Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month, "L.A. Unified board picks Richard Vladovic as new president. By replacing Monica Garcia with Vladovic, the LAUSD board signals the waning influence of former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. This begs the question: Are days numbered for embattled Superintendent John Deasy?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Harry Meets the New Boss, and She's Not the Same as the Old Boss--Any of Them

First Hour at New Campus Brings Gaffes, Sharp Reprimands

Part 9 in the fictional story of Harry Mills, a teacher displaced when his employer, the Big City School District, voted to hand over his formerly public school to a private charter operator. For earlier chapters click the archives to the right. DISCLAIMER: the following characters and situations are made up. They shouldn’t remind you of anyone you know, unless you know somebody like this. Good fiction mirrors real life. Hopefully, this is good fiction.

By Mark J. Blocker

The first morning at his new school deep within Big City’s impoverished urban core Harry Mills parked his car, pulled out his briefcase and clicked the “lock” button on his high-tech key. Then he clicked it again.
Harry tried to make eye contact with everyone--fellow adults striding purposely or shuffling regretfully into the day; several dormant students dropped off in the pre-dawn hours by overburdened parents obeying early work schedules.
At 6:50 a.m. the brightly lit front office was a conspicuous beacon within the fog-shrouded campus.
“Hello, I’m Harry Mills.”
“Mr. Mills! Glad to meet you,” enthused a lady who doubled as the textbook coordinator. Budget cuts are forcing schools to require support staff to work dual jobs. “Let me get you your room key, you can sign in here,” she pointed to a familiar looking folder that contained all personnel time cards on the counter top. “You’re in Room 5. Classrooms are numbered on the buildings. You shouldn’t have trouble finding it, “ she smiled. “But Ms. Sharperson will be here any minute. Perhaps you should wait. She can show you to your room”
“Oh, I’ll meet her over there. I want to get inside and see what I have.”
“Actually, I think it would be better if you waited. Ms. Sharperson appreciates that. Have a seat. Relax.” Her tone downshifted into a mumbled warning.
So Harry did as told and waited in a chairs backed up against the wall by the double door. Several teachers whom Harry recognized from his old school entered, signed in and quickly left.
Eventually a short woman with Medusa-like, lengthy coils of pitch-black oily corkscrew curls cascading out her head toward her shoulders barged in like she owned the place. Must be Ms. Sharperson, Harry surmised. Everyone ceased their conversations, sat up straighter and busied themselves straightening any stack of paper within arm’s reach or staring into a nearby computer screen. Out of the corners of their eye, they cast furtive glances at the short woman upon stiletto heels who, with her hands on her hips, surveyed them all. She had long nails, the kind painted and glued down by Asian artisans toiling behind masks under fluorescent lights in malls on the better side of town. She was boxy with a pillow ass bulging out polyester pants. It contrasted sharply with unremarkable breasts. Her skin was color of caramel; hair the texture of rich licorice. Harry momentarily chided himself for sexually assessing his new boss. But, a man is a man, and a woman is a woman. This woman seemed intense. Angry. Oddly, this middle-aged black woman reminded Harry of the late British heavy-metal rock star Ronnie James Dio. He wasn’t so attracted anymore.
She turned to Mills and announced, “I’m Wanda Sharperson, principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Harry stuck out his hand. She ignored it.
“Follow me and I will show you to your room.” The 7:30 bell had already rang so classes were in session. The lady at the front told Harry he had first period conference, which meant that he was free during first period--sort of. Teachers with first period conference often found themselves covering for colleagues who had either slept late or were stuck in traffic.
Without a word, Sharperson and Mills walked together down the hall, passing rooms 1, 2, 3, but stopping at 4. She stuck her key into the door and opened it while Harry looked over at darkened Room 5. She silently motioned for Mills to enter. Immediately the teacher, a tall, lanky fellow who reminded Harry of an elongated Morgan Freeman began stuffing items into his briefcase for a quick exit.  Ms. Sharperson frowned. There were numbers and equations all over the white board. Posters promoted the fun, and value, of learning algebra. Others offered a hard sell on the merits of being polite and demonstrating good citizenship.
“Hey,” Harry asked the kids in the front row, “is this an English class?”
They enthusiastically nodded yes turning to each other with raised eyebrows.
“Oh, yeah?” Harry countered, “then what are all these numbers doing all over the place?” He pointed at the numbers and problems on their papers. “These don’t look like paragraphs to me! This ain’t no English class,” Harry declared with mock indignation.
A bossy looking girl, quite a bit larger than the nearby boys, intoned, “Well, for your information, these aren’t math problems; they’re algebra,” She added while wagging her finger, “and you aren’t supposed to say ain’t when you an English teacher.”
