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Mobtown Beat

Learning the Hard Way

How Teacher-Training Disparities Affect Students in Baltimore's Poorest Communities

By Molly Rath | Posted 5/16/2001

For as long as Wendy Foy has lived in Harlem Park, education has been pivotal to the West Baltimore community. For her, attending neighborhood schools meant being able to go to college, buy a house, and land a job as office manager at the Harlem Park/Lafayette Square Village Center, helping administer one of the city's six Empowerment Zones. At 40, having raised a son and now taking care of six nieces and nephews, Foy still sees the impact of education on a neighborhood she describes as plagued by illiteracy and rampant lead poisoning. But she has come to believe that the schools that lifted her up are now holding kids down--and symbolizing the disparity entrenched in Baltimore City's public-school system.

Foy's nephew Deontaye is a first-grader at Gilmor Elementary, but he's rarely there. "They put him out of school all the time," she says. Foy blames this on lead poisoning, which often affects children's attention span and ability to concentrate, and teachers' failure to understand it.

"It's hard for him to sit still; he's distracted easily. He was looking out of the window, and they thought he was trying to climb out of the window," she says. "He loves school, and I look at his face and it saddens me. . . . Many of the teachers can't deal with [the effects of lead poisoning]. One teacher said she had never heard of it. She was amazed at how it affected some of the kids."

Harlem Park is located in the city's fourth-poorest ZIP code, an area whose schools have the city's second-highest concentration of teachers who don't meet Maryland's requirements for teacher certification--a bachelor's degree plus 30 hours of classroom training and passing grades on two state-administered tests. At 12 of the 18 schools in the 21217 code, at least one-third of the teachers are uncertified. Many of Baltimore's other low-income communities share the same dubious distinction.

On May 2, the activist group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) released a report showing that 31 percent of the city's 7,500 public-school teachers are not certified (Mobtown Beat, May 2). Further number-crunching by City Paper showed that 94 percent of those uncertified teachers serve communities that are disproportionately poor. And according to ACORN, the schools with the lowest percentage of certified teachers did most poorly on state standardized tests.

The findings have sparked intense debate among those with the biggest stake in Baltimore's public schools. Parents worry that their children aren't learning. Seasoned teachers complain they have to compensate for novice colleagues' shortcomings. Uncertified instructors contend they're just the latest scapegoat for the system's many ills. Meanwhile, school officials are scrambling to offer explanations and solutions, even as they acknowledge that the disparity will likely persist well into Baltimore's future.

Ted Thornton, the school system's director of human resources, says the problem dates back over several years of mounting vacancies and increases in the number of teachers the system had to hire just to get schools open every fall. (Since 1992, that number has increased from 400 to nearly 1,000.) Shortages during the 1995-'96 school year led to an influx of provisionally certified teachers--those hired on the condition that they eventually get certified. Initially there was no limit on how long they could take, but in 1999 the state passed a law setting the time frame at four years.

That explains greater the high number of uncertified teachers--2,049 at press time, according to Thornton--but not their distribution to primarily low-income communities. Thornton says the main culprit for that is high turnover.

The city loses some 240 teachers a year to surrounding counties, and what until recently were lower wages than its neighbors paid has made it hard for Baltimore to compete for trained educators to fill the vacancies. With nearly 3,000 teachers--more than 40 percent of the city's classroom work force--eligible for retirement this year, filling slots in coming years will be even harder.

Thornton's office hires all those instructors, but where they end up is primarily up to the teachers themselves, based on interviews with (and offers from) principals. The best-trained hires are in the best position to hold out for the most attractive schools. "The more qualified a person is," Thornton says, "the more choices they have. And they can exercise those choices." The schools with the least to offer--the lowest test scores, the fewest community resources, the fewest seasoned teachers to mentor new recruits--are left to plug holes as best they can.

Thornton is quick to note that teachers need more than knowledge of their subject--the criteria measured by certification--to succeed in the classroom; they also must be able to motivate kids and encourage learning. Certification is not the sole marker of quality, nor even a guarantee that a teacher is good at his or her job. But it is one of the only objective measures of teacher-preparedness the system has, and provisional teachers are encouraged to achieve it. Among those who haven't, proximity to reaching the goal varies widely:

· Seven hundred twenty-six teachers need seven to 12 of the approximately 40 university courses required for teacher certification.

· Two hundred fifty-eight need four to six courses for certification.

· Three hundred thirty-four are just one to four courses shy of certification.

· Two hundred eighty-three need only to take the state certification exams.

· Three need only to log their classroom hours.

