Guest column: Jose Nunez ... I sought to determine, above all, why some students succeed and why others fail

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Halfway through my first year of law school I find myself reflecting on my former profession as a ninth grade global history teacher in a New York City suburb.

I recently learned that Eric Norman, a former student of mine, was murdered on Thanksgiving. He was 18 years old and, for reasons still uncertain to the New York Police Department, he was shot in the head and killed.

Shortly after college I moved to New York, where I would simultaneously pursue a master's degree in special education and teach global history to mostly minority students in the ninth grade.

Students ranged in age from 14 to 21.

I sought to determine, above all, why some students succeed and why others fail.

The school where I taught is charged with the task of educating clients (some temporary, others more permanent) of a child-care agency, targeted for special needs, as part of a foster care or juvenile justice system.

They are students who, from birth, have very little future prospects ascribed to them by society.

From a young age many were expected to support themselves and contribute to their household or leave home.

Many choose to help support their families and "pay their way" through illegal means. When you combine a child's inability to read, for example, with a street culture that teaches them that they must fend for themselves by robbing others or dealing drugs, you are left with a dangerous combination that usually results in tragedy.

Dameon was one of these students. (That is not his real name. The young man is still a student, possibly at my former school.)

He was sent to my school's residential facility after being arrested and charged with a criminal possession of a weapon. After a peer in his Bronx housing project threatened his mother, he set out to the streets in search for a gun. He found one, but before ever using it was arrested as a thankful result of a random police search.

As time went on, noticing a unique spark in Dameon, I often tried speaking with him about college. I told him a college education is attainable by almost all those who work for it and that it is never too late. I quickly realized, however, the more I spoke about college, the less interested he became.

When I asked him what was wrong, he responded, "I want to go to college, but the truth is I can't really read."

He was right. His most recent reading assessment showed he was reading on a second grade level — while sitting in my ninth grade class. Dameon and I worked for hours after school for several months utilizing various reading and phonics programs borrowed from the elementary school next door.

At the end of two months, Dameon's reading level doubled. At that pace he would be on grade level by the end of the school year. When I shared the news with Dameon, he was overjoyed and for the first time he felt as though he could succeed, even against the worst of odds.

In short, does it surprise anyone that teens like Dameon and Eric routinely sought self-help through illegal means?

Eric is dead because he felt more comfortable on the streets of New York City than he did in a classroom. He was among one of my most frustrating students, but what else could I expect? Asking him to write an essay was tantamount to asking an elementary student to do the same.

Is it Eric's fault that at 18, still in the ninth grade, he could hardly read?

For years I've tried to answer why some of us are fortunate to have an excellent education and others not. Why some of us born with a visceral belief that we can be doctors and lawyers, while others only criminals or dropouts. The notion that where you live determines the kind of education you receive should seem absurd to us all, when you consider that children are incapable of moving or seeking out better school districts. And yet, it is they who carry the burden from the effects of these overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded school districts when they reach adolescence or become adults.

If we are serious about ending poverty, gang violence, drug abuse and almost any social ill we can think of, then we need to be serious about education reform.

One might mistakenly assume that if we can spend $1.3 trillion on two wars, we can overhaul our public school system.

But will we?

Nunez attended St. Ann School, Pine Ridge Middle School and St. John Neumann High School. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he was accepted into Teach for America and enrolled in the Hunter College School of Education in New York City and earned a master's degree in special education. He is in his second semester at Ave Maria School of Law.

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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