KANSAS CITY Mo.
Tears trickled down Reulan Levin’s face as she read the thank-you letter proof that her caring had helped lift a former student over seemingly insurmountable obstacles.
The writer was labeled a behavior problem when Levin, then a high school social studies teacher, met her in a Kansas City classroom.
“It wasn’t that she wasn’t college material,” said Levin, now an education professor at Avila University. “She had been so wounded, and her self-esteem was so low, that she didn’t believe in her own ability. I looked beyond that.”
Unbeknownst to the student, Levin arranged for the girl to receive money for college. Now she is a chemist for a major pharmaceutical company.
Levin, who grew up in a gang-ridden neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, is passionate in her belief that most children can succeed if given a hand.
That’s why at Avila University, Levin tutors students and listens and prays for them when they bring her their academic and personal struggles. It’s why in the summer she teaches urban teens in Upward Bound, which allows high school students to take classes on a college campus. It’s why Levin teaches other teachers how to connect with students who seem unlikely to succeed.
She even secretly has paid a portion of the college tuition for a half-dozen students during her 36-year teaching career. These students have attended Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley, the University of Missouri-Kansas City, St. Louis University, Avila and the University of Central Missouri.
“Dr. Levin spends so much of her time helping individual students be successful,” said Laura Sloan, dean of Avila’s School of Education. “She is a model of what a good teacher does.”
In three decades, Levin has taught from the elementary to the university level. Now, in addition to teaching undergraduate and graduate classes at Avila, she is a mentor to urban public school teachers in two programs that help schools create curriculums to improve student performance.
She teaches K-12 educators how to teach at-risk children, who are mostly poor, urban and minorities. They are the children who, if not reached, are most likely to drop out of school.
“For one reason or another, 30 percent of children in this country are considered at risk,” Levin said.
Marie Groark, a spokeswoman for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “Reducing the country’s dropout rate is critical.”
The foundation has spent $2 billion on improving high school graduation rates. Last year, a foundation study found that large urban school districts like Detroit and Baltimore had graduation rates as low as 21.7 percent and 38.5 percent, respectively.
“When we asked kids why they dropped out, they said because they were bored or because nobody cared about them,” Groark said.
“So think about the power of one individual like this Avila University professor,” Groark said.
Levin said her formula for reaching children boils down to expectations.
“When you have high expectations for students and give them effective teachers and the time and support to learn, they achieve at high levels no matter what their background,” Levin said.
So she is helping teachers develop curriculums to raise math and English scores. The aim is to help close the achievement gap between white and minority students and between poor and middle-class students.
“One of my favorite sayings is: No one rises to low expectations,” Levin said.
Marc Lampkin, executive director of Ed in ’08, which seeks to make education a national priority in the 2008 presidential election, agrees.
“Kids will rise to the level you demand from them,” Lampkin said. That is one of the three pillars of the Ed in ’08 campaign to improve American education. Better teachers, particularly for inner-city students, and giving students more time and support are the other two.
Levin, 59, wonders if her passion for teaching, especially disadvantaged students, is because by today’s standards she also might have been considered at risk.
“School, church and education were my saving grace,” she said.
Levin grew up in a one-bedroom apartment with five siblings.
Levin’s parents, high school graduates, put all the children except one through college and then went back to school themselves. Both earned master’s degrees. Today, Levin is married and has a son and a stepdaughter. Both are business executives.
Having grown up during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Levin said she and her peers “had a sense of hope, consciousness, community and empowerment. We felt like we could make a difference.”
Those things are missing for children in today’s urban and rural schools, she said.
“So many of these children know that they are not valued,” Levin said.
“They know by the condition of their schools and teachers’ attitudes. There is no aesthetic beauty in their school and no aesthetic beauty in their home. Their school reflects the same hopelessness as home, so they say, ‘I might as well live fast and die early.’ “
Those who know Levin said it’s easy to sense her zeal for teaching.
“She is uniquely gifted in her ability to relate to students a wide variety of students,” said Carol Coburn, a professor of religious studies and women’s studies at Avila. “She has three important qualities that a teacher of any grade level needs to have. She has a wonderful combination of knowledge and real-world experience, passion and a sense of humor.”
Coburn says that passion is the most potent of those qualities.
“When students see that a teacher has a passion for what they do, it is powerful for the students,” she said.
Sometimes it is life-changing.
For Levin, the evidence is that thank-you letter in her desk drawer from the so-called problem student.
When the girl was graduating from high school, Levin created a scholarship and named it for her mother, who had died of cancer. She insisted that the girl apply for the scholarship.
The student gave her application to Levin, and she received the money she needed to continue her education at MCC-Penn Valley.
The student went on to earn a degree in chemistry and a master’s degree in computer science from UMKC.
“Thank you for being the wonderful person that you are,” the girl wrote to Levin in 2002. “I would never have made it through high school or my first years of college without you. I will never forget your kindness. I hope to someday find a cure for cancer.”
Levin’s voice cracks as she reads the letter.
“She was the kind of kid that teachers want to throw away,” Levin said. “The kind of kid they don’t want in their classrooms.”
The kind of kid that, had it not been for Levin, might have become one of the 1.2 million who drop out of the nation’s high schools every year.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com