Just over two years ago, I walked into my classroom at Potter-Thomas, a bilingual K-8 School in West Kensington. I remember one of my fellow Teach for America corps members took a picture of me as I looked at my classroom for the first time. I spun around with my arms in the air and exclaimed, “It’s all mine!” I was excited and motivated to teach my 27 first grade students to read.
I spent numerous hours during my time at Villanova tutoring students at Olney High School, on service trips in rural Nicaragua and serving at local soup kitchens. My senior thesis focused on inequalities in the education system in this country, and my master’s in international development concentrated on education policies in the developing world. My coursework and experiences provided a limited foundation from which to start, but nothing could have prepared me for falling in love with 27 first grade students who are truly living the inequalities of the education system.
On the first day of school, I shuffled those 27 first graders into my roomr unsure of what to expect. One little girl, Tamara, looked at me with the most amazing green eyes and then hid under her desk screaming, kicking the chair and banging her head. When I tried to hand Tamara a book, she threw it back at me and screamed, “I can’t read!” Tamara was just one of the challenges in front of me every day.
I soon became frustrated, exhausted and overwhelmed by the frequent violence, broken facilities, missing paperwork, lack of procedures or systems and overall atmosphere of negativity that permeated most of the school. The more I learned, the more overwhelmed I became with the challenge in front of me. Since my school actually turns students away from kindergarten because of space restrictions, I had many students who arrived in first grade never having attended any type of school – they were unable to identify the letters of the alphabet and even unsure of how to hold a pencil.
I began to realize the true meaning of “It’s all mine!” I thought that I would be the primary influence on most of the variables affecting my students’ experiences at school. I quickly realized this was not the case. I had little to no control or influence on the majority of variables affecting my school … “It was not at all, all mine!”
The only thing that was “mine” was the overwhelming responsibility for the only first grade year these 27 children would have. I decided that I would have to focus my energy within the walls of my classroom and on the academic achievement of my 27 students.
The most important skill for all first graders to learn is how to read. And yet, in September, only 9 percent of my students were able to identify the different sounds that make up a word. Tamara knew the letters of the alphabet, but when I asked her to identify sounds, she stared at me blankly.
To tackle this challenge, I soon realized that the most important and influential partners for my students’ academic success were their parents. Luckily, I speak Spanish, which helped me to fully communicate with the parents of all my students. I started sending home regular parent communication, talking to parents almost every day before and after school about ways that they could help their children at home and hosting parent workshops in my classroom. Many of the parents went above and beyond even my expectations for their involvement.
Forming close relationships with the parents of my students not only created communication between home and school and ensured homework completion, but also allowed me to see that these parents’ dreams for their children are the same as parents anywhere – they just want their children to succeed. Investing the parents laid the groundwork to focus my energy on engaging my students in their academic achievement. First grade is an exciting year because to the students it can seem that they learn to read “all of the sudden” – it just clicks. Once they see their progress, they are invested completely. When the administration decided in January that they would no longer allow recess at the school, my students cheered and exclaimed, “We get to spend more time in the classroom!”
By May, 91 percent of my students walked out the door with the skills needed to be ready for second grade reading. Ahhh … the hours spent coaxing Tamara out from under her desk and encouraging her to hold a book without throwing it back at me, the 5:30 a.m. alarm sounding every day, the Saturdays and Sundays spent lesson planning and calling parents were all worth it the minute she looked at me with those beautiful eyes and exclaimed, “I can read!” These 27 students now had a foundation that no one could ever take away. Not only were they reading, but they also believed that they could achieve their dreams if they kept working hard – they had seen their own progress.
I was blessed to have the opportunity to sit on the carpet and read “Charlotte’s Web” and hug Kelvin when he burst into tears after hearing that Charlotte had, in fact, died. Vannetta, a second grader, taught me so much about how to deal with loss after she watched her mother die just a few hours before coming to school that morning. Najee, a student who had previously spent much of his time in trouble in the office, looked at me with a big smile when I asked him what he wants to be when he gets older and exclaimed, “I’m going to be your lawyer, Ms. Pillard!”
The time we spent together can never be taken away from my students or from me. We are all different people because of what we have learned from each other. My students left my classroom reading, and I left with a new perspective through which I now view everything. I saw inequality firsthand – where a child is born in this country largely determines if he will succeed in school and have access to the rest of life’s opportunities – but I also saw that an individual can make a difference. It is possible to close the achievement gap, and the cause is too urgent to ignore. I urge all of Villanova’s students to consider what they can do to help solve the problem.
Nora Pillard graduated from Villanova in 2002. She returned to Villanova as the assistant director of undergraduate grants and awards.