Public School Welfare

Seems to me the American public schools are saddled with two particularly heavy burdens. One is discussed widely and debated heatedly, the other is like an elephant in the classroom – huge and hungry but rarely acknowledged:

Teaching poor kids is expensive. Their deficits are costly in time and resources.

Teaching wealthy kids is expensive. Their demands are costly in time and resources.

I have taught in both communities. My experiences have taught me that, besides a swath of American families who lightly tax school systems, these two groups are the biggest consumers of public school services. My experiences have also taught me that impoverished schools are largely populated by students of color and wealthy schools serve mostly white kids. Aside from their disparate assignments, teachers in both communities have this in common: both are overwhelmingly white.
The schools in the Dominican Republic were probably the poorest I’ve worked in, outside of the Detroit Public Schools. The first town I worked in had a school whose principal and two of its teachers went missing mid-year. We soon discovered that they had taken the dangerous overnight journey by rickety fishing boat across the Mona Canal to Puerto Rico in an effort to provide better for their families. Dominican students attended class if they could afford the uniform and if they didn’t have to work a day job to help feed their family. Some came totally illiterate, but ready to read; others came eager to read, but with deficits and dysfunctions that would be impossible to overcome without specialized instruction that the school couldn’t afford, let alone find.
My experience teaching in Detroit was similar, in a way. Although Detroit teachers didn’t seek to flee the country, many of us did seek to flee the city schools. Along with other returned Peace Corps volunteers, I entered the Detroit classroom by way of the Peace Corp Teaching Fellowship. Having survived the trials of an impoverished foreign land, we were selected to teach in ‘unfilled’ assignments by day while pursuing our credentials at night. We committed to teach three years in Detroit. Of the dozens of us who began the fellowship, only a handful remained after five years. A decade later, I knew of only two of us left teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. The great majority of us took our credentials and Master’s Degrees and moved to wealthy suburbs, others left education altogether.
Needless to say, both the Dominican and Detroit classrooms tended to be chaotic. Attendance by students and staff was sporadic. Although the students were organized by age group, their reading abilities varied wildly; illiteracy was epidemic. Classroom support and materials were uneven. Teacher salaries and esteem were low. I remember many days driving home feeling like I had failed and that I was part of a larger failure. The newspapers and politicians often helped to reinforce those feelings.
My wife (a fellow Peace Corps Fellow) and I left the Detroit Public Schools after five years to teach internationally. We moved to Colombia and taught at a wealthy private school in the city of Manizales, a college town in the heart of the nation’s coffee production. The school hired half of its staff from Canada and the United States, the other half were local. We foreign teachers received a salary and living allowance that provided a lifestyle far better then we could afford back home in Detroit. All my fourth grade students were bilingual and biliterate, and all could afford after-school tutoring (most took advantage of it). Leaving school each day, we felt like we were part of a success. We were often praised for our successful teaching. Yet, we weren’t as exhausted and worried.
Although we returned to the States and to “at risk” schools, we eventually found ourselves teaching in one of Michigan’s wealthiest zip codes. The pay grade was better, with the promise of maxing out our pensions, and the students walked in the doors fully literate. Many families sought extra-curricular tutoring and opted their children into our district’s Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs, where their home-language fluency would transfer to their second languages (and eventually onto their college applications). Student gains could be expected like a check on payday. And we rode home at night feeling like we were, again, part of a success.
Public schools opponents argue that education can not compete with poverty. They lament the resources that poorer districts devour with very little to show for it. They bicker about the cost of bilingual services (why don’t they learn English like my grandfather did?), and the pricey enrichment programs, free lunches, and remedial services. Most of all, they rally at the price of the teacher. Her greed almost surpasses her laziness, why look at her students! They can barely read!
Yet, we can walk into the zip code next door and that consumer regret is met with great consumer demands. The public school customer in wealthy communities might pepper teachers with emails, expecting a 24 hour (or less) response. State of the art athletic fields, chaperoned field trips abroad, accommodations built upon accommodations, customized parent teacher conferences and unscheduled meetings in aisle nine of the grocery store become expectations, not burdens. And if an expectation isn’t met, the next parent-teacher organization meeting will make a presidential debate look like a walk in the park.
My performance in Detroit and Dominican classrooms generally looks different than my instruction in wealthier schools, even though I generally use the same methods and practices and my instruction has produced measurable student gains in both communities. The half- baked lesson I deliver in Forest Hills might look like I hit it out of the ballpark – winning student gains in spite of me missing the mark, while the lesson I nail in Detroit leaves students engaged and learning, but only baby steps forward on the great spectrum of literacy.
Until we address the reality that affluence enhances instruction and poverty corrodes it, politicians and policy makers are merely practicing voodoo. Pretending instruction in Del Ray is the same as instruction in Grosse Pointe is insanity, and perpetuates the tragic American tradition: a nation of two public schools systems, one highly successful, and mostly caucasian, another an abject misery populated by most students of color.
If we begin by confronting the lie that all our Public Schools play on an even playing field, we take baby steps to a better future for our kids and “their kids”. If our public schools are vibrant enough not to need charter school competition, why should their kids have to navigate a marketplace of speculators? If our child’s teachers find pride and gainful employment in our districts, how can we create the same environment for educators in their districts? If a healthy campus and modern resources are essential to our child’s growth, why should our neighboring district have anything less?
Fund it, tend to it, celebrate it – just like our own child’s district. We don’t question the cost in time and money for our home districts. We have no lack of enthusiasm for our child’s teachers, sports programs, and physical plant. We devote plenty of our time and energies to our school organizations and events. Imagine the gains those same energies and resources would yield if we expended them beyond our own district’s

