Equity & Diversity

A War Of Attrition

By David Ruenzel — August 01, 1998 25 min read
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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.”

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 Niño 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.”

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.”
Schmookler came back to the West Coast for his teacher training, doing a 5th 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, first as a student at Berkeley High and then as a hall monitor there after graduating. He had been a natural at that job, able to defuse tense situations with a cagey humor backed by a toughness he called upon only as a last resort.

But he quickly learned at McClymonds that his youth and street smarts could only carry him so far. Teacher heroes popularized in the movies and on TV--the Jaime Escalantes and LouAnne Johnsons--are 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 characterized by 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 never gets around to filling all the teacher vacancies at McClymonds, even in the core subjects. When qualified teachers aren’t available, and they often aren’t, long-term substitutes--many of them not inclined to do much teaching--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. “It’s the Vietnam mentality,” Schmookler says. “ ‘Don’t talk to me; I don’t want to get to know you because I’m not sure how long you’ll be around.’ The older teachers don’t think the younger ones will stay, 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 constant turnover contributes to a crushingly low morale that undermines almost any sense of collegiality among the faculty. 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. You arrive each morning with the energy to accomplish something and then discover a certain kind of unwarranted tension. Over time, you begin to wonder if you’re remaining steadfast to a vision or making a fool of yourself. Just what, you ask yourself, am I doing here? If you really do feel that way, you need to think about moving on.”

If the high rate of teacher turnover is hard for the adults in the school, it is devastating for the students. It can take a year or more for young people, especially those living amid poverty and violence, to develop trust and respect for a teacher. Students take it personally when a teacher they have rapport with suddenly leaves.

Willie Hamilton, who taught at McClymonds for seven years before becoming its principal, laments the fact that he must replace about one-third of his teachers every year. “When there’s that kind of instability, the kids begin to ask themselves, Why bond?” Hamilton says. “As the year goes on, they’ll nervously start asking you if you’re coming back. If you tell them you’re not, they take it very hard, very personally, even if you’re leaving to take on another challenge. And they always blame themselves. ‘Are we that bad?’ they’ll ask. ‘Do you really not like us?’ They’re like kids whose parents divorce; they always accept the blame.”

When I ask Schmookler what it would take to get more talented young teachers to come to schools like McClymonds and stay awhile, he says, “More money would help.” But after mulling over the question a moment, he admits that more money by itself wouldn’t really fix the problem. What’s really needed, he says, is a two-pronged approach: Schools of education need to attract and train bright teacher candidates, and then districts need to develop effective evaluation and coaching systems to nurture promising novices and counsel incompetent ones into other lines of work.

“The problem is that the district doesn’t have a real teacher-evaluation system in place,” Schmookler says. “So promising teachers get little help honing the craft, and bad teachers, once hired, stick around forever.”

Claude Joffiah believes that collaboration could be the lifeline that saves a teaching career. “We need to come together, share what we’re seeing in our classrooms, and see if we can’t come up with some new ideas,” he says.

A 1996 report by the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future reached similar conclusions. What Matters Most details successful efforts by states and urban districts to recruit and retain teachers. It describes a program in North Carolina that has awarded $20,000 college scholarships to some 4,000 top high school graduates. In exchange, the students agree to teach for four years in the state’s public schools. Though the program proved a successful recruiting tool, it did next to nothing to support the new teachers once they entered the profession. When state officials saw that many were quitting after a year or two in the classroom, they added a strong mentoring component. Now the novices work under the tutelage of experienced veterans.

As part of an induction program in Cincinnati, rookies receive intensive day-to-day assistance from “expert” teachers. Unlike most mentoring programs, these experts are also responsible for evaluating the newcomers. At the end of the year, they recommend whether the young teacher should continue in the classroom or find something else to do.

The New Haven school district, a short drive from Oakland, has made recruiting and keeping minority teachers a top priority. The poor urban district, which encompasses Hayward and Union City, has “stolen” some of Oakland’s best new teachers by offering higher salaries and support. “Teachers are the resource that is going to make or break your schools,” says New Haven assistant superintendent Jim O’Laughlin. “You can’t just drop new people in without systemic support or they simply won’t stay. We developed a support program for new teachers and assigned each one a veteran partner teacher. It’s helped us achieve a five-year retention rate of 95 percent.”

Schmookler is convinced that these kinds of resources and supports would ease the frustration that drives many young teachers from the profession. But it won’t, he says, ease their creeping awareness that many students are simply beyond their reach.

