"The shadow of my past is not the presence of my future."
- Gesu School graduate
The 15-year-old North Philadelphia boy quoted above leads a fairly typical inner-city life. He and his peers are accustomed to a world scarred by drugs and violence. Some have parents who have been in jail. Others have mothers whose babies come from several different men. Nearly all know someone who has been murdered.
Yet this young man is on track to succeed. Now a student at a selective college-preparatory boarding school, he is riding a trajectory that could take him up and out of the inner city. How is he doing it? What makes him different? One word: Grit.
University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Angela Duckworth, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (known as the "Genius Award"), defines "grit" as "a passionate commitment to a single mission, and an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission."
Such passionate commitment was the subject of much thought-provoking discussion when Paul Tough, the New York Times best-selling author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, recently spoke at the Gesu School's annual symposium on inner-city education. According to Tough, grit is a better predictor of success than intelligence, test scores, or family affluence.
The Gesu School, an independent Catholic school in North Philadelphia that serves 450 mostly non-Catholic, African American students, was a perfect place to discuss grit. If it could be bottled and sold as energy, grit would be what this pre-K-through-eighth-grade school runs on.
The overwhelming majority of these students cannot pay the school's tuition without significant scholarship support. Yet in a city where only 61 percent of public-school students graduate from high school in four years, more than 90 percent of Gesu alumni will do so. Nearly three-fourths of them will go on to higher education. How do they do it? Grit.
One example is a boy who started in Eileen Erwin's advanced-writing class in second grade.
"He was a bright student, but his behavior was less than ideal," Erwin said. "I soon learned about his troubled home life and how he was shuffled from one family member to another. In spite of his relatives being murdered or incarcerated, he always held on to a light within himself that drew him to God. That light helped him understand the power of education. By eighth grade, he was thriving. He continues to write in his free time in high school. I am honored that he was my student."
Another student's family was not always supportive of her dreams.
"I learn a lot about our students from their essays," said Erwin, who has a doctorate in urban education. "This girl once wrote about what it was like to live in a home where no one had ever said, 'I love you.' Yet she got more awards at graduation than anyone else."
First-grade teacher Kirsten Echelmeier still thinks about one special 6-year-old whom she taught years ago. The girl's family had been so terrorized by violent neighbors that the family moved away secretly in the middle of the night. Though temporarily homeless, the girl remained an honor student. She had just one wish for Christmas: that Santa would bring her little brother a red tricycle.
Augie Asta, an advanced-math teacher, sees grit in his classroom every day.
"Our honors program is not based on IQ scores. Admission to advanced mathematics or writing can be achieved through hard work and good behavior," he said. "This policy has helped me reach many students who would not normally qualify for advanced studies. Their success is proof that Gesu's approach works."
Where does grit come from? Paul Tough says it often comes from adversity, which teaches us to manage failure. A good parent or mentor - like the ones at Gesu - can help us overcome failure with determination and grace.
As the young Gesu graduate said, your past need not dictate your life. Children with grit can rewrite their troubled past and create a future that shines brightly.