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Daily Howler: How well can Calixto read? A fine profile doesn't quite ask
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THE QUESTIONS NOT ASKED! How well can Calixto read? A fine profile doesn’t quite ask: // link // print // previous // next //

ALL WEEK, THOSE BACK-TO-SCHOOL BLUES: Darn it! We had to do a show last night. As you read today’s report, can you notice the attendant loss of focus? In 200 words or less, explain. Compare and contrast today's report with those from Monday and Tuesday.

Special report: Back-to-school blues!

PART 3—THE QUESTIONS NOT ASKED: The Post’s Darragh Johnson listened hard to Calixto Salgado (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/30/05). Her subject was 14 years old, the son of Salvadoran immigrants, and he (and his friends) told Johnson a great deal about “the fault lines Calixto must negotiate as he...enters ninth grade” in Gaithersburg, Maryland, a community in the DC suburbs. Johnson discusses Calixto’s thoughts about gangs—the gangs that have gotten so much attention in the Washington area recently. She mentions the fact that this low-income child volunteers at the nursing home where his father works. She tells us that Calixto feels special because he’s an altar-boy at his church. (“After serving at one well-attended Sunday Mass, [Calixto] decides that being up on the altar ‘means I'm serving for God. It means God chose me. There was a whole rack of boys in the Mass—a whole rack of boys. But God chose me. I'm up there for a reason.’”) And, in one passage, she quotes Calixto and a string of his friends explaining how they think they’re perceived by the wider society. Just last year, a former Maryland governor had a nervous breakdown after struggling to order breakfast at a local McDonald’s; his young server’s English wasn’t real good, and the former governor was disturbed to no end. (The current governor then chimed in with foolish, ill-advised statements.) We thought of this unfortunate episode (details below) when we read this part of :

JOHNSON (8/28/05): The pencils are scratching, in Spanish and English.

Americans, Calixto writes at the end of March, "don't believe we know how to live, just because we're from a different country. They don't think we know how to be humans."

Americans, scrawl the other seventh- and eighth-graders around him, think "we're thieves," "gang members," "people with no values."

"I think most Americans think," writes Calixto's friend Jessica, adding two large, crying eyes alongside her words, "we are poor...we only work on cleaning bathrooms...we are some pieces of [excrement]...and we are in gangs."

"I believe," one boy begins, "that the majority of americans think that people from my country are... trash that we can't be scientist artist, Docters, lawers."

In school, the "white" people "call me FBI," Karla Borja confides later. "Full-Blooded Immigrant." She hates that word: "immigrant."

"They think we are dumb," says Karla's pretty, curly-haired friend. "Because a lot of Latinos need help because we don't know the language." When they ask for help, she says, other students bray: "What? I don't understand! What? What? What?"

As noted, it was hard not to think of the former governor’s rant about the troubling kid at McDonald’s—a rant which received a lot of attention around the time these essays were written. “Overcoming such crippling self-images is part of Identity's mission,” Johnson writes, referring to an organization that works with kids like Calixto, hoping to steer them away from a long, listed string of pathologies.

And Johnson writes about Calixto and college. “The boys' mothers sit together on a grassy hill behind the soccer goal, discussing college hopes in Spanish,” she writes at one point. Calixto’s mother refers to an unnamed Catholic university in Ohio; she hopes he can earn a scholarship there. But will Calixto make it to college? Johnson’s profile isn’t primarily a study of schooling. But as noted yesterday, we were struck by the following passage, in which Calixto voiced anger and frustration about his eighth-grade school work:

JOHNSON: Maybe it was the Identity program. Or confirmation classes at church. Or that in eighth grade many kids turn serious. No matter, the result was striking. Calixto launched into "this incredible personal transition," as one teacher called it, and when eighth grade began, he was noticeably slimmer and vowing to study harder. He still approached his reading class angrily. "I can't read," he would fume. "I can't do this!" But first quarter, on a report card with three C's and a D, he also earned two B's.
Calixto—an altar boy who volunteers with the elderly—had vowed to study harder. But that report card isn’t likely to take him to college, and anyone who has been inside low-income schools has seen the frustration—the “anger”—described here. “I can’t read,” Calixto fumed. But what did he mean by that comment?

