Closing one child’s gap
Several years ago, I was privileged to spend an hour a week mentoring Natavia, a 4th-grader in Detroit. She had been held back a year because of poor reading skills. When I gave her a book at Christmas, I later learned it was the first book she had ever owned.
The challenges in this girl’s life are too numerous to name here. Her poor reading skills meant she was lost at school, unable to keep up anytime the class had to read something, unable to work through story problems, unable to appreciate anything related to reading. In spite of this, Natavia showed up promptly at school every morning primarily because the school fed her breakfast. (She told me with great pride that she didn’t need an alarm clock because her stomach woke her up every morning.)
Natavia was clearly bright enough to be able to read. Her spoken vocabulary was fine. But she could not translate words she could speak into words she could read. By late October when I met her, she had failed every weekly spelling test that year. She was polite to me but sullen about anything related to academics.
Her teacher asked me to tackle spelling first. Each week, Natavia and I took her spelling list and read the words aloud. If she didn’t know the meaning of a word, we looked it up in a dictionary. She said she had never used a dictionary before. In the beginning, I asked her to write every word 10 times on a sheet of paper. I called Natavia’s mother and asked her to have Natavia repeat this task at home at least once before the test. Her mother said she had never helped any of her children with homework.
On the very next spelling test, Natavia got more than half of the words right. Her taste of success inspired her to work harder. Three weeks later, she was scoring 100% on each test and continued to do so for the rest of the year. Can you spell exhilaration?
This is not a transformation story. A once-a-week mentor cannot turn around a kid’s life and I did not turnaround Natavia’s overall academic performance. But it is an example of the many little tasks that go undone in schools, not because teachers or schools don’t care but because the challenges are just so immense. Natavia’s teacher should have taught her how to study spelling. But she had 30 other students just like Natavia. Actually, Natavia was probably one of the least challenging students because she was largely respectful and mild-mannered, which could explain why her needs were easily overlooked. (Consider the boy who ate out of the paste pot because he was hungry and the paste tasted minty. Or the boy who banged his head into the desk or the wall whenever he became frustrated in class. Or the nine-year-old girl who was overtly sexual with male students and male staff.)
What must we do as a nation to ensure that children like Natavia obtain the same high-quality education that Kappan readers expect for their own children?
We’ve long ago learned that closing gaps in learning for children like Natavia is a complex process that requires far more than figuring out how to prepare for a spelling test. But even in my deepest pessimism, I do believe that we are closer to an agreement that closing gaps is essential if we are to live up to our expectation of equity.
We might fight, often bitterly, over the appropriate tools to use in the battle for equity. If we at least agree that all children deserve a high-quality education, then I am hopeful that we are at last moving in the right direction.