On Tuesday night, the Board of Education listened to a group of diverse north side students and their parents who have been identified by their teachers and principals as among the many students who are on the path to great success. We asked them to tell us about their road to success and to tell us what more we can do as a district to support them and other students on the road to success. If you didn't attend, you missed a special occasion. Listening to students is, well, fabulous. Every time I do it, I come away enriched with renewed faith in our young people.
Who was in the circle of students to which we listened? Students from a variety of backgrounds, immigrants and children of immigrants (which of course all of us are). Their parents hailed from Vietnam, Somalia and southern Africa. There was an immigrant from Bosnia. There were African Americans, a hispanic family and others.
What did they tell us about their road to success?
The answers will not surprise you, I trust. Students talked about the support that they received from parents. They talked about high expectations at home; they talked about high expectations from their teachers, but above all, they talked about having high expectations for themselves. Several of the students said that they wanted to succeed to set a good example for their younger brothers and sisters. One student wants to be a journalist. Another is headed for St. Thomas in St. Paul where she intends to pursue the path to medical school.
The students talked about "making good choices every day." They said that involves developing good work habits. In some cases, the students developed those good habits themselves. They figured out that if they made good choices, studied first and then chilled, then they could realize their dreams. For other students, their parents were key: one said that mom began each day with a message: make good choices today. One father said, you get your work done, then you have fun. Several parents said that they wanted their children in activities, so that they spent their free time doing productive things. These students had a vision of themselves in the future that said, I can succeed, and the road to success is hard work.
One Mom said that said that she learned early on that staying active in her school was really important. When you know the teachers and the principal, it makes a big difference. She works all day, but she finds time to stay involved in school. She didn't say it, but you could see that the most important thing in her life was making sacrifices to give her children a better future.
Students told us that choosing the right friends made a big difference. One young man told us that in his early secondary years he got himself in trouble a lot. He said that he was hanging out with kids who were making bad choices, and he was making bad choices along with them. But at some point, a light-bulb went off. He recognized that he was on a path to wasting his life. With prodding from the school district, he decided to make better choices. He began to focus on studies, to attend school punctually, and he stopped hanging out with his old friends. Kids on the wrong path can make a choice to choose the right path, so we can't give up on kids. We have to hold them to high standards of behavior, but we need to show them that if they make the right choices, we will get behind them and give them a boost.
A young Somali girl said that her path to success began when she was really young. She said in perfect fluent English that she figured out that if she was going to succeed in America, she was going to need to master English. She didn't want to spend her entire school career getting pulled out for special English classes: she wanted to get into the regular classroom and be with other students, with the same ability to communicate in English.
And finally, a consistent theme was that these young people had an important adult or adults in their lives, usually parents, who supported their success, who took pride in what they were doing. These parents were devoted to their childrens' education. They pursued a no excuses strategy. Get your work done; you can succeed. The parents expected their children to obey the school rules, but they also advocated for them when there were problems. They talked about giving respect to their teachers, but by being motivated also by teachers who respected them in return.
At the end of the session, the moderators allowed members of the audience to meet in small groups and them make comments on what they had heard. One of the adults got up and said that we were all missing the point. He said that we needed to talk about systemic racism as a barrier to success and to education. He talked about the long history of racism and mistreatment of Native Americans, blacks and other minorities in America. He said, why don't you ask these students to tell you about racism in our schools.
And then, one by one, students rose to give their perspective. Eloquently, one student after another said, listen, that's not what we are here for. They said, "the school district is celebrating our success. They want to hear about what we are doing right, so that more students can succeed." The adult argued back, and more students stood up. They know about racism, they said. We can assume that many or most have experienced some form of racism in their lives, perhaps on a regular basis. They didn't deny the existence of racism. But they said, as many of this younger generation does, we don't want to talk about racism today, or all the time. Give us our day to talk about what is important to us, not what is important to you older folks, who seem obsessed with racial issues. Let's focus on what's important to us today, they said, and that is supporting young people who are coming to school every day, doing their homework, making good grades, making the right choices, and, God bless them, getting along with each other.