Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A major and obvious component of a school's and student's performance is attendance. For a student, there are often two major reasons why attending school is a good idea, to graduate and also to keep their parent/guardian out of truancy court. For a school district, attendance is important because a significant portion of funding is based on the district's attendance rates.

This week I was lucky enough to meet with one of our local truancy officers and ride along with him as he conducted a few home visits. This would be my first look into what our district is doing outside of the school walls to encourage our kids to stay in school.

Our first stop was a home less than a mile away from the school. The truancy officer informed me that the student only needed a few more credits to get his diploma. As we walked up to the door across a yard that was 80% dirt, 15% dead grass, and 5% trash, a young man stood at the door. The truancy officer let me know that the young man was a student, but was released early for half work days. Soon after opening the door, behind the young man appeared a woman who was no older than 40. After the truancy officer asked for the student at hand, the woman stated that she hadn't seen her son in weeks and that she didn't know where he lived. She invited us in out of the heat as the truancy officer explained that getting her son back in school was very important, considering that he could knock out the last few credits in no time. The mother nodded and said she agreed, but restated that she hasn't seen him nor talked to him in weeks. While speaking on her son's situation, she mentioned that he was 19. Immediately the young man who opened the door for us informed her that his birthday had passed last month and he was now 20. At this point, the woman became awkwardly somber, as though she had just realized that she hadn't even recognized her own child's birthday. After realizing that nothing else could be done, the truancy officer handed his card to the mother and asked her to please have her son call him as soon as possible. As we walked out and back across the dirt, the truancy officer let me know that this was the typical occurrence. Parents who haven't been in touch with their child and have no information of where they are or what they are doing.

As we moved on to the next address on his list, the truancy officer began to tell me about how the job can be discouraging after a while. "Out of the hundreds of kids we lose, it's the five or ten that we save that keeps me in this job and encourages me to keep going." When he said that, it reminded me of the numerous teachers I had spoken to that shared the same sentiment. The feeling that success if something promised to the few, rather than the many. It's a forced acceptance of mediocrity that a failed system tends to press upon anyone and everyone that works within/for that system.

The first home was the only address that we had listed that turned out to be correct. Out of the other four homes we visited, three were occupied by other people, and one was completely empty and abandoned. I was informed that this was a typical day for the truancy officer.

The entire experience left me wondering, 'what's the purpose?'. If these efforts aren't serving to be successful and our truancy officers are sent knocking on doors to no avail, why aren't we finding a different approach regarding this issue? I came back to San Antonio in 2009 with a vision. I wanted to change the Eastside. I wanted to come back and save the Eastside. That turned out to be a bit tougher than expected. Turns out that the community I grew up in. The one that was full of failing students, a failing appearance, and overall a failing culture, didn’t think they had a problem. Well, after being back only a few months, I decided to point out their problem...them.

A few years ago, Sam Houston High School was on the chopping block. The district held a huge meeting on the Eastside and about 300-400 community members came out. The district considered closing Sam Houston due to lack of performance and low attendance. Now, you must understand that this is the central high school on the Eastside of San Antonio. You must also understand that at that time Sam Houston had been deemed Academically Unacceptable for two consecutive years. On top of that, this was the school’s fourth Unacceptable rating within five years. Regardless of those meaningless agency ratings, the crowd claimed racism. They threw out charges that no one cared about Sam Houston outside of its community. Not one person mentioned Sam Houston’s low performance or the community’s lack of support. I waited through about 30-40 people that night. All of them angry at everything except for themselves. I decided to voice my opinion on the topic and I ended up getting booed by nearly all 300 folks in attendance. I asked all of them where had they been? Where were they for the past five years that Sam Houston was failing?

That was in 2009. 2010, Sam Houston High was again rated Unacceptable. 2011, Sam Houston High rated Unacceptable. Last year we were ranked 64 out of 65 high schools in the Greater San Antonio area.

Throughout these past few years I have taken advice from a lot of people in my community. Most of them encouraged me to handle everything with a diplomatic approach, as opposed to a revolutionary approach. I can’t begin to count how many times I heard the saying “You can catch more flies with honey, than vinegar.”

As a result of being the nice guy and trying to request a better future for our kids, I noticed there was no movement. My nice guy tactics allowed the same deficient system to remain in place and the same results to be produced. This past school year, I decided that I would no longer allow our students to continue to lose this battle. Throughout this past school year I helped someone run against the school board trustee. Several times I publically questioned and criticized our board trustee’s constant failure throughout his past 12 years in office. The community still voted him back in last year and I was told that I need to “pay my dues” before I could make a change in our community. Since 2009, I’ve attempted to hold an entire school administration accountable for the continuous failures that have occurred. Let me clarify that I never have spoken ill of the administration publically or privately with any students. My attempts to figure out why we constantly fail, not only led to a continual denial of failure by the administration, but also led to me being restricted from campus and banned from speaking to students. The same students who I sponsored for graduation and prom. The same students who I mentored and spoke to in classrooms throughout the year. You would think that with all the odds against me, I would just throw my hands in the air and give up.

I left the military this April. I had a choice between staying in for 10 more years and getting a great retirement check, or getting out and following my passion. So here I am, 28 years old, unemployed, broke, and at times unsure if this decision was the right one. But the one thing that keeps me going is the idea that if I don’t take this leap, no one else will. If I choose to go the route of a bigger paycheck, as opposed to creating a better future for these thousands of kids, what’s it all worth?

I look at the potential that is wasted day-in and day-out and I can’t turn my back on that. I know they always say, “If you save one kid, it’s worth it”. But let’s be honest, none of you are here because you want to save one child. When you signed up for TFA, you didn’t do it to save a child a year. If you wanted to do that, you could have sent a few dollars a month to a charity. You are here because you want make a difference in the world we live in.

My challenge is to change the mindset of our community from one of DEPENDENCE and ENTITLEMENT, to SELF-REFLECTION and ACTION. I’m here to break down those walls of denial and apathy, so that my community can begin to build bridges to success and long-term sustainability.

Those kids you see everyday. That’s me. You not only ARE that difference in the world, but you are educating and inspiring and developing thousands of difference-makers. I know you’re all putting in an enormous amount of time and effort taking on the challenge of being teachers, especially in an urban community. I understand that the task can be extremely stressful and quite discouraging at times, but I am here to let you know that you are not alone in your struggle. There are people like me that are inspired by what you do day-in and day-out and whether you know it or not, we’re fighting battles from the outside to help make what you do, not only better valued, but also more effective.

I don’t have a powerful closing, so instead I’ll offer a challenge question. This is a quote and it comes from a lady that some of you may know. I think her name is Wendy something-or-other. At the end of the quote, there’s a question that I would like for you all to think about from here on out:

“To realize a vision of educational excellence and equity, we will need to develop an educational leadership pipeline to propagate transformational schools, the political leadership and advocacy infrastructure to create an environment conducive to their success, and new innovations to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their efforts. At each turn, success will rely on people who have internalized the lessons of transformational education. And so we come to a central question: How do we find and develop more of these people?” How do we FIND and DEVELOP more of these people that will create and sustain the differences in our world?

Thank you for your time.

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