The push is on in the district to make the black male feel good about himself. ”It isn’t building self-esteem. This is building insolence and arrogance."
Most public high school instructors in the San Diego Unified School District teach five classes a day, and each class averages about 30 students. Count up all the heads, and the typical teacher deals with 150 kids a day in need of some kind of attention. “Even the sales clerks in Macy’s wait on less people than that,’’comments one instructor. If any place can be called the front line of public education, it is the front of the classroom, or wherever else the teacher happens to be standing.
Or crouching. As a group, teachers tend to adopt a siege mentality, with shields poised for any incoming salvos from parents and administrators. Small wonder they keep such a low media profile. There is the occasional feature on a "special" teacher or a grip-and-grin photo session with politicians, but articles that delve into local educational problems rarely quote the classroom teacher. Complaining to the press or at school board meetings is considered politically stupid. The San Diego Unified School District is not the Soviet Politburo, but according to some teachers, it does bear a striking resemblance.
Disaffected teachers are not, however, a reticent bunch. They air their views in front of their spouses, their friends, and the assembled masses in the faculty lounge. They are willing to speak frankly in print, given the promise of a pseudonym. In a series of interviews this fall, several teachers had a lot to say about their administrators, their students, and each other.
"I feel our schools are a half-inch from anarchy. I’ve been in a rare classroom that teaching can be done.” So spoke Marian Talbot, a high school history teacher with a master’s degree in comparative literature. Talbot has worked as a substitute teacher for seven years, which included several long-term assignments. She likes the job's flexible schedule as well as the variety of classrooms. "Few people have the overview of a substitute teacher,” she says. "We get to see all the schools in action.” But now Talbot has a list of schools she refuses to work in. And that list is growing. “Keiller [a middle school in Southeast San Diego] is the first,” she says. “Nobody wants to go there. The same goes for Gompers and Crawford [both in Southeast]. The worst day I ever had was at Point Loma High School, which is part of the VEIP program [Voluntary Ethnic Integration Program, which buses in minority children]. I sent out seven students to the counselor. I was getting things thrown at me. This class had seven teachers since September. I arrived somewhere around Halloween. None of the substitutes would stay.
”I don’t know why people are surprised that our students are placing 13th, 14th, 15th in the world in math and science. Because in the public school systems — at least in the San Diego Unified school system — you really can’t teach. Largely, it’s because of discipline. In every class, I would say, 85 percent are students who have some semblance of motivation. Thereby you can reach them. Then there's three to seven kids who are total destroyers of the class. There are spitballs, of course. Airplanes. Gang members. Oh, the girls are a caution, too. They come into the class, and they sit down and they open up their satchels. They take out their nail polish and their hair spray and their make-up. They begin doing each other’s hair and their nails, and they put on their lipstick and eye shadow, and when you suggest to them that this is not a beauty parlor, we’d love to teach them some history, they look at you dangerously. Seriously dangerously.
"I’m supposed to send the really bad kids out to the counseling department. Their job is to handle them so I can get on with my teaching. But it doesn’t work that way. That counselor doesn't want to see these students any more than the teacher. These are tough kids. So in many schools, the counselors send them back immediately. Or they come up very truculently and say, ‘You must call home to the parents first before you get in touch with the counselor!’ I’m there for a day, and I’m supposed to call the parents?”
Talbot claims that most of her discipline problems are with minority students, especially blacks. ”I don't know how many times I've been called ‘you fucking white bitch,’ ” she says. One time a student used this expression in front of the entire class. She sent him to the counselor, who returned with the boy for a hallway conference. ‘‘Now she [the counselor] wants to make points with this kid, to be the heroine,” recalls Talbot. "So that makes the teacher into the fall guy. She says, 'Tony’s not usually like this. I don’t know what happened to Tony today. Tony, will you apologize to Mrs. Talbot now?’ So the kid apologizes, and then I say, 'What [else] are you going to do about it? Is he able to call a teacher a white bitch anytime he wishes?’ Her reply is, 'Well, it’s so unusual for him. Let’s give him a second chance.’ So that student saw that he could get away with it, and so did the other students.”
