Saturday, April 9, 2011

Educating Against All Odds?

There is a gorgeous piece of educational journalism by Jonathan Mahler in the Times Magazine section this week about principal Ramon Gonzalez and the public middle school (not a charter) he runs in the South Bronx. What makes this article so great are the insights Mahler provides into the struggles of an outstanding inner city school head, and the detailed profiles he offers of teachers like Garrett Adler, the inexhaustible Emily Dodd, and the KIPP-trained master teacher Silvestre Arcos. Particularly striking is Gonzalez's reliance on Teach for America alumni who apparently can be taught to teach better but whose total commitment to supporting poor kids remains rare and an essential prerequisite to success.

Perhaps the most moving part of the article focuses on Saquan Townsend, a chronically absent 7th grader, whose intellectual gifts Emily Dodd quickly discovers, while going to great lengths to bring him to school in the morning. Her efforts pay off and he begins to thrive academically while also starring in the school's version of "West Side Story," (directed by Dodd) and becoming a fixture in the Principal's after school book club.

The future seems to be bright for Saquan, but his homelife is so unstable, including time in a homeless shelter, that his family eventually moves away from the school and he ends up being unable to sustain his desire to attend, in part, because of a long commute. Regarding Saquan's situation, Mahler writes eloquently about the tension between a reform movement that insists poverty should not get in the way of higher school achievement and the reality of how hard it is for a youth hounded by poverty, homelessness, and a mother who works around the clock, to stay focused on school.

Gonzalez has the last word however and insists that what gets him up in the morning are children who need his help most. May his school, MS233, thrive for a very long time to come.

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