I was hired in 1989-'90 as a lead teacher in Richmond Public Schools' first alternative school. A colleague and I had somehow to reach functionally illiterate students labeled at-risk, many of whom had come to us straight from juvenile detention. Our mission was to give them hope for a better future through hard work and daily drills in reading, language, math, science and social skills.
We soon realized that what was required of us was much more than we could give — we could not replace their fathers, many of whom were either incarcerated or whose whereabouts were unknown. We could not provide the love and guidance from mothers who had abandoned them to drugs and prostitution. Since most of them had no one at home to help them with their homework, they didn't do any. And we certainly knew that sending them home for their disruptive behavior just so our nerves could have a break was no answer. They didn't want to be in school anyway, so it was a short-term remedy for us and a reward for them, not a punishment.
At the end of that year to cut costs, I was one of 11 teachers laid off. I could not have lasted another year — my colleague died of a heart attack after the school year ended leaving behind a wife and two little girls. Now, nearly 20 years later, Chris Dovi's article (“The Big Expulsion,” Cover Story, Jan. 21) sadly exposed the brokenness that persists in our inner-city public schools.
Susan Eaton, a researcher with the Harvard Law School's Institute of Race and Justice, whose study, “The Children in Room E4,” is based only on the last eight years, suggested in a PBS interview two things that would be easy for schools to do now without expending an enormous amount of money — include a civics curriculum and institute alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline (suspension that leads to dropping out that leads to incarceration). The only thing easy about her suggestions is her rhetoric.
But I do agree with her assessment that it will require a reorientation and a look at our priorities as to whether we as a community are willing to provide opportunities for poor children to participate in our larger society, or whether we will continue, in our indifference or outright contempt, to keep them isolated and quarantined in our inner cities, those pockets our president has called history's confinement, repositories for the scars and legacy of slavery.
Judith J. Bentley