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NEWARK — The first teacher to go was grieving over the death of a loved one. Those who followed gave reasons more directly tied to frustrations at the school: long hours taking a toll on family life, the minimal pay increase when the academic day was extended in January, feeling discounted in curricular decisions.
One after another, they kept leaving. Between December and February, five teachers at Quitman Street Renew School quit, including the entire staff for middle school science and math, subjects now staffed by long-term substitutes.
Two of those who resigned had disciplinary charges pending against them, and Principal Erskine Glover had to rehire them in September to give them a legally required opportunity to improve. No one was shocked that they didn’t last the year. But the other three teachers were among those Glover carefully handpicked after an entire summer conducting interviews. More than half the instructional staff of 66 was new in the fall at Quitman, a long-struggling school in Newark’s impoverished Central Ward. Administrators and families alike were counting on the overhaul to finally turn things around.
The departures dealt a major psychological blow to the school community. Students felt hurt, angry and confused. Teacher reaction ranged from heightened determination to heartbreak to defeatism. Glover spent sleepless nights agonizing over what he could have done differently.
In the wake of the turnover, he had to restructure intensive intervention classes for a challenging group of eighth-grade boys and cut the added time at the end of the day for all seventh and eighth graders. While kindergarten through sixth grade still dismiss at 3:55 p.m., the older children now leave at 3:10, with targeted students assigned to after-school tutoring.
“The spirit of what we were trying to do just stopped,” Glover, 43, said one day in April when he was feeling particularly down. Yet his despair alternates, sometimes moment to moment, with optimism, depending on which classroom he’s in: Improvement in the early grades at Quitman is palpable, and some of his new hires are proving remarkable success stories.
One who keeps him going is a kindergarten teacher who was so inspired by Quitman’s potential that she pulled her own two young children out of their home suburban school and enrolled them there. They are the only white pupils in their predominantly African-American, minority Hispanic kindergarten and first-grade classes, and they are thriving alongside their peers.
In another first-grade class down the hall, though, the teacher was among those who quit midyear.
“I don’t know why all the teachers left before they were supposed to,” said Tanisha Foster, 14, an eighth grader whose math and science teachers resigned and whose younger sister is in the first-grade class that lost its teacher. “They could’ve just kept going throughout the year, and then next year they didn’t have to come if they didn’t want to.”
Tanisha was particularly frustrated that her teachers left before the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge (NJ ASK), the state’s standardized tests that were administered in late April and early May in third through eighth grades. Even though the stakes attached to the exams count for the school, not Tanisha personally, she wanted to do her best. “I was mad because the NJ ASK was getting close,” she said. “I expected them to leave after the NJ ASK so they could teach us more than they taught us. That wasn’t right.”
New Jersey requires its eighth graders to take tests in science as well as English and math, and several Quitman students said they felt unprepared for the science portion in particular. “Our previous science teacher, she taught us, like, maybe one-third or half of what was on the NJ ASK, but then the other half, we didn’t understand,” said Genesis Canela, 13, the student council president and projected eighth-grade valedictorian. The departures also came as Genesis and her classmates were applying to the city’s selective public high schools, with some relying on teacher recommendations.
Quitman is one of eight “renew schools” in Newark this academic year, part of a showcase turnaround initiative that gives principals autonomy and additional resources in exchange for results. Although initial internal testing shows progress among the youngest students, the state exam scores will come this summer. No one, however, expects a quick fix. In giving Glover unprecedented authority to select his staff last spring, Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson said she expected it would take a few years for him to get the right people in place. “I think he and others will take a real step forward, and just like recruiting any team, you make some picks you thought were great that turn out to be not so great,” she said in a June 2012 interview. “It’s a process.”
Peter Turnamian, the assistant superintendent overseeing renew schools, said the administration stands by that position today. “When a school develops its values and creates a more rigorous environment, one of the unfortunate consequences is not all teachers are comfortable working in that environment,” he said.
Six of Newark’s other seven renew schools—while still facing challenges over the quality of instruction—haven’t seen midyear turnover like Quitman. One other renew school, Thirteenth Avenue, lost its principal midyear.
Glover fears based on internal assessments that his school won’t fare well in comparison when the NJ ASK scores come in. “I don’t have a feeling that we’re going to be one of those schools they talk about as showing growth,” he said. “And I think the question’s going to come, ‘What happened to Quitman?’”
