Reflections on the State of the Union: Rebuilding America, One Student At A Time

Antero Garcia is one of 15 classroom teachers hired by the US Department of Education to help bridge education policy and practice.

A Classroom Teaching Fellow Responds to the President’s Jan. 25, 2011, State of the Union Address

Like millions of Americans, I watched President Obama’s State of the Union Address Tuesday. I watched it particularly with hopes that his words and vision would speak directly to me and to the ninth graders I teach every day at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles.

With shootings at two schools in Los Angeles last week, many of my colleagues anticipating being laid off at the end of the year, and student achievement showing only marginal change at my inner-city high school, the atmosphere in public education has been one of perseverance through discouragement and setback.

As the president listed the many things that will strengthen the country in his forthcoming budget proposal, I was continually reminded that none of these items is possible without an improved educational foundation. The “hard work and industry” that will drive the country toward prosperity can be achieved only by reaching out to Kimberly and Michael in my homeroom class each morning. Likewise, discussing the future of America’s science and engineering, I couldn’t help but think of Jessica and De Andre and Carlos – the students who are as inspiring as they are challenging every day. These are the youthful faces I see when Obama speaks of making sure America is “poised for progress.”

The president then offered a sobering view of education today and the challenges we are facing “that have been decades in the making.” As a teacher in a high poverty community with a dropout rate of more than 60 percent, I am reminded daily of these challenges. I feel like I know all too well how inconsistency, chaotic shifts in personnel and shifting educational agendas have all but decimated student achievement for the black and Latino students who are the sole demographic populations at my high school.

As such, I recognize and second Obama’s call to “out-educate” the rest of the world and urge him and Congress to consider making this happen by focusing on the disenfranchised and the high-poverty schools like mine. I can say I am constantly reminded of the amazing work my colleagues and I dedicate to our family of students; the Manual Arts mascot, the Toiler, stands as tribute to the students’ own perseverance.

The proposed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would free us from the implausible demands and outlandish goals, which still mire my classroom.

Efforts like the DREAM Act and college tax credits are essential for the success of the myriad students in my school who struggle to graduate and support their families. I am pleased with these efforts that the president defined during his speech.

And if we as a country are to take his call to respect teachers–to “reward good teachers and stop making excuses for bad ones”–it, too, will be a step that requires financial resources. Yes, it is valuable for our students to hear, “Your country needs you,” and to promote the teaching profession. However, financially, the profession needs to be able to receive financial compensation, non-privatized models of instruction, and increased resources for schools with the most need. I imagine that the teachers, students, and clerical staff at my school are curious if the bi-partisan applause that Obama’s affirmations of the teaching profession received will likewise yield the kinds of necessary resources to make this struggling system an equitable educational juggernaut.

Ultimately, however, it was Obama’s strong affirmation of the need to embrace the changing world as a result of technology that resonated with me most strongly as an educator. The president emphasized the necessity to connect “every part of America to the digital age.” And while the administration’s Blueprint to reauthorize ESEA and Race To The Top program ]will improve accountability for the current classes of students, the need to connect to the digital youth in our classrooms is imperative. Theirs are learning needs that extend beyond the traditional, factory models of education from which most public schools are operating.

Every text message sent from behind a propped textbook, every confiscated headphone and accidental ringtone going off in class is a reminder that students are communicating and producing information in ways that traditional schooling is unprepared for. Obama mentioned every way that we will move our nation into a position of continued leadership in the 21st century; however, the skills of youth to be able to foment innovation in this new paradigm require new ways to teach and connect with our students.

Our country’s success will live or die by our commitment to the students who are yawning and struggling at Manual Arts High School and similar schools that are not recognized in the same way, or have narratives as successful as Bruce Randolph High School in Denver. One of President Obama’s concluding remarks was that our nation will win the future through “ordinary people who dare to dream.” I am critically pragmatic in seeing past educational reform efforts as ones that have shunned the dreams and potential of students mired by poverty. Now is an opportunity for the country to dare to allow all youth to do more than just dream. Now is an opportunity for the country to empower all youth to achieve.

Antero Garcia
Antero Garcia is U.S. Department of Education Classroom Teaching Fellow, a UCLA doctoral candidate, and a high school English teacher at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles, Calif.