“Well,” Harry winked, “you got me there, sweetheart.”
She immediately smiled revealing a row of gleaming braces. Harry was making a mental note of the child’s leadership ability when Sharperson barked, “Excuse me, young lady, but what kind of way is that to talk to an adult? You keep yourself quiet in a classroom unless your teacher calls on you to speak!”
The girl’s victorious smile collapsed, and she cast her eyes down on her paper. Harry regretted setting up the gregarious child for a fall. It was his fault.
Then Sharperson turned on the teacher who was now clutching his briefcase while standing halfway out the door. “Leaving so soon?” she asked.
He quietly replied, “No m’am, but I’m a sub. I thought y’all were the regular teachers.”
“How long have you been here?” Sharperson demanded.
“Since Monday.”
“Well, by now you ought to know I’m not a ‘regular teacher.’ I’m Wanda Sharperson, the principal of Darwin Middle School.”
Sharperson turned to Harry, “Exactly what room are you supposed to be in Mr. Mills?”
“Five, I guess.”
She repeated slowly, “Five. You guess.” Then she tilted her head back and cocked an eyebrow. It was threaded—tapered, too. Her credit card bills must be astronomical Harry thought. The more money you make; the more you spend, Mills remembered hearing his grandfather complain years and years ago.
He had been here at Darwin MS for less than an hour, and knew his new principal for only a matter of minutes; nonetheless, Harry longed for the fast lane of the southbound Long Beach Freeway.
Sharperson stiffly apologized for intruding, she grabbed Harry’s arm, and together they backed out the door. Oddly the physical contact comforted Mills indicating she didn’t find him repulsive. Without a word, she unlocked Room 5 and motioned for him to step inside. The lights went on, and he heard the door shut behind. He turned expecting to see Sharperson, but she was gone.
Harry sighed and surveyed his new classroom. The color a nondescript beige favored by the Big City School District for all its thousands of classrooms from the mountains to the sea. A white board graced the south wall, while an antiquated, heavily marred chalkboard stared back from west. All bulletin boards were adorned with a single strip of colored paper that failed to reach the top or bottom, exposing pocked corkboard. Scalloped borders stapled along the edge emphasized the gap. There was nothing else on the walls.
During the previous week while temporarily parked at high-performing Gibson MS, Harry, hoping to the last the year, spent several days and nearly $100 of his own money decorating his classroom only to be transferred out Friday. He couldn’t justify tearing down all the new décor he dutifully hung to create a print-rich academic atmosphere for the students. Now, pone week later in a bare classroom, he wished he did because he would have to repeat the entire process and expense. Harry knew he wouldn’t be transferred away from this dreary, low-performing school--unless a charter operator put in a bid to run the place. And that wasn't going to happen until the end of this academic year.
At least the room was relatively clean. The exterior campus was coated in the grime of relentless urban traffic. Countless cars, delivery trucks and busses rolled forever to individual destinations. Overhead, an endless parade of behemoth, lumbering passenger jets arriving from around the world loudly descended into the international airport a few miles west.
Harry shut the door and in the welcomed ensuing quiet considered the clock on the wall. It was wrong. He checked his watch. The school’s block schedule meant there was less than a half hour left before his first students arrived. He walked over to the Title 1 room, where he would find government-funded supplies for teaching in a school serving poor people. Harry was one. He got some white butcher paper and marking pens, plus some chalk.
It was the first day for Mills, so he needed to set the kids straight on procedures, rules, and consequences. Rather than stand in front dictating, he figured he would let them vote on what rules they preferred. Of course, he would discreetly steer the discussion to his five favorites: bring your own paper and pens, get there on time, immediately write down the agenda, raise your hand to leave your seat, and complete all assignments
Once that was clear and the students thought it was all their ideas, Harry would break them into groups where they would create poster-sized cause-and effect charts describing each rule’s contribution to a pleasant academic environment. Then he would hang the kids’ posters on the wall. Viola: instant student-produced décor, which would also serve as reminders of proper conduct! Harry had learned a few tricks in the previous decade teaching middle school. It was now minutes before his first students arrived. He took comfort in knowing that soon they would all be one big happy family.
Or so he thought. Principal Wanda Sharperson’s abrasive, in-your-face management style was unbearable—even if it was gussied up in stylish clothes and multi-hundred-dollar spa treatments performed by stoic Korean women who stood over the supine, naked Sharperson slathering her with expensive mud while wishing they were back working in seedy massage parlors/whorehouses of Gardena and North Hollywood--because the tips are more generous.

