Reaching for the American Dream with Camino Nuevo
David grabs an inflatable black tube and putting one foot in front of the other. He climbs up the snow-covered hill at Big Bear. David has a right to be a little nervous. After all, not only will this be his first time flying down the side of a “mountain,” it is also his first time experiencing a real snowfall. Gathering courage to overcome that hill, and then to experience the joy of success is good practice, one that his middle school fully supports.
Obstacles to the American Dream
Statistically, David will face many more hurdles in his life than the average American boy. In fact, he probably has less than a 50 percent chance of achieving the American dream.* The American dream is one that most parents have: to see their child achieve greater things than they. Even though David’s parents may experience low-income, earning more than they make could be a real challenge for him.
David attends the Jane B Eisner Middle School, which is part of the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a Title 1** located in greater Los Angeles. The school’s philosophy includes guiding students and giving them the opportunity to be “literate, critical thinkers, and independent problem solvers who are agents of social justice with sensitivity toward the world around them.”
Camino Nuevo wants to send these future leaders out into the world to do great things, but first they have to be accepted into a four-year college and then graduate.
Nationally, children like David are already an average of two years behind in grade level, by the time they get to 4th grade. *** Once this happens, it may be hard to catch up. For a child coming from a low-income family, graduating with a four-year degree might well be the equivalent of that child planting a flag on Mount Everest.
Camino Nuevo Academy Builds Academics and Social Capital
This month, David and ninety-nine of his middle school classmates and their families got a little closer to planting that flag for their academic future through something as simple, yet poignant, as a trip to Big Bear. The trip, which has taken place since the school opened, is part of a proven strategy to provide relationship and readiness to students.
According to Patti Sica, the Dean of Culture, a trip like the one to Big Bear provides kids the chance to build connections, foster self-confidence and gain valuable experience. “We believe very strongly in experiential learning,” Sica says. The school found that while a lot of their students were getting in to college, they weren’t necessarily graduating.
“We recognized that there were so many things that we needed expose our kids to. We needed to build not just academics, but also social capital. That is really important for success,” she says. “They need to experience all sorts of different challenges, so that when they do leave the nest, it’s not so scary for them.”
The Limited Resources of a Limited Income
When you come from a low-income family, there are many logistics in place that can keep your opportunities limited. For example, without a car, you have to rely on walking or public transportation, and so your worldview is smaller and your opportunities are smaller. Traveling toward your American dream will naturally be more difficult.
David and the others didn’t have the resources or even the understanding of how to prepare for the positive opportunity of the Big Bear snow trip. “In the past, they would arrive at the bus wearing shorts and a t-shirt,” Sica says. “The kids were so ill-prepared for how cold it was going to be.” For the trip last year, teachers and administrators went to Goodwill to buy whatever used coats they could find to keep the kids warm.
Still, the school didn’t feel this was the right solution. Sica reached out to Operation Warm for the opportunity to give her students something better: brand new winter coats. The new coats would not only provide practical warmth, but the experience of receiving them fits in nicely with the academy’s strategy of fostering school and life success.
“I think that having new coats really honors the dignity that they deserve,” Sica says. “The coats will help them move through various spaces and feel like they belong.” This confidence will help the children understand they can be successful reaching past any their circumstances.
The Role of Operation Warm Coats
“They were so excited, and they were smiling and laughing,” Sica says. “Just the idea of being able to try on different colors and different sizes and get the one they really liked was amazing. They really got a shopping experience.” Mobilizing student volunteers to be “stylists” made the experience even more of a learning opportunity.
“Compare this wonderful experience to just handing them a used coat and saying, ‘Here’s your free coat, now move on’ she says.” That experience is the antithesis of the American dream.
“After we gave out the coats, a lot of kids would linger and look at me.” Sica says. David and the others initially didn’t believe that they now owned the warm coats. “I think they were waiting for ‘the other shoe to drop,’ and it was so exciting to tell them it was a free coat for them, and they could have any one they liked.”
Sica assures us that students will continue using the brand new colorful coats throughout winter. “With the climate change, the weather has been extreme, and we’ve had a lot of cold weather,” she says. “Homes here are not designed for that. We don’t have a lot of insulation, so it gets really cold at night. Our kids don’t have access to thicker clothing.”
The Simplicity of Making a Difference with a New Coat
“Sometimes when you think about tackling the systemic issues at play in our country, it can be very overwhelming,” Sica says. “ I think that sometimes we can become paralyzed by that, by all of the different things that we should be doing. But I think you can make a powerful impact by starting somewhere. And I think that giving a kid a coat to a kid who doesn’t have one, that is doing your part toward the greater good.”
*The Equality of Opportunity Project: “A defining feature of the ‘American Dream’ is upward income mobility: the ideal that children have a higher standard of living than their parents.”
**More information on Title 1 schools from the US Department of Education
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