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Chuck Olynyk: The Year the Grinch Stole Our Schools

Just under a year ago, last January 13, I was forwarded an email authored by a Los Angeles high school teacher, who was writing firsthand about his experiences teaching at a school being "reconstituted." I ran his story on my blog the next day, and in the coming months Chuck shared the gruesome details of this, the epitome of bureaucratic processes. Today I offer you Chuck's seasonal message; not exactly cheery -- but sometimes it feels good to know at least we have company when we worry about what is coming next!


Today is Friday, December 24, 2010 and Day 179 PF. It is also Christmas Eve (well, morning, yeah, but I think Christmas Eve counts for the entire day... besides, it sounds stupid in my ears to say "Christmas Eve Day"...) and the last-minute shopping is pretty much out of the way.

In speaking with a friend and trading war stories about teaching (odd turn of phrase, that, "war stories," but I excuse that because we fight the War on Ignorance), I was explaining something about the way I earned a living prior to falling into teaching, my mind jumping all over the map, like Tom Bombadil telling long tales on a rainy day to four hobbits. My ego would like to compare this to Robert E. Howard's writing of the Conan of Cimmeria stories: Howard said when he wrote the stories, it felt not as though he was creating them, but rather the character was standing by his shoulder, reeling off tales of his adventures in no particular order. Sometimes I do feel like that, and maybe that explains how I can prattle on about the S.C.A., the historical reenactment group where I learned to make armor, do leatherworking, and do full-contact combat, and where I saw chivalry and honor all about me each and every weekend.

As to earning a living, when I wrote the very first post, Day 168 "Somebody Has To Say It", which was supposed to be a letter to a handful of people and it very stupidly went out to something like forty and was reposted the next day by Anthony Cody, I made reference to my previous career of working with Federal prisoners. What has this to do with the privatization of public education and why institutions are seemingly for sale to the highest bidder? The place which housed the inmates was run by a corporation. These were inmates essentially sold to the lowest bidder, not unlike other areas of privatization. And lowest bidders find ways to cut costs.

Your a mean one, Mr.Grinch
You really are a heel
Your as cuddly as a cactus
Your as charming as an eel, Mr.Grinch

Your a bad banana with a greasy black peel...

I wasn't working behind bars. Mission Re-entry was a halfway house, one of several in Southern California, run by the Rube-Span Corporation (I can't believe I remembered their name, surprised I remembered the halfway house, as well). This, and the other sister facilities prepared inmates for release into the world after incarceration. The corporation ran these--I'd imagine still does--no, just checked and I couldn't find them--private halfway houses and contracted with the Federal government, specifically the B.O.P. (Bureau of Prisons) to house and process the inmates, counseling them and preparing them for release. It also did the same for the California Youth Authority, so at one point my caseload ran from ages 16 to 60.

"At this festive season of the year, Mr Scrooge, ... it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir."

"Are there no prisons?"

"Plenty of prisons...

Again, why does this matter in a blog about education?

Because here was a corporation contracting with the government, because they could do the work cheaper. An old apartment building was converted into a dormitory set-up. What used to be a kitchen had no cooking facilities; there was a really nasty coffee-maker, though; what the inmates did for food was they were each given X amount of dollars per week they were unemployed and they had to sign out on passes during the day and eat then. By having a B.S. degree (easy, I know that's an opening) in anthropology, I was 50% of the college-educated staff; the program director had her B.S. in political science. We took turns watching the facility, but we each had a caseload, preparing reports (I ended up writing the reports for most people--that noun-verb thing can be tricky and I knew how to type... sort of). It saved the corporation a buck.

Your a monster, Mr.Grinch
Your hearts an empty hole
Your brain is full of spiders
You've got garlic in your soul, Mr. Grinch
I wouldn't touch with a 39 and a half foot pole

Your a foul one, Mr.Grinch
You have termites in your smile
You have all the tender sweetness of a seasick crocodile
Mr.Grinch, Mr.Grinch
Given the choice between the two of you,
I'd choose the seasick crocodile...

Many inmates required counseling sessions as a condition of parole and were labeled S.A.A.C. (Special Alcohol Aftercare Condition--which meant A.A. meetings at the facility), S.D.A.C. (Special Drug Aftercare Condition--which should have been N.A. meetings, but were often run by someone who'd never used drugs, and we'd get to give them urine tests oh joy) and the biggie, S.M.A.C. (Special Mental Health Aftercare Conditions, reserved for the guy who plea-bargained DOWN to kidnapping and you really don't want to know where he plea-bargained from--this was handled by an actual psychiatrist). Unqualified or barely trained did the work of trained professionals.

So the barely qualified oversaw the several months of time inmates had before release into the real world. I could tell tales of drama about facing an inmate with a knife or the inmates who stood around my car, cheering me on as I had to break in, or the Aryan bikers who offered to let me ride their hogs (I declined), being offered tattoos, or the tale of the 350 pound inmate (they were called residents, like at my mom's nursing home) on crutches who escaped (that one wasn't mine), but what I'm getting at is I do not believe anyone who worked in that facility which housed about 24 Federal prisoners and California Youth Authority wards was qualified in any way, shape or form, including me.

Your a rotter Mr.Grinch
Your the king of sinful sots
Your hearts a dead tomato
Splotched with moldy purple spots, Mr. Grinch
Your a three decker sour crout toad stool sandwich
With arsenic sauce...

There was no training.
I walked in the door for my interview at the halfway house, was interviewed by the program director (who had only been a caseworker 3 months before being promoted to assistant program director to a full program director after a few more months), was greeting by someone I went to high school with ("G?" "How you doing, Chuck?" "I'm okay. How about you?" "Aw, you'll read my file."), was assigned my caseload, and I went out to meet my charges, one of which was "G."

