Lessons from an inner city school

Kenesta Mack worked as a Special Education teacher at Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School.  At one time it was one of the country’s most dangerous schools.  She is now a No Bully trainer.

What was it like working at such a violent school? I live in the same community as our students. I have seen what they and their families are faced with.  For so many the number one priority is survival – where are they going to live, what are they going to eat, how can they get light and heat and clothing? If these are your concerns as a child and if your family cannot meet your needs, then their burden becomes your burden.  You are focused on how you will get food for you and your brothers and sisters.   If your number one priority is survival then education becomes secondary.  So when they come in and we tell them that education will save your life, that is not something that they can see right away.

Tell me about the emotionally challenged students that you worked with.   

These children looked like ordinary children but many have been through trauma that stops them from performing at their best. It could be from growing up with violence and abuse or drug addiction in the home.  Many had experienced things that no child should experience.  The trauma in their life impacts their functioning.  That is why they have outbursts and that is why so many have a wall around them.

What do you mean when you say thy have a wall around them?   

They have built an emotional wall around themselves and as a result they don’t trust or feel.  The trauma in their life impacts their functioning and that emotional wall is their survival wall.  Often they cannot hear anything beyond that. Some of our students came to us from various out of home placements, and they bring another layer of a wall that we have to chisel through.

Do you have hope?   

Their resilience is amazing.  We adults, with all our skills and knowledge, could never survive what they face.  Again and again I was struck by their brilliance.  The things that they know and the questions they ask are mind-boggling. If these children had access to the resources that wealthier schools have – to the top technology, the top-notch teachers, to the field trips, to the counseling and support services – they would be geniuses. And sometimes the light bulb goes off and they see that education is the only way to change their zip code.

What is your advice to inner city teachers?  

First and foremost, listen to your students and to their stories.  You will be able to get a better understanding of where they come from.  Poverty impacts every area of their lives. They came into the world with an imbalance of power and in many ways the world has bullied them.  Secondly, let them know that you are going to teach them to the best of your ability. They have a lot of pride and a lot of distrust.  They need to understand that regardless of their situation you care about them. Thirdly get to know their community the best way you can.  Go to the recreation center and watch the basketball game and the football game.  Go to a community church on a Sunday.  Ask your students if they are doing anything in their community that they would like you to come to.  And get to know their families.  They love their families above all and they want you to know them.  That is how you build their trust.

Philadelphia’s Strawberry Mansion High School was the subject of a Diana Sawyer’s series on poverty and hope.