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?

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Principal Turns Up the Heat on Weary English Teacher While Across the Street a Dog Lies Down in the Sun

Weekly Vocabulary Words Spell Trouble As Do the Bare Walls of His Drab Classroom Inside Low-Performing, Demoralized School

The following is the 10th installment of a series of “fictional” stories detailing the final days of a teacher’s employment within the Los Angeles Unified School District. The names of the characters and locales have been changed because when the series started, the author was still employed by the LAUSD and thought it wise to cover his ass in case somebody with power read this blog and decided to fire him despite what would, of course, be disapointingly futile intervention by his expensive union that is always too busy anyway resisting sensible change. Now, after resigning and enjoying gainful employment in another, highly functioning public school district 200 miles away, the author is considering naming names and identifying the fouled-up schools. Until then, enjoy the story which is written more to amuse the reader than promote a political agenda.

By Mark J. Blocker

So called “experts” in the field of contemporary education advocate doing away with weekly vocabulary words. Instead, they recommend teaching vocabulary solely within the context of what the students read. Meaning—no weekly vocabulary words pulled out of a teacher's ass. Teach words gleaned from the literature surveyed during the course.
Harry Mills, a nine-year veteran teacher and refugee from the publishing business only partly agrees. By all means, study selected words from reading materials, but also instruct students on how to identify patterns in words. Do this by employing a systematic, weekly vocabulary program stressing spelling and usage of words with common structure.

Some would agree
It was early in the 2009 academic year when Mills was sitting in the office of Ms. Moon, his principal at the now-defunct Missouri Compromise Middle School asking her permission to continue augmenting his curriculum with weekly vocabulary words—in addition to vocabulary from that year's literature.
She answered, “Although the (Big City School District) prefers you teach vocabulary in the context of literature, I’m not going to dissuade you from continuing your vocabulary program, Mr. Mills. It seems you’ve thought this over well and have planned out a rigorous course of study with high expectations for your students. It also adheres to California content standards for language arts in your grade level. So I’m fine with it.”
“Thank you, Ms. Moon.”
Getting up from her desk she smiled, “Besides, I had weekly vocabulary words as a child. So did you. And we turned out fairly literate and educated.”
Mills liked and respected his principal Ms. Moon. He admired the way she administered a tough urban school despite her diminutive stature and quiet demeanor. She was the opposite of Harry, who used his big size, loud voice and bombastic instructional style—and a lot of self deprecating humor—to disarm his ghetto born-and-bred students—plus the ESL children secreted across the border sometime during the not-too-distant past.
It was a shame the BCSD Board handed over Missouri Compromise to a private charter operator, despite the retiring superintendent’s recommendation that Ms. Moon and her faculty be awarded stewardship of the school.
A study later released by the University of California suggested schools operated independently by district staff outperformed charters. Furthering the insult, crooked charters were getting popped left and right for doctoring scores and giving students the answers to State standardized tests that measure a school's performance. Furthermore, members of the public and some staff were complaining about the School Board’s collusion with charter operators. The relationship was so fraught with illegalities that, after conferring with the teacher’s union, the new superintendent issued an edict declaring that proposals from current BCSD employees “should be strongly considered” before bids from private, for-profit charter school companies. To avert yet another lawsuit in an otherwise unending series, the Board agreed via a unanimous vote conducted out of the public eye. That's about as much consolation now to Mills as a low-tar cigarette and cure for cancer are to a cooling corpse.

Back in the principal’s office
So there he sat, now late September 2011, in the office of Wanda Sharperson, his new principal at his new, low-performng school--defending his vocabulary lessons once again. But this time it was to no avail.
“Please understand that I also teach vocabulary in the context of the literature," Mills pleaded. "It’s just that I believe students need a program where they are taught patterns of words. I start out with long and short vowel sounds, then cover singular versus plurals, then we go on to Greek and Latin roots and so forth,” Harry explained while Sharperson closed her eyes and shook her head side to side.
She bared her teeth. “You must teach vocabulary in the context of the literature, sir. It’s a mandate from the district. It’s a mandate from me.”
“But these kids need . . .”
These kid,” she interrupted, “They are our students, our children, sir!”
Mills momentarily imagined he was married to Sharperson, and they were fruitfully multiplying, producing offspring. Little Mills-Sharpersons running around greater LA. She wasn’t bad looking, but God, was she turning out to be a bitch. Mills, now wizened in his mid 50s, chuckled to himself trying to calculate how many young dopes eventually end up with a similar mantra.
“Is there something amusing, sir?"
“No ma’am”
“Well, I don’t need you here dumbing down my curriculum and laughing about it,” she snarled.