The animosity toward white female teachers is fomented, Talbot believes, by efforts like the African-American Pupil Advocacy Program. This pilot project, in place at four schools, is aimed at improving the self-images of black male students. "I was a civil rights marcher, so no one can lay prejudice at my feet,” she says. “But I’m so weary of Afro-American Day, and Black Week, and shirts saying 'I Am Black' that I could spit. The push is on in the district to make the black male feel good about himself. Mind you, we are sent pictures of Bryant Gumbel as being a hero of sorts.” Talbot questions this emphasis. ” It isn’t building self-esteem,’' she says. “This is building insolence and arrogance. It's divisive.”
In 1988 the San Diego Unified School District increased its number of required courses in hopes of getting more students into college preparatory classes. The common core curriculum, as it is called, has been phased into all of the district high schools. Talbot believes it’s based on the wrong assumption. "Mr. [Thomas] Payzant [school district superintendent] thinks everybody ought to go to college,” she says. "Now that's bigotry! This philosophy says that going to college is more important than being a fine plumber or baker or television repairman or builder. The billions of things that there are to do. But these things are not put on a par with going to college. What is more important in this life than earning a living and feeding your family? So much of the population of our schools has no wish or care or ability or want or motivation to go to college. So what do they do? They’re forced into academic classes that they don't meet the needs of, and visa versa. It doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence. It’s abilities that each of us has. Some students should be in vocational classes. When I was a child, we even had vocational schools. But this is not emphasized in our school system.” Good intentions aside, the common core curriculum program has made few measurable inroads for minorities. An independent researcher, hired by the district to profile 1989-90 high school students, found that blacks and Hispanics are still not taking college prep courses as often or succeeding in them as well as students from other ethnic groups. (District officials note, however, that the common core curriculum was not in place at all the high schools examined.) The same study also found that blacks, and especially Hispanics, drop out of school more often than whites, Indochinese, and Filipinos. The district has tried various strategies to keep “at-risk" students in school. Principals have been ordered to lower their drop-out rates or face unspecified penalties. The result, Talbot thinks, is disharmony in the classroom.
“Ninety percent of the troublemakers in my classroom are the at-risk kids, the so-called disadvantaged kids," she says. “Articles are written lamenting the 27 percent dropout rate [nationwide]. Well, who do you think has to deal with that 27 percent before they drop out? And by me, they should drop out. And whoever else doesn’t want to go to school should drop out. Because that’s the only [way] they'll want in. But word’s out from Mr. Payzant that we should graduate them. We get money [from the state] for each kid enrolled. So we push them through.’’ When asked what teachers typically commiserate over, Talbot says it’s their resentment at having to pass failing students.
At last September’s meeting of the Visiting Teachers Association, more than 30 substitute teachers sat on chilly metal folding chairs and listened to each other’s war stories. Like the school Halloween carnival where a permanent teacher came dressed as a “sub." She was wearing a humpback. Or the students in one classroom who deliberately dropped their copies of a heavy textbook on the floor at the same moment. Or the many classes that begin cheering when a substitute teacher walks in the room.
It was easy for the substitutes to laugh at these recollections on a Saturday morning, surrounded by compatriots. Some of the veterans dispensed advice, such as “Play along with pranks" or “Just give them that teacher stare." But later in the meeting, the tone grew more serious. Officers of the Visiting Teachers Association (which used to be called the Substitute Support Group) discussed the upcoming year’s agenda. Foremost on the list was unionization. If half of the active substitutes are willing to join a union, they can become a bargaining unit under the California Teachers Association umbrella. But in order to contact all the ^substitute teachers, the association needs their names and addresses from the school district office. So far, the district has refused to release its substitutes mailing list, which contains an estimated 1000 to 1500 names.
Another goal of the Visiting Teachers Association is to establish a grievance process. At present, substitute teachers have no avenue of redress against unfair evaluations by principals. And a black mark against a teacher's name can mean no more work in the district. In a membership survey taken by the association last June, substitute teachers mentioned several incidents of unjust accusations. One teacher wrote:
- Several kids in my fourth grade class were out of control. After lunch, one kid in particular would not settle down. After many warnings, I [sent] him to the office with another child. A half-hour later the principal brought him back. [The child] apologized, and then the principal said to me, in front of Michael and the class, "Michael said you squeezed his head. We do not squeeze heads in this school." I said that I had not touched him, and [the principal] repeated himself again. I was horrified that he believed the child and never gave me the chance. The child learned something too.
