educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Just a story of a student at Bartram High

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If you’re from the Philly area, you’ve likely heard about Bartram High in the news: fights, violence, staff being attacked. That’s likely all you know of Bartram. So read this Inquirer piece by Kristen Graham about Gionna Hawkins, a 14-year-old Bartram student described as doing her best not just to make it through but thrive.

Make no mistake, this story about Gionna is no celebration of Bartram. She’s had her cellphone stolen. She was picked on and threatened when she started school. She has no science teacher. But here’s a kid, according to the article, who has “taken advantage of everything Bartram has to offer. She’s a cheerleader and freshman class president. She helps lead an after-school program focusing on music, art, and fashion. Her schedule is packed with honors courses, and her friends know she is a stickler for proper spelling and good grammar.”

There’s a photo of her, smiling, braces, pen in hand. Just a kid trying to climb the ladder in life. Her mother, just a parent trying to raise her child, has a voice here too. Dawn Hawkins says this about the problems at Bartram, “It starts at home. The parents should be accountable for their children. If that starts to happen, maybe the kids will change.” Dawn Hawkins thought about other schools but says her daughter thinks she wants to “stick it out at Bartram.” Then Dawn Hawkins makes this remarkable comment: “And I guess they need kids like that.”

Bartram is a difficult place, and nothing easy is going to fix the underlying problems of some of its disruptive students. But while well-meaning people lament these schools and rightfully look to government, someone to fix things, they often don’t do what they could do: Stay. Get involved. Work locally. Offer something other than a broad-brushed narrative of hopelessness. Because even in a school like Bartram, where there are many tough stories, there are a host of others stories we seldom hear, narratives of success and maybe even happiness.

My kids are fortunate. They don’t leave each morning for school scared. They’re happy and thriving in safe, stimulating academic and social environments. I wouldn’t have it any other way and wouldn’t expect you to either. But most schools people describe as having “problems” are nothing like Bartram (remember, no science teacher). They are issues of test scores and family income that become scrambled up into overarching mistaken perceptions and thus generalizations about whole districts and groups of kids. If we’d ever step foot into these schools, we’d be shocked, seeing kids walking the halls, going to class, smiling.

I think about the common tale in our culture of the kid who is “saved” by going to a “better” school. You’ve heard this story many times, the narrative of how hard-working parents sacrifice to send their kid to the school across town (I just encountered it again for my class this spring in Richard Rodriguez’s The Hunger of Memory.) Yes, these are good and worthy anecdotes about those kids, their teachers, their schools.

But in these narratives, forgotten is that these kids weren’t “saved” from the desert or remote cliffside caves, spared from dehydration or death by bears. Damn it, those kids were “saved” from another school district. And when they left, the other school and all of its kids, parents, and teachers remained. Those “saved” kids usually had good things going for them in the first place, as did their parents, who, if nothing else, cared. Now they are gone.

Multiply that out, and, if you care to, think big, just for a moment, about the U.S. system of schooling.

Most of us do what we perceive as best for our children. We wouldn’t put them in danger. But for those who can afford a decision at all, we must remember that a school community is composed of the pride and effort of its people.

Dawn Hawkins may be thinking more nobly than most (writing a check is easier than being noble), and maybe she has fewer choices. But it is true every time a good family leaves a “bad” district, the district remains. The parents’ energy, as it naturally should, flows elsewhere. They have to explain such a decision, so the “better” school narrative grows, sometimes accidentally, but insidiously nonetheless. The prophecy can become self-fulfilled.

I appreciate the Inquirer for working outside the easy story of the violent school. It takes time and effort to create and learn another narrative, and Graham’s piece disrupts the one-Bartram-student view. I think it also helps us see how complicated and difficult it is to stay where you might very well be needed.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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4 Responses to “Just a story of a student at Bartram High”

  1. Well said, Scott. Thanks for this piece.

  2. This is a beautiful piece, Scott.

  3. This is a beautiful piece of writing , Scott. I read this after coming home from my school in Camden. I had to walk by SEVEN Charter School representatives passing out flyers to parents who were picking up their children from school.

    I am going to print out your article and pass out to the Charter School Reps. today!

    Bravo my friend!

  4. This may not be a polular response, but…I’m not sure I see the choice to leave one’s kid in a dangerous (or academically limited) situation a better one than moving him or her somewhere where he or she will be safe and able to gather every possible advantage. It does come down to the question of whether the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many — or, does it? For me, the needs of my own children outweigh the needs of the many. I think my first duty is to them. Do I have an obligation to risk my child’s safety in order not to leave behind a struggling district? I don’t think so. (Also, I am not saying you are calling it my obligation to do so — I just am not sure I see the same amount ot potential nobility in the act as you do.)

    At the same time, I agree with your logic: these schools need good kids and good families. If that young lady wants to say, it is a blessing to the school, for sure. And I do feel for the teachers and administrators in these struggling districts. I just think it is okay for a parent to write a check to get his or her kid into a better circumstance. These are a child’s formative years we’re talking about. Sure, if all good people stayed the course, the schools that are stuggling would have a better chance and it may wind up serving the greater good — but, as a parent, it’s tough (or arguable wrong) to make one’s own child have to struggle to blaze a trail through the wilderness. It can amount to a blown opportunity for that child’s lifetime. If we were talking about adults, I’d be right there with you: stick it out; help your fellow humans.

    I don’t think either choice is insrinsically wrong, I just think thinking first of one’s own kids is always justified.

    Oh, and I also agree that it is great for these schools to get positive press. All too rare – -and something tells me it coudl happen more often if the press were a little more diligent.

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