Tuesday, March 1, 2011


So, Trey and I are entering a whole new frontier in parenting and lately, have been overwhelmed by the prospect of Darius graduating and heading off to college. What we've seen and experienced has been frustrating and heartbreaking and all the talk about education across the country and across our city has come home to roost.

Darius is an incredibly bright kid full of charm and personality. He's in his school's National Honor Society and will graduate in the top 10% of his class. In Texas, that last bit means he is automatically accepted into any Texas state college. He's received acceptance letters so far from Texas Tech, University of North Texas, University of Texas at Arlington, and Stephen F. Austin State University. University of Texas' acceptance letter is expected any day. He didn't apply to Texas A&M and that is a point of contention between he and I that I will not discuss here. I will let you know, though, that I'm handling it with grace. And I've stopped buying him Ranch Dressing as punishment.

If I could end this story with that paragraph, we'd be thrilled. We'd be over the moon and so excited at the opportunities before him. He's not only graduating but he's also, by all appearances, headed off to a four year university, and therefore, like his brother, watching the trajectory of his life change. Everyone is encouraging him to just take the pick of the litter and celebrate.

Except us. We're having to have very hard conversations with a young man that feel to us like we're ripping the rug out from under him.

From his SAT scores and scores on ACCUPLACER tests - tests designed to measure a student's college readiness - he's no where close. Even with all the good grades, his schooling has not prepared him for the rigors of a college education. We've talked to several experts, and have thrown out what if's like, "What if he's just a poor test taker?" Possible with the SAT, but not to this degree, and not possible with the ACCUPLACER, a test designed to measure very specifically and accurately a student's academic skill in reading, writing, and math.

So, what does he do? Certainly, he could take the opportunites before him and work like he's never worked before to hang on. We've been told the leap would be monumental. Or, he could attend a junior or community college for a year and get the remediation he needs, then, hope he can get into one of the schools he's already been accepted to, with his community college grades. Oy vey.

On top of that, so many people in his academic life are baffled wondering why he wouldn't just take the bird in the hand. Unfortunately, many of those people measure their benchmarks simply by how many of their kids get into a four year university, not by how long they stay there. Their programs are financially incentivized to look at the child's first move upon graduation, not his second or third.

We've told Darius over and over, this is not just a Pinkston problem, or a DISD problem but an education problem across the country. But he feels like he's been robbed. He's played a game all his life and played it very well according to the standards set for him. But, now, he's moving onto the next bracket only to find out his first round has not prepared him. Because I like to cook - I'm going to use a cooking analogy. Let's say you spent years learning to make dinner. You were given the directions and ingredients to make spaghetti. You got really good at spaghetti. Yours was pretty darn good and you've come to believe you're a pretty decent chef. And spaghetti is great. You could eat it every day and survive. But, you want to learn more so you walk into the next room and are asked right off the bat to make a seven course meal consisting of everything from an amuse bouche, to coq a vin, to creme brulee. You'd be toast, literally. Nothing about learning to make spaghetti excellently has prepared you for the next step. It would be a hard slap in the face and that's what Darius is feeling on the cusp of graduation.

Studies are showing that, across the country, only 25% of graduating seniors are truly ready for college. The education system is failing these kids. We know high school sophomores who are probably onlyoperating on at fourth grade reading level. Kids who will be starting high school next fall who can't write a paragraph using a basic proper sentence structure. And a kid graduating this Spring learning that being commended for marginal work does far more harm than good.

This is a national problem, made worse in the inner-city, and we're seeing the impacts firsthand. And it is infuriating for everyone involved - starting with the child.


happygeek said...

So very sad.

Holli said...

Praying for the decisions ahead!!!

Kasey Ewing said...

Saturday night I got the girls who help me tutor and work with the kids in our neighborhood and watched "Waiting for Superman" it shows this directly! It is infuriating! You are praying he succeds in college and I am praying they succeed in high school here. IT STINKITH!!!!!

The B4 said...

That made me feel teary and sad reading. Thank you for sharing something so personal. I hear there is a documentary that we must see about this problem and hope to soon. Saying a prayer, friend. You and Trey are such great parents to process this with Darius as you have. Thankful Jesus is Sovereign.

emily said...

