Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Cax and Bart - Chapter I

The Academically Atypical Adventures of Cash and Bart

Meeting the Cast - Chapter I

aspar Hernandez (Cash) and Bartolo Lopez (Bart) are perhaps the hardest working, most interesting and enthusiastic guys you and I have ever met. While I won’t bore you with a lengthy description of each right now, I think throughout these atypical adventures you will come to agree with me. They were born and bred in the Northwestern Cuchumatanes mountain region of Guatemala in a town called San Mateo Ixtatan. This town in the state of Huehuetenango is the capital of the Chuj Maya community. You arrive there after a completely treacherous, exhausting, breathtaking and wonderful 5 hour trip on an old-beat up school bus that is repaired three times during your ride around every one of the Cuchumatan mountains. The place is simply amazing and unique. For a great description published in the Penn Yan Chronicle Express please see my great friend Chat Hull’s blog entry which also describes in detail how we all came to be there.

I met Cash and Bart when I taught them Spanish, Literature and soccer at the Yinhatil Nab’en School in San Mateo. Yinhatil Nab’en means “Seed of Wisdom” in Ixtatan’s native Chuj language and it is exactly that idea of planting a seed that brought Beth-Neville Evans, a Charlottesville seamstress/philanthropist/educator/foundation director to found the Ixtatan Foundation and the school that educated Cash and Bart in the middle of the mountains. ( My linkedin recommendation of Beth is
“I worked for Beth at her school in the mountains in 2007, and remain at work for her. I try to constantly link myself to her education development mission. She is brought to tears every time she has to leave the foundation at San Mateo Ixtatan for her home in Virginia where most of her work for the foundation is done. She's sad not because of the many things the foundation and she bring to the Maya town, but because she will miss the many more things the people of San Mateo have to offer her and us all. I am happy knowing she's at the front line of the complex process of development.”
I know, I know…a little dramatic and corny, but it was a recommendation don’t fault me (you know who you are…) Anyways, as foundation director Beth is a big part of these adventures.

During my year in San Mateo, and for the next few months afterwards, I took it upon myself - with some help from Beth - to find a school outside of Guatemala where Cash and Bart might get a scholarship and an opportunity to experience something completely different that they might take back to San Mateo. After many months of trying to catch a break and following up with dead-end contacts, I was finally offered help by a good family friend, my best friend Arturo’s dad – Jorge Brake. Jorge Brake is the President and CEO at Laureate, which operates amazing schools and campuses all throughout Mexico and Latin America that have a social as well as an educational mission. These universities, (UVM – Universidad del Valle de Mexico) in Mexico are crucial stepping-stones for students that may be working or may not have had the opportunity to attend similar universities in the past. They also serve as simply great universities to high-achieving students, competitive with Mexican national and international universities. A perfect fit for Cash and Bart! And guess what, they were offered a full ride - including housing, living expenses, tuition, and transportation. Thanks UVM! These adventures wouldn’t have been possible without Laureate, Mr. Brake, Chat coordinating from San Mateo while I was in the City, Beth, and many other people that work in San Mateo, at the Foundation and at Laureate.

So began the first chapter of these academically atypical adventures for the two young men. I accompanied them to Antigua and Guatemala City to help them process their Visas to study in Mexico and we explored Pacaya volcano, the old capital and even stayed at the house of a friend from SMI while in the capital. Although it was only their second time in beautiful Antigua they mostly wanted to stay in their hotel room and watch Chavo del Ocho while they ate their chocolate surprises. Different chocolate surprises than the ones you get in San Mateo mind you. They also did a way above average job meeting international travelers and getting many girls’ phone numbers and facebook info, which I was of course very proud of. Those two are always confirming all the faith I’ve put in them. Police aggressively interrogated us every 2-3 hours in Antigua. I attribute this to (a) them thinking that I was kidnapping the two kids, (b) them thinking that the two kids were kidnapping me, or (c) how awesome and edgy we looked in our matching hats.

