Why Johnny, Shakela and Jose can't read
Schools are rat traps, home is a rescue mission,
San Francisco Chronicle
November 30, 2003
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
Utah, I've experienced a cultural exchange of planets. Teaching Shakela, Jose,
Johnny and others to read is virtually impossible in such a destructive
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Petaluma resident Jean Baker teaches in Richmond.