Response to Newt Gingrich about ‘poor kids’

My response to the deeply flawed conclusions of Newt Gingrich about ‘poor kids’ is this: Kids cleaning classrooms is wrong if it’s only poor kids doing the cleaning. What follows, for what it’s worth, is a concept I began thinking about almost a decade and a half ago.

Original 1997 Introduction to In-School Service #

It is true, as President Clinton said in his 1992 inauguration address, that “Millions of poor children cannot even imagine the lives we are calling them to lead.” And not just poor children are so deprived. Our nation needs the service of its young citizens long before they reach the age of eighteen, and those young citizens must learn the benefits of service before age eighteen. Where better to learn to serve our nation than in the place where the law requires that millions of our youth must be five days a week, 36 weeks a year: the school building?

I propose a program of universal in-school service that students participate in throughout their elementary and secondary education. Such a cycle of service, which I call ISS (In-School Service), would begin in the third grade and continue at three year intervals in the sixth grade, the ninth grade and the twelfth grade. Each ISS year a student reached would act as a mini-sabbatical, an in depth opportunity for the student to be part of structured and varied programs of service to school, community, region and state.

I believe the development of a National Service Corps is an important goal for our nation. It is an idea that is long overdue. I wish to argue in this paper that for National Service to succeed in attracting the attention and dedication of American youth and their families there must be preparation for personal service built into the twelve years of formal education that will precede such service.

I contend that by seventeen or eighteen years old it is mostly too late to introduce the values and benefits of volunteerism and service in our young people. We must start when our children are still optimistic about the world and their future in it. It must be a service that has clear and apparent results for kids that live in a world of instant gratification. It must be a service that unifies the children in their volunteer efforts and goals. It must be a service that has value for parents and community so they can provide the wonderful feedback for a job well done. My proposal addresses those concerns.

How In-School Service Works

The students in the ISS would move through concentrations of service centered first at their school and its immediate neighborhood at the third grade level; moving out into the local community at the sixth grade level; into the larger (or county wide) community at the ninth grade level and ultimately to the statewide region at the twelfth grade level. Thus, students do their service on a three year cycle but the nation gets the service every year of all third, sixth, ninth and twelfth graders. Scores of agencies, both public and private non-profit organizations exist that use and encourage voluntary service by American citizens. Many, such as the Young People’s Service Coalition and the LA Conservation Corps, are focused primarily on the involvement of young people. These agencies and others like them nationwide need to be dovetailed into a program that is centered in the school building.

During the service year the students would continue to study a core academic curriculum of language arts, math and science, but the majority of their time would be spent on the service goals for their level.

The Four ISS Levels

The following are examples of what might be done at the different service levels:

Third Grade ISS:

Did you know that in Japan the schools do not have janitors! The children do the cleaning of their classrooms and school yards. I do not propose we fire the custodians of the physical plant of our school buildings but that those man and women be augmented with the energies and learned housekeeping skills of the eight and nine year olds in the third grade. In effect the janitor becomes a mentor rather than a largely unappreciated laborer. What would the students get out of their work? For one thing, the satisfaction of a job well done, even a job that must be done over and over again throughout the school year. No one is as careful of a newly scrubbed floor or neatly ordered shelf as the person who did the work to make it that way. Third grade is a great time to learn to sweep, to vacuum, to arrange library books, wash blackboards, polish up the woodwork, touch up paint, or decorate for the holidays. Hopefully, those third graders will learn to take great pride in being assistant managers of the school environment. Consequently it would be a rare fifth grader or ninth grader who would deface the walls or casually dump trash after the year of being a Three.

Squads of Threes could bring their cleaning skills out into the immediate neighborhood around the school itself for leaf raking, simple painting, or trash pickup at public playgrounds.

Sixth Grade ISS:

The activities for the sixth graders have as their focus local community needs such as planting trees, working in the local library, and as visitors and helpers in senior citizen centers, and nursing homes. Individually students might serve month long internships with local small businesses. They could be trained in using the computer by entering all manner of non-confidential data for the school, public library, or civic organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Scouts, or the United Way.

The sixth grade (age 11) is a particularly good time to have boys and girls working in day-care centers as the experience of working directly with infants and small children could serve to give an understanding of how much care and nurturing a baby or young child needs. Once the hormones of adolescence start to flow that idea becomes harder to get across.

Ninth Grade ISS:

Fourteen year olds are a vast wasted resource in this country. Given that an unacceptable number of fourteen year old girls are bearing babies, and that breaking down and cleaning an AK47 is a common adolescent male skill in some inner cities, we need to redirect this energy for the betterment of the nation. The American philosopher William James noted that the age of fourteen is often the age for religious conversion, and no wonder. At that age kids tend to be didactic and hyperbolic, everything is black and white, and the hormones are overflowing. They want to be adults and yet are endlessly critical of the adult world, sure that they can do it better.

Sitting in a classroom for hours a day is not what these kids need. They need, and we need them to be, mentoring kindergartners, digging and cutting and planting out in the city or county parks. They can input data or run errands at the city or county offices, attend city council meetings and write up reports on local government for school newspapers. They can intern at the Salvation Army, the homeless shelter, the food bank. They can be organized in squads and trained to paint and patch homes of the elderly or needy in their neighborhoods. They can help deliver meals to shut-ins, act as aides for nature hikes, be homework consultants for younger students, and aid the staff at the recycling centers.

