Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Guest Blogger: Worlds Apart

by J.S., 6th grade history teacher in New York City

I'm not generally a politically minded person, but I am a teacher who has worked in two vastly different types of educational settings. It is upsetting to me, given how segregated our public schools are, that policy-makers are being discouraged from finding viable and voluntary ways to solve this problem. And it IS a problem.

Two years ago, I taught at a public school with a student body that was 30% black and 67% hispanic in the neighborhood of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The school was run by an inefficient administration that was nonetheless bent on reminding the faculty at all times that they were subject to each and every administrative edict, no matter how nonsensical or inconvenient. The faculty was either inexperienced or burnt-out, with very few falling in the middle of that spectrum. New York City Teaching Fellows in their first two years of teaching comprised at least one-third of the faculty; I was one of them. Attendance was a significant issue, since at least a third of any given class was usually absent from school that day, and a significant proportion of students were classified as LTAs, or long-term absences, meaning that we hadn't seen them in months. Test scores also posed a problem, since only a slight percentage of the student body was equipped to legitimately pass the Regents each year. As a Special Education teacher, I taught 15-to-19-year-old students who read at 1st-5th grade levels and expended the majority of their energy on staying away from situations where they might "look dumb." This, of course, included actively engaging and learning the material, or even coming to school at all.

In the absence of a supportive administration or sufficient resources (we had to bring our own photocopy paper and guard it with our lives), the school hardly felt like a place where education was a priority. One of the most difficult consequences of this environment was how deeply the students had internalized the message that their education was not valuable. They knew that the school was not designed with their best interests in mind; moreover, they knew that attending all of their classes and working hard would not necessarily amount to much after graduation. Especially for the students in my Special Education classes, life in a gang was potentially more rewarding than the kind of low-paying work they would be eligible for upon graduation, if they made it that far. My students had come to believe, over time, that they did not deserve a good education. One of them asked me, upon learning that I had graduated from an Ivy League university, "What you doin' in a school like this? You shouldn't be here." Ignoring for the moment the fact that one's undergraduate degree has very little to do with one's merit as a teacher, my student's inference was clear: I live in the 'hood, so I'm not supposed to get the "good" teachers.

That was hard to take; it was even harder to face when I did in fact decide to leave for a school that was more supportive of its teachers and its students and where students had significantly more resources, both financial and educational, at their fingertips. My students now are mostly white, and they take for granted the luxury of attending a school that will furnish the resources, support, and experience to convey them smoothly into a bright future, if only they apply themselves. They do not know what it is to be disempowered or left behind. I can't help but feel that I abandoned the students at my first school, who were truly in need. If anything, students in inner-city schools need more resources, better teachers, and more love and support; not less. If we are not willing to distribute funds disproportionately to the schools whose students need these resources most, we at least need to support the efforts of those school districts that are willing to work to solve this problem in other ways. This is not an issue of race as much as it is an issue of investing in a common humanity, so that all children can grow up knowing that they deserve a good education. So long as the virtual apartheid in our schools persists, and so long as we continue to resist efforts at change, we are betraying ourselves. And if that argument is too "bleeding-heart liberal" for you, then consider this: what is going to happen to the army of less-well educated graduates without the skills or the experience to support themselves? The labor market has changed substantially in the last few decades; most types of work require a college degree at the least. What course of action will these abandoned students take when they find that the system has deserted them in almost imaginable way?

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