In her book Access and Engagement (2000), Aida Walqui describes the myriad factors that contribute to the success (or lack thereof) of immigrant students in schools. When reading her work, I found myself feeling pretty helpless as she described the various factors that impede their success – family support, immigration status, previous academic achievement. These enormous factors are more or less entirely out of the hands of teachers, so it leaves me feeling like we are attempting a hopeless task in some ways.
On the other hand, she does mention a few things that contribute to student success on the part of the school and the teacher, such as support in second language acquisition, social challenges, and in some ways educational continuity. She mentions programs such as Project New Beginnings (a "newcomer program for newly-arrived adolescents"), which seems to use many strategies that can be successful, but in some ways these programs may also stigmatize the immigrant students within the greater social context. It’s this stigmatization that we should avoid as much as possible to help what she calls the “enduring” and “situated” selves coexist in a healthy way.
One thing that stood out to me in her book was the idea of “noninterventionist” parental support (passive means of supporting academic success, such as providing a home environment conducive to learning, as opposed to active support in the form of phone calls to teachers and visits to the school). I don’t think I had ever considered this kind of support as a contributor to student success, because I just assumed that students who do well without the apparent involvement of the parents were able to do so because of inherent motivation or greater understanding of school expectations. However, I do appreciate the implication of this idea, as my home growing up was certainly a place conducive to being academic and productive, whereas certain friends’ homes lacked that atmosphere and were consequently poor places to study.
This ties back to Kozol (see my post about his book Savage Inequalities) in that, just as homes can have that atmosphere, certain schools can be more conducive to being academic than others. The “75% equal” schools he describes (pp. 175-180), with differences in teacher pay, books, facilities, and resources, are less likely to be able to achieve the desired atmosphere than other schools and are, therefore, less likely to allow students to be successful.
Kozol leads me to wonder about how High Tech High plays a role in this system. So far we have been able to keep our schools small enough to provide mostly individualized attention to students who need additional support, and we certainly foster an atmosphere of studiousness and professionalism that will help channel our students toward being “governors” rather than “governed.” However, as a school of choice I wonder how many students who have not yet been taught how to gain access to power will be likely to apply in the first place. If none of those disempowered students are being served by our schools, then we are only sifting out the ones who have learned how to “play the game” and separating them from their peers who haven’t (instead of using the former to uplift the latter, as I think we hope to do).
I hear this criticism from friends of mine who work in other schools in San Diego - that the existence of our schools makes the job they do harder. The only vaguely satisfying response I’ve gotten to the accusation that HTH schools only “skim off the top” and lower the mean for neighborhood schools is that it’s more a question of long-term vision than immediate results. If what we do works, eventually school districts and legislators and communities will see that it works and understand how to implement some of what we do to make the whole system a little bit better. In the meantime, though, it will likely get worse.
An obstacle getting in the way of that process of uplifting all schools, though, is that, because we are successful, we attract students and families that already have access to power and influence and successful schools. It’s the same concern as the KIPP schools mentioned in Tough’s article (see my post on the "Culture of Power") – if students who don’t need us are attracted to come here, it leaves less room for the ones who really do (and who are likely to be the first ones muscled out by power and influence).
Now I feel like I’ve talked myself in a circle and I’m again feeling a bit hopeless. I really believe that what we do works, but at times I wonder who it really works for. And as our student population continues to diversify, it seems like we’re losing our sense of how to keep doing what we do (as evidenced by growing numbers of students in summer school – the bulk of whom are minorities – as well as the growing number of students being held back, being put on academic contracts, etc.). The fact that the ethnic composition of students on IEP’s seems to reflect the power dynamic only reinforces some of my skepticism.
Walqui, A. (2000). Access and Engagement, (4-22). McHenry: Delta Publishing Company.
Kozol, J. (1991). Savage Inequalities. New York: Crown Publishers.