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NCLB Outrages

Diversely Educated

The following is an essay written by Oscar Baez for his freshman English class at Amherst College about his public school education in Boston. He includes pointed comments about NCLB. In a second essay, Oscar, now a junior, reflects on his parents' influence.

by Oscar Baez

On paper, I am the stereotypical "at-risk" youth. I am an immigrant from the Dominican Republic whose father and mother made it to fourth and twelfth grade respectively. Given the language barrier they faced, my parents could at best find jobs as custodian and day care worker, and have always given paying the bills top priority. That meant taking the night shift, not "having the time to learn English," and definitely having a limited participation in my school community. Ever since making it to America at age three, I have lived in public housing in the poorest neighborhoods of Boston (Dorchester and Roxbury), where there is peer pressure to join gangs instead of reading books.

I never took the time to analyze my own education and figure out how exactly it worked, why I did not become another dropout statistic. Using my own experience as a case study, I have been able to pinpoint reasons why education became so central in my life, and refute theories that accountability should lie mainly with "neglectful parents" and limited resources. I am a product of urban education K-12, and have been exposed to both public and private schooling, enrolled in specialized and underfunded institutions, gone through both bilingual and English immersion programs, and have had the opportunity to see quite directly the consequences of bad educational policy. Throughout I have embraced my heritage, maintained my native language, and taken pride in my race's role as a motivational force in the classroom. While the remedies for many of America's educational flaws seem unreachable, there are clear examples of what does and does not work, as I have learned from personal experience.

Winship Elementary School is, in my opinion, one such example of a school that worked despite limited resources. I was enrolled in the school's bilingual education program, where every single student was of Hispanic origin. My parents saw this not so much as a way to slowly transition me into an English classroom, but as a means to preserve my Spanish language and allow me to interact with students to whom I could easily relate. Bilingual education is often misunderstood as a way of babying immigrants, and depriving them of the most important skill needed to succeedテ「蚤 solid command of English.

Critics claim that bilingual education is only holding immigrant populations back, and that it would be better to opt for a one year transitional period followed by "sink or swim" English immersion. It is naテδッve to believe that a student who lives in the United States at a young age will not be able to learn any English simply by immersion in culture. A few students in my bilingual classroom may have needed extra attention for which outside ESL classes were provided, but in general, English was for every student, including myself, the dominant language.

The teachers all spoke Spanish fluently, but by fifth grade all classes were conducted in English except for a period of Spanish. My years in bilingual education had infused the curriculum with folk stories, geography lessons, and language classes that were all relevant to the Latino culture that was so dear to me. It helped me maintain two languages at a proficient levelテ「蚤 skill that, given the direction of demographic trends in this country (25% Hispanic by 2050), will benefit me greatly. Furthermore, it gave my parents a voice in my education. Although they never attended one PTA meeting due to their work schedules, they were able to help me with some homework and understand the comments on my report card. I do not deny that bilingual education can fail if English is not greatly stressed and incrementally given the greatest importance. Even at its worst, however, it does not allow for "sinking" as an option; there is simply no room for such an absolute word in our educational system.

When I graduated from Winship, I enrolled in the William H. Taft Middle School. This was my first transition into an "English-only" classroom, but language was by far my smallest adjustment. Each class had over thirty students, many of whom had no interest in obeying the teacher. This lack of respect between students and faculty led to a good portion of each class being devoted to maintaining silence. Those who genuinely were studious and interested in doing work had no advanced classes to pursue more in-depth study.

The school had undergone budget cuts and was asking students to provide their own paper for taking tests. I understood Taft was a public school with a larger student population and probably more expenses than my elementary school, but it appeared to squander much of its funding. Although Winship had similar budget crunching, its administration still managed to give specialized attention to particularly motivated students. I remember being one of six students placed in my brother's fifth grade English class while I was still in fourth grade, thus giving me "advanced" study without having to create a new class.

