To The Editor:
Life is full of choices. We choose-among other things- where we want to live, what we want to do, who we want to marry, and if we want to raise a family. If we are lucky, we get a majority of the things to which we aspire.
I count myself as one of the lucky ones. I have a beautiful family, children that I adore, I love where I live, and I work at a job that I want to go to every day. This is not to say, however, that there are not hard days or times that I want to close the door and leave the whole world behind. But I know that I must always measure how I evaluate my situation. I know that sometimes the big picture can become skewed when I fail to focus on the right things or dont understand all the elements at play.
Recently, it seems that the focus on my community falls into this latter category. I question whether we are missing the big picture and becoming skewed because we do not understand all of the elements at play.
A recent article in The Daily Courier Observer (Oct. 16) reported the rankings of 429 upstate school districts by Business First of Buffalo. According to the article, rankings are based primarily on test scores, but the economic health of the area, experience of teachers, fiscal responsibility and other factors also are taken into account.
The school I have worked in for 18 years, and the school that my children now attend, was ranked the lowest in our region: The St. Lawrence Central School District had little reason to celebrate, ranking 33rd in the region and 397th among the 429 schools studied.
Initially, I took umbrage with that statement. As a teacher, I know how hard most of my colleagues work and as a parent, I want my children to have pride in their school. I reasoned, however, that I needed to get all the information so I decided to go to the source and investigate the rankings.
There are two things that struck me immediately. The less personal of the two has to do with the 429 schools that were ranked. After reading the list of districts (from 1 to 429), it became very clear to me that anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the state (north of Westchester) would immediately identify the socio-economic divide between the high performing schools and the ones that have little reason to celebrate.
We often ignore the fact that schools reflect society; they are a microcosm of the community at large. It stands to reason, therefore, that schools in upper- middle class districts would perform the best. Parents are highly educated; communities support and value literacy and high academic achievement. Children come to school fed, properly clothed, and ready to learn. Children live in homes that are spacious, comfortable, and have more than adequate heat, food, and running water. While their families may have their own dysfunction, their basic needs are met and the academic expectations of their parents and their community are extremely high. Additionally, higher incomes and larger populations dictate larger school budgets and exponentially greater opportunities and resources for all students.
I wish I could describe all of the students in my community in the same way. However, anyone who has spent any time in the north country knows that this is not always the case.
Many children come to school every day hungry and lacking in basic care. Current numbers indicate that 74 percent of elementary students and 57 percent of middle and high school students qualify for free or reduced price lunch at SLC.
Compare that to the top performing schools on the list ( Pittsford Central Schools report 4 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch on the 2011-2012 school report card) , and the disparity is glaring. Many go home every night to homes that are ill- equipped or lacking in heat or running water. Many live in homes where parents, while they love fiercely, are unable to support their children academically or emotionally. When a child struggles with basic human needs, it is a little harder to score high on a standardized test (or even understand the need for them in the first place.) Additionally, low incomes and smaller populations mean monetary struggles and fewer supports and opportunities for all students.
As a high school English teacher for the past 18 years at St. Lawrence Central, I have seen close to 1,800 graduates walk across the stage. I have had the opportunity to really get to know most of those students and I felt honored to teach all of them.
It is because of them that I am constantly endeavoring to improve my skills as a teacher and find better and more effective ways to reach them. I will never allow myself, or my students, to use their current life situations to dictate their future successes.
I know that if one is capable, then he/she must simply work as hard as it takes to get to where he/she wants to go. As a teacher, I feel it is my job to get them there and I must never stop improving my craft to assist them. Unfortunately, my efforts and ability to do so are not always reflected on a standardized test score and unless and until we address the underlying issues of poverty, social experience, and economic inequities, they never will be reflected therein.
While one might argue that I am biased and clearly have a stake in the game when defending SLCs ranking, I would point to the other piece of information that immediately jumped out at me when I investigated the article in Business First of Buffalo.
This other thing was actually the first thing I noticed and an even more personal piece of information: the ranking of my alma mater. I graduated from Pittsford Mendon High School in Pittsford, NY.
According to Business First of Buffalo, Pittsford Central School District is ranked first among the 429 schools. High academic success was always the claim to fame of my community and understandably the reason my parents moved to Pittsford in the first place. I was blessed to grow up in a community that so highly values education.
Pittsford is a community where parents brag about their childrens academic success above all other things and competition centers on the quality of the college ones children will attend. As a matter of fact, there was never even a question about whether I or anyone I knew would GO to college, it was simply a matter of where. When these values and ideals permeate a home and a community, it is much easier for educators to demonstrate success on standardized tests.
Which brings me back to my original point: the choices we make and how we choose to examine our circumstances.
Four years ago, my husband and I made the decision to move from Potsdam to Brasher so that our children could attend SLC. I knew that the academic opportunities and competition that they would have here would be fewer and less stringent than in Potsdam.
However, after spending so many years with the students nearing graduation from SLC, I knew that these were the kind of people that I wanted my children to become. In my experience, our graduates had a better understanding of community, family, and what really matters in life than I did at 18 years old.
More importantly, as a parent, I knew that a vast majority of the faculty and staff at SLC were (and continue to be) personally invested in the students at SLC.
I spent four years at Pittsford Mendon High School (ranked first according to Business First of Buffalo) and not a single teacher I had could tell you anything about me when I graduated, most didnt even know my name.
Not a single teacher knew that a little over a year before I entered high school, my father lost his battle with cancer and died in our home or that my mother, a teacher in a parochial school, was struggling to keep our family life normal in the wake of his death. I would suspect that this would not have been the case at SLC.
I do not, and will never, regret my decision to raise my family here and have my children educated at St. Lawrence Central. If given the choice to move back to Pittsford tomorrow or stay in Brasher, I would choose Brasher.
I do regret, however, the narrow analysis of our community and our circumstances. This is not for my own pride as a teacher in this district, but rather for my childrens pride as future graduates. My children are bright and excited and ready to learn; they have had excellent teachers who love and encourage them daily. They will work hard and be successful because academic success is a value that I will pass on to them and their teachers will continue to work hard for them every day.
They will become good citizens and caring people because they will be educated at St. Lawrence Central. While I anticipate and hope that they will be successful on state testing, I know that their experiences at SLC will make them successful in life.
I will teach my children, and they will learn, that SLC is much more than the number 33.