The story is being told about how 17-year-old pop sensation Justin Bieber went to a high-poverty school in Las Vegas, gave a private concert to over-the-moon students and handed a $100,000 check to the delighted principal.
The real story is about what that principal, Sherrie Gahn, has done for and with the students at Whitney Elementary School in Las Vegas, where more than 85 percent of the more than 600 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is a measure of poverty. Many live in houses without heat, electricity and running water.
What gets overlooked in the story’s telling is that Gahn has been successful improving student achievement because she has not ignored the circumstances of her students’ lives outside class but instead has tried to address the effects of the poverty in which they live.
For those people concerned about standardized test scores, they’ve gone up significantly since she’s been there and worked, through private donations, to help her students.
While many school reformers today say that citing poverty as a reason for poor student performance is just an excuse for bad teaching, Gahn knows better.
She arrived at Whitney about eight years ago and promised Whitney parents that she would help them with their bills — and even help pay college tuition for any students who went — if they would work with her to raise children “of character.”
Here’s what she told Ellen DeGeneres that she told parents: “I’ll pay your electrical bill, your utilities, I’ll give you food or clothes, whatever you need, as long as you give me your child and then help raise that child as a person of character.”
Once, according to this article in Scholastic Administrator, she arranged to have every child in her school receive a pair of new shoes, but when they arrived, most of them didn’t fit. She realized that when teachers collected the shoe sizes of their students, the kids’ were wearing previously donated shoes that didn’t fit.
In a segment of The Ellen DeGeneres Show airing Jan. 4, 2012, Bieber is shown handing a $100,000 check to Gahn (which was a matching gift to a donation of the same amount from Target) to help her students with necessities, a promise he had made a few months ago. He also treated the students to a private concert Friday.
As one might expect, stories about this subject are heavy on Bieber. This Associated Press story about Bieber’s largesse to the school talks a little while before making it clear that the real hero at that school has been Gahn.
That’s not to say that Bieber’s involvement with the school isn’t worth noting. Whenever one of the super rich hands over $100,000 to a public school principal without telling her how to use it, it is an occasion to applaud. He toured the school, talked to the kids and brought presents. Good for him.
But the real story is how Gahn has raised money, created partnerships with various organizations and done everything possible to help her students and their families with basic necessities and more. Why? Because as an educator she knew her students couldn’t succeed without this help.
And the Scholastic article notes that the need is never filled.
“How do I tell the 251st child there isn’t enough food for her?” Gahn was quoted as saying. “It’s an impossible kind of triage.”
What is also impossible is this: Twenty-two percent of American children live in poverty, and the emphasis of modern school reform ignores this fact. As long as this is the case, educating needy kids who don’t have Gahn as their principal will be impossible.
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