Teaching courtesy, etiquette

Alphonso Hawes, 10, “learned how to be a gentleman to a woman” in the after-school etiquette club at Baltimore’s Shady Springs Elementary. “I learned how to speak properly,” he told Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie. “I learned how to write thank you letters. I learned how not to bully.”

Joshua Black, a fourth grader, participates in "Guys with Ties, Girls in Pearls," an after-school etiquette club: Photo Baltimore Sun

Joshua Black, a fourth grader, participates in “Guys with Ties, Girls with Pearls,” an after-school etiquette club. Photo: Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun

Wendy Carver, a guidance counselor, started “Guys with Ties, Girls with Pearls” four years ago. “It has been my hope that by teaching the students manners and etiquette they will become more respectful of others and themselves,” she said.

Thursday is an optional dress-up day for fourth- and fifth-graders. Boys are encouraged to wear jackets and ties, the girls to wear dresses and skirts.

Once a month, students stay after school to learn “how to correctly pull out a chair for a lady, how to write a thank you note, and what they should or shouldn’t say on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat,” writes Bowie. About half the fourth- and fifth-graders choose to participate.

Teacher Julie Taylorson was teaching Internet etiquette to a group of children one afternoon.

Before posting anything on social media, she told them, ask yourself three questions: Is it nice? Is it honest? Is it necessary?

She warned them that what they put on social media can’t be erased, so it will be there for their parents, future teachers and future employers to see.

. . . In the next room, another teacher was helping students think about how and when to write a thank you letter.

The etiquette club “has changed the whole atmosphere of the school,” said Taylorson, a second grade teacher.

At Randallstown Elementary, a program called Boys in the Good encourages boys to work on projects that help their school and community, simultaneously fostering good behavior and good deeds.

Rising grad rate is phony statistic

The high school graduation rate is “the phoniest statistic in education,” writes Robert Pondiscio. It’s up to a new high of 82 percent. But student proficiency isn’t up.  Neither is college readiness.

A high school diploma “signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency,” he writes. “But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.”

There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.

Rising graduation rates may reflect the drop in teen pregnancy and efforts to identify and help high-risk students, writes Motoko Rich in the New York Times. But schools and districts can pump up the numbers by making it easy for students to “recover” unearned credits.

In Baltimore, five-year graduation rates have risen from 66.7 percent in 2010 to 74.9 percent in 2014, notes Pondiscio.  But 36.5 percent of students graduated via the “High School Bridge for Academic Validation Plan.”

There’s “no way of knowing whether (credit recovery is) academically rigorous or merely a failsafe to paper over failure and drag unprepared kids across the finish line to boost graduation rates,” he writes. “There may yet be a pony at the bottom of this prodigious pile.” Or not.

New York City’s graduation rate has hit 70 percent, reports Chalkbeat. However, the 24 percent rise since 2005 “is sure to elicit questions about the meaning of those numbers, especially following a wave of media reports last year detailing incidents where schools changed students’ grades or awarded them unearned credits in order to help them graduate.”

Refugees ‘torn between two worlds’

Students leaving Patterson High at the end of a spring day include, starting fourth from left, Nadifa Idriss, Mona Al halabi, Manuel Maurizaca and Fayza Al halabi. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

At Baltimore’s Patterson High, 370 of 1,100 students are immigrants, including refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Central America. The number has tripled in the past two years, reports Liz Bowie in the Baltimore Sun in part 1 of Unsettled Journeys.

Many of these students “came to escape war, gang violence and starvation,” reports Bowie.

At the Hispanic Psychiatric Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital, Donna Fallon Batkis is treating young immigrants who’ve survived kidnappings and rape, “not just rape of women, but sexual abuse of men.”

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years after fleeing Baghdad. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Reema and Ahmed Alfaheed look at videos of the refugee camp near the Iraq-Syria border, where they lived for six years. Credit: Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun

Thanks to modern technology, students can stay in touch with loved ones  — or watch a beheading in their home country.

