The math doesn’t add up

 In 2015-06

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“Hola abuelo. Puedes darme un chicle, por favor?” Or, “Hello grandpa. Can I have some gum, please?” I hear the Spanish version when I show up to tutor sixth-grade math students at a Charlotte middle school. The grandpa line hurt at first, but I got over it. It’s a privilege to work with great kids through the nonprofit Communities in Schools. When I arrive, the class of 20 has just finished lunch. Most bubble with energy. They work in a well-organized classroom with a fancy electronic whiteboard and tablet computers loaded with education software. The teacher, in her second year with Teach for America, is excellent, mixing toughness, enthusiasm and compassion. A teacher assistant helps maintain order. Most of the time, the kids are ready to learn. It’s an uplifting scene.

Except it really isn’t. Most readers of this magazine would never send their kids to my favorite school. It received an “F” grade in North Carolina’s new ranking system covering the 2013-14 school year, based on test scores and how much students improved from the previous year. Various websites rank it in the bottom 10-15% of middle schools, nationally. Hope springs eternal, but I’d be shocked if things changed this year. It’s a school packed with the underprivileged and unrepresentative of our state. About half of the students speak limited English, including kids who’ve come from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador in the last year. Many don’t know their math or division tables. Simple phrases in word problems trip up many kids. At least 85% of the school population gets free or reduced-price lunch, though the school abuts affluent neighborhoods. A friend who lives three blocks away says none of his neighbors’ children attend the school. He and his peers send their kids to public magnet schools or private ones, many of which are improving their math and science programs to serve as launching pads for engineering and technology careers.

The hopeful news is that North Carolina leaders are demanding excellence from our schools, as reflected in this issue’s education round table. Efforts like Charlotte’s privately funded, $55 million Project LIFT, which aims to improve achievement at some low-performing public schools, show a commitment to change. N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, who promoted the grading system that embarrasses my school, wants to shine a light on key trouble spots. The truth hurts. Let’s hope his main prescription — offering parents more choice in picking schools, including vouchers to attend ones run by religious or for-profit groups — is effective.

Providing food and a safe place for children from tough neighborhoods to hang out — at an annual cost of more than $10,000 per student — reflects a compassionate society. Maybe that’s the best we can expect until wealth and education gaps narrow. Sadly, that great teacher I witnessed won’t be around to inspire more kids. Mentally exhausted, she’s leaving Charlotte and stepping away from teaching, at least for a while.

 

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