We tell our students that education gives you choices, and that the choices we make determine our future. I’d like to believe that my brother graduated high school this month because of the decisions he and our family made. As he walked down the aisle dressed in his robe and cap, his smile beaming up at our family in the stands, I immediately wished that all of my students would experience the pride of graduating high school and moving on to college.
When I returned to school the next Friday, I showed pictures to my students and described the commencement ceremony. They were excited by the idea of graduating high school. After all, like my brother, they have been told by teachers throughout their lives that they are the stewards of their destiny, and our scholars believe that they will make the dream of college come true through their choices. Sometimes, however, our destinies are led by more than just our own wishes and actions.
I was reminded of this later in the day. Most students were in good spirits, looking forward to a pizza party. One student, however, was delaying the class. He slowly followed directions and refused to acknowledge that his behavior was impacting the rest of the class. I asked him to stay behind while the rest of his homeroom went downstairs for lunch and dismissal.
Keenan sat there with his head on his desk. I stared at him, unsure of what to say. I could tell him what teachers usually tell students about making positive choices, but I knew he had already heard those speeches many times before. I also knew that he needed to find out about important and troubling news.
Just the week before, Keenan’s teachers had gathered to discuss his promotion to the eighth grade. It was obvious that Keenan should not make the transition. His effort was minimal, he showed little achievement and his projected state tests scores were frighteningly low. If we wanted him to succeed in eighth grade, we needed to first ensure that he had the necessary skills.
The problem is that Keenan is 15 years old when most students in his grade are 12 or 13. This is his second year in seventh grade and he was denied promotion in previous grades as well. If our school prevents his promotion to eighth grade again, Keenan would graduate high school as a 21-year-old.
Within the New York City Department of Education, students up to 21 years old can enroll in Transfer Schools and Young Adult Borough Centers to receive their diploma or attend GED programs. After 21, Keenan would have to attend an Adult Learning Center to receive his GED. In other words, if Keenan repeats seventh grade this year and repeats any other grades along the way, he could be denied his high school diploma. We realized that by refusing promotion this year, we could be setting him up for failure.
On this Friday afternoon, one week after our meeting, Keenan was lying on his desk with his head in his arms and a grin on his face. Four silent minutes later, I quickly recapped my brother’s high school graduation and asked him, “Do you want to graduate high school?” He nodded and added that he also wanted to play college basketball.
I slowly began to tell him about the grave decision his teachers had before them about his future. Slowly his grin faded from his face and he sat up in his desk, staring at his hands.
For the first time during his career at our school he was not being told that he had options.
At times like these when I see young black men struggle to succeed, I wonder what could have been done differently to better support them. It is frightening that in a school where teachers work more than 12 hours a day and often sacrifice weekends for work and school activities, we still have students who just aren’t making the grade.
What I see lacking most in these boys’ lives are support systems. My brother made many good choices in his life, but he was guided into those decisions by his family and friends. While our school has all of the academic supports that Keenan needs to succeed, I do not think he has one adult in our building whom he considers a mentor. In addition, Keenan is many years older than most of the other students in our school. Without these social and emotional supports, it is no wonder that Keenan struggles academically.
The good news is that Keenan can still succeed with the options provided by our school and the Department of Education. But with each mistake, his options become slimmer. In a school that believes in opening doors and providing limitless choices for our scholars, we had to face the reality that for some, the choices are limited.
Whatever the next step is for Keenan, whether it’s promotion or seventh grade again, we must provide him with a support system that includes both adults and peers. I hope that next year will be a better year for him, opening up options rather than closing them.
Tamara Gilkes is a 2012 School Reform Blogging Fellow for NYCAN. She teaches sixth- and seventh-grade science at Achievement First Bushwick Middle School. Outside of the classroom, Tamara advocates with Educators 4 Excellence to include teachers in school policy decisions. She previously served as a Teach for America corps member in the South Bronx.