What seemed to be the greatest detriment at Taft was the curriculum, which had clearly disillusioned the teachers. In sixth grade the State had introduced a new standardized testテ「杯he MCASテ「背hich would, beginning with the class of 2003, be a high school graduation requirement. Each of my English and Math classes devoted two days of the week to "MCAS prep," and explanations of rubrics. The teachers would teach to the test, and often only get halfway through the lesson plan they proposed at the year's opening. A good two weeks in May would consist of taking the exam itself, and by the time testing was over, it was too late in the year to start many new lessons.

Middle school was a miserable experience. I felt I was being cheated of an education, and socially I did not want to adopt the indifferent attitude to learning that some of my classmates had. By this point my parents had next to no direct involvement in my education. I often felt alone, and came to the realization that if I wanted to make something of myself, much of my work would have to be self-motivated. So I decided to take the ISEEテ「蚤n examination whose score, combined with my middle school GPA, earned me admittance into the Boston Latin School, one of Boston's three specialized "exam" high schools. I was not prepared for the vast difference a BLS education would be from that of Taft middle.

Boston Latin School is a magnet public school founded in 1635. It is always confused with a private institution because it has so much alumni funding that it fully funds a music and fine arts wing and athletics departments. Academics are centered around the classics (Latin is required), but are supplemented by honors and AP courses in over 15 subjects. The school is massive (over 2000 students) and owes its success to "high standards" (minimum of five hours of homework/night), and full staff of guidance counselors.

Once I was admitted, it was made clear that as a college-preparatory school, every student would strive for success in higher education (achieved by 99% of graduates). Analysis of education at a school like Boston Latin is not the best approach to take when trying to understand urban education. BLS students often come from high-income families who move into Boston from suburbs for the sole purpose of giving their child a spot in a "Harvard-feeding" school. The students are generally highly motivated (sometimes to a distastefully ultra-competitive degree) and have outside help in case they are struggling. I tutored at the school's Saturday Success program and met students who were engaged.

A prime example of BLS being an anomaly in public education became strikingly apparent to me in tenth grade, when President George W. Bush ironically came to Boston Latin on his last stop on a tour promoting the signing of the No Child Left Behind Act. I say ironically because of all the decrepit public schools in Boston, Bush chose to promote the NCLB act at the one public school that is known for rarely leaving anyone behind. The event was the pride of my school for monthsテ「巴ut as the detrimental consequences of the act started to surface, the student population voiced a sense of shame of being connected to its signing.

The NCLB act seems to reward schools like Boston Latin. It is a wealthy school with little economic and ethnic diversityテ「祢 was one of 12 Latino students in a grade of 350. The school excelled on the MCAS (often first in the State), and was thus rewarded. The MCAS and NCLB Act theoretically promote higher standards and help target the "failing schools" in need of improvement, but simply award schools already in good shape, while punishing schools that have higher populations of immigrants, ESL students, and low-income students.

The federal government provides few funds (approximately 10%) for the implementation of new unrealistic standards, including test preparation that expects all students to reach a level of proficiency by 2014. As stated in Many Children Left Behind, the MCAS created lower graduation rates for African American (71% to 59.5%) and Latino (54% to 45%) students once it was required for a diploma. Around the nation, schools of all grade levels were similarly affected. Some were more likely to be designated as failing if they had higher populations of "subgroups."

According to Linda Darling-Hammond, Manzanita Elementary was declared "needing improvement" because it met 17 of 18 targets, but the Black students narrowly missed their target in math. Meanwhile, a more homogenous school in Oakland (Golden Gate Elementary) "succeeded" because it met the only six targets it had to. Both schools are obviously of good quality, but Manzanita will face sanctions and a possible reduction of funding. Because of the NCLB Act, students have the right to transfer to a "better school," at the expense of the "failing" school's budget. This also gives qualified teachers incentive to leave the "failing school," thus hurting the students as money available for books/tutoring is lost to transfers, and the quality of instruction is lowered.

For said reasons, a "perverse consequence of the NCLB Act is that many states formally lowered their standards in order to avoid having most of their schools declared failing" (p.16, Many Children Left Behind). When signed in 2002, this Act had widespread support even from minority and low-income groups.

However, in allocation of funds, schools with few resources and diverse populations are disproportionately being hurt. The goal of schools has now shifted from the improved education of every student to "looking good" as a whole on paper (e.g. test scores), such as the case in my middle school. This leads to pushing out those who historically do badly on exams, those who already lack resourcesテ「杯hose who are usually left behind to begin with.

