Sunday, June 7, 2009

How To Cook A Great Casserole, And Then How To Burn It

One of the things I've loved about 13 years involvement in public school is the interesting mix of ingredients. Every year it varies ever so slightly, teachers retire, new students transfer in, but the basic mix of our neighborhood school is the comfort food we crave. It provides our annual parades, theater, Friday night football games, a cycle by which we measure our alliance to our community. Everything and everyone is mixed up into one container, baked, and the delicious dish that emerges is a cohesive mass of delicate and exotic flavors.

Our recipe is not for all, I've learned to accept that not everyone wants a taste of this dish. Hey, I'm someone who doesn't eat seafood or fish so I get it. But when we talk about the recipes that would make Dallas a better city, education always seems to be a core ingredient to success. And we must acknowledge to make education in our city great requires more than just a private option, we must bring up our public schools.

So the Hillcrest community was thrilled when the Academic Success Program was introduced at the school two years ago. We all signed contracts agreeing to abide by the requirements of the program, attend parents/student group meetings, help our kids fill out the required forms, and in general, do whatever the wonderful Ms. Smith asked of us. Yes, we all knew this was a program whose primary (but not only) goal was to get students who were economically disadvantaged and potential first-time collegians into very good universities. And yes, some of the students in the program did not fit one or both of those classification, but all of the kids who participated, well they have been friends, classmates, academic competitors with each other for years, and have thrived on the challenge.

And here's the really important part - no student who wanted to work to participate in this program was left out. No one. Because it was at it's core a SELF-WORK program. The students had the expectation of achieving the goals set out on their timeline, from good grades, to letters of recommendation to transcripts, to applications to the FAFSA. For those kids without parental resources to navigate the complexities, ASP provided a more hands-on resource for them. And while located in one of Dallas' wealthiest neighborhoods, Hillcrest qualified for ASP through Title I funding because over 70% of the students come from families of low economic means, in fact the program was put into 12 DISD schools because of it's record of success.

Here is what ASP does: 1) Targets those kids who can meet academic requirements to entry into a four year university, 2) Exposes students to many more college opportunities through their extensive network and information, college open houses, and campus visits, 3) Provide a timeline and structure for students to complete all the necessary steps, 4) Source scholarship opportunities for students based on their academic achievements to apply for.

Here is what ASP does not do: 1) Try to convince kids into college - they must want it and be willing to do the work, 2) Provide funding or any financial support directly to any student, 3) Obtain scholarships for students - it is the scholar's academic and other achievements that earn them awards. ASP was not the only source of college entry for the seniors of Hillcrest, over 90 students listed 4 year universities on the graduation program, of which 33 were in the ASP program. But the rigorous requirements were more than some parents and students wanted to tackle.

So after two years of ASP, at the May Induction Ceremony it was gratifying to see the number of freshmen, sophomores and juniors who, driven by proven previous success, joined to make college entry their commitment over the coming years. Because the earlier ASP can begin to influence and help these targeted students, the greater their chance of success.

Then, in Saturday's DMN the bitter burning of our wonderful casserole, "Plan aids young Hinojosa", on the front page of the Metro section, right next to the article about teen offenders earning their GED while incarcerated. While I don't want to belittle their achievements, it was a strange juxtaposition in writing: glorifying the demons while demonizing the glory.

At issue seems to be that this young man came from a family of means, his father runs the school district, and he participated in this program. So I guess it raises two questions, if a school is receiving Title I funding for projects involving academics, does this require means testing of the students who participate? Because every day my children walk onto campus in some form or another, they are benefiting from Title I funding. So then do we "segregate" those students whose families have greater financial means on a campus from those who don't so resources cannot be shared? Of course not. I don't know of one middle class family that sends their child to Hillcrest to take advantage of the Title I "extra" funding. Their choices involve academics, community, allegiance (many parents are alumni) and friendships.

Second question relates to a student in our public schools obtaining entry into (one of) our nations premier universities. Is it somehow less of an achievement when a young man, who works his butt off to not only get the grades but do all the extracurricular activities (Student Council 4 years, Varsity Baseball 4 years, top 1% score on the SAT's) and who also happens to have a parent who runs the school district? Does it denigrate the achievement of any student that their father or mother may have money, degrees or accomplishments? I say not when they are working to achieve it themselves, which this young man did.

I closed my eyes the other day at graduation, taking a big bite and enjoying the flavor of the celebration. Amy T. who I still remember as a 1st grader in computer lab ("right click, left click, double click") is off to college, she had over $1.2 million in scholarship offers from various universities. "Mijo", my eagle who I've written about twice is also college bound to a private school in Ohio, fully paid due to his academic success and lacrosse skills. I know he worries about his grandmother, a maid in a Preston Hollow home who he will have to leave caring for his two siblings, but he knows she has help in our community. Then there's Jeremy, son of Heather, self employed, single-parent mom. Jeremy made it to the State Finals on the mock trial team, then helped his mother recover from a double mastectomy. This fall he heads to Oklahoma on a full scholarship.

I have expressed directly to the editors of our citys only daily newspaper my disappointment in the "rush to print" this sloppy piece of work. Because here is what they missed: 1) there was no investigation into whether the ASP program was handled differently at Hillcrest than at any of the other schools they served, 2) While the district could not verify the Hinojosa's participation in group meeting, you'd think someone could have called a certain sports writer in their organization, Hillcrest senior dad, and also ASP participant, Kevin Sherrington in the Sports Department. "Hey Kev, you have a senior over there, ever seen the Hinojosa's at these meetings?" his answer would have been "Yup, every single meeting", 3) No research was done on the requirements, goals and functioning of the ASP programs, including apparently checking out their website, 4) Nothing, nada, squat, zip was written about the kids who did obtain great opportunities through the program at Hillcrest. So not only did they tear the top down, they didn't bother to lift the bottom up either.
Has it come to where our city newspaper is denigrating district graduates for their achievements based on the income that their parents make or if they serve the public? Going after a kid who has been a role model to others certainly is scorching the food we all have to eat. Because that is what it smells like to this nose, and believe me I know what burning casserole smells like.

1 comment:

amanda said...

Yeah, you're right. I was seriously uncomfortable with the story. Hillcrest has had it's share of exceptional kids. (I can think of several years, it was a Hillcrest student earning a perfect score on the SAT...) But, this is about the sloppy reporting. There's just so much of if at the News this day, it's pretty bad. I don't even read the print version anymore...I won't waste my time or money on half-truths.