‘Don’t look; don’t tell’: Longley School and Title I redux

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Longley School has been selected by the state as a candidate for a Title 1 Elementary and Secondary School Act improvement grant which could bring hundreds of thousands of dollars to this needy school. On the face of it, this is a golden opportunity — one of those rare occasions when coming in last (Longley qualifies because of extremely low test scores) leads to a reward.

The money comes with a catch, of course. Thomas Hood, principal of Longley for 12 years, must lose his job, a new principal must be appointed; and depending on the model, perhaps 50 percent of the teachers will also lose their jobs (Sun Journal, March 10 and 27).

You will hear that Mr. Hood and the teachers are really not to be blamed; everyone knows they have worked hard under difficult conditions. After all, no other school in Lewiston has such a concentration of poverty and recent immigrants (96 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the English Language Leaners population has grown to 62 percent of the total).

And won’t the infusion of cash allow the hiring of specialists these children so desperately need to foster their learning?

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Without doubt, it will. However, I predict that unless other factors also change, in 2014 after this infusion of cash dries up, Longley children’s achievement will show no lasting improvement.

Longley is the school for the “downtown” children. Downtown is code for the poor children, the ones who can’t speak English. Although Lewiston has built new schools recently, nothing has been done to break up the downtown catchment area.

The children who attend Longley in 2010 are as poor as the children who attended in 1996 when Longley first qualified as a Title I school. At that time, teachers were asked what the new infusion of Title I money should be used for, just as they are being asked now what should go into the new Title 1 application. Teachers turned to their files, pulled out their notes from the 1996 conversation and found that almost everything on the list is still needed. Title I was not a silver bullet then and it will not be one now.

Why not? Why won’t more money fix the problem?

Two reasons, I suggest.

First, more money does not address the fundamental structural problem that inhibits the children’s learning. Racial, social and language isolation is well-documented as a huge barrier to achievement (see, for example, “The Children in Room E4” by Susan Eaton, or the discussion of Supreme Court decision Meredith vs. Jefferson County by Emily Brazelon in The New York Times, July 20, 2008).

Unless and until the children who attend Longley School are dispersed so that they learn with children from middle-class families in addition to receiving the services that the grant will provide, we cannot reasonably expect that they will make large and lasting gains in academic achievement.

Furthermore, the Title I grant can make a permanent difference in the achievement of Longley children only if the new services continue after the end of the grant. Lewiston must commit continuously to the interventions that the school improvement grant will permit. Otherwise, we will benefit the children who have the good luck to be at Longley during the grant, but those who come later will receive the same inadequate education that has characterized a Longley education for decades.

For years it appears that the attitude of too many of us who live and work in Lewiston has been: “Don’t look; don’t tell.”

Don’t look at the concentration of poverty among the children of Longley; and don’t tell anyone about it. The principal and teachers there are heroes, striving to do their best in a difficult situation, but it’s not really our problem.

I am looking and telling — the Longley children need the entire city’s commitment to break up this island of poverty by balancing the free and reduced lunch and language learner populations throughout the schools, and by committing to the interventions that the children need so that not one is left behind. Wouldn’t that make us proud?

And if we can’t commit to wrestling with these issues, then let the money go to a community that will leverage the future for its children for the long term, and here let Mr. Hood and the teachers keep their jobs.

Helen B. Regan is visiting professor of education at Bates College. During four years, dozens of her students have completed their field placements at Longley School where they have come to admire and respect the children, teachers, parents and principal.

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