Saving youth with teachers and leaders who care

Dear Editor,

In the past few weeks several young black men have been murdered in St. Petersburg. Earlier this year in Tampa at least seven men and women were shot. Most died and very few even made the Bay area television news. Education is one tool that could benefit our community if only it were more embraced by everyone.

That includes young people, leaders and teachers who all care.  To care means not just to feel bad but react.

On Thurs., Dec. 10, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The United States Senate voted 85 to 12 to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Law signed by President Bush. This new law replaces one that came under fire for many reasons. The ESSA will give the federal government less control and states more.

President Obama gave credit to President Bush and the previous law. This is in sharp contrast to the Republicans and others who rarely give this president any credit for anything. He actually got bipartisan help to pass this new law.

ESSA, however, is not a panacea for two of the biggest problems in education: closing the achievement gap and raising the performance of the worst schools.

Last week I attended a school and observed one classroom in hot pursuit of those goals. We are often overwhelmed with horrible narratives of public schools failing our children, but at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Tampa, I observed just the opposite.

It was a last-minute situation and I got a lot of help from the principal and the guidance counselor. They sent me to the fifth grade classroom of a very impressive young, African-American teacher named Ms. Hampton.

To say I was impressed is a gross understatement. I spent the last two years living in Tampa not far from the school. I frankly feared the teenagers I saw on the street. I often saw and heard disrespect for everyone to everyone including themselves. In sharp contrast was the behavior of the students in Ms. Hampton’s class. Instead of gaining crime and contempt “cred in da street,” Ms. Hampton’s fifth-graders are learning respect, control and how to communicate.

They were so friendly and polite I was taken aback. Honestly, it is my experience that in Tampa and St. Petersburg, many adults are not very friendly and polite, let alone young people.

Too often I walk up to the counter and say: “How are you today,” instead of it being the other way around. How can we expect young people to be polite and professional when adults don’t practice it?

Ms. Hampton fifth graders seemed to mirror her enthusiasm for learning. The atmosphere was relaxed with limits. Posters and slogans with words of encouragement painted the walls. Although colorful and neat, the classroom was no a playpen. She let her kids know they are expected to achieve. Bad behavior is not tolerated or excused. These fifth-grade kids are told they are responsible for their own lives and that no superhero was going to come and save them.

Ms. Hampton’s class had so much more than we did when I was growing up. Booker T. Washington Elementary has computers and even a music studio with instrument and recording equipment. But most importantly, Ms. Hampton and the music teachers showed a genuine concern for the kids.

In her class, students are taught how to communicate without confrontation. When a student makes a comment, the next student acknowledges that comment and adds to it. If there is a disagreement, it is presented in a manner that would shame Congress in Washington.

What we need are masterful teachers like Ms. Hampton who enforces discipline while showing how much they really care. Intellectual inquisitiveness must replace laziness and apathy. There are many problems in our schools and to ignore them is foolish. Truth and progress demands that we acknowledge when things are done well. We can build upon what is good and do better.

Ms. Hampton’s fifth-grade class is proof that we can do better if only we try harder and not be overwhelmed by what is bad. Our children and our future depend on this. Every student can succeed.

– Rivers Cleveland

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