I believe America has many quality public schools full of dedicated teachers. The problem for teachers is maintaining enthusiasm when they have to teach to standardized tests (statistically proven to have no correlation with intelligence), annually prove their "competence" by taking recertification exams, and attempt to live on a wage that is barely enough to support a family. The government first needs to heighten the prestige of teaching, and focus on creating programs that alleviate social barriers that make learning difficult for at-risk students. Often critics point to lack of parental involvement as the source of a student's indifference to their education. As it is currently set up, parental involvement is only encouraged for those parents who have time to attend a meeting at night and can speak English (neither of which logistically parents like mine could do).

I am in favor of the charter school movement and other alternative education that gives students, teachers, and parents more of a say in the school's curriculum and daily schedule. More support needs to be given to working families who cannot practically give their young child the attention they deserve. What motivated me was the fact that my parents sacrificed so much to give me a great education, for the public schools in America are like the private ones in the Dominican Republic. I have embraced my race and culture, and am grateful for programs like affirmative action that acknowledge the hardships of being from a certain race or socio-economic background. More needs to be done to accommodate struggling families, those students and parents who unlike well-to-do families have no "legacy," no role model to show them the correct path to success.

May 22, 2005 is a date circled in bright red on every calendar in my household, marking a monumental event for Baez family: The first college graduation of one of our own, my older brother. Now a freshman at Amherst College, I hope to follow the footsteps of my brother. Education in America for a Latino immigrant from a low-income background is not easy, but clearly possible.

May 27, 2007
E-Mail From Oscar Baez

Oscar Baez, 20, is a junior at Amherst College. The son of Dominican immigrants, he grew up in public housing in Boston. He is currently in Buenos Aries on an Amherst foreign study program. He described his educational journey in an e-mail to the Times reporter Sara Rimer.

It has taken me some maturing to realize what exactly has driven me academically to seek the best education this country has to offer, but I think I've finally figured it out: It's all in the genes. I see my academic motivation as a direct result of my parentsテつエ tireless struggle to give up everything they knew in a country with limited resources to give their children every possibility in the world's most powerful nation.

I was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, as were my two older brothers. My parents have retold and relived the story of their heart wrenching decision to immigrate to the States to serve as a constant reminder of why I should not complain about our humble living situation, and to keep it all in perspective. When I was just six months old, my father moved to Boston to find a job and try to settle down as quickly as possible so that we kids could immigrate while still young (to make the adjustment easier). Three months later, my mother couldn't bear the thought of my father working day and night as a janitor in an alien environment with none of his family by his side, and decided to join him in Boston so that the whole family could be reunited even faster. My mother made sure to talk to me over the phone everyday, using up precious long-distance phone card minutes just so that I as a baby would still be able to recognize my mother's voice. Working together as custodians, they earned enough money that by the time I was three, my parents, my two older brothers and I all moved into an apartment in Jamaica Plain, a largely Hispanic neighborhood in Boston.

I grew up in public housing in Boston, and went to Boston Public Schools from K1-12. Since my father (who grew up in the town of Caテδアafistol in the countryside of Banテδュ province) quit school at 4th grade to work with his brothers in the capital and my mother dropped out of college to be able to raise three boys, the two (who spoke no English) were limited to the lowest-paying jobs which fit the テつィLatino immigrantテつィ stereotype: working as a テつィMerry Maidテつィ janitor at office buildings and car dealerships, or as a nanny. My father worked seven days a week, morning and night shift on weekdays (e.g. 7am to 2pm and 5pm to midnight), so I rarely saw him during the school week. My mother ran a day care from home during the week and prepared orders as an Avon Lady every other weekend. Instead of seeing how hard they worked, I tended to complain that they had little involvement in my school community and that they could never help me with simple spelling homework. I was also a bit embarrassed when asked The Question by teachers: So what do your parents do?