Such a sad reality........so thankful that he has you two to help him navigate this often unfair reality called life.

Sarah said...

Melissa, I teach in a public school and read your blog and am so, so sad for you and for Darius and for his classmates who aren't being served well. Thank you for posting.

I'm sure you've looked into this, but just in case it could help -- some schools have Transitional Year programs for students like Darius -- students who are highly gifted and motivated but haven't been prepared well academically by their previous schools. We took our middle schoolers last year to Brandeis on a visit because they have one (http://www.brandeis.edu/admissions/applying/typ.html). I wish more schools did. We also help some students apply to "cohort" programs that exist at a lot of colleges that help make it more likely for students who are the first in their family to attend college to have more of a chance of success at graduating.

I work with really talented people who fight this battle every day with our graduating seniors, and would be happy to gather and pass on any information that could be helpful -- most of it will be Massachusetts-based, but there are some national programs as well. Praying for your family.

Anonymous said...


I work for a college in Pennsylvania - ours is private/liberal arts but I've worked for state schools in the past - it would be good to look and see if any of those schools have "Gateway to Success" programs aimed at just these issues. Many schools have programs that start students mid summer and give them basic college math/reading/prep/etc. courses in a way that teaches them how college learning works and how to adjust to the academic rigors. Pennsylvania also has the Act 101 program that even takes financial burdens away from qualifying students to encourage first gen college students and others who would fall under Gateway to attend. I'm not sure what the equivalent would be in Texas, but it's worth asking about!

best of luck and fingers crossed!

Legally Fabulous said...

I have SO SO many thoughts on this post.

My initial reaction is anger. Because you're right... it's not far and D has been robbed. Our education system has set him up for failure.
I had a long discussion about this the other night with a friend of mine who is a social worker in Chicago. There have been lots of reports in the news about the children of magnet schools in Chicago and their college acceptance rates... but what no one ever talks about is their college graduation rates. Simply getting our kids in to college is not enough. We need to prepare them for college - not just academically. We need to prepare them to go away and in a completely different environment and with completely different types of students and in completely different types of classrooms.
ALso - the situation is Chicago is HORRIFIC. WE have these public magnet schools which boast higher test scores and lower drop out rates and college acceptances and even college graduation at a MUCH higher level than their public school educated peers. And how do you get in to these magnet schools? A LOTTERY SYSTEM. You literally get a number, and if the number your pre-schooler gets is picked, they get in to the magnet schools, and they get the good teachers and they have a chance to get to college. And if your kids number doesn't get picked? It's the local underperforming school, where they're SO much more likely to fail and drop out. The fact that we DRAW NUMBERS to see who gets to succeed out of all the public school children in Chicago is appalling. But at the same the argument can be made that at least those few kids who got to go to the magnet schools get to be successful.

I wish I had great advice for you on what next step to take, but I don't. All I CAN say is that D is SO SO SO lucky to have you and your husband to take these factors in to consideration and help him make the best decision for him.

On a slightly related note - the top 10% law in Texas. As someone who was personally affected by it, it also infuriates me.
I got a 30 on the ACT. I went to a private school in Dallas. I wanted to go to the University of Texas, and I was MORE than prepared to succeed in college, but I did not get in to my state university that I wanted to attend because I was not in the top 10% of my high school class.
What were my options? Stay at my private school where I was prepared for college, or leave after sophomore year (as many girls did - you have to be in the top 10% after 2 years to qualify for the top 10% rule), get in to the top 10% at my local DISD high school, so I could get in to the college I wanted to go to? IT SUCKS.

I later graduated from college, then law school, but I was not accepted in to my own state's public university. And yes, 8 years after I got my rejection (which I knew was coming because there is no way to get in to UT without being in the top 10%), I'm still bitter. Of course it all worked out in the end and I loved where I ended up going to college, but that in state tuition would have been REALLY NICE.
(phew, okay... rant over. also - let me just go ahead and say that I do not write the twitter account "white girl problems", despite the fact that I probably could. Ha)

lailani said...

