Barkley is one of the students who signed up for “Tenacity and Employability,” a class Hernandez teaches where students learn how to deposit checks, how to dress for interviews, even how to “code switch.” While those are skills that many kids from wealthy families learn at home, Hernandez said that lots of his students haven’t had a chance to see them modeled anywhere. “They watch everything we do,” Hernandez, who has a 15-year-old and a one-year-old of his own, said.
The focus on such topics is a symbol of a shift in how schools view their responsibility to educate students. Most of the nation’s public-school students are now low-income, and schools are increasingly being asked to help students find food, clothing, and even housing, in addition to covering typical academic subjects. Most public-school students are also now children of color, while around 80 percent of teachers are white, which has raised questions about racial bias and disparities in everything from school discipline to grading.
William Haith is the man who recommended Hernandez for the pathways job. He’d been his supervisor and saw, he said during an interview at his office, that “he was adamant about being resourceful for students.” And anyway, Haith said, Hernandez had in some ways been doing the job unofficially for years—and filling a real void, one with which Haith is personally familiar.
Haith is now an assistant principal for the ninth grade at Wilson. But nearly two decades ago, he graduated from the school as a student. Things, he said during an interview in his office, were a little different back then. There are more counselors now, and the adults in the building are paying more attention to the social-emotional health of the kids who walk through the doors. Of course there have always been students living in violent neighborhoods or growing up in poverty or children who are the first in their families to make it through high school. But there’s more awareness now, he said.
Tennille Bowser, an assistant principal who’s been at the school a decade, sees that, too. The pathways position is still new, so it’s unclear exactly how much will change as a result. But anytime there’s more attention being paid to kids at risk of falling behind, that’s positive, she said. “They kind of put their money where their mouth is,” she added, which is especially crucial now that schools are being expected to help kids with more than just academics, but also with things like finding a place to sleep.
Beyond the act of formalizing Hernandez’s role, another reason at-risk students are receiving more attention now is simply that teachers and administrators have better access to data, so it’s harder for kids to slip behind unnoticed. Where schools might have had time to look at each kid’s performance once a semester a decade ago, now, teachers can put attendance records, test scores, and homework grades into a database that Hernandez can track regularly, using a color-coding scheme to identify kids who are doing well and kids who aren’t. If a kid isn’t at school, Hernandez can go to his house and figure out why and how to help. If a kid only needs to make up a bit of work, he can help the student enroll in after-school makeup classes. If a kid needs more than that, he can talk to her about courses she can take either online or in-person. He can urge a kid to enroll in summer school to make up lost ground before the next year.