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The Valley Reporter
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Create a successful Harwood environment for students

By Jim Estes

My children are well beyond school age and neither attended Harwood, but I spent 20 years working for a TRIO program that serves Vermont middle and high school students. (TRIO refers to a group of federal programs for students.) I'd like to add their voice to the discussion concerning the redesign of Harwood's ninth-grade curriculum.

Another contributor for The Valley Reporter stated that students aren't placed in rigorous courses but choose them because of their desire to be challenged. Few would dispute this, but I would add that their motivation is likely buoyed by previous academic success. Meaning that if every child experienced this level of success prior to starting high school it would seem plausible that most would "choose" to take more rigorous offerings. I would also argue that academic success isn't solely the result of students "working hard" or "being motivated." There are a number of other factors that contribute to this outcome, but I'll focus on two from my experiences. One is the level of parental support the child received throughout their education beginning with primary school. The other is how well the child's early school years responded to their learning style.

Regarding learning style, my two children adapted well to the traditional challenges and expectations of their primary and secondary schools. Their learning styles allowed them to sit in a classroom for long periods of time without overt complaint or disruption. They successfully comprehended spoken and written instructions and responded accordingly. With parental support, they learned to self-advocate and acquired the discipline to fulfill their academic responsibilities outside of class. My children were fortunate.

Their experiences might mirror many Harwood students, but this is far from the norm. Special education budgets are skyrocketing as schools attempt to face the increasing demands of documented learning styles that don't respond to the traditional classroom. Many of my students had learning styles that compromised their written and auditory comprehension while others had attention deficits to name just a few. Without early detection students can endure years of academic distress leaving many to implode around the time their hormones begin to rage. What made this all the more heartbreaking was to discover how brilliant these children often were once learning style accommodations were put in place.

We all seek to experience "good feelings" with whatever we pursue and if previous success nurtures those good feelings then it would seem reasonable to assume we'd be "motivated" to pursue similar ventures with the same level of enthusiasm. If past experiences haven't produced those feelings – especially in the classroom year after year – it would be important to discover why and whether the school and/or the parents could play a more significant role in helping the child realize more successful outcomes. Labeling serves no one.

Speaking of parents, my two children were fortunate when it came to academic success, but the role of their parents played a key role too. For starters, my children understood early on that their education was their top priority beginning with elementary school. This message was reinforced when we sat down to go over the day's schoolwork together. During primary school, schedules were created for completing homework and time-management skills practiced. My children were also given choices and asked to consider the benefits and drawbacks of each. This gave them an eventual appreciation for the payoffs associated with personal sacrifice, determination and postponed gratification whenever they faced a challenge that seemed easier to ignore.

We were imperfect parents in many respects, but they never worried about their basic needs being met or whether a parent could assist with a difficult homework assignment. They also knew there was always a parent willing to drive them to a friend's house to tackle schoolwork together or to the library for a research paper or the store to purchase supplies for a school project.

In her book Bridges Out of Poverty, Ruby Payne alludes to the challenges families living in poverty face just to survive. Contrary to common belief many in poverty do work and often in jobs that are physically demanding, pay little and require overtime just to afford the basics. Most don't appreciate the stress this imposes on families or how difficult it can be just to meet basic needs.

Some families I worked with devoted an inordinate amount of time and energy keeping one step ahead of bill collectors and pending shutoff notices. Others drove cars in regular need of repair and resided in apartments routinely neglected by landlords. These circumstances often left families frantically responding to one crisis after another leaving little time/energy to tend to other matters including their child's academic responsibilities.

Impoverished conditions can also make effective planning difficult for families. Already lacking the time and the resources to plan with, planning can also require "doing without" or postponing gratification. Payne reminds us that poverty forces a family to "do without" almost daily leaving immediate gratification a more valued commodity for some. Schools may include effective planning in their curriculum and provide opportunities for practice at home, but if the parental support isn't there how does a child incorporate this into their learning?

Besides the limitations of poverty, some of my TRIO parents admitted to their own difficulties with school as children including little parental and academic support and no assistance with college planning. Some parents simply didn't know how to help their children reach for academic success or even how to confidently advocate for them.

TRIO began in 1964 and still flourishes because barriers to an equal education still exist. Our current system works for some, yet the drawback to continuing the status quo, i.e., educational inequality, has local and national implications – the very least of which is this country's generational poverty and its effects on everyone.

TRIO programs can only serve a fraction of the eligible population that's why I applaud Harwood for starting a discussion that seeks to create an environment where all Harwood students can succeed. It's easy to highlight problems with new ideas, but as Frederick Douglass once said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men," and woman in this case.

Estes lives in


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