I have a High School Junior and a Freshman. I think the Junior will be ok, especially if he goes on to the community college the first year. I am concerned with the Freshman. New Curriculum set up in the state has him locked into a math class that is not teaching him (and 4 or 5 others) anything, has them in an environment of not only non achievers, but just a rough group. The school can't move him because the way the state setup the math curriculum as well as end of year test. They have missed too much. State and Fed are so worried about drop out numbers and other numbers, local schools are held to bar they cannot meet without, as crazy as it seems, dumbing down the system.

So sorry for D's situation and the spot you are in. Parenting can be so hard sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Melissa, I so anticipate your pain and see the writing on the wall for my fourth grade step-daughter. Her school district continues to dumb down EVERYthing, just so kids are promoted to the next grade! A perfect example is that no student is given a zero. Regardless of whether or not they do the work, or just complete it so unacceptably, the lowest grade they can get is a 50%. Why? They don't want the student's self-worth to be damaged!!! Her teacher has completely lowered the standards on numerous occasions with concepts my step-daughter should EASILY grasp at her grade level...yet she comes home with A's and B's on her report card. So frustrating!
I'll pray that God will give you and Trey guidance as you work with Darius and that he will help Darius process through this and decide what to do.

These Three Kings said...

So heartbreaking, frustrating, see it every day...praying for yall...

priceless109 said...

As a teaching and low-income school in Memphis, I definitely sympathize with your dilemma. All our students want to go to college and will tell you they are going, even though some have reading levels below 3rd grade.

It does no one a service to get them into college and then drop out. They are more likely more disillusioned and confused. In my school, we were close to 0% college ready with an average ACT of 15.8.

You are being so smart about setting realistic but challenging expectations. He will get much more out of his college experience with the community college coming first.

Students will never know what it takes to get to college if we do not start telling them. Most of the students though, never experience what life outside of their school is like. When they do, it is heartbreaking. I hate Oprah but I like her video below.


Sorry for the long comment, I just really appreciate what you are doing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, reading your post struck a familiar chord with me. I came from a single parent, low socioeconomic household. I had GREAT grades, but my SAT and ACT scores were *horrible.* Back "in the day", big state schools like A&M (the only school in Texas, right ??) really looked just at SAT scores and didn't really consider class ranking.

I stayed home for two years at a Jr. college. Not because of any fears of not performing at college, but just for the $$ aspect and because I had no early idea what I wanted to study!

I did really well at Jr. college and then when I transferred to A&M I did well there too. Doing well in school has nothing to do with picking the correct multiple choice answer and has more to do with hard work and determination and the ability to lay out a plan.

I just graduated with a 4.0 from grad school and am in the healthcare field. I personally think he will do well in school only because he is aware now that he will have to work and pay attention and be dilligent.

Jennifer said...

Ugh. Tough blog post. We've been praying for Darius and will continue to do so.

Lauren V. said...

Melissa, we are right there with you. My husband and I have been walking through the college experience with a kid we call our "man-child" - a student that we've known for years that came out of a horrible education system in South Carolina. He is now attending college at the school where both my husband and I work, and it is heartbreaking to see how ill-prepared he is for this stage of education, not to mention life-skills. Granted, it is a tough school, but to see what he submits as "good writing" (because his high school teachers told him so) makes me realize how VERY under-equipped he is for the task before him.

So, we stand next to you in wondering how to best help these kids live, work and study in a way that glorifies God.

Deidra said...

Lots of thoughts, here for me.

I just watched "Waiting For Superman," a documentary about the disparities in education in our country and the factors that work to keep it that way. I'm still a bit, er, miffed by what the documentary pointed out. You might want to check it out.

Or not.

Sandra said...

"This is a national problem, made worse in the inner-city" so true! Though as a graduate of a rural high school, I know first hand the problem exists there as well.

Also as a grad of University of North Texas, I have to recommend my Alma mater. While it's a big school, it's still not as big as UT, where he could easily get swallowed up by huge classes. Maybe a smaller school like SFA, Midwestern in Wichita Falls or Austin College in Sherman would provide a more nurturing atmosphere. As far as Jr college, Collin County has a good reputation.