Deployed to a dying school
Mills absorbed the reality of Sharperson’s hostility. He also contemplated the irony of dumbing down a school which the previous year had an even lower API than the school from which he came. Yep. The BCSD had displaced Mills from one abandoned sinking ship, Missouri Compromise, to another that was in the final year of “program improvement.” Only this one was so demoralized that the staff wasn’t even bothering to write a proposal to operate it. What’s worse, no private charter operator wanted it. And here was Sharperson, a raving lunatic of a captain, waving her verbal sword at Harry while he considered his options: 1) Kiss the bitch’s ass and suck up the shit; or 2) Roll the dice like he did 10 years ago at the shrinking newspaper and switch careers in mid-life.

Your room is ugly, too
Then Sharperson raised the ante higher. “And what about your room? You’ve been here two weeks now, and except for those posters your kids made the first day the walls are still bare! May I remind you, Mr. Mills, that State standards for the teaching profession require you to create a text-rich environment conducive to learning? A pleasant, culturally inclusive environment for your students.”
“I know, I know,” Mills stammered. “It’s just that I spent two weeks and over two hundred dollars of my own money at the start of this academic year to get my former classroom at Gibson prepared, and then I was abruptly transferred here.”
“I had nothing to do with that! You could’ve brought your materials along with you.”
“I suppose so, but it seemed a shame to rip apart the room after the children seemed to enjoy it. Those materials were geared toward 6th graders anyway. I’m now teaching 7th.” Harry thought about the 10 years worth of class decor and supplies he left behind at Missouri Compromise.
Mills assured Sharperson he'd set up the room, then he walked out of her office about as pissed as he had been in years. He placed his hand over his heart to check if it was pounding. It wasn’t. He slid his tongue over the top and bottom molars on his right side to see if they were grinded down to nubs. They weren’t.

Life beyond school
As he walked along the grimy, hock and gum-stained halls of Darwin MS toward his unprofessional classroom, Harry gazed though the 10-foot-tall, fortified-iron fence and across Payton Avenue toward the business across the street. There was the garishly painted “Rodriguez Tranmisones” in hand-rendered red letters across high-gloss blue enamel on cinderblock walls. Ol’ Rodriguez was there, legs sticking out from under a 32-year-old, root-beer-brown dented Toyota Corona. Lounging in the sun was Rodriguez’s German Shepherd who, despite his apparent freedom from chains and fences, seldom ventured far from the patch of sunlight that moved back down the driveway as the workday wore on.
Harry unlocked his classroom door. Despite the summer sun, the hall and room were cold and dark thanks to overgrown fichus trees planted years ago along the parkway and now lifting up chunks of sidewalk and street causing tires to loudly slap as they rolled over the ripples and cracks all day.
Harry turned back to the dog he nicknamed Sunshine. Miraculously their eyes met despite the ongoing traffic between them. The prostrate dog’s tail lazily lifted up then fell back down. He slowly gathered himself and sat up to look at the strange teacher across the street. It was almost like he wanted to come over. Then he lied back down again. Harry observed the dog's deep sigh, and took a nice deep breath himself.
There was about 20 more minutes until his first batch of students would arrive, so Mills went over to the Title 1 room to see if there were any available materials with which to decorate the room.
Ms. Jefferson, who reminded Harry of Red Fox's antagonistic sister in law on Sanford & Son, sternly stared back at Harry. She listened to Mills, frowned, and shook her head no. “You need to go to a teachers supply store. We don’t have anything like that.”
“OK, thanks.” Mills muttered before returning to his room. Back inside he sat down and surveyed the drab walls. Sharperson was right, the room is ugly. This whole school is ugly. My entire career is now fucked up and ugly as all hell, Mills fumed.
He shrugged, went back outside and gazed across the street back at Rodriguez and his decrepit cars and satisfied dog. Then the bell rang, and soon the students would arrive. They'd make Mills feel better. They were they reason why he got into this business in the first place.
First to arrive was Aaron Rodriguez, a big boy with a tousled mop of black hair who kind of reminded Mills of himself when he was a kid.
“Hey Rodriguez," Mills asked, "is that your dad’s shop over there across the street?”
“No. My Dad’s in jail, mister.”
“Oh, ho! His Daddy be locked up,”taunted Ray-Ray Jackson. Ray-Ray was the kid in the previous story with a fist full of Red Vine licorice who was the first student to introduce himself when Harry arrived at Darwin three weeks ago.
“Shut yo ass, Ray-Ray! Yo’ daddy a muthahfuckin dead nikka cuz he . . .” With that, the two lads tore at each other and commenced fighting like a pair of bucks trying to sharpen sprouting horns.
“Here we go,” Mills said while thrusting his arms between the two.
It was going to be a trying day at Darwin MS—where only the strong survive.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Is This New Principal an Insufferable Bitch or Does Harry Mills Have a Red Ass After Getting Jerked Around ?