Narmin Al Eethawi’s father was kidnapped and tortured in Baghdad. Four uncles were killed.

Her “phone buzzed with Facebook text messages throughout her day with snippets of news from Iraq,” writes Bowie. Her sister is there — and Mustafa, who wants her to return to marry him. “When she got lost in Baltimore and didn’t know what to do, she called 22-year-old Mustafa to help her with directions.”

Even amid the tranquillity of a soccer field, Reema Alfaheed, one of Narmin’s best friends, couldn’t escape. She was on the phone with a friend, a boy in Syria, who was lamenting that, because of the war, he couldn’t play soccer or go to school. Then Reema heard an explosion and people screaming. The phone went dead.

Three days later, she learned her friend had survived the bombing, but was left with a head injury and broken leg.

At his retirement party, Tom Smith, who taught English as a Second Language, encouraged Narmin to break off the relationship with Mustafa and commit to living in America.

Her father, a truck driver, was earning enough for the family to buy a house. Her mother was learning English at community college. Narmin got a summer job at a diner — and a learner’s permit.

By the start of senior year, Narmin “still struggled with English, and anatomy and physiology was a challenge, but she was earning top grades,” writes Bowie. “She wanted a career in medicine.”

She’d decided not to return to Iraq.

Part two focuses on Central American immigrants. Many are here illegally. Exel Estrada, 17, now reunited with his mother after years of fending for himself in Guatemala, works a swing shift as a janitor. “His homework had to wait for the moments he could fit it in: the bus ride to school, a 20-minute free period, lunch or a slow moment during class.”

Kentucky, Georgia top NAEP Dishonor Roll 

Kentucky, Georgia and Maryland top Dropout Nation’s NAEP Dishonor Roll 2015 for excluding high percentages of special education and English Learner students from testing.

The U.S. Department of Education requires districts and states to test 95 percent of students and 85 percent of special ed and EL students. Some states are out of compliance.


Dropout Nation also looks at cities that exclude high percentages of special ed and EL students.

Washington D.C. Public Schools, which won praise for rising NAEP scores, “excluded as many as 44 percent of ELL fourth- and eighth-graders” from the reading exam, reports RiShawn Biddle.

Dallas “excluded 44 percent of fourth-grade kids in special ed, leading in that category, and ranked second behind the notorious Baltimore City school system (36 percent), by excluding 29 percent of eighth-graders who were special ed and had other disabilities,” reports Dropout Nation.

Low-income charter kids earn higher scores

In Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, and Miami-Dade County, low-income charter students scored significantly higher than low-income students in district-run schools on the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), notes Education Reform Now.

The difference of 10 scale score points in reading translates roughly into one year’s worth of learning.

On the NAEP math exam, low-income charter students averaged 8 scale score points higher, nearly a year’s worth of learning, compared to low-income students in district-run schools.

Movin’ on up

Moving from a high-poverty city to a better place improves children’s odds of upward mobility, concludes the Equality of Opportunity study. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter,” according to Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist. Chetty and his colleague Nathaniel Hendren, analyzed earnings data for millions of low-income movers.

Some places provide more opportunity, reports the New York Times.

The places most conducive to upward mobility include large cities — San Francisco, San Diego, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Providence, R.I. — and major suburban counties, such as Fairfax, Va.; Bergen, N.J.; Bucks, Pa.; Macomb, Mich.; Worcester, Mass.; and Contra Costa, Calif.

These places tend to share several traits, Mr. Hendren said. They have elementary schools with higher test scores, a higher share of two-parent families, greater levels of involvement in civic and religious groups and more residential integration of affluent, middle-class and poor families.

The place where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is Baltimore, the study found. “Low-income boys who grew up there in recent decades make roughly 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born in the city and moved as small children to an average place,” reports the Times.

After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles 20 years ago, Congress created the Moving to Opportunity experiment. Some poor families got vouchers to move to less-poor, less violent neighborhoods, while a control group did not.

Baltimore was one of the cities in the experiment.

