John R Selig

Writer. Photographer. Podcaster. Outspoken.

An Outsider’s View of Our Inner City Schools

Originally Heard on the John Selig Outspoken Podcast

John Selig Outspoken – Episode 31

As I am in between jobs and in the midst of a job search I have free time on my hands. I have been occupying my time in part by producing my John Selig Outspoken podcast and writing a monthly column for “Hot, Wild & Free,” an Ezine produced in Great Britain. As I still have some free time on my hands I decided to help out in the local community by becoming a substitute teacher in the Dallas Independent School District or DISD for short. I can use the extra income until I find myself another corporate position. As a professional with an MBA from the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business I can also be of assistance in trying to impact the lives of public school students in inner city schools.

Although it has been nearly 40 years since I graduated from high school I am no stranger in working with students. Forgive me for just a moment while I wince at the realization that so much time has passed so quickly. …Okay, I am back. As a gay parent who raised my son Nathaniel, it has been only 13 years since he graduated from high school. I took great pains to stay involved and informed with his education through primary and secondary schools as well as his college education. Furthermore, I volunteered with the top rated AFS International foreign exchange student program. Teenagers attending high school from every continent with the exception of Antarctica stayed with us from sharing a meal through living with us for an entire school year. So I’ve worked with high schools getting kids registered for classes and acting as a surrogate parent for exchange students. But for the most part my involvement has been with top rated school districts catering predominantly to students raised in upper middle and upper class white families.

I was totally unprepared for what I experienced when I walked into inner city public schools in Dallas in January. To say I was shocked is an understatement. A few caveats are in order before I share my observations. First of all I am not an educational professional. I am not a teacher, administrator or researcher. I don’t have access to student grades or test scores. I don’t know how the schools where I have been teaching have been trending with regards to the rest of the schools in DISD or the rest of the nation. However, I am a parent and a concerned citizen. I think I have a decent head on my shoulders and I am a keen observer and a good listener. I am inquisitive and not shy so I have been asking lots of questions. No doubt others might have a different read of the schools and draw different conclusions from mine.

Secondly, the teachers and administrators that I have met who work in DISD schools are all heroes to me. They have an impossible task with limited resources and they work under absurd guidelines that are imposed on our schools in part through Bush’s boondoggle, “No Child Left Behind” or as many call it, “Every Child Left Behind.”

I have no doubt that the challenges I have experienced in Dallas are being experienced in inner city school systems throughout the country from New York to Chicago to Los Angles to Denver, St. Louis, Miami, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Boston, Cleveland, Houston, Detroit and elsewhere. Dallas public schools are trying as hard as they can with the limited budgets and constraints they face.

The wealthier and whiter suburban schools have more modern, better-equipped facilities than those in the inner cities. Suburban parents of school kids are likely to have more education and therefore may be more involved with their kids’ educations than their urban counterparts. However, I expect that suburban schools face their own list of challenges that hinder the quality of education they provide.

I purposely chose to be a substitute in the inner city, as I wanted to see the education being provided to kids who were not fortunate enough to be members of the “lucky sperm club.” I also live in the inner city so I wanted to see the education available to kids that live near me.

Now that I have covered myself adequately with disclaimers I can share some of my observations. Sit back and get comfortable as this is going to take awhile.

First off, I am totally disgusted with the low priority that our country places upon education. Public tax money is currently being spent on a brand new $1 billion football stadium for the Dallas Cowboys in a Dallas suburb while high school students are attending an 81-year old school 1/2 mile from where I live that looks like something out of South Central LA or the South Bronx in New York. Across the street from the high school is a new shopping center with upscale stores, apartments, a multi-screen movie theater showing independent and foreign films and lots of trendy restaurants. Surrounding the school are expensive town-homes and condos.

Only 5.1% of the students enrolled in DISD are white so who cares about the schools since the kids attending them don’t matter? Supplies are limited. Teachers are given $250 per year (which is treated as taxable income) that they can use to fill in needed supplies. In reality, much of what the teachers use in their classrooms they pay for out of pocket. In some schools many textbooks are beat up. All classrooms have a few computers and all the students want to be on them as much of the time as possible. One teacher told me that they had computers but were told not to let the students use them.

I have especially enjoyed teaching elementary school. The kids are still impressionable and follow directions most of the time. They haven’t yet been hardened to street life the way the middle school and senior high school students have. During substitute teacher orientation we were told to do all we could to help the kids as the schools only had them half as long as the streets did.

Unfortunately teachers must fixate on having their students pass standardized state tests. In Texas they are called TAKS tests. States around the country have their own versions. Teachers’ and schools’ futures depend on the scores achieved by students and one feels the pressure of these tests the entire time they are at school. All students take the tests regardless of their ability. Special needs students are expected to achieve just as well as the mainstream and their results are included when measuring a school’s performance. Low scores can result in a teacher losing their job or an entire school being reconstituted where everybody from the principal through the janitor loses their jobs and has to interview for new jobs elsewhere in the district. Many are unable to find new jobs even though the low scores may not be their fault. Many of the students come from low-income families where parents don’t stress education, as the parents aren’t educated themselves. I have had to sign court documents that a parade of students bring to class after being ordered by the court to do so because of continued truancy.

