“He Couldn’t Read”: A Teacher Confronts Illiteracy

Sean Davenport has a provocative piece in Chalkbeat about his journey from disaffected student to teacher at (now closed) Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Bronx. On his first day there in his 10th grade English and Speech class, he told the students to take turns reading aloud from a text. He recounts this exchange when it was one young man’s turn:

“Um, I’m not reading.”

I said, “What do you mean, you’re not reading?”

“I’m not reading.”

Certain this was a compliance issue, he hurried to the teachers’ lounge later that day to get some advice. He writes,

One of the teachers said, “Well, don’t let that bother you. A lot of times when they say that, they can’t read.”

I’m like, “Well, how am I supposed to know he can’t read? He’s in 10th grade.” Sure enough, you do some research, you do some checking: He couldn’t read.

A tenth-grader who can’t read. A tenth-grader who, two years later, will be out on the streets without the skills to  go to college or get a job or join the military.

We’re not talking here about students with developmental disabilities or reading disorders. We’re talking about students who have been utterly failed by a host of elected officials, lobbyists, and a Board of Regents that has taken every opportunity to water down accountability. The victims here aren’t the poor Long Island students, certain of college acceptance, whose parents opt them out of seven hours of state testing over three days in their high-performing schools. The victims are students like Sean Davenport’s tenth-grader.

Roosevelt High School took in its last freshman class in 2002. Four years later, three percent of the class graduated, the lowest graduation rate in the City. Shortly after that, then-Chancellor Joel Klein, who served under Mayor Mike Bloomberg, shut the school down.

What would happen today? I imagine the school would be brought under the umbrella of Mayor de Blasio’s Renewal Schools program, which promises that all NYC students will read on grade level by third grade in 2026, nine years from now. From today’s New York Times:

Among his biggest departures from the approach of his predecessor, Michael R. Bloomberg, was his pledge to avoid widespread school closings, which are strongly opposed by the teachers’ union. Instead, he created what he called the Renewal Schools program to turn around a group of 94 of the most troubled schools, through a combination of academic support and social services.

Does this approach — eschewing accountability and hard choices, relegating students to schools that we know won’t educate them, treating them and their families like shucked chaff as we creep towards 2026 when de Blasio will  be unaccountable to his own promises —  help or hurt Sean Davenport’s illiterate 10th grader? I’d argue that it hurts him. If our public schools, traditional and charter, aren’t able to instill basic literacy, what the heck are we doing?

We’re subjugating the needs of students to political agendas and the special interest groups that support them. What we’re not doing is teaching children how to read.

What do you think?

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