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Extraordinary Interventions

Posted: 2010-05-10

I remember bringing a small group of 8th grade girls to my quite modest tract home. Luanne opened the refrigerator and all the cupboards in the kitchen, exclaiming about the amount of food. Her awe over a sack of flour, a gallon of milk, and some bananas still haunts me.--Susan

by Norm Scott

This early morning's Hearing Voices on NPR had a wonderful presentation about a Washington DC student's journey and the extraordinary intervention it took to help him get to his destination.

Getting Out is the story of Jesse Jean whose father murdered his mother and committed suicide when Jesse was 2 years old - in front of him. Jesse tried to avoid all the "stuff" that happens to kids on the streets of Washington and luckily met these 2 ladies - Teri and Tony who I believe worked for some White House connected group - who took him under their wing. I mean seriously under their wing. Like it led to their becoming his legal guardian. A more down home version of The Blind Side. (I liked the movie, but want to read Michael Lewis' book.)

NOTE: You can read a New York Times Magazine adaptation of Michael Lewis' The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.

“Getting Out” (52:00) Katie Davis

Go to school, keep your grades up, go to college. That’s what we tell kids — over and over. What if just leaving your apartment, and walking up the block is risky? What if it feels safer to stay home, play video games, keep a low profile. When you do go out, head somewhere safe, like the teen center, the basketball court. That was the world of African American teenager, Jesse Jean.

Jesse's self-portrait, painted in the fall of 2001

Jesse’s self-portrait

Fall 2001.)

Jesse lived a half a block from host Katie Davis in their Washington DC neighborhood. He was lucky enough to get a scholarship to a private boarding school and brave enough to take it. Katie kept in touch with Jesse, as he moved into this new world. We hear three stories covering seven years, starting in summer, 2001.

Jesse's Stories on NPR: 2002 Turning the Corner (photos) | 2004 Beyond Myself (photos) | 2008 An Urban Teen Beats The Odds.

I post this story for 2 reasons. First because it indicates that even with this extraordinary intervention - including a partial scholarship to a boarding school that costs $28,000 a year - there were still some touch and go moments. Meaning - things like charter schools are merely a drop in the bucket.

The second reason is that there were a few times when I was on the edge of temptation to take a similar extraordinary intervention path with a few kids over the years that I grew close to but just couldn't bite that bullet. One of the students ended up shot in the head 5 times while selling drugs in the wrong territory at the age of 18 - and that after serving 3 years in prison and fathering a child. I spent a lot of hard time thinking at his funeral. It was like I had seen a truck heading for a child in the middle of the street and was helpless to stop the accident from happening.

Some of the kids I worked with in that era of the late 80's to early 90's did experience an extraordinarly intervention by a high school teacher in Williamsburg Brooklyn who took in loads of kids to live with her, her husband and a band of adopted kids from just about every nationality. They are some of the true heroes in this world. My particular student was a top-level basketball player and a very nice kid who avoided trouble when he could. Things basically turned out all right though they might have anyway. But even with that level of intervention, the academic problems never went away and college was not his thing.

I was peripherally involved with these kids - attending their basketball games, taking them to sporting events and having them out to my house - but learned a hell of a lot from the experience, understanding just how far I was willing and able to go as a teacher. In the world of today's ed deform that teacher who took kids in to live with her would have her effectiveness judged by her test scores.

When I hear these stories I often think of what it would take and would even echo Joel Klein in with my own call for No Excuses - but on whose part? If you listen to the program - a well spent 52 minutes, you have to ask about focusing only on academic "outcomes" without all that goes with it. What is needed is a lot of extraordinary interventions and this society only wants to take the cheap way out.

Add On

Last week, CBS Sunday Morning did a similar story about the lives of 2 guys living parallel lives in Baltimore at the same time- Same Name, Two Different Stories

One is a Johns Hopkins graduate and the other is serving life in prison. Both grew up in the same neighborhood and share the same name, Wes Moore. Russ Mitchell has the story of how their lives diverged so drastically.

There are a lot of nuances to this story. One Wes had his father die when he was 4. But his father was a journalist and don't lose sight of that very important point as to where this Wes was coming from. His mom just might have gotten into a charter school lottery while the other Wes probably would never have gone to a charter school or been tossed out.

Here is the roughly 10 minute video.

His story is similar to Jesse's and the Wes Moore who is not in prison has written a book called The Other Wes Moore. Here is his web site.

from Publisher's Weekly, Starred Review: Two hauntingly similar boys take starkly different paths in this searing tale of the ghetto. Moore, an investment banker, Rhodes scholar, and former aide to Condoleezza Rice, was intrigued when he learned that another Wes Moore, his age and from the same area of Greater Baltimore, was wanted for killing a cop. Meeting his double and delving into his life reveals deeper likenesses: raised in fatherless families and poor black neighborhoods, both felt the lure of the money and status to be gained from dealing drugs. That the author resisted the criminal underworld while the other Wes drifted into it is chalked up less to character than to the influence of relatives, mentors, and expectations that pushed against his own delinquent impulses, to the point of exiling him to military school. Moore writes with subtlety and insight about the plight of ghetto youth, viewing it from inside and out; he probes beneath the pathologies to reveal the pressures—poverty, a lack of prospects, the need to respond to violence with greater violence—that propelled the other Wes to his doom. The result is a moving exploration of roads not taken.

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