From all my years as a principal, I’ll never forget Darius. When he showed up late to school for the 53rd time in two years, I thought maybe his capacity to learn what I was trying to teach him (timeliness and prioritizing tasks) was impaired.
Why wouldn’t he learn from the truancy notices, calls home, and contracts that spelled out his responsibilities and the potential consequences for his irresponsible behavior?
I wondered if he and his family didn’t care whether he succeeded or failed. He seemed very like some other students who were chronically late, seemed to lack ambition, were sloppy and defiant, and just didn’t care. Then I realized that all of these students received free or reduced-price lunch and consistently scored “non-proficient” on reading and math standardized tests. In other words, I slid unwittingly into stereotypes and expectations that children who lived in poverty were damaged or deficient.
Darius was a smart and charming person, but he was not compliant. Like many other kids brought to the principal for chronically breaking rules and ignoring school expectations, he didn’t do school partly because he didn’t trust the school system to have space for the unique, spirited African-American person he was. He and his family had little reason in their experience to trust teachers and administrators to serve him well. His teachers (all European-American) were intensely focused on the curriculum they were under such pressure to deliver and on his math and reading proficiency, but not on Darius as a whole person.
In and around achievement targets, the mandated skills-proficiency and remediation curricula, and the frequent testing that reminds so many students just how lost they are, students like Darius are thought of and experienced as deficient by many teachers. They are largely disregarded as whole human beings with quirky, complex, and interesting personal, intellectual, social, emotional, and interest profiles.
There often isn’t even opportunity for authentic personal inquiry or for the teachable moment—the spark of learning. The connections that could have piqued Darius’ curiosity weren’t made because the curriculum didn’t cultivate them and teachers were discouraged to diverge from the fixed route.
Despite our intent to do otherwise, our staff missed many chances to connect with Darius and begin to earn his trust. Our system did not give Darius reason or opportunity to mobilize his personal resources. We failed to meet him where he was, personally or culturally. What we encountered in him was not deficiency, but distrust and disengagement.
There was something beyond school that drove Darius’ reluctance, and that was poverty. Not a culture of poverty (as Ruby Payne erroneously posits; see Gorski), but poverty itself: lack of resources and opportunities. Darius routinely came to school without breakfast and with inadequate sleep because of the conditions at home. His mother worked two jobs and was rarely home between the time he came home from school and an appropriate bedtime. His little brother and sister relied on him for childcare. He was tired and unhappy when he came to school, and it’s no wonder.
“Culture of poverty?” No, poverty itself—what 23% of the children in our country experience. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), America has the second highest rate of child poverty in the industrialized world, just behind Romania.
The Developmental Designs approach can’t fill in all the opportunity gaps that Darius and millions of other American children live with, but it aims to maximize the opportunities for them in school. The heart of the approach is its prioritization of individual students’ human development as a means to realize their full potential.
To engage students like Darius, we must find ways to help them join in the learning community, to take risks and share and ask questions. They must feel safe and know that the community wants to hear them.
The Origins Program’s vision of “every young person eager and able to contribute to the peace, prosperity, and wellness of the world” includes children living in poverty.
We work for the realization of this vision in classrooms and schools, so that all students, regardless of their lives outside of school, experience peace and belonging in school.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s citizens who will confront tomorrow’s political and environmental challenges with or without vision, compassion, and collaborative skill. Practices like those in Face to Face Advisories invite all students, step by step, into the learning community to grow together.
Todd Bartholomay is the Programs and Special Projects Director for The Origins Program. A long-time practitioner of the Developmental Designs approach, he taught at the middle level for fourteen years. He also served as a principal in the St. Paul Public Schools, where he was in school adminstration for ten years.
Posted June 2014