So here we are — me, and 26 college freshmen (with whom I work as a student mentor at Portland State University) vs. 100 five-year-olds at Alder Elementary School in Gresham, Oregon. It is our first day at kindergarten. We are all new to early childhood education; a few of the freshmen have experience as nannies and preschool workers, but nothing could really prepare them for the mayhem, for the chaos of working with this many little children at once.
After frantically scribbling for just a few seconds on the mask we are making of his favorite animal, the little boy grabs my sleeve and tugs repeatedly, “Teacher, teacher! I’m done.” Another little one won’t share the crayons, while four more children all speak rapidly at the same time. They squirm and fidget through every step of every task.
As freshmen at PSU, my students have spent the year exploring race and inequality in the safe confines of a college classroom where these concepts exist in the abstract realm of readings, research papers, and discussions. But now, it’s time to put all of these ideas into action. It is time to do something.
Our plan is to make storybooks with the children, and this is the first of seven visits during which we will use the books as vehicles for discussing diversity. The kindergarteners will draw their favorite animals, and my students will help weave their artwork and conversations into a story about differences and being special.
It’s Aasif’s* first day of kindergarten too. It is April, three quarters of the way through the school year, and he has been placed in Ms. Metko’s kindergarten class, a room already overflowing with children. Aasif has just arrived in the United States from Afghanistan. He doesn’t speak any English and Metko, a first-year teacher, doesn’t know anything about his circumstances or if he has any special needs. With 28 students in her classroom, it isn’t easy to take time to handle specific cases gracefully. Luckily, a fourth grader speaks Dari and is able to spend the day translating for her.
Aasif looks more than a little lost.
(* Aasif’s name has been changed, because of his age.)
With 90,000 residents, Gresham is a racially diverse city on the outskirts of Portland. The median household income is $41 thousand, but 20.5 percent of the population is living below the national poverty level. This is clearly evident at Alder where administrators report that almost a quarter of the 687 students enrolled will experience homelessness at some point during their schooling, and nearly all of the children are eligible for free or reduced price lunches.
Roughly 70 percent of the students do not meet the state’s minimum requirements for reading, math and science.
The Federal government classifies Alder as Title I and the state furthers the classification as a focus school. According to the Oregon Department of Education, “focus schools are high poverty schools . . . that need additional support in closing the achievement gap.” Four out of the five schools in Gresham’s Reynolds School District are focus schools; the fifth is a priority school, meaning that it is in the bottom five percent in terms of poverty and achievement.
At Alder, the students speak 23 different languages, and 70 percent of kindergarteners arrive at school in September with little or no English language skills. There are students from Burma, Vietnam, Russia, and Romania; more than half of the students are from Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Cuba.
Six of our bilingual college students are assigned to work with Ms. Barragon’s Spanish-speaking class. They quickly discover that poor test scores, language barriers, and poverty aren’t the only problems at Alder. Jenny Santiago notices one little boy using a recognizable hand signal for one of the local gangs while taking a group photo with the students wearing the masks that they made together.
According to a report from the Gresham’s Gang Prevention and Enforcement Task Force, “gang activity is no longer isolated to a few small segments of the community . . . [there are] reports of activity in every corner of the City, impacting nearly every community.” The task force has documented roughly 450 gang members in the county, but adds that for every documented gang member there are anywhere from three to five additional members that haven’t been found yet. Bloods, Crips, Surñeos, Norteños, White Supremacy, and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs all have a presence in the area.
But with all the challenges this school and community face, Alder and its students may just have a chance at beating the odds, which are clearly stacked against them. In 2010, the Oregon chapter of the “I Have A Dream” Foundation adopted the school.
The story of the Dreamers unfolds like a Dickens tale. In 1980, wealthy New York manufacturing entrepreneur Eugene M. Lang was preparing to speak to the graduating 6th grade class at P.S. 121 in Harlem, where he had attended school 50 years earlier. William Geist reported for the New York Times that as Lang sat preparing himself to tell these kids that if they worked really hard they could make money and be successful, he could not stop thinking about what the school principal told him moments before he went on stage — 75 percent of those students wouldn’t graduate high school, let alone attend college.
He knew what he planned to say was bull.
Instead, Lang told those 61 sixth graders he would pay for college if they graduated from high school. That moment marks the birth of what has become the “I Have a Dream” Foundation, an organization that has helped 15,000 low-income kids go to college. Today, the foundation is working with 2800 Dreamer children in 29 states here in the U.S., and abroad, in New Zealand.
Almost all of Lang’s 6th graders made it through high school, and 60% of them earned degrees from four-year colleges and universities like Barnard and Swarthmore.
Until recently, the foundation’s model has been to adopt an entire 3rd grade class in struggling, low-income schools. From there, students are tracked through elementary, middle, and high school. They are provided with much needed resources to make it to graduation, like subject-specific tutors, social coaching, housing assistance, and professional mentors who work with individual students for a minimum of four hours per week.
When “I Have a Dream” Oregon adopted Alder, they decided to take on the whole school rather than waiting until 3rd grade. Sophie Banner, marketing and communications manager, explains, “We realized that early intervention played a key role in determining long–term success. Early intervention, particularly in meeting third grade benchmarks in reading, was a must for us. Those students who fall behind in reading early in life experience far lower rates of high school graduation and college completion.”