For the record, it doesn’t seem to be the case that Calixto “can’t read” at all. At one point, Johnson describes him “slowly devouring the novelization of ‘West Side Story’ for ninth-grade English” at Gaithersburg High. "It's the tightest book I ever read," he tells Johnson. "It's about gangs. They actually fight.” But many low-income students are able to read; they just can’t read anywhere close to traditional “grade level.” In Monday’s Times, Bob Herbert quoted the bad news from a new study, the study commissioned by two liberal think tanks. “By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students,” the study reports. “Across the nation, only 15 percent of low-income fourth graders achieved proficiency in reading in 2003, compared to 41 percent of non-poor students.” It’s hard to know exactly what these stats mean, but they seem to describe a familiar situation—a situation in which deserving, low-income kids are far below traditional norms. And for kids like this—kids whose reading skills are far below traditional “grade level”—school can be a daily bath of frustration, due to the massive failure of the schools to provide them with instructional programs actually geared to their existing abilities. They’re handed books they can’t possibly read; as they struggle and fail with these inappropriate texts, a good listener—a listener like Johnson—will often hear them saying, “I can’t read—I can’t do this!” In that judgment, of course, these children are right—but low-income kid are constantly asked to do things in school which they simply can’t do, even as think tanks type reports saying that we should toughen our standards. In this country, we don’t make little leaguers bat against Nolan Ryan, and we don’t make middle-class eighth-graders tackle an MIT grad school curriculum. But we constantly ask low-income kids to do things in school they can’t possibly do, and then we puzzle at their “failure to thrive” and shake our heads as they drop out of school.

Because we’ve been in low-income schools, we’ve seen it again and again and again. And because we’ve been in low-income schools, we found ourselves asking question about Calixto’s schooling—important questions which went unasked in Johnson’s superlative profile.

TOMORROW—PART 4: What happens in classrooms?

FRIDAY—PART 5: Back to that latest new study.

UNHAPPY MEAL: Johnson’s profile doesn’t obsess about race, and neither, to judge from what Johnson writes, do Calixto Salgado, his friends or his family. But when we read the passage we quoted above, we couldn’t help thinking of former governor William Donald Schaefer, who had such an unhappy time when he tried to order his morning meal at his local McDonald’s. Believe it or not, the cranky ex-governor, now state comptroller, complained about his troubling experience in lengthy remarks to the state Board of Public Works, and Governor Bob Ehrlich soon said that he agreed with Schaefer’s anguished viewpoint. "Once you get into this multi-cultural crap, this bunk, that some folks are teaching in our college campuses and other places, you run into a problem," Ehrlich said on talk radio. "There is no such thing as a multi-cultural society that can sustain itself, in my view, and I think history teaches us this lesson.” Many observers expressed surprised at Ehrlich’s un-gubernatorial language—at his use of the words “crap” and “bunk.” In fairness, here are further remarks from his radio outing, as quoted in the Baltimore Sun: "With regard to this culture, English is the language. Can [immigrants] obviously honor their ethnic traditions and languages at home and other places? Of course. They are not mutually exclusive. The point here is there is a major distinction between ethnic pride, which is appropriate, and multiculturalism, which is damaging to the society in my view.”

Snore. At any rate, these matters have little relevance to Calixto Salgado’s hopes for college. How well does Calixto read? That will turn on things that occur in his school, not in the gong-show debate which was occurring when he and his friends wrote the essays which Johnson excerpted.

In the meantime, we stumbled upon a fascinating historical piece in the Sun, written in connection with the unhappy meal incident. What was Maryland like for German immigrants in the late 19th century, when Schaefer and Ehrlich’s grandparents lived here? How were their assimilation problems addressed? We were surprised by what we read. We strongly recommend this report, although it isn’t directly tied to the questions we’ll return to tomorrow. This intriguing report is a blast from the past. Calixto’s outcomes are off in the future.