The Day Job

A while ago I started a new job helping tutoring students in remedial reading at a Metro-Detroit high school.   I don’t work for the school itself; I work for a not-for-profit that has been running reading programs in the Detroit area for a few years now and has recently added a high school to the list of K-8 schools they serve.  Working in a high school is a new experience for this organization, and I am a part of the experiment.  At this point, though, I’ve spent more time at the school than at the not-for-profit and the majority of my dealings have been with the students and the teachers at the school; I identify more with the school than the not-for-profit that I work for.

The building where I work is a beautiful late 19th/early 20th American translation on the neoclassical Italian villa (see picture) with yellow brick and limestone.  Unfortunately, the area surrounding it has been ravaged by neglect — there are more vacant lots than houses, and, of the houses that remain, many are abandoned ruins.  Forty years ago, this was a solidly middle-class area, with a mix of elaborate and more modest wood-frame and brick houses and small businesses.  Then Detroit changed; the whites moved in droves to the other side of eight mile, the manufacturing jobs left the area, tax revenues dried up, stores closed or moved to the suburban malls and this is what is left.  Our school has between400 and 500 students.  Of those, only 3 are not African-American.  According to the city of Detroit, only 4 students in my school do not qualify for the free lunch program (so over 99% of our students live at or below what the state defines as the “poverty level”).  According to my co-workers, many of the students come from homes where there is not enough heat or food; one of the big motivations for attendance is lunch and a warm, safe place to spend the day.

When the students arrive in the morning, they have to pass through metal detectors and have their bags inspected by security guards.  The interior of the school is extremely shabby — broken windows patched with tape, crumbling plaster, leaking roofs, peeling paint, etc., are commonplace.  Perhaps the cash-strapped school district has held off on maintenance because next year the students at this school will be combined with another school and they will be going to a new school building that is under construction right now.   However, education, money, politics, corruption and tax issues have been  conspiring together for so long in Detroit that most of the teachers and coaches at the school I talk to seem skeptical of the promises that the city has been making for so long.  And these students are caught in this endless cycle: they are poor because they are badly educated and they are badly educated because they are poor.

I am impressed by most of the teachers I have met; they seem to accept the facts of the situation and have not all given up.  But the political climate in Detroit and Michigan does not look good for them.  In every election cycle, the teacher’s unions come under fire for the abuses and excesses of some of their members and many Detroiters seem to accept the idea that if a few people at a few Detroit schools are corrupt or lazy, well, then they must all be and the only way to “solve” the problem is to punish everyone for the sins of the few.  And this seems to result in telling the schools, again and again, that they have to do more with less every year.  After decades of this, the schools are, in some ways, barely functional… a result that seems to surprise no one who actually works there.

My organization has a small classroom with 4-5 tutors in it.  These tutors each work with as many students as we can in a day, spending an hour with each student for one-on-one training.  We work with magnetic letter-boards that have letters and word parts (including common letter combinations like “ing,” “sh,” “ch,” “pro,” ect.) and try to illustrate the principles of how words are composed of parts, that the letter “e” makes a different sound in different words, etc., and then we usually do some reading together.  Most of my students are boys and most of them are in the 11th grade, but they read at around a 7th – 8th grade level.  From working with them, I can tell that these kids are not stupid, they have just never been properly taught the basics of reading and probably have never spent any time reading outside of school.  In contrast, in my own childhood I was constantly inspired to read and given books.  I suspect that being raised in homes where books are always available and someone is reading stories to the very young children every night is the difference.  I want to believe that it is never too late, but trying to help a teenager gain the skills that he or she should have gained seven or eight years earlier is hard work for both the student and the tutor.

One of the biggest problems for my students seems to be reading comprehension.  We will sit down to read a short chapter of 800 – 1000 words written at a 7th grade level, and, after we are done, I will ask the student to ‘sum it up in your own words.’  One of the chapters is about Leonidas and the Spartans fighting the Persians at the battle of Thermopylae.  The students will usually say that the chapter was about the Spartans fighting someone, but won’t be able to tell me much beyond that.  If  the student has seen the movie, “The 300,” they will do a little better at the summary, but most of the students are working so hard at actually reading the words aloud (and trying to work out unfamiliar words like ‘Thermopylae’), that extracting the bigger picture of the story contained in the words slips away.  All of them seem to have good memories (i.e.: if I ask them what they read they day before, they will remember it), and some details always seem to stick in their minds (i.e.: in one story about an Egyptian scribe who conspires to rob the tomb of a king, the scribe mentions wrapping rags around the end of a stick to make an improvised torch to light his way and every student seems to remember that bit, perhaps because it is a very specific image that they can easily imagine doing), but the greater meaning of a story is not caught by the unskilled reader.  From talking and working with the students, I know that remembering a story is not beyond their ability; the problem seems to be extracting the story from the text as they go along.  I suspect that a) the task of reading is harder for these students, so they put most of the ‘processing power’ into that, and, b) reading and understanding are two related tasks — these students have been taught the rudiments of reading, but understanding written texts is more than just correctly identifying a series of words on the page and these students have never been taught how to do that.  And this makes me worry about how these kids will be able to fill out a job application or read a contract (tasks that I, with my university education, sometimes find hard).

I suspect that there was a time that semi-literate people could have found good jobs in manufacturing, but those times are gone. When there were more manufacturing jobs in the Detroit area, the schools in these areas of the East Side were better funded and the kids who were going to work the line at GM or Ford got a better education… even though they probably didn’t need to be able to read and comprehend the story of the Battle of Thermopylae to get that manufacturing job.  These days a high school diploma is unlikely to get you anything other than a minimum wage; to get one of the few manufacturing jobs that are left, you are likely going to need at least a two-year post secondary degree… but now that education has become more important in getting a job, there are fewer means by which these kids can get the education that they need to get that job.  So they are falling further and further behind.

3 Comments on “The Day Job”

  1. Jon says:

    Wow. Great blog, Stef. Before teaching in an affluent district, I was both a teacher and an administrator at a very similar school in California. It’s very nice to hear your direct experience, as opposed to that of outsiders who make judgements having never been there.

  2. I’ve seen the images on the internet of Detroit’s urban decay and it’s incredibly shocking. More and more the social divide in the US between the haves and have nots reminds me of the class system in Britain of the not too distant past. And in the face of this, seeing middle class Americans say they live in the luckiest country on earth seems a ridiculous farce. The tragedy of a country that spends trillions on war while city infrastructure crumbles, the growing ranks of the poor are left badly educated and with limited access to healthcare, makes a mockery of the dream that is the USA.

    Thanks for the post Stefan, it puts things in perspective after wading chin deep through the shit of garrulous geeks getting their knickers in a knot over trivialities. Well done too for being a doer.

  3. limpey says:

    The big news in Detroit is that Prince Fielder is coming back to the city to play first base for The Tigers. Some interesting thoughts on that from this ESPN link that my old friend Mitch sent me:

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