Sunday, September 27, 2009

Among my betters

There are so many times I get discouraged living in our neighborhood. I see parents neglecting their children or abusing them. I see intelligent kids put into special ed. classes or on medication for no good reason. I see kids steal and bully. I see kids who have a horrible self-image and even worse self-esteem. So many problems we encounter every day here hinge on parents and education (not to imply that those two things should be in distinct categories). It can be a real head-scratcher trying to figure out how to do what is best for the kids while, at the same time, doing what is best for the parents.

Along these lines, however, there is now reason to rejoice in our neighborhood, thanks to the hard work and talents of many people.

Last year, a new charter school called the Hoosier Academy opened up in Muncie. It is an experimental model, set up as a hybrid between a brick-and-mortar school and an online school for students from kindergarten through 8th grade. The kids do online classes Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays with their parents or learning coaches on a computer provided for them for free. Tuesdays and Thursdays, all the kids meet in graded classes and have school just like any other traditional school.

During meetings about the opening of the school, it seemed to draw mostly home-schoolish parents from as far as an hour away. And that is mostly who attended the school during its first year: white, middle-class kids. But my friends (and pastor) Andrew and Leslie Draper saw great potential for the kids in our neighborhood. One courageous, African-American 7th grader from our neighborhood decided to enroll that first year. He was the only black person in the school. Leslie Draper committed to being his learning coach, which meant that he would be at her house, receiving one-on-one instruction, transportation, and lunch every day he was with her. (Did I mention she and Andrew have a preschooler and a toddler?) Her dining room turned into a classroom. He tested into a 5th grade level for reading and math that year, even though he had been passed through to 7th grade in his previous schools. So he took science, history, and the like with 7th graders and went to the 5th grade class for reading and math. They worked very hard to get him caught up to his grade level. He endured no small number of jokes and racial slurs -- from whites and blacks, family and friends, adults and children -- for his decision. When I told him he was courageous, he said, "Everyone tells me that. I don't know why." When I tell Leslie she is a brave (and/or crazy) woman, she says, "Meh," smiles, shrugs her shoulders. Geesh.

This year, the young man, having graduated 7th grade, made what was undoubtedly a difficult decision to continue the Academy through 8th grade. So Leslie committed to being his learning coach again. But during the summer, our neighborhood elementary school (the oldest in Muncie) was closed in order to avoid being taken over by the state under No Child Left Behind. This opened the "how do we educate our children" question wide open. We, as a community, have a value for being fully part of the neighborhood and, as such, many of us had committed to sending our children to the neighborhood school. But when the neighborhood school shuts down, then what? Many parents in the neighborhood must've had the same question, because this year there are eight kids in grades K-8 who signed up for the Academy with Leslie as their learning coach!

Needless to say, there was much scrambling around to find a place to meet and people to help out, but when the dust settled recently, it seems we are left with a sustainable model for our new sort of neighborhood school that is great for the students, the parents, and the teachers. Leslie acts as principal/teacher in the building that used to house the office where Pat's company was based. The owner of the building, who is part of our church, is donating it for use as a one-room school three days a week. (Okay, so it has three small rooms, but who's counting?) Parents are required to volunteer at least one hour a week to help teach and some are doing even more than that! Other people from our community are volunteering as well and the students (at least on MWF) get to see people of various races, ages, genders, and education levels working together to bring them up. Other of us (including one of the parents) prepare and bring lunch for the kids and workers once a week. I am excited to do this on Wednesdays and have been tickled that the healthy food I make gets gobbled up. It is so gratifying to feed young minds the food they deserve!

This has brought out so much good in so many people (with room for more to come) and I am sure I know only the first hint of it. I see the Drapers sacrifice, a young man endure hardship, parents step up, break stereotypes, and boldly try something new. I see my peers come alongside to volunteer to tutor and to make meals and help tie up loose ends. A friend recently quoted C.S. Lewis in her matron-of-honor speech at my brother's wedding, and it certainly bears application here. In this endeavor, I feel a though I am among my betters.

Not the school kids, but another group of kids those courageous Drapers took on a trip to

*So many great ideas (giving kids a good education, empowering parents to educate their children, providing proper nutrition, modeling diversity, etc.) have been able to come together in this little learning center that I just have to share them! I hope this model can provide a great education for our neighborhood kids (which includes the McCrorys) as well as kids in other neighborhoods and in other cities and towns. Please get in touch with me if you want to learn more and I'll do my best to find answers to any questions you may have.

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