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How to make sure your kid fails at school.

This post is inspired by an absolutely wonderful little girl that I had the pleasure of tutoring last year. First, some history:

The little girl is from a military family, and came to our school at the start of the second grade. Her dad was stationed in Italy, where she had spent her entire life. Because her dad is american, she is fluent in english – english was the language spoken at home, even though mom is Italian. .
Even though this little girl (Lets call her Mary, even though it isn’t her real name) was in the second grade, she hardly knew her alphabet, didn’t know any of the sounds that letters make, couldn’t count to 10 reliably, and couldn’t name multi-digit numbers. She was placed in the second grade based on her age – academically, she should have been in the first grade, but by age she should have been in the 3rd, so second was the compromise.

Mary’s teacher gave up on e her very quickly. If the subject material was beyond what Mary was comfortable with, she would simply tune out and daydream. Because she wasn’t disruptive, this was pretty much allowed. At the end of the first month of school, I was told that Mary was “hopeless” and “unteachable”. She was tested, and didn’t fit into any learning disability label, so she didn’t qualify for any of the special ed funding. Because she wasn’t “learning disabled”, almost all of the special classes that might have helped her were not available to her. Instead, she got a little help from some of the staff that help the kids that are a bit behind – an hour a week with a reading specialist, an appointment with the school shrink once a month, and that was about it.

Not too surprisingly, Mary’s parents were getting a bit worried. Mary had already been “held back” one year, and simply was not learning. Her teacher had written her off, and as long as she didn’t raise a fuss in class, she was going to daydream her way through the year. After I spent a few days in Mary’s class as a volunteer, her parents approached me and asked me to tutor Mary. They signed releases to allow me to review the tests that Mary had taken, discuss her with the teachers and other school staff, and did everything they could to make it possible for me to access the evaluations and opinions that the school had generated.

After two sessions, it became very clear that Mary is no slouch. While we worked on solidifying her alphabet, we started putting sounds to letters. The connections were almost instant – a few repetitions, and the “non-changing” sounds were down pat. The letters that change sound depending on their location in a word took a bit longer, and the vowels were pretty tough – but that is expected for most second graders. Math was equally rapid. At the end of our first session, she could count to 20, recognize the written numbers, and could place the appropriate number of objects into a pile.

I worked with Mary for about 2 1/2 months – until her father was re-stationed over an hour away. In that time, Mary mastered counting to 100 and beyond, the concept of “places” in a number, addition and subtraction of both single and multiple digit numbers, counting by 2, 5, and 10, and telling time on an analogue clock. Her reading skills also flowered. She moved from picture books to reading Dr. Seuss in 10 weeks.

Clearly, Mary’s problem is not her ability to learn. I don’t think my teaching abilities are good enough to make that much of a difference, so what could have caused such a dramatic change?

There were two reasons that Mary was failing. The first was that the school had written her off. It is an unfortunate reality that if a kid isn’t a problem, or doesn’t fit into a special ed slot, they are often left to flounder until they are so far behind that they do qualify for special ed. By then, it’s usually too late. The problems in the schools are well known, and I’ve blogged about them enough to not want to go over it all again here.

The second problem is the one that I want to make sure people understand. It was simply that Mary’s parents didn’t do anything to teach her at home. They are wonderful people, and have a wonderful home, but they simply don’t do anything to provide mental stimulation at home. Neither of them is a recreational reader, and Mary never had someone to read to her or with her at home. Because she is so capable of self-entertaining – with dolls, a sandbox, or pretty much anything, it is easy to allow her to take care of herself. When she got too bored, there was always TV. While I was working with her, I encouraged Mary’s parents to take 15 minutes every night to read with her, to do some math problems with her, to do something to show her that it was good to use these skills at home – they weren’t just for when I was working with her. This simply was not their parenting style, and they never really understood how important it was.

I saw Mary again last week – her parents invited me to visit, so I trucked over, and we had a great evening together. Two things that happened that evening are what really triggered this blog entry. First, when I first got out of the car, Mary came charging across the yard, and pulled short about 10 feet from me. At the top of her lungs, she counted to 100 by tens, then by fives, with a huge grin on her face. When she finished, she charged the last 10 feet and threw herself at me. I’ve worked with a lot of kids, and I can’t remember any of them that was ever so proud to be able to prove that she still had what she had learned with me.

The second thing was that she simply would not leave me alone. Once I had disentangled myself from her, she ran into the house. She came back out a few minutes later with a copy of Fox in Socks, and insisted that we sit down so that she could read it to me. She read the book, and it was a real eye-opener. Mary was still reading at almost exactly the same level she was the last time I had worked with her – almost a year before. She spent the rest of the evening bringing me books so she could read to me, asking me to make up math problems for her, and doing everything she could to turn the visit into another tutoring session.

Mary is a perfect example of a kid that is falling through the cracks. She is desperate to have someone who is willing to teach her, and she isn’t getting it at school or at home. I worked with Mary for a short period – a total of about 20 hours – and as far as I could tell, that was the last time she had made any progress. Her new school is not paying any more attention to her than her old school did. Her parents are focusing on other things, and Mary is simply being left adrift. Sure, the schools are at least partly at fault, but its her parents that are really dropping the ball.

So next time you’re too busy, tired, distracted, or whatever to sit down and read with your kids, or help them with their homework, think about Mary. She is in the 3rd grade now, and has math and reading skills that are appropriate for an early second grader. And she hasn’t moved an inch in  a year.

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