Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #033. First published in the St.  Cloud Times Apr. 27, 2010

When I took "the renewal of human community" as my Times Writers Group theme, I figured many of my columns would be devoted to barriers to such renewal, and there have been plenty of those to keep me occupied.

But in the past couple of weeks I've attended two events that rate high in the positive renewal of human community category.

Public forums — one at Apollo High School, the other at Technical High School — were organized by the St. Cloud school board's Community Linkages Committee. (Disclosure: my wife is a committee member.)

The theme was "Exploring Student 'Success': A Dialogue with Students of Color."

A group of students and their parents (in one case from Apollo, North Junior High, and the Area Learning Center, the other from Tech and South, more than 30 people in all), sat in a circle and had a conversation about what has led to the students' academic and extracurricular success.

Honoring the students for their achievements was a major purpose, but the forums also provided insight into factors that might help close the achievement gap in the district.

In a circle around the student/parent group were district administrators and building principals who, in the second part of the program, changed places with them and recounted what they had heard.

The evening concluded when students, parents, school officials and community members who were in the audience gathered at tables to talk about and write down what seemed to them most significant in what had been said.

What we heard

The students and parents were invited to tell their stories. What we heard was moving, occasionally wrenching, sometimes funny ("My dad said, 'I'm not going to a retirement home. You have to build me a house. So study hard!'"), and always instructive.

Especially memorable was an account of a moment when "I got into a fight and was about to be expelled," but the school decided to trust the student's potential, and "I took it as a chance to turn my life around."

Everything confirmed the judgment of Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book, "Outliers." Success requires hard work, yes, but that hard work is set in the context of support from family, social structures such as schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, extracurricular activities, and the entire community.

Gladwell's conclusion: "Those who succeed are those who have been given opportunities — and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them." Or, as one of the forum participants put it, "It's a matter of personal choice, but it can't be done alone."

The students credited their parents and teachers and coaches (and, in some cases, their siblings) with involvement in their lives, and with giving them the curse/blessing of high expectations. Even the student who said, "I hated it when my parents came to conferences!" and another who spoke in familiar adolescentese ("If I didn't do my homework, my mom and dad got on my case!") recognized that parental concern was essential to their success.

Different cases

Students and parents made clear that there is no one story that fits all. "All three of my kids have different learning styles."

The challenges for those who arrive with little or no knowledge of English are especially acute, and as a school board member remarked, those who have mastered the language demonstrate a strength that is of enormous benefit to the entire community.

The students frequently talked about the future, about moving forward. ("It isn't 'just high school.' It's preparation for the chance to have a good and productive life.") Some even talked about learning from failures, because "being successful isn't a bed of roses." A school board member said it's important to think not in terms of winners and losers, but winners and potential winners.

The forums explored the success narrative — constructing new and fresh perspectives from multiple sources. No one denies the historical and social forces that weigh heavily on students of color. But the forums demonstrated that sometimes those constraints belong, at most, in the footnotes. They need not be the main theme of the text.