Read and Decide for Yourself!

The following story is written by a teacher who recently quit the Los Angeles Unified School District figuring LAUSD is a conflicted, rudderless sinking ship captained by fools clueless about public education. The following are fictional characters intended to resemble actual people. Thank you for visiting Blocker’s Blog after its hiatus during which the author was busy relocating halfway to San Francisco. Happy reading!

By Mark J. Blocker

Harry Mills’s classroom at Darwin MS in the Beatrice-Burnwood section of Big City faced east toward the rising sun, but thanks to a row of overgrown fichus trees the place is in perpetual darkness.
His first period conference over, Harry was standing outside his door to greet the arriving parade of 7th-grade students for second period. They all paused before entering to eye their new teacher--his long ponytail, gray goatee, western style shirt with snap pearl buttons, khaki cargo pants and sneakers.
“Who da fuck are you?” It was an honest but vulgar inquiry shouted by a short, wiry lad with caramel skin and matching hair. He bit off another chunk of his Red Vine licorice rope and chewed with his mouth open waiting for an answer.
Harry slumped his shoulders and shook his head to display disappointment at the boy’s selection of words.
“I am Mr. Mills, and you are . . .”
The boy interrupted, “You a sub?”
“Nope. I am here for good.”
“Damn,” he muttered before entering the room.
Harry thought about calling him back to discuss proper classroom vocabulary, but he let the inquisitive student walk since virtually every passing child in the hall was insulting each other using profanities and epithets describing genitalia and excrement.
“Don’t get too comfortable. We will have assigned seats,” Harry warned students milling about the room. They responded with groans and a chorus of cursing. He knew it would take days to screw down pupils running amuck after a parade of indifferent substitute teachers mostly concerned with surviving til the day’s final bell.
Harry tried to log on the school’s aged computer to scan his roster and build a seating chart. Access Denied—Username and Password Terminated. Nobody at Darwin had yet set up his account. His prior school, high-performing Gibson MS in posh Green Tree Estates, wasted no time in shutting down his access when he was transferred back into the ghetto. Mills thought it would be nice if the district were equally as responsive in setting teachers up as it was at shutting them down.
Mills told the class the seating chart would have to wait for another day. The kids cheered like it was New Years Eve1999. The kid who previously interacted with Harry at the door pulled out a fist of Red Vines, bit off the end of one and began offering the remainder to surrounding colleagues. Harry admired his generosity while frowning at the inconspicuous flouting of a common classroom rule.
“Hey! No eating in cla . . .” Harry quit. No kid could hear him anyway, and he didn’t want to yell above the din. It would only increase the volume and raise his blood pressure. Instead, he folded his arms and silently frowned at the bedlam. In less than a minute the kids sheepishly returned to their desks.
“This shouldn’t surprise you, but just like all your other teachers I’d prefer you refrain from eating in class.”
“What the fuck ‘re-frain’ mean?”
The rest of the day unfolded with no surprises. Mills was pleased that each class eventually settled down enabling him to launch a discussion of class procedures, rules and consequences. Afterward, he assigned each class their first project—in groups of four construct cause-and-effect charts detailing reasons for each rule. While the students were busy in groups of four planning and drawing their posters, Mills surveyed each class confident he could establish reasonable control and in a few days begin the business of teaching what the State wanted 7th-graders to learn.

