Tuesday, April 26, 2011

What Can Be Done for Saquan?

I really loved this column from Joe Nocera in the Times, even if it made me a bit sad to read it on this last day of spring break. Nocera points out that a young man named Saquan came close to experiencing academic success at the Bronx's M.S. 223, only for his teacher and principal to see much of their hard work slip away when Saquan moved back to Brooklyn.

It must have been discouraging for his obviously involved and compassionate teacher, Emily Dodd, to see Saquan go after the extra hours she put in with him. M.S. 223's principal, Ramon Gonzalez, must have felt it too. Gonzalez, from what I have read of him in the press, reminds me of my own principal: a good leader who cares about running a great school and helps everyone in the school community feel "on board" and valued, while still a skeptic of some of the cornerstones of so-called "education reform." It's helpful to work for someone who is at least willing to point out that the emperor's socks are mismatched.

Still, Nocera's point is that school, even a great school with great teachers, can't overcome everything. Even well-intentioned and loving parents, as Saquan's mother seems to be, sometimes find themselves in difficult circumstances that take quite a bit of time to unravel. So Saquan goes to another school, where a new teacher will start from the beginning with understanding his challenging behavior, finding his talents and smarts, and working with him painstakingly to keep him involved and invested in school. Even if we could guarantee that 100% of the teachers in this city have the time, capacity, and intuition to pull off such a task, there is no similar guarantee that Saquan won't be uprooted again, or go through something as tragic and frightening as homelessness again. And as teachers and support professionals work hard to just bring Saquan to the table, time for actual learning is draining away very, very quickly.

What could be done for Saquan? Things that no one has the political willpower to do. Keep him and his family in a subsidized home near M.S. 223. Work vigorously with his mother to help her avoid homelessness and subsequent trauma that inflicts on a child. Make sure he lives in a safe neighborhood. Put him in small classes where a teacher would have time to get to know him, work with him, and bring out his best qualities. But there's no willpower to do all that right now; whether that's because there is no money or lack of money is just an excuse is unclear.

There are a lot of Saquans out there. Heaven knows I know, and have known, more than a few. And neither I nor any other teacher nor even 80,000 superteachers could save them all. This is not to say that it isn't worth trying, but it is to say that refusing to admit this fact keeps us as teachers in the position of forever castigating ourselves for not doing more.
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