Monday, September 17, 2007

Charter Schools - How do they relate to Tutor/Mentor Programs

I apologize for not having updated in such a long time. Last week, Monday through Thursday we had both of our volunteer and student orientations, which were exhausting but also invigorating because of the number of enthusiastic volunteers and eager kids who came. An entry needs to be devoted the orientations, but that can wait until later.

What I really think needs to be discussed is an article that we were encouraged to read after last week's fellowship seminar. John Ayres, the Vice President of Communications at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers came to speak to us about Charter Schools and their importance in education reform. He had us first read an editorial from the Saturday March 18, 2006 Chicago Tribune on the successes of the closing of troubled schools and their re-opening a year later. While greatly controversial, closing schools and then opening a year later with an overhauled staff and principal has been very successful for Arne Duncan and the Chicago Public Schools.

However, an even more controversial move in education in recent years has been the advent of charter schools - public schools that are privately run. There are several charter schools in the Chicagoland area, many of them run successfully to the benefit of a great number of poor and underprivileged students. One of them, North Lawndale College Prep, will be the site and topic of our seminar this week for my fellowship.

Paul Tough, in his November 26th, 2006 New York Times Magazine article, titles his article on charter schools "Still Left Behind" and asks the question, "What will it really take to close the education gap?" One of the answers, although not the entire answer (and there really are no entire answers) is charter schools. Charter schools, a recent addition to the education reform debate, are geared towards closing this education gap between (mostly) white children from middle to upper-class neighborhoods and suburbs and (mostly) black and latino children from the poor inner city. According to Tough, there are two debates about how to close this gap, one occurring within academic circles at colleges and universities and one occurring within circles of educators, teachers and principals. Tough states that neither of these debates overlap and both point the finger at the other, either for being too critical of a difficult situation or for not doing enough in that situation. What Tough does not mention is what tutor/mentor programs do to supplement the inadequacies of these children's education.

Tough goes on to cite a 1995 study, published by University of Kansas child psychologists, Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley, who found that their is a gap in a child's vocabulary based on whether they grew up in a middle to upper class or lower class home. This is based not only on the number of times the child is spoken to, but also the nature of the utterances. Tough writes, "By age 3 the average child of a professional heard about 500,000 encouragements and 80,000 discouragements. For the welfare children . . . they heard, on average, about 75,000 encouragements and 200,000 discouragements." Hart and Risley, from this study, made the conclusion taht "language exposure in early childhood correlated strongly with I.Q. and acaemic succes later on in life." To counter-act this phenomenom, tutor/mentor programs such as Cabrini Connections, create an environment of learning and growing through encouragements rather than discouragements. The earlier children start in these programs, the earlier that not only their vocabulary but also their self-esteem will grow.

Another interesting phenemom that Tough writes about is that in middle class children but not in lower class children, along with this self-esteem boost from encouraging words, there is also a sense of entitlement from adults in their lives taking their concerns and dreams seriously. In tutor/mentor programs, another benefit is that with a positive role model who cares about these children, a sense of entitlement is also created in lower class children as well.

A further interesting trend in the charter school debate that seems to mirror a trend in the Tutor/Mentor program debate is that every single charter school is its own entity, there is nothing connecting one charter school to another charter school. Looking at the success of the Tutor/Mentor Connection in linking tutor/mentor programs in a database for the Chicagoland area, a similar database would work extremely well for charter schools. While organizations such as KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, founded by David Levin and Michael Feinberg in the early 90's is one such organization that links and organizes charter schools, more needs to be done to connect them just as more needs to be done to connect tutor/mentor programs in other parts of the country.

An important feature of charter schools is the instruction of study habits, including work ethic, focus, motivation, etc., what Tough places under the umbrella term "charcter. This is something many of poor children lack in their education. Tutor/mentor programs such as ours also encourage the instruction of character in creating relationships between students and their mentors. Another, extra-scholarly feature of charter schools that also can be implemented by tutor/mentor programs is the teaching of optimism - a feature that Tough attributes to a study by a University of Pennsylvania Psychology professor named Martin Seligman where "attitude is just as important as ability."Programs such as tutor/mentor programs can also promote this "learned optimism" in tutor/mentor sessions, doing, what Paul Tough emphasizes as "whatever it t[akes] to help . . . students succeed."

Another issue within the charter school debate is that parents enroll their students into a lottery system in order to be admitted to the schools. However, a problem arises in that despite being poor, these parents are aware and motivated enough to be able to enroll their children in these school admission lotteries. Many of the children of these motivated parents, despite being behind, are still far advanced from children who have no parental support at home. A solution to this problem, for both charter schools and tutor/mentor programs is that they need to go out into the neighborhood and actually recruit parents and students themelves so that even the most needy students will have a chance for help.

Another huge debate that wages between scholars in the realm of closing the education gap is whether improving education for poor students will help reduce poverty or whether the poverty is so great that first needs to be addressed before anything should be done for schools. A critic of charter schools, Richard Rothstein, a former education columnist for the New York Times, makes the former argument. Whether organizations such as Tutor/mentor connection agree with that assertion (we probably fall in the middle, wanting there to be both education reform and poverty reform) we do agree with his assertion that "the achievement gap can be significanty diminished only by correcting, or at least addressing, the deep inequities that divide the races and the classes."

Of course everything in this article, as do most debates about education, point to the No Child Left Behind Act. Tough asserts that more funding and commitment is needed in order for this act to actually be a success. However, this is where tutor/mentor programs are essential in fostering the understanding in adult volunteers that a commitment is needed into solving the problem.

Essentially, what needs to happen now is to raise the numbers of the people who are in the choir spreading the message of tutor/mentor programs and their success and closing this education gap. At the end of his article, Tough cites the motto of the conservative education movement "no excuses." No excuses should be the motto of tutor/mentor programs in creating an educated and contributing populus to the workplace and to society as a whole.

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