Dashaun is the kind of young man New York Principal Carol Burris thinks could not be expected to handle the Common Core State Standards. Apparently, because Dashaun hasn’t traveled to Scotland to see a tide pool or learned to differentiate between buffalo and bison at Grand Teton National Park, he couldn’t possibly be ready for this whole Common Core thing. But—as Burris
describes in her exchange with a pro-Common Core principal from Florida (jointly posted in Hechinger Report and on Valerie Strauss’ “Answer Sheet” blog)—Burris’ granddaughter had those rich experiences, so she could handle high standards. Why, of course she could. As a former teacher and dean who worked with Dashaun, I am going to ignore what Ms. Burris has to say about Dashaun’s chances, were he to go back and start his schooling all over. I am going to focus instead on what did happen, not on some silly hypothetical being spoken by someone in a position of privilege, someone who in one breath says the standards are developmentally inappropriate and in the next breath, blames the problems on implementation. I’m just thankful that he will never have to hear her condescending voice in his ear.
Dashaun defied the expectations of so many by not allowing himself to be reduced to the sum of his risk factors: African-American, living in poverty, with a single mom and a houseful of half-siblings, his father absent and in prison. His high school transcripts were riddled with F’s, with close to 80 absences in one year. He remembers a year at a prior high school when he would often spend his whole day in the gym without a single adult telling him to go to class. He once was moments away from being incarcerated for alleged involvement in a robbery, unaware there was even a warrant out for his arrest. And, just a couple months back, he and I visited with one another. Not on the streets. Not in a prison. Not at his Mom’s place. Our visit began outside Dashaun’s dormitory at Rhode Island College, where he is three-quarters of the way through his freshman year. How does this happen? How does a young man like this escape what appears to so many to be inevitable? People. The answer is people. Teachers, educators and fellow classmates who believe in him, despite what all the stereotypes try to make them believe. People who believe in his intellect, his strength, his gifts and his potential. There is simply no other explanation for the change in trajectory his life has taken over the past three years. Sure, his third and final high school was smaller; he was one of 300 instead of one of 1,500. But the simple difference was that upon his arrival to his new public charter school, the place where I came to know him, a few people took an extra special interest in him. I used to call him as soon as I noticed he wasn’t in school by 9:30, trying to motivate him to come in for the remainder of the day. It worked more often than it didn’t. Our librarian attended every single basketball game to see him and his teammates shine at something they loved doing. She also convinced (maybe cajoled) her husband into doing something he hadn’t ever considered before—offering full-time summer jobs with his construction company to a few boys on the basketball team. Dashaun was one of them. Others at the school opened their homes to him and his family. Many teachers and staff went above and beyond in small but meaningful ways, ways that said he was loved. And because he was loved, he was also expected to do good work and meet high expectations. He was not going to get a pass. Not surprisingly, during his portfolio presentation at the end of senior year, he explained, through sobs and stammers, that he would not have made it without the adults he had come to know in this, his third and final high school. Then, a few days later, on his 20th birthday, he crossed the stage and received his high school diploma. For the first time, he had been surrounded by educators (and their families) who not only believed in him, but who had the desire and even more importantly the ability to help him. Those same people and (hopefully many more) will now do what they can to ensure that he succeeds in graduating from college. Why? It’s simple. Because we believe in him.
Photo of Erika Sanzi and Dashaun at his high school graduation.
Erika Sanzi is a mother of three sons and taught in public schools in Massachusetts, California and Rhode Island. She has served on her local school board in Cumberland, Rhode Island, advocated for fair school funding at the state level, and worked on campaigns of candidates she considers to be champions for kids and true supporters of great schools. She is currently a Fordham senior visiting ...