Teaching the whole child

April 26, 1994|By Sandra McBrayer

ALL children have an unequivocal right to an education in America. No strings attached.

In U.S. schools, we have many entry requirements: immunization, residency, immigration, legal guardianship. If children don't have papers, they are turned away. I would like schools to be open to all children.

BEvery child has the potential to learn. I had a homeless child who entered my program. When I was getting him books, he told me:

"Oh, you don't understand. I can't learn."

I said, "Don't be silly. Of course, you can."

"No, no, no. My teachers told me!" And he produced a report card with Ds and Fs. Under "comments," a teacher had written, "Difficulty with learning."

I started working one-on-one with this 16-year-old. He didn't even know what a fraction was. So, instead of using the textbook, I incorporated real-life math.

I took him into the school kitchen and cut an orange in half. While I fed him with one half, he learned math with the other.

I took him in the laundry room. We learned fractions with cups of laundry soap. As we provided him with clean clothes, he was introduced to fractions.

I serve kids called "unattended homeless youth." They live on the streets of San Diego, on rooftops, in abandoned buildings, under freeways. They sell drugs. Sell themselves. Do everything they can to survive.

My school teaches the whole child. We feed children who are hungry, clothe children who are ill-clothed, provide showers and laundry. We have day-care for children with babies. We provide everything a child traditionally would get.

And we provide them with an academic component. I work for the San Diego County Office of Education. We offer the California core curriculum -- a high school diploma or equivalent. We supplement it with parenting, self-esteem, anger management, conflict resolution, drug and alcohol awareness, street survival and coping skills.

In the last 20 years in California, we have built 28 prisons and one university. More than 85 percent of the prison population are high school dropouts. Locking people up without education is clearly not working. The only time change occurs is when education has happened.

My children are a prime example. I have 29 former students enrolled in college today. I have hundreds holding jobs, renting and paying taxes. They are not committing crime, not taking from society but giving.

There are millions of teachers like me in classrooms across this country. Good teachers are not born; they're made. It is a learned skill. Listening, compassion, unconditional acceptance were modeled to me by teachers and administrators in San Diego.

Burnout is a very realistic dilemma for many teachers. But when you're making decisions about yourself, your problems and your students, you don't get burned out.

We need site-based management, empowering teachers to make professional decisions that affect their lives.

For many years we were an industrialized nation and we built factory workers. We are now being asked to build global, productive citizens. Teaching must be given the respect our profession deserves.

I wear a pager; my students can call me 24 hours a day. When I tell a child I care, I'm looking in their eyes and I feel it inside of me. I don't think a hug can ever be worn out.

What does it cost? Everything I have -- the showers, laundry, clothes and food -- comes from the community in the form of

donations. Everything a teacher needs, the community has. We need to build a partnership with business, police departments, churches and parents.

For me, hope is everywhere -- in the hug of a homeless child, in a smile on graduation day. One day, this kid ran into the building jumping with joy: He got his first job. Someone had believed in him. And suddenly, every hard day in the classroom had been erased for me as I watched this child find hope.

I have sat at my desk and had a 16- or 17-year-old going through a traumatic experience climb into my lap and just sob. And then they dry their eyes and we talk about the problem; they go out and solve it as an adult.

When children graduate, people say, "That must keep you going." It doesn't. What truly keeps me going are the children I fail.

One day, I watched a child sell his shoes for a hit on a crack pipe. Seeing that picture made my dedication to education 100 times stronger, made my love for children 100 times greater and made me work harder every minute of every day.

L It seems so simple to care for kids. How did we forget that?

Sandra McBrayer, who founded a pioneering school for homeless children in San Diego, is 1994 National Teacher of the Year.

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