Response to Turning the Tide

July 31, 2007

“Can a strict policy turn the tide?”

This question was posed on the front page of Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, in regards to the recent, highly publicized teacher attacks in the School District of Philadelphia.  As a former School District of Philadelphia teacher, my answer to the question is an emphatic No!

While stricter punishments for student violence, such as suspensions and expulsions may temporarily calm classrooms, it would merely prove to be a Band-Aid solution to the gushing wound that is the infrastructure of the School District of Philadelphia’s educational and disciplinary system.

Drastic changes need to be made, but this will only come when school district leaders and the public name and claim the reality of the School District of Philadelphia, and put selfish political motives aside.  Ultimately, we must choose to act out of compassion in hopes of advancing the social and educational lives of all our city’s children.

A safe, nurturing education – which should be the right of every American child – is far from reality for most of our city’s children.  Violent, disruptive children run rampant in city schools, destroying the education and morale of far too many students.

These students need to be removed from classrooms and schools, but a stricter policy of suspensions and expulsions will not “turn the tide.”  Only when a structural overhaul takes place will the majority of our city’s children be provided the educational experience they deserve.

When I taught in the School District of Philadelphia, a typical classroom consisted of a little over thirty students.  On average, each class had six to eight children whose respect and cooperation were unconditional regardless of their classmates’ behavior.  And, on average, each class had two to three students who I found nearly unreachable.  These children tended to be disrespectful, unbelievably disruptive in class, and often violent towards their classmates and teachers.

That left approximately two-thirds of each class somewhere in the middle.  This group’s behavior was often dictated by the tone of the three behavioral problems.  If they were in a class led by a veteran teacher who had good classroom management skills, then their environment was normally stable and they would cooperate.  But with the great turnover of School District of Philadelphia teachers, they were more often under the tutelage of inexperienced, or unfamiliar teachers.  Thus, the small percentage of uncooperative students would create an environment not conducive to learning and a majority shift towards disorder would ensue.

Under the current school district disciplinary system, the most challenging students are expelled several times/year. In turn, several times each year, rambunctious classrooms temporarily settle.  But inevitably, within a few weeks, the vacancies created by expelled students are filled by children who have been removed from different schools.

At first, the new students enter class demonstrating good behavior, but this gradually deteriorates in the ensuing weeks, until the children take over the violent, disruptive voids left behind by the originally expelled students.  Only after multiple expulsions – and sometimes not even then – is a student forced to enter a reform school.  These correctional schools are filled to capacity and no doubt lack the resources to meet the children’s needs.  Simply put, there is a surplus of students with behavioral problems and more correctional schools need to be built to ensure the safety of teachers and students all over the city.

Students who bounce from school to school, destroying their classmates’ education and alienating their teachers with disrespect, and sometimes violence, come by their behavior honestly.  They are often neglected and abused.  Life has been unfair to these children and their anger plays out in classrooms every day across the city.  These children need more structure and positive attention than anyone else, yet they rarely – if ever - receive it. Class sizes over 30 hardly allow it.

No politician or employee high up in the School District of Philadelphia bureaucracy will admit that more disciplinary schools are needed, because they know that in doing so, they’d be committing political suicide.  But wouldn’t more correctional schools geared towards rehabilitating these hardship children make sense?

The School District of Philadelphia should be removing violent students from its schools, and getting those children the help they need in a super-structured environment. This would allow the vast majority of cooperative children the opportunity to learn.

Reform schools don’t need to be cruel traps that children aren’t able to climb out of.  Instead, they should be safe havens to work through their problems until they’re socially and emotionally ready to return to regular public schools.  A well-funded system of neighborhood and correctional schools, with manageable class sizes would maximize the education of all School District of Philadelphia children.

In the process, our children’s entire image of school would change.  Teachers wouldn’t feel as strained and thus be able to address all their students’ needs better.  These children, who are saturated with noise and violence in their neighborhoods every day would come to know school as a safe, stable environment.  Slowly, their shells of hostility would start peeling away.

Sadly, this is unlikely to ever happen.  If a mayoral, or School District of Philadelphia CEO candidate, says that they are in favor of creating more reform schools, their opposition will brand them inhumane and rout them on election day.

Emblazoned on the School District of Philadelphia website are the words “No Excuses.”  While expressions like this make for good propaganda, anyone aware of School District of Philadelphia realities knows that children have a multitude of reasons that they might not be getting a good education.