Original URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2003/11/30/ING8L39SL21.DTL

Why Johnny, Shakela and Jose can't read
Schools are rat traps, home is a rescue mission, funerals abound
San Francisco Chronicle
November 30, 2003
Jean Baker

I've spent the past few months teaching English Intervention in one of Richmond's inner-city schools, the lowest income per capita school district in the Bay Area. Since arriving last summer from the Olympic town of Park City,

Utah, I've experienced a cultural exchange of planets. Teaching Shakela, Jose, Johnny and others to read is virtually impossible in such a destructive environment.

Of this middle school's population of 1,400, 65 percent are of Hispanic origin, and the rest are primarily of African American heritage.

Incredibly, the school building was constructed more than 50 years ago to accommodate a maximum of 600 students. No major repairs or expansion have occurred since 1950. There have been severe cutbacks in janitorial staff, so the school cannot possibly meet the basic health requirements.

Tiles hang tentatively from the ceiling and faucets spin pointlessly in your hand. Water fountains are gummed-up, germ-filled nightmares. Floors are covered in litter and sticky filth that make shoes stick noisily to the linoleum.

Signs in faculty restrooms ask teachers to bring their own soap. Paper towels are an infrequent luxury in restrooms or the staff's tiny kitchen. And no, Arnold, there aren't enough books to go around. Many students share or do without.

For the entire school, there are three counselors who are stretched beyond belief under a heavy caseload. The word is there will be no counselors next year. I've learned the hard way that students are not to be sent to counselors for minor infractions such as screaming obscenities, stealing or fist fighting in the classroom.

The baggage these kids carry in their lives includes an incredible amount of anger and potential violence. Yet, our higher-income society sits in judgment, theorizing on these issues. We often wonder why these kids can't learn to read, or why the parents don't just go find a good job or why the families are caught in a generational web of living below the poverty line.

The intervention program I'm involved in is designed to help the seventh- and eighth-grade students "catch up." In my classes, pupils at ages 12 to 15 read at the first- to fourth-grade levels. Ironically, high-achieving students in a few English classes are labeled Avid, meaning they read at fifth-grade level, only two years lower than the rest of the nation. I'm trying to imagine any of these students achieving academic success in even the least demanding high school.

Cutting life-enhancing programs such as art, music, French and home economics from the curriculum leaves me wondering why any kid would want to show up at school. This might partly explain the greater than 50 percent rate of absenteeism. The cost to the schools is $25 per day for each student who doesn't attend, reaching $250,000 for the term. Many students are absent for as long as a month to attend Christmas festivities with families in Mexico.

The reading materials have been dumbed down enough to bore any savvy first-grader. In addition to struggling to keep students focused on such material, teachers are constantly wrestling with  state-required testing in order to have students pass and save the teachers' jobs. Little time is left to present relevant lesson plans or actually teach reading.

Contrary to negative news reports, these teachers are the most dedicated, responsible, loving people, many of whom have risen from the ashes of their own low-income neighborhoods. Being the token white teacher from Utah, I have been commuting from Petaluma.

Wasting valuable grading or planning time by attending senseless teacher meetings after school is a pet peeve among faculty. The esoteric topics presented usually include focusing on our goals as a school culture and having meetings about protocol to have meetings. There is a lot of empty talk about consensus but no discussion about relevant issues such as discipline, behavior problems, teacher support, activities, or community involvement or resources.

Why don't we discuss why Johnny beat the hell out of Jose in English class? In my past private school experience, I can't even imagine asking teachers to spend their time hashing out philosophical nonissues while ignoring daily survival techniques.

The curriculum consists of not very exciting lessons based on experiences such as introducing yourself as a new student from Thailand, saving the wetlands or preventing pollution. I cannot begin to tell you how little these inner-city kids relate to these concerns. Some students innocently ask why there's garbage all over their neighborhoods but not in the few other places they've visited. They believe California is its own country and "pimping" is the coolest profession.

It's difficult to comprehend, but many of these kids have never been to San Francisco and only 25 percent have ever been to the beach. They exist in a day-to-day survival mode. It's hard to get worked up over the plight of the whooping crane when there's no food on the table at home.

Home for half of the students is living at a rescue mission or with a distant relative. One child is left on his own until the father arrives home from work at 11:30 p.m. and unlocks the door. Some babysit while a parent is out until 2 a.m. That information was related to me by a boy who had to babysit his 2-day-old sister.

The most common excuse for absence is to attend funerals for cousins in their 20s who've been shot in the streets. When asked why pioneers would cross America to come to San Francisco, a troubled youth responded, "To kill somebody?" One 12-year-old girl told me, "You can't open the door on Halloween because people will knock on your door and when you open it, they shoot you." The kids say it takes 45 minutes for the police to respond to a 911 call. What kind of life is it for these kids if they live in constant fear of being shot to death?

Some students create fantastic tales about their families or missing parents. However unlikely the story, they try to convince you their dad lives in Paris or their mother works as a fashion model in New York. Saying your father is a soldier in Iraq is a bit more exotic than the fact that he's an inmate in a California prison. A live-in alcoholic uncle may be the cause for an adolescent girl to move away from her own community, mother and siblings in order to be farmed out to an auntie. Her story may be that she's moving with her mother to live in Hawaii. We may see through the lies, but do we see the necessity for escape from the incredible poverty, both physical and spiritual, in which these kids live?

If you are a concerned, responsible, slightly embarrassed adult, perhaps you can find a way to provide assistance to these inner-city schools. They are starved, not only for food and knowledge but also or a sense of caring. Why would anyone bother to teach dance, art or music classes after school? Why mentor a student who struggles in math or with their own English language? Why bother financing a field trip for kids who've never seen a beach but live an hour's drive away?

It's easy to be complacent with the richly rewarding lives we take for granted. I'm trying to imagine a child focusing on learning in a Richmond school compared with my middle-class childhood in Texas. My doctor made house calls when I was sick. I had routine dental checkups. There was plenty of food from the garden or the grocery store. My parents, who never divorced, employed a gardener and a nanny. The librarian down the street taught me to read at age 5, and I loved excelling in school. Guns were used for shooting deer for food.

By comparison, these kids do not know a dentist or a doctor who can fix their rotten teeth or open sores. Many need eyeglasses just to see what's going on in the classroom.

Do we really wonder why these students can't focus on learning with all the life issues they face? Even those who can learn are constantly being held hostage by the negative behavior and emotional problems of the few. There are many innocent children in Richmond caught in a world of under-achievement and failure.

Do we honestly understand that today's uneducated youth will be our caretakers of the future? They will not only be handing us our medications but inheriting our civilization.

So how much did we spend on the Olympics? Even worse, I can't stop thinking about the $87 billion to rebuild Iraq. This may be one of those times we need to think about rebuilding our inner cities, to clean up the mess in our own backyard.

Petaluma resident Jean Baker teaches in Richmond.