The Fight Against Educational Inequality: My Experiences on a Branch Out National Trip

In preparation for our BON trip our, our group met four times to discuss the logistics of our trip, to become educated about the issue we will be addressing on our trip and to get to know each other a bit more.  Our first meeting began with a presentation directed at all the BON trips on the goals of the program: to create a community of educated and active citizens. Then we split up into our individual groups and got to meet each other. Our trip leaders, Janice and Fine told us a bit about the logistics of the trip. We would be staying with a couple, the Landers, at a lake house and we would each have our own beds.

As homework for our second meeting, we watched Waiting for Superman. This documentary looks at the current education system in the United States and how charter schools and education reforms have attempted to address issues in the system. Two things in particular struck me.  First off, admissions into a charter school were mostly determined on a lottery basis. While it’s great that financial circumstances don’t determine admissions into a charter school, it’s depressing that today’s kids’ futures are potentially determined by chance. Something else that also struck me was shear amount of power that the Teachers Union has.  Although the film has been criticized for unfairly targeting the union and promoting charter schools, the fact of the matter is that it is almost impossible to fire an incompetent teacher if that teacher is protected by the union.

The second part of our homework assignment was to look at statistics for the community of Gaston, North Carolina.  In the Northampton county where Gaston is located, the percentage of adults with bachelor’s degrees is only 12.8% compared to the national average of 27.5%.  Additionally, the median household income in Gaston is only $27,000 while the median for the state is $43,600.  This gets even worse when one looks solely at the median household income for African American households, only $13,500.

Statistics on Gaston, NC:

Our third and fourth meetings dealt with logistics and more importantly a discussion of the
Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP).  We would be volunteering at Gaston College Preparatory, a charter/KIPP school.  We were assigned excerpts from the book, Work Hard, Be Nice, looked at videos of the KIPP program and looked at statistics of the KIPP school in Gaston.Two statistics immediately stuck out. First the schools graduates at all college bound.  Second, the school completely outperforms the rest of the North Hampton public schools and even surpasses the state average for NC standardized tests in math, reading and science.

Work Hard, Be Nice told the story of how the KIPP program was founded by Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, two Teach for America (TFA) corps.  The program began in Houston, Texas.  Levin and Feinberg began with their own 5th grade class in a public school in Houston after teaching through TFA. Their class was in session longer than the rest of the school and Saturday and summer school were mandatory. This reflects the philosophy that there are no shortcuts in education.  Also they created a culture and environment of success.  As Ms. Ball said in the book, “every child can and will learn.”  They incentivized the 5th graders with trips and other rewards while holding high expectations for the students.  Lastly, Levin and Feinberg ran their program with heavy parent involvement. They understood that problems at school and at home were interrelated and that behavioral issues and discipline began at home.

Video of the KIPP GCP High School Program
(scroll down until you find the video titled “KIPP Gaston, NC: 100% College Bound”, May 2009)

KIPP GCP 2010 Report Card

We arrived to Gaston on Sunday, and attended an orientation session with Robbie May, an 8th grade teacher and our community partner. The first thing we noticed when we walked into the school was how colorful and decorated it was.  There were college banners everywhere and photos of GCP alumni who went to those colleges.  This really goes with KIPPs philosophy of created an environment of success.  The other thing that stuck out was how many teachers were at school on a Sunday afternoon planning lessons and getting ready for the upcoming school week.  Not only that but Robbie May explained that all the students had their teachers numbers and were allowed to call them for help with homework.  The teachers also had their students’ parents’ phone numbers and were in constant communication with the parents.  These teachers truly went above and beyond.

Each day Robbie May prepared a task list for our group to tackle.  Most of them were mundane tasks like grading tests or inputting benchmark scores into a tracker.  Other tasks, like making bulletin boards, allowed for a bit more creativity.  The crazy thing is that teachers usually don’t have a BON around helping them do all this.  Not only are they teaching from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, but they also have to take care of all these tasks after a long work day. This puts a lot of stress on the teachers and explains part of the high attrition rate at the school (only a small percentage of teachers come back to teach the following year).

On the first day, we were allowed to walk around and sit in on different classes in the morning.  Right away it was evident why the GCP had had so much success.  First off, kids were in class from 7:30am to 5:00pm.  They had three weeks of summer school and had Saturday school every other week.  In each class I observed, all the students were required to actively engage in the lecture in one form or another.  Teachers would stop and say, “CATS on me” if not everyone was giving their full attention. This would immediately bring the kids into focus.  Another thing that helped was the discipline system the school had in place.  The kids received a “paycheck” of $40 a week. Teachers could reward students for good behavior by adding a couple of dollars to students’ paycheck for that particular week.  On the other hand, teachers could punish students for inappropriate actions by deducting dollars from their paycheck.  Students with a high enough paycheck average were eligible to go on field trips (they went ice skating the week we were there). Lastly, there was a discipline mechanism known as the “Bench System.”  Students who were out of line had to turn their shirts inside out to let the rest of their pride (prides are the same thing as grades in GCP) that they were on bench.  A student on bench is not allowed to speak to his peers.  A student would remain on bench for a minimum of three days.  Bench students have to earn their way out of bench by behaving appropriately and must explain to their peers why they ended up on bench in the first place.  In the 8th grade, the student government (advised by a teacher) would hold a trial for a benched student and determine if they were ready to be unbenched. I witnessed part of this and was able to record it.

Each day we were allowed and encouraged to each lunch with the students.  Some days I ate at the high school and other at the middle school.  It was interesting to get the students’ perspective on the school. Most students were naturally a bit frustrated at the long hours and the bench system.  However all of them understood how GCP was better for them in the long run than the public schools in the area and the importance of education. Some of them even mentioned that they did not feel safe at the other public schools.  Others explained that they were ridiculed by their friends who weren’t at GCP for going to GCP.  One tenth grader showed one of my group members his artwork and we were both really impressed.  He told us he really liked art as a means of expressing different perspectives on things.

On Wednesday we had a meeting with Emily Cook, the elementary school principal, Tammi Sutton the executive director, and Michele Stallings, the middle school principal.  Each of them had their own motivational story of why they were working at GCP and were absolutely determined to give every student a shot at a college education.  One thing that really struck me after meeting with these three leaders was the importance of putting kids on a college track early on.  When students arrive at GCP as 5th graders, their reading and math levels tend to be really low.  They are forced to play catch up to have a shot at a college education. Parents can play a huge role in this by encouraging their kids’
education and simply playing and reading with them.  Unfortunately, in the case of most kids in the Gaston area, parents are more worried about immediate needs, like being able to afford food and working enough hours to pay bills and simply don’t have time to invest in their kids’ education. This really hurts their kids’ education in the long run and is pretty evident by the time kids reach the 5th grade and enter GCP.  Fortunately, the GCP elementary school is starting next year with their first kindergarten class and that should help tackle the problem.

On Thursday I had a bit more on my plate than usual on my plate.  I was fortunate enough to get to teach Ms. Hatchell’s 9th grade environmental science class for the last three period of the day.  After planning out my lessons, I was both excited and nervous. I was looking forward to the challenge of doing this but at the same time, I was a bit concerned that the students wouldn’t take me seriously.  Luckily, most of the students were very engaged and eager to participate in my lecture. After getting through all the material, I asked the students questions about what they had just learned.  Most of them eagerly raised their hands to answer my questions.  At the end of each class, we had a few minutes to spare so I answered any questions the students had about college.  After teaching three classes, I was exhausted.  It definitely takes a lot to be a teacher and even more to be a superb one.

by Melody Porter