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Class Notes
All of D.C.'s children can learn
(Published October 31, 2005)

By MATT WENNERSTEN

This past week has been quite eventful. Friday, Oct. 28, was the end of the first grading period of the school year. Kids took midterms, finished up their portfolios, turned in that last piece of extra credit work, crossed their fingers and grabbed their new schedules for the second grading period, Advisory II.

Friday was also the last day on the job for Marcellus Unaegbu, a science teacher at Bell Multicultural High School. Unaegbu leaves D.C. Public Schools after many years of service, and it was a pleasure to see the faculty present him with a retirement present and not one but two cakes on the occasion of his retirement. Until last year, Unaegbu was also the teachers' union representative at Bell, and as the current representative, I have received his help with union business throughout the first grading period. I wish him well.

Unaegbu's retirement is not an isolated event. Change is happening throughout the city. Bell losing a science teacher is a symptom of the demographic time bomb among DCPS teachers at some schools, the average tenure is 28 years. In other words, there are many teachers in the system who are able now, or will be able very soon, to retire. Two to five years from now, my school will likely be very different from what it is today. (Regular readers may recall that DCPS averages 10 to 15 percent turnover in teachers per year.)

Our student body is changing, as well. Kids in large numbers are leaving DCPS to go, for example, to charter schools or to suburban Maryland schools. Kids in Bell's neighborhood, Columbia Heights, are being driven out of the District by high real estate prices. Kids from other parts of town also are being attracted to our school by the prospect of a brand new school building opening in 2006.

As I observe all of these changes in the school system, I think about the one thing that hasn't changed. Student achievement has been relatively flat for several years. The message is starting to trickle down.

The Washington Teachers Union has new leaders, who understand that we have been presiding over an exodus of students, and, as those students leave, they take union jobs with them. The WTU, therefore, knows that it needs to change and do something different so that students stay in DCPS.

Principals, especially at the high school level, know that they need to change, as many schools reach the third or fourth year of missing the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) targets for adequate yearly progress (AYP), and sanctions become increasingly severe and imminent.

Superintendent Clifford Janey knows that we need to change, having implemented a new set of academic standards for the entire school system this year, and more changes are no doubt in store.

What about the teachers? Do they need to change? Do the things that they have been doing need to change?

I wonder about the teachers who will remain in the system, my colleagues at Bell and my fellow teachers across the city. What are the characteristics of the workforce that is going to lead our children to higher achievement? Who will be the teacher I go to when I need support? With whom will I be working five years from now? I also wonder: Who do I want to work with in the future?

Also this past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a workshop run by the College Board, the people who coordinate advanced placement (AP) tests. The workshop began with a quote: "How many schools do you have to see where all children are successfully learning before you would believe that such is possible? If you need more than one, you have reasons of your own for not believing that all children can learn."

That the College Board feels that we, as teachers, still need to be reminded that all children can learn, is shocking. There is one characteristic that is required in helping kids learn: you've got to believe in them. If you don't believe, you're not going to teach. What's the point?

I'm a card-carrying union member, and, as noted previously, the union building representative at Bell. I will always say that losing a teacher is a minus for the system. As teachers leave, they take with them a wealth of knowledge and experience that cannot be easily replicated. In cases where teachers have not been as successful as we might hope in teaching their students, I will always advocate that those teachers be given respect, support and training so that every classroom in DCPS is a high-performing classroom. Still, I know from personal experience, having listened to the comments and observed my fellow teachers from schools across the city in several forums including union meetings, citywide training sessions, faculty meetings, graduate school classes and summer school -- that there are teachers in almost every DCPS school who feel that these kids (that is to say, our kids) can't learn, won't learn or don't want to learn.

I wonder how many DCPS teachers there are who believe in all of our kids? We work in a public school; we don't get to choose who comes into our classroom our job is to teach them all.

Marcellus Unaegbu's retirement got me thinking. I do not mean to offend, but I hope all of us DCPS teachers can ask ourselves: Is it time for me to move on? I came into teaching from IT consulting, and changing careers was the best decision I've ever made. Perhaps this might be true for others as well.

As change ripples through DCPS, I hope this one change may also occur: that the teachers who remain in the school system are committed to 100 percent of our children.

***

Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program (http://www.dcteachingfellows.org). Please send stories, comments or questions to mwenners@yahoo.com.

Copyright 2005 The Common Denominator