Last week my mother and I attended my sister Jordan’s graduation from 8th grade. While it was special, it didn’t seem like such a big deal at first since she is going to be in the same school for High School and is far from out of the woods yet. (I’m also not very thoughtful anytime I have to be up before noon). During the graduation, however, I became very emotional… and not just about my sister (who looked beautiful and made us very proud).
First, I was impressed by Jordan and her best friend Teirra. They both got many awards and were two of about twelve students to get into a special honors program with an advanced curriculum for next year. It’s not too surprising, because they are both very smart young women, but at this stage in their lives they have a lot going on socially, and (with my sister especially) that can distract from school work and get you into trouble. It sometimes worries me that my sister and I are completely different; I had no social life up until high school and was very absorbed into reading books and other geeky things, I didn’t slack off a little until junior and senior year of High School. My sister on the other hand is very social, spends a lot of time with friends and doesn’t read for fun much. Trying to relate to her and involve myself in keeping her on track is awkward and something I probably don’t do often enough; but obviously, her extraversion isn’t stopping her from succeeding (and as her own person, independently from me, I might concede). My sister’s performance is such a serious concern of mine because many bright and talented children do not for realize their potential, especially as it concerns children of color and children who are economically disadvantaged (categories that often intersect). This is a reality all too common for the children of inter-city Philadelphia where I call home. As an older sister to four, and a proud Philadelphian, I want so much more for our children than what our public education system is typically willing to help them achieve and what our society teaches them that they can expect.
This brings me to my other reason for being so proud: after naming children for their individual accomplishments came the
boring impressive part of the graduation, the discussion of their accomplishments as a class, complete with illustrated statistics… These children did exceptionally well. Majority of the students were above basic level in test scores, meaning they were proficient or advanced. On top of that, their scores were tracked from testing performance as 7th graders to final performance as 8th graders, and all the changes were so positive! The number of students who were scoring on an advanced level increased significantly, as did the number of students who were proficient, the most impressive change was the huge decrease in the percentage of below basic students. These feats are amazing accomplishments all on their own: for the school, staff, parents, and of course children, but at the same time so much more than that.
Mastery Charter School (which I also attended for High School, but at a different campus than my sister) has been steadily acquiring more and more campuses, not uncommonly former public schools that were “neighborhood schools”.
A lot of our neighborhood schools were recently closed down, and others are in danger of being closed. This of course has complicated effects on the lives of the people living in our neighborhoods, but despite some of the negative consequences there is some good reasoning behind it; neighborhood public schools in Philadelphia are notoriously poor in quality, (a problem which I could and may at another time devote much energy into discussing).
MCS can be a very difficult school to go to; they have very strict rules (which are even more strictly enforced), the grading system is unique (anything below a 76%, which is a C or C+ at most schools, is a failing grade because a 76 is ‘mastery’), and if you transfer in, you start from at square one.
My best friends and I often joke about how much we hate Mastery, but truthfully, if you are strong enough to last until graduation it definitely pays off. On top of that, being located in the city and especially now in our neighborhoods, Mastery students are overwhelmingly students of color, whose opportunities are often limited in comparison to white Philadelphians (♠who often live in Philly suburbs or the Greater Philadelphia area, where I can say from ◊personal experience there tends to be better educational opportunities). Those students who performed so well and changed so drastically from one year to the next were the children the world always seems ready to give up on. Nearly everything on my current events radar regarding students of color (I follow a lot of Social Justice Blogs) has been tragic these past few weeks. I’m constantly reminded how little our society values our children; this is made obvious not only by the policy of blindness the justice system often suffers when it is our children who are victims, the disregard towards their education, or the perpetuation of ill-formed beliefs used as weapons against their belief in themselves; but also by the exceptionalism granted to those of us that do have success. This reinforces an illusion that what we have managed is or should be unobtainable to those that come after us and discredits our hard-work by making it a happy accident. Seeing a group of young children that I could see myself in, so proud and confident (and believe me, that isn’t assumed, they wore it all over themselves) in their abilities, made me cry (quickly and in secret, I have an image to protect); for two hours I was able to forget about the guilt of knowing how many obstacles they still may face, that I still face, and have genuine hope (positive feelings before noon is, once again, a miracle).
Aside from being touchy-feel-y I also had a lot of fun and really appreciated the way they didn’t limit the children’s expression during the ceremony and in fact, encouraged it. I think that allowing children to still be who they are is an important part of teaching them to be successful. During the speeches of the two students honored as representatives of the class, they both attributed how well they did to their staff and their parents; the young lady thanked her mom especially for making her do what she needed to do everyday, the young man thanked the aforementioned people and also referenced his peers that he made friends with leading to a shout out to three friends and lastly but most importantly, his girlfriend. It was adorable, hilarious, and original. Everyone laughed and clapped. Both of the students were composed, thoughtful, and themselves; I believe it is encouraging to other children to see the top achievers still be ‘regular’. [Who better for those just like them to look to?] Later a teacher spoke about how the students, as children of color, were closing the learning gap, then had a student introduce “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” which was sung as a class. There was a “break-down” in the middle of the song with their own little spin on it. There was a young man who had a special move for getting his award and later his certificate, which must be signature to him, as it was automatically accompanied by a clap and a few seconds of chanting from his classmates each time. A lot of the kids had a special look or pose for getting their graduation certificate, and it was all fabulous. At the very end of the ceremony, after the certificates were received, three of the students performed an original piece composed by one of the young ladies, the two young ladies sung and the young man rapped. It was a song about their progression toward their future. It is hard to explain just what this graduation meant to me. Maybe in a few years there will be a lot more of us taking that 11 hour drive from Philly to South Bend that I took nearly 3 years ago.
♠That is not to say that white Philadelphians don’t live in urban Philadelphia, however due to a history of gentrification in Philadelphia many neighborhoods are populated almost entirely by a group or groups of people of color, and the suburbs and Greater Northeast (in addition to a few other sections) remain mostly white (my grandparents live there and were the first non-white people in their neighborhood, now there are, I believe, three diverse families of color on their block).
◊This author has attended public school and charter school (but unfortunately not Catholic school) in Philadelphia, and has lived in North Philadelphia, Germantown, the Greater Northeast and Cheltenham (not specifically in order).