The year began with so much excitement.
“I’m young. I’m open-minded. Just point me in the right direction,” Giovanni Mavilla, a new sixth- and seventh-grade math teacher who comes from a family of Newark educators, said at an orientation in August. His mother was once an administrator in the building. He said he wanted to give back to his community.
Aimee Firestine, coming from another district to teach seventh- and eighth-grade science, said at a back-to-school barbeque that she hoped to stay in Newark Public Schools until retirement. She is now in her late 30s.
And Tatana Pitts, a veteran Miami educator who moved from Florida last year, spoke passionately about wanting to give her students the chance to live the American dream. The seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher grew up under communism in the Czech Republic, where “to make it somewhere, you had to push yourself harder than everyone else.”
None of the three would last six months.
“For me it was just personal reasons, and I want to leave it at that,” Mavilla said. Firestine and Pitts both cited issues related in part to the extension of the school day in January.
Glover had been scrambling to get an extended day program back in place since the collapse of a district partnership that funded one last year. He started the year with a standard schedule. Later in the fall, as part of the city teachers union’s new contract, renew school teachers were given the option to sign on for an extended day under negotiated terms.
Glover wished he could have paid staff more, but he could not go beyond what was negotiated: Teachers would receive a prorated stipend of $2,400 that would cover an extra hour teaching at the end of the day from January to June plus professional development sessions, including three or four Saturdays and time in the summer. It wasn’t much, but he expected them to get on board, especially since improvements in student performance could make them eligible for higher pay under the new contract. Next year the stipend will increase to $3,000.
Pitts was among those outraged. She said Glover had assured her during her interview that compensation for an extended day would be in line with her regular pay, which she said was more than $35 an hour. Teachers calculated that it would amount to $7 an hour. “Do you find this type of compensation appropriate for educated professionals?” she wrote in an email responding to my inquiry about why she left. (Glover said he told Pitts he would try for comparable pay but made no assurances. The math Pitts cited is hard to verify since the professional development schedule isn’t final, and preparation time varies by individual.) She said she was told her chances of being re-hired at Quitman next year were “zero percent” if she did not agree to the terms. She signed on, as did all but three of the school’s teachers. (Glover said the union told non-tenured teachers they would need to agree to an extended day to continue working at a renew school but could find placements elsewhere in the district. One of the teachers who did not sign on is tenured and coming back to Quitman next year; the other two are among those who quit.)
Pitts said Glover also discounted work she and other middle school teachers had done planning for various clubs during the extended time, opting instead for tutoring. And she was frustrated by a lack of planning time, and by being told her evaluation would be negatively impacted if she missed a week of work to have surgery. (Glover said the time would not have been held against her, and he encouraged her to do what she needed for her health.)
“My ideas were never listened to,” Pitts wrote in the email. “What was the point of hiring new and talented staff when things seemed to be geared [to] the old ways, and new ideas of these talented people were never considered? … I knew I didn’t want to come back next year so I rather left sooner not later.”
She said her decision to leave “had nothing to do with the students of the school at all. In fact, it is still bothering me very much that I left a group of kids that needed me so much, and I was one of the people in their life who abandoned them.”
But several students interviewed thought Pitts’ departure had everything to do with them. They said many of their peers, boys in particular, did not behave in her classes because they were turned off by rules stricter than the rest of the school. She wanted all boys to tuck in their royal blue polo shirts, for example, while Glover was just happy for them to come in uniform. Pitts did not respond to a request to address these issues.
“I felt upset because there was really a lot of students that really did want to learn,” said Genesis, who wants to be a lawyer and whose mother won’t let her use Facebook. “And we didn’t get that opportunity, because other students wanted to be ignorant and didn’t want to appreciate what Mr. Glover had been through to get us the teachers that we need. And we also heard that she said that she’d never teach at a Newark public school again, from the experience that she had at Quitman. And that’s not the message that we want to send out to other people who are not at Quitman. We want to send out a positive message about how Quitman is.”
Glover and many students and teachers confirmed that Pitts left without notice after some heated class confrontations, and Glover was left scrambling to find coverage. For a few weeks, “we just had substitute after substitute after substitute,” Genesis said. “And they didn’t teach us nothing. They didn’t give us work. We were just sitting there. They just kept telling us, ‘Read an independent book.’” Finally Glover found a long-term substitute who committed to teaching them for the rest of the year.
