Students have been told the way to wealth all begins with a stellar education. If Thacher is the first link in that chain, then it must be a privilege to be here, right?
Most students and faculty agree. One teacher said in his description of Thacher, “it’s like Disneyland for education.” Another claimed that “being here, regardless of background, is privilege.”
However, nothing is ever so simple. Several members of the community believe Thacher does not make a student privileged. One teacher did not hesitate to say, “No… being privileged depends on where you come from… we have students here at Thacher who come from poor families… and for those students, life might be hard when they see their friends going to the store and buying drinks three times a day and you don’t have the money to do that.”
Furthermore, thanks to an extensive study by Pa Houa Xiong, it is now possible to fully appreciate the consequences of the “Thacher Mold.”
Her data show that this idealized image of what a Thacher student should be like is incredibly important to Thacher students. 75% of respondents “make the effort to fit into the Thacher Mold” to some degree. And, although most students claim this can be a boon for the Thacher community, most respondents also insist that the “Thacher Mold” can have disastrous effects on the students. One student expressed this duality by saying “The positive side of the mold teaches everyone how to fit in, a skill necessary wherever we go. The negative side is that it completely ostracizes those who don’t.” This student strongly feels the “negative side,” as they alleged “I feel like I don’t fit in, and I feel like there are several students for whom fitting into this mold feels like a knife sliding into warm butter.” Another believed the mold “makes me feel like I’m not smart enough to be here.” A third felt “I constantly am reminded that I am just an addition and am here because of my mom.”
One student lamented that he constantly struggles to survive here because he is not the “organized, high functioning student” who is a “linear thinker.”
Additionally, many believe the “Thacher Mold” is shaped by more than just ability.
Ms. Xiong used a linear scale of agreement, with 0 representing no effect and 5 representing significant effect. Clearly, the mold is heavily influenced by “ability,” but also by “race” and “socioeconomic background.” This can leave even the best students feeling alienated here. One respondent exemplified this by commenting, “Thacher has a lot of people who are white, from the Bay Area, and rich… [and] the rest of us don’t feel like we fit in.”
With half of Thacher students not sure if they fit into the Thacher Mold, is attending this school really the great privilege the students all laud it to be? In order to find something to which Thacher could be compared, The Notes called a school administrator in Texas.
Dr. Pharr has focused her teaching experiences at campuses with a concentration of low-income students (Title I Campuses). As a technology teacher, she was tired of having “35 kids in a class with only 20 computers and being told to ‘make it work.’” As a coach, her gym was overcrowded and she would have “all 250 8th grade girls in the same gym at the same time.” She aspired to change the way these schools were run, so she left the classroom and entered administration.
At many of the schools she has worked at, Dr. Pharr was forced to deal with the inevitable consequences of an underfunded district. Art and music programs are cut. Computers are scarce or antiquated, one of her schools did not even have Internet! In classrooms, “the sky’s the limit” to how many students a school can stuff in. With this reality, Dr. Pharr bemoaned, “you’re left with the bare minimum; yet expected to have the highest scores on state assessments.”
Worse, still, is the schools’ inability to attract and keep good teachers. They can only be paid about $40,000 a year, and because these schools are in dead towns, these teachers have to agree to living 45 minutes from the school. Teachers have to be content to work in a community rife with gangs, violence, drugs, and teenage pregnancy. Ultimately, few want that job, so the teachers the school hired were barely qualified. There were definitely committed faculty and staff, like Dr. Pharr, but she attests they are a treasured minority.
At one of the districts Dr. Pharr was at, an astounding 95% of her students lived below the poverty line. Their houses had dirt floors, no running water, and they shared electricity. She once took her students from that school on a class trip to a stock show in Houston. After noticing the wide eyes of her students as they stared across the cityscape, it dawned on her that they had never seen a city before. While most Thacher students fly home, many of her kids had never even left the town tiny rural town they grew up in.
Once, Dr. Pharr caught a student with $3,000 in cash and a brick of marijuana at school. And if that wasn’t enough, she soon discovered the connections between this boy, his parents, and the local cartel. Her tires were slashed in retaliation.
At that school, Dr. Pharr stated that 10% of her 400 kids were on the probation list. They’d been convicted of rape, felony distribution of drugs, murder and other crimes. And she is helpless to do anything about them; they cannot exactly be expelled, like Thacher students can be. They just come back and reintegrate into the school, only now with ‘glorious’ stories of a juvenile detention center. In this environment, gangs thrive, and police presence is normalized. “I’ve had a gun held up to me. I’ve had a knife held up to me. I had to stop a kid from using a taser before,” Dr. Pharr commented in a matter-of-fact tone.
The college process at Dr. Pharr’s schools is also starkly distinct from Thacher’s. In one district, she remarked that only about 30% of the students matriculate to college. In another, only one student in a graduating class went to college and another to the army. For many Title I students to get into the schools that Thacher students aspire to, Dr. Pharr stated it would be a stroke of luck.
When hearing that Thacher kids’ biggest complaint is an irritating lack of free time, Dr. Pharr was surprised. “One of the reasons I got involved with Title I schools,” she responded, “was to talk to kids about how they can use their time.” She claimed that a lot of her students have two working parents, so they come home to empty houses and no rules. She claimed that plenty do use their time responsibly, but she had more than a few horror stories about teenage pregnancy and middle school girls prostituting themselves.
Furthermore, shifting from Dr. Pharr’s perspective, students in other public schools lack basic privileges Thacher students enjoy. At Nordhoff, smart kids complain that they do not learn anything until junior year, and even public school students in distinctly well funded districts gripe about how “awful” their teachers are, as they do not love their jobs like Thacher faculty do.
In light of this information, it is quite obvious that Thacher students enjoy plenty of luxuries which students at other schools do not have access to. In fact, many of the problems Thacher students do have are indicative of immense privilege. One member of the language department insisted, “If that’s our problem — what do we do with the stuff that we don’t eat — then, we’re privileged.” Thacher students must recognize that while they are stressed about college applications and fitting in, myriad other students struggle with the first level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
Much of the community does recognize this. When asked if Thacher makes students privileged, on the 1-5 scale of agreement (1 is strongly agree) the student responses found a mean of 1.72 and the faculty’s averaged at 1.51.
In fact, teachers agree that Thacher is even a privilege for themselves. One even said the community is so enriching that working here is like “continuing your education for the rest of your life.”