Look for Part 10 in a few days!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Harry Mills's Free Fall Through the Big City School District Takes Him From Heaven to Hell

Actually, School Kids are All the Same. It's the Principals That Will Devil You

Part 8 in a series of fictional stories depicting one teacher’s experience working in the nation’s second largest school district. Once again, the characters are made up and should not resemble anyone you know. This story is meant to entertain; not piss off.

By Mark J. Blocker

Teacher Harry Mills was living a dream. His students were raising their hands before they spoke. Without exception, their utterances were reasonable and offered the class discussion insights well beyond their 12 years. Former newspaperman Mr. Mills stood before his journalism class at high-performing Gibson Middle School marveling at his pupils—and his luck.
What a turn of events from the malaise seen three months earlier when he—along with the rest of the faculty—were sent packing out of perennially low-performing Missouri Compromise Middle School when the school board voted to hand the place over to a charter operator under the Public School Choice program.
Making this current situation at Gibson MS even more surprising: numerous interviews during the summer failed to provide any job offers, so the Big City School District placed Mills at this school where the API score was an impressive 850. Mills was also enjoying the picturesque, 10-mile commute to posh Green Tree Farms Peninsula.
Perhaps the BCSD figured it was his reward for his 9 years of tough service at his former school. Receding far back into his mind’s rear view mirror were the memories of shaking hands good-bye to colleagues at the Gold Coast Star when he embarked on this new challenge teaching in the beleaguered BCSD which was desperately recruiting teachers willing to serve in public schools operating inside the nation’s worst crime-ridden and gang-infested shit holes. Mills was proud he had the balls, because the students and the job put new energy and meaning into his 44-year-old life.
About six years later inner-city public school teachers weren’t heroes anymore. Media complained. These teachers are parasites . . . no wait, they’re union thugs stealing money from taxpayers. Teachers secretly hate children and buy off corrupt politicians who rubberstamp exorbitant pay and benefits. Fire all lazy and inept veteran teachers. Look at dismal test scores and high dropout rates. Bring in some young blood with fresh ideas, and pay them less. Strip away retirement and medical benefits. No one in the private sector gets summers off. In fact private sector workers never get two weeks off at Christmas nor a whole week at Easter. Mills read editorials written by unionized journalists hoping the State would go bankrupt so all public-employee contracts could be voided. Radio talk show hosts were even more repugnant and hateful in their effort to pander to their frustrated, exploited audience. Media had changed for the worse in the past decade. So had the public's perception about education.
On that sunny day at Gibson MS, Mills couldn’t care less. Ho ho.
As big, burly Mills was striding comfortably to his car after the three o’clock bell, the new principal called him into his office. The young principal was a pale, diminutive fellow. He was also the son of the local school board representative. Informing Harry of the inevitable news, the impeccably dressed and coiffed man-boy smiled while apologizing profusely. Harry listened, but he had heard it all a week before from the former principal Mr. Dooley.
“What school am I being transferred to?”
“Drawn Middle School,” answered the kid. Harry gazed around the young man’s office. The last time he was in there, Dooley was moving out and the place was bare. Now all sorts of military aircraft adorned the walls and shelves—even the desktop.
“Were you in the Air Force?”
“Oh, no,” the principal replied. “I just thought it would go well considering our proximity to the harbor. You know, maintain a maritime type of motif, heh, heh.” Harry scratched his head over that before the kid queried, “What branch of the service were you in?”
