A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 2: The Classroom : Seeking Peace in War on Ignorance

Times Staff Writer

With pointing fingers, shouts and whistles, Bill Kennedy attempts to bring his class to attention. He looks like a harried traffic cop, pressed in on all sides. The sound of curses fills the air.

"(Bleep) you," one student shouts at another, but Kennedy doesn't hear it amid the chaos, which is rapidly reaching the noise level of dime-a-beer night at the stadium. Thick round wads of paper are flying back and forth and seven students are up wandering around the room, joking with friends.

A silver-haired science teacher with thick glasses, Kennedy is more kindly and befuddled than angry, like a man whistling for a willful dog, and like the dog who knows its master's mind better than he does, nobody pays him the slightest attention.

One boy runs from one side of the room to the other, hurling a paper missile at a group of students as he flies by.

"Drive-by," someone shouts and the class erupts in laughter and shouts for revenge.

"They're noisy," Kennedy admits, "but they do their work."

Posted on the bulletin board is the list of grades, which show 24 of the students in this class of a little more than 30 are getting A's. "I'm more in the middle," Kennedy says later. "Some teachers give all A's." Three of Kennedy's students got Cs. Kennedy used to be a tougher grader, but he changed after the principal criticized the teachers for giving too many low grades, which she believes harms students' self-esteem.

Philosophical arguments over public education come down in the end to the classroom, where teachers each day join the battle against ignorance.

Touring the classrooms at Northridge Middle School can sometimes seem like visiting the front lines of a war that isn't going well, where each day battle-weary soldiers march against an enemy that seems to grow stronger and stronger. Watching what happens in some of the classrooms can make the arguments over whether the district should be split up or whether parents should be given more control seem like the airy debates of generals far in the rear, discussing new uniform design.

"These kids make you hate them, even if you start out liking kids," said Margarita Gonzalez, who teaches seventh-grade social studies. She faced her class of surly, out-of-control students with the grim, defeated expression of a condemned prisoner.

"If you don't settle down I'll give you all Fs, and it will make my grading easier," she warned after holding her hand up for silence for a full minute without result.

It's the kind of empty threat born of desperation, and Gonzalez is feeling desperate.

"This is like being in hell," she confided. "This is not what I expected. Sometimes I have visions of working for the IRS. Does it get any worse than that?"

These were some of the worst classes at Northridge. There is, of course, learning going on. The best teachers frequently succeed in keeping their students focused on their lessons.

But the kinds of problems that surfaced in the classrooms of Kennedy and Gonzalez differed only in degree from those confronting other teachers trying to cope with students with greater needs and less readiness to learn than ever. "There is no doubt more kids are acting out than 10 years ago," said Joe Boss, a low-key English teacher who counsels troubled kids.

"When I started teaching (20 years ago), only 10% to 15% of the students were troubled. Now, it's 40% to 50%."

Students in one math class succeeded in driving away two teachers and looked as though they might get a third.

The first teacher left for a magnet school, so a former Lockheed mathematician interested in teaching as a second career was brought in. In just a few weeks, she had developed the frozen-faced, wide-eyed look of a blitz survivor.

"Today is my last day," she finally announced just after the Christmas break over a din of laughter and the low-level verbal attacks.

"Awww," the class responded with mock sympathy. "I love you, teach," one boy yelled.

The third teacher was Tony Ransick, a stocky man with a well-trimmed beard who was so enthusiastic in his interview that the administration was ready to hire him on the spot, even though he had not yet completed his credential program.

Ransick's interview in Beryl Ward's conference room began with Assistant Principal Bob Coburn describing the school and its mission. "Our smile level is way up at this school. Our CAP scores went down, but we don't care that much," he said to general laughter.

Coburn said the figure they do care about at Northridge Middle School is the attendance, which is the highest in the district among the 72 middle schools. To the administrators this was evidence that they were succeeding in making school a better place to be.

