These Are The Believers In Life

The chain-link metal gates around Locke High School in Watts are locked when I show up during lunch. A sign on the doorbell tells me that no one will be in the office for another half hour.  I buzz anyway, peering through the crack in the fence until I catch the eye of a student who runs over, smiling until she realizes she has mistaken me for her mother.  Still, she throws open the gate.  I’m in.

Locke is famous.  Or infamous.  Or both.  Once notorious as one of the worst high schools in Los Angeles, after a bitter battle among the faculty in 2007, a slight majority voted to turn the school’s management over to the Green Dot charter system.  The move was massively controversial; something like half of the faculty quit or were fired, replaced largely by young recruits.  Results in the first couple of years were mixed, trending positive at first; though Green Dot was dinged in the press for spending a staggering amount on security, the school became safer and test scores rose a bit.  Still, Green Dot acknowledged that the challenge of taking over a failing neighborhood school—as opposed to starting a new one with families who had chosen to be there—was more difficult than they had originally thought. 

Locke is in one of the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Los Angeles.  The student body is about 68% Latino/a, 30% African-American and the rest mixed; almost all of the students live below poverty level.  These statistics, though, do not capture some of the differences between Locke and other local “choice” charter schools with similar demographics. In 2010-11, for example, Locke’s suspension rate was a whopping 61.2%, meaning that if you matched the number of suspensions to the total enrollment, more than half of all students would have been suspended.  Of course, this rate actually reflects a smaller number of students being suspended repeatedly; still, this rate is extremely high.  By comparison, the school where I worked, also a Green Dot school with a similarly high poverty level, had a 7.7% suspension rate that same year.

Students can be suspended for a variety of reasons, sometimes just for repeatedly defying a teacher, but in general, suspensions happen when students are fighting in the halls or (much more rarely) are caught with weapons, something that happened infrequently at my former school but according to my friends who have worked there, are the cause of most suspensions at Locke.

Whether this radical difference in school environment is a reflection of differing schoolwide discipline policies, different administrations or different student populations is one of the key questions of education reform.  According to the California State Accountability Department, 18% of students at Locke’s lowest-scoring academy are in Special Ed, as compared to just over 7% at my former school.  Anecdotally, Locke has a much higher number of students in foster care or from families with incarcerated or drug-addicted parents.  Whatever the reason, Locke continues to struggle with discipline on the one hand and teacher turnover on the other, a chicken-and-egg question whose answer again reflects where you stand on education reform.

Last year in March, amid rumors that some of its academies were going to lose accreditation, Locke was once again reorganized, with several administrators replaced and on-campus “academies” broken up and reshuffled into new configurations.  This year, enrollment is down sharply; why students have left is something no one knows because families do not tell schools why they are not attending, they just don’t re-enroll.

All of this is to say that when I go to visit Kristin Damo in her 11th grade English class, I’m not sure what to expect.  In fact, the school is shiny and clean, though a bit bare.  Classroom doors are windowless and lock automatically when shut, creating an unsettling, maximum-security feel along the hallway of closed doors that is all but empty even at lunchtime.

Two of my former colleagues have insisted that I visit Kristin if I want to see great teaching in action.  Petite, with a radiant smile and long dark hair, she looks even younger than her actual age of 29.  She’s in her ninth year as a teacher, having moved here from a KIPP charter school in Washington, D.C. and before that, a neighborhood public school in the Bronx.  “I think that one of the most important things as a teacher is building a positive relationship and building a positive culture in the class,” she tells me over a reheated cup of coffee she’s been sipping all day.  “I’ve taught in high-poverty schools all my career.  The kids come in and they’ve had the life beaten out of them and the last thing they want to do is work.”

Like the blogger/teacher Shakespeare’s Sister, she struggles to get them to engage.  “The kids are fond of me,” she says, philosophical, “but they just don’t want to do any work.”  What’s interesting to me is that though Kristin works against this reluctance every day, she seems also to have found some equanimity with it.  “What I try to work on is to understand the place where the kids come from.  I try to meet them there,” she says.  “I try to talk to the kids in a calm way.  I’ve found that the kids work or don’t work no matter what I do or say.  I can be mad and on fire all day or I can move on with my life.”

Kristin chooses, instead, to engage only in a positive way.  “I want to be a person who treats them with respect.  I want to build a place where kids feel loved and supported.”  Though she says the kids she taught in D.C. and New York also came from high-poverty situations that were violent and unstable, here at Locke she says the reading levels are the lowest she’s seen.  Just getting them to read independently is a battle.  “My biggest goal is to get the kids to ask questions.  I want them to think critically about the world around them.  I want them to be intellectually curious.”  Right now, though, she’s trying to work with the students’ generally low-energy, demoralized mood.

I am amazed at her calm.  Doesn’t she get frustrated?  She smiles.  “When I came to L.A. I was offered a job at Chadwick,” she tells me, referring to a private school in Palos Verdes.  “But here I can make a bigger difference.  Your successes may feel small, but they’re actually really big and they don’t feel like anywhere else.  If I can get a kid to read a book who’s never read a book before, that’s huge.  It may seem small compared to rich white kids’ lives, but…changing somebody’s life is not gonna happen at a suburban school.”

For her, it’s about the relationships she forms with students, many of whom feel like family to her.  “My life is so changed,” she tells me.  “The kids come back to me after they graduate, they keep in touch in college, I have a kid who still emails me his papers.  At the end of the day, they don’t remember what I taught them.  But they remember that I was a person who cared about them on a fundamental level.”  She pulls out her phone, where she has saved a text from a student now in college.  The text is from a kid named Ahmed and reads: “I was remembering a conversation we shared a while back, ‘There are those who give little of what they have—and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwholesome.  And there are those who have little and give it all.  These are the believers in life.’  Ms. Damo, you are a believer in life.”

I sit next to Kristin’s desk reading the text, my eyes blurred with tears.  I’ll write in a later post about her class, from which I learned a ton of useful techniques.  But for now, I’ll close with that, remembering again why teaching matters.

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4 thoughts on “These Are The Believers In Life”

  1. “At the end of the day, they don’t remember what I taught them.” This statement, which used to haunt me as a teacher, has liberated me in the last few years. My content is only valuable a vehicle to get them somewhere: to skills they’ll need in college, to seeing the world differently, to exposure to something they never knew before. If they like my area of content, they’ll have to study so much more in college that it barely matters what they knew from high school, and if they don’t like it, they’ll realize that the majority of successful adults out there don’t know the first thing about chemistry, or whatever it may be (choose your poison subject).

    In theory, this is an argument for common core, but in reality, I believe the lesson is much more than that: Design courses that a goal in mind and figure out how to get there. Use that goal as the guiding light to what happens in your course. Lose the obsession with the content details. This sheds light on perhaps the greatest flaw in the current Common Core standards: they are written so that all students will practice (and master) all skills in all courses. What about choosing a specific set of skills and actually getting kids to improve on them, rather than pu pu platter of skills. Anyone ever try Old Country Buffet? That should say it all.

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