It's been a long time since I have posted a blog. I guess with the budget cuts to California public schools, all the cutting of jobs, pink slips and bumping I lost track of time. I did get my job back 5 days before school started this school year (2010/2011) and was overjoyed! I was not given a pink slip for this coming school year so I am very grateful! Why no pink slip for next year, not really sure could be due to Obama's education money that finally made its way to the school districts. I can tell you that the budget cuts and the bumping in education here is horrible. But that's another story...
I am really writing because I came across an editorial recently while on vacation up in the central coast area of California. One morning while sipping coffee and reading the local paper (Monterey Herald) I stumbled upon this editorial and quickly found myself in tears. I am a teacher because I truly love children and I find it FUN to teach them and see their minds expanded and enlightened. During my years of teaching in Kennett I taught at DREAMERS (Former alternative school which served several school districts). I found those students wonderful and challenging in so many ways. This was the place to be if you wanted to make a difference in education. For one reason or the other these students didn't make it in the public school system and as a last resort joined us at DREAMERS. I still remember so many of those wonderful kids who just really needed someone to believe in them, speak gently to them and take them by the hand. Someone to take an interest in their education. At times they needed a mom, sometimes they needed a friend, but all times they needed love. We were able to do this at DREAMERS because our class sizes were very small and each student really got the special attention they so very much needed. It is because of this experience I had at DREAMERS that my heart breaks for these children and YES MR. GATES, CLASS SIZE MATTERS FOR STUDENTS WITH LITTLE!
Class Size Matters for Students with Little
By Paul Karrer
Bill Gates recently claimed class size doesn't matter. Mr. Gates, I need to talk to you about soap.
I teach fifth grade in Castroville. One of my former students, Rojelio (Ro for short), sends me powerful and disturbing gifts. He is 27 now and freshly released from prison. His gifts, although welcomed because they represent an ongoing 17-year teacher-student bond, unnerve me.
Ro says they are for "hanging with him all these years." His gifts have included a newspaper belonging to Charles Manson (a Christian Science Monitor) and four Sudoku puzzles completed by Sirhan Sirhan. Today he gave me a bar of soap. Inscribed on it are three letters: PIA -- Prison Industries Authority.
My student has been incarcerated for 13-plus years, since he was an eighth-grader. He got the newspaper and the Sudoku puzzles when he was on the same tier as Charles Manson and Sirhan Sirhan at Corcoran. He played chess, a game I taught him in fifth grade, with both men.
Rojelio's mom called me. "Mr. Karrer, Ro is coming home on Sunday. Can you straighten his ass out? We're having a party for him. You wanna come?"
Can I straighten him out? Probably not. Will I keep on trying to help him? Yes.
So, today, right after class, we met at Starbucks. He spotted me and walked to my car, big grin under his nose. He had put on lots of weight. Last time I saw him was in Salinas Valley State Prison, over two years ago. He was in ankle chains, waist chains, then chained from his waist to his ankles, and handcuffed.
But today we hugged, and he passed me a paper cup with the soap in it. He said, "Got a present for you, pretty rare. I'm surprised the correction officers let me take it out. It's worth a couple bucks on e-Bay." He laughed and added, "Plus, with the cutbacks, we only get half a bar now."
He didn't get an education in prison. I have sincere worries that he was in no way rehabilitated. He has little to show for 13 years of incarceration. Basically, he walked out of prison with one thing and he gave that to me -- a prison issue bar of soap.
Mr. Gates, you don't get it. Those of us teaching in urban areas see communities and children wallowing in pitiful, desperate poverty. You have no idea how distressed my students are. Nor how slim their margin of survival is.
Last year, 50 percent of my students had set foot in a jail or a prison to visit a family member. The many staggering deficiencies that accompany that reality are overwhelming and swirl around in a negative critical mass, pulling down students' academics, motivation and life's bright shine.
Rojelio is the end product of that wretched poverty. And unfortunately, he's not alone. Armies of kids are in line behind him waiting to join gangs.
You say good teachers are the most important variable in a classroom. Well, you are wrong. It is home life, or lack thereof. All teachers can do is assist. I'd like to think I do. If you think we are so important, then aid us -- by helping these kids who need the most. So many of my kids end up in jail or prison.
Actually, in communities of raw despondence, smaller class size does matter. It's one of the very few things that can impact the despondence of their daily lives. But you think it doesn't, and you are a billionaire. I'm just a front-line teacher. What do I know?
As for Ro, the odds are stacked against him. He's never been in a plane, never held a meaningful job, didn't finish school past eighth grade. He's a validated gang member and a felon with one strike. There's a 60 percent recidivism rate waiting for him.
As for me, I missed Ro's coming back party, but I'm going over for dinner. I also hope I won't be receiving any more presents from him.
Class size matters, Bill Gates, it matters big time. You need to clean up your thinking. And if you want to borrow some soap to do it, I have some ... unfortunately.
Paul Karrer teaches in Castroville and writes on educational issues for this page.
PS Over the past few years while visiting in Kennett, I will run into or hear news of a student I had while at DREAMERS. It always thrills me to know that some of them are much better off today because they were able to complete their education and now have jobs and seem to be better citizens. We were able to help some of them, and that makes me so happy. That is why I teach!!