As a newspaper reporter, I once visited the home of a student who attended a “failing” elementary school. My job was to observe the home life of a typical student – an amiable, intelligent boy who was already more than a year behind in reading, and losing ground.
The family – a single mother and four children – lived in a barely furnished public-housing apartment where the shouts of young men playing ball in the hallway bounced off the walls and into the living room. The boy sat on the sofa, loose-leaf book open on his lap, doing his homework. The TV blared for the student’s toddler siblings. To earn extra money, the mother ran an off-the-books business selling candy, soda, and cigarettes; about every 20 minutes, the doorbell rang and a neighbor marched past the children to buy something in the kitchen. It was a home with love, but without books, a desk, or a quiet corner.
That’s the reality faced by many poor students, and by their schools. In this issue, Kathryn Federici Greenwood writes of alumni who have sought to address the limitations of urban public schools by creating schools outside the system. They focus on the basics, enforce discipline, and often provide services that have little to do with traditional schooling: parent counseling, banking assistance, and health care.
At the same time, many alumni make their mark within the public school system, dealing with students with tremendous discipline problems and gaping holes in their knowledge, and with parents who are unable, or unwilling, to help. Most Princetonians are familiar with Wendy Kopp ’89’s groundbreaking Teach For America Program. Few know of the 13-year-old Princeton in Chicago Schools (PICS) Program, in which the Princeton Club of Chicago has renewed Roosevelt High, a school of 1,600 students speaking 40 languages. The Princetonians raise money – about $45,000 each year, and fund internships at the school for Princeton undergraduates. They started and volunteer with the school’s robotics team, which competes nationally and once finished third in the United States. And they provide Saturday tutoring; take students to baseball games, workplaces, and theater productions; organize summer camping trips, volunteer in classrooms; and hire Roosevelt students to work in their offices, stoking the students’ ambitions and changing their lives.
The program gets results. Roosevelt’s 2000 valedictorian, Sandra Bruno, is a Princeton senior, the first person in her family to attend college. Though about 18 percent of Roosevelt students miss school each day, those in PICS attend voluntarily on Saturdays, says Carolyn Kessler ’90, PICS’s executive director.
There are other examples. Project ’55 fellow Carol Lee ’03 and her colleagues at RISE, a California nonprofit, give teachers in poor schools professional support and financial resources, aiming to reduce high teacher-turnover rates. Many Princeton alumni work as classroom teachers, some in the nation’s toughest schools. They could have entered other professions, with higher salaries and easier days.
In this issue, we honor them, as well.