In January 2013, one of our new students was a fourth grade boy, T. This little 10 year-old had been hanging around outside the center during tutoring almost every day for a year. One day he decided he wanted to join New Hope.
Our first priority was to assess his educational needs. It took him forty-five minutes to pronounce his 18 spelling words. Although T was in fourth grade, he could not read. T’s math class was learning long division, but he had not learned addition. He did not even know 1+1. I wish I were exaggerating. He was more than four grade levels behind. How does this happen?
T lives in a noisy, crowded house with his blind grandma and several siblings. His loving grandma is unable to help him with his school work. He started school behind and steadily slipped further and further behind each year. How is it possible for a student get promoted year after year without being able to read or add?
The underlying assumption is that when children fail a grade, they require Special Education. The state does not want to dole out more money for Special Education because those services are costly. So these at-risk children are promoted. The automatic promotions come to an abrupt halt in fourth grade, when students must pass the LEAP test to advance to fifth grade.
We did all we could to help him get caught up. Because T hated school work so much, it took him forty minutes to read for twenty. The same was true with math. After 80 or 90 minutes of struggle, both T and his tutor were exhausted. By April, he had made progress. He was reading at the first grade level and he knew all of his addition facts, but this was not nearly enough progress to pass his fourth grade LEAP test. T would repeat the fourth grade.
When tutoring restarted in the fall, T had lost all of his gains over the summer. He started off the tutoring year discouraged. By October, however, he was back on track. He started working on his multiplication facts and began reading books at the second grade reading level. After a four week Christmas break, once again, T forgot what he had learned during the fall. He stayed in tutoring until March, but by then he knew that learning his 4’s and 5’s on his multiplication table would not be enough. Even though he had worked very hard for more than a year, he knew he would fail the LEAP test yet again. In frustration, he quit tutoring.
What can we do with the boys like T who have slipped through the system? We already know that if at-risk children are not at grade level reading by the end of third grade, they are 15 times more likely to drop out of school. In 2012, the graduation rate in Lafayette was 72%, but for at-risk students the rate is only 52%.
We also know that there is a direct link between illiteracy and criminal activity. According to the Literacy Foundation, 85% of the youth that interface with the juvenile courts are functionally illiterate. The stakes are high. So, what are we to do with the 48% who do not graduate?
The obvious solution is early intervention. In Lafayette, there is not a mandatory remediation for students until they fail the fourth grade LEAP. Study after study indicates that the 4th grade is too late. Surely seeing our at-risk students graduate high school is worth any additional expense of intervening in kindergarten or first grade.
Even kindergarten, however, is not soon enough. By the age of four, the children growing up in poverty are already 18 months behind developmentally. If these same children attend programs like, Head Start at age three, then by the time they enter kindergarten they will actually be two years ahead of their peers instead of being two years behind. Early intervention is the place to start.
What if it is too late for early intervention? What about the children who have slipped through the cracks? What do we do with these children?
Shortly after T left our tutoring program, New Hope began a teaching garden. T became very interested and he decided that he wanted to work in the garden. Originally, the teaching garden was to be an extension of our existing tutoring program. We had never considered offering the garden to those outside our regular programming. Now we realize that the teaching garden is one way we can continue to touch relationally and build up kids like T. Every day that we work on in the garden, he is there. T helped us plant, cultivate, mulch and water the garden. He is curious about how the plants grow and about gardening. In the teaching garden we are able to teach him soft skills, like responsibility and enjoying the fruits of your labor. The garden has been a way to cultivate his curiosity and to continue a mentoring relationship with him.
We are learning that child’s brain is resilient until about age 14. A three-year old child’s IQ can be increased by up to 30 points. But by age 11 or 12 (5th and 6th grade) extraordinary efforts only produce minimal results. Yet, most of our educational efforts revolve around enhancing a child’s IQ (passing the LEAP). On the other hand, the brain can still assimilate soft skills (character development) until one reaches the 30’s.
Character is developed by being continually taught and modeled right thinking, right caring and right doing over a long period of time by a capable and caring adult. Ultimately it is character that makes us responsible adults. Is it possible for a young man who has dropped out of school to learn soft skills (for example, emotional intelligence, responsibility, hope and resilience) in order to become a productive member of society?
Researchers have discovered that the greatest benefit of early intervention is not in IQ gains or test scores. IQ increases have proven to be fleeting without constant, ongoing intervention. The only early intervention gains that remain is character. Researchers are now finding that character is actually a more accurate predictor of whether a child will be employed or incarcerated.
It turns out that soft skills, such as character, are the true gateway to success. It appears that without soft skills, education is not possible and when formal education is no longer possible, soft skills can still be learned. As a society we have rightly placed a lot of weight on education, but it is beginning to appear that character development comes prior to academic learning.
At New Hope, it is our prayer and vision to have a pre-school to serve the children in our neighborhood and to provide early intervention our kids need. In the mean time, we will continue to wrestle with the question, “How do we reach those who have slipped through the cracks; how do we reach the lost boys?”
Ultimately, we believe the answer for all children is the same: all learning and all positive life change start with character.
Thank you for your prayers and support.