Over the last couple weeks, This American Life has had a couple of amazing episodes looking at Harper High School in Chicago.
This excerpt from the second episode - where a hungry kid gets some food - stuck with me. Ben Calhoun is the journalist reporting the story, and Marcel Smith is a staff member at Harper.
Ben Calhoun: ...I spend a couple mornings with a staff member named Marcel Smith. Marcel works on a program that tries to rescue kids who are failing out. Harper has a lot of initiatives like that. There's mentoring programs and enrichment programs, all boosted by turnaround.
So on paper, that's what Marcel does. But if you walk around with him, you see what Sanders sees, all the little things that would never be considered part of his job. The day I was with him, in the morning, Marcel came across a young man standing in the hallway.
Marcel Smith: What's going on, son? How you feeling?
Ben Calhoun: The kid was keeping a straight face. But he was clearly upset. It turned out he'd been asked to leave his class. As Marcel turned to deal with him, he asked me to turn off the recorder, so I did.
They talked for a minute. Marcel took the kid to his office, sat him down, told him to wait. And we walked away. He didn't want to use the student's name. But he explained what was going on.
Marcel Smith: Apparently, the students were given an incentive for being on time. And it was food.
Ben Calhoun: Cookies. It was cookies. And this student, along with everyone who'd gotten to class on time that day, was allowed to go up and take a cookie. But this particular student was dealing with a difficult and maybe dangerous situation at his house. So he hadn't gone home the night before. And because of that, he hadn't eaten.
So when he went up to take his cookie, he took two. The teacher told them to put one back. Not wanting to reveal his situation to the rest of the class, he didn't say anything. He just refused.
He told Marcel he was just so hungry. That's why he'd been kicked out. Marcel had a box of cereal in his office. And I walked with him as he zipped down to the cafeteria. They were out of regular milk.
Marcel Smith: Ladies? Ladies, how y'all doing? Can I get two chocolate milks, please? Thank you.
Ben Calhoun: Back in Marcel's office, the student sat quietly, staring down, and ate a plastic bowl filled with Honey Nut Cheerios and chocolate milk. Then he got up, politely washed the bowl and spoon, said thank you to Marcel, and the two went back to his classroom. You see situations like this all the time at Harper, situations that could so easily unravel.
And without thinking anything of it, they get addressed because someone is there and makes the effort to figure out what's going on. It's stuff that'll never show up in a school budget. But it can be the difference between a kid going back to class or getting suspended.
And it's these small, quiet successes - like getting a kid some food so he can go back to class - these are the things that adequate staffing makes possible. This is one of the ways that success in schools, and successful schools, get started.
Staffing matters, in large part because as a teacher you can't predict when you will be needed. Relationships can't be built without time, and without the time to spend with students when there is nothing wrong you will not be able to be as effective during times of stress.
And when I read about DC allowing Rocketship Education to open eight new schools against a backdrop of three existing charter schools failing, I think of the fragmented learning experience of the students within those schools. It's also worth noting that a central piece of RocketShip's model involves students spending a significant amount of time in front of a screen taking computerized adaptive tests, with limited staff contact.
According to Brian Jones, the outgoing chairman of DC's charter board:
Part of the genius of the charter model is it does allow for a certain innovative churn, where you close low performers and thereby create space for new innovators to come in and try new models
Unfortunately, "innovative churn" - here celebrated as "genius" - sounds a lot like anticipated failure. Innovative churn means closing schools that some kids likely see as an extension of their home. The low performers here are the people selling innovation that fails kids, and leaves kids taking the brunt of the consequences. I'm not going to hold my breath that these low performers will ever be held accountable.