One of the few questions that never get considered in efforts to advance the reform of American public education is the importance of building long-lasting connections between children and schools — especially with teachers and school leaders. Such ties can help our children stay on the track to graduation and to fulfilling their economic and social destinies long after they left individual classrooms in a particular school. At the same time, those children can help their peers by helping teachers and school leaders recognize what they have done well in improving student achievement, as well as what challenges they need to address to help more kids down the road. 

voiceslogoIn this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Steve Evangelista, the cofounder of the Harlem Link Charter School in New York City, explains his own challenges in building those connections, and explains why overcoming them matters for our kids. Read, consider, and take action. 

Since I became an educator about 15 years ago, I have had a sinking feeling every time I have heard the famous West African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.”  I’ve actually felt sick to my stomach hearing it while immersed in the culture of our school system.  I could never pin down exactly why until I had the opposite feeling on October 18—the night of our first alumni reunion.

I’ve had that sinking feeling because I’ve known that the box we put ourselves in when we think about “school” doesn’t create the environment we mean when we talk about a village.  In terms of school life, our reunion was counter-cultural   Three years—middle school, practically a lifetime—had gone by, but there were our babies, all growing up.  Reveling in their individuality, they told us how proud they were of where and who they were, and how prepared they felt after graduating from Harlem Link.

And there we were for the strugglers, playing the role of critical friend now that we don’t have to be the enforcer.  Because we are no longer in a position of authority, we can engage in a safe, different and productive way those few children who reject seemingly all behavioral interventions.

“I don’t have to tell you what to do anymore,” I told one scholar who had been asked to leave two schools since graduating from ours.  “I’m still going to tell you the same things I used to, but now you can be sure it’s because I care about you and not just because I am doing my job and bossing you around.”  She smiled—sheepishly.

Not only do our peer schools not keep up with alumni, but legal interpretations of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act actively discourage us from being involved in the lives of our students once they leave. Under current federal regulations of FERPA, former schools are no longer “interested parties” with a right to access student contact information.  More important, and I think one reason for this regulation, staying in touch and staying involved are not values of the school system.

I’ve never been to a West African village (the proverb is generally attributed to the Igbo people of Nigeria). But because of my own experience living among a swarm of relatives as a child, I’m going to guess that those villages are organized sort of like my own Italian immigrant family.

Let me focus on one aspect of my childhood: inter generational relations.  In my family, old people continue to be part of the fabric.  When their kids have grown up and moved on, when their careers have come to an end, when they don’t need as much living space as they used to, they don’t go off to a nursing home to die.  They move in with their children.

My grandfather lived with my aunt and her husband for the last 15 years of his life.  Discharged from intensive care in a hospital when a medical storm seemed to have passed, he died at home, sleeping on an easy chair, as peaceful as the breeze.  I was 10 years old.

Nonno wasn’t some distant old man whom we made special trips to visit; he was as much a part of the family as the aunt and uncle he lived with, or another aunt and uncle who lived next door to me.

He transmitted faith in a way no religion possibly could.  I knew that Nonno prayed to his wife’s memory and for her peace, while looking up at an old, brown photograph of her hanging in his small room, every night from when she died suddenly in 1956 until his last days more than 30 years later.

He was the genial, appreciative father figure who watched cartoons with me every Saturday morning while my older sister was off doing activities.  He didn’t understand English, but he understood joy and love, and he gave them even more than he received them.

When he died I didn’t understand shock, so I wasn’t sure why I didn’t cry for three days, but then I couldn’t stop.  We were at my aunt and uncle’s house when it hit me that he wasn’t coming back.  My cousin took me to her room and laid me down on the bed.  “I’m not a baby,” I thought, “but, okay, I will lay down and cry.”

My mother had had a zia, an aunt in Astoria who lived with her daughter and son-in-law until she died not long before Nonno did.  So the concept of death wasn’t new to me when Nonno died.  But there we all were, in mourning in our own ways together, unsure how we could deal with life without him.

Nonno was important to each of us in a different way.  Whether he was giving guidance to his children, handing out orange Tic Tacs to his 11 grandchildren, making funny attempts at broken English or showing the example of a life faithfully and earnestly lived to everyone, he gave something to everyone in our family.

I do not see this in our school system.  In fact, I don’t see anything even remotely like it.  The impulse of most adults in the school system seems to be to care, just not too much.  I was told about this boundary over and over again when I started teaching.

This is the advice I heard: Don’t get too involved in the lives of your students, because you are bound to be disappointed.  And anyway, who knows where they are going to end up?  What could you, their third grade teacher, do to keep them out of prison?  Their home life is such a mess.  And don’t go visit to learn about it first-hand; take my word for it. Besides, it’s probably dangerous.

I hope it is self-evident how destructive these words are.

But it isn’t just the attitude that’s the problem.  It’s the structure—or, rather, the lack of structures that encourage longitudinal thinking about children and meaningful, ongoing relationships with them. Thanks to Value-Added analysis of student test score growth, we no longer have to act as if Johnny walked into my classroom as a blank slate. By calculating where Johnny was the prior year and how far his teacher had moved him, Value-Added acknowledges that children have actually had prior experiences with other teachers. This is an important start. But it does nothing to address the future relationship between today’s teacher and tomorrow’s alumnus.

As a school leader, I want us to re-frame our thinking about the outcome of “school.”  It’s not only about this year’s test, or this year’s graduates, or this year’s teaching and learning.  It’s about the impact of our work and our relationships on the lives of the children in our care.  And those lives extend far into the future, rather than coming to a full stop at the end of June.

The older residents of the village, it turns out, aren’t the people you picture when you think about a school community.  I’m not talking about the gray-haired principal, or the wizened special education teacher, or the grandfather who volunteers with the PTA.  I’m talking about the alumni, who are now downright invisible.

In a time when schools and communities are clamoring for more support, alumni are a powerful untapped resource for our school system.  And they are continually ignored, because to many members of our school communities, they seem irrelevant—or, worse, threatening.

I believe alumni are also ignored because it’s so darn hard to pin them down.  How would you evaluate the impact of a teacher and a school on a child 20 or 30 years into the future?  That task is even more confounding when we live in a time when a third or even half of a school’s teachers might have moved on to other schools or careers by next year.

If it truly “takes a village” then why does our definition of village end in June?  How can we preserve the relationships that teachers form with their students longitudinally at a time of so much change and movement?

I don’t care about the difficulty of answering these questions.  Even a cursory examination of them reveals that they raise all sorts of interesting questions about assumptions we are making. The problem is that no one seems to be asking them.