I teach a civics class at a small private school that was opened this year in response to the issues the families were dealing with in the public schools their children attended. Some of those issues included concerns over lack of discipline, ideologies taught that were in direct opposition to the family’s values and beliefs, and low expectations for student achievement. The latter allowed some of the students to move almost all the way through their public school career without mastering the basics academically.
The new school is located in an urban part of town and the students live in areas where their “reside schools” were failing to adequately educate their students. One elementary school has 370 students in grades K-5 and, according to state test scores, 6% of students are at least proficient in math and 13% in reading. A high school some of them attended has 545 students in grades 6-12. According to state test scores, 24% of students are at least proficient in math and 47% are proficient in reading.
To say that these students were not used to being held to high standards would be a major understatement. That changed the minute their parents enrolled them into their current school. Pastor Cecil Blye, who is the Senior Principal of the school, More Grace Christian Academy, not only encourages them to pursue excellence in everything they do, but he demands it of them. This brings us to my latest assignment for them in civics class.
After discovering that none of the students (ranging in age from 10-17) had ever read the Declaration of Independence or The Bill of Rights, we focused our attention there. As we moved on to The Gettysburg Address and discussed its significance and context, I challenged them to memorize it. Of course, I was immediately met with all the reasons they could not, but at More Grace, excuses are not acceptable.
They had a week to memorize it, and I even gave them a song to help them along. It was obvious on the day of recitation that not all of them gave it their best effort. I was disappointed but planned to grade them accordingly. Pastor was less forgiving and made them spend the next week mastering it. No excuses.
When the day came to redeem themselves, they were nervous, but prepared and determined to get it right. Once they did, they were incredibly proud of themselves and the effort they put into it. They also learned that they could do it, and they were glowing with confidence afterward.
Too often, in today’s public schools, students are robbed of the opportunity to learn just what they are capable of because there is an overwhelming concern for comfort and not inflicting stress on students. My students were nervous. They had experienced stress over the assignment. Then, they conquered both and are better for it now.
This assignment not only familiarized them with one of the greatest speeches ever given, it cultivated perseverance in them that only comes from pursuing excellence. Mediocrity is easy and might not cause immediate stress. Excellence is hard but will lead to a much more fulfilling and purposeful life. We must restore a pursuit of excellence in our schools.