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Student Success: It’s All Relative

Bronx Classroom Tales

StudentHow do you tell your top students that they are still way behind peers outside their urban, “low skills” school without dousing any hope to succeed?


With this year’s new senior class, the lesson we learned from last year’s students just is not clicking – namely that graduating from high school is not a guarantee and neither is getting into college.


Because many of our brightest students have already finished most of New York State’s curriculum requirements, and because they are bright enough to read their transcript, they want shortened schedules which drop unnecessary credits and they don’t want to work terribly hard in the classes that remain. They’ve caught senioritis before the year even started.

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When Students Don’t Know Their Competition
Despite my please that many universities require four years of math and two years of foreign language, even if New York State high schools don’t, our seniors insist that they are not applying to those colleges. If history repeats itself, they probably won’t.


Like most of our seniors from last year, they’ll most likely apply to New York City and State universities as well as local community colleges (a requirement of our guidance department). A majority will get into and attend the latter. By time April comes, they’ll feel disappointed and somehow cheated by the whole process.


“We got A’s in every class you gave us. We turned in everything on time,” they’ll remind us.


Yes, but your SAT scores are low even when using the old 1600 point scale as opposed to today’s 2400, we’ll think.


Manage Motivation vs. the Harsh Truth
One of the many challenges for the higher skills students attending our “low skills high school” (a majority of our students come in reading below grade level and have been held back at some point) is that they forget, if they ever knew, that they have a large peer group out there that have just as good of grades if not better and they want to go to college just as bad. It is this group of peers with whom they will be competing at the post secondary level – not the 40% of students in the Bronx who have dropped out by time they reach 12th grade, which is closer to 60% for the district my school belongs to.


I struggle with the idea of being honest with my students about what they are up against. Sometimes I think I’m further pulling the wool over their eyes by giving them grades that they certainly wouldn’t get at a competitive high school and other times I fear I’m being too harsh, too cynical.


I want to motivate them to work harder but don’t want to discourage them by telling them that realistically, they’re behind in the game, by no fault of their own. By and large, our current system of higher education does not reward students for speaking two languages or knowing how to survive very intimidating walks home. It does reward standardized test scores.

Perhaps the solution then is a mixture of tough love and some test prep. Even then I fear for this year’s college aspiring seniors.

They think they’ve reached the last leg of a race which in reality they haven’t even started.


How would you motivate your students while bringing this unfair reality to light? Share in the comments section!


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