“None. When I turned 18 Carter called off the draft. We had just lost Vietnam. It was all a big mess. I just went to college,” Harry shrugged. In his younger days drinking in bars he would test potential adversaries by telling them all about his aversion to taking orders from assholes. There was no point in doing that today.  Besides, such a proclamation would require a segue into Harry bragging that he never played a down of high school football because he hated the idea of reporting to school early and having to run around in Pasadena’s August heat and smog while some burr-headed prick screamed at him. Shit, he hoped that fucker lost all his games. When young Mills thought about football, he always fantasized he was the one throwing touchdown passes, kicking game-winning field goals from 50 yards out, or delivering a bone-crunching tackle to an arrogant back who coughed up the ball recovered by, of course, Harry, who would run it back for a touchdown. But big, slow Harry Mills knew damn well that his destiny on a gridiron was anonymously blocking for every glorified jock who demanded—and received—the ball.
Fuck that. In fact, that expletive is Harry’s motto about a lot of things in life--but not about teaching ghetto kids. Harry wanted to teach kids born into disenfranchisement how to beat The Man at his own game. It was why he worked at the BCSD. So perhaps it was only fitting he was being sent back to the 'hood. But he didn’t relish the idea. He was 53 now.
Mills failed to report to Drawn MS the next day, and nobody noticed. He did, however, case the joint. He drove west along Burnrock Boulevard, past the town of Southwood, a working class burg boasting warehouses, trucking companies, factories and 2X1 tract homes built right after World War II. Many of the houses had been expanded, often without concern for maintaining architectural integrity. Oh well, if the code enforcers didn’t mind, neither did Harry.
The road curved slightly and Harry entered the area called Burnrock Gardens. The houses became old bungalows and a few two-stories with the wood siding replaced by stucco. The larger homes were long ago converted into apartments. Every window, even the vents, had bars. Storefronts became vacant or peddled second-hand junk. Mechanics hand painted their signage with misspelled words. Within a few blocks, Harry couldn’t differentiate between business signs and spray-painted graffiti.
The next day, rather than report, he phoned Drawn MS to introduce himself to the principal. She wasn’t available. The lady who answered had Mills repeat his name and took his phone number.
A half hour later his cell phone rang, and the words shot out like a barrage of gunfire. It was the first of what would be many salvos aimed at destroying his will to teach.
“This is Wanda Sharperson, principal at Drawn Middle School. I have a few questions to ask just to be sure were on the same page.”
“First off, are you a problem identifier or a problem solver?”
Mills figured she wanted to know if he bitched a lot.
“I pretty much mind my own business,” he said.
“How do you get along with parents?”
“That’s good, because if you come to work here you will have to sign a memorandum of understanding that you will call each and every one of them to introduce yourself.”
Harry didn’t say anything.
“Yes, ma’am.”
“What is your attendance like?”
“Well, average, I guess.”
“You need to be here before 7:20. Classes start at 7:30 sharp, and I don’t like it when teachers come rushing in at 7:29. I will dock your pay.”
Harry got there at 6:40, but the gates were locked. He parked on Burnrock and waited. At 6:45, a custodian drove up in a golf cart and unlocked the gate. Mills drove in, and things went down hill from there.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

After Fruitless Job Interviews Yield Sour Grapes, Harry Gets Parked Inside High-Achieving School

A take on the ol' bait-n-switch routine gives displaced teacher a peek inside the front office of a high-performing school

By Mark J. Blocker

The following is Part 7 in a series of fictional stories depicting the odyssey of displaced teacher Harry Mills of the Big City School District. It is written solely for the entertainment of readers. Any similarities to persons living or dead is coincidental. Click the archives on the right for previous chapters. Enjoy!

