You’ll have to excuse me. I just broke up a fight between two gang members, without the help of security, so I’m writing this in an adrenaline rush. I want to keep that going because it is replacing the rage with which I usually write about the gauntlet that is public education. And I don’t like to write in pure anger.
Our schools are a gauntlet — a confusing, dangerous maze our students need to figure out. At the finish line is graduation, perhaps college; but to get there, they need to navigate their way through some of the most ridiculous atrocities you can imagine.
Two girls dropped by for lunch the other day. They are 4.0 students. They volunteer at a Latino youth program after school. They are studious, hard-working, amazing. I asked them how their 4.0s were holding up.
“We had Mr. (insert name of first-year teacher here) for Geometry. He couldn’t control the class. He stopped giving assignments. Everyone failed. So we have to take it again this year. So I have, like, a 3.8 now.”
“I had two classes like that,” the second girl tells me. “Geometry and Chemistry. But it wasn’t a first-year teacher. It was Mr. (insert name of veteran teacher not doing his job anymore). So now I have a 3.6. What are we supposed to do, Mr. Amaral?” Both girls look at me with their earnest, kind eyes that still hold a shred of hope they will get through the gauntlet. What can I say?
Every year it is the same story. Depending on their schedule, the students might make it through this place unscathed. A classmate of the two girls, a boy who has no interest in going to college, passed both Geometry and Chemistry easily. “I just copied,” he shrugged and told me. Different teachers, different story — not that he cared.
Do I tell the girls the truth? “Well, say goodbye to UC Berkeley and Stanford. Most UCs, actually. You can still get into some state schools. You’ll be okay.” You see, retaking the classes will erase the Fs, but it also will mean they won’t have room in their schedules for other classes — calculus, foreign languages, AP — that would make them competitive for the better universities (we don’t offer summer school anymore — no money).
Another high school in our district sent us a lemon this fall — a social-studies teacher they’ve been trying to get rid of for ages but can’t because she has tenure. She refuses to teach her new subject, English, so she hasn’t shown up for a day of work yet. Two months into the school year and 130 ninth-graders don’t have an English teacher.
“What are we going to do Mr. Amaral?” the students she’s abandoned ask me. “Our teacher is coming, right?” Do I tell them the truth? They will not have an English teacher this year unless she decides to start teaching. Even then, by all accounts, she is not good at her job. Because of tenure, the school cannot hire a replacement for her. So her ninth-graders will have a different sub every day this year. Yet she is GETTING PAID. Don’t ask me how she’s doing it — I just know our union is helping her at every step along the way.
Stay with me — it gets worse. We just opened up four more English sections because our classes were overflowing. Each of us lost three or four kids from our English classes at every grade level, and they were sent to the new teacher. The problem is WE HAVEN’T HIRED ANYONE YET. So another 130 kids are now getting a different sub every day, too. That’s 260 students who DON’T HAVE AN ENGLISH TEACHER.
Do I tell them the truth? “We’re trying to hire someone, but it will probably be months. And whoever we find will probably be the dregs. If you don’t have a job by August, there’s usually a reason. So you’ll end up with that person.”
More likely I would say this: “It’s actually cheaper to pay subs every day instead of hiring a full-time teacher. You know, the recession and all…”
For low-income students, the situation in our schools is much, much worse than anyone imagines. At another high school in our district last year, there wasn’t even room for some 11th graders to take English. Read that sentence again, just to make sure you got it. “Sorry,” the school told them, “You can’t take English this year. We don’t have room.”
Even if you think you made it through the gauntlet, you really don’t know until the last possible moment. I just talked to two former students, both boys, who were seniors of mine last year. Both received full rides, one to UC Riverside, the other to UC Santa Cruz. Everything was good.
Then this happened: For the student who got into UC Santa Cruz, the teacher posted the wrong grade — a D instead of a C. The teacher admitted his error and reposted the grade, but it was too late. The university had already rescinded the offer and the kid’s appeal went nowhere.
What do I tell him? “Man, you almost made it out of this maze. Maybe next time.”
The second student also received a D on his final report card. Until the last two weeks of the school year, he thought he had a B. No doubt he should have tried harder in the final stretch. But so should have the adults. In a charter school or a Catholic school, the staff would have been working like crazy to make sure that a kid with a full ride kept that full ride, no matter what. That didn’t happen in my school. I’m pretty sure his teacher has no idea that the last-minute D cost that kid a college education.
The adrenaline has worn off and now I am angry again. Let me calm down. Let me switch gears.
When I was in high school, I remember playing the video game “Gauntlet” with my brother. You could be a Warrior, a Woman, a Wizard, or a Dwarf. You hacked and slashed your way through twisting mazes. As each level progressed, the mazes became harder to navigate and the zombies and goblins more plentiful. My brother and I never beat that Gauntlet. It seemed impossible.
Our students are fighting their way through the mess that is our public schools. Every year it gets harder, with new enemies on all sides. Some of them quit. Others keep trying.
Sometimes even the best ones find that the game freezes on them, and they lose.
But a kid’s education isn’t like a video game — they can’t start over. They’ve got one chance: us. But we’re not keeping up our end of the bargain. We are the gauntlet.