April in America

The month of April marks a time of year with beautiful weather that yields blossoming gardens and springtime bliss. It’s a time of year for change and new beginnings. But, for too many children in America – to steal a phrase from T.S. Eliot – April can be also be “the cruelest month.”

(The following is a tale of three young boys growing up in a city near you.  While the names and situations are fictional, the scenarios reflect absolute reality.)

kids 1For nine-year-old Austin, a third-grade student at Star Prep Academy, April is the best month ever.

Austin loves the warmer weather and longer days to play outside. He enjoys the blooming flowers, the buzzing bees, the smell of freshly mown grass on the baseball field, and going fishing with his dad.

He also loves getting up with the sun each morning and going to school. Later in the month, Austin and his classmates will load their backpacks and put on their hiking shoes for a four-day outdoor retreat at Horizons Outdoor Learning Center. The retreat will be a culmination of a year-long experiential learning unit over ecology and environmental awareness at his school.

Like many young boys, Austin is naturally inquisitive, loves to be outdoors, and enjoys hands-on activities. He is looking forward to conducting experiments in the streams and small ponds at Horizons, cataloging various animals and plants, working in the gardens, and learning more about the ecosystems. He is also excited to participate in nature walks, canoe trips, archery, bird watching, cloud identification, and viewing the stars and constellations away from the bright lights of town.

Austin would like to be a scientist or park ranger when he grows up.

Over the course of the year, Austin has read numerous adventure novels about the outdoors from his school’s extensive library: “Robinson Crusoe,” “My Side of the Mountain,” Jack London’s “White Fang,” and “Hatchet” by Gary Paulson, to name a few.

Students at Austin’s school are encouraged to read for pleasure and are guided in the selection of reading choices by a full-time reading specialist who serves as the Academy’s media center director. The school also sets time aside every day for children to read. Weather permitting, Austin chooses to read under the large elm tree in the school’s outdoor classroom. Guest speakers and local authors also visit the school frequently to share their love of reading and writing with the students.

Star Prep Academy is sponsored by the local university and receives additional funding from philanthropic grants. Since they are privately funded, Austin and his friends do not have to participate in annual standardized testing. Despite the lack of test-based accountability, his school his highly regarded in the community.

The only thing Austin doesn’t like about April is that it means the school year is coming to an end. He loves his teachers and how they allow him to explore and create. Learning at Star Prep Academy is fun and engaging every day!

Across town at Eisenhower Elementary, Manny is also excited that April is finally here.

kid 5Manny is the only son of first generation immigrant parents. Manny’s dad came to America initially to learn a trade and work to make enough money for his family to join him in America. Through sacrifice and a tremendous amount of “sweat equity,” Manny’s dad now owns his own Heating and Air Company. This enabled Manny’s family to move from their city apartment to a nice home in the suburbs before he started kindergarten.

Eisenhower Elementary was built in 2008. The school serves mostly middle class students and only 20% of his classmates are economically disadvantaged. Eisehower was recently designation a Reward School by the State Department of Education and earned a school grade of A- last year. They have several STEM initiatives, a vibrant music and arts program, and are able to offer class sizes of 22 or less. 52% of Eisenhower’s teachers have a Master’s degree and annual teacher turnover is less than 10%.

Manny has always done well at school. He is in the gifted and talented program and reads well above grade level. As a third grader, this is the first year he will participate in state testing. Because he wants to make his parents proud, Manny has worked very hard to prepare for the upcoming math and reading state tests.

He is not nervous about the tests because he knows he is ready. Manny earned the highest scores in his class on the third quarter benchmark tests and he is confident of his ability to perform well. At the same time, Manny is nervous for some of his classmates who tell him they “are scared” about failing the test and being kept back in third grade. He wishes he could help them as he would not like to be separated from some of his best friends next year.

kids 2That said, Manny is anxious for testing to be over. He is tired of doing worksheets and test-prep exercises on the computer. He notices that his teacher seems to be stressed and class is “not as much fun” as earlier in the year. Manny also thought it was kind of silly when the school held a special testing pep rally but enjoyed the change of pace. He looks forward to getting back to spending more time in his music and art classes and doing more science experiments in class.