My one and only day spent teaching middle school was the day from hell! I know this age group is a handful in the suburbs as well but there was a particularly hardened atmosphere at the school where I taught. The tone of the announcer on the PA during the morning announcements was that of a strained prison warden. He sounded beat-up and resigned to making the best of an untenable environment. A first year Texas history teacher relayed to me that other history teachers were asking each other if they were going to return next year. Being a substitute I anticipated less than stellar behavior. But watching other classes made me wonder how students who wanted an education could learn. Breakfast was served during second period because the only meals eaten by many of the students were the ones they got at school.

High school has been a better experience than middle school but so many of the students are unmotivated and unprepared. They don’t do class work and forget about them turning in homework! I taught art class and found that the students spent a great deal of their time in art class preparing for the all-important TAKS tests. Of course art supplies are limited as well.

From my first day as a substitute teacher I have come out to both teachers and administrators at every school. Fortunately, the DISD non-discrimination policy includes sexual orientation, thanks in part to the Dallas Chapter of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network of which I was one of the founding board members. Still many teachers are not out for fear of the impact on their careers. So I have been determined to let teachers and administrators know that I am gay. They talk about their spouses so I talk about Rodolfo. I have been well received as a substitute as they can tell my commitment to the kids. Each of the schools has been requesting me as a sub rather than just having me sign up when vacancies become available. So my coming out continues to humanize our cause deep in the heart of Red State Texas.

In one elementary school a fifth grade teacher told me that his students were to have been taught science in the third and fourth grades but because the TAKS tests in those grades didn’t cover science the teachers didn’t teach enough science. If the 3rd and 4th grade teachers covered the science they were supposed to teach students TAKS test scores on the subjects covered would be lower and their jobs would have been on the line. So the fifth grade teacher had to cover three years of science in just one year, which was a near impossibility. So his students were likely to do poorly on the Science section of the TAKS tests in fifth grade and his job would be on the line.

In another elementary school I taught second grade and saw two students who were so troubled that I had no doubt that they would be in prison within the next 10 years. And yet there was one boy in the same class who was wise beyond his years. I watched him look at me with an expression of disgust on his face because other students’ behavior was interfering with his thirst for knowledge. I knew that this boy would make it through the system somehow and succeed. I spoke with him and told him that I knew he was a good student and I wanted him to keep working hard through middle school and high school so that he could attend a good college.

I have met students at each of the schools where I have taught who want to succeed. It is just that the system is stacked against them. Between teaching for TAKS tests, mainstreaming and other students’ behavior the students are faced with an educational environment that isn’t as conducive to quality learning as they deserve.

It was in the same second grade class that I heard one student call another student a “faggot.” I knew I would run into this eventually. When I heard the comment I immediately stopped the class. I told the students that calling somebody a faggot or gay was unacceptable in my classroom. I asked the students how they felt when somebody called them a name. I told them that the world was better off because it had different groups of people in it and that I have friends that are Latino, African American, gay, Jewish, Moslem and Christian and that I was fortunate to have so many wonderful people in my life. I told them that life was difficult for gay students and that their comments, often made without really meaning to be, could be extremely hurtful.

“No Child Left Behind” is a disaster and the teachers and administrators hate it. One of the absurdities of the legislation is that all students must be mainstreamed. That means that the kids with learning disabilities and those performing well below grade level are in the same classes as the rest of the students. A special education teacher may take them out of class once or twice during the day, but for the most part classroom teachers must balance their instruction between the majority of the class and those with special needs. This results in disjointed instruction for all. Those with special needs have different projects from the rest of the class and both need and deserve extra guidance. The special needs students frequently interrupt the teacher when they are teaching the mainstream and visa versa. This results in disjointed instruction for all.

How sad that our schools have been forced to teach to tests aimed at everybody achieving the lowest common denominator. Teachers and administrators feel these tests area a gun pointed at their heads. Pressure is passed on to the students so education is all about the tests.

There are special classes and even schools for talented and gifted students. Since I haven’t yet had the opportunity to substitute in these classes or schools my comments do not apply to them.

I want to reiterate my observations are in no way a criticism of the Dallas Independent School District, any of its schools, administrators or teachers. I have the utmost respect for everybody that I have met. Teachers and administrators have all been dedicated and are doing the absolute best job they can.

Should my comments be taken as a condemnation of the priority that the United States has placed upon education$ You bet! I don’t think I have seen anything in the schools that I have taught at that isn’t happening in inner city schools all over this country. WAKE UP AMERICA! WE HAVE A PROBLEM! OUR EDUCATION SYSTEM IS BROKEN! Education is not a high enough priority in this country. Our kids need and deserve better. New standardized tests and an ill-conceived program with a catchy name won’t fix the problem!