boundaries. Think of the public schools we could have if we took into account, and responded to, the situations of other people’s children.
Turning what we perceive as a burden inflicted by ‘“them” into an expectation for all our nation’s children could be the best education reform yet.


Carlos and the Herculean Reforms

Carlos sat in a plastic chair, his back against the cinderblock wall. The room was busy with inmates and their kin, but I picked Carlos out immediately. Twenty years have passed since he left my third grade classroom. His arms have filled with tattoos, and his rap sheet with a catalogue of offenses, but he has remained the boyish, sleepy-eyed kid who roamed our school making friends and pummeling bullies. He rose to his husky 5′ 6”(his Dad used to call him “4×4″) , and gave me a guy-hug. We followed the guard to our assigned plastic chairs. Carlos walked ahead of me and I was taken aback by how his gait hadn’t changed since he was a boy: bow legged, arms out at his side, shoulders hunched.I turned my chair to face Carlos, but the guard quickly corrected me; we were to sit side by side, hands visible.

“Hey, Mr. Tim,” He greeted me, “nice you could come out and visit.” Carlos addressed me with the moniker I used during my first years of teaching.

Nervously, he took over the first minutes of our conversation. At first, he would only glance at my eyes while he hammered out details of the years leading up to his decade of incarceration. I would find a chance to interject a memory from the old days, or bring up a person who has asked about him in the past, and it seemed to comfort him, bring his guard down. He began to make more eye contact and smile.

“I been in ten years. Woulda been five but I flopped a few times.”

A “flop’ is additional time served because of a violation. Carlos began his term in 2004 at the St. Louis Correctional Facility as a Class IV felon (Class V is the riskiest level in the penitentiary system). He spent time with others in the same classification, where there was more likelihood for conflicts that led to violations. He showed me a few scars on his muscled biceps and neck that resulted from the fights that led to the flops. Recently, he was moved to the Saginaw Correctional Facility, a lighter security prison, and his status was lowered to Class II. He is allowed more privileges, like today’s visit, face-to-face in a room with other Class II prisoners and their visitors.

“I got a better chance here, Mr. Tim.”

He counted months out on his fingers.

“If I get to July without no troubles, I go to the board and I might get released by next Christmas.”

Carlos hasn’t seen his mom since he entered prison ten years ago. She still lives in the neighborhood, just a few blocks from the old school. Carlos’ father used to be a frequent sight at the school back in the day, picking Carlos up from class to take the family on frequent trips to Texas and Mexico to do ‘business’.

“Yea, my dad went up on a federal rap when I was in middle school.”

Carlos figures his dad got in trouble during one of his frequent journey’s across the border. His dad would spend weeks filling the trunk of his convertible Cadillac with items from Detroit area flea markets. When the trunk was full or when his dad felt the urge, he’d head to the Texas border with or without his kids to sell his wares in towns where he had family or friends on either side of the border.

The departure of Carlos’ dad left his mom, with a second grade Mexican education, very little English, and no job, alone to raise Carlos and his younger siblings, Cristobal, Christian, and Carla.

Carlos found quick refuge in gangs. His brothers, one year apart in age, followed him.

“You know, Mr. Tim, we thought we knew everything. We ran with the gang bangers, or we ran away from them. Those were our choices.”

