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I remember I was a couple of minutes late and I was sent home. At the bus stop I was thinking that if I really wanted to change my life I couldn’t be late. It wasn’t going to happen again.
—Jason, 16, West Valley student, former drug addict and gang member
It sounds easy enough: Show up on time. Miss class or show up late without an acceptable excuse—say, a trip to the ER—and I send you home, suspend you, or maybe drop you from the program, depending upon the circumstances. “It’s like a job,” I tell them. “You make a habit of not showing up, you lose your job.” To those I send home I usually add, “When you’re ready, come back and we’ll talk.” Many do come back, and they stay. They thrive because they commit to the rules, starting with coming to school on time, every morning.
For them that’s not easy. Many come from other parts of Los Angeles and have to catch a bus before 6 a.m. in order to cross a big chunk of the city and arrive on time. Even if they live closer to the school and don’t have to spend two hours on the bus to get to class, they must somehow leave behind the temptations of a world where, for many, vandalism is seen as just a harmless diversion, not a real crime; where drug and alcohol use is one of the few activities the whole family shares; where buying stolen goods is a wise way to stretch the family budget; where the police are an irritant interrupting the flow of these activities; and where preteen sexual activity, getting arrested, and gang membership are rites of passage.
So when I see them arrive on time every morning, I see my heroes. Somehow they make it to class, even after mopping floors at McDonald’s until 11 the night before. Tired and sleepy, they know that “showing up” is much more than a matter of punctuality and perfect attendance. For those who stay with the program, showing up becomes a normal attitude and habit for doing everything, from saying the magic words “please” and “thank you” to keeping appointments for job interviews to laboring over a set of algebra equations.
The show–up–or–get–dropped rule seems harsh, especially for kids unused to rules and limits, but the hard–line approach works. Timely attendance is perfect nearly every day. In many schools, skipping a class or playing hooky for the entire day hardly raises eyebrows. College–bound students from intact middle–class families can ditch and no one seriously believes absences will keep them from attaining degrees, good jobs, or professional careers. Even illegal handicaps such as drug addiction are usually seen as treatable, temporary setbacks.
But teaching children, rich or poor, to wink at violations of any rule does far more harm than educators and parents realize. As I tell my students, the rule on timely attendance is really about the underlying values, about maintaining the only beliefs in life that have any real worth. Obeying rules is about maintaining your honesty (not lying to your parents or teachers or both about why you were late or absent). It’s about maintaining your integrity (lying in any area of your life will ultimately spread to all areas of your life). And finally, obeying rules is about maintaining a principle of democratic republics: No one is above the law. In my experience this last principle needs to be taught more emphatically in affluent schools, because the children there have learned the dangerous philosophy that moral ends justify the use of immoral means.
This doesn’t mean you teach children that the only two choices in life are mindless obedience to archaic rules or continued deceit. You teach the constitutional premise that when laws no longer serve the best interests of an organization, its members have the responsibility not to break but to change the laws. If educators believe that everyone coming to school at a certain time helps students, then they must have the conviction to enforce the rule. If the rule seems arbitrary and doesn’t work, then they should change the rule to something that does (flex–time, for example). Running a school this way takes more work than just letting students lose respect for all the rules, but it’s worth the effort. In the long run, I tell educators and parents alike, this commitment to honesty and respect for law will leaven and improve every relationship and activity in your school.
My students can’t afford to play with the rules. One or two no–shows or late–shows with lame excuses and everything can collapse. Within minutes a kid who’s gone from being a hard–core gangster punk to a courteous young gentleman can find himself out on the sidewalk in front of the school with nothing but time to think about what he’s lost. He’s not used to being called on something he’s been doing for years. He thinks it’s no big deal. He may even feel victimized. But he and I both know that he’s been bending or breaking some of my other rules all along. Arriving late or calling in sick are just symptoms of a lot more going wrong in his life. Whatever the reason, he broke his word that he would show up. He violated a simple, straightforward promise he made to the school the day we accepted him. So I drop him.
PETER SHOWS UP AND TURNS AROUND
Twenty years ago, at Cooper Elementary in Vallejo, I was only starting to come up with firm rules for my class of troublemakers. As the designated heavy taking all the troublesome kids from the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth grades, I received thirty–five boys and girls from other, much–relieved, teachers who had given up on trying to control them. Of all my incorrigibles, my embittered little fourth–grader, Peter, presented the toughest attendance challenge. He continually showed up late to class or didn’t come at all.
Peter sat off by himself, a bundle of rage who took offense at just about any remark or look directed his way. His reputation as a fighter was the only thing that kept at bay what normally would have been merciless teasing prompted by his poor reading ability. But I still kept an eye on the situation. On the small side for eleven, he was afraid of nothing and no one. The day he was brought into my class, he had just finished lashing out at his teacher, calling him a “faggot” for allowing other kids to laugh at him because he couldn’t do a lesson.
