Project Milwaukee
5:55 pm
Thu June 3, 2010

Teachers Talk About Challenges and Rewards

We now continue out Project Milwaukee series, exploring the barriers that confront thousands of Milwaukee Public School students. Today, WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson takes us to one of the lowest performing schools in the state: Bay View High School on the city’s south side. She spoke with teachers and other adult leaders there about educating a relatively large number of students who are struggling academically or personally.

Student teacher Amani Asad (right) teaches a poetry lesson to a class at Bay View High School.

It’s the middle of the afternoon at Bay View High School, and a small class of juniors and seniors is seated at old wooden desks for an English lesson. The students have just finished watching a video of a Palestinian poet who’s written about stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. Amani Asad, a student-teacher from Alverno College, is leading the discussion.

Asad: Did you like this?

Ferrell: It was beautiful.

Asad: Ferrell, it was beautiful, why?

Ferrell: You never look at it from their point of view.

Asad: Right, you never really look at it from their point of view.”

Asad will soon finish her assignment at Bay View and plunge into a job search. Being a graduate of the Milwaukee Public Schools system…Riverside High School, she says she’d be thrilled to teach in MPS, including at Bay View. It recently made the state’s list of poorest performing high schools because a little more than half its students are not proficient in reading and math.

“I like being in MPS because I feel at home here. I can relate to the kids. I know that things are tough. I’ve had those bad days where I didn’t feel like doing anything at their age at the middle and high school level. I would put my head down on my desk, family problems, I don’t want to be here,” Asad says.

Asad is teaching today alongside one of her former MPS teachers Laura Peart. She’s been with the district 17 years, including the past six at Bay View. Peart acknowledges that a lot of her students are struggling. She says on any given report card, she gives unsatisfactory marks to ten percent of her students, and about five percent fail for the semester. The reasons are varied.

“Probably number one is not coming to school. You’ve got kids with their own kids at home, jobs to do and they’re helping to pay the light bill at home,” Peart says.

While some problems are beyond the teacher’s control, Peart says there are things the district could do to make her more effective in the classroom. One is to provide textbooks. None of the teens in this class have had an English textbook this year. Peart says there’s no money.

“It’s aggravating,” Peart says.

Yet Peart says she and other teachers regularly face criticism when meeting with supervisors from the district’s central office.

“There’s always pressure on me to pull the best out of my kids. It’s a constant slap in the face to be called into meetings. You’re a bad teacher. It’s your fault. You kind of got to let it roll off of you and go back into the trenches, close the classroom door and keep teaching doing the best that you can,” Peart says.

That often includes late nights at home.

“At two o’clock in the morning, after I’m done on the internet and in my own library searches making up lessons because I have no books and basically creating every single thing from scratch all year long and then teaching my 220 students that even if I give them a paragraph a day in an English class that’s 224 paragraphs to look at that night,” Peart says.

While the job may seem a recipe for burnout, Peart says she has no desire to leave MPS because she loves her students. Some teachers, however, are getting help so they can better manage the job. They’re participating in TEAM, the district’s Teacher Evaluation and Mentoring program. Coordinator Jennifer Jones-Miller says it sends observers into classrooms, usually when they’ve become unruly, and then the team designs a plan to make the teacher more effective.

“Their role is more demanding. More is being expected of teachers and the district is changing. More responsibility is being placed on teachers and we need to provide a positive resource to help them meet those demands,” Jones-Miller says.

Jones-Miller says of 6,000 teachers in MPS, about 70 have completed the program since it started in 1997. Another 130 started the training, but either retired or resigned before completing it. She says MPS offers similar intervention for principals, and the state Department of Public Instruction is keeping tabs on struggling schools. In fact, during my visit to Bay View, DPI staff members were there measuring student performance. Principal Robin Kitzrow says the school sets small achievable goals to encourage the teens.

“All the kids that are making their goals today and yesterday received a black Bay View t-shirt. We’re seeing kids walking around the building that made their goal and are making progress and they’re very proud,” Kitzrow says.

Kitzrow says she’s encouraged by small amounts of progress students are making. Yet she knows she could ultimately be removed, if too many numbers remain stagnant.