2016 Week Four: Education
In my role as Community Partner Coordinator at Thread, I am tasked with mediating disciplinary infractions in the hope of establishing a constructive solution. While I am mindful of the wishes of our community partners, I feel like I need to primarily serve as an outlet for our students. Caleb and I outlined a discipline system for our summer jobs program, with one unexcused absence meriting a warning and a letter home, and over three leading to eventual termination from employment. What has really bothered me is that our employers have the tendency to not reach out and call with an update until the student has missed over three days of work, or when their behavior takes a turn for the extreme. Hence, I have received too many phone calls where a community partner has simply informed me that a student was fired. In many of these instances, I had no idea that their job was even close to being in jeopardy.
One community partner informed me that they would be terminating a student for absences, and that “he could drop his shirt off at the center or get a volunteer to do it.” Given the challenges that these kids face in their daily lives, I thought it was incredibly callous for the employer to drop the student without even hearing them out in person. That’s why I have mobilized the volunteer family and been in constant contact with the student since this event, as we are planning a face to face sit down. In this meeting, we will vouch to give the student a second chance, but that ultimately appears unlikely. But the larger point is this; If you are going to fire a kid from what could easily be their first official employment experience, you need to sit down with them and inform them where their performance was lacking. Ultimately we want this summer to be about personal growth and career development for the students in our program, and there are lessons that can be learned even in termination. Even if I can’t save one student’s job, I can at least ensure that they fully understand why they were terminated so they do not repeat those same mistakes at future jobs.
Ultimately, I choose to fight for our students. Too often I feel that many of our kids are misunderstood, that some employers are almost tone deaf to the challenges and plights that they face to even make it into work each morning. When students are absent at work or their behavior takes a turn for the worse, I want to uncover the potential attributing factors. Recently I was sitting in the office as Caleb was fielding a call from an employer who was angry that her student wanted a thirty-minute lunch break and did not understand why they could not eat at home. Caleb asked her to consider the fact that her student might not have easy access to healthy food choices in the neighborhood in which he lives, due to the numerous food deserts present throughout Baltimore City. For many of our kids, the easy and routine are not at all routine or easy. That’s why I feel like one of the most rewarding parts of my work this summer will be amplifying their voices and perspectives when the time becomes appropriate. Whether this takes the form of helping each of them reflect upon their summer experiences and talk about their growth within an end of summer booklet, or whether it requires me to fight tirelessly for a student’s continued employment, I will try to meet these challenges and serve our students first and foremost.
On Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological needs are said to be at the base of what we need to survive. These include food, water, and sleep. According to Maslow, if physiological needs are not met, none of the higher levels can be reasonably attained including safety, psychological, esteem, or self-actualization needs. For some Baltimore City students, physiological needs aren’t being met. Because of this, it is almost impossible to expect these students to learn a significant amount in the classroom.
One thing the city does to counteract this problem is provide reduced price or free lunches. A similar program also extends to the summer and provides the students in MERIT lunch every day. However, this past Tuesday, the lunches didn’t come. I called the Baltimore City program’s office and was placed me on hold for 30 minutes. Someone picked up and curtly said, “The driver got lost. Call us back in 15-20 minutes.” After 15-20 minutes and another call, they assured me the driver would be there in 15-20 minutes. By this time, the students finished their labs and waited for the food. 30 minutes later and no more food than we began with, the students decided to leave for their afternoon labs on the medical campus.
Now, I was incredibly frustrated at the folks in charge of lunch, but I felt even worse looking at the situation from our students’ perspectives. It was irresponsible that the driver got lost (even though they had been delivering to our site for a whole week prior) and completely neglected all of the students we had. How can we expect students to perform well if they don’t have their lunches? For some students, that lunch could have been their first meal of the day or possibly their only meal of the day. All in all, if the city is going to provide free lunches to students, they better make sure to follow through and deliver them because it can have a large impact on learning and thus the students’ futures.
“THE FUCKING EDUCATION SYSTEM IS BROKEN”
As I pack away the leftovers from the lunches we serve to our students every day, these words ring out from the other side of the wall, like an unexpected crack of thunder on a quiet afternoon.
Actually, hearing such statements is not uncommon at HEBCAC YO. The woman who has shouted this particular phrase is a visitor for the day – a graduated student who has returned to speak to current students (at the center, “graduated” refers to a previous YO! attendee that has successfully passed their GED test and has been consistently employed or attending college since). The center frequently asks its graduates to return and motivate current students to meet their personal goals, or to encourage them to continue attending their GED classes.
Having finished with the lunches, I reenter one of the classrooms – class is in session and the students are hard at work, surrounded by motivational posters and quotes written on whiteboards. A personal favorite around the center is “Education is the fight for your life.” It was actually written on the white board by last year’s CIIP intern, and I hear it quoted at least a few times a week by teachers and students alike.
I have had the privilege of growing up in a household where education was not just emphasized, but prioritized. The students who come to classes at HEBCAC YO are all high-school dropouts, most of whom have not had access to the same quality of schooling that many people (myself included) sometimes take for granted, and many who have not received the lifelong support from their schools and families that I often do not think twice about but consistently benefit from.
Later that day, I am lounging on a big plushy couch with K, a 23 year-old student with a “Cherish” tattoo snaking around her wrist and a natural affability. Out of the different roles I play around the center, my favorite has without a doubt been the moments during which I find myself sitting on one of the couches with one or two other students, and we’re just talking. I love these moments because of the random anecdotes the students share – some hilarious, some heartbreaking, but all a little glimpse of the lives they lead outside the walls of HEBCAC YO.