Peter’s main problem was his abysmal reading ability, a source of continual frustration. His mom and dad spoke Spanish at home, which no doubt affected his English writing and reading ability. He lagged so far behind the others that I placed him in what I called Reading Group 1: its two members being him and me. Predictably, he fell back on old habits, ditching class or arriving late. I then decided that before I lost him completely, I would try an all–out assault on his poor attendance. I would take him to and from school and I’d tutor him before and after class. This meant arriving at his home a little after 6:30 a.m. and bringing him to Cooper with me. After school, I’d tutor him for a few more hours, and then I’d drive him back to his house. I would not give him an excuse to miss class. I would make him my special project.
Luckily, his father, a construction laborer, and mother gave me free rein with their son’s schooling, since they had no idea what to do with him. His father, especially, understood when I explained that children are like pouring new concrete, something I had had years of practice doing. After you pour it in the form, you have only a limited amount of time to determine its final shape, to move it around, work it, tamp it, and protect it while it dries. Likewise, parents and teachers only have a certain amount of time to shape their children’s character and behavior.
What we all knew was that if we didn’t do some serious shaping now with Peter, he was on course to join his two older brothers in the youth prison system. And we all wanted to keep him from such a fate. The first day I picked him up, I told him, “I’ll get you to class, but you’re going to have to work hard, behave yourself, and quit the fighting. Do you understand?” I think he respected my directness and no–nonsense manner because he quickly nodded, and that’s how our pact began.
In the summer, when I was attending college classes for my permanent credentialing, I would drive to Peter’s house before 7 a.m. and tutor him at his family’s kitchen table for an hour. Together, we would then drive to my college campus. While I was in class, he’d wait outside in the hallway studying on his own. I even took him along on my moonlighting jobs pouring concrete, giving him pin money for doing little chores like washing tools at the sites. He would also join my wife and me for occasional meals at our house, which were always preceded by more tutoring.
Soon Peter’s anger started to die, kids no longer laughed at him, and he stopped fighting. Gradually, he began to catch up to the other kids in reading and writing. Subjects engaged him and he got pats on the back for hard work. In the end he truly liked showing up for class. His enthusiasm confirmed what I already knew instinctively: kids are more likely to want to come to school when they’re successful and feel that someone cares about them.
Of course, if Peter’s parents had not cooperated with me, his turnaround might never have happened. Cooper Elementary was where I learned that parents had to support everything I did. I formed pacts with parents, as I did with Peter’s parents, not only to get them to attend meetings and other activities but also to back my rules.
ZERO TOLERANCE WORKS
Public schools seldom if ever follow a zero–tolerance approach to tardiness and truancy. Even without zero tolerance, I suggest they can quickly reverse a bad situation by not allowing stragglers on campus, by making sure school grounds and hallways are empty when the tardy bell rings, and by counseling chronic offenders. If these truants and habitual latecomers continue to defy attendance rules, they should be dropped, as state laws and school district regulations allow. I also believe administrators who are unable to achieve these attendance goals should be dismissed and replaced.
But to achieve near or perfect 100 percent attendance, as we do at West Valley, parents must enforce their own 100 percent rule. I probably would have failed in helping Peter change his attitude toward school if his parents had not backed me up. Where rules are concerned, parents set the example. Kids generally do what they’re allowed to do. If little or nothing attracts them about school and if no one comes down on them hard when they ditch or skip, the behavior continues. Such children often become adults who lie, cheat, avoid steady work, abuse drugs and alcohol, and are anything but educated people of good character.
If parents know or suspect that their children skip classes a lot, they should talk to teachers, ask to observe classes, listen and watch. The kids will most likely object to this, but they’ll know their parents are truly concerned about their schooling and that they don’t want them being idle, hanging with friends off campus, or possibly committing crimes. Sons and daughters may whine about boring classes, but as long as the school is a clean and safe place to attend, parents must support attendance rules. Unfortunately, many schools are not clean and safe. If fear and disgust with the conditions prompt kids to avoid school, then it’s up to parents collectively to pressure school leaders and elected officials to enforce rules against violence, intimidation, and vandalism.
When parents don’t show up to support me in teaching their children, I try to find out why and make them see that we’re allies. Sometimes I go to extreme lengths to make this happen. It’s that important. Once, about the same time I was working with Peter, I wanted to chat with a particular single mom who was determined not to talk to me, let alone form a pact with me. In fact, she would literally run away whenever she saw me heading toward her. I’d been tutoring her son, Alan, a fourth–grader, after school, and all I wanted to do was discuss his progress. But she always managed to evade me. It was as if she had Paul White radar. She’d spot me across the parking lot or at the end of a hallway, and she and Alan would trot over to their minivan, hop in, and speed away. Or if I did catch her within earshot, she’d say, “Sorry, I don't have time!”