7 Comments

  1. I too am a teacher of students who dare to dream but to only have their dream deferred because a teacher is laid off or a gifted and talented program is cut due to budget cuts. President Obama said some great things to motivate our children but what about the teachers in the classroom waiting to hear from the administration how more programs will be cut. Education is the foundation to every career. You said some great things and thank you for what you do daily in LA. I hope and pray teachers become a top priority for our society.

  2. Mr. Garcia,
    Thank you for your inspirational words. I was deeply moved by our President’s speech. It brought tears to my eyes when his support of teachers roused the members of Congress to standing applause, but I have to wonder if those sentiments will translate to true support of our nation’s schools. I believe in public schools, but it feels to me that many Americans no longer do. Too often I hear overgeneralized criticism such as our schools are not working. I wonder when people say “are not working” if they truly understand how committed and hardworking most teachers are. I also wonder if they could see what I see each day, if they make these same disparaging comments. I wish I could create a picture of the diverse population of children that walk through the doors of public school with an equally or more diverse set of needs and how often all of those needs are met each day. Children need attention, affection and nurturing in order to learn and I see teachers, paraprofessionals, bus drivers, administrators and so forth carefully attending to those needs everyday. I want our critics to see what I see and to care. One day I arrived to school to assist in a special education self-contained classroom. A diverse group of children was arriving. One with a traumatic brain injury, another with autism, and another with multiple disabilities and one after the other they walked into a room where they felt welcome, accepted and appreciated. As they danced about the room to the song their teacher played for their arrival through the window I saw their classmate in his wheelchair with the sunlight brightly reflecting off the metal frame high upon the bus lift with the bus driver and a para-professional assisting him off the bus. Barely able to move his limbs he communicated his joy at arriving at school in a broad smile. I felt at that moment American schools are great just because all of these kids had a place to be, with people whom their parents trusted and where they were learning. I hope our nations policy makers can realize that what we do is worth supporting.

  3. Mr. Garcia,
    Everything you said about the presidents address was extremely well articulated. When Obama showed strong support for the need to embrace the changing world as a result of technology, and said that this new paradigm requires new ways to teach and connect with our students. I had an epiphany, because I had been thinking the same thing, and went back to school last year to get my Masters in Education, Media Design & Technology. I graduated last month and my plan is to “Enhance the Ways We Learn Integrating Web 2.0 Instructional Technologies,” with focused research on communication, collaboration and sharing information. I would really like to bring the teachers into 21st century learning, so we can not only meet the needs of the students, begin to address the technological achievement gap issues in education, workplace, and at home, but we can also make teachers’ lives much easier and run smoother.

    After I graduated last month I relocated to Georgia, hopefully for better opportunities. So far it has not been a success story.

    Obama concluded that our nation would win the future through “ordinary people who dare to dream.” Well, I am an ordinary person, and I have been dreaming for over 25 years. I believe it is time to make this dream a reality. Not only for the youths but for some of us teachers, as well. I am ready to put all this education to work.

    L. Cooper

  4. Well said. I was glad to hear that Obama realizes that the responsibility of educating our children doesn’t fall to just the teachers. Parents need to be accountable for their children’s education as well. I hope changes to ESEA will allow teachers to help children learn to “think” instead of focusing on test scores. If our youth do not know how to think/problem solve, we aren’t going anywhere as a nation.

  5. I like to say again and again the formula it TEAM WORK, PARENTS, SCHOOL, CHURCH,COMMUNITY WORKING TOGETHER it we keep give the power to politics we will keep going dawn
    I live in Warerbury Ct, go and see how the invest million renovation of the goverment building and PTO, PTA MAKING FUNDRAISER TO KEEP SCHOOL EDUCATION GOING , PRINCIPAL MAKING MIRACLES TO BUY SCHOOL MATERIALS AND MAKE EDUCATIONAL TRIP POSIBLE TO THE CHILDREN, COLLEGES ARE SO EXPENSIVE JUST TO APLIED $80.00
    how education it going to make it with that little support,
    let stop play around our chidren deserve better

  6. Mr. Garcia, you are an inspiration! Our elected officials need to consult–really listen to–teachers like you. You, sir, are a “nation builder”!

    A. Mejías

  7. Extremely well articulated… I definitely agree that we are well past “daring to dream.” Please send everyone my best!

    ~B. Brown

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