It was considered a failure. Compared to the control group, parents who received the vouchers didn’t earn more; their children didn’t do better in school. “Ten to 15 years after moving, children were no more likely to complete high school, enroll in college or be employed, compared to similar children who stayed in high-poverty neighborhoods,” a follow-up study found.

However, children who moved before they were teenagers went on to earn more as adults, conclude Chetty and Hendren, after re-crunching the data. They didn’t escape poverty, but they were less poor.

Low-income parents who find a way to move to a more integrated neighborhood — without a voucher — are motivated, hard-working people. I’d expect their kids to do better.

Even the voucher experiment showed the importance of initiative: Some voucher recipients chose to stay in their high-poverty neighborhoods rather than risk the unfamiliar suburbs.

Angry — and resilient — in Baltimore

Eighth-graders at Green Street Academy share their concerns in light of Freddie Gray's death in Baltimore.

Eighth-grade boys at Baltimore’s Green Street Academy discuss Freddie Gray’s death.  Photo: Shereen Marisol Meraji/NPR

When Baltimore schools reopened after a day of protests and violence, NPR visited a West Baltimore middle/high school, Green Street Academy, that’s trying to help students “make sense of it all” — and stay calm.

William Richardson, a former teacher and dean of students who now works for Juvenile Services, talked to eighth-grade boys in the school cafeteria.

“Why have white people been killing us since slavery, and they’re still killing us?” one student asks.

“All these police officers are killing black dudes for no reason,” says a boy named Montrel.

“If a cop asks what we’re doing, and we’re not doing anything, do we have to answer?” another wonders.

Adults in the room tell the boys to protest peacefully, “write emails to politicians, encourage their parents to shop at black-owned businesses and to above all, be positive,” reports Shereen Marisol Meraji.

“Positive is not always the answer,” a student replies.

Get your education, a teacher says. Move up out of here. “The students don’t seem satisfied,” writes Meraji.

After lunch, Principal Crystal Harden-Lindsey visited an American Government class where a student, James Arrington, is talking about what he wants the government to do to help the kids of Baltimore.

James says young people need access to more activities, recreation centers and safe places to go after school. He wants more responsible adults in the community to count on; Boys and Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Big Sisters to step in.

He says kids act out because they don’t have anyone to show them how to do better.

Harden-Lindsey asks whether bad choices are the responsibility of the kids who make them, or of adults who’ve let them down.

“I think it’s 50/50,” another student says, “’cause it’s the obstacles and the decisions you make on your own.”

Harden-Lindsey wants to focus on the “50” that’s within the control of the young people themselves.

“A lot of what you say, I can definitely understand in terms of being hopeless, of being angry,” Harden-Lindsey says.

“Yes, we have a lot of things that go against us,” says the principal, “but we’re also very resilient.”

Out of Sandtown

A CVS Pharmacy burned in Baltimore when rioters cut the firefighters’ hose.

Derrell Bradford grew up in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood that’s exploded in anger at the death of Freddy Gray in police custody. School choice got him out of Sandtown, Bradford writes on The Catalyst.

That corner where the CVS was burned and looted? That’s where he caught buses to better schools in other parts of town. It’s why he now runs the New York Campaign for Achievement Now.

. . . it’s exactly because you grow up in Sandtown that you know the value of an excellent school which you get to attend regardless of who your parents are, how much money they make, or where you live. While watching students of Frederick Douglass High School throw rocks at police across the Gwynns Falls Parkway, all I could remember was my first trip to that school. I arrived as a visitor and an athlete—not a student—at what would have been my zoned public school. There was glass in the grass of the end zone; I was the only one of my classmates who knew to look for it.

. . . but for the right school, and the shining fingertip of providence, you are Freddie Gray.

“Choice is the most powerful way to create new worlds of possible for kids who are destined to have so little possible for themselves,” Bradford concludes.

