It was 7:30 am and I was busy preparing for a long day of mandated state testing followed by a long teachers’ meeting to be held after the final bell, when the assistant principal appeared in my doorway.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he began, “although after 32 years, nothing should surprise me any longer. A kid and his mother showed up in my office. The kid produced a medical marijuana card from his doctor and then told me he now had the right to smoke on campus whenever and wherever he wanted. He even brought his mother along to give parental permission. I straightened them out pretty quickly.” (Smoking of any kind is forbidden on school grounds—even by teachers.)
“But that’s not why I came to talk to you,” he continued. “Our enrollment has dropped so low that the district is looking at closing our campus by the end of the year.”
I had known for at least two years that we were in trouble. Our relatively new school, built to accommodate 1,300 students, had lost enrollment every year: from 750 when we opened four years ago, down to 500 two years ago, and now 450. We were supposed to be a brand new, state-of-the art “green” school built to relieve overcrowding at neighboring schools which are now, themselves, struggling to stay open.
What happened? Charter, private, religious, and language-based schools have opened around us, about one per year for the last decade, scraping off our best students. Housing prices in the Los Angeles area are soaring and there are fewer children. We are left with many special education students—which the charter schools won’t take—students just out of jail or juvenile hall, students from group and foster homes, and transient students whose families move, or are evicted, every few months.
The language and culture-based schools that have opened all over the LA area cater to the large populations of Chinese, Armenian, Syrian, and Korean students whose families want to preserve their heritage. Imagine the outrage if whites demanded the same for their children.
My 11th grade students began to file into the classroom for first period.
“What time does the bell ring?” one asked me; never mind the over-sized clock that was in full view. I was about to tell him, “The same time it rings for first period every day,” when I remembered something that came up in the most recent weekly, mandated “professional development” session: Students can no longer read an analog clock. That skill is no longer being taught in elementary school because “everyone uses digital now.” Like cursive handwriting and memorizing the times tables, it is considered an outdated, useless skill. That’s why students are constantly asking the time and are baffled when I try to explain how the “big and little hands” work.
I began the state testing as quickly as I could, knowing the school WiFi is unstable even on a good day, and could shut down any time, immediately invalidating the tests. I made sure each student had a Chromebook for this test; despite spending $1.3 billion on iPads, the school district recently bought a multi-million dollar testing program from Scholastic that works only on the PC platform. Maybe instead of the iPads gathering dust in a locked steel cabinet I could use them as doorstops.
Lunchtime finally came. Students dutifully lined up for their free lunches, complaining about “pizza again,” and asking “why can’t the school just order Dominoes?” Two years ago, the cafeteria stopped asking students for meal tickets because so many qualified for free lunch that it was easier and faster just to feed everyone who lined up. Many schools in the area now offer free dinner as well—hours after school closes.
The math teacher entered my room, upset and crying—not unusual for this high strung, but highly effective teacher who has a hard time coping with math-averse students who are repeating Algebra and Geometry for the second or even third time. Yes, repeating a course for the second or third time; these courses are requirements for graduation.
I was just beginning to go over a geometry proof, one that I knew was going to show up on the state math test, when the principal entered with her supervisor. The kids were actually paying attention when I explained that there was more than one way to tackle a math proof: The order doesn’t have to be the same for everyone, just like in the mornings. Some of us get up, shower, dress, then eat breakfast, while others of us eat, then shower and get dressed, but we all manage to get to school looking nice and ready to go.
The principal left a note in my box to appear ASAP in the her office for a conference with her and her supervisor. The supervisor told me she didn’t have a nice home life growing up, and was offended by my example. She said many students don’t have homes, can’t shower, don’t have food, and that I should not be bringing up anything that makes kids feel bad or brings up bad memories. This incident was deemed offensive, written up, put in my file.
The basketball coach came into my classroom, as he usually did at lunchtime, to check on whether any of his team had been in for mandatory, after-school tutoring to maintain their eligibility to be on the team. The answer was easy: none. He said he didn’t have enough eligible players for Friday’s game and that the entire season would most likely be canceled. Standards were relaxed several years ago, including ending the “no F rule” which kept many of our students off sports teams. The current standard requires only that students have a 2.0 or “C” grade-point average.
At the end of the day, before the start of the 90 minute professional development session, I ran to the office to turn in the results of my TB test, which I must take every four years as a condition of employment. Students are no longer required to take a TB test because, as a district health official explained to me, “If we require students to take a medical test, then we either either have to give it, or pay for the student to take it, and there’s no money for TB testing.” We’ve had an influx of “unaccompanied minors” this year, the official told me, “most from Central America, and we are not allowed to ask for proof of TB testing or chest X-rays from any of them.” So teachers have to be tested. I wondered if charter schools were allowed to ask for a TB clearance as a condition of enrollment.
I enter the office just as a mother and son are leaving. “Is that a new student?” I asked the office manager. “Yes,” she said, “he was sent over from a neighboring school. He threatened to slash another student’s throat at lunch. When I asked if this were true the student replied: “I tried to slash the fool’s throat!” He starts tomorrow.
“Before you leave,” the office manager says, “I have a phone message for you. It’s from the Teachers’ Retirement System Office. They said to tell you your retirement papers are in order and ready for your signature. You’re the third teacher and second administrator I’ve given that message to this month.”
“If they call back,” I replied, “tell them I’ll be there pen in hand by the end of the week.”