Friday afternoon, two of my fourth graders were stretched out on the floor of the library of the school where I work, side by side and each with a copy of The Invention of Hugo Cabret in front of them as they took turns reading to each other from this gorgeous book. Completely enthralled and seemingly unaware of the movements and noise of 20+ other classmates choosing books for the long weekend ahead. Our assistant principal came in to collect some kids, and caught sight of the girls with a smile on his face because he is also a big fan of the book. And all I could think is that despite the frequency of this type of occurrence in the school these days, the knowing exchanges amongst a culture of readers, this would have never happened in our walls just a few short years ago.
When I arrived at my job a few years back, there had not been a functioning library in some years. The library that did exist on the second floor was a stinky, poorly organized, visually unattractive mess that boasted titles similar to "Polyester: The Miracle Fabric." We established a new space on the floor below, weeded out that terrible collection, and worked our tails off to build something meaningful, something relevant for the great kids we serve. We sought to build a culture of readers through all avenues of the school as we re-invented ourselves in a myriad of different ways. Children who were initially acquisitive in the sense they wanted to physically possess all of the new books rather than read them soon turned into children who were acquisitive in the sense that they sought to inhabit the ideas and information held within the books. We are succeeding in a formerly failing school. And it feels great.
Well, it did feel great until this past Monday when we were informed by the school system that they are proposing that our school close at the end of this year, and merge with a lesser performing school in a challenged neighborhood that will necessitate our kids crossing over an impossibly congested major thoroughfare into a rival gang area. No school buses in DC so all our kids will be walking, some over a mile, through this. Many of them alone. The new campus is new and shiny and state of the art but under-enrolled by hundreds. Parents have chosen not to send their children there so the feeling among many staff and parents right now is that the system is trying to force matriculation by closing our school. The sting is felt by all because everyone knows that this is not something the affluent in our city face. This is an insult reserved for the urban poor. The parents are happy with what we have accomplished at our present school, heartened that the needs of their kids are finally being met, and are stating that they will not go there. So what happens? They will spread out in a number of different ways, principally to charter schools I imagine, and all that we have built for them, just starting to show significant results will be lost.
As teachers, we invest ourselves completely in what the re-invention of our school system requires, sacrificing much from our personal lives to close the achievement gap in our city. We believe in what we are doing, and we assume that the system mantra of "Children First" is more than a hollow catch phrase delivered for effect. But we have been delivered a disillusioning blow this week.
So I would love to tell you that for this week's Sunday Salon, I will be reading through both Rebecca and Dracula, but instead, I have a stack of parent surveys, crime and traffic reports, legal advice, etc. in front of me. Because we have to show the kids and the parents that they are worth a fight even if, as is being suggested, it is a fight we are unlikely to win.