The survey form, which could be turned in anonymously, gave respondents enough room to make further comments. Many took advantage of both options.
“Most of my days are wasted because of the noise in the room," wrote one substitute. “In many rooms the [teachers’] aides say this is the norm. It’s difficult to remember the worst day, but I think it was the day that a student kicked me and nothing was done about it.' ’ And from another teacher:
- My worst day was at Baker Elementary [near 40th and Logan]. It was a second/third grade that had absolutely no regard for authority. There were fights breaking out in the classroom all day long. Even girls were involved. I called the counselor in several times and finally called the principal in to see how the class [was behaving] when a visiting teacher was present. There was not much improvement. I had never had such a difficult time trying to quiet students down and [maintain] order. We did not have enough pencils for all the kids, which just made the day more stressful and confusing. The students were beyond rude. They were bragging to me that the last sub they had left in tears. I left that day frazzled, weak, and drained. I did try my best, but sometimes I feel it's just not worth the $82.
Mark Miller has been teaching math for 16 years, all of them in inner-city schools. “I'd like to see what the problems are in the white, middle-class neighborhoods,” he says, laughing. But Miller is not joking. He wants out — not from teaching, so much, but from the indifference of his students and their families.
“I called 14 parents in my first period class,” says Miller, recalling a recent attempt to improve his students' attitudes. “I had a change in behavior for a day. But it didn’t really change their [not] doing their homework, and it hasn’t notably changed their behavior in class.
It reinforced why I don’t call parents most of the time. They’ll give you lip service, but they don’t have control of the situation. It’s one of those facts that tell you why inner-city kids don't perform as well."
Few educators will argue with Miller's last statement. Kids from poor neighborhoods often do poorly in school. But where the blame should be placed is always a source of fresh debate. On one end of the continuum are socioeconomic factors which include the family’s influence. On the other end are the schools themselves. Are they sincerely trying to help disadvantaged students? If so, are they using the right methods? Judging from test scores and dropout rates, something’s not working.
Last November the local school board appointed a task force to evaluate yet another approach to the problem. The result may be a switch to what's called a developmental curriculum, at least for some students. Instead of flunking a course or being left back a grade, students would work at their own pace. When they mastered an individualized list of skills, the students would advance to another level. While Miller questions the wisdom of this continuous-progress system, it would certainly remedy one of his more immediate problems.
“For the last quarter, I have 13 Fs out of 36 students," says Miller, looking through his grade book. “Two or three of these [failures] are students who’ve never been to class. And this is the better of my two classes. I’ve lowered my standards over the last ten years, but it doesn’t seem to help. For example, I only require 51 percent [correct answers] for a passing grade on a test. I recently gave students a take-home test and told them they were due the next day. I said I wouldn’t take them after that. Three days later, I had less than 60 percent [returned]. In another class, I had 3 kids out of 25 bring the tests back. And I gave them a week to do it.
“As a teacher, it's probably not political to say this, but more money isn't the most effective way to improve education. The most effective way is to improve the performance of the students by having certain expectations for them. If they don’t meet the expectations, then they have to do something else. If you’re a discipline problem, you go someplace else. You don't interfere with other people's education. If you’re going to be in class, you’re there to learn. Maybe there has to be some alternative. By the tine a kid hits 16, if they don’t want (o be in school, fine, give them someplace else to be. Let them come back in a year or two. All the schools are getting for these kids is ADA Average Daily Attendance, 4 funding formula used by the state], ADA is tremendously important to school districts, but it doesn’t do anything for the kids."
Miller thinks that discipline is much more lax in the inner-city schools ban in other areas. A kid in his school might be orally reprimanded for an incident that would result in suspension m Tierrasanta or University 'City. “I broke up a fight last year where four or five kids had a kid on the ground and were kicking the hell out of him. One of the ones involved was not allowed to graduate with his class. But for something like that, they should have thrown his tail in Juvenile Hall for assault. I know a woman who had a student pull a knife on her. And the kid wasn’t even kicked out of her class! That student should be before the courts."