“What takes its toll,” he says, “is seeing kids quit. Day after day, they’ll just do no work. You try everything; you plead, beg, lecture--but nothing works. I don’t see how anyone can do this job for 30 years, though a few do.” Here Schmookler pauses for a moment, and then he adds, “Maybe if I could keep track of them all day, I would succeed more. I’d reach a few more, but not all.”

Although clearly frustrated with his students’ rotten attitudes, Schmookler refuses to blame them--or to take personally the hostility many direct toward him. “When you look at their personal histories, you understand why they act as they do,” he says. And those histories, Schmookler explains, have much to do with the surrounding community and its history.

In the early 20th century, West Oakland was an industrial stronghold and the end of the line for the transcontinental railroad. African Americans considered it a good place to live and work, even calling it “the Athens of the American West.” Many black men worked as Pullman porters--a relatively well-paid, esteemed job. Jazz and blues took root, and the city exuded the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance. On Sunday mornings, families would leave their frilly Victorians--many of them now boarded up or demolished--and stroll to church.

West Oakland began an inexorable decline after World War II as cars and trucks rendered the railroads increasingly superfluous. The construction of the Cypress Expressway in the 1950s didn’t help matters; it roared through the heart of the city. Later, some of the community’s most vibrant blocks were razed to make room for a sprawling postal distribution facility.

In 1966, radicals Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the militant Black Panther Party and set up headquarters in West Oakland. The Panthers rallied the community, launching a free-meal program for kids, organizing tenants, and preaching the gospel of self-determination. The eventual demise of the Panthers in many ways epitomized the dissolution of West Oakland. In 1988, Newton was murdered during a crack deal under the Cypress Expressway.

“A lot of West Oakland parents were in the Black Panther movement,” says Schmookler. “But they’re obviously no longer doing what they need to be doing. A lot of them got caught up with crack cocaine.”

These days, West Oakland is experiencing something of a comeback. The Oakland port is flourishing, and the economic boom of the larger San Francisco Bay area has brought new industry and housing to the area. Still, West Oakland continues to have more than its share of roving teenagers and street hustlers, some of them McClymonds dropouts. Schmookler and his fellow teachers spot them on the street corners as they drive to and from school.

“Sure, I see them around,” Claude Joffiah says. “They tell me their reasons for dropping out of school are economic. Their role models are out on the street chasing big bucks, hustling. That’s what the kids think it takes to make it in America.”

The way society’s most affluent citizens view poor kids like these perturbs Schmookler. Their attitude, he says, is: “ ‘If only these people just worked a little harder, stopped doing drugs, drinking, and hanging out, they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps.’ To me, this way of thinking is a joke. Everyone doesn’t succeed in the best of circumstances, so how can you expect them to succeed in the worst of circumstances? I’m not going to blame the victim for being the victim. My kids didn’t decide to get born in West Oakland.

“If they feel alienated from mainstream society, it’s sure not because they have made that choice. Why would you decide not to have any hope? Why would you decide to live in an area where people get killed, do drugs, hang out on the corner drinking? No one decides that’s the way they want to live unless they’ve been so brainwashed that that’s all they know. It’s like war veterans. Do you think they went into battle wanting to kill people? No, they didn’t. But after a while, they grew accustomed to it. It’s a corrosion of life.”

Living in West Oakland colors Schmookler’s students’ views on almost everything. White people, with whom they have next to no contact, are instinctively mistrusted. During the summer of 1997, Schmookler ran a McClymonds school-to-work internship program. He would drive from one work site to the next to see how his students were faring. One day, a few students working for the highway department told him that they were “black prisoners” and that their white employers were racist. It turned out that someone at a job site had put this idea in their heads, telling the boys that they were doing “shit work for $5 an hour.” Schmookler reproached them, explaining that it wasn’t going to do them a bit of good to charge the department with racism. He told them that they had better concentrate on doing a good job. But it didn’t sink in. The students were prone to believe almost anything bad regarding whites.

Schmookler understands this attitude and says his students can hardly be blamed for seeing their world in the context of a white conspiracy. “Just reverse the situation,” he explains. “If you lived in West Oakland and everyone was white and poor, and everyone black lived in the hills and drove nice cars, wouldn’t you think something was wrong? Wouldn’t you have animosity toward these people? Wouldn’t you try to justify the position you find yourself in? Especially when the only thing you can break down for certain is the color of your skin?”

I had told Schmookler I wanted to see him and his students in action, so he invited me to sit in on his second-period American history class one day early last spring. As the students found their seats, Schmookler returned tests from the day before, dispensing both praise and admonishment. About half the students had passed. One girl celebrated when she saw her grade: “I got a 75,” she proclaimed. “A 75!” Among the failures, there was little more than token protest.