While many students felt angry over what happened with Pitts, the prevailing sentiments about Firestine were sadness and confusion. They did behave for her, they said, and they didn’t understand why she was leaving. Firestine, who also replied to my interview request with an email, said it was a difficult choice, but “I could not keep [up with] the demands of the administrators.” She did give notice before she left, and she spent time training a long-term substitute, who has some teaching experience but no subject-matter expertise.
“The addition of the extended day in January was difficult for me,” Firestine wrote. “I spoke with the administrators that the teachers are asked to do many additional assignments and I was having a difficult time keeping up with the demands for my class and then additional add ons. Principal Glover told me he did not understand and did not think it was an issue. I feel I was unable to be an effective teacher with ‘extra homework’ assignments. I truly am sorry I could not finish out the year for my students, but the work atmosphere was very stressed. I had no trouble getting along with colleagues, but everyone is very stressed and some are just trying to get through the year in hopes of finding another job elsewhere next year.”
The departures made it impossible for Glover to continue the extended day for seventh and eighth grades. Substitutes weren’t all able to stay the extra time, and the program was falling into chaos. Glover also had to change the schedule for eight of the most challenged boys, for whom he had created a separate class earlier in the year. The boys, many of whom are repeating eighth grade, now get their instruction from fewer teachers. They still receive supports including counseling and yoga.
Christina Patterson-Bright, a 19-year Quitman veteran who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English, was frustrated by the impact her colleagues’ departures had on students. Being overworked is the norm at any inner-city school, she said. “Everyone … may not have the same passion as you have to educate our population of children,” said Patterson-Bright, who began at Quitman as a 21-year-old rookie in 1984. “We thought they did, because they came in saying they had that background, and that they were ready for it, and that they’d experienced it all before. But self-reflection was something that was not there.
“If something in my class doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. If that doesn’t work, I’ll try something else. … If I can’t figure it out, I’ll ask someone, and I’ll try what they say before I disregard it and try something new, and I don’t think that happened. I think they gave up. And I think they gave up too soon, and I think they gave up for the wrong reasons.”
‘Never Give Up On You’
Each morning, the entire school at Quitman gathers for a brief convocation. One Friday in February, as the resignations were picking up, sixth- and seventh-grade English teacher Theresa Perry-Lewis took the microphone from Glover as he was about to adjourn the meeting.
“There are people here who will never give up on you,” Perry-Lewis, who has persisted in her job despite health problems, said as she faced the middle school students directly. “You’re just as good as anyone else.”
Glover, in a beige suit, red bowtie and red sneakers, took the microphone back. (He had to abandon dress shoes after developing a hip condition that has had him on crutches much of the year.) He hadn’t planned to address the departures in front of the whole school that day, but the moment came and he went for it.
“You guys need to start owning some of your behavior,” he said to the students, as the teachers listened on. (Firestine had resigned but not yet left at that point. Pitts was in her final days. Mavilla was long gone.) “Now you’re going to lose some teachers along the way, but you have a whole lot more in this building who want you to be successful … I don’t believe in giving up on kids. Because If I give up on you, if my teachers give up on you, who’s left to help you? … Who’s left to be able to help Corey when he has his meltdown to be able to calm down so that he can still get into the high school he wants to and be successful as a father, as a husband, as a citizen? So I wasn’t going to go there this morning, but Ms. Perry-Lewis kind of opened that door. Yes, you’re going to lose some people along the way. You’re going to lose some people who think you’re not the right fit for them; your shoes don’t fit their feet very well. And that’s fine because not every pair of shoes does fit. But … there are more teachers who want you to be successful. And for those who don’t, you have no problem coming to me and saying, ‘Mr. Glover, she doesn’t have our back,’ or ‘He doesn’t have our back.’ …
“I’m going to finish it on this note. I’m excited about you every day coming to my school because I love seeing you.” When eighth graders come to ask him for help getting into a high school, “I love that,” he said. “What I don’t enjoy are the negative words that come out of your mouth, the actions that distort and dishearten.” He said his goal is for Quitman to have its name on a banner on Newark’s McCarter Highway that currently recognizes an academically exceptional charter school in town. “The only way that can happen is by my students, mine, doing what you’re supposed to. Some of you may not cut it, don’t even care. Most of you do understand when I say that it’s time to really start thinking about how we want the rest of this society to view us. Because we’re not animals. This is not a zoo. We’re not savages. Every day a teacher comes in the building and sees you as a human being, give back to them that you’re a human being who wants to learn. …
“Some teachers are going to be upset that this child is throwing footballs in the halls or running the halls. I get that. I love you still. And Monday we’re going to come back and do it all over. That’s what we do.”
