What is the matter with low-achieving, unmotivated urban youth?
I'm not saying that urban youth are themselves low-achieving or unmotivated, quite the contrary, I see and teach highly motivated urban youth every day at Skyline High School in Oakland. Nor am I arguing that there are no low-achieving or unmotivated youth in the suburbs and the country. I certainly had plenty of unmotivated children sitting in my classroom in rural Eureka, California.
That being said, there are some students who live in conditions exasperated by urban poverty and violent neighborhoods. Many of my students living in urban poverty have lost hope that their lives can be better that they are; that their lives can be better than the lives their parents live; or that education may be a way to pave a road to a brighter future.
For some of my children, the loss of hope is not unwarranted. Last year, Eric was ready to graduate. He didn't get amazing grades, but he got pretty good grades. He loved playing football, was well liked, and had been accepted to Cal State Chico for the fall. He is on his way to being one of the not-nearly-enough success stories of our school. On his eighteenth birthday, another child, who was running with one of the cities gangs, tried to crash Eric's birthday party. Eric told him to leave, and the boy did, returning later with a gun and murdering Eric.
What is the message for our kids who were there, or who knew Eric, or knew someone who knew Eric? One message was pretty clear. Don't delay fun. Don't worry about the future. There is no way out of these violent neighborhoods. Even if you do all the so-called right things that your teachers tell you will lead you to a better life, you can still be gunned down; any day, any time.
I think this is the primary reason why Skyline is struggling so much to reduce our dropout rates.
A teacher-mentor of mine once told me, "Kids don't care what you know until they know you care." Sage advise. I think I've got the handle on caring about my kids and on letting them know that I care. We joke, we argue, we hug, we celebrate, we mourn together. I think my kids know that I care about them even more than I care about their grades.
What I am struggling with is the lack of hope. How can I give it to them? How can they achieve it for themselves? I can tell them that I see a college graduate when I look at them, but I can also see that some of them don't even see a high school graduate in the mirror.