Educators can’t let students slip through cracks

Chuck Hall Opinion contributor

Some call the students in my school “at-risk youth.” I prefer to call them “opportunity youth.”

That’s because for nearly all of our 250 students, Marshall High School, a charter school in Middletown, provides an opportunity to change the trajectory of their lives. After struggling or failing at more traditional schools, this place provides their second, third or sometimes last chance to earn a diploma. 

Students who struggle academically sometimes act out behaviorally. That can lead to suspensions or other discipline. They may also lack support in their home lives, and their self-esteem suffers. They succumb to self-doubt and wonder how smart they really are and whether they’re destined for anything better.

When they come to Marshall, we build them up with acceptance, understanding, caring and motivation. It is not always easy, especially now as COVID-19 has forced many of our students to attend school remotely. There are tech troubles, transportation challenges, distractions at home.

But during this time of particular adversity, this is where we as dedicated educators bear down. We cannot let COVID-19 create the crack that these students will ultimately fall through for the last time.

This isn’t just an academic exercise. It’s particularly personal for me. I know education changes lives, because it transformed mine.

I was born to two high school dropouts and grew up in the projects of Piqua, Ohio, with an alcoholic, abusive father. We lived in a trailer with no running water. I realized early that getting a great education could lead to important opportunities, especially for a young Black child. Surrounded by violence and substance abuse, even though I didn’t have support from my parents, I had teachers who were committed to helping me.

Now I’m fulfilling my destiny to do the same for the students at Marshall, because I know what fate could await them otherwise. Most of the people I grew up with are dead or behind bars.

So, there is a real urgency to the teaching and support we give to our students, who are 15-21 years old. We have come a long way in the 10 years I have been here, from a school once associated with “bad” kids to one now recognized as a quality institution for education.

As a school that serves a slightly older population, half of our students are over 18 and eligible to vote. We help them to register, and often talk with our students about ensuring their voices are heard, and that they can support a high-quality public education for all students. I’ll tell them, “There are some people who don’t believe in charter schools.” And they just can’t believe it. They are proud of the academic and personal success they’ve had at Marshall, and know that attending a charter school was a key part of it.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are open to all students. The charter school model empowers educators to build a school around the needs of their students. That means we are able to create a school tailor made to help our opportunity kids  thrive.

Just last week, we hosted a food drive, where we distributed 500 boxes of food, enough to feed 2,000 people, from the back of the school. We also were able to give our students new school supplies donated to us by Staples.

Some of our students are attending school in person, while others remain remote. If they do not show up to the building or online, we show up for them. We bang on doors, we track them down. We are a school with one vision – our students come first.

That type of engagement gives our students hope, the audacity to dream big. This is only possible because we had political leaders who understood the potential of offering schooling that gives students and their families a choice.

As a Black man and an educator, I have seen first-hand the way charter schools can provide the biggest opportunities to our opportunity youth. It’s why I support charter schools. And it’s one of the most important reasons why I vote.

Chuck Hall is the principal of Marshall High School in Middletown.