President's Corner                                           Page 50


Poverty Is No Excuse —

It’s a Challenge



Amy Sichel 

Poverty is the great divider when it comes to the quality of education that students receive. As Dan Domenech, AASA’s executive director, posits in his presentation “Champions for Children and Public Education:” “The achievement gap that seems to be the bane of our existence is driven primarily by economics. While we have made gains in closing the racial achievement gap, the economic achievement gap has grown wider.” Poverty, he says, is “a reality, not an excuse.”

Our lowest-performing schools serve the largest percentage of children living in poverty. The situation is the same in South Africa, as I learned during my recent trip there with AASA. Like American children, South African children are warm, friendly, proud of their work and school, and eager to share what they have learned.

The children who live in “informal settlements,” which are like shantytowns, attend school in poor facilities with limited resources and larger class sizes. Yet the South Africans refuse to use poverty as an excuse, and they work hard, as we do, to raise academic standards for all students. The many teachers and administrators we met were proud of their schools and so excited to share the successes of their students.

The economic structure for education in South Africa is rather interesting. The stipend for a child learner (the term they use for students) is a fixed amount from the government. Each school has a governing board that develops policies and procedures for that school. In wealthier schools, the governing board establishes a tuition fee for each learner, which supplements the government stipend. This differs little from our system, which is based on property taxes where wealthier communities generally support larger per-pupil expenditures.

In South Africa’s schools, 33 languages are spoken. The government has approved 11 “home” languages to be taught. Each child learns the selected home language of the school as well as English. This is interesting, as a child could speak Xhosa at home because it’s the family’s tribal language, yet learn Zulu in school.

The South African education system has gone through dramatic, positive changes since 1994 when apartheid ended. Prior to 1994, some students were educated minimally, and mathematics was taught only to the elite. Now all children are entitled to an education, although preschool education is limited and difficult to arrange in poor areas.

Previously, teachers who taught in schools serving many poor children were minimally qualified and may not have completed teacher preparation programs. This is no longer the case. Many of the positive changes since 1994 are based on good teaching methods used in the United States and Great Britain.

A Voice for All
At our recent staff in-service presentation in Abington, Pa., Pedro Noguera, the Peter L. Agnew professor of education at New York University, stated: “The primary responsibility of leaders is to ensure that conditions conducive to good teaching and learning are in place and that all children have the opportunity to learn. We know we are succeeding in closing the gap when the backgrounds of students (race and class) cease to be predictors of achievement.”

I have visited schools in Israel, China, Cuba, Cambodia, Vietnam and South Africa, and I always come away with the same thought: There is no place like home … and no education system like ours!

In a recent presentation, Dan Domenech states: “I now refer to school superintendents as ‘champions for children and public education.’ The superintendent is the voice for all children in the community, including the many that would have no voice, if not for the superintendent.”

That is our challenge, but also something we as superintendents can be proud to accomplish.

Amy Sichel is AASA president for 2013-14. E-mail: AmySichel@Abington.k12.pa.us


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