‘Paradise Lost’ in Baltimore

“Why do we have to read about dead white men?” James, a 17-year-old from a desperately poor, violent neighborhood of Baltimore, asked his young teacher, “Why can’t we read about authors who look like us?”

“Reading authors of all races and genders increases one’s chances of actualizing his or her human potential,” writes Irvin Weathersby Jr. in The Atlantic.

His students read pulpy “street literature” about hustlers, hoodlums and thugs, “sex-laden glorifications of drug culture, full of typos and grammatical errors.”

“It’s real,” said James. “We relate to what’s happening in the streets.”

But, “there’s so much more to the world” that Weathersby wanted his students to see.

He started a lesson on John Milton’s Paradise Lost by asking: Who was responsible for the downfall of man? Eventually, a boy said “women.” He asked what women had done. “Eve ate the apple, didn’t she?” someone said.

So they read about Eve and the forbidden fruit in Genesis.  The Bible doesn’t specify an “apple,” he told them. That was Milton.

 I went on to discuss his impact on the world during his time and beyond, his stated goal of explaining the ways of God to man, and his passion for completing the text even as he lost his sight late in life.

Then I showed them scenes from The Devil’s Advocate, the film starring Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino. . . .  all were shocked to learn that Pacino’s character, the devil incarnate, was named John Milton. I had them then.

Because of the text’s complexity, I read most of it aloud as they followed along, stopping during important scenes to ensure comprehension and analyze the arguments offered by the principal characters. Milton, I explained, gave Adam, Eve, Satan, and God personalities that aren’t present in the Bible. By giving them voices, he depicted the events in the Garden of Eden in ways no other author had done before—so much so that people began reading the text as truth and not a product of Milton’s imagination.

Students debated which character was responsible for the fall of man and wrote an essay defending their point of view.

Because I was the school’s debate coach as well, I taught them how to compose, analyze, defend, and deconstruct arguments in the technical style of a policy debate. Then I separated them into teams and facilitated what would become an incredible display of competition and scholarship.

“They had read the work of a dead white man and enjoyed it, writes Weathersby. He went on to teach Shakespeare’s Othello, Emerson’s Self-Reliance and other classics.

When education isn’t the equalizer

Most Baltimore first graders classified as “urban disadvantaged” remained poor as adults, concludes a Johns Hopkins study. Less than half completed high school on time and only 4 percent earned a college degree. By the age of 28, just 33 of 314 reached the middle class.

Before they turned 18, 40 percent of the black girls from low-income homes had given birth to their own babies. At the time of the final interviews, when the children were now adults of 28, more than 10 percent of the black men in the study were incarcerated. Twenty-six of the children, among those they could find at last count, were no longer living.

Education “did not appear to provide a dependable path to stable jobs and good incomes for the worst off,” notes the Washington Post.

Low-income white boys didn’t go far in school, but earned higher incomes than their black classmates. They were able to “tap into what remains of the good blue-collar jobs in Baltimore,” researchers found.

These are the skilled crafts, the union gigs, jobs in trades traditionally passed from one generation to the next and historically withheld from blacks. These children did not inherit college expectations. But they inherited job networks.

Danté Washington, who grew up in a poor neighborhood, is one of the few success stories. His father died of liver problems when he was 12. A mediocre student with a short temper, he was “in and out of modest trouble.” But he finished high school on time. And he’s always worked.

Washington had a son when he was 17, and he has worked nearly every day since. He worked at Au Bon Pain, then MCI, and for many years since, at a publishing company in sales and business development.

When the Johns Hopkins researchers last interviewed him, he only had a high school degree. But in 2013, he finished a bachelor’s in business, earned at night at Strayer University. He owns his own home and, notably as he drives through his old neighborhood, a Lexus.

He wants to become a financial adviser, so that he can talk with people in communities such as this one about the things no one discusses here: retirement, equity, savings.

What made the difference for Washington? His mother had a steady job for the school district. In high school, he participated in programs for students interested in business, including a summer program on the campus of Morgan State University.

Dante Washington is seen in the backyard of his home. (Photo by Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)