Editorial: School's focus on structure builds culture of hope
Kids from poor families have potential, just as all kids have. Many simply don't have the same built-in expectations for school and career or the added backing of parental reinforcement that many of us had as children of the suburbs.
Such is the lesson we derived from the story of Tefft Middle School in Streamwood, by some accounts an educational disaster 15 years ago that today is the envy of educators all over the country.
The Elgin Area District U-46 school was the subject Wednesday of the third installment in the Daily Herald's "Our Promise To Our Kids/Generations at Risk" series that explores how some schools with a preponderance of low-income students are moving the needle on student achievement.
On Tuesday, the Daily Herald explored how Sunny Hill School in Carpentersville is addressing several issues related to our poverty in our schools -- parental involvement, health and nutrition -- to promote greater student achievement.
Tefft's profile showed how the school is addressing other traditional impediments to success for kids who grow up in poor families: low expectations, lack of structure and personal accountability and, as with Sunny Hill, a lack of engagement by everyone involved.
People of fewer means grew up in situations where mere survival drove decision making. And still does. People with less money than many of us don't worry as much about a career down the road as they do about ensuring there is food on the table tonight. A K-12 education is not so much a springboard to greater things as it is a way to learn the basics about life. Parents often work multiple jobs, leaving children in some cases undersupervised. For many, a kid making a paycheck is an integral part of keeping a roof over the family's head and food in the refrigerator.
Fifteen years ago, when Principal Lavonne Smiley started at Tefft, gangs held sway and flunking students was a way of life.
Missing was a widespread hope that school could open doors later on -- that and an atmosphere of structure to foster it. But even though 75 percent of students at Tefft are considered low income, they now embrace that hope.
At school, they live in a very structured environment where they are responsible for tracking their own progress through journaling. If they don't complete their homework at home, they must stay after school to do it.
"It's not a punishment; it's more like a reward," said eighth-grader Jada Carter. "Now I get A's and B's instead of C's and D's."
Not doing homework is not an option. And there are no excuses.
Passing periods have been shortened to remove the threat of eruptions between kids. Students spend the first 10 minutes of lunch period in quiet, contemplative study.
If parents don't come to conferences, the conferences go to them.
Possibilities of a brighter future through education are constantly drilled into students.
Tefft used to be the school that people shied away from, but now many parents opt for the special structure at Tefft over the ESL program based at another middle school in the district.
And, Tefft is now a model that has drawn interest around the country.
"No one slips through the cracks," Smiley said. "It just doesn't happen here."