I am an educator with more than 13 years experience in public schools. Prior to moving back to my hometown, Louisville, KY, I worked in the metro DC area, specifically in the Alexandria City public schools and then for Fairfax County public schools.
While I can assure you that no large public school district is perfect, JCPS is so far in the opposite direction that I am embarrassed for my hometown. My children attended TC Williams High School in Alexandria, VA…made famous by the fictional movie, “Remember the Titans!” Whatever you want to believe about strides made in desegregation and race relations in Louisville, I can guarantee you that racism exists in JCPS, and an example of that is Wheatley ES, a west end school with an almost completely black student body. It is a school that is essentially segregated. We have a building which is old and in disrepair. We have old, outdated technology, and our library has never been updated, though it has been due for renovation for years. We have a principal who is young and too inexperienced to handle the challenges our school faces, and only 17% of our students are on grade level.
Before you think that the problem lies in sub par teaching, I want to tell you that I have great admiration for my colleagues. They are excellent teachers who fight the good fight daily with little or no support from an administration who does not know what to do to improve the situation. Our students come from severely disadvantaged homes. Many are refugees from war-torn Somalia who suffer from PTSD. Others are children who are crack babies, fetal alcohol syndrome babies, abused, neglected, and malnourished. Many of my students have parents in jail, drug addicted parents, or parents whom they don’t even know. The emotional trauma that these students have already encountered has taken a heavy toll on their ability to focus and learn. They are so consumed with survival that they cannot take on reading, writing and arithmetic.
Due to these unexaggerated realities, the students at Wheatley have severe emotional behavioral disabilities. The most severe students cause constant disruptions that prevent the other students in a class from learning. Teachers find themselves so consumed with keeping kids safe that little teaching and learning takes place. Students are unable to focus and stay on task when they feel so unsafe.
As you know, it is difficult to get parents on board to have their children receive services. It is my understanding that more of Wheatley’s students receive services this year than before thanks to the addition of another counselor to our staff. However, the school environment is unhealthy and non conducive to learning. In fact, at least 7 teachers have quit the school since the beginning of the year. One of our 3 fifth grade classes lost 2 teachers since August due to the behavior of the students. After the second teacher quit, the students were divided up and half were added to one fifth grade class while the others joined a fourth grade class. The result is that in a school which already has unruly student behavior, we now have two classes of nearly 30 students…and these are the worst behaved students in the building!
My principal tells me that no support can be added to the classrooms beyond what we already have due to budget cuts from last year. If JCPS truly wants its students to learn then we need to think outside of the box to get more educators into buildings with severe emotionally challenged students so that the student teacher ratio is much smaller.
However, the way that the superintendent wants to do that…by relocating teachers from east end schools will fail. Those teachers will simply quit, as so many of our staff already have, if forced to contend with the daily abuse we endure from these students.
Last week, after yet another failed class period with fourth graders exhibiting hostile behavior in my class (I am a special areas teacher), I asked one of our counselors why I should not just quit. Every day I feel like I am trying to teach in front of 6 firing squads of angry children. I put a tremendous amount of thought and effort into developing appropriate and engaging lessons with which the students will connect. I am not a novice teacher, but have more than used up my bag of tricks to handle unruly children. These children simply are not ready to learn because they are too consumed with survival.
My only recourse is to write up a behavior referral in Infinite campus and call for an SRT. Unfortunately there are not enough SRTs in my building to handle the continuous need. Behavior referrals are ineffective because in the end a student cannot truly be suspended beyond a certain number of days, and I assure you that the worst behaved children never miss a day of school. Further, writing referrals takes time at my computer, and dealing with behaviors takes both my hands as well as my full concentration. Often, I never get around to writing the referrals…so they go undocumented. By the way, the behaviors I am talking about are not disrespectful language and cursing. That is a daily continuous behavior. I am talking about threats, fights, throwing chairs, screaming, etc.
I apologize that this letter will come across as disorganized and poorly written. However, I want you to understand how truly difficult the environment at Wheatley is. Many teachers are planning to transfer or leave the profession at the end of the year, and the same thing happened last year. The district needs to come in and experience a week in the life at Wheatley. We are in crisis! The teachers who have been here the longest tell me that Wheatley was not always like this, and I would love to see Wheatley be a successful school again.
Please come visit us. But don’t; just pop in and pop out. Walk the halls, stop into special area classes, as well as the grade level classrooms. Talk to parents, teachers and staff members. We need your attention and help!
UPDATE: Dear JCPS received this comment from a teacher in response to this letter:
I have taught in several school systems for a number of years, recently retired, and am now substituting. In my own classroom, I have run a tight ship, that is, expecting that children spend their school hours on task and learning while treating all with kindness and respect. In my current position of substitute, I have the same expectations.
I subbed recently at Wheatley in a special area class, which means I taught 6 home room classes that day. I can tell you that everything the writer of the Wheatley letter says is true. Children came into the classroom and immediately began shouting out disrespectful comments to me and other students, refused to move seats if I asked them to, and a few refused to even sit down and walked or ran around the classroom at will, two jumping upon and running across table tops. Two even left the classroom and began running up and down the hall. When I attempted to stop these behaviors, students, even young children, ignored or shouted at me, refusing to comply. Remember, I have been around the block and have a bag of tricks. They were useless. I was and am appalled at behavior that seems to be acceptable because students get by with it. Teachers have no alternatives but to live with it. Then other students see them get by with it, and begin modeling that behavior. The students in my classes that day who sat ready to learn didn’t have a chance.
Board members and administration need not only to come into the building, but to come in as guest teachers to truly understand how severe this situation is. Students who are this severely disruptive need to be placed in situations where there is an 8:1 or less student:adult ratio, both to get them the help they deserve and to allow the other students to learn. Yes, that is expensive, but the children are why we are here. Wheatley needs and deserves funding to work with these children.