Mr. Treo has a habit of sucking his teeth, or rather the empty spaces where teeth once were. Fiddling with an omnipresent toothpick, he scrapes it back and forth in the empty spaces. He wraps his tongue around his front tooth, sucks again loudly, then clears his throat. He’s wearing a pull-over sweater and work out pants; his feet are propped on a library table.
Leaning forward he mumbles, “You know what I say, Boody? What these kids need?”
He pauses, sucks a tooth, and snorts.
“What these kids really need?”
I shrug to indicate my ignorance. Once again, my late arrival to the weekly staff meeting has offered me the last seat available in the library, a seat next to Mr. Treo.
“Discipline. These kids need discipline.”
I nod. If I’ve learned anything these last few months, it’s that a strong, confident head nod can convey my docile agreement.
Still, Treo leans in close, eyes watering, “You know what word is in discipline, don’t ya, Boody?”
This time I nod in the negative. He leans closer.
“Disciple,” he whispers. “Think about that.”
I raise an eyebrow.
“Karma, Boody. It’s all about karma.” He moves his eyes back to the meeting’s agenda.
By this point in the school year, staff meetings have devolved into raucous revival events. Led by Minnie Walker, principal and preacher’s wife, we stray far from agendas, but not without peppering each of Ms. Walker’s statements with a perfunctory “mmhmmm” or “amen.” Not much is accomplished, but morale is uplifted as Ms. Walker paces the library aisles, heels kicked off, affirming that we are, indeed making a difference in “these children’s lives.”
Today’s agenda has involves analyzing student achievement data and monitoring their preparedness for the ever-impending state tests. On the overhead projector, Walker places graphs of past test scores. Vague discussions of data ensue. Most stay quiet, as we look at the embarrassingly low achievement figures. According to the graph, more than 90% of our students are performing below their grade level.
Schools are their own ecosystems. Each individual staff member carves a niche for him/herself. Treo, for instance, is a kindergarten teacher, turned track coach, turned social studies teacher. Protected by tenure, he’s been transferred to seemingly every school in the district. His file cabinets contain sand, gym socks, and old crossword puzzles. Posters of Frederick Douglass and Barack Obama 2008 campaign signs are stapled to the bulletin board outside his classroom, along with the phrase “women’s rights.” In his middle school social studies class, students learn Sudoku, play craps, and watch Amistad. Whenever an administrator or another teacher walks by the doorless classroom, Treo shouts, “John Brown!” This is the signal for students to grab the closest textbook and turn to page 343, which does in fact contain a passage on the infamous abolitionist.
Ms. Walker shakes her head disapprovingly as she reviews the data.
“We can do better,” she says. It’s hard to discern if she’s being encouraging, or trying to convince herself that the possibility exists. She gives general advice on how to improve test scores.
“Keep your eyes on the kids.”
“Give them lots of opportunities for students to discuss.”
“Don’t use too much paper; students should not be sitting there doing ditto sheets.”
The chorus chimes in with the requisite, “mmhmmm,” and “I know that’s right.”
I nod, in docile agreement.
Across from me, Treo interjects, “I think it’s the parents. No discipline in the home. It has to start in the home.”
Walker waves his comment off.
“I know these kids know the stuff. I know they know it. We’ve raised these kids since kindergarten. We just got to teach them how to show that they know it.”
In the classroom across the hall from me is Ms. Crocker. An aging white woman who wears a uniform of track suits, she teaches computer skills. Renowned for her classroom management techniques, she starts each class by lining the students outside her door, inspecting the kids for gum, chips, or anything potentially distracting.
“Get your cotton-pickin’ selves in line,” she says, as students line up single file, heads hanging.
She has a limp, and hobbles through the classroom giving students both praise and harsh admonishments. She ends every class by having the students circle around her and reviews their behavior. I can send her my misbehaving students during class, and she’ll take them under her wing without complaint. She coordinates the school-wide technology services, she volunteers to do cafeteria duty, she arrives at school before 6 in the morning, every morning.
“Don’t you worry about any of those district people, and those tests,” she says. “It’s always changing, always changing.”
Over the last forty years, more than two dozen superintendents have cycled through the Kansas City, Missouri School District. Under the high-stakes testing enacted under No Child Left Behind, Kansas City’s schools overall have shown no improvements; instead, their failures have just been made more obvious. However, there’s a small whiff of reform in the air. After all, it’s fall of 2008. Michelle Rhee, a Teach for America alum and education reform superstar, takes over Washington D.C.’s notorious public schools. As George W. Bush’s term comes to an end, educators wonder what will the ultimate fate of NCLB will be. A new, young enigmatic school board member has been elected. The school district is currently led by an interim superintendent, searching for a new leader. Barack Obama is running for President. Change is possible. Change is coming. It’s been all but promised.
“I just know we can do it,” Walker says, pacing the library’s aisle. Staff members are idly popping the obligatory snacks in their mouths, nodding.
“We can raise these scores. We just got to come together as a team, a real team.”
Treo pipes up again, “These kids aren’t going to learn anything without that discipline.”
Walker shoots him a look. “We’re not going to talk about that,” she says.
Treo changes the subject. “How about we use some of them questions off of Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Make learning fun? That’s what I’m talking about. Those questions are like test questions.”
Walker goes on.
Ms. Erikson stays late after school every day, prepping lesson plans. She makes copies, adjusts lesson plans, and rearranges her room. She’s been teaching third grade for two years now, and she’s still struggling with student misbehavior. Behind closed doors, Walker will tell you that “She’s a yelling person. She struggles, she struggles.” A newly engaged white woman in her mid-twenties, Erikson talks in the copy room of worrying about job security.
“I want to have a baby after we get married, but I’m always worried. My review last year wasn’t very good. And with the test scores… I just want help,” she says.
Walker is gaining momentum.
“I just know we can do this, don’t y’all think so?”
“Mmhmmm,” the staff hums.
“I just got so many good feelings about this school year, everyone working so hard. We just got to work together now, we just got to work together,” she says.
She points back to projection on the wall.
“We can change this. We can make history. I can feel it.”
She replaces the transparency with a new one. One that reads our progress so far this year, based off of a predictor exam. Little growth is apparent, but the graph does prove that there is some small amount of growth.
“See? We’re going up?” she says, with a clap.
The staff nods in agreement.