An American Graduate in New Mexico
I hope you’ve been checking in from time to time on the content being created here and for the television version of the NewsHour around the American Graduate project. It’s a nationwide examination of the challenge of getting more kids to finish high school with a diploma. We at the NewsHour know one neighborhood, one high school, one state can’t possibly capture the tremendous array of solutions and problems. We’re visiting a lot of places over the course of the project, which pulls together national and local programming on public television and radio stations.
So American Graduate took me to New Mexico. I spoke to school administrators and teachers, did interviews and a town hall-style program diagnosing problems and searching for answers to them. This visit, as with my recent journey to Las Vegas, included a school visit…a chance to talk to teenagers about the value of education.
Strictly speaking, it’s an odd part of the assignment. If you want to be a purist about it, stepping out of the role of reporter and observer and into the role of motivational speaker has its complications. I am well aware of the universe of grim statistics that await the least educated Americans: lower wages, lower civic involvement, inadequate access to health care, less success at marriage and child-rearing, higher rates of smoking, obesity, and early death. I might dispassionately report these data in a television report or article on the relationship between education and quality of life.
When kids who are mostly on their second, and perhaps last shot at high school are sitting and staring as you stand in front of the class, is terrifying them into doing the right thing really the play? What the people who’ve brought me to the school always ask for is my own story. I was not sure that was the right play either. My story, written in New York City public schools that used standardized testing to pluck promising kids out of regular classrooms and give them accelerated coursework, to years in an experimental public high school, to becoming the first person in my family to go to college held very little practical guidance to a dozen or so teens who were struggling to finish high school and taking remedial courses to get to grade level.
I put myself boldly into my 17 year-old self for a moment, and thought about some guy parachuting in to tell me what to do. I could feel myself slumping into my blonde wood and gray metal tubing chair. I thought of the sensation of narrowing my eyes, staring out of my then-shaggy head and thinking, “What’s this guy got to tell me?” It was a handy thought to have as we started the session.
The kids had all introduced themselves and described their circumstances. They had all begun their secondary school careers elsewhere in the Albuquerque system, had fallen behind, failed, or dropped out. They knew finishing high school was important. They had seen their own parents struggle with unemployment and low-wage work. This charter high school, designed for children like them, offered a great shot at erasing their checkered high school careers and putting them on a better track. At intake they’re assessed, and enter the school community through a lengthy orientation that figures out what a kid needs to get him or her through the rest of their education. Then, whether it’s a little, or a lot, they get it.
The kids were refreshingly clear-eyed about their circumstances, and had no excuses or apologies for the track record that got them to RFK. They were now excited about school, excited about telling you what they were working on, and…maybe this wasn’t going to be so hard after all. Their teachers talked of the excitement that comes from working with this particular population of kids. Some had other careers, in fine arts, in law enforcement, in research, before signing up at this unusual high school.
What did I tell them? That even though my parents had not had the opportunity to get much schooling, they made sure their three boys would. I told them that unlike other places in the world that test and categorize and track, America is the Great Land of Second Chances. So, if you did better at school, even starting at this late date, there are great opportunities down the road to change your life and your life’s circumstances.
I told them that at other times in our history a strong body and a willingness to work hard could be well-rewarded. But America has become a place where that kind of work is not reliably valued. Could you get ahead without an education? Sure, and plenty do. But increasingly, those people are the exception. I told them that the answer to the question, “How much education do you need?” is simple: More. Always more.
That’s because in America, more education=more choice. It’s as simple as that. The work you do. Where you live. This car or that car? This school district or that one? What do I do on a day off? All these choices are narrower the less education you have, and broader the more education you have. You may end up choosing the same things anyway…but that choice was made by you, not made for you.
I think they got it.
I wanted to plant the idea in their heads that all these things run on a continuum, rather than as a series of strictly binary operations. Don’t feel college is for you? Don’t go, but also don’t forget you’ll need other kinds of training and post-secondary learning, and the diploma opens up those choices. Try to get the foundation-building stuff done early. The older you get, the harder it gets…with the demands and responsibilities of work, and families, and rent. (Many of the students at RFK already have children, but to lower the obstacle early childbirth presents to so many students, there is a well-staffed day care center right on the school premises. Students drop off their toddlers and pre-schoolers, and head right to class.)
In addition to my time with the students, I did have the chance to get a good look around. If you passed Robert F. Kennedy Charter School on a broad suburban arterial street you would never realize there was a high school in there. More than 20 manufactured homes stand in neat rows around a courtyard, in a part of the Albuquerque Metro where the city has long since given way to vacant land, strip malls, u-store-it facilities and mobile homes. The poverty level is high, as is the percentage of the student body that is Latino and American Indian.
There is no place to hang around. Everybody seems to move with purpose around the compound, and a kid cutting class would certainly stick out unless he or she left the facility entirely. Dissecting small mammals in one room, working on a ceramic art project in another, discussing science concepts in a third…maybe these kids do realize the big chance they’ve been given to get it right this time. They won’t see every one of the 275 students off with a handshake and a diploma, but most will graduate. In a student body plucked off the road to almost certain school failure…that’s saying a lot.