Educating the Whole Student

Nat Hentoff

In my reporting on schools over the years, I’ve become aware that some students have hearing problems that have made them appear shy or uninvolved. One day, after a while spent wondering about the continually silent girl in the back of the room, I asked her to please come to the front of the room. Soon, indicating that at last she could hear me, she became an active participant in the class. On other similar occasions, I’ve suspected that some students had vision difficulties.

I have heard of rare schools with nurses on the premises, and, at last, more and more schools and districts are recognizing that a vital element of education reform is making sure that every student is wholly present in the classroom—especially when the students attend school in the parts of a city where sizable numbers of children are eligible for free lunches.

The newest health-care center to debut in Chicago’s public school system is at Hibbard Elementary School on the northwest side. According to a Chicago Tribune story, “It offers comprehensive health services and dental care to students at no cost to families.” And listen to this: “Next semester it will begin offering mental health services.”

Underlining the value of school health centers, the Tribune story notes that at Hibbard Elementary, “85 percent of the students are from low-income households” and “more than half are registered in All Kids, the state’s Medicaid program.”

I write often on education, and I have noted that during all the debates on meaningful, replicable education reform, students’ health needs are seldom mentioned. Neither is bringing the Bill of Rights and the rest of the Constitution into the lives of students—with real-life stories of why we’re Americans and what it takes (and is going to keep taking) to make all citizens, including students, keenly aware that they are the ultimate guardians of their liberties against the government. (Especially these days, as I’ve been chronicling in Free Inquiry.)

In a dramatic move to ensure that students who need more help than preparation for endless standardized testing to be successful and have meaningful futures get it, the San Francisco Chronicle reports that Northern California’s Kaiser Permanente is investing $7.5 million in Oakland’s schools over the next three years to increase school-based health-care programs. Along with funding wellness centers, the funding includes “a vision program . . . exams and much-needed glasses for elementary school children.” As vital as students’ good health may be, Kaiser is addressing another urgent need by supporting the Oakland school district’s African-American Male Achievement Program, thereby helping students who might otherwise not graduate.

A longtime national crisis—receiving far too little attention, let alone recognition as a national emergency—has become what is mechanically called the “racial gap” in student achievement in our public schools. A significant majority of the young left behind in that gap—many for the rest of their lives—are black males. As John Jackson, president of the Cambridge-based Schott Foundation for Public Education, said last year at the fifty-fourth annual conference of the Council of the Great City Schools: “You can’t separate a 28 percent graduation rate in New York City of black males with the fact that 50 percent of black males in New York City are unemployed.” He continued: “Currently, the rate at which Black males are being pushed out of school and into the pipeline for prison far exceeds the rate at which they are graduating and reaching high levels of achievement.”

And consider this from his 50-State Report (2010): “More than twice as many black students (male and female) are classified as ‘mentally retarded’ in spite of research demonstrating that the percentages of students from all groups are approximately the same at each intelligence level.”

As for those who stay in school and are not labeled “retarded,” a January 14, 2011, report by education researchers Daniel J. Losen and Russell Skiba, published by the Southern Poverty Law Center, finds that “In a national sample of more than 9,000 middle schools, 28.3 percent of black males on average, were suspended at least once during a school year, nearly three times the 10 percent for white males. . . . Black females were suspended more than four times as often as white females (18 percent vs. 4 percent) . . . 175 middle schools in these districts suspended more than a third of their black male students [and 84 schools] suspended more than half the black males enrolled.”

Not all cities and school districts guarantee a dead end for most black males. Education Week’s front-page report on November 3, 2010, “City’s Black Males Stay in School,” stated: “School leaders in Baltimore have mounted an offensive over the past three years to keep more students in school and on track. . . . Black male students are driving a marked increase in the district’s graduate rate and a decrease in its dropout rate—showing improvement at a faster clip than the rest of the system.”

At W.E.B. DuBois High School (an evocative name in this context), Brandon Howard was often hours late for school on the few days he chose to come at all. Realizing how far behind he was if he ever hoped to graduate, he said, “I dropped out.” During my years of reporting on schools, I have often asked education departments if they tried to keep in touch with the dropouts. At best, some said they were thinking about it. But in Baltimore, after Howard dropped out, he was continually urged to return. Howard says of his pursuers: “They got in contact with just about anybody who had ties to me. She wouldn’t let up,” he says in tribute to Delores Berry-Binder, principal of W.E.B. DuBois High School.

And in Houston, school officials engage in an easily replicable rescue plan for those cities who do give a damn about students at risk. As a September 13, 2010, Christian Science Monitor story reported: “School officials and volunteers in Houston have been knocking on the doors of students who didn’t show up at the beginning of the school year offering ways for them to get their diploma. As a result, the dropout rate has fallen significantly. This could be a model for other school districts.” It’s easy to start: “A sort of ‘war room’ has been set up in Houston’s central education office to put together accurate profiles of students not yet re-enrolled.”

I have been covering public education in my hometown, New York City, since the late 1950s, and I am unaware of there ever being such a “war room” or any concerted effort to find out why students drop out and what becomes of them. Some years ago, while doing a story on a prison for young offenders who had committed serious crimes, including homicide, I asked a prison official for information about the inmates’ backgrounds. A week or so later, he reported: “Over 80 percent are school dropouts. Nothing unusual about that.”

New York’s third-term chief executive, Michael Bloomberg, glories in calling himself “The Education Mayor.” I have tried to find out if there has been any tracking of the “disappeared” students on his watch. I’ve yet to receive a believable response.

What is likely to be an endnote for the constantly rising number of dropouts who do not return to school is the grim news from the Schott Foundation’s Jackson: “The tragedy of the data is that the th
ree major districts that are most challenged have the highest black male enrollment. Philadelphia joins New York City in a 28 percent male graduate rate and Chicago graduates less than half its back males at 44 percent.”

How much of a role will the “racial gap” play in the 2012 elections?


  • Michelle D. Anderson, “Chicago Adding In-School Health Centers,” Chicago Tribune, December 23, 2010.
  • Jill Tucker, “Kaiser Permanente Puts Millions in Oakland Schools,” San Francisco Chronicle, November 30, 2010.
  • Stacy Teicher Khadaroo, “Key to School Dropouts: Knock on Their Door,” Christian Science Monitor, September 11, 2010.

Nat Hentoff

Nat Hentoff is a United Media syndicated columnist, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, and the author of, among other books Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press, 1999) and The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance (Seven Stories Press, 2004). His latest book is At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press, 2010).

In my reporting on schools over the years, I’ve become aware that some students have hearing problems that have made them appear shy or uninvolved. One day, after a while spent wondering about the continually silent girl in the back of the room, I asked her to please come to the front of the room. …

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