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How did we get here?

ELINOR R. TATUM Publisher and Editor in Chief | 12/16/2011, 11:06 a.m.
When guidance counselors need to care

Now is the time of year when New York City public school eighth graders have to make their decisions about where they are going to go to high school.

They fill out a form with their preferences and then, depending on their test scores and availability, they may get into an elite-or a top quality or even an average/above-average-high school in the city and must choose from the options available to them. But is that really a choice?

When you go to insideschools.org and search for public high schools in New York City, what you find will be horrifying to many. There is a statistic on each school's page called "college readiness," which shows the percentage of entering ninth graders who graduate four years later with Regents exam scores of 75 for math and 89 for English, scores high enough to avoid remediation at CUNY colleges.

The site shows that the citywide average for college readiness is a mere 21 percent. This means that only one in five of our graduating students is prepared to go to college. This means that four in five students graduating from New York City public schools are not ready for higher education and, if they are lucky, will only be able to attend a community college.

How is this possible? Now, of course, the city does have a high proportion of immigrants for whom English may not be their first language, which may push a fraction behind. It has been shown statistically that children who come from impoverished/underprivileged backgrounds may also enter the system less prepared and may find themselves further behind over time. But do these reasonable explanations explain the entire picture? Or is something else happening as well?

America used to be a place of opportunity. Our children are supposed to be educated and have the ability to move upward and onward. But it does not seem like we are educating our young people, when at least 79 percent of them are not prepared for college when they graduate from high school.

We are supposed to have the education mayor. He is the billionaire businessman, the so-called "genius" who claims to have all the answers when it comes to fixing our broken school system, which, of course, overwhelmingly services and lets down children of color.

His answer has been charter schools, but all too often the numbers in his marquee schools have been abysmal, and many of those highly touted charter schools have been forced to close their doors. Actually, few of the charter schools have been high schools, because the dirty little secret is that high schools are far more complicated to run because the subject material is more complicated to teach and many of the social challenges facing our children really start to appear. In fact, it is not just high schools that are difficult to run-middle schools are also quite difficult.

We must give Dennis Walcott a little bit of credit for putting some emphasis on this piece of the puzzle, which has been sorely neglected by previous schools chancellors.

So what is the answer? We need to work together. We need public schools that take the whole child into account, as well as the teachers. And we must recognize the complexity of our children's needs, whether they are shaped by issues of class, race, immigrant status or special needs.

Students and teachers alike must be able to come to a place where they are challenged, respected and able to be creative in the ways they are taught and learn. We need to move forward and step up our game. We have already fallen so far behind-if we get any worse, our children are completely doomed.

Twenty-one percent college ready in the 21st century. Really? Do we call this progress?