Dwindling Resources, Diminishing Expectations

Twin Cities teachers talk about how their schools and classrooms have changed

JOHN SYLWESTER

Taught public school for 37 years, most of it as a high school history and theater instructor in the Minneapolis system. Retired in 1998.

I started teaching in 1961 in Rushford, Minnesota, down by Winona. I was hired to teach American history and speech. Rushford was easy because the kids were all Norwegian. Then I taught at University High, and that was easy because all the students were college-bound. Then I taught for two years at North High School in Minneapolis, before there was a lot of Jewish flight, and a lot of my students were really bright kids. Then a job opened up at Patrick Henry and that was easy, almost a suburban atmosphere. I was there for 13 years.

Then I went to Roosevelt High just at the beginning of the influx of Asian immigrants. Many only spoke English as a second language. I couldn't say Babe Ruth or Empire State Building or the Vikings without explaining. There were kids from 26 or 27 countries. In my world history class it got to the point where I'd say, "Whatever we talk about, somebody in this room knows more about it than I do. So you tell me if whatever I say is wrong." And I learned so, so much. When I retired in 1998 my classes were an unbelievably mixed bag. I left having had a good career. I retired with absolutely no bad feelings.

 

KAREN SWIGART

Started teaching in 1965; 18 years in Minneapolis, most recently as a math teacher at Seward Montessori.

When I read the story of the Little Red Hen, most of my native English-speaking students have some idea what a hen is and what wheat is. But with my Hmong students, I have to bring in wheat. It's not hard, just time-consuming, which is one of our biggest problems. We just don't have enough time to do what we need to do.

 

MARY SYLWESTER

Has taught English in the Minneapolis public schools for the past 11 years.

I have been teaching for 10 years at North High in Minneapolis. In some ways, kids don't change at all. What kids want to get out of school isn't different. They dream of the future and how to get there, whether that's college or vocational. What are they willing to put into their high school education? For some, there has been a sea change in how their education is regarded, because of family responsibilities.

Students who do not have a job and extended responsibilities are lucky. They can devote time to homework. But they are a shrinking group. For many, school is not their number one priority each day. There are students who need to translate for their parents in court or when they go to the doctor or shopping. In many ways they are functioning as the adults in their families, and they are the parent and teacher for their younger siblings. Many of our students--not just immigrants, but a lot of our students--are the backup daycare if parents need to work and daycare fails. We are seeing students take on so much more that I am competing with their real life for their time and attention. Not that they don't value education, but sometimes keeping their family on track is more important.

A few years ago I had a girl in my advanced placement class who was consistently a half-hour late because her mother had to leave for work and she had to see her younger brothers and sisters off at the bus stop and then come to school. You can't assume with any behavior you know the reason why. If a kid mouths off, maybe he doesn't like you or maybe he's seen his mother beaten up by her boyfriend. You don't have the luxury of just saying, "Well, he mouthed off. I don't want to know any more, he's gone from this hour."

You have to be delicate about it. I go to the school social workers more, because in the end I am responsible for what goes on in my classroom and I am not a trained counselor. But by and large when I have called home, parents are trying to be supportive and want to support me and their children.

Often school is a student's time to get away and be a kid. They love to be kids and go to school because the rest of their responsibilities get shut away for a few hours. Ninety-nine percent of my kids come into class with a smile on their face and want to get something out of it. They like being in school. It's a safe place.

 

LARRY DISHER

Public school teacher for 20 years; has taught elementary school (mostly fifth grade) in the Minneapolis system for 17 years. Currently at Bryn Mawr Community School.

Earlier in my career, we were going on a field trip and I gave a student a slip on Friday. He was supposed to bring it back to me the following Monday. He came back and of course the slip was not signed. Because I didn't know better at the time, I reprimanded him. And he said, "Well, I didn't see my mom, so I couldn't get it signed." It reminded me that we have parents who are there 24/7, and we have others who really need to do a better job of parenting. As teachers we have to do a better job of understanding students' problems and where they are coming from. If we don't understand that, we won't be able to do our job.

In an inner-city school you have kids at the poverty line or lower, and you're asking them to do well in school--which they should. But you also have to understand that when kids are struggling with having a safe and secure place to live and warm meals--the basic things--it is harder for them to do well in school. The focus is just not there. Suburban schools don't have as much of that, and they also don't have diversity, so they are addressing one type of student.

MARILYN ROHLFING

Social worker since 1969; has worked in St. Paul public schools since 1971. Currently at J.J. Hill Magnet School.

Years ago, school social workers worked with any child doing whatever would help them get more out of their education. We used to take what I call at-risk children, not only with Down syndrome or autism but someone who just didn't seem to be up to snuff and just needed the experience to prepare for kindergarten. It was pretty easy to get them in.

