My Merit Scholar Neighborhood

By April 15, 2014Education, Policy

I recently had the opportunity to hear the heart of a member of one of our highest educational organizations as she shared her passion for kids. Her entire focus was summed up in her statement that the reason she wanted to serve was to eventually see more and more Merit Scholars graduating from our high schools. A good statement and a good reason. No one would argue that sentiment.


I’ve been the administrator of schools when a Merit Scholar walked across that stage at commencement. I’ve felt the pride in handing diplomas to AP students who were leaving us with college credits already on their transcript. I’ve stood at a graduation podium several times and announced that the group of Seniors graduating that evening had garnered millions of dollars in scholarship money. I’ve seen the smiles and received the congratulations for having students like that in my school. I can assure you; we are blessed, honored, and privileged to be able to serve kids with that much capacity.


Over the next couple of days, though, that statement just wouldn’t leave me alone. I have the privilege of working with all age groups and students from all demographics. A portion of my work is with at-risk students and I have sometimes been counseled that good educators focused on the ones who “got it”. The bottom 10%-20% would only hurt you, in your state testing results, scores, and ratings. It’s best to take the kids who “want” an education and move forward. The definition of “wanting” an education came in the form of taking students and piling on more and more requirements; Saturday schools, after school sessions, etc. Eventually, the true at-risk student gets the picture that their unwillingness to follow these more stringent requirements is the final determination that they just don’t “want” their education. So, at 15, it’s their fault.


Additionally, I had just completed reading a report on the dropout crisis in one state. According to the report, approximately 2.5 million of the current residents between the ages of 20 and 64 did not have a high school diploma. That’s not even counting the thousands dropping out now. I did the math in my head. If the numbers held true, there could be 16,000 people in my community alone who had dropped out and the number doesn’t get lower in my future. It became apparent to me that I certainly wasn’t living in a Merit Scholar neighborhood.


It comes down to this: I love the Merit Scholar. I love the athlete. I love the student who “gets it”. They make it easy and rewarding. But, more often than not, they don’t need me. In fact, they most likely don’t need most of us. They will succeed. Give them challenges; they will always step up to the plate.


Those drop-out numbers are disturbing, though. If the young father across the street can’t get a better job because he didn’t “want” his education when he had the chance, does it matter to me now that it was his fault back when he was 15? Was it my fault that he just didn’t want to do the extra Saturday sessions and got himself kicked out? No, it’s not my fault. It was his fault for not really “wanting” an education and there he is, struggling now but that’s the price he apparently must pay.


Today, I don’t care what had to do be done to keep him in school when he was younger. I don’t care if they had to teach him over and over and over again until he got it. I don’t care if they had to just put up with his attitude, his unwillingness to be a shining star, and his parents that refused to show up for meetings. At this point, I only care about him having every possible chance now, at age 30. I want him to be able to succeed now, at 30. Forget whether he was inspired or motivated at 15 years old. Did we really take responsibility for him when he didn’t “want” us or our rules?


I don’t live in a Merit Scholar neighborhood. I live in a real world, and apparently a real world that continues to make it harder on the ones who have it the hardest to begin with. I continue to see education being defined as only college-prep. I continue to watch people fighting to make it better for the ones who “get it” and more difficult for the ones who don’t. And, when people who struggle daily for the struggling student take issue with this, there is a smile and nodding of the head that is apparently supposed to mean that, “Hey, all of us care about those students!” I don’t see it. I don’t see it when the door closes or the camera turns off.


Ten years from now, I don’t want 16,000 plus thousands more struggling in my community because they didn’t “want” an education when they were young and had the chance. I want my neighbor to have any and every opportunity the high school diploma affords him. And, I don’t care if he attended a good school, bad school, private school, public school, or charter school. I only care that his life is better because he has his high school diploma. That may mean that we have to swallow our pride and just admit the crisis is not getting better. It may mean we have to start thinking about ways to help every child. It certainly doesn’t mean shutting down those who are struggling to do just that.