‘Take a Chance With Me’
Alicia Wiltshire emailed Erskine Glover, oh, “a million times,” as she recalls, before he agreed to see her for an interview last summer.
A year earlier, mulling a career change, she had picked up the book “Teaching As Leadership: The Highly Effective Teacher’s Guide to Closing the Achievement Gap.” For months on her daily commute from Newark to Manhattan, “I just read it over and over again until it was written in my heart,” she said. Now, the 29-year-old was ready to quit her job in human resources at a social service agency and dive in with no experience. She would need to enroll in an alternative certification program. Would she be able to cut it?
“I remember sitting in the office and he just looked like, ‘I don’t know if I could take a chance,’” Wiltshire recalled. “And I’m just sitting there like, ‘Yes, take a chance, take a chance. Take a chance with me, please! I can do this.’ And I remember him asking me, ‘Well, why do you want to work in Newark?’ And I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else. I felt like this is where I was needed. This is where I wanted to put my time and energy.” She had her fiancé drive her around the neighborhood to explore. “My fiancé was like, ‘Babe, this is a tough area,’” she said. “And I was like, ‘I’m not afraid.’”
Glover agreed, reluctantly, to hire her for second grade. “I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I had reservations about everybody. Because, you know, there was just so much pressure to get it right.” But while Glover saw Tatana Pitts—a newly relocated veteran of Miami schools—as one of his most promising prospects, he worried a lot about Wiltshire.
Wiltshire, though, was worrying enough for herself. Growing up in Brownsville, a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, her own experience in second grade was a negative one, and she was determined to do better for her students. She went to Barnes & Noble and bought the book “What Your Second Grader Needs To Know.” After memorizing it, she went on to “What Your Third Grader Needs To Know.”
“I’m completely obsessed with getting my kids ready for third grade,” she said.
That’s true of her work in general. “I go to church in Brooklyn, and so on the drive to Brooklyn, I have my mother drive, because I’m grading papers in the car,” she said. “And on the way back, I’m grading papers in the car. If I go to the salon, I’m grading papers under the dryer … I have no weekends. I have no evenings. I put it all in.”
About a month into the school year, Glover asked Wiltshire how many times she had cried so far over the job. “She looked at me, and she started laughing, and she said, ‘How did you know I’m crying?’” he recalled. “And I said, ‘Everybody goes through it. … That’s the nature of our game. …’”
Wiltshire’s second-floor classroom today bustles with activity. Harkening back to her days in HR, she requires students to interview for classroom jobs: The equipment manager takes out toys for recess, the paper manager passes out papers, the facilities manager straightens desks, and the event coordinator suggests classroom activities. An 8-year-old “teacher’s assistant” consults with Wiltshire in the interviewing process. Glover now considers her “a star in the making.” She practically apologized as she told him that she’s pregnant and will need a few months of maternity leave in the fall.
Now when he sees her and asks how she’s doing, he said she’ll reply: “Mr. Glover, I love my kids. My day was fabulous.” He’ll ask, “Are you crying?” And she’ll respond, “No, now I’m a little overemotional because I’m pregnant.”
For next year, Glover has committed to hiring four new graduates of Montclair State University’s urban teacher residency program, hoping they’ll come with an attitude like Wiltshire’s.
Many candidates say everything right, he said. Many “give me the famous line, ‘I love kids, and I want to see all kids succeed.’” But there’s something he can’t measure in an interview. “I can’t measure your soul,” he said. “I can’t measure your commitment.”
Enrolling Her Own
Principals often face the choice in hiring: Do you pick someone who’s a good fit for the school culture, or someone with teaching experience and content-area expertise? Glover said it’s rare to find the whole package, but he believes he did with a few of his new hires. Among them is Kimberly Dias. Not only does Glover consider her teaching practices exemplary—one recent Thursday, she kept 21 children engaged and self-directed in activities around the classroom as she worked with small groups—but in January she enrolled her own children, 7-year-old Arabella and 5-year-old Alden.