I'm not sure when the laws and the funding changed, but at the present time our funding is special ed funding, so I can only work with special education children. Now early childhood special ed is only there for children tested for a significant delay in at least one area of development. This is because there are more [special ed students now]--many, many more. Neonatology has allowed us to keep previously nonviable preemies alive; the majority have something pretty significant wrong growing up.

And it's not scientifically corroborated yet, but I believe we have a significant increase in autism. We have all kinds of syndromes now. There is classic autism and Asperger's, and genetic syndromes--beyond Down syndrome, more unusual, rare syndromes. My theory is, the gene pool is affected by environmental problems--chemicals and radiation and what have you. I believe that is playing a role. I don't think it is just that we're testing more children so we're finding more cases. That is true, but it isn't solely that.

 

ELIZABETH SARSFIELD

Twenty-four years of teaching, the last 16 primarily as a speech pathologist in the St. Paul public schools. This year she will divide her time between speech pathology and early childhood special education for a number of schools in the district.

Demographics have changed greatly in St. Paul over the last 10 years or so. There are over 75 languages spoken in our district. Couple that with any disability a child may have, and the fact that we also tend to serve a lower economic population, and often kids don't come to school prepared. Nationally and in St. Paul, more and more children are being identified as being on the autism spectrum. It has really become quite broad, with Asperger's being at a higher level of functioning. Some of the children have absolutely no communication skills.

I think the biggest change is the increase in paperwork for anyone in special education. As a result of it, we spend less and less time teaching children. I have been determined not to work at home, so instead I work 12- or 13-hour days at school. I would go to school last year at 6:30 a.m., although my first class was at 9:30. Our students left at 4:10 and I stayed until 6:00 or 6:30. A lot of that is computer time and paperwork time, and a lot of that is classroom prep and having access to a copy machine.

In the last five to eight years, we have been getting more financial support through third-party billing. Any student who receives services could be covered by health insurance, or Medicaid or Medicare. Speech therapy, social work services, vision services, physical therapy--things like that can be considered medical services. And if they are billed like that, the school district can be reimbursed. We have been able to hire more people. We have more speech therapists than we used to have. With us doing the billing, there's more paperwork and it's more time-consuming, but we are compensated.

 

ROMA LEE RASMUSSEN

Has taught in Minneapolis for 27 years, currently at the Performing Arts Magnet at Kenwood.

I have a friend whose son dropped out of high school. I worked with this boy and he did not do well on written tests and reading, but he was the most empathetic boy with people, especially with children with special needs. He was borderline special ed himself, but not enough for benefits. He knew geography and auto mechanics but he just did not do well on tests. He went on to get his GED and is now a heavy equipment operator. He was one of the most sensitive, caring people you would ever meet, but you wouldn't know that from tests.

Of course the more you test, the less you teach. And testing is only one way of showing what a child knows. I have seen children who know the information and yet don't test very well. The tests don't show growth during the year. One set of tests compares this year's second graders to last year's second graders, which is very frustrating. And we give many of the tests in the spring and we don't get results back until just before the students are gone, so there is no way to benefit from it right then.

There wasn't this constant testing before. Teachers had the trust of the community. They were doing a good job and their students were happier. They felt successful. Now, with the accountability focus, teachers have to prove to the community they are doing the best they can. Before, you were innocent until proven guilty, and now you are guilty unless you can show differently.

 

MARILYN ROHLFING

I spoke with a Montessori teacher who had first through third grade all in same room. And she said testing fever is just horrible. The climate permeates and pressure is put on the teacher, pressure that every child must improve. She got a little first grader in her room, slow to learn reading, and she eventually learned how to read and made progress, but the teacher felt pressure to get her up to grade level and kept pushing her more and more. By the third year, when she said, "You really need to work on reading," the student said, "I hate reading!" That broke her heart. She said, "I want to teach a love of reading."

We all have to do professional development plans, and they all have to have "measurable objectives." And what that teacher said she'd like to have as a goal is that all her children love reading. But that isn't really measurable, so instead they have to have, Can they comprehend what is said at the end of a paragraph?

 

DIANE LERBERG

Retired in June after 18 years with Minneapolis public schools. Taught at the preschool and elementary levels.

Testing has changed the curriculum, because teachers know they are under the gun and administrators know their schools are going to be ranked and that parents look at those scores when choosing schools. But I am concerned that learning isn't as much fun for children. The tests currently out there spend very little time on comprehension. Most of it is basic phonics like word decoding, and that gets pretty boring to teach and boring to learn.

