As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Bennet's Campaign Against Dropouts

This New Yorker profile of Michael Bennet and the Denver school system makes for interesting reading. Bennet came in promising major reforms. One high school, Manual, was such a reclamation project that he decided the best practice would be to close it. This sparked outrage in the community, and veiled charges of racism against Bennet from the majority-minority community. It seemed liked the 558 students transferring out of Manual to other schools would simply drop out and resort to a life on the streets. Bennet cared about this, he recognized his mistake in being too hasty with the school's closure, and he set out to reach the kids, one by one, one door at a time.

Driving through his neighborhood one Saturday with all this on his mind, he passed an election sign with a familiar name on it. One of his friends in Democratic politics had started a run for the state senate. From past experience, Bennet could envision how the candidate would spend that summer weekend, and every other one until November: studying maps marked by colored pins showing clusters of voters, then going out to knock on hundreds of doors. He called an aide, a veteran of political campaigns, and asked, Could we capture some children this way?

A strapping boy named Pedro, half-awake, half-naked, stared perplexed through a torn screen door. “Sorry to wake you up,” Bennet said. It was a Saturday morning last fall. “We’re from the schools. Can we come in?” The boy put on a shirt, and Bennet and Jaime Aquino, his chief academic adviser, walked into a living room crammed with beds [...] School had started five weeks earlier, but Pedro had not shown up, according to the printout that Bennet held in his hand. “So you’re a senior,” he began, over the barking. “Can I sit down?” For a moment, the boy studied the man settling in on a sofa between some boxer shorts and an aquarium that reeked of decay. And then, in a Spanish somewhat different from what Bennet recalled from St. Albans, Pedro began to map the distance between Bennet’s ideas and his own economic obligations.

First, Pedro wanted it noted: his younger sister, one of the five hundred and fifty-eight, was continuing high school, and he was proud of her. But because of family finances, he had dropped out to work the night shift at McDonald’s—a job he’d held for a year despite not having a car to get him home at two in the morning. Mentors and college fairs were beside the point. Pedro looked expectant when he finished, as if hoping for a thanks and goodbye, but Bennet and Aquino had begun to confer. After a year, the boy was a proven employee, and there was another McDonald’s within walking distance of a high school that offered evening classes. If he transferred to that restaurant and switched over to the day shift—what were the hours of the day shift, exactly? It would work, then: Pedro could attend school after his shift, and get work-study credit for the job. Bennet’s aides could call the managers of both restaurants, and get things moving along.

For nine weeks, Bennet and two dozen aides and volunteers had been fanning out across neighborhoods like Pedro’s, trying to sell school to skeptical kids. The campaign had been harder to start than a political one, since many of its targets were illegal and didn’t want to be found, and the goal was not just a trip to the polls. Still, with the help of Julissa and seven other students who were hired as peer counsellors and part-time sleuths, the district managed to locate all but ten of the former Manual students. Weekend visits began, and hundreds of reclamation projects got under way. “Oh, I’m in school, it’s going great,” said almost every child to whom Bennet spoke, especially on the days when Univision sent a cameraman to accompany him. Then he got better at asking the questions.

In the first month of school, four hundred and sixty-three former Manual students showed up—a better rate of return than after previous summers, and a number that averted a public-relations debacle. The first weeks meant little, though: math had not yet become confusing and term papers weren’t due. Bennet and his people kept pounding on doors and shaking chain-link gates—better not to surprise the dogs, they’d learned. And the number of children in school held steady.

I know that there's a lot of outcry about the Bennet appointment, and I've made my views on the topic of Senate appointments very well known. But my gut tells me that this guy is going to be a great Senator. The concern expressed in this episode, the belief that every child can achieve and that government has a role to play in expanding their opportunity, the bellief in the connection of the very poor and the very rich in America's progress and continued success, these are the hallmarks of a superior public servant.

Now, applying himself to children who had self-perpetuating birthrights of their own, he was undaunted by the fact that more experienced superintendents had failed at reforms less ambitious than his. “Well, one of these days someone’s going to pull it off,” Bennet said to me last spring. “Besides, I really don’t see how you can hold both propositions to be true: that these urban public schools aren’t fixable and that the America of a decade or two from now is going to be a place where any of us would want to live.”

Obviously, education isn't the sole portfolio of a US Senator. But the more people with practical experience on the ground, the better. I'm very intrigued by this guy.

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