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We Missed You
Alfonso Orsini was headed to jail or the grave until a teacher praised and challenged him.

By Alfonso Orsini

When I read all the government, foundation and university ideas about how to fix American education, part of me wants to laugh but part wants to cry. Test data and even algorithms to predict dropouts seem to be the answer for many. We crunch numbers and wring our hands, not about how best to educate children, but about how best to make them reach our numerical targets to which dollar bounties are attached.  We are confused.

Once, in New York, in the 1960s, I was a lost boy. My single mother struggled to feed five children on welfare payments and factory pay, and lost herself on the way. I perpetually had holes in my shoes and ill-fitting clothes. I was embarrassed to go to school. I averaged 100 absences per year.  I was threatened with legal action by the same principals who were called in every time I handed in a piece of writing that my teachers thought I could never have written.

Then one day as I was walking into high school English class, my teacher said something remarkable. He said "We missed you yesterday." I just stared a moment, speechless. He had acknowledged my existence. He praised my writing. He gave me books. He told me I had a chance at college, and took me to the counselor. He may have saved my life, considering how many of my childhood friends ended up dead or incarcerated.

Today, more than 40 years later, if there is one thing I have learned from a lifetime as an educator, it's that schools need to have a heart more than an algorithm. Instead of being data-driven, we need to be compassion-driven, wonder-driven. If we make kids statistics, they will turn away in despair. But if we create places where kids are loved as well as challenged, where they are exposed to the joyful, compelling fascination of this world, where adults believe in their ability and their worth, then we can help them find a path forward. It might be good to bring children and young people back into the conversation now. I've missed them, haven't you?

With a Perspective, this is Alfonso Orsini.

Alfonso Orsini is the head of school at the Presidio Knolls School in San Francisco.

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