 “Dad should of got us to school more. Once he was gone, we just went to school when we needed a lunch, or when the school sent someone out to talk to mom.”

Before gang life, his neighborhood guardian angel was Coach Lou at the legendary Kronk Gym. Carlos and his brothers would ride their bikes across Livernois Avenue to work out under the supervision of Lois “Coach Lou” Gomez. Coach Lou was proud of his own grown sons who grew up in the gym, and wanted to share the benefit with the Paz boys, sons of his wayward childhood friend.

“Coach Lou gave me these,” Carlos brandished his fists in a classic pugilist pose, “As long as we behaved at the gym and helped out, Coach trained us. He’d get us to school. Lots of times he fed us. But he hated gangs. No gangs at the Kronk, Mr. Tim.”

Carlos felt by succumbing to the gang, he was complicit in bringing his brothers with him, leaving him with a lot to atone for.

“I got to quit flopping and get out of here. I could get work in a gym and use these to help others,” Carlos showed his fists again, “I could tell kids about what I did to my family. I could help them like Coach Lou tried to help me. I could take my little nephew to school and the gym.”

He realizes now another choice he could have taken. A choice that might have saved his brothers from following him into gang life that would eventually leave Carlos’ Mom. sister Carla, and Carla’s toddler son to fend for themselves in a rented house near his old school.

If Carlos doesn’t flop, if he behaves and the parole board sees fit, he could be back home in a neighborhood even more desperate since he was jailed as a 17 year old. It is a neighborhood without his dear brothers and his cherished gym. It is a neighborhood with the burden of his aging mom, his unwed sister, and a two year old nephew.

As I left the Saginaw Correctional Facility, I gazed up at the coils of barbed wire that surrounded the prison recreation area and listened to the shouts and chatter of the inmates. It brought to mind Carlos’ old school that I had visited just that very morning- barbed wire topped the wall lining the school’s recess area, as another generation of Detroit’s southwest side took a break from instruction.

I am left with a question: How have the Herculean educational reforms of these past twenty years offered a better chance for Carlos’ nephew?

Last Night’s Dream

Mom and Dad rendezvoused at our house on a brilliant fall afternoon. A sunny, lazy Saturday afternoon. Indian summer with wood smoke and rustling leaves.

They came from different directions; Mom from Detroit, Dad from wherever he resides now. They came ostensibly to visit our small family, the few near them as Mom and Dad struggled through the last few years of Dad’s life. His death sent them away from us – Mom to Detroit, and Dad to wherever he resides now.

Their visit made the house even more of a home for a few hours. They could barely keep their eyes off each other while reminiscing and joking and fawning. Mom would accommodate Dad as he struggled with the physical limitations that flipped their marriage and established her as his caretaker, protector, identity.

The visit was achingly short, and ended abruptly, as if Mom and Dad wanted to avoid saying good bye. I remember looking out the bedroom window. From upstairs I could see through the flaming leaves of the maple at Mom and Dad standing together in our driveway. Before Mom got into her van I watched them mouth devotions to each other, then dad stooped down to kiss mom, his condition making it awkward and Mom laughing and saying, “no, Ron, over here” as she moved her pursed target in closer reach. They embraced under the maple, the sum warming them.

Mom drove off to Detroit and dad shuffled down our sidewalk to wherever he resides now.


The Grandest Man

In honor of what would have been Dad’s 76th birthday today:

Before dinner we would head up to the corner of Hayes and Coram. We’d look south down Hayes for the telltale glint of sun on chrome and listen for the rumble of Dad’s department-issued Harley. Watching Dad approach our neighborhood – from a flash of steel at Seven Mile to the hulking silhouette of Detroit’s Absolute Finest signaling a right-hand turn onto Coram – was…well, I don’t have the words (meeting Gordie Howe at the Olympia was a second-best thrill, if that means anything to you).
He’d pull up to his gaggle of sons and hoist one of us, legs straddling the gas tank, hands squeezing the base of the handlebars, back reclining on the barrel chest of the grandest man we have known. He’d hurtle around the four corners of our block, his turns so tight we thought we’d skin our knees on the curb. He’d return us to the stop sign where the ride began, dropping off one rubber-legged boy and hoisting the next fortunate son onto his bike.
We’d walk back home for dinner passing the Parson’s, the Reese’s, the Kirby’s, the Angeleri’s; our spines still humming from the Harley, our hearts pumping pride full throttle.