Manny parents have told him that “learning is more than a test score” and they will be proud of him no matter how he does. He hates that he will have to wait until August to find out his final scores.

Manny enjoys school but is looking forward to the end of the year. His parents, his younger sister and he will be traveling to Washington D.C. for vacation in early June. Manny is anxious to spend time in the Smithsonian Museum after reading a lot about the various museum archives online.

Manny would like to earn an MBA and join his father’s business as an adult. 

kid 6A few miles north of Manny’s neighborhood sits Franklin Arts Academy, a school attended by 9-year-old Jalyn Morris.

Franklin is an urban school originally built in 1952. Franklin is a Title I school with over 90% of students qualifying for free or reduced meals. 60% of Franklin’s teachers have been in education for three years or less. Ms. Marcus, the school’s administrator, is the fourth principal in the past five years.

Jalyn has attended Franklin since the start of this school year, however, this is his third school in as many years. He has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder and a mild form of dyslexia. He is on an IEP and receives extra support from a Title I tutor at the school.

Jalyn has been dreading April all year. While he has struggled with school in the past, this year is the first time he will take high-stakes tests. With his persistent challenges in reading, Jalyn knows he will have a difficult time passing the third grade reading test.

He worries that he will still be in third grade next April.

Because Franklin Arts Academy was identified as a Priority School after being labeled a failing school for the past two years. Ms. Marcus was brought in by district administration to “turnaround the school.” Like her, over 40% of the teachers are new to the building this year.

kids 4The last two months have been nothing more than a steady diet of personalized test prep via Buckle Down books and computer math and reading programs.

Since Jalyn is scheduled for extra support in both subjects, he no longer attends his art, music, and PE specials. Science is scheduled for thirty minutes, twice a week, and is typically taught using workbooks, videos, and teacher-directed demonstrations. Students are allowed only ten minutes of recess a day after lunch. In most of his classes, students have limited opportunities to talk or interact with other students.

Jalyn is frequently bored and finds himself daydreaming or staring out the window at passing cars when he should be working. As a result, he typically brings home one to two hours of work he must finish at home. It is even more difficult for Jalyn to concentrate at home. His mother works until 7 pm and his 17-year-old sister has a one-year-old child of her own. The apartment they share is small and congested and loud music can be heard from neighboring apartments until late in the evening.

He has never read a book for pleasure.

Jalyn is reminded everyday that he is behind his peers. As he enters his classroom, he sees his name in BOLD letters on two red cards on the data wall in the back of the room. He was close to moving up to yellow earlier in the year but has fallen back after the most recent benchmark assessments. He wished he could rip all the cards off the wall, tear them up, and throw them in the trash, but knows he would get in big trouble for something like that.

Jalyn used to like school but is starting to feel defeated. He looks forward to summer to get a break from school and have time to sleep in, play video games, and hang around with his friends.

Because of his academic struggles, Jalyn in unsure of what his future holds. He’d like to go to college some day and maybe be a pro athlete.

He hates April and probably always will.

And tonight, as he lays down in bed, ten hours after taking his third grade reading test, Jalyn cries himself to sleep.

Welcome to April in America, at a school near you.

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3 thoughts on “April in America

  1. My eight-year-old grandson is like Manny. He is in the third grade but reads on the seventh grade level. He has spent most of his time at school the past month completing READING COMPREHENSION test prep booklets and working on Study Island. He took his math test and thinks he may have missed one. He could have used his time at school exploring his areas of interest, but instead, he has been sitting in a desk working through multiple choice test prep booklets. Yes, he is bored and tolerates school during testing season. What a waste.

    • Please contact your senators and let them know your feelings about these tests, and how it negatively affects your grandson.

  2. Unfortunately, even in the wealthier suburbs, the atmosphere and test prep is more like what Jalyn experiences.

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