My moral compass was really whacked out when I realized that if an inmate was written up, they could be restricted to the facility. Three write-ups earned a rescission hearing, in which a kangaroo court was held; a panel of three people, the program director, her assistant, and someone from the corporate office who was usually the retired cop who checked the inmates for needle marks. A staff member acted as the prosecution. Another acted as defense (guess who that usually was?). Again, our qualifications were nil, zip, insert your own words here. If the inmate/resident was found guilty, the parole date was retarded by anywhere from 30-120 days (did I mention the corporation got paid for each day an inmate was housed by us?),

Again, what does this have to do with education?

How many people has LAUSD "let go" or reclassified (need I point out right before the holidays?) in order to save a buck? What was the cost of Central High School #9? What was the cost of the Robert F. Kennedy complex? What was the cost of the original Belmont Learning Center? And how much is being saved by the lay-offs? And who got hired to replace them. Welcome to the worst of the Industrial Revolution.

"And the Union workhouses." demanded Scrooge. "Are they still in operation?"
"Both very busy, sir..."
"Those who are badly off must go there."

At the point where you might scream, I have to share an early teaching experience. I started in the Corona-Norco Unified School District in 1983, back when rocks were still soft. I got hired a couple of days into the school year, so the district observed I couldn't be given a contract, because that would imply I worked the entire semester, and a couple of days had already passed. I was hired as a long-term substitute (half-pay, no benefits) at Norco High, teaching three periods of math and two periods of social studies. In Spring I was moved over to Corona High, taking over another position and taught four periods of U.S. History and one of Sociology. During that year, I kept hearing jokes about the "unemployment class of 1984," but nobody explained the joke, I did see a group of teachers looked particularly glum, but they weren't talking.

In Fall of 1984 I was called back to Corona-Norco, to get a semester contract to teach social studies at Norco High again. I noticed the glum teachers were gone. Asking provided me with little information, but there was a new group of teachers straight out of college. In Spring I was transferred over to Letha Raney Junior High and became an English teacher. I saw a glum group and heard the jokes about "Class of '85." Sure enough, they were gone at the end of the year.

Fall of 1985 I was over at Raney again, teaching English again, only this year I was in six different rooms in seven periods and heard much more pointedly the "Class of '86" jokes, I also saw the new teachers, fresh out of college. Eventually someone explained it to me: I was to be part of the "Class of '86." So were two other teachers coming up on tenure. "She always does this," said a teacher of the principal, "she always picks two or three to chase out of the district. We think she's picked you." What was this, a scene out of "Spartacus"? "Every once in a while Marcellus likes to kill a man, make an example of him. I think he's picked you. Better watch yourself." It turned out to be true.

The district made a point of hiring the fresh young faces straight out of college because they were cheaper. Every year they were always understaffed. Every year, there was a mob of long-term substitutes because the staffing just turned out that way. Every year, the majority of teachers coming up on tenure were not rehired because, after all, they had not completed three complete years. Each one that was let go was missing a day or two of those three years.

Which left that district with teachers who struggled at first, then started to gain a sureness of foot, only to be replaced by those who were brand-new to teaching. I imagine, though, this system or policy had to undergo change, because the area grew dramatically and built several new high schools (there were only the two and an alternative school when I worked there). In pursuing this policy, they kept placing less qualified teachers in the classroom.

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."
"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."

What does that have to do with education now?

Only that Congress redefined "Highly Qualified Teacher," which was a minor sticking point in the No Child Left Behind law. In Valerie Strauss' article in the Washington Post, "Congress approves weird definition of 'highly-qualified' teachers" we see George Orwell's Newspeak come into play again. So now non-credentialed still undergoing training, whose lack of experience or training doesn't have to be revealed to parents, are now considered "highly qualified."

These will be the same parents who watch these new teachers go to a school like Fremont High, which burns out teachers in less than three years, where there is a constant influx of new teachers, and no parent need be troubled by the knowledge that this person may have come in with five weeks of training, as Teach For America does with its idealistic folk.

And they will be sent to the same schools which are under scrutiny anyway, where value-added assessment will hold sway and a standardized test-taking culture is the rule. The platitudes making students "college-ready" will ring out, but the reality will be a sight different. I thought we were done with that when I saw changes in Corona-Norco. It would appear I was wrong. Again.

What sorts of experiences will these "highly qualified" teachers undergo in what will probably be high poverty neighborhoods? They won't all be like Joshua Kaplowitz's experience, I'm sure but while these new teachers are learning the ropes, what will be going on with the kids? This is not to put down the new teachers. They should be welcomed into the profession. They are a resource, but so are the veterans who are being hounded out. When new teachers come in, they are often warned about mingling with the veterans. "You'll be judged by whom you associate with." Come on, confess, how many of you heard in your teaching classes to "stay away from the teachers' lounge" or "teachers' cafeteria"? And yes, there are the burn-out cases there, but there are also the experienced teachers there who can mentor the new ones, who can share the lesson plans and give suggestions.

In some ways I started to see myself as Kat (Stanislaus Katczinsky) the veteran in "All Quiet On the Western Front," who intoned to Paul Baumer and his classmates, "In training camp, they filled your heads with a lot of information on how to be a soldier. We're going to work hard to forget all that. I'll teach you practical things..." Was there a Kat for Joshua Kaplowitz? If one had been there, would it have stopped what happened to him?

Ahh, nothing to worry about, eh? They're all highly qualified now, even if you keep their qualifications secret from parents. Besides, they're going to be teaching in the inner city. You'll still have experienced teachers for your own kids.

Chuck Olynyk taught at Fremont High for 16 years before being reassigned as part of the District's reconstitution plan. He now teaches world history at Roosevelt High School, and blogs at the RememberFremont site.

What do you think? Should interns be classified as "highly qualified" teachers?

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