An important function of the program is to bring in community partners to help support the students. In Oregon, there are over 60 organizations that work with Dreamer Schools, including area universities like PSU. For example, for the last three years, Home Forward has contributed a substantial amount of money to assist families in crisis with housing; access to affordable housing will help Alder keep families in the district and connected to resources. When students graduate, the foundation helps them secure scholarships and low- or no-interest loans for college.
Measuring success of academic programs is often challenging. The Arete Corporation has been tracking Dreamer students across the country since 1999 and finds that Portland Dreamers have improved test scores and attendance; they value education more than students in other Oregon schools and “felt hopeful about the future.” Additionally, “the Portland study found a dramatic drop in the number of times male Dreamers were referred to the juvenile justice system.”
Ultimately the researchers conclude, “the combined economic benefits to society are estimated at 131.7% of what it costs to fund the program — even before adding in the expected higher graduation rates for other Dreamers.” In 2013, the Oregon foundation spent close to $1.2 million at Alder.
The class of 2030 & the class of 2017
Outside the four kindergarten classrooms, photos of the children line the walls with a sign overhead boldly declaring that these students are “the class of 2030” — the year when they will graduate from college. Banners from universities and community colleges all over the country are on display everywhere you look. It is part of the language and culture here. As these children move through elementary school they will be introduced to the jargon of GPA’s, transcripts, and SAT’s as a way to normalize thinking about higher education.
For the students who make it through the challenges they will undoubtedly face over the next 12 years, many of them will be the first in their families to attend college.
But why focus on college so early? Many educators and advocates agree that higher education represents the best pathway out of poverty. In 2010, Dr. Michelle Asha, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy wrote, “Obtaining a college degree or other advanced credential has proven to be a critical factor in producing both individual and societal benefits. It is often education that breaks generational cycles of poverty.”
This is why we got involved with the program. Instructor Dr. David Wolf, who just joined PSU’s faculty after spending 11 years teaching in a Newark high school, explains, “I knew how crucial their early years of education were, and how much time many of them had lost during those years — how far behind they thus were academically and socially.”
Wolf convinced the freshmen to commit to this project because he felt that his students “would observe and become part of a genuine experiment in public education, one with personal integrity and perhaps structural flaws, and that their participation would bring them in direct contact with many of the questions and issues we had been exploring in our course. I feel these things have happened.”
When the kindergarteners are playing on the swings, coloring, and engaging with those around them, it can be all too easy to forget how hard life can be for them. To the children, this is normal. We have struggled to reconcile their playful interactions with the harsh realities of Dreamer’s lives, and often reality is difficult to ignore.
One of PSU student Alex Houston’s kindergartners gleefully said, “Your name is Alex. My uncle’s name is Alex, he’s in prison.” Houston notes, “This was when it first struck me just how innocent this comment is to this child. I just stood there dumbstruck until I uttered something along the lines of ‘Oh Cool.’”
Freshman Oliver Ellsworth finds that interactions which allude to troubled home lives are difficult to process, ”When I was reading The Fire Cat to some kids, and describing the fire station in the book, a smiling girl proudly said ‘My mama told me she was gonna leave me at the fire station’.” The girl seemed unaware of how heartbreaking the comment was.
For the teachers at Alder, class size is the biggest problem. Lead kindergarten teacher Ms. Alibabaie has been teaching at Alder for 14 years. She is pleased with the work the foundation is doing at the school, but expresses frustration about the number of students in their classrooms. As a passionate advocate for early childhood education, she believes, like many educators, that a 15 to 1 ratio would change everything. It also doesn’t help that Alder has had three principals in three years and is currently looking for new administrators for the next school year.
“These students come through the door with so much baggage and trauma — we can’t give them the attention they deserve, because there are too many other children who need help too,” says Alibabaie.
For me, it is discomforting to look at these sweet, sometimes goofy kids, and know that some of them just won’t make it regardless of the Herculean efforts of teachers, foundations, and whatever else gets thrown their way. Some of these kids’ fates will be determined by the poverty and violence that is endemic in communities like this one.
Even with that knowledge, it is heartening to see that seven weeks later Aasif is doing much better.
Ms. Metko has since learned that Aasif’s father was an Afghan soldier who fought for the American military and, as a result of what presumably must have been very dangerous work, he was allowed to bring his family here to the states.
Dr. Wolf observes, “Here is this small child, coming from one of the most unsettled countries in the world, a soldier’s son, and he is thrust into this little school in Gresham, a little Babel of an educational environment. When I observed him last Wednesday, I thought that he looked comfortable and at home in the learning situation — a completely different boy from seven weeks before.”
While experiences with Aasif and his classmates have, at times, raised more questions than answers for all of us, about a third of the class has expressed a desire to continue volunteering at Alder in some capacity after the term ends. Thali Ramirez says, “I really enjoyed working with the kids and I plan to return. An extra person in the classroom to help would make a difference, and I would love to be a part of helping these students.”
In the end, I think it’s safe to say we are all curious to see how it all works out for the class of 2030.
I wrote this piece in the Spring of 2013, after spending a year working with the college freshmen and 10 weeks at Alder Elementary.