Dias, too, moved to New Jersey from Florida last summer, because of her husband’s job at a college textbook company. In Ramsey, where the family lives, Alden began a half-day kindergarten program for two hours a day. He was struggling, and his parents were contemplating whether he would need to repeat the year. Since the introduction of the extended day at Quitman, kindergartners are in school from 8:25 a.m. until 3:55 p.m. Dias thought Alden could use the additional time. Arabella, meanwhile, performs above grade level, and she wasn’t being sufficiently challenged in Ramsey, prompting her to act out from boredom. “It’s a lovely town. It’s a lovely school district. It just wasn’t meeting the needs that I wanted for my children,” said Dias, 32, whose children both share her thin frame and sandy blonde hair.
Friends, family and neighbors in Bergen County thought Dias was crazy when she pulled her kids out of their local school in favor of Quitman. “Some people were like, ‘Oh, you’re taking them just because it’s so much easier on your schedule,’” Dias said. “And I’m like, ‘That’s not really the only reason. … It was to enhance their education.’”
The risk is paying off for both children, who are in classrooms down the hall from their mother.
On the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) exam that Quitman administers to gauge performance internally, Alden’s target was 8 points of growth. He grew by more than 30 points and is now performing on a beginning first-grade level. “My husband and I are beyond happy,” Dias said. “When we got their MAP scores … we were just so ecstatic about how much growth he’s made. We were so worried about possibly having to retain him.”
Arabella, who has been getting harder work along with other top performers in Planties Simon’s first-grade class, performed at a third-grade level. “We knew she would probably be higher than we anticipated, but we didn’t anticipate her being that high,” Dias said.
In Dias’s own class, where another two Quitman teachers have their children enrolled, all but a handful performed above grade-level on the assessment. (The NJ ASK, which counts for the school’s rating, isn’t administered until third grade. Quitman’s most promising performance is coming in pre-kindergarten through second grade, where the staff seems to have a strong handle on tailoring instruction to individual needs. Scores on the MAP, beginning in kindergarten, confirm that trend.)
“I think the potential here to have students who are accomplishing and going above and beyond their goals is very high,” Dias said. “I know it can be very frustrating some days. It’s very tiring some days. Especially now with extended learning, it’s a much longer day. And then staff meetings make it even longer. But as long as you realize what you’re trying to accomplish, I know that our kids can do very well.”
That attitude seems to prevail among the teachers in Quitman’s youngest grades, the first-grade resignation notwithstanding. In third through fifth grades, Glover said he senses the teachers’ energy has waned. In the middle school, where four of the eight main content teachers have left, he’s proud of those remaining for being there, for providing high-quality instruction and stability, for pulling the students through.
‘Given a Disservice’
Quitman’s 53 eighth graders have grown up facing challenges in their education. Through the years, they found numerous classes boring or insufficiently engaging, and they’ve had a long-term substitute at least once before in recent years.
Back in October, when I interviewed a group of eighth graders running for positions on Quitman’s student council about the staff changes, they were struck by the new teachers’ higher expectations.
“Our new teachers are phenomenal,” Genesis Canela said.
“Eighth grade is going to be amazing,” added her friend Amiatta Amara.
Of Glover, Genesis said, “He fired a lot of teachers that we like, but he actually has brought better teachers.”
The girls singled out Rosemary Coyle, their new social studies teacher, for giving them more challenging work. Last year in social studies, Genesis said, “we watched movies over and over and over, and it was getting tiring.” Of “Lean on Me,” she said, “I actually think I know every line in that movie.”
“We watched it a lot of times,” said another friend, Leonor Tavarez, 14. Other students mentioned repeated viewings of “Roots” and “Ruby Bridges.”
“Can you believe some eighth graders don’t know nothing about the Revolutionary War?” Genesis said. “We were supposed to learn that in sixth grade. … We were mostly focused on Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King [but] we needed to learn about the whole country.”
“Sixth grade, then going onto seventh grade, the same thing,” Leonor said.
“I bet eighth grade was gonna be pretty similar, too,” Genesis continued. “But now Ms. Coyle, she’s teaching us about so many things we didn’t know.”