Twelfth Grade ISS:

For their senior year each student would choose three service electives on the regional level to be done during the fall, winter, and spring terms. The choices would be in areas such as Health and Human Services, Roads and Infrastructure, Environment, the Military, Education, Government, and the Arts. Once a week or as it was appropriate, the students would come together to compare notes and reaffirm friendships with fellow students and teachers. Out in the volunteer setting these seniors would have a much better opportunity to meet students from other parts of their state or region. Otherwise rural students or students from the suburbs rarely have contact with urban peers or the reverse. An example of the utility of using 17 and 18 year old students in this way would be seen in having them take up the slack at hospitals, libraries, governmental offices, the very places where paid and professional personnel often spend more time doing paper work than the primary work for which they were trained. Being able to drive and other levels of independence make these students particularly useful to the community. Being called on and expected to contribute to the community will bring out the best in them. Certainly a graduating high-school senior who has completed the ISS cycle is a student much better prepared to choose between college, vocational training or to make other life choices.

The Value of ISS: To the Student, the Community, and the Nation

At all levels students would be working with adult mentors from the public and private sector, National Service workers, and upper grade ISS students. It is an ideal way to develop peer and intra-peer group respect and caring. “Each one, teach one,” “Drop your buckets where you are,” “Reaching behind us as we climb” are all metaphors descriptive of the ISS philosophy.

To prepare our youth for National Service we must introduce our children to the rewards and sacrifices inherent in the idea of service. ISS is not voluntary. It is not lectures, seminars, workshops, retreats, or conventions. ISS is real, a tangible contribution on an ever widening scale of community involvement. It is a vital pragmatic preparation for a greater contribution to the success of our society. Indeed, while National Service might conceivably be voluntary, such service should bestow such status on its participants along with attractive side benefits that every American will want to serve; a proud two year investment in our country.

By the time students have gone through the complete cycle of ISS followed by two years of National Service they will have earned the funding credits for a four year undergraduate education (a B.A., B.S., or accredited technical training) from my proposed National Service Trust Fund. Whether these ISS and National Service graduates go on to enter college or the work force each will have had an in-depth introduction to the needs and goals of our country and themselves.

Criticism and Response

There will be nay-sayers of such a national education component. They will make objections, among them the following;

“Oh, ISS is too idealistic, too hard to implement, too expensive.”

“Administrators and teachers won’t like it. They won’t want to give up control of curriculum.”

“Parents will not allow their kids to work; to be used as maids, janitors, laborers, what ever.”

“The poor kids in inner city schools can’t/won’t do this, and anyway, it’s too dangerous in such settings.”

“The privileged, the talented and college bound students in our schools can’t be expected to do this.”

“What about the students in the private, parochial and alternative school situations such as home schoolers?”

“What about the LD student, the deaf, the halt, the lame, the delinquent, the contrary, the mean, the sullen . . .”

And of course “this is a socialist plot.”

My answer to these questions is that already millions of America’s children are not getting an education in the schools they attend daily; certainly not one which prepares them to live in our society with dignity and prosperity. We must find a way to break through the boredom and spiritual desolation that affects too many of our young people (rich and poor). And for those children who already bring to school deeply felt spiritual values inculcated in church and home too often school offers them little opportunity to live out or share those values in the civic arena. ISS has the potential to recognize those values and to incorporate service with learning, a powerful combination.

To get past those who are threatened by innovation we must enlist the many teachers, parents, and school boards who would be enthusiastically willing to devote their problem solving skills to making the ISS work. Teachers at the individual ISS levels will continue to teach the core grade work, and during the hours the students are out of the classroom those teachers will be training upper level ISS and National Service classroom aides. In return all teachers will have access to additional aides (para-teachers, one might call them) in classrooms, freeing the teacher to do what he or she does best, teach.

I have chosen grades three, six, nine and twelve in which to do ISS because of the modern divisions of grade levels into elementary school K-5, middle school 6-8, and high school 9-12. However ISS might eventually be structured, what is important is that a recurring cycle of service be established that leads to the National Service.

For the private, parochial or home schooled student the incentive would be for a school to either devise a similar program, or for homeschoolers to tap into an existing program. For without ISS participation at the elementary and secondary levels a student would only be eligible to two years of college funding that would come from later participation in a National Service.

A fully functioning ISS would support the idea of the village approach to child rearing; eliminating family isolation and encouraging community interaction. We can only accomplish true personal self-help when we create an atmosphere where the skills for self-help are available to be learned in the community. Where better than in the schools rather than in scattered offices and agencies often distant and difficult to access?# Issues of economics and common sense demand that we begin to use the physical plants that are our schools in a more productive way; school buildings need to be open 20 hours a day, and certainly, year round.

With ISS and National Service in place and based in the school buildings of our nation we might truly have the people power to keep those buildings full: early morning students eating breakfast; after school sports that continue well into the evening for parents who work but would love to have a safe place to play with their kids; literacy or ESL classes after work; health, parenting and social welfare counseling services; or job training. There is no reason the local school, whether in a rural county or a busy inner city can not offer its site as a place for continuous learning and activity given enough people to run the programs. It is this bounty in people that I envision the ISS and the National Service providing.

My experiences as a mother, educator, and student over the past many decades convince me the idea of national service has never, until now, been conceived broadly enough to truly address the great needs of our country. For not only does our nation need the attention, it is our citizens who must find a worthy “job of work” to do together. We can no longer tolerate the splintering of our population into privileged cliques or racist or fundamentalist “isms” that destroy our sense of national purpose and possibility.

The school house is the common ground in this country. Thus it is the very place to unite in educating our children in our professed values of service and responsibility.

Appendix

Some questions and issues among many to be addressed:

  • Teaching more intensively during the non-ISS grades and the use of para-teachers.
  • How to enlist the support of the powerful teacher’s unions.
  • Federal versus state support and funding for the development of trial programs.

You who read this proposal will add your own questions, concerns, and challenges to this list. If you are interested in beginning a dialogue about the concept of ISS get in touch and pass on this proposal. I look forward to hearing from you.

Leni Ashmore Sorensen

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