. Together, staff and volunteers create an individual plan for success for each child.
It works. All the children who remain in the program graduate high school and most not only go on to college but they actually graduate college. (Two-thirds of Boston’s high school students do not graduate, according to a seven-year followup of the class of 2000 as reported in the Boston Globe on 11/17/08).
I watched a rehearsal. The first thing that struck me was how many boys were participating. The second was how quickly they were able to perform a new song that was passed out that day. The third was not just how good they sounded but how focused they were and how happy they were. And these are children who live in neighborhoods where drugs, crime, gangs, and death are a part of their everyday lives. Life-changing? Absolutely!