Monday, November 19, 2012

How Paul Tough helped me appreciate Berkeley (even more)


I feel as proud as ever to be a resident of Berkeley. This morning, I had the privilege of hearing PaulTough speak, the author of How ChildrenSucceed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character.  Leaving the talk, there are a few reflections that remind me how fortunate I am to live in a community that’s as committed to education as Berkeley.


2020 vision:

Tough’s book takes a look at character traits that research has shown have a direct impact on a person’s ability to succeed in life.  (And by success, he means having a rich, meaningful, happy, productive life for the long-term). These character traits include optimism, gratitude, self-control, curiosity, and grit. The beauty of Tough’s book is that he illustrates that these characteristics are learned traits, which one can develop over time, regardless of the barriers in their path, such as growing up in poverty.  This research supports what I deeply believe: that ALL individuals have the potential to succeed in life, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, their socio-economic status or the educational attainment of the people in their family.

Many leaders in Berkeley believe that this is true- as is demonstrated through the creation and implementation of our 2020 vision.  Our community has come together, committed to erasing race-based predictability of student achievement. The city of Berkeley, BUSD, UC Berkeley and community partners are all working together to close the achievement gap in BUSD by 2020. To many, it’s a daunting task. But, it must be done. And we are so fortunate to have leaders at every sector of our community fighting to make sure:

“That all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, and income, who enter Berkeley Schools beginning in 2007 (and remain in the district) will achieve equitable outcomes with no proficiency differences by the time they graduate in June, 2020; and that all children born in Berkeley in 2007 and beyond, receive a healthy start and are equally ready to learn and succeed in Berkeley Public Schools.”

You can read more about the 2020 vision and Berkeley Alliance.


Diversity: When Tough signed my book after his talk, I asked him what districts or schools he’s familiar with that have a similar achievement gap to BUSD and if there are any success models he would recommend we learn from. He gave me a few names, but he also said that in general, American schools are so segregated that we often don’t have diverse schools. Instead, we tend to have schools that are high performing, high income, with predominantly white students and another subset of schools that are lower performing, lower income, with predominately students of color. This certainly isn’t always the case, but it reminded me how fortunate I feel to live in a community that IS diverse- racially, socio-economically, and religiously (to name a few).  Simply being diverse doesn’t mean we’re meeting the needs of all of our students, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

Public Enrollment by race/ethnicity, 2011, for BUSD: 
 Source: BUSD Information sheet found here


Source: Kidsdata



Local support for our schools:
Tough closed his talk with the following remarks about the important role that we can all play. Here, he is referring to a student from his book, Kewauna, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago , who was involved with gangs and drugs and on the verge of failing out of school when she turned her life around, earned straight As and went on to college (where she is today): 

“So I hope in the end that this research doesn’t make us complacent. I hope it makes us want to help. You know, when I meet kids like her, who grew up in poverty and went on to success, they all share two things. One is character. They all have lots and lots of grit, perseverance, and resilience. But the other is that they all share the phenomenon of having received significant amounts of help. Help at some point in their lives. Often a family member, often a teacher, but not always, sometimes a mentor, a hairdresser, a coach, a neighbor. So, I think that gives us a way to think about our own role in the lives of kids like Kewauna. There’s lots of help that we can give them.  There’s help we can give in terms of policy, by talking to our leaders about ways to develop systems that would give kids growing up in circumstances like hers a better opportunity to succeed. There’s the help we can give by supporting organizations that are working with kids like her, to help them. And then there’s also the help that we can give one-on-one. It’s really striking to me how often, when I hear those stories, the kids who have made it out of poverty, what they describe as being the turning point was this one connection they had with one adult. And often it was a teacher or family member, but not always.  Often, it is just someone they encounter and so that someone then can be us.

“I think these often feel like two very different conversations. It’s the conversation about our own kids and the conversation about the kids across town. But I think the messaging in this book is that these two conversations should be and really are one conversation. That kids need the same thing, whether they’re growing up in Pacific Heights or Bayview Hunters Point. They need love. They need support. They need connection. And then they need just a little bit of adversity. “

We can't have an “us vs. them” mentality when approaching the challenge of closing the achievement gap in Berkeley. It is imperative that change comes from within and that everyone is fighting for the same destination- to provide ALL of our children with an extraordinary education.  But the crux of what Tough is saying is just that- we all have a role to play. Berkeley residents are already doing so much- from consistently voting for local taxes that support our school district, such as the Berkeley Schools Excellence Program (BSEP), which has been in place since 1986 and the Facilities Bonds (2002 and 2010) and the Maintenance Parcel Tax (2010) to volunteering in schools through the Berkeley Public Education Foundation.  You can learn more about howto get involved here.


Thank you, Berkeley. Let’s keep the momentum going.






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