This piece came to me as a letter to the editor from an elementary school administrator in DeKalb County. I thought it was worth sharing:
By Rouzier Dorce Jr.
I recently attended the high school graduation ceremonies of a young man I mentored while he was in middle school.
Robert had moved out of my community to attend high school in another area because he felt he had a better chance at playing ball. Communications between us dwindled to an occasional email.
When I received Robert’s invitation to his high school graduation, I dropped everything and made the trip. I felt a father’s pride while I helped him fix his tie. When I commented how much like a man he seemed, Robert reminded me that it had been five years since we saw each other.
Robert had trouble reading, and we surmised that his deficiencies might have been responsible for his challenges in middle school. Our weekly meetings helped with his behavior.
However, every time I would venture into the academic arena, Robert would retreat and end up reassuring me that he was passing his classes and that was what mattered. His graduating from high school had me thinking that perhaps things were finally OK.
At a local restaurant, his mother and the mother of his third baby joined us; the young woman brought the 3-month-old with her, and we had a wonderful dinner.
I gave Robert a card, a graduation gift and went on to congratulate him: “Now, Mr. Graduate, what’s the plan? Are you going D1 or D2 ?” His silence indicated to me that we needed to have a private conversation.
Robert confessed that though he got a chance to march, he did not graduate. He passed all his classes, but has not been able to pass three out of the five state exit exams. He added that at least one third of his graduating class was in the same boat and that there were even those who had not really passed their classes who marched.
“Mr. D,” he continued, “My reading problems got worse, the books got bigger, and the subjects more complicated. I learned to do like my coach said, keep my mouth shut and not cause any problems. It worked. I stopped being a concern and got a chance to march. My SAT scores are laughable, and I still have the science, the math and the social studies exams to pass before I can get my high school diploma.”
The trip back afforded me ample time to reflect. I remember Robert saying that his coach felt that, “He gave his high school a legitimate chance at a state title.”
I have gone back over the conversations Robert and I had, and regret not pushing harder. I remember telling him about the couple I met at a restaurant years ago. The young woman, a teacher, was expecting her first child. The husband had just finished his medical residency.
The couple discussed how the wife had been reading to the fetus and had planned to stop working until the baby was in school. I remember Robert commenting, “Wow! What are the chances of this baby becoming a doctor, a lawyer or a teacher?”
His question rang back with a twist. I thought “What are Robert’s chances? What are his three babies’ chances?” Furthermore, this is 2011. We committed not to leave any child behind.
Robert was supposed to be anything he wanted to be, at least all he could be. He can play ball, but will not even be doing that at any school anymore. Robert marched to get an empty folder.
You can pick your tragedy out of this story because it has several. I do not blame anyone in particular for many adults failed Robert, including me. I do think that we ought to do better especially now that we know better. Our public schools need to make a commitment to giving each child a real chance without the smoke and mirrors.
We must commit to, at least, eliminating illiteracy. Children who are not reading at or above grade level should be a grave concern that must be addressed without excuses. Twenty-eight years after “A Nation at Risk” grabbed our collective conscience, some of our children are leaving high school not prepared for much of anything.
God knows, the challenges are numerous. I do feel, however, that eliminating the barriers that we can should be our mandate as a nation. We can start by ensuring that the students who have trouble reading are identified and given the proper attention to make them proficient readers.
Perhaps, we can institute a reading requirement for all new registrations; a short academic diagnosis. Yearly check-ups might even be necessary to assure that no one falls behind. As practitioners, teachers and school administrators should find it unacceptable to have very little knowledge of the students they serve and demand that a full, meaningful academic profile for every student be maintained and used.
Robert is not guiltless. There was plenty that was his responsibility. He could have and should have gotten help for his reading struggles. Lots of people throughout our schools are willing, able and eager to help. He was a child, however, when he started to push back and mask his reading deficiencies.
As painful as it might have been for Robert, retaining him a grade or requiring him to give more time to academics rather than sports would have forced him to face and deal with the problem at an early stage. It would have yielded much better results.
Now, Robert is in life’s automobile race with just a shell of a car. Reading is the academic engine he needed to compete. His public education was supposed to prepare him. He was supposed to have a real chance, and I was supposed to help.
Rouzier Dorce Jr., is an elementary school administrator in DeKalb County.