By: Curtis Valentine, Deputy Director of the Reinventing America’s Schools Project with the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) and At-Large Member of the Prince George’s County Public School System
Before Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Orleans Parish Public School District graduated only 54% of it’s students on timeand the school district ranked second to last among Louisiana districts in math and reading test scores. Troy Simon represented one of the many students who struggled with reading in elementary school and by fifth grade, he was functionally illiterate.
When asked about his childhood, Troy recalls “School was difficult. My classmates teased me due to my inability to comprehend written words. My teacher would call on me and I would have to endure an awkward silence until she moved on and called on another student.” By every measure we use to determine success and life outcomes in America, Troy Simon should be dead, unemployed, or in jail.
Troy believes a lack of parental engagement played a significant role in his low school performance and diminutive interest in education. Troy says, “My friends were always ahead of me academically because their parents were involved. My Mom and Dad both struggled with reading, but I had friends whose parents had them at a young age too, but they didn’t struggle like me with reading. Overall though, hardly anyone in my community had school spirit or happy feelings about school.”
Troy recalls, “There was a gap where I could go to school and then go home and not hear anything about school. Maybe I was supposed to be the middle man to bridge the gap between my teachers, my parents, and my community but I didn’t—or I didn’t understand how to.”
As a result, Troy found acceptance outside of school; snatching purses in the French Quarter and as a street tap dancer after teaching himself to dance. But following Hurricane Katrina, a short stint in Houston, and what Troy describes as a “spiritual experience,” he began to take school seriously. Troy returned to New Orleans and enrolled in the new Recovery School District (RSD).
The RSD, administered by the Louisiana Department of Education, was created to take over and improve schools failing to meet minimum academic standards for at least four consecutive years. But after Troy discovered that the large class sizes and lax curriculum offered were not conducive to his learning needs, he enrolled in Abramson Sci Academy, a public charter high school that emphasized college readiness. Founded in 2008 with only 80 students, by 2009 Abramson Sci Academy students ranked second in Math and first in English in the RSD
Troy excelled. He graduated from Abramson Sci Academy and earned a prestigious POSSE Scholarship.As a Posse Scholar, Troy could choose from 54 different colleges and universities. Troy selected Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York. Despite the early challenges of transitioning to college course work, Troy graduated with honors from Bard College and is currently a joint Nursing/Divinity graduate student at Yale University.
Evidence is clear about the impact of parental engagement on student discipline and student achievement. The United Negro College Fund found a link between parental involvement and positive educational outcomes including higher grade-point averages; increased achievement in reading, writing and math; lower dropout rates; and academic self-efficacy. Although all students benefit from parental involvement, research by ProfessionalSchool Counseling shows that parental involvement for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds significantly impacts their children’s school performance.
But Troy, does not let policy makers and school leaders off the hook. He believes that the future of New Orleans and the Orleans Parrish School System depends on school accountability. “Failing schools would not be tolerated in privileged communities; and therefore, it should not be tolerated in minority communities as well because minority students deserve the same privileges, opportunities, and access to a quality education like any other privilege community and school.
The national education law, ESSA, now requires that school reporting must show improvement for all groups of students and faster improvement for groups that are behind. School rating systems must also reflect the progress of underperforming student subgroups and schools can no longer depend on overall “good averages;” while neglecting or failing to facilitate academic achievement for their most vulnerable students.
Fortunately, Troy plans to use his Yale Degree to support other young Africans-Americans. Troy’s goal is to work in schools to support youth traumatized by violence, but he believes it will take schools and school systems giving him and other educators autonomy to be able to develop relationships with students. Troy believes, “If I am able to connect with the students and their parents, I am able to fully assess what the student needs (partly) and what they are going through and how I can be of any assistance to ensure their success.”
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.