In late August, during the second week of school, Z tapped me on the shoulder right after class and asked me if I’d talk to him outside. Z’s big for his age and probably a couple years older than his classmates in my sophomore English class. He’d been struggling to make it to class every day, holding a white hand towel soaked in menthol rub over his face and working a pack of tissue to keep his nose clean. The first day he arrived with his summer cold gear I thanked him for making the effort to be in school and reminded him to wash his hands a lot.
I’d seen Z in the halls the previous school year. He’s the sort of young man who didn’t always go to class. And his size and facial expression and body language might seem menacing to someone who sees him around school but doesn’t really know him. But I’ve been a student and teacher in the public schools in New Orleans for over 30 years, so even last year when I didn’t know him, I had no problem just hurrying Z along to where he was supposed to be or telling him to watch his language.
So when he asked to cut into our precious 30 minute lunch break for a conversation in the hall, I was glad to join him.
“Let me file these essays before I lose them, and then I’ll be right there.”
When I made it outside, he was leaning against the wall in the dimly lit hallway, clutching his rag and nodding at fellow band members as they rushed to the stairwell.
“Mr. Randels, I wanted to ask if you’d teach me how to read.”
Z’s request calls to mind four key issues about the educational circumstances and strategies under which Students at the Center has been working both before and after Katrina.
1) Our district high school had a population of approximately 20% special education students. This proportion was about the same for the twelve other neighborhood high schools in the New Orleans Public Schools. Before Katrina, our system also had six selective admissions public high schools. The only special education students at these schools were those who were academically gifted, talented in the arts, or had an exceptionality concerning their physical abilities.
2) We work in the conditions in which we find ourselves. Those of us who work in Students at the Center at Douglass (and other schools) have not spent our time complaining about these educational situations. Instead, we want the public and policy makers to understand the different types of schools we have in New Orleans. And more importantly we want to learn how to teach Z and his classmates as best we can. Only engaged in practice can we learn the solutions we need. In Z’s case, I believe his willingness to ask for assistance after less than two weeks of time in our class comes from the fact that we engaged him in oral processes. His thoughts and words had a space of respect in our classroom.
3) We understand students as a resource. I could not fulfill Z’s request to learn to read on a personal level. He needed daily one on one attention. We do, however, have veteran SAC students who have trained in our classes to be resources in literacy development to our students. Rodneka Shelbia, who would have been a senior at Douglass, has been part of SAC since her 9th grade year. She has trained in Reciprocal Teaching and other methods for helping to improve reading abilities. She and Z are also friends. Rodneka agreed to work with Z on his reading every day as part of her elective SAC course. Z was eager for this help. Then the storm came.
4) Young people such as Z are eager to learn, given the right conditions. We need to help create those conditions and find ways to assess and respect the whole student. Labeling schools such as Douglass as failures based primarily on their test scores is a disservice to the education of our students. Instead of one size fits all approaches, we need ways to measure what it means for me to teach Sophomore English in a class that includes about 20% of students who face educational challenges similar to Z’s. Instead of Z’s state test scores being the only way to measure his worth and success as a student, we also need ways to measure (and to compute into the formulas that allow states to hand over public schools to private entities) Z’s desire to read and the efforts that brought him to that point.
These questions are pressing as we return to a public school system in N. O. that will now be run by the state and by foundations and universities, designed by national experts and university presidents not by teachers and parents and students who have worked hard and with pockets of success to educate the young people not allowed admission into schools the state has labeled academically acceptable.