I simply hadn't internalized how much better off I was in the US in terms of living conditions, and educational and job opportunities. Although a direct flight to Santo Domingo from Boston was テつィonlyテつィ four hours and $400, I only returned at age 6 and 10 to meet and get to know all of my cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents. After that, I went eight years without returning because we just didn't have the money. After my second trip, I still scoffed that it was a grave mistake to move from a tropical paradise to freezing-cold Boston, but I did start to see, by comparison, that my inner-city public housing and public school was just as good as private schooling in the Santo Domingo, and at least we had electricity everyday.

I think the true catalyst and moment of clarity came after a period that my brothers and I will always call our テつィyears of slavery.テつィ Sure we heard the stories, saw their home town and the conditions of a Third World country, but that they were actually struggling and sacrificing daily for us never really dawned on me. In fact, when both my parents put us to work, we grew to resent them. My brothers Emilio and Ricky and I simply wanted to be kids, but we were constantly expected, in addition to doing the run of the mill household chores, to do their work. We would have to accompany them as interpreters to every doctor's appointment, and even translate at PTA meetings (if they could ever get off work in time to make the meetings). Whereas other kids jumped for joy that the weekend had begun, I dreaded every Friday night because my father would take us three with him to work: forced テつィshadowingテつィ of the janitor profession, if you will. This consisted of driving from office building to office building at night, splitting jobs like vacuuming, Windexing every single glass window and door twice, taking out the trash, and emptying out the buckets of dirty water as my dad mopped the floors. Come winter time, what we boys coined テつィhigh season for coffee-stained trash bags and dirty snow-infested carpets,テつィ the last thing I wanted to do was work until 2 a.m. helping my dad be a janitor, cleaning up after other people with more comfortable office jobs. I was disgusted by the workhe did, repelled, and embarrassed. The only thing that consoled me was that, by having three young helpers, my dad would be getting a few more hours of sleep than usual. And, in many respects, it was our bonding time. We would listen to the Red Sox games on the radio and the WEEI radio post-game coverage as we went from job site to job site. Maybe it wasn't the same as going fishing or camping (two things I still have never done in my life), but it did help me understand what my father was going through.

My dad would always reiterate that he wasn't taking us to his job because we were slaves (though we had our doubts), but because there was no other way we would truly appreciate the importance of education, and of working hard so that we could rely on our brains to get a job, not on unskilled manual labor, unless we saw it, and, to a certain extent, lived it. He told us that he was forced to help his older brothers run the colmado (small convenience store) back in the Dominican Republic when he was young, and that he didn't choose to drop out. My mother's sacrifice was no less difficult. In addition to maintaining the house and raising three boys, she ran her own day care from home, and constantly found part time jobs as a "Merry Maid," or working at a factory. She was an Avon lady テつィon the side, テつィ and made us kids help prepare Avon orders every other Friday and Saturday. Her dedication to become a US citizen (the first in the family to do so) and study at night at the Urban College of Boston to earn a day care license showed me how much one could progress in this nation.

To put it simply, I think I am just a good copycat. My parents' hard work translated into my trying hard; the key was that I had to live their sacrifice and see the tangible benefits that this education business had in store for me. So once I matured a bit more, I understood that if my only テつィjobテつィ was to study and do well, there was no reason I should do otherwise. I knew that if I didn't try my best I might end up...like my parents. Is that a bad thing? I respected them immensely, and understood that they were both intelligent, but I did not want to be like them, living a life of mostly work, little play, and limited options.

Luckily, I don't think their efforts were in vain. My brother Emilio was the first in our family to graduate from college, and my two other siblings (Ricky and my little sister Eli) are next in line after me. Personally, I am overwhelmed with the incredible opportunities my high school (Boston Latin School) and college have provided me. After eight years of not being able to afford going to Dominican Republic, I have been able to go back four times in the past two years to intern at a government office there (DGA) and to volunteer via a new volunteer exchange program I and fellow students at Amherst College helped start through the non-profit Sister Island Project. Through a fellowship open to graduates of the Boston Latin School, I worked one summer in Senator Kennedyテつエs HELP Committee Education office in Washington, and researched the growing achievement gap in Boston. The experience further solidified my passion for public service and desire to use my personal experience and academic background to make something of myself in order to help others not as fortunate as I was to be educated in this country.

— Oscar Baez
New York Times


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