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Teaching At The Oasis: Part One

First in a series.

We're nearing the close of the morning language arts period, and it's time to clean up. Roberto (I'm not using any real names for kids here), who struggles with speaking, reading, and writing English, has everything back in its proper place - books back on the shelf, papers in his folder, pencils returned to his desk drawer - and he comes running back to the table. "What did you forget?" I ask. "Forgot to push my chair in," he responds. This is a kid who easily could hate school. It is so difficult for him. Yet he needs to make sure his chair is pushed in. Unreal!

* * *

Few schools in our country have students from poorer circumstances than Roberto's school, Oasis Elementary in Thermal, California. I happen to be fortunate in that I can spend much of the winter escaping Chicago's elements in the desert of Southern California. For the past couple of winters my wife Judy and I have added to our good luck by volunteering in a fourth grade classroom at Oasis.

To get an understanding of the school, its students and teachers, one first needs to picture the local environment.


Thermal is a farming community of approximately 3,000 people - the vast majority Hispanic - in the Coachella Valley, less than an hour from the verdant golf courses (more than 200 of them) and playgrounds of towns such as Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. The average July temperature is 107.

Many families in and around Thermal live in trailer parks and work in the irrigated fields of strawberries, grapes, lettuce, peppers, dates and just about everything else that grows. (Patricia Leigh Brown of the New York Times wrote a poignant description of life in Thermal of life California Watch last October.)

Increasingly, students like Roberto have become the focus of the national dilemma over educating our children. Instead of headlines about the widening achievement gap between whites and people of color, rich versus poor has become the issue.

This sounds like old wine in new bottles since a disproportionate percentage of African Americans and Latinos occupy the lower strata on the socioeconomic scale. Aren't we talking about the same kids here?

I'm not blazing any new trails by stating that no matter how the problem is defined, students from affluent backgrounds - regardless of race or ethnicity - have a running head start on kids whose parents struggle to make ends meet.

Consider the data of the French-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Thirty-four countries, including the U.S., are members of the OECD. Among other endeavors, it issues rankings of achievement for students around the world. Places like Finland, Korea, and Canada beat the pants off our kids when it comes to reading, math, and science test scores.

An April 2009 report by the consulting firm of McKinsey & Company stated, "The gap between students from rich and poor families is much more pronounced in the United States than in other OECD nations. In a world-class system like Finland's, socioeconomic standing is far less predictive of student achievement. All things being equal, a low-income student in the United States is far less likely to do well in school than a low-income student in Finland. Given the enormous economic impact of educational achievement, this is one of the best indicators of equal opportunity in a society, and one on which the United States fares poorly."

All of which means that the odds are stacked against Roberto and his classmates. Yet I don't detect a pessimistic attitude or sense of futility in Roberto's classroom.

One reason is their teacher Ramiro Zamora, who grew up in East Chicago. (He's a Bears fan, so I liked him immediately.) The students' reading and writing abilities lag anywhere from two to four years below grade level, meaning that some of these 9- and 10-year-olds are beginning readers. The kids are labeled "English learners" since they've grown up speaking Spanish.

Nevertheless, the class is manageable, just 17 students who are divided into three groups which rotate every half-hour or so with a 20-minute recess after an hour. Judy's and my job is to work one-on-one with the students. Another group works individually at computers on spelling and word attack skills while Mr. Zamora has five or six kids around a table reading aloud, discussing, and emphasizing language skills.

Just before Christmas, I was working with Natalia, a young Latina with potential. She pulled out her folder of work containing an impressive stack of worksheets that go along with the paperback Scholastic books on a vast array of topics that comprise the core curriculum.

Natalia was clearly proud, and for good reason. The sheets were done very neatly and completely. Her handwriting was excellent, and, with a few exceptions, she wrote complete sentences with proper punctuation.

Natalia told me that she wanted to get top grades but needs to work harder. Parent conferences were scheduled for later in the week, and Mr. Zamora gives the students the option of being present. Natalia said she would sit in on her parent conference, and I said that I thought that was just great. "It's always nice to be there when people talk about you," I said.