Waiting 45 minutes for a 3-minute meeting
Two days passed. On Wednesday during his first period conference Harry was planning curriculum when the classroom phone rang.
“Mr. Mills? Ms. Sharperson, our principal, wants to see you in her office immediately.”
Harry went down to the front. Her office door was closed. A tall woman who seldom looked up from her computer told Mills, “Have a seat, Ms. Sharperson is in a meeting.”
Harry turned to a bank of plastic chairs along the back wall. All were marred with nauseating stains; pressed gum; and threatening graffiti scrawled with thick, felt-tipped pens. Harry found a reasonably clean chair and carefully sat down. It was missing a screw. He nearly fell on his ass. He hoisted himself back onto his feet, clasped his hands and began perusing flyers tacked on a cork bulletin board.
Several notices warned against discriminating, sexually harassing, and leaving early. One listed names and phone numbers of staff charged with fielding complaints about offensive behavior. The rest promoted events that occurred last year.
Harry also watched the clock. Its second hand fell down then began climbing up again signaling a half hour had passed. Harry started wondering what Sharperson’s closed-door meeting was about. Maybe she was getting ready to fire his ass. Had he discriminated against a student? Alarmed, he was soon internally fretting over whether he sexually harassed a child. Sweet bearded Jesus, I could be a racist pervert! Inside that shut office a sheriff’s deputy could be writing down charges while Sharperson nodded, a parent fumed and a child shed tears.
Harry was relieved when the door opened and three testosterone-drenched, crew-cut PE teachers--one of them male—exited and strode out toward the gymnasium. Sharperson, after glancing at Mills, shut her door leaving him outside. Realizing his new boss was wasting his time Harry’s relief morphed into anger. He mutely tried to make eye contact with the office lady, but she remained focused on her screen.  So Harry approached, and she quickly tapped her keyboard before springing off her chair. She smoothed her skirt before walking over to Sharperson’s solid oak door. Harry noticed she had long legs wrapped in lacy stockings. Stiletto heels of her glistening black shoes echoed off the worn, beige linoleum. Harry calmed down a little.
“Yes?” the principal replied to light rapping upon the door.
“Mr. Mills is here.”
Sharperson let silence fulminate before she answered, “I’m aware, thanks.”
The office lady shrugged before strutting back to her computer.
Five minutes later Sharperson opened her door again. “Come in, sir.”
Harry wondered whether he was overreacting. Never in nine years at Missouri Compromise had any of the six rotating principals kept him waiting. They usually dropped by his classroom, affably smiling and unnecessarily apologetic. Harry assured visiting administrators that they were always welcome in his classroom. This odd environment at Darwin MS offered a stark contrast to his prior working conditions.
“Sit down,” Sharperson said from behind her desk while scratching the tip of her expensive looking pen against a stack of papers. “I wanted to ask you why you thought you had to call . . .uh . . . Ashley Gracia’s house.”
“You mean Monica Garcia,” Harry corrected.
“Yes, that’s it. I apologize.”
“She’s been tardy every day.”
“I looked at your attendance forms and saw you were always marking her tardy. By the way, why are you submitting your attendance manually? We’re on an automated system here.”
“I can’t log on.”
“And you contacted Mr. Nerlman to set up your account?"
“Everyday I go by the attendance office asking when I can get on.”
“It’s not the attendance office’s responsibility to get you on.”
“I thought they could point me in the right direction.”
Sharperson sighed, picked up her phone and pressed a couple buttons. “Mister Nerlman, this is Wanda Sharperson, principal at Darwin Middle School.”
Sharperson held the receiver away from her ear. Harry gazed at her long red fingernails and the large golden hoop earring that swung behind corkscrew curls that reflected light from the bare incandescent bulb dangling from the ceiling of yellowed acoustic tiles.
She hung up and announced, “That took all of two minutes. I’d really appreciate if you could take care of things like that on your own Mr. Mills. I’m very busy.”
Harry didn’t respond. He furrowed his brow. He spent a few moments trying to read the spreadsheets she was signing. Harry looked up and Sharperson was staring at him over her lenses. They locked eyes. Sharperson leaned back in her creaking wooden armchair.

