Frustration, anger drive teacher from city schools

September 03, 1997|By GREGORY KANE

Baltimore teachers return to classes today for another year of trying to instill the three R's in city public school students, but Sally Brown won't be among them. This year she'll teach at a Catholic school.

The past school year, Brown taught at Patterson High School. She resigned in June, frustrated and angry at a system whose bottom line is not educating, she says, but baby-sitting.

Those who feel the new school board was thrust down city residents' throats by state officials and those who are going absolutely gaga over interim public schools chief Robert Schiller's proposed reforms should give a listen to Brown's tale of her one-year tour of duty in a city public high school. If nothing else, her story shows that lofty talk and optimism won't cut it. The major obstacle facing school officials may be deprogramming students of what they've learned over the years.

"These kids have been taught they don't have to work," Brown charged, "that they're going to be moved through the system anyway. You have kids in Algebra II who have never passed Algebra I. You have kids in English II who have never passed English I."

Courses that Brown called "Podunk electives" are being substituted for core courses. She was not allowed to give a grade lower than a 50, and Brown said students needed to pass only one quarter to be promoted to the next grade. One teacher had students who should have been in other classes lounging around in her class doing nothing, Brown claimed.

And then there's that matter of discipline, the bete noire of city public schools.

"There is no discipline enforced at all," Brown said. "The teacher is made to feel solely and totally responsible for the behavior of those kids." Brown then gave examples of some of that behavior.

Some students would insult Brown by telling her she had "a big, ugly-ass nose."

"I had a student come into my room drunk," Brown recalled. "Drunk," she repeated for emphasis, as if she still couldn't quite believe it. "I sent him down to the office. They sent him back. I guess he wasn't drunk enough."

One boy started a small fire in Brown's class. She told school officials she did not want the boy returned to her room. He was. Brown said she was the one who was transferred -- to a program for "at-risk" students.

At one point Brown refused to admit a girl "who had tried to hurt me," she said. The principal of one of Patterson's career academies and another staff member "came prancing into my room in the middle of my class." They brought in a substitute teacher to teach the remainder of the class while they questioned her about not admitting the student.

"You cannot teach without order," Brown continued. "Students walk in when they want, leave class when they want, come to class stoned or on drugs." The first period began at 8 a.m. Brown said she had students walking in at 9 or 9: 30.

Brown, 45, came to Patterson with high hopes. An actress for years, she switched to teaching and had the notion that she was going to teach her ninth-grade English class the designated course: a unit of reading short stories, a unit of Shakespeare ("Romeo and Juliet"), a unit of reading a novel and a unit of reading poetry.

"I wanted to hold my kids accountable," Brown said. "I gave homework every night, especially on weekends."

She greeted her students at the beginning of the school year by welcoming them to English I.

"Reading and writing are what we do here," Brown told them, adding that she would be giving plenty of homework.

"I don't do homework," one student called out.

"Then you don't pass English I," Brown responded.

Her insistence that students work and learn standard English was met with resistance, not only by the students, Brown claims, but from administrators at Patterson.

"They made it as hard for me as they possible could," she charged. Brown says when she phoned parents of unruly students in hopes they would correct their children's behavior, school officials chided her for doing so.

"It was these kinds of things that made it very clear to me that this was not how I wanted to play out my career," Brown lamented. She believes the problem is not just the students, many of whom have the potential to learn. It's the system. Asked to sum up how her year teaching in a city public school affected her, Brown answered succinctly in two short sentences.

"I entered Patterson High School a bleeding-heart liberal," Brown said. "Let's just say I ain't a Republican -- yet."

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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