Opportunity -- If children don't have access to the tools needed for homework, the achievement gap will only grow

A few months ago, I visited Cornelius Public Library on a late weekday afternoon. I spotted a high school girl intensely word-processing an outline of historical dates on an Internet-equipped computer. A warning popped up on her screen announcing five minutes left of her allotted 30-minute computer time.

'Are you trying to do your homework in 30 minutes?' I said to her after her computer shut off.

'Well, I typed half my assignment at the high school library,' she said, 'but it closed at four o'clock. Now I'm finishing the other half here. I didn't really have time to proofread.'

She explained that her disk wouldn't save her work properly at the high school library, so she was forced to print half her outline there and the other half at this library.

I watched her borrow the library's tape and scissors and splice the two sections of the outline onto one paper.

A father came in with his daughter and asked the librarian about computer availability. The daughter carried her school binder and some books.

'I am sorry,' the librarian told him. 'All computers are in use for the next 15 minutes. You will have to wait.'

He and his daughter found seats.

I suspect that this girl, too, intended to do her homework in her allotted half hour.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, children's lives outside of school dramatically affect their academic success. Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, warns that homework increases the gap between students from middle-class and low-income homes because advantaged parents can more often help their children.

He believes that it is 'unconscionable for educators to exacerbate inequality by assigning homework' unless government first supplies after-school study centers.

I doubt homework is going away anytime soon. So, as long as teachers continue assigning homework, our students must have equal access to resources to complete it. (For more on the debate about homework's value, see Alfie Kohn's recent book, 'The Myth of Homework.')

Nationally, in our public schools, children with fewer resources are less likely to be placed in honors classes, more likely to be retained in a grade, less likely to be placed in harder math classes and less likely to be labeled Talented and Gifted.

When teenagers fall behind, many drop out of school, often starting in the ninth grade. A year ago, 'Time' magazine, in an article titled 'Dropout Nation' (April 9, 2006), wrote:

In today's data-happy era of accountability, testing and No Child Left Behind, here is the most astonishing statistic in the whole field of education: an increasing number of researchers are saying that nearly 1 out of 3 public high school students won't graduate, not just in Shelbyville but around the nation. For Latinos and African Americans, the rate approaches an alarming 50 percent. Virtually no community, small or large, rural or urban, has escaped the problem.

What can we do to help all our teenagers stay in school and remain hopeful about their futures?

No doubt, our children know that some among them have greater resources, opportunities, and possessions outside of school.

They look to us adults to equalize their learning environment during after-school hours as much as possible. If we do not, we are complicit in accepting these inequalities and, therefore, in teaching our children likewise to ignore them once they become adults.

Such a result is dangerous for our community and our democracy. It is also deeply unjust.

Forest Grove and Cornelius must grapple publicly with such equity issues. Certainly, we can work together as a community - parents, students, community organizations, the public libraries, Pacific University, and Forest Grove School District - to research and implement mentoring opportunities and after-school community centers with exciting 'hooks' for teens.

Lucy Friedman, president of TASC, an after school non-profit in New York City, advises, 'What brings kids to the programs … are activities that may not look like learning.'

As a small community, with so many talented adults, we have great potential to provide all students with the support and encouragement they need to succeed, regardless of their circumstances outside of the school day.

How wonderful it would be to watch us build a community program for our teens.

Monica Gorman lives in Cornelius and teaches at Westview High School in the Beaverton School District.

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