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Kids Aren't a Buzzword Around Here

While one orator after another in Boston lambasted President Bush for failing to follow through on his promise to "leave no child behind" and averred that they would honor that pledge, children at the Dorothy Day Apartments in Harlem who might have been left behind were rehearsing for a homemade play they would perform for their parents and neighbors in a few hours.

Oh, the partisans are extremely partisan about leaving no child behind. On Friday, Bush talked about his education policies and dismissed the Democrats' convention as consisting of "clever speeches and some big promises." The pot calling the kettle black, as they'd say down home.

In fact, by "challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations," the President did not sound all that different from Barack Obama, who had told the Democratic convention a few nights before that most people know "that government alone can't teach kids to learn. They know that parents have to parent, that children can't achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white."

But too many partisans don't know firsthand what it takes to actually help build solid foundations for children who might not have a head start.

The difference between what the politicians say and what the educators and volunteers do at the new Dorothy Day Apartments at 135th St. and Riverside Drive is that the latter actually work at making opportunities for kids - real kids, not theoretical kids.

They expect the kids to achieve. They are challenging kids' notions of what it means to learn and are drawing on what Michael Lofton, the director of youth and adult education services at Dorothy Day, calls "multiple intelligences." One kid may be good at music or art or reading, but not so good in other areas. "If we find strength in one of those domains, that may bleed over into other domains," he said.

So on display the other day were a collage and Web site documentary that taught geography, put together by the program's teens, and a math project by some of the younger kids, who researched and presented proposals for healthy snacks at reasonable costs for the afterschool program. Some kids contributed to a book of poetry; others displayed self-portraits.

To Lofton, "no child left behind means you must embrace the diversity of learning." That's what it really means, but to politicians and educators, often working at cross purposes, it's merely a buzzword to fire up their constituencies.

There is a disconnect between political talk and hard reality. The reality is that many of the kids at Dorothy Day "have quite severe deficits in their education," Lofton said. Many of their families were formerly homeless or had one hardship after another that left them on the down side of life.

Under the guidance of caring adults, including the staff of the nonprofit Broadway Housing Communities, which operates the building, the kids in the K-2 age range who were concluding their five-week program were blossoming and thriving as much as the trees and animals they would portray in their homage to nature during their end-of-summer celebration. For many of these kids, this supported - and supportive, I might add - community is their first real home.

It's a hard-won reality that is all too rare.

— E. R. Shipp
New York Daily News


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