Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Troubles in the Woodland Hills.

For the last several months the radio hacks over at my least favorite AM radio station (KDKA 1020) have been attacking schools. Recently they have moved their target to a new local district- Woodland Hills. This district was founded by government mandate in 1981, and includes children from the areas of Braddock, Braddock Hills, Chalfant, Churchill, East Pittsburgh, Edgewood, Forest Hills, North Braddock, Rankin, Swissvale, Turtle Creek and Wilkins Township. It is exceptional for several reasons. The football team is a perennial favorite in the regional AAAA championships- they won in 1996, 1999, 2001, and 2002. The program has sent over 50 kids to Division 1 schools. On the downside- the upper grade facilities are known for their extremely violent and threatening atmospheres. This month there was a lock-down due to a bomb threat, and several staff members were assaulted by students.

The type of incidents that have occurred this November are really nothing new to Woodland Hills. In fact it has had a reputation for being a tough place since its inception. Its climate of violence has much to do with the racial tensions that exist between the disparate communities that make up the district. In 1971, a Braddock resident filed a lawsuit accusing surrounding white districts of enforcing an underhanded segregation of the races. Ten years later, Woodland Hills opened and remained under court observation for 22 years. Many of the included municipalities resisted the merger. The judge that ordered it received multiple death threats. During the decades that it was under under court supervision, academics and government bureaucrats made consistent visits to the district's schools to keep a close watch on possible disparities in the way white and black children were treated. All of that created a tension that lingers to this day.

Years ago I completed my certificate program to become a teacher, and I stumbled over the choice of schools where I might do my student placement. One adviser suggested that I might be a good match for Woodland Hills, and I readily agreed. I had no idea what the place was about, and knew nothing of its history. My cooperating teacher (C.T.) had already taught for thirty years, and filled me in on the background of the school. He explained that many of the staff members and educators were perpetually frustrated to be working in an environment chock full of conflict, and that doing so under a microscope made it several degrees more difficult. Everyone was a bit afraid to offend the wrong student or parent. The volatility of particular kids could be dangerously explosive. Many of these children came from destructive homes, where disinterested or criminally-convicted adults 'looked after' them. The administration and staff were constantly besieged by threats, and dealt daily with issues of behavior control in the classroom.

I made a personal vow to follow the lead of my mentor, and instituted a student-centered teaching strategy that was moderately successful. I did witness fights in the hall, but none in my classroom. This fact I attribute to sheer luck. My C.T. got a back injury breaking up a particularly intense fight, and I spent a few days teaching his schedule with a substitute in the room. One day a policeman visited to arrest one of my students during class. It was a sad day. Although I was generally satisfied with my student teaching experience, I was glad when it was over. Everyone there was under an inordinate amount of stress. But in the midst of it all I saw actual education happening. I came out of my placement with several awards and one hell of a recommendation. On my last day, my C.T. gave me a bit of advice- find a teaching position out in the suburbs somewhere, far from the struggles of the inner city. I would not find the rewards I was looking for by teaching at Woodland Hills. It eventually turned out that I followed his advice.

Due to my experiences in that district, it infuriates me to hear radio station pundits and callers talking out of their collective ass and condemning the staff and management at Woodland Hills. Instead of implicating the pervasive injustices and inequities of wealth in our society, they are looking for an easy scapegoat. They want to hold someone accountable for the horror stories that parents share about their children, so they implicate administrators and the teachers' union. It's particularly easy for these talking heads to pass judgment, as they are comfortably ensconced in homogeneous and wealthy neighborhoods where their kids are unencumbered by the presence of poverty, resignation and racial tensions. I understand that they have fled the cities so that they won't have to deal with the problems of other people (and to avoid paying the higher taxes that such issues demand). But to hear their sanctimonious pronouncements about the incompetence of professionals willing to work in tough urban environments is disgusting. They have no solutions, but they want to condemn.

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Anonymous Frank said...

Amen! Keep up the good work--teaching is an undervalued profession, especially when it's done in tough environments.

3:07 PM  

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