Some school districts pay higher salaries to teachers working in the “tougher" schools; San Diego Unified does not. In spite of this, some of Miller’s colleagues like the challenge of inner-city schools. But most are angling to get out, according to Miller, and not necessarily to the wealthier parts of town. “I don’t think I'd want to teach in La Jolla,” he says. “I’ve heard that in La Jolla the parents view you like a servant. There's a condescending attitude towards teachers there. The top you can make in this district is $48,000 a year, and when somebody's earning far more than that, you obviously aren’t their equal.”
The most coveted teaching positions, according to Miller, are in predominantly white, middle-class schools like Patrick Henry and Serra High School. But these jobs do not turn up often. If you’re lucky, you’ve got a mole at the school who is also putting in a good word for you. The district’s transfer policy is supposedly based on seniority and qualifications, but according to Miller, it usually comes down to who you know. "The post-and-bid process [to fill open positions] is a farce,” he says. ‘‘[Principals] can write the job description to fit the person they want.”
The opportunities for white males without connections are slim, according to Miller.
"There's very much of a reverse racism present in the district,” he says. “If you’re black, you stick together. You accept things you wouldn’t accept from somebody else. How else has Marie Thornton managed to stay at Gompers? [Thornton, the principal at Gompers, has received wide publicity for her autocratic management style.] I’ve always suspected Marie Thornton went to Gompers because only the black community would put up with her. She's one of their own.”
Miller says he has not experienced racial animosity from his black students. Nor has he noticed much difference, academically or behaviorally, between the minorities and the whites. ”I've had kids from Mission Hills who don’t give a shit about anything,” he says. But the racial conflicts among the staff members are hard to ignore. Miller refers to an article in the San Diego Union that stirred up antagonisms at San Diego High School Located next to City College, downtown). The October 29 article, headlined "Three Black Educators Threaten Bias Suit Against District,” claims that racial discrimination against blacks is system-wide in the San Diego Unified School District. One of the educators, a teacher’s aide at San Diego High, claimed she was fired for defending a black student against a racist white teacher.
According to the newspaper article, a black female student wore a Malcolm X shirt to class, which prompted the teacher to grill her, in front of her classmates, on the history of the militant black leader. Later, the black aide confronted the white teacher and said, "You have been intimidating and harassing African-American students for too long. If you keep this up, I’m going to ride down on your ass worse than the Klan ever rode down on my people.”
Miller once worked with the white teacher and says he heard the other side of the story. “There are a lot of people who are angry about that article,” says Miller, referring to teachers at his school as well as those at San Diego High. "But no one wants to say or do anything because they don’t want to be cast as a racist.” The white teacher in question had a no-nonsense reputation in his dealings with students and staff, according to Miller. He once kicked up a fuss when some students were taken from his class to clean the auditorium after an assembly. It didn’t help his reputation that the students were black and the program had been an observance of Martin Luther King Day.
Then came the Malcolm X incident. According to Miller, the shirt also had a picture of an assault rifle and the slogan “At Any Cost.” The teacher spoke to the girl privately about the shirt’s message, Miller says. And the aide was fired not for defending a student but for threatening a teacher. "That’s a misdemeanor!” he points out. Miller and others are indignant because the aide was reinstated, although at another school. "The local black community got on the bandwagon. They held a hearing down at the ed center, and she was able to return for the rest of the school year.” But things seemed to have worked out well for the teacher too. He was transferred from San Diego High to a school in Mira Mesa.
When asked if he has considered leaving the teaching profession, Miller belies his cynical exterior. “No,” he says. "I like teaching. It’s really rewarding to see kids learn something. Even the kids who get failing grades will sometimes appreciate what you're trying to do.” He tells the story of a girl who couldn’t answer any of the essay questions on one of his finals. But instead of leaving blank spaces, she wrote him a little note. "I don’t want you to think I didn't learn anything in your class,” she said. Then the student proceeded to write down everything she remembered as interesting or important. While her efforts didn't soften his grading — Miller marked all the answers wrong — she’s one of the students he’ll always remember.