Where I see it most is actually in the brightest kids. They will tend to tune out and sometimes even act out because they know this [material], and they are asked to do it again and again. I had one child this year who was easily reading at second-grade level and I allowed her to take books and go off to the side and read while we worked. If I didn't do that, she started talking to her friends who did need to learn, and creating a distraction.

 

MICHAEL BOUCHER

Has taught in the Minneapolis public schools since 1993; is currently beginning his ninth year as a history teacher at South High in Minneapolis.

My classes have gotten bigger and bigger. Before, my average class size was 21, and this year my class size will be about 38. In a class of 21 I could give weekly writing assignments and work with the students, and they became some of the best students in writing I've seen. If I did that now, I'd be deluged with paper and couldn't possibility get it done. Back in the days of smaller class sizes, I was able to give more individual attention, we were able to take more field trips, and, in general, I was able to be more involved with my students.

The parents at South High have always been incredibly supportive. The difference is, now we are asking them to pony up at every turn just to keep basic services. We already sent them a letter this summer asking for money, and we'll send out another letter the first week of school asking for donations just so we can have a few small field trips and other things. The cost of education is being pushed to the parents.

Administrators now can't spend their time dealing with students and focusing on students the way they used to. Now they must spend their time making sure they have enough staffing to do the job and begging for money in other places. For instance, in a school of 2,000 students, we are going to have just two counselors to help all seniors get to college and get all our students on the way to preparing and meeting their post-secondary goals. That is just insane. We're trying to raise $50,000 to get another counselor. The parents are trying to raise that money.

 

ROMA LEE RASMUSSEN

Economics have really begun to dictate schools' size. Schools with over 400 students are supposed to be economically efficient, but my experience is that smaller schools are more effective, especially for primary age kids. It's easier to get lost in a bigger school. But bigger and bigger buildings are being constructed, which is not better even for older kids.

I worked last summer with a boy going into fifth grade out at Camp Chi-Rho. This little guy was on medication for ADHD and bipolar disorder and seizures--three medications. In a large community he would be neglected, because he never got into any trouble. But in the smaller school, they know his needs. He's getting psychological help. The teachers know he escapes from reality by reading and they try to balance that out with more social interaction. In bigger schools, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. In a smaller school they can see someone like this, how creative he is and how much attention he needs.

 

KAREN SWIGART

Been teaching since 1965, the last 18 years in Minneapolis.

As long as you won't tell my husband, I'll tell you I spend about a thousand dollars a year out of my own pocket. It goes for books and extra supplies. Our budget this year limits our Xerox paper. We can have 500 pages a month per teacher. That sounds like a lot until you consider writing notes to parents every week and homework and everything. Kids need notebooks and some just can't bring those things in. Every week there is something. I'm not the only one; we all do that.

 

ROMA LEE RASMUSSEN

Sometimes it really enlightens me [to see] how resilient students are. I've had little boys, just five years old, coming in acting totally inappropriate. They swear at the teachers, hit and kick the teachers. They are resilient because they are coming from an environment where they are witnessing that kind of behavior. If that were me, I don't think I could have handled it and been the little spunky, sparky kids that many of them still continue to be. You see how much they want to learn. I had another child come in full of spark and spunk, and his parents put him on Ritalin and he became so depressed. I think sometimes society doesn't allow kids to be kids and to appreciate that resilience.

I just can't imagine being exposed as a child to the things some of these kids are exposed to and yet still wanting to learn. When we work with children who have come from refugee camps, you see how much they still have hope. There is that spark and it is still alive and you appreciate what they have gone through to make it here.

I have had students in kindergarten who can read at a third-grade level, and even one reading at a sixth-grade level, and it was incredible to watch how compassionate they can be toward peers who have no idea what they are doing. How compassionate and patient and how willing they are to help each other.

Years ago I was talking to a little boy in kindergarten, asking what his goal was in life. His goal was to rob people's cars like his big brother did. Can you imagine having that perspective and yet coming into a kindergarten and being able to function? I had another little girl who lived with her grandma. When it was time for conferences, the grandma was sick, so I went to her home. Inside there was absolutely no furniture and the grandma was on a mattress in the middle of the floor. Yet that girl was still coming to school every day. A couple of weeks later I found out that her cousin had been sold into prostitution by her mother, my student's aunt.

Another time I went on a home visit because the parents consistently failed to come for conferences. When I knocked on the door, they wouldn't let me in because they had had a drug raid there the night before. Mattresses were torn up and furniture had been thrown on the porch. Imagine coming to school during these kinds of things--how terrifying things like that would be for a child. I'd be terrified. And that is what the children have taught me, is how resilient people can be.

I admire Minneapolis for doing what the Statue of Liberty says: Send me what you have and we will deal with it and help it to grow. That's our goal and sometimes it doesn't work. But sometimes it does.

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