LOS ANGELES- The slogan, “Soaring to Success,” flying above Edwin Markham Middle School, is in stark contrast to the abundant signs of decline in the community in which it is located. Trash on the ground, abandoned lots, and bars on the windows are the first signs of the ills that plague the neighborhood of Watts in Los Angeles.
There were 142 arrests in Markhan in 2007-08, and 329 suspensions for drug and violence—out of a total of 1,495 students—in the following year. The fact that in the 10-block radius around the school there are 38 identified gangs gives an idea of the circumstances the residents of this area face every day. That is why many are not surprised that the teachers do not stay long in the post.
“The first time I went through Compton Avenue, I thought it was the scene of a movie, with all the stereotypes of a slum: prostitution, gangs and poverty.”
That was the way Tim Sullivan—who until the end of June was the principal of Markham — described his first impression when he walked in the neighborhood’s main artery.
Sullivan took office in August 2008, as the first principal who voluntarily requested the position. He also stayed in the job for the longest term in the last decade. His energy and his repeated assertions that he had come to stay and change the course of the school made him a local hero within a few months of his arrival.
Sullivan recently resigned from Markham and took over as the principal of a charter school. “This is the hardest job in America,” Sullivan observed just weeks before leaving Markham.
The high turnover rate of administrators and teachers is one of the chronic problems of Markham, where 72% of the students are Latino and over 27% African American.
During the 2008-09 school year, 35 Markham teachers—out of a total of 73 —were in their first or second year of teaching. That meant that 47% had less than two years’ experience, compared with 12.32% of teachers at Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), and 9.7% across California.
Markham Middle made newspaper headlines this February because of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), alleging that the high teacher turnover was a violation of the students’ right to an education.
And while it’s true that the deep budget cuts suffered by LAUSD have exacerbated the problem, the high turnover of teachers is not new.
Long before the current budgetary crisis, the principals of disadvantaged urban schools were already accustomed to receiving the resignation call that often comes within hours of hiring a teacher, or after just a few weeks into their jobs.
“Long term” teachers like Amparo Ramirez, who has taught at Markham for 13 years, are well aware that few endure the pressures of campuses such as this. She has seen teachers leaving in the middle of the day, without even finishing their classes, and principals taking a stress leave after a few months in the school.
“It’s hard to have a stable team of teachers when the managers are constantly changing,” Ramirez said, noting that many arrive, “ turn the school upside down,” at least in appearance, and then leave.
“Mr. What?” That’s the question children such as Concepciona Manuel Flores, a seventh-grader at Markham during this past term, frequently asked when they came to class, only to meet an unknown adult. By the time the students learn the teacher’s name, he or she is often gone. Halfway through the recently finished term, Concepciona had had more than seven substitute teachers teaching English. For many of these children, this systematic teacher rotation comes on top of other instabilities in their lives.
Siris Barrios, an activist of the Community Coalition, a South Los Angeles non-profit, explains that children in disadvantaged neighborhoods have to deal constantly with extreme situations. Gangs, domestic violence, neglected health problems, and assaults on their way to school are among them, said Barrios. This is compounded by the tragedy of homeless children, or others growing up without the support of their parents.
More than 12,000 homeless children live within LAUSD’s borders, mainly concentrated among chronically underperforming schools. Two hundred Markham students live in foster care.
“The most stable aspect in many of these children’s lives is the school,” said Barrios.
Paola Lopez, a student at Fremont High School, another troubled school in South Los Angeles, said: “The [teachers] who stay are the ones who care about their students. For us, knowing that a teacher has been with us year after year means a lot.”
Out of 2,200 youths beginning ninth grade at Fremont High in the 2004-05 school year, only 453 graduated last year, and among them only 123 had completed the basic AG courses required for college. The rest were lost, lost from the schools and most likely from the path of education.
“Teachers go away, and students disappear too,” said Lopez, referring to the silent tragedy suffered by the community, who called these kids “los desaparecidos.”
Teachers who stay
Within the poorest schools lies a vicious cycle that few so far have been able to break. The socio-economic difficulties of young people are an obstacle in their academic progress, requiring extra doses of motivation and support only the most experienced teachers can offer. But professional experience gives teachers greater choice, and many choose to go to a less problematic school. The result is that a large majority of teachers in these schools are rookies. Some, however, choose to stay.
Among those who choose to stay, many grew up in that community or another with similar problems.
Ramirez, for example, has been in Watts since she arrived in the United States when she was five years old and her parents immigrated from Mexico. The teacher noted that the ethnic composition of the neighborhood at that time was different, with a majority of African Americans, instead of Hispanics like now—but the problems were the same. “I had to think about which route to take to get to school, because we were surrounded by gangs,” said Ramirez.
She said that having gone through many of the situations her students have to face now helps her to understand them, but she also acknowledged that helping students to achieve requires more than understanding and goodwill. “Discipline is a big challenge here,” said Ramirez, emphasizing that being respected and, at the same time, keeping her students’ desire to learn alive is a tricky balance.
Educators in South Los Angeles unanimously confirm that their students are very “street-smart.” “They can smell fear,” said Ramirez. In this environment, there’s no room for teachers with trembling knees. “There are no easy days here,” Ramirez said, noting that nevertheless she has never considered quitting.
But Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, said that ensuring educators to stay in these schools should not depend solely on factors such as hiring teachers who grew up in the communities where they want to serve, or counting on individuals with an exceptional will.
“Disadvantaged communities need the best teachers, and the current system does not provide any incentive to attract them,” said Jennings, adding that there’s no doubt that the current education system is failing when it comes to providing an education to students in urban schools.
According to Jennings, providing significant economic incentives to offset the biggest challenges faced by these teachers would be a good starting point, especially when accompanied by adequate training.
Mary Falvey, Dean of the Charter College of Education at CSU-Los Angeles, said that her school is taking steps in that direction.
One new program focuses on the special training needed by educators in urban schools, replicating a system similar to the one for medical schools, with internship and residency.
“Students work for a full year in the classrooms of these schools, mentored by an experienced teacher,” said Falvey, emphasizing that only this kind of intensive practice prepares them for the situations they’ll be likely to face. But for now, just over 20 out of approximately 52,000 students of teacher education in California are enrolled in this innovative program.
In the meantime, many schools in underserved areas have to rely on the unwavering commitment of some of their teachers.
Maria Enciso a “long-term substitute”at Markham, is a good example. She went to Gompers Middle School and Locke High in the same neighborhood. Like Markham, both schools face numerous obstacles. Encisco always wanted to teach full-time at Markham. She has been there since 2005, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). About 30 percent of Markham students are enrolled in the ESL program.
Due to staff cuts and the hiring freeze, Enciso can work only as a substitute, earning one-third the salary of a staff teacher. “I could try to find a job somewhere else, but I would be abandoning my students,” she said.