As I said in my memoir, despite being a soldier and a cop, teaching is the hardest job I have ever had. My birth into education was one of hardship and violence. With a lack of supplies, a non-existent curriculum, and a student population that was prone to violent outbursts in the classroom. I endured such a hardship because I had witnessed the alternative. I have been in the broken homes, responded to the gun shots, and negotiated with suicidal subjects. Moreover, I have been deployed to the war-torn Bosnia and witnessed the aftermath of civil war. I became a teacher because I wanted to reach students before it was too late. I became a teacher because I wanted something better for the future.
As a teacher, I have had the honor of working in what many would label some of the most-challenging classrooms in Pennsylvania. From Philadelphia, to Coatesville, to Chester, I eventually found myself employed by a cyber-charter school working out of one of our many learning resource centers in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
The Allentown Resource Center, or ARC, was an experiment. It was a bold approach to engage the un-engageable by offering a place for students to come for support in their cyber education. It was a drop-in center with no mandatory attendance policy since students in cyber schools only need a computer and Internet connection in order to attend class. What this center really offered, however, was so much more.
As I got to know these wonderful students, I began to realize a common thread. With almost every student I met, I learned of their experiences with bullying, depression, or extreme academic difficulty. Parents would tell me how lonely they were, and how they hoped their child would finally make some friends. During their first days, most came in shyly; hoping to find a corner to hide and avoiding eye contact with anyone who would offer a friendly smile. But such isolation was not possible at the ARC. With a mantra of family, or “squad,” as the students affectionately referred to themselves, new faces meant new friends and with new friends came more smiles, laughter, and support.
A Safe Alternative
My students inspired me daily, and I always found great comfort in watching their morning routines. Some came in smiling, one always came in dancing, and others came in focused. No matter what mood they were in, however, the majority made it a point to shake hands with every-single student and staff member before finding their seats. They felt safe at the ARC, and in feeling such safety, these students were able to be themselves. For some it was the first time they’ve ever been accepted and for others it was a first time for friends. The ARC offered a place for the bullied to be popular, for the lonely to feel welcomed, and for the academically challenged to realize their potential. The ARC found success where traditional schools had failed, and our students were thriving.
Unfortunately, the ARC experience has come to an end. Once again, Pennsylvania is facing more cuts to education. This time, those proposed cuts are aimed at cyber-charter schools like our own. If approved, funding would be cut in half and these centers will be forced to close. Our students are devastated, and after we broke the news to them, not a dry eye could be found. The state institution of education has once again abandoned our students, and those who need support are left to fend for themselves.
When we broke the news to our students, many eyes filled with tears. There was a heavy silence that floated through us as each staff member fought to maintain composure to offer support. When we had finished talking, our students began to share. First one hand went up, and then another. Student after student stood proudly and told us how special the ARC was to them. We shared memories, we laughed, and offered words of encouragement. More tears were shed, and we all left that day knowing our lives would never be the same. The next day, the staff was met with a surprise. The students had organized and called us into a meeting. Curious, we sat and listened as a small group of representatives stood in front of the ARC and announced they were having a ceremony to honor and thank the staff. They spent the night communicating, writing, and preparing their speeches (actions that surely can’t be measured by standardized testing). One by one they called us up, and one by one they thanked us. They thanked us for listening, for offering advice, and for letting them know they mattered. They thanked us and gave us the certificates they made for us, and for their efforts I have never been more proud.
As I shook their hands one final time, I was amazed at how far they had come. What was once a shy, disorganized and insecure bunch of kids had grown into a mature, well-mannered, caring and intelligent student population.
“Stand up for your education,” we told them. “Stick together, and everything will be okay. It may be hard, but you all have the tools you need to change this world.”
Their tools, it seems, are being put to good use. Just the other day I received a message from one of my students. It was a link to one of their blogs where they had started a petition to save the ARC. They have organized and are making a stand, and I could not be more proud of them for it. I hope that more students follow their example and start to take an active role in demanding the education they deserve. As we say at Service of Change, “small changes among the masses can have a massive impact around the world.” Your small change could help have a massive impact on their future, their community, and the world. Please sign their petition and share with everyone you know. Stand up for our students. Stand up for education.
This article is based solely on the opinion of the author and in no way represents the opinions or positions of any agency, organization, or academic institution.
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