I spent many afternoon hours with Alan, who was overindulged and lazy, and my patience was about to snap. After all, he was her son. She should have been seeking me out. So one afternoon I saw her leaving the school and I went after her into the parking lot. As usual she ignored my calls to stop, breaking into a run with her son. The two scrambled into the minivan and off they raced, tires squealing.
I bolted for my pickup truck, got in, and gave chase. When she saw me catching up with her, she must have floored it, accelerating far above the speed limit. Heedless of cops, we went weaving in and out of traffic through downtown Vallejo, speeding down main thoroughfares and side streets. It was crazy and dangerous but I just couldn’t let her get away. We had to talk.
Finally, she made a wrong turn, into a cul–de–sac, and I pulled in behind her, blocking the minivan. She had nowhere to go. I took a deep breath, slid out of my pickup, and walked over to the car. The window on the driver's side was lowered to reveal a young woman with tired eyes and a strung–out, jumpy manner. “All right, Mr. White, you win,” she said. “What do we need to talk about?”
“Him,” I said, indicating Alan.
“What about him?”
“You’re babying him too much. You’re his mother and if you don’t start pushing him to work harder, both of you are going to regret it for the rest of your lives.”
She looked at me as if I’d thrown cold water on her face. I’d heard she might have been abusing drugs, so I figured she was being easy on him out of some kind of addiction guilt. “You feel sorry for him, but that’s not going to help him in class,” I told her.
“Okay,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”
She listened to me, less jumpy now, and agreed to tighten up on her son. She even said she’d drop by the next day for another conference. She showed up as promised, and from then on she came to all the school’s parent–teacher meetings, to our one–on–one chats, and to any other activities parents could attend. Her son also dropped his lethargic, bored attitude and his class work improved.
Today at West Valley I no longer chase moms at high speed, but I still demand constant parent involvement. I make sure all parents, whether they’re single, remarried, or just loosely attached, know that everything begins with showing up, not just their kids but them as well. As a public school whose mission is to reform and educate delinquent kids, we make this very clear at the orientation we give parents when we screen new applicants. Some adult in the child’s life must attend the monthly parent–teacher meetings. It’s a rule, not a suggestion, and there are consequences for missing these evening gatherings. If a mother, father, or designated family adult fails to appear at such a meeting, with few exceptions I will drop the student. In this way, I hold parents even more responsible for observing the show–up–or–else rule than I do their children. After all, parents are the adults and they should know better. If they don’t understand this, I remind them of it every chance I get. Too much is at stake. One misstep on their part, one too many beers after work, one forgotten appointment, and their kid’s future can easily head south.
From the Hardcover edition.
Posted January 25, 2008
I read this book the minute it hit the library shelf~ I couldn't put it down, in fact, I am purchasing this one. I wouldn't lend it out for fear of not getting it back, it's that good! Such common sense delivered by a man who is more afraid of losing a kid than he is of offending parents or a system that just doesn't work. He understands that some parents are victims too but that doesn't relieve them of their responsibilities to their children. I have a challenging child in a different way, one with a significant language difficulty, what I wouldn't have given to have a teacher care! A teacher that respected parents enough to want to work with them to benefit the child. The teachers that my child loved and I respected are the ones who were either in private school settings or retired from teaching & privately tutored struggling students. One teacher absolutely amazed me by saying please don't take your child from tutoring just yet, please allow me to adjust my way of working with your child. If a child is not successful, I am not successful. I would like another opportunity. I granted that as she was a wonderful teacher, however my child struggled with her strictness and her drive. I believe her accent was another issue, she listened to my concerns & accepted my compliments and made the neccesary changes and not another word was ever said. At age 15,' third year with tutor'during the summer months when after the lesson was finished & we could've got into the car and leave my child would walk the block with this lovely 65 year old woman. She made a tremendous difference in my child's life. She believed in him, was respectful and wanted more than anything to achieve what she set out to do see a struggling child have success! In our experience it has been the tutors who have worked best with us as parents, tutors who made themselves available for any questions. I believe when the child has a support system working with him or her they'll have success. We still have a long road ahead and I feel the public school failed my child not only educationally but socially as well. All children want to do well. Schools do a lot of damage placing themselves in opposition with parents. I know there are places where parents are unavailable and that is a problem but in my case, I was available and felt completely undermined and let down by our public shool personnel.In my opinion their concern was protecting the budget.I reside in a wealthy surburban town south of Boston where we rank pretty high up there on the list of desirables school systems. I think it's rank. I admire and respect a teacher/person like Mr. White who gives that much effort with that much love! You were born to serve! That is your gift to the world, bless you!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 11, 2010
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