I was in a meeting of community members, educators, professionals all with concerns about the future of Bronzeville. This is a quarterly meeting at which we often have a presenter expounding on some aspect of life in Bronzeville and what their organization (often the city of Chicago) is doing or will be doing that will impact us. The meeting usually wraps up with each of us at the table going over what we are up to in our organizations. This week at the tail end of the wrap up one of the attendees asked a question he had posed to others. What should a grammar school graduate look like? What attributes, etc. The room was silent.
He answered his own question as follows. “The student completing grammar school should speak three languages, play a musical instrument; understand calculus, geometry…” There were some other attributes that I currently don’t remember. One of the other attendees leaned over to me and mouthed “Send them to Hogwarts School of Magic or send the teachers more likely.”
I couldn’t help but reflect on the conversation we had a few weeks ago with Dr. Joseph Layng. 50% of the minority children on the west side of Chicago his team researched did not know their first and last names. How is this possible you might ask? I will speak from personal experience. About twenty years ago I ran a parenting program for low income parents, most of who were recovering substance abusers, others were labeled “slow” and therefore their kids were high risk. The children of these parents were in a pre-school project located in the same building. Children ranged in age from six months to six years. Most, if not all were affectionately called by names like Poo or Boo or less affectionately with names like “little mf”. No wonder the kids don’t know their names. It is a very simple stretch to figure out why another deficit mentioned by Dr. Layng and others exists. Vocabulary development in this demographic group is nil.
Recently I asked a soon to be three year old to spell a word for me. She answered that she was “unavailable at the moment”. She was deeply involved in looking out of the car window at the river. A few days later I sat with her while she “played” a web based program in which she was to design a musical concert. The first choice was to pick a venue. The program pronounced the word “venue” and then offered the definition. No wonder she knows the word “unavailable”. The same program used a car race game to explain “adagio”. The question I ask is how many pre-K programs in low income communities are employing technology like this.
In Illinois most low income children arrive in the federally funded day care/pre-K programs at three years of age. For starters that’s too late already. Too many have had three years in front of the television watching music videos or the “stories” or judge somebody, worse than that the kid has been exposed to one of the inane talk shows found in abundance on television or cable. Some have also missed out on the benefit of experiential learning through play. Too many kids are told to shut up and sit down.
Poorly educated or low income families are not consciously intellectually handicapping their children. It just happens as a side effect of lack of exposure, minimal resources or other environmental factors. President Obama has stated that pre-K programs need to be available for every child. Penelope Trunk founder of Brazen Careerist and two other startups provides career advice in 200 newspapers. She refutes Obama. Trunk thinks educated mothers would rather stay at home with their children. That may or may not be the case. In all probability if given the choice some would stay at home and others would head back to work as soon as medically possible. Mothers come in all flavors. I think the best answer is freedom of choice and resources to support each.
For at risk families perhaps the best approach is early parenting, assistance for the family to get a computer and training to utilize the computer. How many at risk families realize that the internet provides a wealth of education appropriate for pre-school children. The parents might actually learn a word or two themselves.
What do we do for the mother or father for that matter, who chooses to homeschool during the preschool years? This is a dilemma. The mom of our favorite three year old had to give up homeschooling to go into the classroom. Her budget wouldn’t allow her to stay home any longer. She went to work for a daycare center. She is disheartened by what she sees. There is not a single computer. She brought her own laptop to show her preschoolers a video in spite of the protestations of management.
According to a national survey of kindergarten teachers, only two in five children are academically prepared for school. It’s not surprising. Even the draft proposal for educational benchmarks in Illinois is aiming for low hanging fruit. “They (children entering kindergarten) need to know that holding a book and retelling a story from the pictures is a legitimate stage in emergent reading, and that “picture reading” is an appropriate form of “real reading” for three, four, and five year olds.” early_learning_standards.pdf. That’s a very long way from speaking three languages and knowing advanced math by eighth grade.