A number of urban school districts, San Diego Unified among them, have tried to level the playing field for disadvantaged students by shifting more funds to their schools. But last year's "accountability report card” for the local district showed little correlation between spending and academic achievement. Many of the schools with high dollars-per-student ratios ranked among the lowest on basic skills tests. One explanation for the disparity could be the expense of integration. Many of the top-funded schools have "magnet” programs for academically advanced students. These voluntary integration programs, which draw students from all over the city, are costly to run, the school district says. Longfellow Elementary, a foreign-language magnet school in Clairemont, receives $3269 a year for each student; in contrast, Lafayette Elementary School, also in Clairemont, gets $1859 per pupil. Longfellow scored below Lafayette last year in the state’s reading and math tests. From appearances, it seems that money can’t buy a better education for the city’s minority children.
But Tchaiko Kwayana, a 53-year-old black English teacher, offers some other reasons for the achievement gap. Kwayana doesn't mind using her real name; district officials already consider her a troublemaker. In the last two years, Kwayana says she has deluged the school board with letters and memos challenging various policy decisions. Kwayana is also fighting an involuntary transfer from Hoover High School last year, a punishment, she says, for being too vocal.
Kwayana lives in a small apartment on Genesee Avenue so that her oldest son can attend La Jolla High School. Her two other children are enrolled in La Jolla Country Day School. Piled around Kwayana’s living room are journals, magazines, newspaper clippings, and conference brochures all dealing with the subject of education. It is the focus of her passion, or maybe her obsession, and most definitely her life.
"I'm beginning my 33rd year of teaching,” says Kwayana. "I started just before my 20th birthday. I began in a Southern segregated city school, but a well-run one. I've also taught in Oakland and for a while in Nigeria. But what I have seen in the past few years in this country has really disturbed me. It's the lack of expectations for students in general and black students in particular. I think that the educational system looks at the color of a youngster’s skin and decides the youngster's ability based on that.
"Look at the GATE program [for gifted students]. Go into the various schools, and you’ll see that you have resegregation. The gifted youngsters are, for the most part, white. It's a race and class system. I saw that at Hoover, too, in terms of which youngsters got accepted." Before students can be tested for the GATE program, Kwayana explains, they have to be recommended by a teacher. And most teachers don't look upon blacks as potentially gifted. Instead, they base their perceptions on stereotypes. "I have two male children," Kwayana says. "One is the epitome of the street-type kid. The other is nice, very middle class. You can see the difference in the way people treat them."
She tells a story that illustrates her point and, at the same time, her personality. This past December, Kwayana was driving along Torrey Pines Road with her ‘ ‘street-type’ ’ son in the passenger seat. She was stopped by the police, supposedly for speeding. The officer asked her son to step out of the car. When Kwayana questioned why, the officer said her son fit the profile of the Clairemont killer. "My son has the beginnings of dreadlocks,” she says. A composite sketch of the Clairemont killer shows a black man with a short afro.
Kwayana refused to let her son be questioned unless the police arrested him and brought him into the station. She started addressing the officer by his badge number and also mentioned her lawyer. A detective showed up and gave her his card. After running a check on her license plate, the police released Kwayana and her son. "This sort of thing happens to our kids all the time,” she says.
"My expectations are very, very high for my students, for conduct and also for academics. You do your homework, and if you don’t, you have an obligation to come to me and say something, explain the reason. It’s like a debt. I believe very strongly that a youngster, no matter what his background is, can act responsibly, academically and socially.”
When Kwayana came to San Diego in 1987, she lived down the street from Gompers Secondary School and enrolled her eldest son there. People had told her it was a good school, widely acclaimed for its magnet program in math and science. Kwayana arranged to attend all of her son’s classes one day. What she found, she says, was two separate schools. The advanced math and science students — who were mostly white — had the better teachers and materials. They were also held to much higher standards than the neighborhood children not enrolled in the magnet program. "What I saw that day was bloodcurdling,” Kwayana says. "One set of youngsters was being serviced very well, and for the others, the teachers had low expectations. The kids were allowed to sit on the tables, comb hair, and chew gum. In his biology class, my son had a student teacher. The kids stood in the door, threw things across the room, openly ate. The [fulltime] biology teacher was nowhere to be found. The next semester the principal allowed another student teacher in that same class. These kids had a whole year of that kind of inexperience.
