Tuesday, July 19, 2005

No Child Left Behind Act and WASL will leave kids behind


A few weeks ago I sat in the Seahawks football stadium watching my nephew graduate from high school. He was one of the notorious Garfield 44, the record-breaking 44 valedictorians from Garfield this year. I felt a quasi-parental pride as he stepped to the microphone and -- in a voice deeper than I remember -- delivered with conviction a quotation from John Wooden about the value of generosity toward others.

I also felt pride in the diversity among the graduates and the crowd. It was inspiring when society seems to be growing ever more divisive to see a unified celebration of youthful achievement. But as each member of the entire class of 400-plus came forward to accept diplomas, and as the cheering of family and friends rose up from different sections of the stadium, I thought:

How many of these graduates would not be here if the rigid WASL test graduation requirements were in place now, instead of in three years? How many of these whooping and hollering families would instead be struggling with a child who had dropped out of high school, stigmatized as a "failure"? How many younger brothers and sisters will not join their siblings as high school grads?

Over the past four years, I've gotten to know many of the students who are likely to be left behind by the No Child Left Behind Act. I ran a teen anger management group at a Seattle-area community agency, working with students who struggle with the pressures of a society in which to be average is considered failure, and to be below average is to be considered worthless.

I remember one young man who was passionate about working on cars but had difficulty with traditional academics. What troubles me is not that we would want him to graduate high school with minimum competence in basic reading and math, but that he had obviously picked up the dominant social attitude that gives little dignity and respect to an ordinary working-class life.

Beneath the stories of anger, fights, shoplifting and drug abuse, I always see in these kids a deep shame. We do not give them dignified options, and instead they turn to an identity that offers them respect within an alternative society -- the "gangster" or "outlaw" culture.

We need to return to the values embodied by my father, a first-generation American whose parents were from England and Australia. During World War I, my grandfather jumped ship in Canada, illegally crossed the U.S. border and joined the U.S. Army to gain citizenship. He was a house painter with an eighth-grade education. My father earned a Ph.D. and became a top academic officer at Seattle University, but he never gave even a hint that his "career" was of greater value than his father's "job." Perhaps this comes out of the Depression, when any employment was valued and honorable. And he passed this on to his five sons. Some of us hold more working-class jobs and others have advanced degrees, but we know that we all have equal dignity.

Even though most of the teens in my anger management group had been kicked out of various classrooms throughout their school careers, the vast majority completed 10 required sessions and left with new skills and, I believe, a greater sense of self-worth. Each teen who finished the program got a "graduation ceremony" in which I gave them a completion certificate and offered "the traditional ceremonial handshake." On one occasion, the rest of the group spontaneously burst into a rather humorous rendition of "Pomp and Circumstance."

I fear that fewer of these troubled kids will be hearing that song at their own high school graduation ceremonies in the future.

Joe Guppy is a therapist in private practice in Seattle.