At the other end of the academic spectrum is Ricardo. He really can't read, and no one can blame him for not wanting to read aloud.

Working with Ricardo one morning I asked him to speak louder. "I'm an old man," I said. "I can't hear very well so please read louder." He smiled. He was stumbling even over sight words like "to, the, or, of" etc. I wrote down about ten sight words in a column on notebook paper. Most of them were words in the material he was reading. He was able to go right down the line and read the words. Then I listed about ten more, and he did reasonably well. Remember, these were the most basic of words.

However, when it came to the text, Ricardo hesitated. How do you help him? He would come to a word like "run," which I suspected he knew. His lips began to form the word, but not the "r" sound at the beginning. I asked what letter the word began with. Ricardo recognized the "r" but the phonics were more or less absent. There was no consistency. Every sentence was a struggle.

Despite this battle, Ricardo doesn't appear frustrated or angry when he's doing this work. I'm frustrated watching him, but he keeps right at it. I'd give him some words; I might summarize a sentence or paragraph. He listens and then continues right on. No squirming in his seat, no wandering eyes or impatience. He simply keeps going.

There is a richness and humanity permeating these young people. Driving away from Oasis School every week, we talk about what the future might hold for them. The school's principal, Dora Flores, has similar thoughts. "A lot of them will graduate from high school. Some of them will drop out," she said recently. "Some of them will go to college and some of them will be professionals. What will that percentage be? At the end of the day it's whatever they decide to do with their lives."


Roger Wallenstein spends winter in California but when he returns to Chicago he writes The White Sox Report for the Beachwood. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Barbara Finn:

Thank you Roger for this wonderful piece on Oasis Elementary School and the larger picture on education in the US. We, as a nation, should be embarrassed at our low ranking in education when compared to other first world countries.

And here in California there have been major cuts in funding affecting all levels of education from elementary up through the state college system and also with adult education as well.

And the latest from Washington is a proposal to double the interest on Stafford loans. Our children are our best resource and we are undermining their future . . . which is the future of our nation.

Good for you and Judy committing your time, energy and expertise to these children at Oasis. You set a powerful example for the rest of us retirees who could contribute similarly.

2. From Tom Weinberg:

You two, Roger and Judy, are a major resource for these kids. Bravo!

But, as Barbara has written, your involvement is a bellwether - a great example for the rest of us who have lots to give on a person to person basis, and somehow, don't "get around to it."

Inspiring. Thanks. Keep doing it and telling us about what you're doing.

3. From Stephen Weber:

It's great to hear that you aren't just shanking golf balls all winter. You and Judy are the best. You've never been able to just sit idly by when you see there are folks in need.

As you know, I work with children from all economic levels across Chicago via Educational Endeavors. I see this disparity on a daily basis - sometimes in the same afternoon.

I might be teaching a test-prep course to kids at the British School of Chicago, then head over to teach the same course at Salazar Bilingual Center, maybe drive down to work with kids at MetroSquash in Hyde Park.

Another day we may be at an alternative high school in Humboldt Park and at a Catholic School in Sauganash before giving some private sessions to kids at the Latin School.

It is very troubling to see the difference in ability among these kids, and it has nothing to do with their work ethic or desire to succeed academically. It has to do with the schools they attend, the neighborhoods they live in, and the cultural barriers they must overcome.

Most of these factors are determined solely by economic status. I am inspired by the kids who overcome these obstacles all the time. They make me feel like I am just some punk who grew up in the suburbs with every advantage. I have nothing on these kids, but luck.

The attitude of the kids at Oasis does not surprise me at all. I find that some of the best-behaved and hard-working students are children of first-generation immigrants.

There is certainly a phenomenon that goes across all cultures that motivates these type of kids to surpass their parents in academic achievement and in financial success despite the challenges facing them.

What can you do about this education gap? Just what you are doing. Try to make a difference in the lives of kids like Robert and the others at Oasis.

Thank you!


Posted on March 12, 2012

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