The difference is in the school
Arizona Republic
Jun. 23, 2006

John F. Kennedy once said, "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic."

The Arizona Republic recently - and only briefly - ran a short series of articles about the failure of schools in the Roosevelt School District. The newspaper needs to keep writing this. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne should be congratulated for walking into that district and talking directly to the many parents who came to hear him about what is true for their children - and he should talk much more about this.

I have had the opportunity to visit many schools where financial poverty is a family reality. The myth that poor families do not care about the education of their children is devastatingly pervasive, and my experience has been that it is nearly always wrong. What I saw in those communities was that parents were desperate to know what was happening with their children, and the system was equally desperate not to say. The most compelling example of this for me was at a meeting organized by activists seeking to bring officials from the Los Angeles Unified district together with parents who had just been given school performance data.

The room held about 200 people, half of whom were Latina moms who had brought their children with them to a midmorning meeting on a Tuesday at the downtown LA Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. They sat in back, predictably deferential. The other half of this meeting room held various authorities and officials from the Los Angeles Unified School District, from the U.S.
Department of Education, and various education groups. They sat in front.

A preliminary presentation from the Education Trust reflected precisely what Horne showed the parents in Roosevelt: Here are your children, who are failing. And here are children from schools whose ethnicity, language ability and affluence are identical to yours, but their children are excelling. The message was clear: Your children are failing, and they need not be.

A district official stood up to say that the parents in the successful schools must be more involved because "we just can't get our parents involved."

Another school official suggested perhaps they should offer pizza and cookies, because "they may not care about their children's test scores, but they will come if there is food."

A young Latina mother stood and waved for the microphone to be brought to the back of the room, from where she spoke to the assembly: "I do not think that our families want to hear more lies about our children. We do not want to hear that our children have A's and see stars on their papers and then wonder why they can't make it in high school.

"You say you want us at your schools. Well, we do come to your schools. Our children are in your schools. But you need to give good education to our children and respect to our families . . . We do not want your food."

There are some moments that are so true, they stay with you for the rest of your life.

Arizona can now see that in the majority of financially poor districts, children are not being provided challenging curriculum. We can see that the children who come to us and our schools from Mexico or from other non-English speaking countries are shunted off into subpar courses with a justification of needing more time to learn English. Instead, they learn nearly nothing.

Until recently we have lacked tangible, visible proof that the failure of these students was not somehow a result of their family status. But now, in the presence of one set of standards and one state test for all children, we can see.

We can see that there are poor children and non-English speaking children who absolutely excel. We can see those children who fail. And the difference is not the children, it is not the wealth of their parents or the color of their skin. The difference is the school.

So it matters a great deal when The Republic shares these truths about our schools. It matters when the state superintendent talks directly to poor families about what is real for their children. It matters most that the families of children who are being failed by their schools are increasingly no longer willing to go unseen and unheard.

Lisa Graham Keegan is a former state superintendent of schools for Arizona and partner in the Keegan Company, where she consults on emerging markets in
K-12 education.