Much of the world has learned from the advances made by the U.S. during our relatively short history. Certainly our economic and technological growth during much of the 20th century served as both an inspiration and role model to many around the world. Many of the best foreign students came to study at our colleges and universities and the American multinational corporations were courted globally.

It is sad that the primary and secondary education of America’s next generation is lagging behind that being provided in so many other countries. Our students are falling drastically behind in math and science. Our universities are graduating fewer experts in these key specialties compared with other nations. Students still in our schools will face increased competition from around the world from globalization and far too few have the skills that will be needed to compete and prosper.

The United States should study education systems in other countries with diverse populations who have educational systems superior to ours. We must overcome our over zealous patriotism that foolishly results in so many thinking that America is best at everything we do. We cling to such absurd beliefs to our own peril. Just look at our healthcare system. Compared with healthcare in the rest of the industrialized world we come up grossly lacking but so many don’t want to change our system out of fear and pride. For America to remain competitive we must expand our thinking beyond our own boarders or the rest of the world will leave us behind.

Primarily lower income minorities attend our inner city schools. Look at the composition of our prisons. According to 2005 Bureau of Justice Statistics and a report from the Sentencing Project the U. S. rate of incarceration of 737 inmates per 100,000 population (or 2.2 million inmates) not only represents a record high but also situates our nation as the world leader in the use of imprisonment. For comparison purposes, the U. S. now locks up its citizens at a rate 5 to 8 times that of the industrial nations that are most similar to us, Canada and Western Europe! The 2005 statistics represent a record 33-year continuous rise and places the U. S. first in the world with this record. Here is a look at incarceration rates per 100,000 in other industrialized countries: Russia – 611 per 100,000 population, Australia – 126, Canada – 107, England/Wales – 107, France – 85 and Japan – 62; remember, the comparable U.S. rate is 737! Largely the same minorities that comprise the student population of our inner city schools inhabit our prisons. Isn’t it obvious that either we need to properly educate all students in our country and provide them with the skill set necessary to succeed or we will pay even more both economically and socially for their incarceration later?

Part of the solution to improving inner city schools should involve reaching parents in a way that educates them about the importance of their children’s education. More parent involvement and commitment to their kids’ education is a needed step. I have heard teachers comment that without the support of parents their jobs can be futile. Our society cannot expect our schools to raise our children! Our government seems quite capable of whipping us into a frenzy to go to war. It should be able to do a better job of getting the message out to parents about the benefits of being involved in their kid’s educations even if the kids are learning material that is beyond the parents’ level of education.

Personally, I think part of the problem may rest in how we fund schools. Inner city schools often get the short end of the stick. I know that local control of schools is an emotional issue and to suggest changing it would bring a hue and cry from the masses. Getting inner city voters to vote approval of educational bond initiatives is always tricky and without their passage our kids suffer. Perhaps there is some way to get some additional funding without removing local control.

Taking money from the wealthier suburban school districts isn’t the answer as all that will do is decrease the quality of suburban education. The idea is to bring the quality of education in the inner cities up to that found in the suburbs. Maybe some federal funding can be made available to inner city schools. There seems to be enough money in the federal budget to fight an unnecessary war in Iraq and fund defense contracts for weapons that are still designed to fight cold war era battles. To my way of thinking it is more important to find the funds and programs necessary to fight the battle of providing all the kids in our country the education they need. I’ll leave the funding and program design to better minds than mine. However, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that something better should and can be done.

Inner city schools have the most challenges but all of our schools need help. By our country placing such a low priority on education, we are failing our children and we are failing the future of America.

I challenge all business people, politicians and parents with a college degree to take some time and become a substitute teacher for a few days. If you do so you will experience as I have just how serious the educational crisis is. Most schools are now requiring college degrees for their substitute teachers. Teach in an inner city school rather than a wealthier suburban school if possible. Parents should pick a school that isn’t attended by their own children. Folks without college degrees can work or volunteer as teacher’s aids or hall monitors. Check with your local school district for details on substitute teaching requirements and their registration process. Go into the schools and have your eyes opened as I have. I guarantee it will change you!

Whether or not you have school age children the students in school today will be the ones who incorrectly handle your insurance claims, lose your social security checks, screw up your cable installation and improperly design the bridges you drive over tomorrow!

I am not a professional educator. I don’t even play one on TV. I admit that I have experienced only a small slice of what it is going on in one inner city school district. All school districts and all schools are not the same. But I have seen enough to know that our heroic schoolteachers and administrators need our help. Take the time to experience school yourselves. Then pressure your elected officials to turn our educational system into one that our kids and nation deserve!

One last thing, the next time you see a teacher or administrator, be sure to thank them!

© 2008 John R. Selig. All rights reserved.