Young teacher returns home to take up a thankless task

October 29, 2003|By GREGORY KANE

LOW PAY. Stress. The constant threat of layoffs due to budget cuts. Getting scapegoated for all the failures of the educational system, as if parents, politicians and the muckety-mucks down at North Avenue aren't as much -- if not more -- to blame. Who would come straight out of college to teach in Baltimore's public schools?

Katrina Scott, that's who. Only 22, the Baltimore native had no idea in March where she would be seven months later. She was in her last semester at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., just a few months short of receiving her bachelor's degree in English.

"I'm sitting there," Scott recalled, "with no idea of where I'm going to be or where I'm going to work."

Scott said negative feedback about the teaching profession steered her from that line of work, which had been her dream since she was a girl. It took a feature-length documentary film about neophyte teachers -- called, appropriately enough, The First Year -- to rekindle her interest. She had heard of an organization called Teach For America, which recruits college grads without education degrees for two-year teaching stints in schools across the country.

Scott received an application from Teach For America the first week of March. The deadline was the second week of March, and within one month, she had an interview with Teach For America officials and a job. By June, Scott knew she'd be teaching at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass High School.

But why return to public schools in Baltimore?

"Why not?" Scott countered with a classic question answer to a question. "Baltimore needs teachers. Besides, this is my home, and I wanted to be close to home."

At Douglass, Scott is indeed close to the Park Heights neighborhood she grew up in, where the socioeconomic level is pretty much the same as her students' communities. Scott went to high school at City College. As a senior in the spring of 1999, she knew her family didn't have a dime to send her to a college or university. Her landing at Pepperdine was, Scott said, as much a case of the school choosing her as her choosing the school.

"When I applied to colleges," Scott remembered, "I said to myself `You can't afford it anyway, so you may as well apply to as many places as you want.'" Pepperdine was one of the schools that accepted her -- and gave her "pretty much a full scholarship" to boot.

Thus it was that Katrina Scott, the college senior uncertain about her future last March, became Ms. Scott, who teaches ninth-grade English in Room C-16 on the ground floor at Douglass, alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and former congressmen Parren Mitchell and Kweisi Mfume. All the naysaying about the woes of a teaching career has dampened her enthusiasm not one iota.

Yesterday Scott started class by giving her charges a drill to turn sentence fragments into complete sentences. When that task was complete, Scott used a clip from the cartoon "The Boondocks" to stimulate a discussion on whether it was more important to be popular or to have good grades. She had students write their answers to the question "If you had to choose one, which one would you choose?"

One boy tried to wimp out.

"What if you say both?" he asked.

Scott may be a first-year teacher, but students don't get off that easily in her class.

"You have to choose one," she insisted.

Most of the students raised their hands when Scott asked if they felt grades were more important than popularity. But then 'fess-up time came. When Scott asked, "If everyone believes grades are so important, does everyone make grades a priority?" a chorus of "no's" filled the room.

If you think the students had fun with this lesson, you'd be right. But you should have been there when Scott gave them the lesson on the dreaded N-word.

"I asked them which words they wanted to know the meaning of for a vocabulary lesson," Scott said. "All kinds of crazy things came up. The N-word was one of them."

You might have figured "sesquipedalian" wasn't on the list. But Scott indulged her students' wishes. Shortly after, the ninth-graders were learning about etymology, connotation, denotation and the influence of the hip-hop culture on the spreading use of the N-word among black youth.

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