Published Online: April 9, 1997

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Snapshot of An Inner-City School

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A pastiche of images, facts, and impressions.

I spent a couple of hundred hours in two of the toughest inner-city schools in Cincinnati this year. While there, I shadowed, with permission, 7th and 8th grade students from the beginning to the end of school days in September and December. When I wasn't going from class to class with these children, I "hung out" in various classrooms in the schools. I met with individual teachers and with groups of teachers to listen and talk about education.

Here, in a pastiche of images, facts, and impressions, are some of the things I learned.

It was stifling hot on many days in August and September. But at the school I visited then, there was no air conditioning, and many of the windows could not be opened. I sat in on the opening-day meeting with teachers and the principal and listened as the latter set a businesslike tone for the school's operation. After the meeting, teachers spent time getting books and preparing for the arrival of the children the next day.

Throughout that first day, children were told about opportunities and rules. Adults were physically present in hallways and other parts of the school. Between classes, there was no running or loud talking in the halls, which were emptied when the bell rang for the next class. In the classes, students were polite, with an almost even mixture of black and white boys and girls from a variety of backgrounds.

When I shadowed a 7th grade African-American girl in this school, our day began with mathematics. Using an overhead projector, the teacher taught measurement and, later in the semester, angles--acute, obtuse, equilateral, isosceles, and scalene. She ended her classes with time for students to begin their homework, with a little soft music as background. Toward the end of the semester, she had a two-day "Math Olympics."

The second class was reading, where students read and discussed stories from anthologies. (I helped the teacher put covers on the books to protect them.) Later in the semester, they read and listened to, then acted out, a rendition of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

The third class of the day was art, and in December, students were focused on making decorations for a "best holiday classroom door" contest. They were cutting, drawing, and sketching in small groups. One boy talked with me while he drew a good likeness of Ebenezer Scrooge, asking if I had children and where I worked. Toward the end of the class, I helped the teacher make envelopes, so that students could save their work for the next day.

Then came physical education, where students encouraged me to engage in stretching and running activities with them. (The student I was shadowing did 60 pushups, according to a progress chart.) During transitions from one activity to another, some of the others practiced back handsprings, cartwheels, double-rope jumping, and basketball.

At fifth-period lunch, I talked and ate with several teachers who belonged to what is called "The Dream Team." These five core-academic teachers, together with the "inclusion" teacher, meet every day to plan engaging activities for the students. On the basis of what they call "the three A's"--academics, attendance, and attitude--the Dream Team treats six "students of the month" (and, on one occasion, me) to brunch at a nearby restaurant.

Back in sixth-period social studies, the students paged through atlases to examine maps of Iraq (then in the news) and other countries, including the United States. On other days, they completed assignments relating to the dictionary, current events, and the U.S. Constitution.

In science class, students took part in a variety of hands-on activities relating to measurement and the classification of objects such as cylinders, cubes, diamonds, boxes, squares, rectangles, and columns. Their homework included finding articles on science in newspapers and magazines.

The last class of the day was English. Working in semicircles, students revised autobiographies they had written earlier. They also studied the kinds of sentences--declarative, interrogative, imperative, and exclamatory--for their homework assignment. On other days, they discussed concrete and sensory details in paragraphs.

What else did I learn in this school, whose parking-lot entrance requires knowledge of a four-digit code in order for the school door to open?

I observed the goodwill, decency, and humor of children and teachers working in a building with rooms that were stifling in September and freezing in December.

I learned that the children work in classrooms where most of the clocks don't work. Where many of the chairs and desks are broken. Where most of the books and materials are old and worn. Where only a handful of out-of-date computers are available in the library and a few other rooms. Where the wiring may not be up to date enough to support many more computers. Where paint is peeling and ceilings look water-damaged.

I learned also about parents who want the best for their children. One such parent came to a meeting of the Dream Team I attended. She was eager to get the teachers' side of her child's story. Each team member took three minutes to explain that student's absences, tardinesses, missing homework. The parent was stunned. She and the teachers then considered concrete ways to help her daughter focus on school.

After the parent left, another student came in. She had been invited because the team was concerned about her and, in succession, each team member talked to her about homework, absences, tardinesses. They asked the girl how they could help her more in school and offered to tutor her after school--even adding that, if she missed the bus because of this, they would drive her home. I was told these meetings with students and parents took place weekly.

But I also learned about other kinds of adults in these children's lives: About a child who was stabbed by her mother 18 times one weekend. About a girl who told me she goes to sleep after midnight every night because of the fierce noise outside her windows--"drug selling and gunshots," she said. About a boy who was being sexually attacked by bullies as he went to and from school and landed in a hospital. After school one day, a teacher took him get-well cards that his classmates had created.

For many children, I learned, an inner-city school is an oasis. They come to a school that is clean, neat, and orderly. They have teachers with high expectations of them. On blackboards and bulletin boards they read a barrage of messages on values: Study Smarter. Go For It! Make the World a Better Place. Be Cheerful. Spread Sunshine Everyday. Save a Space for Rainbows and Dreams. Studying Can Make It Happen. If You Believe It, You Can Achieve It. Everyone Smiles in the Same Language.

They see parent-volunteers helping in a newly painted parent center at the school. Several times each day, they hear the principal reminding them to give "110 percent effort." They feel the warmth from teachers who give hugs and home phone numbers to students who have to transfer to other schools because of circumstances beyond their control.

I observed the goodwill, decency, and humor of children and teachers working in a building with rooms that are stifling in September and freezing in December. It was so cold one winter day that my hands were shaking as I turned the pages of an encyclopedia while students completed an assignment on biographies in the school library. Everyone was wearing coats. The wind blew in around the doors and windows. It was even worse in the art room. There, I actually shivered, and many of the students, some mumbling under their breath about the cold, wore hats and coats while painting and washing their hands in freezing water.

The U.S. General Accounting Office has reported that public school buildings in Ohio are in the worst condition of all the schools in the United States.

On my last day--after Hanukkah and before Christmas and Kwanzaa--I stopped in to say good-bye and thank the principal. Though he has an open-door policy and regularly visits all parts of the school, at that moment he was in a meeting in his office with the door closed. So I wrote a note for him and left it with someone at the front office. Then I walked outside to a cold but bright winter day. The sun was shining, even though snow was beginning to fall.


Allen Berger is the Heckert professor of reading and writing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He was on sabbatical leave during the fall term of this year and wishes to thank the teachers and staff members of the Cincinnati public schools for their insights and inspiration.

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