A Recipe for Failure
A Year of Reform and Chaos in the St. Louis Public SchoolsPaperback - 2006
A series of hurricanes ripped through the Gulf Coast of the United States in early September 2005. Scenes of destruction and despair were haunting. Video footage of thousands upon thousands of evacuees trying to survive in the New Orleans Superdome, as well as in the Convention Center, without food, water, protection or security was televised throughout the first weeks of this tragedy. Commentators and observers raised at the question, "Why didn't these people leave the state, as others have done, to find safety,".
Suddenly, the "aha" moment arrived. These poor souls didn't leave simply because they were poor. With no money, no reliable transportation, no idea of where they would stay if they left their homes, they were stuck.
The one positive outcome of Katrina's wrath could be that our nation and our leaders engage in a discussion on the culture of poverty, a subject that has not been seriously addressed for at least a decade. As a society, we need to attain some understanding of the reality faced on a daily basis by those living in generational poverty.
This book is illustrates the day-to-day reality of teaching in an urban school district under conditions that would not be tolerated in any other school district in the St. Louis metro area. Many studies have been published on the challenges of urban education, and many books have been written about the causes of the achievement gap between socio-economic levels, and between racial groups. These works, while informative, do not give any actual description of the conditions under which urban teachers are expected to teach, and students are expected to learn.
Additionally, the comment that "Schools should be run as businesses are run," is a recurrent theme from non-educators. The St. Louis Public Schools contracted with a business turnaround team to take control of the district for one year and "streamline" operations. The impact of this turnaround team was not positive.
On both the federal and state level, through the No Child Left Behind Act and the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education's accreditation requirements, a more rigorous set of requirements and accountability has placed additional pressure on school districts. This is not a bad thing; to the contrary, I feel that the goals are ones that most teachers share. Unfortunately, educational funding has decreased, making compliance a challenge. These are issues that every school district faces.
Urban school districts face additional challenges. During my brief tenure in the St. Louis Public Schools as an eighth grade teacher, I found all of the social challenges I had dealt with in a suburban school district pronounced exponentially, and administrative support systems seriously lacking. The business turnaround firm hired to straighten out the financial quagmire that the district was in simply increased the problems.
In all too many cases, students were from single-parent homes or foster homes, or were homeless. Many had parents who were either absent, or were negative role models. The culture of poverty in which they lived caused instability and an absence of long-term goals.
The administrative staff in the Central Office was not supportive of building administrators or teachers. Discipline alternatives, such as an In-School Suspension (ISS) program, were not available. One of the first actions of the turnaround team was to close two alternative schools, leaving nowhere to place students who needed intervention and counseling, in addition to education. Suspensions were not enforced by Central Office. Social workers were understaffed and overloaded to a dramatic degree.
There was little academic accountability. Too many classes were taught by substitutes not qualified to teach the subject matter. There was a lack of cohesion in terms of academic programs. Students were not held accountable academically, with too many being passed on despite a lack of skill development.