What We Know: Our students’ ability to achieve is only limited by our own investment in their success

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Each year in Washington State the Regional Teachers of the Year are asked to contribute a piece of writing that is published in a book called Seed to Apple. What follows is my contribution from this year. It is a story about the work we do at Lincoln High School and what quality educators do at low-income schools all over the nation. I encourage you to check out some of the other entries by my fellow Washington State educators.

There are ten former students of Lincoln High School currently in jail for murder or manslaughter.

This isn’t their story. But their story and that number animate the work we do. It is the fuel that drives our staff. The stakes in a high-poverty schools are life and death. We know this. The kids we don’t reach will be lost to incarceration, unemployment, shortened life expectancy, and a lifetime of poverty. We know this. Vice President Joe Biden once said, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” I can tell you that society doesn’t value our students. We know this. 

They live in segregated housing on tattered and pothole filled roads. We’ve closed their elementary schools, local libraries, and Boys & Girls Club. We’ve cutback service hours and bus routes that serve their neighborhoods. They live in a food desert. My students are invisible. Tacoma, the City of Destiny, is infamous for its “grit” and often is mocked for its ramshackle appearance, but its future rests in the hands of my staff. We are planting seeds. We know this.

Our staff supports our students and our alumni academically, emotionally, and economically. Schools are the barometers of the health of our communities. Throughout my seven years at Lincoln, I have watched as families struggle and fall further behind. As a staff, we fill an ever widening gap between what the state provides and what our families need. We stock our desk and filing cabinet drawers with food. We run food drives to collect food to feed families over winter break. We buy and collect ties and dress clothes for job interviews. 

We pay for SATs when students have exhausted their fee waivers. We pool money to get people’s lights turned on after being shut-off or to prevent evictions. We buy textbooks for alumni at Evergreen. We buy linen for alumni from CWU. We send winter clothes to alumni at UW. We help when the paperwork from the financial aid office appears to be written in Vulgate Latin. We hire alumni on break from college to do yard. We shed tears. We sacrifice time with our own families. We celebrate our students’ successes.

In recent years our graduation rate has risen by 22%. We have sent an increasing number of kids off to higher education. But “sending them off” is not enough. We tell ourselves a lie when we treat the education of a young mind as some sort of transaction that ends at the end of school day, school year, or even graduation. The role of a Lincoln teacher extends into life and adulthood of our students. We continue to fertilize and till. Our students often don’t have uncles or aunts who are college graduates. They have us. 

Last fall during planning with the senior team, a few of us hatched an idea to support our graduates in college and inspire our current students. We batted around the idea of road trip; an Alumni Support Tour. The plan was to visit over two dozen recent grads in colleges east of the mountains. Nearly all these students were first generation college students and the majority were students of color. We had been getting calls and emails from students who were struggling to adjust and debating coming home. In late September, I sat on the phone for nearly an hour telling a homesick alumna that she owed it to herself to stay at Whitworth.

“You will hate yourself if you quit.”

“It doesn’t matter how they look at you, we both know you are smart enough.”

“I know there are no other black students, we talked about this before you left. This is how it will be.”

As I hung up the phone with her the road trip went from an idea to a necessity. 

In October, Mrs. Teague-Bowling, Ms. Bockus, and I piled into my Kia Soul and hit the road to visit the Lincoln Class of 2014 at Central Washington, Washington State University, Gonzaga, and Whitworth College. Along the way we asked why we hadn’t done this before. We wondered how the kids were holding up with the workload. Had we prepared them? We were curious about who might be struggling. But, most importantly, we questioned: why isn’t this kind of support the norm?

We stayed in a Super 8 in Ellensburg and a HoJo in North Spokane. We met our charges at each of their campuses and brought them pizza or burgers. Older Lincoln Alumni showed up as well. “I am so proud of you.” Tears were shed. “We did this, together.” Hugs were exchanged. We visited dining halls, toured campuses, and heard familiar tales of adjustment. They shared their syllabi and dorm rooms with us. We shared our pride and joy with them. They thanked us and talked about how prepared they felt for college and life. 

These were the three best days of my career. We drove over 650 miles, visited four campuses, and broke bread with nearly 30 alumni. Over three days we were able to see our harvest.

Teaching is more like farming than many of the other careers it gets compared to. Lincoln is a massive farm with nearly 1,500 seeds in the ground. Some have nutrient rich soil. Others are in shallow, sandy dirt and require more attention. At Lincoln 80% of our seeds live in poverty. That just means they need more fertilizer, more careful watering, and more attention from us, the farmers.

Too often when we talk about students in poverty, my students, we approach them from a deficit--we awfulize students in poverty--we talk about them as if they are incapable of learning.

They aren’t inferior, they’re poor.

They are literate, but the ways in which they are literate aren’t measurable by our assessments. There’s an academic vocabulary gap, not an intelligence gap. With love and support they’re capable of reaching the same highs as all other students. My students are worth the investment that I make in them as their teacher, and they are worth the investment we ought to make in them as a society.

We know this.