Suzanne Cridge from SVA pointed to a 2015 post of Jennifer Orr's today on Twitter that awoke my brain from its holiday-induced inertia.
And as I felt uncomfortable with the wording of her blog post title (but not its content or message) I have decided to unpack it a bit here by starting by subbing out the word "Worst" for "Most Disadvantaged" to sit better in my Australian context. Despite the difference in choice of words and we are comparing different education systems, we are talking about equivalent concepts here - a Title 1 school in the US shares similarities with "low category" schools here in South Australia - so using the phrase disadvantaged covers a lot of the same issues - trauma, migrant or refugee backgrounds, poverty, transience, disability in significant amounts.
I have heard many defensive comments from educators from private schools systems that sort of miss the point. "We have families here who are struggling financially." "We have students from different cultures." "We have students under the Guardianship of the Minister." Yes, you do but not to the same degree or in the same numbers. It doesn't impact on the way you teach or run the school to the same degree as schools that are officially designated as "disadvantaged".
Even in the SA public school system, the degrees of complexity are easy to identify. We use a system of Categories to define the least to most disadvantaged and complex. Category 1 to 3 are the low categories where the most disadvantage and complexity can be found while at the other end, Category 6 and 7 schools have the more affluent communities where things like Non-English speaking kids are a small minority, School Card percentage is low and where families in crisis are less noticeable. I've taught at both ends of the category spectrum and can testify that there is significant difference in what teachers encounter on a day to day basis, and practices that run smoothly for a more compliant student body can come undone in environments where the kids have a lot more to deal with outside of their school life.
In my first year at Woodville Gardens, I recall some of our teachers being highly offended that a visiting teacher from a Cat 7 school making a remark that she was glad that she managed to avoid teaching in "tough schools" like ours as she wasn't sure that she could handle it. Rightly so, our teachers resented the implication that our school was viewed as a less desirable place in which to carve out a career.
Talk to teachers at these schools and you will hear sentiments about making a real difference, and about adjusting and making learning relevant for students who haven't had the advantages of being born into a family where the dominant language matches the language of our institutions of learning, where coming to school hungry is not through choice, where the impact of social issues like racism and being left to fend for yourself at a young age is a reality. The stories that are shared of students we have known sound far fetched to educators who have never experienced this complexity on a regular basis. Engagement is not just a fancy word to bandy around - it is the real key to getting our kids to buy in and own their learning.
Jennifer sums things very well in this paragraph:
Our students often speak two or more languages, help their families navigate bureaucracies, care for younger siblings, and support the family in a variety of ways. Our students are skilled and smart in many different ways. Unfortunately, those ways aren’t always reflected in school-related skills or on standardized assessments.
To bring this post full circle, that is why it is cool for my school, Prospect North which serves a complex, disadvantaged community to be connected to people like Suzanne who works for Social Ventures Australia (SVA), an organisation that helped to connect up schools from the disadvantaged sector all around Australia who are doing innovative things into a community that shares and develops its practice. These schools are working hard to ensure that these students not only have the best teachers but their educational experience matches or surpasses what high category and the private sector schools can offer their kids. It's a reason I was so proud of my First Lego League teams - they deserve the opportunity as much as any kid in Australia and given that opportunity will step up and shine. And this only happens, as Jennifer points out, if the best teaching is happening in those schools. Not just because it is a good idea but as Jen points out, it is imperative:
Every minute will be accounted for and a part of meaningful learning. It has to be.