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Today, Tokofsky and high school senior Amandla discuss social promotion. Yesterday, they debated class size, and Monday they chewed on teacher motivation. Later in the week, they will focus on the real-world relevance of curriculum and the biggest obstacles to quality schooling.

Turn gangbangers into teachers
By Amandla Traylor

Yes, too many students are being promoted to the next grade when they’re not ready. When these students get a serious teacher, they don’t know what to do. That’s when the truth is found out; and the teachers who didn’t teach them are nowhere to be found. It’s the students who are blamed.

When they continue onto higher education, they won’t know how to handle it because they never learned any of the skills and ideas that are important for succeeding in college. If these students just get passed on, when they’re adults they will not succeed in getting or keeping higher-paying jobs. If this continues, we will never be able to improve our lives, and we will always be among those communities that are “left behind.”

To fix this problem, we need to have policies that encourage teachers to live in the same area as their schools, so they can better learn about the challenges their students go through instead of being on the outside, looking in. Or, we could recruit teachers who are from the neighborhoods that our schools are in.

Some of the most influential people in our communities are gangbangers. They do whatever it takes to get what they want. Most people feel the gangbangers’ goals are wrong, but at least they follow through on what they started. Teachers who just pass students along are giving up on their goals and quitting on what they came to our schools to do.

If schools gave gang members more opportunity, they could become positive role models instead of negative ones. Don’t give up on them so easily, because if you believed in them, they could be future teachers. Instead of discouraging them, we need to uplift them to use their leadership qualities for something positive.

They were taught to be self-defeating by society. A lot of youth don’t think they’re going to survive in the streets, so they learn to become tough. Schools aren’t providing them a way out of these problems, so what the system is really telling them is to be happy with what they have. Gangbangers are not going to be happy with the problems in their communities, so they find a way to change it the best way they know how. And they learn these tactics from one another.

When most of us are just passed along grade to grade, that means we are being taught by peers who were given the same poor education. If everyone is learning from people who haven’t learned anything positive in school, then they’re going to repeat the same mistakes.

We need to find a way to make these people the teachers. Gang members are not just ignorant; they’re misunderstood. No matter which gangs you talk to, most of the older gang members don’t want the younger ones in their communities to end up like them. That shows caring. If we did everything we can to put them through college, then that would change what everybody in our community wants to do.

I know most of the people reading this are thinking, “Why would we do this?” For those readers, my response would be, “Why wouldn’t we?” Gang members are already educating our children negatively, so why shouldn’t we try to change their teaching to be positive?

This would influence the children of the community to do better. Students wouldn’t run over them the same way we’re running over teachers in our schools today. I’ve seen so many gangbangers change their attitude toward learning when they have teachers who care about them, and can tell them why the work is important to do.

As a researcher and community insider to the problems facing us, I have first-hand knowledge about these gang members. They aren’t all the negative stereotypes that the media makes them out to be. They are humans with good hearts, who just didn’t have the same opportunities as others. Since they have strong leadership qualities, we need to educate them so they can teach in our communities.

One member of the Rollin’ 60s Crips said to us, “Don’t they say education is everything? Well, maybe if we would’ve had some of that, we wouldn’t be here.” Until we talk to them as people, and not be afraid of what they tell us, we shouldn’t reject them as possible leaders in our schools. Why can’t that be the policy? We’re the ones who go to our schools, so why can’t we be the ones who think of new ways to teach ourselves? If we just pass students along, then the teachers are helping make gangbangers, too.

Amandla Traylor is a 12th grader at Opportunities Unlimited Community High School in South Central Los Angeles.

More help for younger kids, who need it most
By David Tokofsky

Well, Amandla, we definitely agree that students pass to the next grade without learning the fundamental skills. I think most Californians agree. In fact the state Legislature outlawed this practice some six years or more ago. School districts violate that law daily.

We do not hold students, parents/guardians, administrators or teachers responsible for the fact that kids move from third to fourth grade without knowing such fundamentals as their multiplication tables. Your response focuses more on the older students; but so much easier to fix would be the younger kids.

Again, I ask how in the world can students in grades kindergarten, first, second and third get all the investment to reduce class sizes to 20-1 as well as teaching assistants and yet students go to fourth grade without the basics of reading and math? I know educators do not believe in retaining kids in the same grade for two years, but something must be done.

Here are some suggestions. First, schools across California should follow LAUSD’s new model of full-day kindergarten. Most of L.A. County’s kids are from the working class and are from immigrant families. A full day of English without causing parents to leave work at 11:30 a.m. to get their kids is a sane policy and educationally beneficial.

Secondly, kids who are not ready to leave kindergarten or first grade should be put in specially designed multi-age classrooms (K-1 or K-2) with talented teachers to catch them up before subject matter gets really hard in fourth and fifth grade. Experienced teachers choose lower grades, in fact, because class sizes are lower than in upper grades.

Thirdly, we need to help fourth- and fifth-grade teachers with specialists, not just in music, but in math and science. Many upper-grade teachers do not have the love and/or skills to teach the joy of science and math the same way they approach reading stories and artwork. Lastly for today, we need more money from Sacramento and Washington to help with the number of immigrants learning English and the number of poor kids who need mental- and physical-health support for learning the basics.

If all kids left K-3 skilled, and left elementary school solid, then they would be innoculated for the middle-school years ... the wonder years? California’s middle schools are huge and impersonal. In the LAUSD, almost all the middle schools have 2,000-plus kids. There is little time for exciting electives and little money for summer or inter-session help for those falling down in their studies. In L.A. County, the poorest of California’s 58 counties, the disease of illiteracy grows in the middle years without the kind of help you must have found at Youth Opportunities Unlimited, where some adults are caring for you. No wonder kids can’t survive the ninth and 10th grades.

Before ending, I want to say that your idea on teachers living in the neighborhoods where they work is interesting. I did that for 10 of my 12 years teaching high school. Teachers are underpaid and under-valued. I think that the city or county of Los Angeles should develop workforce housing adjacent to schools where we could help fire and police, teachers and publicly committed folks to gain income through reduced loans or cheaper housing. As we write, more and more people are leaving L.A. County, headed for Riverside, Imperial and northern San Diego counties because housing is cheaper and there is a perception of safer neighborhoods and better schools. Let’s not see another L.A.-developer housing bond without help for working families.

And finally, today state Sen. Darrell Steinberg in Sacramento begins hearings on bills to fix California’s Alternative Education “drop in” programs and the persistence of dropouts. We ought to help his agenda succeed for the millions of kids like you. Promoting kids from grade to grade just for the self-esteem of kids and adults has run its course.

David Tokovsky is a former board member of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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