Fly Like an Eagle

I’ve been spending a lot of time in schools recently, two high schools, two middle schools and two elementary schools in the past nine days. I’m writing a grant for two D.C. public charter schools and I needed to visit their campuses to interview the principals. Then we got the news about Noah’s middle school applications: one thick envelope and one thin.  He got into the humanities magnet but not the math and science magnet, so that simplifies our choices. We attended a meeting for admitted students on Thursday evening.  And then as she does every Friday and Saturday, June had basketball practice at one elementary school and a game at her own school.  In between, we attended a girls’ high school basketball game, a field trip for the Purple Pandas.

Writing these grants has been a real learning experience, both in terms of re-learning how to write grants and in learning about charter schools.  (The grants not actually finished, but I’m waiting for feedback between drafts.)  I’m not an education specialist, but I have been impressed and moved by the dedication of the school officials with whom I spoke and with their sense of urgency about closing the achievement gap.  The middle school serves a majority low-income Latino population, with a high proportion of English language learners.  The high school is largely African-American and poor, too. They’ve made impressive gains in recent years in test scores and in the case of the high school, in college acceptance rates. They are applying for grants to pay stipends to the teachers who currently volunteer to stay after school to tutor kids and to increase the number of college campuses the high school students can visit.  I really want them to win, but I know they are up against many probably equally deserving schools and there’s only so much grant money to go around.

Both schools are part of the Chávez network, named for Cesar Chávez.  Their mascot is an eagle, an homage to the symbol of the United Farm Workers.  By a strange co-incidence, the mascot of Noah’s middle school is also an eagle. It was a strange thread tying these campuses together.  The cafeteria of the charter high school is called The Eagle Café; there were posters of eagles in a couple of the magnet middle school classrooms. Everywhere I went, I was seeing eagles.  Halfway through the tour of Noah’s new school, I started humming, “Fly Like an Eagle.”

Of course, there are significant differences between the schools.  The charter schools are open enrollment; that’s part of their mission.  The magnet Humanities program has a competitive admission process and an advanced curriculum.  There was some diversity among the admitted students at Noah’s school. I saw kids of all races, but it was definitely a majority white crowd.

Do I feel some white liberal guilt about this? Yeah, I do, because Noah’s school sounds like it will be such a wonderful place for him to learn and grow over the next three years.  At one point during the orientation, Beth leaned over and whispered to me, “I want to go here.” I knew what she meant.  In their English class at the beginning of sixth grade they will be reading Watership Down, The Hobbit, and Animal Farm (I lost track of the reading list after that). In seventh grade, they study and perform Shakespeare.  (There’s a stage built into the classroom for this express purpose.)  They learn to use a university library for research in the seventh grade. They design car bumpers and pretend to be a forensic unit investigating a food poisoning case in science class. They take a media class every year. One of the sixth-grade projects is to make an animated film of a Greek myth (using Garage Band, a favorite program of Noah’s) for the soundtrack.  In eighth grade, they take a five-day field trip to New York City for the purpose of making documentary films, which are shown at the end of the year at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring. Now tell the truth, don’t you want to go there, too?

As we left the school, Beth asked Noah, “Are you ready to be an eagle?”  He responded with the shriek of a bird of prey.  I suspect it was a yes.

The next night we were at the high school both kids will most likely attend. It’s our home school and both the math/science and humanities magnets are housed there, so no matter where their interests take them, they will probably end up there.  Mike, June’s basketball coach, had gotten the idea that seeing a basketball game might improve the girls’ game. (The Purple Pandas have lost all six of their games so far, but their morale remains high, thanks to Mike’s sensitive and positive coaching.) The Pandas wore their team shirts and sat together, watching the game pretty intently for five and six year olds.  At half time, they were invited down to the court to exchange high-fives with the home team.  This was the highlight of the game for a lot of them. They kept asking, “When will it be half time? When will we do the high fives?” There were cheerleaders at the game and Beth and I wondered if June would be more interested in their uniforms and routines than the game, especially when we saw the enormous bows that had in their hair for some reason. June definitely took notice, but as we walked back to the car, she was running up the sidewalk as fast as she could, darting to the left and weaving to the right, pretending to be a big girl, running across a basketball court, heading straight for the basket.

I want them to fly like eagles, all of them, on basketball courts and athletic fields, in classrooms and on stages and in science labs, the kids who enter middle school years beyond grade-level work and those who enter years behind and those who are smack dab in the middle. Is that so much to ask?