But one student was clearly irked. She held up her test and said to Schmookler, “Look, I did the essay section, and you still failed me.”

“That’s not an essay,” he explained. “Those are notes you copied from the board.”

“Oh,” she said, foiled.

It amazes Schmookler how many of his students, even those with the most dismal academic records, think they are going on to big things after high school. When he asks them what they intend to do, many tell him that they plan to go to college. Their GPAs are 1.0, 1.5, maybe 2.0, but still they’re planning to go to the University of California.

When he explains that they won’t get in, they get defensive and ask why he’s being so negative. “I’m not telling you that, the college is telling you that,” he explains. “It has admissions requirements you have to meet.”

Still, the students refuse to believe. They have an infinite capacity for deceiving themselves. “My students may not care much about citizenship, but they believe in the American dream and the pursuit of happiness,” Schmookler says. “For them, the American dream isn’t about going off to vote but to make money. My kids very much want to make money. Do they know how to do it? No.”

Even so, Schmookler sees energy and native intelligence in many of his students, and he wonders what would happen if he could tap into those qualities. As it is, he is trying to teach them how to read a textbook, write a paragraph, and behave in class. With each passing school year, they sink further behind. And yet there are times when they perform capably--even admirably--in class.

After the students examined their grades, Schmookler launched into a review of the test. “How did Social Darwinism fit into Manifest Destiny?” Schmookler asked.

“If you’re white and think everyone else is inferior to you, it’s pretty easy to think it’s your destiny to expand everywhere,” said the girl who was thrilled to get the 75. “That’s how they could justify taking over Hawaii.”

Schmookler wanted to know how Theodore Roosevelt justified sending troops to the Dominican Republic. “By extending the Monroe Doctrine,” a boy named Jamal explained. As the discussion continued, Jamal offered his thoughts on a number of subjects. When the conversation turned to cultural bias, he provided an example: “Like when ghetto kids are asked suburban questions on the SAT.” Later, when the subject of colonialism came up, he provided a definition for missionary: “someone who tries to get you to be a Christian instead of a Buddhist.” Jamal was clearly smart.

Earlier in the year, Schmookler had thought Jamal might be college material, so he checked the boy’s academic record. His GPA was exactly 0.

Like most good teachers, Schmookler combines workhorse persistence with bursts of thoroughbred flair. I watched him drive his students with a string of questions--"Why did the U.S. government put a quota on Japanese immigrants but let in droves of Russians?” “Why did certain attitudes toward the Japanese surface in World War II and again in the 1980s?"--and then break into a rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

A little later, he asked the students if they knew who the “bad guys” were in World War II.

“The Jews,” a student said earnestly.

“No,” Schmookler said. “Let me explain. . . .”

When I first met Schmookler in the summer of 1997, moving on was the furthest thing from his mind. He was committed to teaching at McClymonds for the long haul. A year later, however, his resolve had worn thin. He was thinking about becoming a dean, perhaps at another school. “I don’t like doing the same thing year after year,” he said at the close of the 1997-98 school year. “It’s just not my nature.”

While that may be true, there was no denying that the last two months of the school year had taken a toll on Schmookler. First, one of his mentors, principal Willie Hamilton, had to leave his job for medical reasons. With Hamilton’s departure, McClymonds again teetered on the brink of chaos.

Then, in late spring, Schmookler was attacked by a student. He had confronted a group of youngsters smoking marijuana on campus, and one of them came at him throwing punches. The attack itself was no big deal, Schmookler told me; he had the student by 150 pounds and easily subdued him. What disturbed him at the time, and continued to bother him, was the fact that neither the acting principal nor any other administrator at the school would take any action. Only after Schmookler wrote letters to the superintendent and school board members was the student finally suspended.

When I talked to Schmookler in late June, he sounded down. His future at McClymonds was uncertain. Only half of his 120 students had made it through the class with a passing grade.

“There will always be a few teachers who will stay no matter what,” he told me. “But the rest will go; they won’t tolerate it. They’re going to ask themselves, What the hell am I doing here? Why am I spending all of this time hitting my head against the wall?’'

I asked Schmookler what it would take to turn McClymonds around and make it an appealing place to work. “A strong principal like Mr. Hamilton,” Schmookler said. “A dedicated central administration that can get teachers everything they need. A consistent discipline plan. Is all of that going to happen? Right now, it doesn’t look good.”

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