You have heard the news point fingers at the poor when it comes to employment. Last week, we looked at the hardship of attaining identification necessary for job hunting. The general public also accuses the poor of not doing enough to seek an education. It is said that the poor should go get GED’s and find jobs. This week’s reflection focuses on some of the battles Brothers and Sisters of Love have encountered with the education system.
The way the woman calmly walked to the microphone, you could tell she had done this before. Looking into the sea of young mourners, the principal from Banner West High gave this message: “If you want to honor this young man’s life, go to school. Stay in school or find a school.”
An eighteen year old who attended her school had been shot, and his funeral was a stage to send several messages to his struggling peers, one of which was the importance of education.
Why is getting a quality education an exception and not a rule in poor communities?
As a former Teach for America corps member, I have witnessed my fair share of public education failing students. However, I have also seen intelligent and highly qualified teachers give their blood, sweat, and tears for 80 or more hours a week and still have failing students. Debate on the topic tends to place the blame on only one side of the problem: lack of parental involvement, poor teachers, lack of funds, school attendance, lack of pre-school, learning styles, etc. I would like to share some of the challenges that Brothers and Sisters of Love have encountered in the past few weeks that exposes the complexity of the problem and its long-term impact on job hunting and poverty.
- A 16-year-old who is on parole gets kicked out of school for fighting. He searches for two months to find an alternative school. He was responsible for finding his own school, and for getting himself there on public transportation. His parole officer offered him a place at Banner West, but he was afraid he would be jumped or killed because it is in rival gang territory. His fear is legitimate. He ends up back in his original school, two months further behind the other students. He has accumulated zero credits towards his high school diploma, and if he chooses to finish school, will not receive his degree until he is at least 20. His friend, recently released from juvenile detention, is also facing the responsibility of finding his own school, and catching up in the middle of the year. The same struggles ensue. As an alternative, the streets are offering both these teenagers a way to become an adult and have power now, while education remains an empty promise for the future.
- A three-year old who is naturally curious and eager to learn is living in a house with at least ten other people. She owns two books, but no one in the house can read them to her. She is eligible for Head Start, but the mother does not have transportation to get her there, nor does she have the understanding to apply and follow-through with the procedure to enroll her child. This mother, when asked to write some information for a Christmas donation could not spell “age”, “shirt,” “Christmas,” or some of her children’s own names. Even when directed, she could not write the letters as they were told to her.
- A young woman with four kids wants to get her GED so she can get a job. In order to reach the level of GED classes, however, she needs extra remediation in math. She struggles with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. She has been given worksheets for practice, but needs one-on-one attention in order to comprehend the operations. Her focus is kidnapped by her children’s needs, her inability to pay the rent and electric bills, and the negative relationships she has in her life. Progress is therefore negligible. Meanwhile, her eldest girls, who have always done well in school, have grades that are starting to slip. Their math is getting harder, and their mother cannot help them with their homework because she does not understand it herself.
The situations continue: Moving from house to house, not being enrolled or attending school regularly because of transportation and chronic illness, having no one to help with homework, having parents that do not have the skills to educate their own children; these are all issues that Brothers and Sisters of Love face on a near-daily basis.
How does this affect jobs? The issue of poverty is an issue of literacy. Education is power, and without it, the poor cannot understand their rights, or access the resources they need to escape the cycle of poverty. Education is not about the particular subject matters—the date the Constitution was ratified or the square root of 320 is not where the achievement gap lies. Education teaches public speaking and interview skills. It teaches us how to fill out forms and job applications. It teaches original thought and critical thinking. It teaches us to question authority and to advocate for ourselves. It allows us to draw conclusions about our circumstances and seek alternative solutions. Without these skills it is nearly impossible to land a job with responsibility and upward mobility. In fact, it is nearly impossible for some of our friends to fill out a job application that asks a short answer question demanding that one write a grammatically correct, complete sentence.
The poor have reached an uneducated level that cannot be bridged with GED coursework that is usually done independently. And without the skills mentioned above, the job market will not open the doors for them. This leaves two options: struggling through a minimum-wage job that no one else wants (if such a job exists in our current economy), or claiming welfare and making due. Neither option provides a way out, causing the poverty and literacy gap to continue into the next generation.
What is to be done? After studying and working in the field of public education, I do not have one solution. However, in the meantime it is my responsibility as a loving neighbor to understand the struggle of the poor to get an education, and to stand beside them as we search for solutions together. How can you use your education to help your neighbor attain theirs?
–Megan Sherrier, BSL
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