As it turned out, Coyle and Christina Patterson-Bright, the veteran English teacher, would become the eighth-grade stalwarts.
“Even though some of the other content areas have completely broken down, we still have each other, and we’re still here,” said Coyle, 28, who saw similar turnover at her last school in Newark before it was shut down last year. At Quitman, her presence as a young white teacher helped to diffuse student fears that the departures of teachers who are also relatively young and white were racially motivated.
Patterson-Bright has a reputation for treating her students like her own children. (The youngest of her three sons is in Kimberly Dias’s kindergarten class.) When students are off task in another class, sometimes they’ll ask Patterson-Bright if they can come complete their work in her room. “They’ll work for you if they feel you’re genuine,” she said.
Coyle and Patterson-Bright have discussed Quitman’s challenges with their students. “They’ve realized that they’ve been given a disservice,” Coyle said. But Patterson-Bright doesn’t want them to use that as an excuse. She has directed students to Web sites where they can get their own math lessons, and she and Coyle tutor in all subjects after school. “I always tell them, ‘you have the right to an education. But it’s your responsibility to make sure you get it,’” she said.
Quitman separates its middle school classes by gender into “kings” and “queens.” Coyle and Patterson-Bright see the girls retaining their motivation more than the boys. Results on the MAP and other internal assessments show growth in English among the seventh- and eighth-grade girls, but not the boys. For the optional after-school tutoring, “it’s the girls’ classes that are packed,” Patterson-Bright said. “It’s the eighth-grade boys’ class that literally shut down. We’re trying to rope them back in.”
Fate in an Envelope
On a Friday in early May, Glover begins morning convocation by calling Coyle, Patterson-Bright and all the other middle school teachers to the stage. He recognizes them for being “Peacocks on point” overseeing NJ ASK administration. (The peacock is the Quitman mascot.) Then he has some news for the eighth graders: Their high school acceptance letters are in. To the students’ chagrin, they must wait until the end of the day to receive them in the library. “You’ve waited this long,” Glover tells Genesis when she protests. She has her hopes set on admission to the academically competitive Science Park High School.
“I wanna know!” Amiatta says on the way to first period, Spanish for the eighth-grade girls. The class has a substitute with no assignment for them, so Amiatta and Genesis go to the office to submit paperwork for ordering stuffed animals for their mothers for Mother’s Day. Ca Misha Hill, a school social worker and student council adviser, wants to know why they don’t have a hall pass. They say the substitute didn’t give them one.
“Substitutes don’t know the rules,” Hill says. “Student council knows the rules.”
Back in Spanish, Tanisha Foster passes out textbooks at 9:10, a half hour into the period, once the substitute has finally finished taking attendance. “Everyone wants to go to the bathroom at the same time. No more bathroom,” says the substitute, a short, bald man with no demonstrable knowledge of Spanish. “You guys are taking advantage of me.” He comes up with a task from the book: Write the numbers one to 30 in Spanish and English. One girl is able to start at 9:25 and finish in time for the end of class at 9:30. At 9:35, Genesis tells the substitute it’s time to go.
Next, the girls have a double period in math with their long-term substitute, Idris Westbrook. A tall man with a gentle demeanor, Westbrook began working for Newark Public Schools in 2005 as a personal aide to special education students. He earned his associate’s degree in education and became a substitute three years ago. Now 15 credits shy of a bachelor’s in English at Rutgers-Newark, this is his first time running a classroom for a prolonged period.
The lights are down, and Westbrook posts problems to solve on an overhead projector: Find the volume of a triangular pyramid with base edges of 8 inches, base height of 4 inches and a pyramid height of 10 inches.
Some girls work while others comb each other’s hair, play with lip gloss and rest their heads on the desk. Tanisha, who attended another school in Newark until her family moved across town last year, asks Westbrook to slow down switching the problems on the projector. Westbrook, 32, has spent considerable time figuring out what the students are supposed to be learning and trying to find appropriate materials. He said the only textbooks in the room when he arrived in March were too easy.
He begins to ask the class questions: “What kind of base does this pyramid have? … What do I do with a rectangular base?”
“I know they gave this on NJ ASK,” he says. He did what he could to prepare them.
“No, they didn’t,” a girl replies.
“Someone just told me they did.”
