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Mind the Gap: What's Next?

An inner-city schoolteacher wrestles with what to do after his two-year teaching commitment is up. For many second-year Teach...

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An inner-city schoolteacher wrestles with what to do after his two-year teaching commitment is up.

For many second-year Teach For America corps members like myself, befuddlement became a way of life over these last two years. As we entered the education fray with little pedagogical training, we faced questions about content knowledge, instructional techniques, familial relations, union membership, health care plans, graduate school degrees—the list goes on. For many of us, the clouds of confusion never truly lifted. We learned to live in varying degrees of fog.

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An inner-city schoolteacher says farewell to his first graduating class.

Dear Class of 2010:

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Mind the Gap: Fathers Who Show Up

An inner-city schoolteacher celebrates Mr. Burgos. “Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It may be...

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An inner-city schoolteacher celebrates Mr. Burgos.

“Eighty percent of success is showing up.” It may be ironic to begin a post about Father’s Day with a quote from Woody Allen, but as I thought about the role fathers play in my students’ lives, I kept coming back to it.

Applied to fatherhood, Allen’s standard sets a low bar, yet the majority of my students’ fathers cannot measure up. As Americans gather this Sunday to honor their dads, celebrations will be muted in many families where too many men are missing or absent.

Among this dearth of dads, however, are a handful of honorable fathers who play active roles in their children’s lives—men like Rafael Burgos, who has spent the past few decades juggling his work responsibilities with those of being a supportive parent to his three children. In this barren landscape of fathers, he is an oak tree. This Father’s Day is for him.

Mr. Burgos’s youngest daughter, Jada, is set to graduate from our high school in a week’s time. Her graduation will not only cap her rise from a deferential girl into a mature young woman who can assert now herself. It also represents a triumph for her mother and father.

After all, it's for Jada that Mr. Burgos rises at 5:00 a.m. each morning to begin his duties as a building superintendent. Eleven hours later, Mr. Burgos’s shift ends and he puts on his metaphorical Dad hat, checking in on his daughter’s homework assignments and social life, putting a smile on her face, and reminding her about what is necessary to reach her goals and aspirations.

While this balancing act is standard for many of my students’ mothers or grandmothers, I have not come across a more active, responsible father in my two years of teaching. At every parent-teacher conference, there is the gregarious Mr. Burgos with his bold handshake and broad-faced smile. Recently, at 4:15 in the morning on the day that Jada and others began our school's trip to New Orleans, there was Mr. Burgos driving her over and helping her with her luggage. At senior prom, there was Mr. Burgos again, snapping photos of Jada and her date outside the dance hall.

“My dad is always there for me when I need him,” Jada wrote in an email, “And that makes me feel happy since I have a person who will pick me up when I fall.”

While such paternal support is typical in some communities, only about a quarter of my students live with their biological fathers; the percentage who receive “wisdom” from their dad, as Jada says she does, is even lower. My students have talked with me about being raped by their father, of having their father stand by while a relative abused them, of waiting for hours as the time for their father to pick them up came and went.

Two weeks ago, I was talking with a student when I asked her what she was doing after school. She said she was going into Manhattan. I asked her why. She said it was to visit her father, who is in jail.

Through diligence and dedication, Mr. Burgos has risen above his peers. And in so doing, he has not only served as a model to his son about what it means to be a man, but has taught his daughters an invaluable lesson about what they can expect from a partner. He is affectionate, compassionate, and hands-on. As a result, his children are mature, hard-working, and polite.

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An inner-city schoolteacher on the challenges of getting his kids to come to school.

I start each class with a hearty call-and-response of either "Good morning" or "Good afternoon." When I have class first period, however, there is no need to bellow—I oftentimes have so few students that I can easily greet each one individually.

Attendance is an enormous problem at my school and at many others throughout the city. Absenteeism is one issue, lateness is another, but poor attendance overall is a significant factor in students’ chronic low achievement.