"The last period of the day, my son had a social science teacher who also let the kids do anything. I finally had to take one student out of the class, to talk to her, as a parent. I just couldn’t sit there any longer. I said, ‘Honey, would your mama approve of what you were doing in there?’ She said, ‘No, ma’am.’ "I’m not anti-teacher. I’m a teacher myself, and I know what their problems are. I'm not saying for one moment that it’s not difficult for them. But teachers are part of our society, and our society has very deep-seated biases. Many teachers have grown up outside of any real contact with anyone but the majority ethnic group of this country. They base their expectations for students on the old stereotypes.”
Kwayana has a second explanation for the district’s poor return on its money in terms of test scores. Do not assume, she says, that additional funds translate into a better learning environment for minority students. "I was always asking, ‘How is the money spent?’ ” says Kwayana. "And I couldn’t get any answers." While teaching at Hoover, Kwayana formed a parent-teacher group called PALS; its purpose was to involve black parents in their children’s education. With Kwayana at the helm, PALS started questioning how money was being spent at Hoover. She hounded the principal for a copy of the budget, but to no avail. “[Funding] doesn’t necessarily mean a thing in terms of service to the youngsters,” she says. "Money often becomes a source of political patronage. And to qualify for that patronage, you don't rock the boat, you don’t question anything."
She describes, for an example, a special Saturday school at Hoover for students who were chronically late or truant. Kwayana expressed an interest in working with those students — many of whom were black — in hopes of modifying their behavior, she says. But the Saturday school assignment was a "plum" for teachers because it paid more than $20 an hour. So the positions were saved for the principal’s pets, she says. And the students suffered as a result. "Kids came to Saturday school and sat for four hours and laid their heads on the tables. They were just doing time. The purpose was punishment, not to make them respect time better."
In an interview published last November, outgoing school board president Kay Davis listed among her disappointments the failure to establish a trade school in the district. To Davis and to the substitute English teacher interviewed earlier, Kwayana poses some questions: "Where are they going to put those trade schools? Will they be in La Jolla? Or in Southeast San Diego? That's the problem. I don’t like to agree with [Superintendent] Payzant very much, but I would also like to know how you're going to decide which students are college material. And on what basis are you going to determine who should go into vocational? People think, well, if you're black or poor, maybe you should learn a trade. They talk about how much money mechanics make. Well, mechanics have to be able to carefully read instructions in order to do their job."
Kwayana admits that there is "some hostility" among black students toward white teachers. But at the same time, she says, "I can’t imagine a class that won't obey a teacher who is in charge. I know it’s a reality, but [that means] there’s something else going on. Maybe it’s a lack of mutual respect. I know white teachers who get respect, and I think it's because they don’t see the [black] students as anything different from their own kids. I like to say, 'Look at a youngster’s eyes. If you don’t see this kid as somebody you could have given birth to, you shouldn't teach that child.’ Youngsters can read a teacher very quickly because they've learned to do that. They will look at a teacher as their own mother if they see that she [regards] them as her own child. The youngsters will reciprocate. I have no doubt about that."
Kwayana is one of three black educators who are in the process of filing a suit against the school district over alleged racial discrimination. One of the other plaintiffs is the teacher’s aide who was (temporarily) fired over the Malcolm X incident. "My sons have those [same] shirts," says Kwayana. "I saw the entire picture in an art museum in Los Angeles. [Malcolm X] is not standing on a street corner. He’s in his own house, behind a curtain. A baby carriage is right nearby him. He’s peeping out of his window because someone has already firebombed his house. He’s waiting for another drive-by to do harm to his family. That [scene] is in his autobiography. People have to go do a little more reading, instead of following the 30-second-type portrait of African-Americans in history books. Then they would see why Malcolm X was such an exceptional person and a worthy person of hero status. Then they wouldn’t question why a girl has that shirt on."
Kwayana doesn’t see the picture of a weapon or the slogan "At Any Cost" as a call to arms for black students. She contends that most African-American students know the life of Malcolm X and the whole context of the picture. Wouldn’t it have been better, she asks, for that white teacher to express an honest curiosity about the T-shirt rather than alienating the black student with disapproval? She does recognize the shirt’s potency, however. "My 14-year-old son wears it to [La Jolla] Country Day," she says, "but I refuse to let my 17-year-old wear his to public school. Because of the problems that it would create for him."