Asked to describe himself, Ransick said he does volunteer work at his church. "I'm very energetic. I see a lot of synergy here," he added diplomatically. "The laughter, I've never seen a staff like that."

After he had gone, the decision was made swiftly.

"I don't think we'll find anyone better," said Pat Moskowitz, another assistant principal.

The only cautionary note was sounded by Gladys Kelly, an eighth-grade English teacher, who said Ransick should be warned not to act as though nothing was wrong if he ran into trouble. "Like Carol," she said, referring to the Lockheed employee. "She was really upset the kids have such a low level."

"That's what happens when you have someone so focused on content," Ward said. The Lockheed mathematician had reinforced Ward's belief that good teaching has more to do with how the teacher interacts with kids than a mastery of subject matter, and she was sure Ransick was a winner in that department.

A few months later, Ransick had lost some of his idealism. The bulletin board in his room, where the bell schedule is posted, had been tagged in a half-dozen different places with the letters, "FBA," which stands for Full Blooded Asians. It's one of the school's 10 or so tagging crews, which, according to the kids, have a total of 100 to 200 members.

Ransick asked the class how long it would take to walk 2,000 miles at three miles an hour. The answer, he said, was 666.5 hours, which was not quite right. But few students were in a position to know that, because most were not paying attention. Ransick decided to move a boy named Tony to another seat.

"No, I'm staying," Tony responded.

Ransick said mildly that he would have to put a check next to Tony's name on the board.

"What happens then?" Tony asked, considering his options.

"Paper pickup," Ransick replied. Misbehaving students are required to clean litter from the campus. Tony considered a moment more before getting up to move.

"I don't want paper pickup," he said, making it clear it was his decision to move and that he had not just caved in to the teacher.

Ransick said later that he had intended to use positive reinforcement "as opposed to negative. The strange thing is, they won't work for positive. They only respect negative. It's frustrating."

Ransick said he spends a third of his classroom time on discipline. "It's disappointing to have come this far in my preparation to get here. I feel I have a lot to offer."

Partly responsible for the classroom problems is the students' age. The early adolescent years have always been difficult. Boys and girls are experimenting with different behaviors, trying them on like clothing to see if they fit. Their hormones are erupting like solar flares, making them manic one day and tearful the next.

It's also possible that outsiders measuring what they see in a modern classroom can be led astray by their memory of the way things used to be.

Memory tends to paint in broad, colorful strokes, arranging the past to best effect, when the past itself was more messy. The problem is compounded by the fact that the most familiar artifacts from that time are the upbeat television shows that still run on cable, making it appear that all parents were wise, all children respectful and all policemen fixed broken bikes.

But the teachers at Northridge who have been around a long time and remember the faces of the students say there are important differences. Mostly, they say, students come to school with much more emotional baggage and a shocking lack of basic knowledge about the world around them.

The learning deficits of many of the students are so severe that some teachers become disheartened. Victor Galdos says a number of his English as a Second Language students are illiterate, even in their native languages. "They've never gone to school. Most are from El Salvador. Because of the war, their parents would not let them out of their sight."

The gaps are not only evident in the ESL classes. Some of the English teachers say they have to read the material to their students because so many have trouble with reading.

Defenders of modern education say it's unfair to measure the schools of today against those of the past. Broken homes, violence and drugs have taken their toll on families and, as a result, on the children those families send to school.

It is precisely because of problems like these that reforms being implemented at Northridge emphasizing teamwork and open discussion of issues in class are so important, campus officials say.

Teachers say the students face things at home they never would have dreamed about only a few years ago. "I had a problem with a kid yesterday and called home," said Judi Levin, the coordinator of the bilingual program. "The aunt answered. She said, 'I must tell you, both parents are in jail, and I just got out of jail. I'm responsible for the kids.' "

Don Betts said one of his students told him that his father gets drunk every night. His other pleasure, the boy said, was beating his son. Then there is the A student who runs home from school because a man exposed himself to her one day when she was walking home and she is terrified it will happen again.