In Southern California, late August and early September will mix steamy air from Mexico with exhaust from a million indigenous engines. Harry Mills, wondering where he was going to be teaching English the following week, stood on his condominium balcony in the mid-day September 1st sun gazing across Long Beach at the opaque air that saturated the industrial harbor.
Interviews over the course of summer netted zero job offers for Mr. Mills, a 9-year veteran displaced from the only school he had ever taught, after the Big City School District decided to disown the place and give it to a charter operator which promised to cheat during the annual State academic tests by illegally showing to students answers beforehand so interested scholars could memorize them. The clandestine endeavor can sometimes pay dividends in poor neighborhoods where students are often motivated with coupons for 5% discounts at ubiquitous fast food outlets offering prefabricated junk food, high in saturated fat, slid under graffiti-marred yet bullet-proof, thick panels of polymer-resins.
On this late summer day, a solitary seagull reigned atop a telephone pole eyeing Harry who was momentarily fascinated by the flock of pigeons balancing themselves on a wire stretched above the summer traffic inching north and south along Pacific Coast Highway.
Harry thought he smelled a little marine salt air through the smog. A car alarm was blaring from somewhere off in the distance. He wondered who had the balls to break into cars in broad daylight. Then from inside his condo, the phone began ringing through the open window.
“This is Sapphire Townes with the BCSD personnel division. May I speak to Harold Mills please?”
“This is he.”
“Mr. Mills, I’m calling to inform you that the district has placed you at Gibson Middle School for the coming year.”
“That’s what I said, sir.”
What’s the catch? Of course Harry didn’t ask that out loud. He didn’t want to piss her off. She could retaliate by sending him to some sinking ship--like Drawn Middle School on the northern border of the slum, Volts. Before the previous academic year closed, Harry was warned by other teachers in the know to avoid any schools moving up on the District’s list of lost causes to be auctioned off to interested charter operators poised to convert them into cash cows for crony administrators ready to exploit the next generation of laid-off teachers willing to sign one-year contracts bereft of union protections and benefits. Harry merely thanked her and hung up.
Gibson is located in the posh Green Tree Farms Peninsula of Big City’s expansive school district. The area hadn’t cultivated a wholesale crop in decades. It is all ocean and harbor view estates inhabited by people who sent their kids to private schools while frowning every morning as big yellow busses arrived delivering children from working class neighborhoods and housing projects from the flat lands.
But those kids, 90% Hispanic and Black, went into that predominantly White and Asian neighborhood with business on their expanding minds. They maintained an API score of 850; meaning, they were excellent students operating at or above grade level. Harry’s last venue, Missouri Compromise Middle School, slouched every year to an API in the low 500s. A score of 1,000 is perfect; and any score higher than 900 is rarely seen in California outside of a few affluent enclaves.
Back now outside leaning on the railing, Harry calculated the numbers while gazing toward Green Tree Peninsula less than 10 miles west. He could barely make out its prominent peak through the midday haze. So close yet so far away, he thought while looking down toward the sea of cramped apartment buildings and their chalky, cracked stucco rising above the curled tar paper roofs and rotted wood siding of two-bedroom bungalows centered upon expansive, dead lawns.
An hour later Mills was eagerly driving over to Gibson to introduce himself and verify whether his good fortune was real or just a mirage.
“We don’t know anything about that,” answered a woman whose hair switched from black and gray after a quarter inch to a luxuriant brown that fell to her tanned shoulders. She turned to her partner, a bleach blonde busy frowning at the aged CRT that took up more than half of her desk. She distractedly shook her head, never removing her squinting eyes from the tube. Harry maintained his smile while drumming his fingertips on the front counter. During the ensuing awkward silence Harry’s tapping became the major sound so he abruptly stopped.
“Perhaps the principal knows something?” Harry suggested.
She shrugged and strode off to an adjacent office.
“Huh?” boomed a man’s voice from the room. After a pause, “From where?” More whispering. “Missouri Comp . . . aw, hell n…”