In that respect, Kwayana is just being practical. She disputes the “separatist" criticism of the African-American advocacy program. "If you want youngsters to respect themselves, then teach them African culture,' ’ she says. "When they are taught that they’re worthy of respect, then they’ll be able to give respect. The [instructors] are not teaching that Whitey did this to you, so you have to go hate Whitey. People do not realize how much has come out of African people. There’s a whole list, from the filament in the electric bulb, to the traffic light, to the refrigerated car.
"My son had a 2 Live Crew poster in his bedroom. Even though I’m a firm supporter of First Amendment rights, I took it down. I told him it was disrespectful to women, and secondly, he can't wear an African medallion and then have that 2 Live Crew thing there, because there’s nothing African in having that attitude towards women. That is not African."
Kwayana allows that affirmative action plays a role in district personnel decisions, especially when it comes to choosing administrators for inner-city schools. "There are so few nonwhite teachers in the system that they have pushed some people ahead," she says. "There's a political part to it. But overall, it’s easier for a white teacher to get whatever position he or she wants. Check and see who has the more visible, prestigious jobs. Count the number of yearbook advisors who are black."
When her son was enrolled at Gompers, Kwayana was on Marie Thornton’s side of the magnet school controversy. She agreed that no instructor, regardless of qualifications, should be exempt from teaching the neighborhood kids. But this is where their accord ended. "As a parent, I had some serious complaints against one of the teachers," recalls Kwayana. "I felt he was disrespectful toward the [black] community. And she would not take a stand against him. I found her afraid. And probably with good cause. He was a real spoiled brat. He’s now at a mostly white school.
"My point is that I would not shield Marie Thornton from criticism because she's black. But she seems to be the only administrator that [the press] looks at. Nobody dares mention Doris Alvarez, for instance." Alvarez is the principal at Hoover who transferred Kwayana to Morse High School in Southeast San Diego. (Kwayana is currently out on disability because of a bad back.) "All kinds of things are happening at Hoover with low morale and test scores and the rest of it. But Doris Alvarez is friends with Kay Davis, and she’s a social climber with Payzant’s wife.
"People pick up on those double standards. It’s like having to defend Mayor [Marion] Barry because he gets jail for a misdemeanor when Oliver North gets community service for a felony. It makes black people join rank behind people they wouldn’t normally do so because racism keeps interfering.
"We teachers need to get off the defensive long enough to realize that, as teachers, we have a certain mandate. And we can make the kids understand that mandate. We are the surrogates, in place of the parents. Our role here is to do the socializing and the educating and all those things that parents can't do because the parents have maybe two hours a day [with their kids],
"I can’t understand these teachers who say we would let kids drop out of school. My kid doesn't want to go to school, but I’m going to make him. And there’s your answer, since I see all students as my kids. The kids who don’t want to be there signal our failure. I think we have to find other ways of dealing with youngsters who cause problems. These kids have to be served somewhere, somehow. The schools may have to change their whole focus, because the family structure is changing. There are no easy answers. Nothing is cut and dry. But the bottom line is, we have to serve the kids."
The teachers interviewed for this story did agree on one thing: Schools are being asked to do more than just educate children. "So many of the children are being physically nurtured at school," says one kindergarten teacher. "They're eating breakfast and lunch, they're brushing their teeth, they’re doing a lot of things that they would normally do at home.” About half of her students — all of them from the inner city — are living in single-parent families, she says. Many of the parents are caught up in their own problems. School is the one constant in some kids’ lives, although it, too, falls short of a stable environment.
"Right now I have 29 students, but it changes weekly," says the kindergarten teacher. "At the end of the year, I expect maybe 10 will be the same children I started with. When I come back from vacation, 2 or 3 children will have moved, and I’ll be getting 2 or 3 new students." Sometimes these kids have a lot of catching up to do, she says. At the age of five, they still can’t identify basic colors, let alone recite the alphabet. "I suspect that many of the kids haven’t been read to at home," the teacher says. "It's something I push with my parents. More than once I’ve told them they should read to their kids, that it would be helpful, and they’ve said, 'Okay, I’ll start doing that.’ I guess they just parent their children differently than the white, middle-class families do."