by George J Elbaum
Downtown Charter Academy (DCA) is a public charter school with 248 students in grades 6 to 8. Student population is 80% Asian, 15% Hispanic, and 2% each Black and White.
Per its website, “DCA is committed to excellence and academics, demonstrated through its emphasis on structure and student achievement for traditionally underserved urban students. This is accomplished by:
- Improving the academic achievement of all students
- Closing the achievement gap of educationally-disadvantaged students
- Focusing on student attendance
- Supporting effective educators
- Providing a structured learning environment
- Fostering a culture based on honoring hard work”
The proof that this formula works is shown by the students’ academic test scores. Despite student demographics of 84% low income and 36% Math and 18% English disabilities, GreatSchools.org shows their test scores vs. state averages as:
- English 75% vs. 48%
- Math 85% vs. 37%
- Science 76% vs. 61%
Very, very impressive.
DCA teacher Gabriel Johnson organized the event for the 75 students of his 8th grade class, while Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves arranged it and made the introduction.
Two aspects of this particular presentation stand out in my mind. First, during the Q&A in the 100+ talks I’ve given to date I’m usually asked to explain my book’s title, Neither Yesterdays Nor Tomorrows. In this case, and for the first time ever, a student (8th grader!) suggested her understanding of the title—that it must be a life philosophy to live in the moment when the past is painful and the future is uncertain…. and she was right!
Next, in response to a question about how my mother succeeded in getting us out of the ghetto, the specifics of which I do not know, Jack Weinstein was able to provide historical context about the role of children in the smuggling of food and other items and the role of adults involved in “black market” smuggling of both goods and people—so that perhaps my mother’s sources were connected to one or the other of these categories of smugglers. He told the students that children of their own age were sometimes able to exit and re-enter the ghetto through small openings under the Ghetto’s walls to retrieve food scraps and bring these back into the Ghetto where people were starving. This was a high risk activity, and children who engaged in smuggling were in great danger. People involved in the illicit activities of the black market were also taking high risks, sometimes for altruistic reasons, and sometimes for personal gain. The moral questions raised by this information, including the “gray areas” about right and wrong, can add an important element to my story. The combination of personal and general history can motivate young people to learn from different perspectives and to honor the complexity of both the personal stories and the larger history.