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A War Of Attrition

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African Americans are joining the teaching ranks in growing numbers, but many quit within the first few years. Will Oakland's Ben Schmookler stick it out?

Ben Schmookler began teaching at West Oakland's McClymonds High School three years ago, when he was 25 and right out of college. On an average day, eight of the 30 or so students enrolled in his American history and world culture courses would attend class. The rest were no-shows. During lessons, Schmookler would often see troops of AWOL kids roaming the hallways of the nondescript, three-story school. "Excuse me," he'd say, standing up straight, his ever-present tie flattened to his chest, "but you need to be in class." The standard response was "Fuck you."

"That's real clever," Schmookler would tell them. "Now would you care to repeat those words?" Usually, they wouldn't. Years of working construction had given his six-foot, four-inch frame an intimidating bulk. As for the coarse language, Schmookler knew the kids were just posturing, "barking like my dog," as he puts it. The teenagers who were really tough, the ones who ruled the streets of one of California's toughest cities, rarely came to school. And when they did, they hardly spoke to teachers. For them, school was a sanctuary, a relatively safe place to hide out. Why would they make trouble?

The following year, things began to improve at McClymonds. A new principal--the school had gone through six in as many years--brought some stability to what Schmookler says had been a "romper room." On his first day, the principal, a dignified, soft-spoken man named Willie Hamilton, told the assembled student body, without a trace of irony, that he wanted McClymonds to be the best school in the district. The students snickered. But over time, a few, and then a few more, bought into Hamilton's mantra that "Mac is on the move." Vandalism ceased; gangs were exiled.

Still, set in a neighborhood known for its poverty and anarchic violence, McClymonds remained a school on the edge. General attendance continued to be a problem throughout the 1996-97 school year, but there were signs of improvement. Some 15 juniors regularly attended Schmookler's American history classes. What's more, he felt he was finally commanding some measure of respect. The students no longer tried to run him out of class. Some even seemed to like him, though they'd never admit it. Most called him "Mr. Schmookler." A few, with a hint of avuncularity, called him "Schmook."

Schmookler continued to work on the truancy problem. Every morning, he would phone the homes of the students who were absent from first period. Sometimes drowsy parents would chastise Schmookler for waking them up--some even complained to the school office--but other times the truant kids would actually show up at school, at least for a few days.

Schmookler did not take the job at McClymonds expecting to find future Rhodes scholars. He had grown up in the Berkeley flats, just a few miles north of West Oakland, so he knew what he was getting into. He'd heard the numbers: Of the 300 freshmen entering McClymonds each fall, roughly 50 end up graduating. The all-school grade-point average is around 1.5. This year, on the Stanford 9 achievement tests, 10th graders scored in the 12th percentile in reading and the 19th percentile in math.

Still, Schmookler never doubted that he could teach the students at McClymonds, and gradually he did, in punchy repartee the students responded to. During the 1997-98 school year, his third at the school, as many as 20 students--well over 50 percent of those on his daily rolls--attended his classes regularly. Some even took notes and participated in class discussions. Their attitude toward him, Schmookler says with a laugh, was "He's an asshole, but I'll put up with him."

I didn't go to teach in the inner city because everything was hunky-dory and I could have a nice time teaching the Constitution.

Ben Schmookler,
McClymonds High School

For Schmookler, this was progress. "Look," he told me last fall over a latte at an Oakland coffeehouse, "I didn't go to teach in the inner city because everything was hunky-dory and I could have a nice time teaching the Constitution. It's not like these kids are going to read a chapter, write a short paper, and then have this nice little discussion in class. When these kids go home, most of them won't do any homework, period, no matter what you do. There are kids here who sleep on the floor and even--this is the truth--in the bathtub."

But more and more of his students were doing homework. And many of those who weren't felt compelled, perhaps out of some sense of shame, to offer excuses, albeit typical schoolkid ones: "You sent me out of class when the assignment was given." "I was sick that day." "You didn't give us enough time to complete it." One kid even claimed that "El NiƱo got my essay."

When the alibis didn't work, most kids just shrugged off the consequences. But not all. One day, a boy who'd skipped school to attend an athletic event raised a ruckus when he got his grade on the missed assignment. "You flunked me!" he bellowed at Schmookler.

Schmookler turned on the boy with righteous indignation: "No, you flunked me by not coming through!" he said. "Who needed the grade--you or me? Did I take your book? Did I take your homework away? What are you going to do when you have to go to work? Are you going to take off whenever you want to?"

