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I am a high school English teacher in an urban high school in Oklahoma City. I am a member of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 2309. I am a Democrat, a union activist and a worker for social justice. I also am a Christian (Congregationalist). I play chess and coach our school chess team.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Why OKC Schools Lack Academic Progress

I wrote this letter to Oklahoma City councilman Skip Kelly after I read an article in the Oklahoman about the frustration the city council expressed over a lack of academic progress in the Oklahoma City public schools.

Dear Councilman Kelly:

I read the article in the paper concerning the frustration the city has with the lack of progress you have seen in the Oklahoma City Public School district. The reasons for this are many and complex, but if you ask most teachers, we will tell you that a big contributing factor is that we have to spend enormous amounts of time and energy managing our students as opposed to educating them. Every day, teachers, and I speak mainly about those teaching middle schools and high schools, have to try to keep their students in line, keep them from disrupting the class, keep them from talking to their friends, keep them from getting into fights, keep them on task, or simply keep them awake, so that we can do our primary job: educate them for their futures.

We have very limited resources to deal with these problems. We can contact parents, who are often absent from their children’s lives, and enlist their help. When this does not bring a change in our students’ behavior, we can assign detention, which few are inclined to serve. Our last resort is to refer the student, commonly known as “writing a referral”, to an administrator who typically can only suspend the student, taking the student out of classes, for a period of time. When I assign detention, frequently I have to fall back on writing a referral because the student does not show up for detention.

The result of all this is that administrators find themselves overwhelmed with student referrals, which they cannot process in a timely manner. Thus teachers must put up with disruptive students in their classes who rob their fellow students of their right to an education in a safe and orderly environment. Thus the education of all students suffer. Thus parents feel they cannot send their students to our schools and opt to leave the district, especially after their children’s elementary school years are finished and the students are ready for middle school and high school.

I can say with a fair amount of confidence that nothing will change in the OKC school district until some type of alternative arrangement can be made for students unable to perform in a traditional academic setting. I feel confident in saying this because this is my 16th year in the Oklahoma City district, and I have yet to see much improvement in student behavior. Year after year, I and my colleagues wear ourselves sick in trying to maintain order in our class so that a modicum of learning can take place.

The city and the district may build all the outstanding buildings they wish, but if the teachers in those buildings have to focus primarily on managing their classes as opposed to educating their students, it will be all for naught.

I appreciate your frustration with our schools. It is more than matched by the frustration of their teachers.
News Article: Oklahoma City Council Frustrated With Academics in City Schools