Starting a class with a smattering of students or teaching an incomplete class creates a litany of problems. On Monday, for instance, I had four students at the start of first period. A colleague of mine routinely has only half of his high school freshmen present. Most importantly, students are missing out on opportunities to learn and are thus creating gaps in their knowledge. Less significant but still relevant is teachers’ morale, which really takes a hit when, day after day, only a handful of students are there for the lesson they dutifully prepared with 20-something students in mind.

Students at my school miss class for a variety of reasons. First, there are students with family obstacles, like Jalene, a student and mother who has been absent 30 days and late 67 others. Myriad other family issues, like babysitting younger relatives, bringing a parent to the hospital, visiting relatives from out-of-town and so on, account for more than their fair share of absences and lateness. Some of my students are responsible for taking their siblings to school before they walk through our doors (which, in New York City, can mean a cross-borough or cross-city trek). Other students wake up before their parents, who may work a night shift or not work at all, responsible for readying themselves for school each morning.

Second, there are students generally uninterested in school. This occurrence is universal, of course, and includes all types of students. At my school, however, there is a disturbing trend of the more academically advanced students in my grade expressing apathy toward school (which I believes stems from how rarely us teachers actually challenge them). The most intelligent student in my grade has been absent 29 times and late 54 times.

Third, there is the aforementioned issue of toughness. Part of the reason I had four students in class Monday was because it was raining, and some of my students refused to make the trip in poor weather. Students have missed school because of being sore from an after-school pilates class and from staying up too late playing video games, among other reasons.

Fourth, there are logistical constraints. I teach urban students, many of whom rely on mass transit to get to school. A delay in their commute can throw the morning into chaos. While most students pay for their fares with a MetroCard provided by the Department of Education, if the card gets lost, they are frequently on their own until the next distribution period. As a result, I had a student last year come late to the end-of-year high-stakes test because she had lost her MetroCard and couldn’t find the $2.25 needed to cover her fare. (I told her she should have just jumped the turnstile.) Many of my students also seek medical care from emergency rooms or clinics that do not take appointments. Students have lost entire days of instruction while simply waiting to see a doctor.

What can be done? Parental involvement is a good place to start. The overwhelming majority of parents I have reached out to on attendance-related issues have been helpful in improving their child's attendance. I have called parents asking them to find an actual babysitter or to reschedule a (non-emergency) doctor’s appointment. Generally, parents are happy to comply when they see their student’s teacher looking for ways to get their son or daughter to class.

More meaningful, engaging teaching would also help. If there weren't such variance in teacher quality, students wouldn't pick and choose when to come to school.

Other possible remedies, like New York City’s truancy court, reflect the education establishment’s admission that there are few easy levers they can pull to increase attendance.

On Wednesday, however, I managed to pull off a real trick—every one of my students who had come to class in the last month was in school. Long-term absentees notwithstanding, we had perfect attendance.

Their motivation was a mock Regents exam, a three-hour, practice version of the high-stakes test my students will take in a month’s time. Simply finishing the entire mock exam earned the students 100 points. I had told them more than a week in advance about the exam, and the office staff and I called home that morning to track down late arrivals.

On Thursday, though, we were already back to normal—during second period I had five students who showed up on time, 10 who walked in late, and another five that never came to school at all.

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD appears on Fridays.

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An inner-city schoolteacher visits post-Katrina New Orleans with his students.

Greetings from New Orleans, where I’ve come with two of my colleagues and a dozen of my students to participate in post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. We’re more than halfway through our weeklong stay here, and our community-service project has been a learning experience for all involved. My students will share their thoughts next week, and I’ll share my initial observations this week.

Lesson One: There’s no substitute for on-the-ground experience.

Over the last four months, we've been learning about New Orleans during a weekly afterschool class. As effective as those lessons were in prepping our students for what they would encounter down here, the ride from the airport alone surpassed all emotional preparation.

We drove past shuttered schools, including one that still—still!—had a notice for a September, 2005, event posted on its display board. We drove by innumerable abandoned homes tagged with the spraypainted "X" of rescue crews who searched for Katrina’s victims. All the while, our elderly driver told of his 19-hour drive to evacuate the city.

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