To-do list: 128 phone calls
“How are your other calls coming along?” she asked.
“What calls?” Harry answered, knowing full well she was inquiring about. During their initial meeting Sharperson apprised Harry that she required all teachers to telephone their students’ parents to introduce themselves. She even made Mills sign a form agreeing to perform the calls. Harry figured it was forgettable bureaucratic bullshit no one really expected to get done. Wrong.
“I’ve made several calls. Mostly about behavior and attendance.”
“You’re supposed to call every parent and introduce yourself. Have you accomplished this yet, sir?”
“I’m unclear on the process. Is there an office and school telephone I can use to make these calls? The phone in my room only connects to campus phones. I also need to know when I’m supposed to do this--during my conference period? After school?”
“To answer your first question, most teachers prefer to use their own phones and make the calls from their home during the evenings or on weekends. May I remind you your conference periods are for just that—conferences, so yes, you may call parents during that time. But you need to get this accomplished soon, sir, or you will be subject to punitive measures. You signed a binding agreement that you would make these calls. Would you like to review it?” With that Sharperson slid the form across her desk toward Harry.
He stared back at her. She was going to be a hostile boss.
By the time she let Harry get back to his classroom, the tardy bell already rang. His unsupervised kids were chasing each other around the empty corridor, tossing candy wrappers, conducting loogie contests and slamming their fists into rusty lockers. Mills unlocked his door so the kids could shove each other inside.

The “secret” solution
At lunch, Mills saw Ms. Simpson, a 30-year-teacher also displaced out Missouri Compromise when the school board handed the place over to a charter operator. But unlike Harry, Ms. Simpson was personally hired by Sharperson months earlier. Ms. Simpson was friendly, but she let it known she didn’t like bullshit. Harry heard she once verbally bit the head off a condescending assistant principal at Missouri Compromise who had blamed her for an incident where a student hid behind in her classroom and while she was gone for a few minutes ransacked her purse and trashed the room. Harry never did ask her about that, but he did inquire about her relationship with Sharperson.
“I’ve never had any problems with her, “ Ms. Simpson shrugged, “but nobody better mess with me or I’ll walk out. I have loads of sick time in the bank and enough years to retire right now.”
“What about these phone calls we have to make to parents?”
“Use Ed-Connect. Don’t waste your time dialing every number! Half of them won’t answer, and if they do they’re drunk or crazy or something.”
Harry had forgotten about Ed-Connect. Back at Missouri Compromise he used the automated system all the time. To phone a student’s house, a teacher simply clicked a name and selected the appropriate message from a long menu that offered a variety of common teacher-parent missives for both good news and bad. Harry remembered that one available selection was an introductory call to welcome the parent’s child to class.
The million-dollar price tag of Ed-Connect garnered the attention of the city’s newspaper, which soon began a series of articles examining all Big City School District expenditures. This generated letters from readers complaining that the teachers’ union was controlling the budget and wasting taxpayers’ money on unnecessary luxuries instead of investing in the children. Why couldn’t these lazy communist teachers who are ruining our country dial a telephone like their predecessors?
But Harry had another big question. Why didn’t Sharperson suggest he use Ed-Connect instead of demanding he personally dial each parent? He asked around and sure enough every teacher used the system. None used their own phone. Sharperson was apparently trying to make Harry’s job more difficult than it already was.
Two days later, Sharperson and some suit from downtown visited Mills class and turned the heat up even higher.