Elementary Education: Where Positivity must Shine

Back in my small western town of about 5,000 people, there are three elementary schools: East, South, and West.  A city dweller might think that in such a small community, these schools should easily produce students of equal caliber, but that is not the case.  Each of the elementary schools already has their own reputation. East side is located in a mostly white-collar middle-class neighborhood and is known to produce students who are both athletic and academic.  South Side is located in a neighborhood of diverse backgrounds and produces the most studious students who are likely to become Valedictorians in the town’s only high school.  Then there’s West Side.  Well nobody really talks about that school or the kids who go there. West Side is located in a mostly low-income neighborhood and is known to produce students who lack the social, academic, and athletic skills of their peers. But why?

Sophomore year of college I joined an elementary Language Arts program called SMART. It was an afterschool program focused on tutoring young students in reading, writing, and speaking.  I was inspired by the idea of making a difference in a child’s life and somehow changing their path in life for the better. Though I was aware that the school in which the program took place was underfunded and had students with different backgrounds than me, I was still unprepared for the experience.  I was unprepared to work with students who did not have the “treat elders with respect” mentality or with students who couldn’t speak English. I was shocked by how little the 2nd grade students could read. I was saddened by the size and selection of books at the school’s library. I remember one day when I was reading to my group of kids, a boy said, “We already read that book.” I chose another and he said the same thing.  I remember the week when I tried to find Halloween-themed books to fit the coming holiday, but could barely find any. Moreover, no one from the school took the liberty of displaying holiday-themed books around the library, which was what I was used to back home.
What I felt and thought at that time should have been irrelevant to the larger goal. Tina Xia ’14, the coordinator of the program, said:
“I’ve learned to focus on the positive attributes of each young student.  It’s easy to say that a child has behavioral problems because he or she is acting out in class, but most of the times it just takes a few minutes to sit down with a child and have a personal conversation with him/her.”
Maybe that’s just it. We should work with what we got, because our main focus should stay on the individual students. And maybe the reason why West Side is lacking is because those students need teachers who will focus on them and believe that they can succeed despite their reputation.  Education starts young. It is crucial to build a strong foundation from the very beginning because it will, to a certain degree, determine how well a student does later on not only in the academic sense, but also in terms of attitude and self-esteem. Quality is better than quantity. As Tina Xia ’14 put it: “It’s not simply about how many hours we spend at the schools, but also about whether we’re reaching our goals of our program, and whether we’re addressing the community’s need.”