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How new teachers fare at a troubled school

August 03, 2008|Beth Shuster | Times Staff Writer

Donna Foote spent a year at troubled Locke High School in Watts observing and documenting the workaday struggles of four new teachers.

In her recently published book, "Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches With Teach For America," Foote delves into the lives of the teachers she met and reveals much about the high school.

Locke is in transition: The Los Angeles Unified School District turned it over last month to Green Dot Public Schools, a charter operator that plans to break Locke up into eight smaller campuses to boost student performance.

The teachers Foote chronicled during the 2005-06 school year were hired through Teach For America, a national group that places recent college graduates in urban schools and requires them to teach for at least two years. In the L.A. region, Locke had more teachers from the group than any other school. The teachers Foote followed -- Phillip Gedeon, Hrag Hamalian, Taylor Rifkin and Rachelle Snyder -- have remained in education; only one, Gedeon, had expected teaching to be his career.

Here is an interview with Foote, a former correspondent for Newsweek who lives in Manhattan Beach, on the eve of Locke's transformation.

You say that resources weren't a problem at Locke; rather, the school has "no culture of achievement." What did you mean by that?

For the last 20 years, the school has been flat-lining. . . . It's a very large school situated in a very bad neighborhood. Unstable gang and crime problems. Unstable families, a large immigrant population, many of whom are not conversant in English. A whole culture of poverty that leads to a lack of a culture of achievement.

How can that be reversed?

There are models out there in schools in equally bad neighborhoods that can exploit the natural gifts these kids have. The Green Dot model is one. I think smaller is better, but for my money the most important ingredient is the quality of teaching. A disproportionate number of lower-achieving teachers tend to end up at places like Locke. Having said that, you and I know there are a lot of great, dedicated teachers there. There's just not enough of them. . . . I absolutely did not meet a single kid who didn't want to learn.

How about parents? Did you sense they are too busy with their own working lives to get involved?

The school really hasn't made an effort to reach out to them. It didn't happen. I found this really interesting: Whenever some of the teachers had real problems and called a parent, inevitably the parent would say this was the first time they'd ever heard from a teacher and things would turn around. . . . What I saw is that if you really reach out to them, of course they want their kids to achieve.

You had such great access to the teachers and students. You wrote about their lives, personally and professionally. Did you even attend the field trips that you wrote about?

Yes, I went on the trip to Catalina. What really sticks with me is this: There were four or five adults and 20 kids. There was no bus, so the adults drove the kids home and to the boat. I had four boys in my car Friday afternoon. They asked if we could stop at a McDonald's. We get in the drive-through lane and I say it's too long. I said, "Let's park and go inside." They said: "We can't." They looked a little sheepish. They had on blue. It was Bloods [gang] territory. It kind of broke my heart. Their lives are so circumscribed: They can't go to McDonald's without fearing for their lives.

What's happening to the four teachers that you followed? Are they staying in education?

Yes, they are all still in education. . . . I have to say one of the things I took from my experience is what an amazing generation this is, so smart, so driven. . . . I feel very lucky to have met them and shared this journey.

How did you decide to write about Teach For America?

I had been watching Teach For America since the beginning. I began keeping clips, but I never thought I had a good peg. My niece had done it. In the spring of 2005, I saw a little press release that said 12% of the graduating class at Yale had applied for TFA and 11% at Harvard and Princeton. . . . It struck me how interesting to see how we educate our most impoverished through the eyes of our most privileged.

Here are some excerpts from the book:

But what really got [Gedeon] that week was the realization that, at Locke, he really was considered one of the best teachers. That was crazy! If I'm one of the best, what does that say about everyone else? He knew his kids were learning and achieving. But he was a first-year teacher; he had so much more to learn. He was only doing what should be the norm for every teacher: setting high expectations, holding his kids accountable, and working his butt off. There was nothing amazing about it. It should have been standard operating procedure.

[Taylor Rifkin] felt so good about what she was doing that she would have taught at Locke High School without pay. This is the biggest accomplishment I've ever had -- maybe the biggest I ever will have.

These kids had so much anger. Their short fuses freaked Taylor out. Even the girls were explosive -- even the ones you didn't think had it in them sometimes erupted. Through her tears, Taylor made some decisions. The next unit she taught would be about race.

Several kids were primary school readers. The rest were not much farther ahead. The kids had biology textbooks, but they were stacked along the walls; no one could read them.

There were no systems in place at Locke. Teachers hoarded supplies, and books that had been ordered and paid for were never distributed . . . and the school counselors didn't have functioning computers. There was a budget, estimated to be around 20 million dollars, but nobody ever saw it. . . . The adults at Locke were failing the kids.

--

beth.shuster@latimes.com

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