In the world of school reform, there are two ways of thinking about kids' families and backgrounds. A 2013 movie called In The Hive shows why we need a third.
Approach #1: Focus all possible energy and resources on the kid herself. Working with families can seem like a black hole, with seriously low return on investment. Better to concentrate on equipping kids to transcend their backgrounds with a strong academic foundation and disciplined habits. The KIPP schools and Success Academies are education examples of the save-the-kid strategy. These strict, so-called "no excuses" schools have long days, demerit systems, and practices that resemble military-school environments. The students who can stick with it do better than their peers on tests and college enrollment.
Approach #2: Acknowledge that kids can't really thrive without bringing the family along. Dedicating resources to help families overcome obstacles to their children's learning not only promotes academics but also builds the kid's support system. Unfortunately, programs like home-based visiting serve only "at risk" little kids, sending trained support people into homes to help families develop healthy routines. Without similar social services help for older kids, schools are left with taking over family support. Save-the-family schools have a delicious, welcoming school climate and rich family engagement. The students in these often home-grown and stand-alone charter schools perform better than average, but not as well as "no excuses" schools.
But both these approaches have pitfalls, because they operate in a vacuum.
Approach #3: Back up and look at the bigger picture. The community is the field in which these kids and families are growing. Its modeling, nurture and gifts are the conditions for all its people thriving. Invest in the community that supports the family that supports the kid. This approach seems to be creeping back into fashion, as Approaches #1 and #2 are increasingly showing their limitations.
Separating kids from their loved ones is an obnoxious idea no matter how messy the family. But given schools' limited resources, chaotic families can wreck their kids despite schools' best efforts. Social conditions are deteriorating. In 2000, 16% of children under 18 lived in poverty. Today it's 22%, with 45% considered "low income." And income is only one form of social poverty.
In The Hive shows both the kid and the family isolated from a community context.
The movie's protagonist is a 16-year-old black youth named Xtra Keys who's committed a dumb but serious crime. He's been given a choice between juvie prison or an alternative school for delinquents, called The Hive — a loving portrait of Approach #1. Xtra is so street hard that he might have taken the prison route if he didn't want a better life for his infant son so badly.
The Hive pulls no punches. In a powerful moment, an administrator, Mr. Hollis, completely loses his cool trying to get the boys to face their plight. He crams all but a few boys into one corner of the room to emphasize how most will fail — drop out, go to prison or die on the streets. He adds more boys to the crowd until just Xtra is left. Hollis hasn't singled him out for salvation, but constructed a living graph of the odds young boys of color face when already in the judicial system. The Hive can only help to a point.
Xtra's home is a superb example of why Approach #2 seems futile. His scary dad is in prison. The substance-addled mom can't hold a job and is mostly useless to her kids. Xtra's live-in girlfriend feels that he's growing superior to her with his fancy schooling. Eventually she leaves, taking his precious baby.
At the end, no Hollywood triumph nor tragedy. It's just a quagmire.
Whatever Xtra's learned from the school, his family will drag him back down. He's seen a better path, but so what? In a final shot, his face shows only a bad feeling about what comes next. The school can't bring back his son, or deal with his mother, or raise his brothers and sisters.
So where's his community — the neighbors, church, other functional social network? How's he supposed to manage, never mind thrive? Public social services could remove all the kids from the dreadful mom, but that would only traumatize them more without denting the source of Xtra's various problems. Rotting in prison, or even rotting in the Hive, doesn't help him give back to his community the repair he owes, having committed a crime. He needs to rebuild his place, his neighborhood, while it rebuilds him. A new report makes the same point, but notes that so little thought has gone into bringing whole communities back to health that there are few examples.
What we have here is a failure of imagination. A numbed public can picture a kid or a family. But the public has a far harder time seeing the many children who are growing up in nutrient-free communities that yield a scant harvest of successful adults.
America's sad performance on international tests is far more an indictment of the quality of our communities than it is of the schools themselves. The Hive, like other schools, doesn't exist in a vacuum any more than a kid or a family.