When I began my teaching career way back in 1994 in Youngstown, Ohio, I was well aware that working in an urban, "inner city" district would pose significant challenges. First off, though the population of the high school was racially mixed, though not "balanced" (whatever that was supposed to mean), it was the product of a downsizing merger in which the entire population of one school had been moved to one of the three remaining high schools in the city at the time. My school, naturally, had the largest number of the new students.
In their wisdom, the district administration had taken a large number of youngsters who were members of a social organization known as the Bloods and crammed them into a school with an already established social organization known as the Crips. Two smaller social clubs known as Vice Lords and the Folk also shared the halls.
And every one of them was a great kid. They didn't have much use for each other, but they were never a problem for me. Just like any other school, there was a wide range of abilities and effort represented. Just like any other school, there were wide-ranging discussions of literature and current events. Just like any other school, the vast majority of the staff did everything they could to help kids succeed.
But there was an awful lot going on outside of the school.
There was a rule that staff had to be out of the building by 3:15, so they could lock down the building. The door to the staff parking lot had a bullet-hole just below the reinforced glass window. I had nice morning conversations with the police officer who spent his entire shift out in that parking lot, as well as his five colleagues stationed inside the school every day.
There were plenty of fights each week, mostly between girls, but I can only remember one time that the officers had to actually chase down one of the male students. He was a 20 year-old sophomore who had been so horribly abused by his alcoholic father that he was considered permanently disabled and already collecting SSI. When he failed was I the reason?
One of my favorites was a petite girl named Tania. She was pregnant when school began, and had to leave around Thanksgiving to be with her baby for a while. She came back just as the winter weather was turning to spring. She was far behind, of course, and would make every effort while at school, but had very little time or willingness to work on anything outside school. By the time we said goodbye for the summer, she had become pregnant again. She had just turned 16. When she failed, was I the reason?
When it came time for parent-teacher conferences, my roommate (in a shared classroom) advised me to bring a book to read. I was appalled. After all, we had an entire day without students set aside, and an evening as well. I had a total of three parents show up, one of whom was so drunk he couldn't remember what class I taught for his son. When the son failed, was I the reason?
Every so often, I would arrive at school and notice a couple of unmarked police vans in the lot. Weapons check. That meant an absence rate of close to 50% sometimes, but at least 25%. Some of the police would walk around the building and search the bushes after the school day began. They always found a few knives. Once, a .22 pistol.
When these kids did abysmally on tests (and not all of them did), was it really the teachers' fault? For some, it was a small miracle that they even got to school every day. For many of them it meant two guaranteed meals that day, so that was all it took.
Now, I'm highlighting some of the more dramatic cases of what I experienced, but keep in mind that this was not at all unusual for high-poverty districts. It still isn't unusual for high-poverty districts to be faced with overall failure.
In the case of the Rhode Island high school, the town of Central Falls has a population of about 18,600 and a per capita income of $10,800. According to Wikipedia, over 40% of the population under age 18 lives in poverty.
So our Hope&Change president had this to say:
"If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability…And that's what happened in Rhode Island last week at a chronically troubled school, when just 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests -- 7 percent."
Couldn't we make the case that it isn't so much the school that's "chronically troubled," but the neighborhood or town itself? In fact, shouldn't we take into consideration that the number one predictor of academic success is the education level of the parents and the accessibility of books (and reading) in the home? Should we maybe consider that poverty and lack of academic progress are consistently found to be related phenomena, that failing schools also have dismal attendance rates, high numbers of transient students and are usually in areas that over-rely on property taxes for school funding (a model that was found unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court four times before a Republican majority was elected to the Court, which promptly overturned the decision)?
Seriously, Mr. President? That's all you've got?
Update 3-10-10: Here's a link to a blog called Tempered Radical,where the author says pretty much the same thing as I did (a colleague pointed out the similarity to me). Only, he published earlier, so hat tip to him. We even zeroed in on the same quote from Obama (originally from WaPo), which I cribbed from another blog about the speech. Personally, though I agree with this blogger on this issue, I don't have the same sense of disappointment overall. Yet.
I don't teach in Youngstown anymore. I found a job in a wealthy exurban district that is able to easily sweep all of its troubles under a rug. More on that another time.