Westbrook reminds a student she should be writing in pencil, not pen. She doesn’t listen and walks out into the hall with a friend. They come back a little while later, and she picks up her pen again. Another girl takes a bunch of pencils to the sharpener in Ms. Coyle’s room next door. Nonetheless, the majority do get the assignment done, which is more than Westbrook can say most days about his eighth-grade boys’ class. “You have a few girls who do what they do, but for the most part, class moves around in the way that I want it to,” he said. “With the boys, sometimes we might not get to anything because it’s just them playing and me keeping them off each other. There are good days and there are trying days, but probably mostly there are trying days with the boys.”
Glover and others are grateful to Westbrook for pitching in under very difficult circumstances, but Westbrook wishes he could do more. “I’m doing the best I can,” he said. “I’m trying to do a job, but I don’t have all the training necessary to do it.”
In the girls’ social studies class later that morning, Coyle is a more authoritative presence. Two girls who haven’t done anything in the prior classes try sitting in the back, giggling. “I get that you sporadically come to school,” Coyle tells them. “I get that you’ve been with substitutes all morning, but I am not a substitute. … Whatever you need to figure out, figure it out.”
In a long gray sweater, and flats, with a pen holding her dark hair in a bun, Coyle goes around the room inspecting notebooks on the American Revolution. “These aren’t even complete sentences,” she says to one student. “‘A failed attack.’ A failed attack on what?” To another: “You have no title. You have to put a title.” To one of those in the back: “You haven’t been to school in, like, three weeks. You’re entitled to a free, public education, and instead of utilizing that, you come in and act foolish. And it’s a shame because you’re a bright young lady.”
Later, while the girls are in science, the boys are in math. They walk in and out of the room at their leisure. Coyle stops one boy in the hall. “We’re not doing anything,” he tells her.
“I’m aware of that,” she says. “At least be where you’re supposed to be.”
In the math room, the boys are speculating about why Ms. Pitts left. “It’s all us,” says one in a brown and beige hoodie. “Nobody didn’t show her no respect.”
Kevin Ramos—a 13-year-old with glasses and a camouflage jacket over his uniform—holds his hand up for several minutes, trying to ask a question about the day’s problem set. But Westbrook is distracted by all the students off task. Kevin finally walks up to him to have his work checked. Of nine boys in the class targeted for tutoring at the end of the day, Kevin is the only one who has been showing up regularly.
In science, he is initially one of only three boys to sit down at a desk. Some are on the windowsill; others wrestle over a book.
The day’s activity involves testing memory skills as part of a unit on the human brain. The students are supposed to see how many items on a list of 10 they can remember (salt shaker, coin, bobby pin…) when the long-term substitute reads them aloud versus posting them briefly on the overhead projector. Not understanding the idea of an experiment for learning’s sake rather than a grade, most of the boys try to jot down the list before the timer has started. “Basically, you’re cheating for no reason at all,” the teacher tells them.
A tall, stocky boy normally in an English as a Second Language class sits at a computer playing a game on EnglishBanana.com; he doesn’t understand the class conversation. His regular ESL teacher is out today, too.
At the end of the day, the entire grade gathers in the library. Genesis’s cheeks turn red as Glover walks in with the envelopes holding their fate for high school. “I’m excited for y’all,” Christina Patterson-Bright says.
Glover catches a girl coming in who had skipped school that day. He tells her to go home; she can get her letter Monday. He also sends home the same two girls who were goofing off in social studies.
One by one, he calls the others to the front.
Tanisha starts dancing when she sees she got her first-choice assignment, to University High School of the Humanities.
Amiatta is too nervous to open her letter in public. Later, she’ll get the disappointing news that she was assigned to the zoned neighborhood school, Central High. Glover will try to intervene on her behalf. Kevin buries his head on the table after learning he’s been assigned to Central, too. “I’m not going to that school,” he says.
More than half of the Quitman eighth graders are assigned to Central. The school has improved a lot in recent years, and now the principal is running for mayor, but some students still don’t see it as a desirable placement.
Genesis opens her letter and sees she got her second choice, American History High. That’s the school Amiatta wanted, and many of her classmates would love to be in her shoes. But her heart was set on Science Park. She goes back to her chair and slumps as the tears begin to fall. She did everything she could. But what else could have been done for her?