Unfortunately only one of the matching hats is featured here, fortunately I’m wearing it… Those are some nice hats.

A couple of weeks later our two heroes had their passports and Visas in hand, dreams of their Mexican adventures in their hearts and had learned a little more about their strange old capital. I left Guatemala the very next day with my hats in tow, I had bought the three of them after all (ok Bartolo?) and a new chapter of their academic adventure would soon begin with me far away in New York City.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Community Attitudes and Education

For all the things that we try to improve in our schools, some deeper realities have not changed in many classrooms around the country. Sure, the laptops are there, along with smaller class sizes, bilingual teachers, learning specialists, and many other tweaks to education policy have been implemented. However, despite all these improvements, the achievement gap between affluent White students and others has persisted. In New York City, the nation’s largest school district, the Department of Education, headed by Chancellor Joel Klein and closely monitored by Mayor Bloomberg, has worked on changing everything but what matters might end up mattering the most.

The changes proposed by New York City Department of Education all follow sound education policy in theory. For example, the City review process of schools represents strong accountability within the school district by closing big comprehensive high schools and replacing them with smaller schools. However, despite this improvement in accountability, the community’s support for the students that use the public school system has shown little to no change. Where one would expect outrage and a state of emergency, one finds apathy and complicity that speak volumes of where we find ourselves in the process of closing the achievement gap.

On February 4 of this year, Javier Hernandez of The New York Times wrote an article about the closing of “an Upper West Side behemoth” – Louis D. Brandeis High School. (Never mind that the article was written by another Manhattan behemoth that may also become outdated and “anachronistic”–luckily for the Times that stones from failing Upper West Side high schools don’t reach their glass offices 40 streets downtown.) That February 4 morning, Brandeis students awoke to the news that their school was in the Times for the first time since 1993 when the paper reported on an 8-student arrest that followed a disturbance at the school. The article describes the students as the city’s “most disadvantaged,” from “the poorest regions of the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn,” and having landed at the school “after failing to list any preference on their school choice forms.” Their own teacher, Mr. Bhattacharjya, argued that the school failed “because the students we have come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families, making it impossible for them to get any homework help.” Almost 2,300 City kids, some as young as 13, woke up to read that they and their families were being described as the City’s unfortunate and directionless poor. The story was reread to them throughout the school day as teachers at Brandeis sought comfort and shared outrage from their students.

The situation at Brandeis certainly has been alarming and newsworthy for the last two decades during which the newspaper chose not to report on the school. The state of urban education has been alarming and newsworthy throughout the whole country, as we have allowed the systemic failure of our schools and students to determine the impossible access to opportunity, higher education, and profitable jobs for much of the population. While I support some of the new policy changes being explored in schools and districts across the country, I also know that if we do not pair those changes with outrage toward the current conditions and the achievement gap between rich and poor students in this country, nothing will end up changing. Real change can only happen when newspapers like The New York Times stop publishing articles that treat these students as part of another community, not the one that The New York Times represents. We must be advocates and champions for these students and refuse to allow excuses like socioeconomic difference to determine access to equal opportunity.

The New York Times and many others that fail to understand the commitment we need to make to our kids often propose in-vogue new “can’t miss” solutions to our old problems. It is important to look more at ideas that we can possible stick with over time. One such idea for making a really lasting improvement has been put forth by education policy scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban in their book Tinkering Toward Utopia. Tinkering argues that although some researched solutions fall short of more revolutionary aspirations, they are still incredibly important as they allow more and more students increased access to opportunity. Far from ignoring important research in the sociology of education and education policy, it must be understood that change needs to be paired with long-term commitment, and there is a need for engagement at multiple levels. Education policy cannot just be about the latest fad.

Real improvements in educational outcomes will entail a long term commitment to closing the achievement gap from many different actors. It is not only the system of education, but also the attitude and apathy of the community that create and tolerate that system that we must work to change. While perfecting outdated systems is helpful and necessary, the most meaningful and transformative change of all may need to happen outside the school. This is something to which The New York Times and others should be more attuned.