Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why City Teachers Should Keep Trying - against the Odds

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Why City Teachers Should Keep Trying - against the Odds

Article excerpt

Three months ago, I retired from teaching English at one of America's failing schools. My school, Edison Tech in Rochester, N.Y., produces the grim statistics that provoke condemnation from pundits and politicians: freshman classes of more than 500 typically dwindle to graduating classes of fewer than 150; 80 percent of those freshmen fail at least one course during each marking period.

On the 2000 PSAT verbal section, fewer than 10 percent of the juniors reached the 50th percentile. On New York's new English Language Arts exams, Rochester has the lowest scores of any large city; Edison has the lowest scores in Rochester.

Edison is afflicted by the usual woes that accompany urban American poverty. Fights are frequent, student pregnancies are commonplace, rules of behavior are routinely flouted.

And always, attendance is poor. It is not unusual to find 500 names on the absence list for a single day. Every Edison teacher can tell the nightmare tales of urban education - of students too quickly angered, too easily discouraged, too soon gone. Teachers know students who have been shot and students who have shot others.

Edison, a senior high school of nearly 2,000 students, became my workplace in 1980. In two decades, I have witnessed school changes that mirror the changes in the city of Rochester.

As the city has become poorer and more dangerous, the students have defended themselves with an armor of cynicism and combativeness. They see little evidence in their families or their neighborhoods that education is of much benefit. Suburbs of varying affluence surround the decaying city, and caught in the middle are Edison's students.

Teaching has never been easy, but today there are the additional obstacles of a popular culture that pulls young people away from intellectual activity, and an army of experts who insist that both students and schools can be accurately evaluated only through standardized tests.

What is it then, besides a paycheck, that keeps teachers going, given the failures and frustrations? Perhaps it is the realization that they are teaching persons, not classes. In the absence of institutional success, urban teachers have learned to measure success according to their own yardsticks. The standardized test results may remain too low, the dropout rate may stay too high, but the individual triumphs of our students lift the spirits.

To me, it is disappointing that only two students regularly attended after-school SAT preparation classes that I offered - but those two, Suzy and Edward, are now college seniors. That Ahmed is now completing law school is a victory, even though the majority of his classmates have not yet earned high school diplomas. Other students have persevered to become firefighters, police officers, hairdressers, computer operators, or mechanics. …

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