Editor’s note: This article is the sixth of a multi-part series on Stewart Elementary school, a case study for change in the San Antonio Independent School District. The students and families in this series have been assigned aliases to protect their privacy. We thank the families for allowing us to spend time in their homes and lives.
Children are constantly learning. Their brains are continually being filled with connections, impressions, and interpretations of reality. The question is not if children are learning, but what they are learning. Children living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty often experience a stark contrast between what they learn inside and outside the classroom.
Inside the classroom they are learning about foundational skills, long-term thinking, and the inspirational worlds found in books. Outside the classroom the lessons are more dire. Many are focused on the basics of survival, like procuring food and avoiding physical and emotional danger.
At Stewart Elementary School in San Antonio Independent School District, this disconnect yields issues with impulse control and authority, the need for basic social skills, and high absenteeism.
“I have kids who have missed 40 days of school,” said Stewart Principal Traci Smith.
Smith tries to help children understand how important showing up for class and doing well in school is. She firmly believes that while parents want the best for their kids, they are also struggling to cope with the stress of paying bills, feeding their families, and balancing unstable relationships. Unfortunately, their children witness and internalize their behavior and lifestyle.
The constant state of emergency that rules many households doesn't explicitly discourage kids from setting, striving for, and obtaining goals. It does, however, inhibit their parents' intentional effort to provide them with skills that translate into success in school and at work.
“It’s not that they are hearing that they won’t succeed. It’s just that they are not hearing that they can,” Smith said.
Smith and her staff constantly remind their students that they have options as well as ways to realize them. While the world outside might value hardness and nonchalance, Stewart's educators encourage their students to dream big while also teaching them that great achievements require vulnerability and hard work.
“We cannot change the poverty that is here,” said Smith. “But when they come here, the cycle breaks.”
Parents like Lori are adopting the school's message. As a single mom who is raising three kids, she constantly feels the strain of trying to meet her family's basic needs. She works two physically demanding part-time jobs – one as a custodian and one at a senior care facility – that leave her exhausted when she returns to an apartment complex that she describes as unsafe.
Spanish is Lori's primary language which she feels has limited her career advancement options. She sees a direct connection between advanced learning and achieving goals, and, thus, wants to set her children up for success.
"I tell them, 'Wherever you go, if you have that (diploma), you can make more money,'" she said.
Her advice resonated with 11-year-old Joseph who wants to be an archeologist. Currently in 4th grade, he is already considering the University of Texas at San Antonio or “any college that’s good with both social studies and science.”
Joseph’s teacher, Joanna Tudon, said despite the pressure he feels to act “hard,” he is proud of being one of the smartest kids in the class.
“He’s not at all concerned with what his peers think, which is kind of refreshing,” Tudon said.
The mounting pressure for kids to build the toughness and grit required to thrive in their often unstable environments derails many students. It depresses their ability to admit shortcomings or ask for help, two crucial channels for learning. As a result, kids are likely to fall into routines of prolonged disinterest or prematurely guarding themselves from disappointment or failure, which squelches curiosity and dreaming.
“If you’re raised in this area, you have to be a certain way,” said Tudon, describing the social pressure kids feel.
Lori knows that Joseph and his two older sisters run the risk of succumbing to that pressure. She regrets that they have to live in an apartment complex where negative influences linger just outside the door. When her kids talk tough, swear, or demonstrate apathy, she comes down hard on them.
"You go to school to make life better. You sound like those people who are outside," Lori tells her kids.
Tudon reported that Angelica, the bright 9-year-old the Rivard Report reported on in previous stories, began showing signs of that peer pressure by acting like she didn’t care about doing well in school. Many students pick up the attitude from older siblings.
The saying "too cool for school" emerged in the 90s, but still holds true for many kids today. In fact, many children represent a more survivalist version of that attitude, as they are forced to uphold a tough exterior – one part preoccupation, one part posture.
The key to success is to make kids want to be smart, Tudon said. She wishes more kids were as ambitious as Joseph.
Talking to Joseph, you see the steadfastness in his eyes. Many kids at Stewart glance nervously around the room, fidgeting while they talk. Joseph sits perfectly still, looks me straight in the face, and speaks with confidence. For an 11-year-old, he's adopted a very earnest disposition.
Every summer, the school sends students home with a summer learning packet. Joseph finds it disappointing that some kids don’t utilize the resources they've been given.
“(You can use the packet) if you want to get ahead and be the smartest in the class,” Joseph said.
He intends to do so. He says he wants to be smart – not so he can brag, but so he can get ahead in life.
“Kids who don’t want to work hard and kids who cause trouble in elementary and middle school aren’t going to get good jobs later,” he said.
Joseph exemplifies the long-term thinking that SAISD officials are trying to cultivate as they aim for a massive culture shift for district students, teachers, administration, and families.
“Expecting a lot is a big piece of the culture shift,” said SAISD board president Patti Radle.
She wants to see those expectations at home and in school to change the way kids think about their futures.
“Many of our children don’t have high aspirations,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.
Radle and Martinez both acknowledge that children faced with concentrated poverty must first overcome those inherent obstacles before high expectations even become visible.
Martinez said he has seen whole neighborhoods of SAISD students where the houses look like they may not withstand the next strong storm.
When you know children are living in these conditions, you have to account for that in your plan to educate them, Martinez said.
Of course, it’s not enough to simply say that the district is going to raise expectations. One cannot simply hang a college banner on the wall like a magic talisman, or hope that an inspirational career day speaker lights a fire under students. It will require saturation beyond what has previously been considered.
“This level of poverty requires strategy,” said Martinez.
In the next and final piece in our Stewart series, we will explore some of the strategies in place to break the cycle of poverty at the door of SAISD schools, and launch the children onto a path toward success they have not yet imagined.
Top image: Joseph eats dinner as he plays video games after he arrives home from Stewart Elementary. Photo by Scott Ball.