The school year's end is just around the corner for about 1,000 students at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park. Time for them to be cramming for finals, right?
Nope. Here, it's the teacher doing the cramming.
Bill Higbee, an eighth-grade history instructor, is running out of school days just as he has finished up the Civil War and Reconstruction. To cover all the rest of the turf laid out in California's eighth-grade academic standards, he still needs to plow through the Gilded Age, the American Dream, progressivism, imperialism and the Spanish-American War.
It is a lost cause.
"We won't get to charge up San Juan Hill," Higbee observes wryly, referring to the battle site where Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders secured their popular reputation in the short-lived 1898 conflict with Spain.
As the school year dwindles, many Golden State teachers find themselves in a fix, with too few days left to cover their material and too many students who have mentally vacated the schoolhouse for the beach.
Motivating adolescents on the verge of summertime freedom can be a challenge. Those who are failing are well aware that they don't have a chance to pass the class, Higbee said. Those who are passing know that teachers must turn in grades about two weeks before year's end.
In some cases, textbooks must be returned before classes officially end so that clerks can process them for the next batch of students.
Nevertheless, Higbee says, "there is still much for them to learn, and it is the teacher's job to try to vary instructional strategies so students don't get bored and turned off."
Many teachers say the emphasis on standardized testing has exacerbated the year-end scramble.
One teacher at a high-achieving West Los Angeles elementary school, who asked that she not be named, said it comes down to simple arithmetic. Take a traditional school year with 180 days for instruction and subtract 10 days for Stanford 9 test preparation and seven more for the actual testing. Whittle away an additional 15 days for teaching students the ropes at the beginning of the year and for giving quizzes throughout the year. Then take away a few more days for the times the teacher has to slow down because the students just don't get it. Not to mention the countless minutes lost to assemblies, announcements and false fire alarms.
The problem is worse at Gage and many other overcrowded schools. With 3,400 pupils, Gage must operate on multiple schedules to squeeze everyone in. Instead of having 180 school days for each set of students, Gage has 163, each day a few minutes longer than at a traditional school. Higbee and his students are assigned to the "A Track," the closest to a traditional school-year calendar. Most of the pupils are children of Mexican immigrants and speak Spanish at home.
By year's end, Higbee must come up with lesson plans that drum up enthusiasm among his less-than-eager charges. He is getting them not just to think, but also to get up and move.
At stations around the classroom, he has posted copies of photographs of child workers taken by humanist Lewis W. Hine in the early 1900s. Below each photo is a question, such as: Why do you think Hine never showed a smiling child?
The students take turns reading out loud from a handout about Hine. Whenever a student stumbles over a word ("photographer," "exploitation," "sociology"), Higbee has everyone look it up in the dictionaries carefully piled next to the history books.
Higbee accepts that teaching his 13- and 14-year-old students new words is part of his job, but precious minutes are lost in the process. It is time he would much rather spend on "westward movement" or the War of 1812. Neither topic made the cut this year.
Higbee asks the students to compose a topic sentence and a paragraph about Hine and his work. Several of the students jot down fragments and thoughts but not complete sentences.
Teachers say their tight schedules force them to pick and choose what to emphasize throughout the school year, keeping in mind topics that will help history come alive for their students. Michael Calhoun, one of Higbee's colleagues, spent extra time on colonization and the Constitution earlier in the year, knowing he would have to shortchange other topics.
"A lot of these are immigrant kids who are helping relatives get through the citizenship process," he reasoned.
In Higbee's class, student Bryant Quintero was unperturbed at missing out on some of the required material. He looks forward to the two-month break, which begins after the last bell Thursday, and his leap to high school.
What gets left out "doesn't bother me," he said.
Asked what he recalled most vividly from his eighth-grade history class, he cited Alexander Graham Bell, Abe Lincoln and "Glory," a movie about the Civil War that the class watched. He was, however, hazy about the difference between the Revolutionary and Civil wars.
Higbee says the state's meaty history content standards give students and teachers a clear picture of what is expected. In an ideal world, they would not be too much to ask of the teacher or the students.
As it is, Higbee consoles himself with the hope that his students will have another shot at battles like San Juan Hill.
"Their education," he says, "doesn't stop when they leave this class."