I was at my 25th high school reunion in Framingham, Massachusetts last week and ran into a guy I knew named John. He used to be in METCO which was a busing program that brought kids from Roxbury and Dorchester (two lower income areas of Boston) to the suburban schools so they could receive an adequate education. The ride was 90 minutes each way – a whole hour of pick-ups and then a 30 minute drive to Framingham on the highway. I asked John why he would endure that every day. It sounded crazy to me. He said, “To get an education, man! I look at the kids that grew up around me who still live in my neighborhood. They all have messed up lives. The main thing that saved me was my education.”
John said he was one of those kids who could not sit still, who was always in trouble and only came to his senior year to see his girlfriend everyday. He barely graduated with a diploma and worked a full time job after graduation. However, he eventually graduated from college with grades good enough to get him into Harvard. He has his masters in education. He has been a principal of a Boston high school and now works for a program similar to METCO – but urban based. Few people expected him to achieve this. “Least of all me,” he said.
We had a long discussion about Poinciana High School which has 30 percent or more students who transfer from New York and Boston inner city schools. I explained that it seems strange to find this population in suburban central Florida, until you consider that the areas tourist attractions draw lower income families like a magnet. The two things that I came away from that conversation with were:
1. Have high expectations for students. Expect that everyone will go on to college and tell them that they can achieve success.
2. Students that are not trying know that they are not trying. The question they need to ask themselves is, “Why?”
Every person who wants something does what one needs to do in order to get it. If that means education, then he will get an education. More school is not for everyone, but we are cheating our students if we don’t think they are capable of greatness. Practically, they need to understand that what they are learning is not so much Math, Science, Literature, History, but the fact that they need to work hard in order to achieve something. It is not financial poverty that holds people back as much as a poverty mentality.
A Hollywood director who received several Oscars was asked to explain the secret to his success. “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” was the reply. “Showing up” means more than physical presence. Many of our students (and possibly some of us teachers) do not “show up” each day.
Henry David Thoreau wrote: “If one advances in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success in the common hours.” In other words, we have to start every day with the idea that there should be an outcome. What do we expect to learn and master that we did not know before we started? Everyday we can achieve something small. Then who knows what might happen in time?
Many of Florida’s public schools have more potential than my high school did to reach kids from the inner cities. A lot of people don’t realize it, but the demographic make-up of this “tourist city” is more diverse economically and ethnically than most inner cities. At the same time, it resembles the typical suburban city. We have similar resources and enough qualified teachers. Ironically, we have a large group of lower income kids to deal with, but we can accomplish more if we have the idea that every student is capable of more than we expect.