Toward the end of June, I asked one of the students at the school where I am an assistant principal – a public elementary school located in Manhattan’s Chinatown where 95 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for free lunch – whether she was looking forward to summer vacation. “No,” was her response. “Why not?” I asked. “Because I’m not doing anything,” she replied. Such is the reality for many of New York City’s 1.1 million schoolchildren, who recently started summer vacation.
One year ago, I stood in a very different place. I was a teacher at a sought-after public elementary school in brownstone Brooklyn where students attend pricey summer camps filled with enriching activities and then go off to vacations overseas, to the beach, or the mountains—anywhere but the sweltering August streets.
This year has been a journey through New York City’s very divided populace; I have borne witness to what Mayor de Blasio called “the tale of two cities.” Along the way, I have become convinced that there are ways that all of us can turn our attention to schools and communities where the need is greatest.
The students at my current school are truly remarkable. Many of them are recent immigrants to the United States; they live in cramped tenements in Chinatown, sharing one room with grandparents and siblings, and renting out additional rooms in their apartments to complete strangers. Their parents work long hours, sometimes out of state. Other students live in the city’s Catherine Street homeless shelter, and despite promises by the mayor to convert this to an adults-only shelter because the conditions are unfit for children, we enrolled students through mid-June whose families had just been placed there by the Department of Homeless Services. Others live in the public housing projects directly adjacent to our school. Parents share stories of their struggles – to find work, to keep their children out of trouble, and to pay for necessary, but not always covered, medical care.
Despite all of these challenges, our students show up to school every day, with smiles on their faces, ready for a new day. And we try to provide them with everything we possibly can. We take them on field trips often; they have drama, art, music, physical education, science, and technology class at least once a week; we offer them enrichment clubs after school. Our teachers try to bring the outside world – to which our students have little exposure, into the classroom. (Second graders, upon disembarking from the subway in Battery Park, asked whether they were now in the countryside, never having seen so much green space in their lives.)
But what about my student’s lack of enthusiasm for summer vacation? Policymakers will argue that there are many programs that try to fill in the gaps for low-income students and families. There’s Medicaid and Title I and city-run summer programs. There are local nonprofits that offer free or low-cost enrichment activities and public libraries that run summer reading programs. There are social service agencies that offer families support and counseling. But these programs and funds cannot plug what have, by now, become gaping holes in our society’s safety net.
The Great Recession exacerbated the precarious situation in which many Americans were already living. It is evident to those of us who work in the public schools that our families are suffering, perhaps even more so than at any other time in recent history.
This suffering has a very real impact on a student’s ability to learn and achieve. No program can significantly alter the impact on a child’s brain development when she lives in a chaotic and stressful environment because her family is doing everything they can to scrape by. The achievement gap will not be closed by the scraps that our policymakers throw at families who are in crisis. Instead, the “haves” – those members of our society who have been content to turn their heads away from our neediest citizens – must begin to advocate for structural change that will improve the lives of the “have nots.”
That means we must raise the minimum wage; provide quality health coverage; offer truly affordable housing; reduce the bureaucratic burden on families trying to get services (the amount of paperwork and appointments that these already-struggling families must keep track of is staggering); and provide eldercare, high-quality childcare, and paid maternity leave. It also means providing before- and after-school programs and continuing to work to improve and integrate our public schools.
While these major initiatives may seem daunting to the average citizen, there are other ways to help the schools with the greatest needs. The families whose children attend my former school, for instance, can focus their energy on communities that do not possess the same fundraising potential, political power, and social capital. They can identify partner schools in high-poverty neighborhoods for which they can raise money, conduct pen pal campaigns, and visit each others’ schools.
Rather than volunteering their time to provide more for those who already have a lot, they can spend time tutoring a struggling student in their partner school, or running a yoga, drama, music, or sports program for those students, either during the school year or in the summer.
These small steps can do a lot to bring necessary attention to the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots in our public system. It won’t fix the problem, but it will force all of us to open our eyes.