As Help Falls Short, a Child is Left to Struggle
The Boston Globe
June 1, 2006
Balloons were scattered. The children’s shirts were adorned with fresh orchids. Hundreds of families were packed into the elementary school auditorium last June for fifth grade graduation, a milestone the children anticipated all year. Yet I felt a large void as I took my seat. Not all the fifth graders I had tutored and had grown to love had made it.
One was Kimberly, a tall, shy, brown-eyed 12-year-old who lives with her mother, stepfather and older sister in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was hard celebrating the other children’s fortune when I felt so deeply Kimberly’s misfortune.
“It made really sad that I couldn’t graduate with my class,” Kimberly told me. She is now nearly done with her second bid at fifth grade. I wonder if she’ll graduate this spring. And if she doesn’t, what then?
Her story is the story of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, legislation signed by President Bush in 2002 that was supposed to promote academic growth, largely through standardized testing.
Kimberly had never grasped basic mathematical concepts. She went from grade to grade, falling further behind, missing fundamental concepts in mathematics and language studies. She couldn’t progress, because she never had a foundation.
I invested two years in her education, as a tutor in Ms. Shaw-Murphy’s class, with New York University’s America Reads program. But it’s hard to teach kids when the average elementary class size is 34, as it is in Kimberly’s district. What I’ve seen in my work with Kimberly and her classmates is that students left back - five percent of New York City fifth graders last year — don’t get the attention they need to catch up. In the name of leaving no child behind, many children are being not just left behind, but written off.
I was privileged to receive a top-notch public school education in my hometown, Braintree, Massachusetts. My elementary and middle school offered me enrichment programs, advanced classes, and a rigorous curriculum. Later, I attended an all-girls Catholic high school. I was always pushed by my teachers to excel. If I didn’t understand a lesson, they worked with me until I did. If I couldn’t do something, they stood by until I succeeded. Straight A’s were almost expected of me, and my father encouraged me to challenge myself by taking advanced classes. I never felt alone; my teachers and parents showed genuine concern and interest in my academics. My education afforded me the opportunity to attend New York University.
My connection with Kimberly is much deeper than a tutor-student relationship. I see myself in her. As I was, she is willing to learn. She has big dreams, as I did. The only difference is that she lacks the guidance, support, and motivation I received as a young girl.
Kimberly is part of a large achievement gap in public education. Materials are scarce in the overcrowded, aged building where she studies. Photocopies are a luxury, and pens and pencils are missing from the classrooms. The teachers scramble for paper towels and hoard them in cupboards. The libraries are filled with a mixture of antique books that were collecting dust in old book rooms and new, glossy books that the teachers buy themselves.
No matter how much I help Kimberly, it will not make up for the past seven years of education that has failed her.
There was so much that could have been done for her. And now I look back with anger on the past two years. Even an outsider can see that change is necessary. Is it that nobody else cares?
I asked Kimberly about summer school.
“It was a waste of time,” she said. “We didn’t really do any work. The teacher just gave us worksheets every day but she never corrected us or told us what we got wrong.”
What about the free tutoring that theoretically exists for students in need, before and after school? Kimberly thought she was eligible, but it wasn’t available.
“What extra help did I get? Nothing - I didn’t get any. They just sent me to summer school,” she said.
Instead, her family tried to hire a private tutor. “Last year I had a tutor who came five days a week for a couple of hours, but it was costing my mother $30 an hour,” she said. “Then the tutor wanted $50 an hour and that was way too expensive.” Now her sister Kiara, a seventh grader, tutors her daily.
After her setbacks, I’ve seen a loss of hope in her face, and heard in her voice fear that she won’t be able to catch up. I’ve seen other children who have fallen behind have their motivation destroyed and slip even further. Meanwhile, Kimberly says, the students who excel academically get more attention and enrichment and pull even further ahead.
As Kimberly tells me this in the hot, dimly lit classroom, I find myself willing her to succeed, so that this June, I will be able to pin a fresh orchid on her graduation dress.