Friday, September 18, 2009

"Overage Kids"

“Overage kids”. The term sounds like an oxymoron. In social work speak, it means kids who have been held back in school. Sixty percent of the students in my school are overage! The big unknown for me this year is how Partnership with Children is going to play out in a new program designed to help twenty overage kids in the school. It’s a first for me and the school to have a curriculum and class solely dedicated to these kids.

Over the last year we applied for a Middle School Betterment Grant to fund the program. A lot rides on it– either we’re going to succeed in bringing the kids up to speed, or they’ll lag further behind and most likely drop out, which statistically speaking means they’ll face higher chances for incarceration.

There’s a stigma - a sense of shame - for overage kids. They’re outcasts. Literally on the “margins”, they talk back to teachers who’ve given up on them out of frustration, and allow them to walk out of class and spend most of their time wandering hallways. Graduating from high school looks to them (and, their parents and some teachers) like a distant if not unattainable goal.

These kids are struggling academically because of social and emotional turmoil in their lives, and without the support of their parents, teachers, and school administrators, they fail their classes and get held back, sometimes for a few years in a row. Take Jose (not real name) for example. I worked with him last year, during a time when he was dealing with personal issues that any adult would find stressful.

His mother was so ill “Jose” had to serve as her caretaker. The roles between parent and child were completely reversed. He had to feed, bath, and dress her. His parents split up long ago. His mother’s illness was probably contracted from his drug-using father. All this was happening against a backdrop of drug use and gang violence in his neighborhood. When he came to school, he could not handle adult authority, particularly his female teachers. He cursed at teachers, failed tests, got into fights. At the same time, he’s this totally charismatic, intelligent young man.

Since he failed last year, “Jose” is now an overage student. It sounds bleak, but I see two options for him – either our program is going to help him turn his life around or he’s going to drop out and end up in jail. He was already arrested this summer. Right now, he’s at the fork in the road, and I’m the sign. I can help point him in either direction. Getting arrested this summer was his wake up call. He knows he’s been tossing his life away.

Is “Jose” going to turn things around and graduate from school or is this a short-lived enthusiasm that is only going to set him, and me, up for disappointment and failure? That’s what I’m waking up thinking about every day. And he’s just one out of twenty kids in the program.

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