Getting a read on students’ world

  • Tony Dondero<br>Enterprise editor
  • Monday, March 3, 2008 12:03pm

A sixth-grader in a class I tutor in told me this past Friday that “reading was for sissies.”

A few minutes before that, the student, who happens to be black, saw a picture of Ku Klux Klan members in a magazine and became incensed.

For the past seven months I’ve helped sixth-graders with their reading and writing at Cedar Valley Community School, a K-8 school, in Lynnwood.

In that time, I’ve worked with some great youths who have the potential to be great students, regardless of what perceptions might be. But for teachers, administrators and staff at Cedar Valley, having a student going through some sort of crisis is a daily occurrence.

Within the Edmonds School District, many of the students at Cedar Valley are have-nots in a sea of mostly haves. Poverty, abuse, having to care for siblings and having a parent who has done jail time are realities for some students — not merely something that exists on TV and in the newspaper.

Cedar Valley is the most diverse and poorest school in the Edmonds School District.

As of May 1, 86.1 percent of the students at Cedar Valley qualified for free or reduced-price lunches based on family income.

The school is 38.8 percent Hispanic, 34.4 percent white, 13.8 percent Asian, 11.5 percent black and 1.5 percent Native American, according to October 2005 figures. Nearly 40 percent of students are learning English as a second language. Next year, Cedar Valley’s seventh- and eighth-graders will be moved to Alderwood and College Place middle schools. The district’s reason is to give students a wider course of study at a larger school.

The challenges are immense, but failure is not an option. As Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said: “Reading is the gateway skill that makes all other learning possible…” Being able to read and apply what you’ve read has never been more important in the history of the planet as it is now.

As fifth-graders, 63 percent of the Cedar Valley sixth-graders passed the reading portion of the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, 10.9 percent below the district average and 13.3 percent below the state average.

As a teacher at Cedar Valley told me, most boys learn to read at a different pace than girls and most start off behind girls when it comes to verbal skills. Sometimes as a coping mechanism, students say stuff like “reading is for sissies.”

The teacher told me she’s experimented with having some of the boys read in boys-only groups.

“They weren’t as off task as when they had a female audience,” she said.

Experiments like that are vital to improving education in schools like Cedar Valley. It goes beyond the WASL, No Child Left Behind and resultant force-fed curriculum requirements.

All the sixth-graders at Cedar Valley recently went on a hike near Granite Falls and wrote about their experience. Having that experience to draw on changes how they are able to write and express themselves, teacher Lindsay Wilson said.

This past Friday, several students quickly thumbed through copies of National Geographic and Smithsonian. But a Sports Illustrated grabbed their attention and sparked some lively discussion.

The same student who said reading was for sissies articulately made a case for what would constitute the best NBA team of all time. Most of the players he named — from Larry Bird to LeBron James — were from the 1980s to the present, but his list was comprehensive. He could write a good essay on that topic.

In the end, much of what determines student success or failure is rooted in socio-economics and sometimes there’s only so much blame or credit educators deserve for that.

But it is possible to turn things around.

Cedar Valley teacher Aaron Gaines, 47, who integrated a white school in Mississippi as a second-grader, is looking forward to attending several high school graduations next month to see his first group of students walk across the stage. One of those former Cedar Valley students who will graduate is Lynnwood High School student body president Liam Ennis.

Gaines said he tries to preach and teach to his students about their responsibility to not only themselves, but their families and their community to try to succeed in light of the sacrifices that people of all colors made during the civil rights movement.

“They haven’t made that decision yet, they haven’t dug in,” Gaines said. “I can sway them to think a little deeper…before they make that gigantic step to high school.”

If you’re interested in volunteering at Ceder Valley, call volunteer coordinator Helen Phillips at 425-431-1687.

Finally, as Obama said in his 2004 Democratic convention speech, “folks will tell you that government alone can’t teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Or like a sissy.

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