Education experts talk grit, college readiness at Camden summit

Rita Bianchi teaches language arts at St. Anthony of Padua in Camden. In her sixth grade class she has a student with great potential but who lacks any kind of drive. When she approaches him, tries to pump him up or get him engaged, he shrugs her off with a heart-breaking answer.

“What do you expect from me, I’m from Camden?”

Bianchi, new to the city herself – she taught at St. Mary’s in Bordentown before the school closed – asked a panel of education experts Monday what she could say to the student and how educators in the city can overcome the helplessness that often weighs down the children who come through their brightly-decorated doors.

The summit, held by the Catholic Partnership Schools, a non-profit foundation operating the five Catholic schools in Camden, gathered about 300 education professionals for a day of panel discussions and networking.

Maurice Elias, Director of the Social-Emotional Learning Lab at Rutgers University, encouraged Bianchi to find and celebrate successes each student does have as a way to change a defeatist mindset.

“A student who talks about their own failures has areas of success, they just don’t focus on it.” Elias said.

The topic was one of many covered at the second annual event held at Burlington County College.

Mayor Redd and Chief Scott Thomson – both Catholic school educated – attended the conference.

Keynote speaker Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, presented on the topic of grit, specifically how focus and tenacity drive success just as much, and oftentimes moreso, than talent and ability.

Duckworth has done research with spelling bee finalists, Westpoint cadets, corporate sales people and inner-city students, revealing how perseverance and passion lead to high achievement.

The conference, open to anyone, was attended mostly by researchers, psychologists, trustees and Catholic school educators. While public, charter and private school educators also attended, it would have been nice to see more teachers at the conference, held during the schoolday.

Hallam Hurt, a neonatal and perinatal physician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia gave a very interesting presentation on the early effects of poverty on young children. Hurt originally set out to study effects of gestational cocaine exposure (“crack babies,” being the pejorative term). But after comparing the growth of children who were exposed to cocaine in the womb and those who weren’t, she found poverty was far more influential than any natal factors.

Factors like learning and language stimulation, warmth and affection, academic stimulation, variety of experience and acceptance at home all had far more bearing than the actual cocaine usage on a child’s development (none of that is to say she encourages cocaine use in pregnant women, she noted early in the talk.)

Douglas MacIver, Co-Director at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins University, spoke on the topic of college readiness and warning signs for at-risk students.

His topic was especially relevant in Camden where the superintendent has said rigor needs to increase to prepare students in the district where last year three students scored college ready based on arguably elevated SAT parameters.

MacIver said the good news is 60 percent of students who will not graduate give warning signs by 6th grade –the challenge is how to reverse their course.

MacIver studied 13,000 Philadelphia sixth graders for six years and found poor attendance was the main indicator of who would not graduate. Eight-three percent of students who missed 20 percent of class did not graduate on time. Failing a major subject like math or English was a second primary indicator.

None of the problems covered had easy answers but the ideas exchanged rejuvenated many educators –one said it was the “shot in the arm she needed to return to her classroom.”

Oh, and Bianchi, the teacher at St. Anthony’s, may be new to the city but she had the perfect answer for her down on his luck student: “I expect a lot from you," she said. "Because you’re from Camden.”

- Julia Terruso