Of these 1,604 uncertified teachers (Thornton doesn't yet have data for the remaining 445), 369 are enrolled in alternative certification programs such as Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that places recent college graduates and people looking for a career change in schools in poor areas for two years while paying for them to simultaneously pursue a master's degree in education. By the end of their two years, they will be certified. National studies show that about half the graduates from such programs continue in the field, and Jeremy Beard, who directs the program's Baltimore office, says the numbers are similar locally.

To encourage uncertified teachers to hurry up and make the grade, the city bumps the starting salary of $31,722 to $34,532 as soon as they have a certificate in hand. Thornton will work with their respective colleges and universities to put them on a fast track, and, he says, he will "threaten them gingerly." His goal is to get two teachers certified for every new uncertified teacher he hires.

Getting the city into a position where it wouldn't have to hire uncertified teachers would cost $200 million to $300 million, Thornton estimates. But short of that--and the city's budget woes guarantee he will be short of that--he says that to address the skewed distribution of certified teachers, he has to somehow convince the best-trained teachers to work in the neediest schools. "I have to hire 900 teachers by Sept. 4," he says. "If I can't offset that scenario, the problem ACORN pointed out will be exacerbated. It will get worse."

East Baltimore parents Isaac and Veronica Neal can't afford worse. Already they worry about their youngest son "being another damned statistic in terms of dropping out and being a black male," Veronica Neal says. Emonia, 11, attends William Paca Elementary, where 31 of 60 teachers lack certification. Earlier this month, the school called Neal to say Emonia, who has trouble concentrating in class and occasionally acts out, hadn't been in music class since December. "You can call me when he's doing a flip in the hallway but you can't call me way back and tell me he wasn't in the classroom?" she says. "They walk out that door because you can't hold their attention. There's something that he's missing, and I'm blaming them."

Across town at West Baltimore's Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, where 14 of 32 teachers are uncertified, the dearth of experience is also felt--among teachers as well as students.

"When you're brand new . . . you don't have that wealth of knowledge to [fall] back on when you've exhausted all the strategies in the book," says fifth-grade teacher Joyce Dunston, who is certified and has been in the system 31 years. "When you walk in the classroom, you have to have management." While some uncertified teachers do well, Dunston adds, "I've had teachers ask me, 'Can you teach me how to teach the children how to write?' But there is no time to do the nurturing."

LaKeisha Harris is one of 11 new teachers hired at Eutaw-Marshburn this year, at least 10 of whom are uncertified and without teaching experience. She has a master's degree in rehabilitative counseling, but her first year experience at the school reflects the challenges insufficient classroom training can pose.

"I think you can do an effective job without a certificate, but I think you need a certificate as far as strategy, to communicate with the students," Harris says. "The workload is tremendous, and a lot is expected of teachers."

At nearby Booker T. Washington Middle, principal Ruth Bukatman says intense competition among schools for experienced teachers has forced her to get creative. Twelve of her 23 uncertified teachers are Teach for America participants.

"Believe me, if there were certified teachers out there . . . of course I would want them. But there isn't a pool. And if I can't get [certified] teachers, I prefer Teach for America over teachers who have no training at all," she says. "Some of our very gifted teachers are [uncertified]. But I think we have a problem as an entire school system that we have such a high number of [uncertified] teachers. And the problem is going to get worse."

That problem isn't lost on students. At Southwestern High, where 34 percent of teachers are uncertified, classrooms with high numbers on their doors are at one end of the building and classrooms marked with low numbers are at the other, and "people act all crazy on the low side because that's where they put all the inexperienced teachers," sophomore Sean Scott says. Scott's classmate Marvin Hickman has his first period on the "low" side. "I really don't learn that much because [the teacher's] scared of half the students in his class," Hickman says. "I don't want to do nothing, so he sits back and don't really do nothing."

Scott says he had a similar experience last fall. At the beginning of the school year, as his teachers introduced themselves to their classes, he learned that three of his four instructors had little experience, and he says it showed in their approach. His geometry teacher, who is in his second year in the system, "was teaching more on a college level, and we're just not on the college level," Scott says. "If he would take time out to find out what students do know and don't know, I think the class would go much easier. If you teach students, they'll listen. But if you don't teach them, they'll just talk to their friends and stuff."

Before coming to Southwestern, Scott attended Roland Park Middle--one of the city's top-performing schools, located in one of its most affluent neighborhoods. Roland Park is among a handful of schools that draw students from across the city--a middle school equivalent of the city's popular magnet high schools, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and City College. Teachers there, he says, have made him realize that his high school experience at Southwestern is lacking.

"When you came in the classroom [at Roland Park], you looked forward to doing certain things. You'd say, 'I want to learn this subject,'" he says. "But now I feel cheated because I can imagine at Poly and City they have that kind of atmosphere."

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