He was cut off by the woman’s urgent, breathy, “Shhh! He’s out front.”
She returned, smiling. “Mr. Dooley will be right with you.”
Dooley wasn’t smiling when he came out. He had beads of perspiration on his ebony forehead that was framed on three sides by a three-inch Afro. Harry hadn’t seen one of those in years. Meanwhile, Dooley could have been thinking the same thing about Harry’s archaic ponytail, wondering whether this fool was a burned-out hippie or bad-ass biker. Sweat off Harry’s own brow rolled down to flood his right cornea. Harry pulled his glasses away before wiping with the back of his hand his stinging eye. Harry blinked, worrying that Dooley might think he was winking at him.
Dooley stood in the breeze of the ladies’ oscillating fan and apologized. “Sorry, Mills, we don’t have air conditioning around here. We’re supposed to rely on the sea breeze, but it doesn’t come around much this time of year.”
Harry looked around and saw all the windows closed.
“Making matters worse, none of the windows open up,” Dooley noted. “The district sealed them up for security years ago when they installed all these expensive computers.”
“So Brenda and me pooled our money and bought this fan yesterday,” interjected the 50-something blonde.
Dooley invited Harry into his hill-top office where an open door provided some relief and a picturesque view of the harbor cranes and silo-sized storage tanks of highly flammable butane. It sure beats graffiti and cinderblock walls, Harry thought, as Dooley excused himself to dial district headquarters on his rotary phone to confirm Harry’s placement.
Through the receiver Mills could hear the woman on the other end. He recognized the voice as the same lady who called him two hours earlier. Mills overheard her informing Dooley, “It’s just until we can place him at another school where there’s always leftover unfilled positions.” Dooley nodded at this while watching Harry to see if he heard it too. Harry’s cheer rapidly dissipated. Dooley gently cradled the receiver.
After a pause, Dooley announced, “Welcome aboard, Mr. Mills!” It echoed off the bare walls of the sparsely furnished office. Dooley extended to Harry a hand as empty as his proclamation. Expressionless, Harry stared at the hand before lifting his gaze toward Dooley’s faltering grin. Dooley exhaled loudly and plopped back into his executive chair, which creaked while he slowly leaned back to prepare his confession.
“Look, Mills. This is Gibson—the jewel of the BCSD. No teacher gets in here unless they’re National Board Certified, have a master’s degree, 10 years unblemished service within the district. Hell, even then you need to go through a series of interviews downtown to be considered. We haven’t had an opening in years.”
Harry nodded sadly.
“Even I’m out of here,” Dooley offered while gesturing within the nearly vacant office. Harry had been wondering why the room was devoid of personal artifacts. “The incoming principal is the son of the school board member who represents this local district.”
“Where are you going?”
Dooley nodded gravely, “District H. North of the 105."
The 105 Freeway is the southern border of Big City’s urban core that 15 years ago was damn near burned to the ground during riots sparked by the acquittal of five White cops secretly videotaped clubbing the shit out of a lone Black drunk who tried to flee from them in a gutless, four-cylinder car on an empty stretch of suburban freeway in the middle of a weeknight. No one would have known about the beating had not the amateur videographer offered the tape to a local TV station.
Harry’s last school, Missouri Compromise was a stone’s throw south of Big City’s former economic demarcation line that was rapidly fading as more of the metropolis sank below the poverty line.
Which brings us back to Drawn Middle School. On the third day of school, Harry received another phone call. He was being transferred to the dilapidated campus located on the north end of the infamous slum, Volts. Drawn MS was a long way from the freshly painted and meticulously swept campus of Gibson MS.
Perhaps more importantly though, it was also far removed from the gleaming high-rise downtown office building that housed elite administrators running the nation’s largest school district.
Inside the elevator descending down through the bowels of BCSD headquarters stood Wanda Sharperson clutching her purse and grinding her teeth. Her days overseeing 25 principals dispersed far beyond her 25th floor window were over. Now she would be down and dirty as the principal overseeing the faculty, staff and students at low-performing Drawn MS. She was going to clean house. Within 10 working days she had some old ponytailed bastard named Harry Mills in her crosshairs.

Look for the conclusion in less than a week! (Hopefully) -- Blocker