War of Attrition

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Ben Schmookler is what nearly every urban school district desperately needs. But how long will he stick around?

Oakland, Calif.

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 featured an obscenity.

"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, McClymonds remained a school on the edge, in a neighborhood known for poverty and violence. Attendance remained a problem throughout 1996-97, but there were signs of improvement. Some 15 juniors regularly attended Schmookler's American history classes. And 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 called him "Schmook."

He worked 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 him for waking them up--some even complained to the school office--but other times the truants 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 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 High each fall, roughly 50 end up graduating. The school grade point average is around 1.5. This past school year, on the Stanford Achievement Test-9th Edition, 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 1997-98, his third year 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.

For Schmookler, this was progress. "Look," he told me one day 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."

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

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 ones: "I was sick that day." "You didn't give us enough time to complete it." One even claimed that "El Nino got my essay."

When the alibis didn't work, most students 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.

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 members of minority groups, 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.

Minority teachers, particularly black teachers, are in great demand. More than 90 percent of U.S. districts need minority teachers, says David Haselkorn, the president of Recruiting New Teachers. The Belmont, Mass.-based nonprofit organization is dedicated to bringing talented young people into the profession.

And that need will only grow. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that, over the next decade, the nation's schools will have to sign up some 2.2 million new teachers. "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," Haselkorn says. "Plus, we've got unacceptably high levels of attrition in urban schools."

Still, Haselkorn adds, 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 more lucrative professions opened their doors to blacks. But 20 percent of the students now preparing to be teachers are members of minority groups, 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 says he 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. 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, an assistant director of the urban initiative for the influential National Commission on Teaching & America's Future, believes the figure is even higher. "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?" he asks. "Well, the kids are going to run the roost."

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."

The adopted son of white activists who divorced when he was young, Ben 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, wisecracking 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."

The problem at McClymonds is that the school culture is characterized by dysfunction and failure.

Schmookler came back to the West Coast for his teacher training, doing a fifth year at California State University-Hayward. Eager to work in the inner city, he had no problem finding a job. He was just the kind of teacher urban districts like Oakland were looking for. Not only was he young, smart, and black, but he also understood the cultural and psychological landscape of the inner city and its young people. Although he himself had not grown up in poverty and isolation, he knew many who had.

But he quickly learned at McClymonds that his youth and street smarts would only carry him so far. Teacher heroes popularized in the movies and on TV--the Jaime Escalantes and LouAnne Johnsons--were not going to ride in and save the day. The crucial factor, Schmookler came to see, was not a handful of charismatic teachers but the entire school culture, the collective enterprise. "The school is more important than the individual teacher," he says. "If you think the teacher is more important, you're going to have a real problem when that teacher moves on. Besides, the impact of any one teacher is limited to the students who are actually taking his or her classes."

The problem at McClymonds, of course, is that the school culture is one of dysfunction and failure. This past March, six months into the school year, the names of two dozen students Schmookler had never seen still appeared on his daily computerized printouts. One morning, a pregnant girl arrived out of the blue during a history lesson. She said her counselor had assigned her to Schmookler's room because she was no longer able to take gym. "That's fine," the teacher told her, "but you'll have to be here on time every day if you're going to stay." The girl seemed dismayed. "Let me go talk with the counselor," she said and disappeared out the door, never to be seen again.

For its part, the Oakland central office doesn't fill all the vacancies at McClymonds, even in the core subjects. When qualified teachers aren't available, and they often aren't, long-term substitutes fill in the gaps for months at a time. "The district sends out fliers advertising openings and calls that recruiting," Schmookler complains. "They don't understand that you've got to go out to find good people. You've got to go to the colleges and teacher preparation programs where the best candidates are."

And then there are the certified teachers, the so-called permanent staff members. On this subject, Schmookler speaks cautiously--he is, after all, a vice president of the local teachers' union--but he sticks his neck out nonetheless. Some of his colleagues, he says, are outstanding teachers. But others, he concedes, don't belong in the profession. One teacher, he says, is late every morning, so late as to miss entire classes. Others manage to get to school on time but do little teaching once they arrive. Some read the newspaper while their classes are in session.

"Teachers can be some of the most mean-spirited people I've ever seen," Schmookler says. "They simply won't accept criticism from their peers. I spend a lot of time in my union position getting due process for teachers who don't really deserve it. How did they ever become teachers? That's what I want to know."

Good and bad alike, most teachers at McClymonds are on short terms of duty. Young teachers, in particular, come and go at a furious rate. Veterans tend to keep their distance from the rookies. "The older teachers don't think the younger ones will stay," Schmookler says, "so they close themselves off in the classroom all day with the kids while the younger ones flounder in a sink-or-swim situation."

The turnover contributes to a crushingly low morale that undermines almost any sense of collegiality. Claude Joffiah, who is a dean and math teacher at the high school, says the "family" metaphor that characterizes some faculties rings hollow at McClymonds. "Isolation inevitably occurs at the school, and this isolation leads to a breakdown of communications," the 44-year-old teacher says. "So you end up doing your own thing, not bothering with anybody else. ... Over time, you begin to wonder if you're remaining steadfast to a vision or making a fool of yourself."

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Pages 32-37

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as War of Attrition
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