As I sit there listening to K, I am blown away by the things she has experienced in her 23 years: a childhood of emotional abuse by the grandmother who raised her; reaching a breaking point, rebelling, and getting pregnant at the age of 13; raising her 4 month old daughter alone after her boyfriend was imprisoned for drug-dealing, and then eventually, dropping out of school to also deal drugs and become a stripper in order to obtain financial stability.
I sit there, nearly paralyzed. Though we are only two years apart in age, K has lived through experiences that my privileged upbringing prevents me from even beginning to understand or comprehend. She makes it clear that throughout all of these ordeals, there was no support: from family, or her school system.
It dawns on me then that yes, the fucking education system is broken, because it has failed to adequately support the students who are like K, who need that support more than anyone. To be a “high-school dropout” is a highly stigmatized position to hold in today’s society. If you’ve dropped out of high school, you must be unmotivated, right? Or unintelligent?
But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Though it is convenient to shift blame to the students, oftentimes those who drop out are victims of a cyclical and systemic oppression that is ingrained within the city’s educational system.
Education is the fight for your life, but it hasn’t been a fair fight for these students.
Though the system has failed them, none of them are ready to give up on their fight for an education – and so they come in to the center everyday with unflinching dedication. Everyday, students like K teach me far more – through their resilience and intelligence – than I could ever hope to teach them in my classes.
For the 350 dropouts enrolled in our program, the opportunities HEBCAC YO provides are life-changing. We are truly standing beside them the whole way on their journey – from getting a GED successfully to finding a job, to getting accepted to and attending college. And though I leave the center every day feeling as though the work I am doing is meaningful and impactful, there are over 700 students who drop out of Baltimore City Public high schools EVERY YEAR. Who is helping them in their fight?
We’re gearing up at Code in the Schools for CodeWorks. CodeWorks is our five week coding bootcamp for 17-21 year old Youth Workers in Baltimore. Each Youth Worker we get will be placed in one of four tracks: intro to programming, web development, video games, and Microsoft certification. Each track is at a different location around Baltimore and our 96 youth workers will be split between them.
So here it comes, The Big Thing. The week before CodeWorks is an integral one in the office. And naturally, this is the week I get into a bit of a slump.
I keep zoning out at my desk and staring out into eyes of the giant face graffitied on the walls outside our office. I check my phone a little too often, even when I don’t want to, like a reflex. I can’t seem to organize my tasks in a way that I can effectively finish them off like I normally do.
Praises aren’t being tossed at me this week. In fact, I get my first piece of constructive criticism. I’m sending out email after email to potential sponsors trying to get free lunches for our workers and Charlotte comes in from a meeting after email 3 to ask me to write a more informative and compelling subject line. She says it nicely but I can’t help but feel dumb. Here I am, a student who is allegedly getting a degree from a top ranked engineering department and I can’t even formulate an effective subject line for emails.
Speaking of the sponsorship emails, my confidence is taking more hits. Trying to get restaurants to give out free meals for 100 kids is difficult. I tailor each email to the restaurant to try to make it a little more personal and researching each potential sponsor, as well as finding good contact info, takes a surprising amount of time. I spend all of Thursday on these asks and by 2 I have fired off about 30 and received 1 reply: a rejection, basically.
I trudge on with the emails, hope dwindling with every passing minute and with the lack of new emails in my inbox.
A half hour before I leave, an email arrives. It’s short and it’s sweet and it’s everything to me. A Baltimore catering company is donating 100 boxed lunches to us for our first day of CodeWorks. I leap into the room next door to tell everyone about this act of generosity.
This is hope. This is a start. This is what I need.
I carry on.
“Did we love Freddie Gray before he died?”
This is one of the first questions that Makayla asked our group when she came to speak at the Mid-point event. The same questions can be asked about the individuals killed this past week at the hands of police brutality, like Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Makayla’s words for us were so beautiful and so necessary, especially in the wake of these recent tragedies.
In what ways have we, as individuals and a society, failed to love Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and so many others? And how do we begin to demonstrate our love for them before we simply know their names behind hashtags? When placing Makayla’s words alongside Joe Manko’s, our other speaker this week and principal at Liberty Elementary, a potential answer appears. Public education has consistently failed the African American community for decades. The system hasn’t simply been unfair to these individuals when they encounter police; it begins in classrooms. But that’s also where we can begin to allocate our time, energy, resources, and love.
There is love at Liberty Elementary everyday. Though the academic instruction they receive is amazing, this love extends past math and reading. Mr. Manko and the rest of the staff at Liberty work incredibly hard to ensure that the students are getting an education that is enriching, despite the challenging economic backgrounds from which the majority students come. They do so through field trips, technology, after school activities, and much, much more. The summer camp program that Liberty has been running the past few years, I feel, is a powerful example. (To be clear, the money that funds the program does NOT come from the city. The principal himself writes the grants so that the camp can continue.) Students walk in every morning excited to learn, knowing Liberty is a space where they will be fed, feel safe, and have fun. The school cares about them outside the usual September-June span of time. We can show that we love black children and that their lives matter if we care about the education they receive. As Mr. Manko mentioned in his anecdote about former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s visit, black children should be able to create their own worlds and express their passions, especially at school.
Education is one of many avenues, of course. We can simply look at how members of the black community are seriously underserved in their daily lives, from limited access to food, health services, and clean living environments. Through CIIP, we are all able to be a part of organizations that strive to show that black lives do matter and deserve love.Tags: 2016, CIIP, CIIP 2016, Hebac Yo! Baltimore, MERIT, THREAD, Week Four