Chastened, the student sat down. "I'd reschedule," he said quietly, "make sure someone could take my place."

"There you go," Schmookler said.

At that moment, a boy walked through the classroom door. Schmookler looked at him with a shrug. "Where have you been the last few months?" he asked.

"Thinking," the boy said, taking a seat.

The teacher just stared at the kid, shaking his head. He couldn't bring himself to say a single word.

Young, African American, and male, Ben Schmookler is a rare commodity in public education. Despite the fact that more than one-third of America's schoolchildren are now minorities, an overwhelming majority of teachers are white. In fact, 70 percent are white women. Only 13 percent are minority. Some 16 percent of the nation's public school population is African American, but only 7 percent of its teaching force.

Such disparities mean that minority teachers, particularly African American teachers, are in great demand. According to David Haselkorn, executive director of the Belmont, Massachusetts-based Recruiting New Teachers, an organization dedicated to bringing talented young people into the profession, more than 90 percent of the nation's districts need minority teachers.

And that need will only grow. Over the next decade, the nation's schools will have to sign up some 2 million new teachers. "California alone will have to hire 260,000 to 300,000 new teachers in the next 10 years," Haselkorn says. "And California is a microcosm of the need the rest of the country is going to feel. We've got rapidly rising enrollments on one hand, massive numbers of impending teacher retirements on the other, as well as popular initiatives like class-size reduction. Plus, we've got unacceptably high levels of attrition in urban schools."

African American enrollment in teacher-training programs jumped an astonishing 39 percent between 1989 and 1995.

Still, Haselkorn points out, there is some cause for hope. The number of minority students enrolling in teacher-preparation programs has begun to rise for the first time in decades. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through most of the '80s, the number of African American students interested in becoming teachers plummeted, as other more lucrative professions opened their doors to blacks. But 20 percent of the students now preparing to be teachers are minorities, Haselkorn says, up from 15 percent just a few years ago. African American enrollment in teacher-training programs jumped an astonishing 39 percent between 1989 and 1995.

The reasons for the surge can be traced in part to salary improvements, intensified recruitment efforts, and a renewed societal respect for teachers and teaching. Haselkorn has also noticed a shift among young people "from an individualistic to a communitarian ethic." A new generation of teachers, he says, is eager to work in those communities most in need.

Unfortunately, the story doesn't end there. As it turns out, most of these eager young teachers aren't prepared for what they find. Even the most idealistic and committed quickly get devoured and leave. "In urban schools, we lose 50 percent of all teachers within five years," Haselkorn says. "Think of that figure in military terms. If we were to accept that many casualties, it would be a disaster."

Frederick Frelow, assistant director of the urban initiative for the influential National Commission on Teaching and America's Future, says anecdotal evidence suggests an even more ominous figure: 50 percent of new urban teachers leave within their first two years on the job. Says Frelow, "If you take a school of 1,000 high-poverty students, many of whom have chips on their shoulders, and put in a green teacher who's going to have a hard time learning all of the students' names, what do you think is going to happen, especially if that teacher is isolated within the school, as is almost always the case? Well, the kids are going to run the roost. They know they can get away with almost anything if it's just them and a single teacher with no real support behind him."

Coincidentally, Frelow grew up in West Oakland. His father even attended McClymonds High School. The school, Frelow says, has always had a tough reputation. "You've got a culture at McClymonds that has been allowed to develop over 30 years," he says. "It's beyond the power of any one person to change it. The school system, not the individual, has the responsibility to set things right."

Ben Schmookler has a favorite line from Booker T. Washington: "Cast down your buckets where you are." That's pretty much what he did when he took the job at McClymonds.

The adopted son of white activists who divorced when he was young, Schmookler was one of six children, the self-described "rowdiest," always in trouble. His troublemaking continued at Berkeley High School, where he was an indifferent, wise-cracking student. "I just didn't see the point of school," he says. "If it weren't for the pressure of my parents, I don't think I would have made it through."

He did well enough at Berkeley High to get into Howard University, in Washington, D.C., where he graduated in 1994 with a political science degree. "I thought a lot about becoming a lawyer while I was in college," Schmookler recalls. "But a lot of us would get together and talk about helping our people, and I realized that becoming a lawyer just wasn't going to do it. And so I decided to teach."

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