In chapter 4 of Excellence Through Equity, the bold, new work by Alan Blankstein and Pedro Noguera, contributor Linda Harper tells the moving story of Success Prep Academy, a model program in Alabama that supports students at risk of leaving high school with life-changing results.
Although my brother’s accident was not about education, I often reflect on what my family’s life would have been like if the doctors at UAB had done what so many of my colleagues do today as they interact with “at-risk” students. What if the doctors looked at the police reports and assumed that my brother was irresponsible and to blame for what had occurred? What if they contended “this is an adult that should have known better, plus he almost took the life of a grandfather and his grandson”? Though such judgments might seem reasonable, they did not engage in them. Instead, he received the very best care.
What would have happened if the hospital administrators had assigned the least skilled surgeons to his case and allowed nurses that had fewer qualifications to monitor his care because they didn’t value him as a patient? What if only newly trained interns came to assist my brother, without the support of the seasoned veterans?
As I think about the excellent care my brother received, I feel compelled to recognize that in education we often do not follow this example. Instead of the best in professionalism, our “high need” students often get the worst. I do not blame my colleagues for the incarceration or death of students who slip through the cracks and drop out of school. Clearly, such an assertion would be irresponsible and unfair because there are so many factors that contribute to a student’s failure. However, I will say that the combined efforts and resources that are available to educators can change the life trajectory of many young people if we act as though we have their fate in our hands, just like the doctors who saved my brother. As an experienced educator, I know the power of strong adult-student relationships and the need for professional educators to provide equitable, research-based practices, resources, and opportunities to all students, without judgment about their worthiness.
Critical care units are generally staffed with the best medical problem solvers. Triage units are trained to quickly review the symptoms; the most critical patients are seen first and immediately shifted to available, skilled physicians. If a patient is too ill, like my brother, he or she may bypass much of the standard protocol. The process for caring for patients is purposefully differentiated. Certainly, the medical field is imperfect, and there are numerous examples of inefficiency and improper care given to patients in need. Clearly, doctors lose patients, even some who might have been saved if care had been provided in a different manner. However, I have never seen a good doctor limit or deny a patient high-quality care because he or she has refused to change his or her diet or shun bad habits. Even if death is imminent, good doctors generally do their best to make their patients comfortable. Such decisions are made after all efforts have been exhausted, and time has literally run out. In my brother’s case, they worked tirelessly to provide the best quality of care, and as a result, he survived.
Unfortunately, some educators may review a student’s data and make quick recommendations without carefully considering the long-term consequences for the student. Placing a student in special education placement or remedial class, or not allowing a student to be promoted to the next grade, must be done with a thorough review of the student data and an awareness of how it will affect him or her over the long term. To rush to judgment with pronouncements: “He can’t read in the 3rd grade, we must retain”, can have detrimental consequences, particularly if we never as why and search for the root cause.
Over the course of my career, I have seen cases where recommendations are made about a student that do more to exacerbate his or her deficiencies than treat them. Too often, we apply interventions with no intent or possibility of correcting or improving the ailment. Good medical professionals review data that are relevant before making a decision about a patient’s care and so should good educators. All students should receive the best educational care to address and target their specific needs. It should not matter who their parents are or what their family’s socioeconomic status is. It should not matter if there is a lack of parent involvement. Moreover, it should not be an issue if a parent or child has made poor choices in the past. We should expect the highest form of professionalism, just as my family did as we waited to see what would happen to my brother after the accident. Educators should serve as advocates for all children regardless of whether or not their parents are involved.
During our visit at UAB, my sister, who is a nurse, travelled from New York City to support our family. She was able to offer a great deal of feedback to the medical staff, and her voice was not silenced when her suggestions differed with those of the medical staff. When she recommended an inferior vena cava filter for my brother, the nurses listened politely. Her voice was not silenced because she was not a staff member, nor was she perceived as a “know it all.”
As I thought about how the medical staff responded to our questions, I wondered: Do educators truly value parent involvement and the knowledge that our parents bring about their children to the educational table? Some educators regard the input of parents as a nuisance. When parents raise questions about the curriculum or challenge practices that they feel may negatively impact their child, how do we respond? Do they truly have a voice? Some educators want to restrict parent involvement to bake sales and other fund-raising activities. I have noticed over the years that many educational colleagues are threatened by the input of parents and student advocates. There have been occasions when I have sat in on conferences for the purpose of supporting families as a recommendation is being made about a child. As soon as I introduce myself and provide information about the child based on my experience and credentials, I have been dismissed because “according to our school policy, we are only obligated to communicate with the legal guardian.” When occurs, I know that the desire to remove me from the process is nothing more than a tactic to limit the ability of family members to get the assistance a student may need.
Many students enter school excited about learning but later become discouraged and despondent due to the effects of educational policies and practices that stifle curiosity and crush their enthusiasm. I am convinced that we have a push-out problem in education and not a drop-out problem. For example, in many of the schools I have worked with, some educators attempt to limit access to the advanced classes to the very best students and attempt to make sure that they are taught by the very best teachers. This is why even in racially diverse schools, honors and advanced placement classes are often comprised of White middle-class students, while poor children of color are excluded. As an administrator, I have often encountered resistance from students who oppose taking these classes because there is an unwritten message that only certain students are welcome. In my experience, when students enter our schools ready to learn, full of hope and possibility, we must nurture their enthusiasm with quality opportunities to learn.
As principal of Oak Hill School, engaging in one of my daily classroom walk-throughs, I frequently reflect on my personal life and my classroom experiences. I observe extraordinary moments as Oak Hill staff I work to inspire and motivate new students. I also reflect on the students who have left our school and died, leaving the earth with untapped potential. The students that arrive at Oak Hill School and enter our Success Prep Academy particularly move me. Many of them enter high school behind academically, but they commit to the goal of getting on grade level or graduating with their ninth-grade cohort. The expertise and dedication of the teachers, combined with their caring hearts and willingness to be advocates for students who have agreed to take on the challenge of completing what seems like an overwhelming, unthinkable feat, inspires me. I am moved by my students’ determination to take on extra work and endure whatever is necessary to get their lives on track. As the principal, I am simultaneously driven to think about what I can do to support these students and their teachers as they pursue this arduous journey together.
Together, we have found a way to create a culture in the Success Prep Academy that has been extremely effective in supporting students. It has become a positive and extraordinarily special place. Its dedicated educators have demonstrated the capability and compassion to transform minds and hearts of children. As I see them at work, I am reminded of the triage unit at the UAB hospital that saved my brother. I feel strongly that this is how it should be for all students. But, it wasn’t always this way. In the following pages I share how we transformed the Success Prep Academy into the powerful institution that it is today.