Commencement: A Look Backstage
What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
At high schools all across the country, this is the season of caps and gowns, diplomas, ceremonies and speeches. These traditions mark the finish of one part of a young person’s journey through the educational system we call school, and we hope will mark their commencement—the next phase of that journey to adulthood, self actualization, fulfillment and contribution to our communities, our democratic society, and the marketplace.
For our students at Lawrence School here in Northeast Ohio, commencement looks much the same as it does everywhere else. We just celebrated our 8th Annual Convocation where many of our students received accolades and acknowledgements of their outstanding achievements in the classroom, on the fields and courts of athletic endeavor, and in the arts and sciences where so many of our students shine with incipient greatness.
But if we take a look behind the stories of triumph and success—if we look behind trappings of the ceremonies—we will be forced to confront some distressing facts:
- The students who attend Lawrence and who have graduated from our high school over the past six years have had to struggle with reading, writing, and attentional challenges that have nothing whatsoever to do with intelligence or desire to succeed, but often cause of academic failure in the general education system.
- Students identified with these challenges in our country are disproportionately represented in the statistics that describe the high school drop-out population, the prison population, the unemployed and under-employed population.
- Dyslexia (or language-based learning differences), according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, is the most commonly occurring learning difference in the country and may impact 15 to 20 % of the total school population.
- Only 13% of students identified with these challenges nationally matriculate to colleges and universities—yet these same kids grow up and show up disproportionately in the ranks of successful entrepreneurs and small business owners. In a 2007 study published in the New York Times, thirty five percent of American entrepreneurs described themselves as dyslexic—school failures.
At Lawrence, 96% of our graduates matriculate to two-year or four-year colleges and universities. Colleges seek our kids—and offer significant scholarships to them—because perhaps our students have overcome major obstacles on their journey to the graduation stage. They understand themselves and demonstrate resilience, uncommon courage, and the capacity to persevere against the odds.
There are among our students the future Charles Schwabs, Whoopi Goldbergs, Richard Bransons, Bruce Jenners and Danny Glovers. There are future small business owners, teachers, technicians; future employers and growers of our economy; future inventors of technology; and future solvers of problems we can’t know or name yet.
There are among our graduates young men and women who understand that education and accomplishment can never be taken for granted, and that a successful young person is the work of many hands and hearts coming together to resolve problems and find a way around or over obstacles.
That we fail so many of these talented and intelligent students by refusing to personalize the education we offer our young people—refuse to apply the research we have had at our finger tips for decades regarding the teaching of reading—is a national disgrace that contributes to our nation’s struggle to remain a leader in the world’s commerce and communities.
Truth be told, matriculation is not necessarily a good predictor of success for students leaving high school. The attrition rates, particularly in the first year of college, have been consistently high and only a little more than half of the students who start college programs ever earn a four year degree.
But for now at least, I am going to rest my head on my pillow and sleep soundly knowing that 96% of our Lawrence graduates are willing to take the risk and make the leap to higher education. And they are willing to do this despite years of struggles, a history of failure in elementary school, and numerous blows and insults to their self esteem delivered by caring and well meaning educators who did not understand who they were or how they learned.
I will celebrate each and every one of them for not giving up or giving in; for not drawing conclusions about themselves based on how they did in school; for refusing to believe what they were told about what they could or couldn’t do—particularly when they were being unfairly compared to peers using test scores that reveal little about real problem solving ability.
I will celebrate the fact that they retained faith in their families and in themselves, so that they could ultimately find a way to rescue their aspirations for higher learning from the dust, debris and rubble of their school experiences.
I will sleep well thinking of the parents who come to Lawrence—scarred by their interactions with other educational systems—to find finally at Lawrence that they are not alone, they are among friends, that their “dissed” children (dyslexic, dysgraghic, disorganized) need no longer be discouraged or disappointing.
Then I will wake up and wonder why every child in the United States can’t experience the same awakening of their spirit.
Why every family can’t find themselves embraced and empowered by the collective spirit of those who know there is a better and more hopeful way.
Why every child does not have the same opportunity to be understood, accepted, affirmed and ultimately held accountable for what they can and will learn when provided with a program strategically designed and aligned to meet their needs and capitalize on their strengths.
Email Lou Salza at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.