Classroom teachers also say their job is more difficult than ever because students don't have the same sense of awe and fear about adults that teachers could once use to their advantage. Kennedy's students decided to leave class early one day, and when he called them back, two students offered him bribes to let them go. They pulled dollar bills from their pockets playfully and waved them in the air above their heads. It's not that they were serious about paying Kennedy off, it's just that they were not serious about learning.

Don Betts was leaning over a table on the athletic field one afternoon, making check marks on an index card for every lap his students ran.

One student tried to sneak in for an extra mark and Betts waved him away. "Liar," the boy said, jogging off.

"If somebody said that to me 20 years ago I would have smacked him," Betts said.

Ward says she thinks it is good that young people do not automatically respect adults. "We used to train behavior when people were young that we do not reward as adults. So often, as parents, what we want kids to do is sit down and shut up. But as adults, the kinds of characteristics that are successful are sticking up for what you believe in and being assertive."

That is why she could smile beneficently when a boy named Scott interrupted librarian Marcia Protas' orientation lecture one afternoon with a series of outbursts that once would have brought swift and certain retaliation.

"I think he'll be a big success," Ward chuckled. She said in the old days Scott probably would have dropped out of school because he would have been brutalized by teachers for his behavior.

Teachers also complain about students' lack of ethics. Karen Warschaw, an English teacher, said that, when the jury retired to consider its verdict in the second Rodney G. King beating trial, many teachers began discussing racial matters in their classrooms. The idea was to head off trouble by allowing students to vent their frustrations in class, so that they would not take them into the streets.

When Warschaw talked to her students about violence, she was surprised to find that many of them had no problem with looting.

"It's all right to steal from somebody else, because they will steal from you next time," they said.

Regina Ramirez encountered the same attitude when she asked one of her classes how many would join in looting a 7-Eleven. Only two of 30 students said they would not.

Then she asked how many would help out a riot beating victim by calling the police, assuming they could do it secretly. Almost none would.

This scared her. She suddenly wondered if the school should be spending less time building self-esteem and more time working on values.

The classes that most resemble those from a previous generation are the ESL rooms. Almost without exception, the students are respectful and interested in the work they are doing. Or, at worst, they are not willing to challenge the teachers the way other classes do.

Vanessa Culp's advanced ESL math class is a good example. Unlike other teachers, whose classes erupt like geysers if they relax their attention for a moment, Culp, a slender woman with a quiet, no-nonsense air about her, can turn away for several minutes to talk to a visitor asking why ESL classes are so different.

"Many (students) are new to the country," she explained. "They don't know the way typical American teen-agers act."

There is a small museum of the past in a room off the gymnasium. On a lime-green wall, in thin metal frames, are eight black-and-white photographs of PE classes taken, by the looks of them, in the late '50s.

One showed boys doing jumping jacks, all in unison perfect enough for the Rockettes, or a drill sergeant. Another showed them standing patiently in line to practice dribbling exercises. In every picture, white T-shirts were tucked neatly into their gym trunks.

"This is the way classes looked and conducted themselves," said Don Betts wistfully. He pointed out some of the coaches, men he knew and respected when he was a young man. They were men with thick forearms and military haircuts. They leaned forward with intense, fearsome expressions on their faces, and there was no question that the boys would work hard to satisfy them.

"We can't keep them lined up today," Betts said, squinting at the pictures. They've had to paint numbers on the asphalt so the students know where to sit.

Meanwhile, outside, the students he now taught, who wouldn't line up, who called him names to his face, were banging on the big metal doors of the gym. They rattled and pounded, shrieking and squealing, and pounded some more.

He didn't say it, but, being a history buff and a great reader, with a library of 4,000 books, he could hardly have missed the symbolism. There was a melancholic quality to his voice and in his eyes that seemed to communicate a belief that a golden era represented by these small photographs had passed away and the barbarians were pounding at the gates.

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