Recently, someone asked me what can be done to inspire uninspired kids. He wasn’t referring to low income, troubled students who no longer see future value in education, although that question haunts educators too. Instead, he was addressing the boredom and disinterest many well-off, inherently bright students express even in state-of-the art learning environments. I didn’t have a quick, simple solution for him. Instead, I shared the story of a student who fit this profile but who gradually began to learn from me because she wanted to learn for me. As a teacher, I focus on those elements within my capacity to control – my ability to build an authentic relationship with a student.
But I know that there are other means of addressing the apathy many students feel, solutions that will require an imaginative and collaborative response from the school community, not simply the actions of a single teacher. Personally, I believe the starting point should be the focus on the word “relationship.”
Today, I read an opinion article in the New York Times titled “Beyond SATs, Finding Success in Numbers.” The essay chronicles the work of Deborah Bial who in 1989 started the Posse Foundation. Working at an after-school program for New York City students, she encountered a former student, “bright” and “successful,” who had dropped out of an elite college because he couldn’t succeed without, as he explained, “his posse.” He needed a core group of individuals on whom he could rely and with whom he could relate. He needed relationships. In recognition of this need, Bial created her foundation.
As the article explains, “From her work with students around the city, she chose five New York City high school students who were clearly leaders — dynamic, intelligent, creative, resilient — but who might not have had the SAT scores to get into good schools. Vanderbilt University was willing to admit them all, tuition-free. The students met regularly in their senior year of high school, through the summer, and at college. Surrounded by their posse, they all thrived.”
The Foundation has become a huge success. Currently, 40 colleges offer scholarships to the 600 “posse” students selected annually from eight different cities. These schools clearly recognize a diamond in the rough: although Posse Scholar’s median combined SAT score is only 1056, exceptionally low compared to the median score at the colleges they ultimately attend, 90% graduate, half on the dean’s list and a quarter with honors.
Of course, in the end, it’s not the professors, facilities, or the academic opportunity that ensures their success. It’s the support they gained from their buddies: “The posse was key.”
I shared this essay with my husband this morning who had just returned from a 5 am grueling run in the rain with his own posse, a core group of friends who maintain a hardcore exercise regimen. He said there’s many mornings when he’d just as soon stay in bed, but a posse member’s text forces him to throw off the covers.
I think about the makeup of my own posse, those individuals who challenge and shape my thinking about education, who encourage my professional pursuits and bolster any flagging spirits. These individuals have been critical to my success, and hopefully I, theirs.
Bial’s Posse Foundation is such an imaginative, unique response to a critical problem. I think there are ways for schools to address the apathy many students express. Perhaps, we just need to round up a posse and develop a new plan.