Back-to-School special

It’s amazing how little has changed from when I was in high school so long ago. We have cheerleaders and jocks. There’s a drill team, speech and debate, theatre, multiple choirs and an orchestra. There are kids in art classes doing interesting things.

Back-to-School special

I teach journalism at a racially diverse public high school where a solid majority of the 3,000 or so students come from poor families.

Let that just sit there for a moment. What comes to mind? What’s my environment like?

Take more time. You perhaps follow the news. And you’ve seen countless movies and TV shows that include the diverse and poor elements.

And you’ve probably got it wrong.

I feel safe. The school is clean. We have technology and this fall each class got a large, touch-screen computer that is cutting-edge stuff.

I’m sure there are kids who use drugs and consume alcohol. But this does not appear to run rampant, at least not in the building.

A number of times this past year, I walked into a restroom for some relief at the start of the day and there was a crowd of boys in there. My guess is that they were taking turns vaping in one of the stalls. So I would stand there and play with my watch. And the place would empty out in about 15 seconds.

That’s about the worst I’ve seen of that.  

We do have some disruptive students. They are wildly outnumbered by the good kids. I find plenty of students to recruit for my advanced classes, which make the school yearbook.

Yes, we’ve had fights. I’ve had a few in my room during 16 years as a teacher. Curiously, I had one day – one damn day -- where a fight broke out involving something petty and hall monitors quickly came and escorted those kids away. Another fight broke out minutes later and the hall monitors returned.

I don’t believe anyone was actually injured. Weapons were not involved. Years go by with nothing like that happening in my room.

There was a kid with a gun at school awhile back. Administrators got to him and took it away. It wasn’t loaded.

Students had rifles at my high school and we thought nothing of it. “Times have changed” is the cliché that I am supposed to put here.

The lesson is that nothing out there can be completely kept out of any school.

From time to time there is a fight in the cafeteria. There’s a roar from the student crowd. From the first time I heard that roar, I knew exactly what it was.

That’s because it was the same roar I heard at my high school, which was located in a tough, gritty, impoverished, mean-streets part of town, with winos and hookers on street corners. Booze bottles and trash littered the curbs and gangs were everywhere.

I kid! I went to Ozzie and Harriet High. It was overwhelmingly white and working-to-middle class. There was one Asian kid. I helped her with a graduation speech. She was the valedictorian of my class. Insert punchline here, but she’s a friend.

And we had fights at my school, mostly about petty things. We had some disruptive kids who were outnumbered by the good ones. We had kids smoking in the restrooms. I’m sure a few kids brought in some alcohol, but most of that activity was extracurricular.

Like where I teach.

In fact, it’s amazing how little has changed from when I was in high school so long ago.

We have marching band students practicing in the parking lot. We have cheerleaders and jocks. There’s a drill team, speech and debate, theatre, multiple choirs and an orchestra. There are kids in art classes doing interesting things.

College-credit classes are crowded.

These programs – and the students in them – routinely win awards. Our journalism program, led in competition by the newspaper adviser but including a number of my yearbook students, took first place in the district not so long ago. I had some photojournalism students who saw their work published in a national magazine, as part of a competition.

Two of my yearbook editors landed full-ride college scholarships. Each year, I write several letters of support for kids seeking scholarships and admissions.

By the way, overwhelmingly the students wear T-shirts and jeans. It’s the eternal high school wardrobe of choice to this day.

There are certainly hellhole public schools out there. And also troubled private and charter schools, which have less oversight and accountability. Mine isn’t one of them.

One difference nowadays is that the school where I teach has a large JROTC program. The kids dress in uniforms on a schedule. They practice mustering and marching and such in the hall and parking lot. In competition, the program got a top rating this past year.

Business Professionals of America students dress for the office now and again. And they land internships and jobs from the program. We didn’t have that back when.

We don’t just have the National Honor Society anymore. There’s also one each for Art, Spanish, Math and Science. Many kids are involved.

The biggest difference is that there are now computers everywhere. I have 25 or so in my room. There’s another bunch of them in a lab next door. My fellow journalism teacher only has 5 or 6 and feels slighted, as he should.

With all that and more going on where I teach, I have a complaint.

Despite all the outlets for success that it provides, despite all the students who take advantage of them, despite any number of strong reviews to be found online, the school gets a C grade from the Texas Education Association.

That’s because of middling standardized test results, driven by a number of apathetic students who just don’t give a damn and don’t see the importance of education.

I’m supposed to inspire those students, but can’t.

I’ve tried numerous strategies and some kids just don’t respond. They have parents who didn’t go to college and don’t have skilled trades. They don’t have role models. Or maybe they have role models that come right out of the news and movies and such that I noted at the start of this story. Diverse and poor is not The Swiss Family Robinson.

They don’t try. They don’t do assignments. They don’t do schoolwork. They fail and don’t care.

I’ve failed kids – and I am not making this up – in my photojournalism class. They refused to check out a nice camera from me for an extracurricular shoot of their own choosing.

So the next time you run into a schools report that gives out grades, understand that the grades don’t necessarily reflect on the school’s programs and the people who work there.

We’re trying hard in my building. And that’s likely what’s happening in school buildings near you.

Bill Jeffreys has done radio, TV and print journalism and is now a high school teacher. He spent nearly 14 years as City Hall reporter for KHOU-TV in Houston. Jeffreys was editor of his high school paper, but the yearbook where he teaches is now his cross to bear.