Overcrowded Schools and Student Learning
At this time of the year, schools in my district begin planning the teaching assignments for the following year. As we worked on the teacher matrix we took into account the complexities around which year-round schools must maneuver: the number of English Learners on each track, equity and access to all programs, a balance of teacher experience across tracks, etc. “I’m glad it’s the last time we have to deal with this,” commented one department chair. Then it hit me; as of 2012, there would be no more year-round schools left in Los Angeles, this being the legacy of Governor Roy Romer and his school construction program.
For as long as I can remember, I have attended or worked in year-round schools. The memory of carrying boxes for my teacher, from one room to the next, as a 4th grader, is indelibly recorded in my mind. The majority of my 15 years of teaching has involved a careful choreography of rooms between two other teachers and myself, as to who gets which cabinet to store their materials, which visual aids should be left on the wall, and how we prefer our chairs to be arranged. All of this, of course, has an impact on student learning.
Setting up a classroom is something that takes weeks to do. Most teachers in a year-round school rarely have the luxury of time in setting up their rooms. In Los Angeles, teachers get exactly half a day, because students from the outgoing track are dismissed at 12:30 pm. The teachers are given access to their rooms shortly thereafter. Students arrive the next morning. Ideally, a classroom would be carefully designed to inspire students about the particular subject they will study in that classroom that year; visuals, posters, artifacts, quotes, even college diplomas and teaching credentials would be carefully displayed in different parts of the room. Instructions for rules, routines and procedures would also be prominent. Student models of a particular project also have a place in the room.
For year-round teachers in overcrowded schools, this is something toward which we aspire. The reality is that setting up a room like this ends up happening in concert with the start of the semester. We make it happen.
Now, as we embark on our final year as an overcrowded school, a new challenge looms. Depending on how many students are siphoned away by the new middle school opening in 2012, designed to relieve our overcrowding, we may have to employ what are called “roving teachers.” Each school has a finite number of rooms for teachers. But if more students enroll than there are rooms for teachers, then the additional teachers hired will not be assigned a room of their own. Instead, they will travel from room to room, period by period, using vacant rooms which are available because it is that teacher’s conference period.
If sharing rooms on a year-round schedule poses a challenge, it is nothing compared to being a roving teacher. In this scenario, teachers use a cart to transport reference material, books, office supplies, lesson plans, from one room to the next. In each room, a bulletin board is supposed to be made available for them, as well as a section of a cabinet. Teachers do the best they can under these circumstances, but it is the least productive for learning. “It is an inconvenience for adults, but not for children,” as one administrator put it. This is questionable.
As leaders debate what constitutes a good school, what defines excellence in academics, we hear more and more voices referring to teachers as expendable and interchangeable workers who should be able to achieve phenomenal results regardless of work conditions and socioeconomic dynamics. As a teacher in the classroom, I believe that individual schools are different and complex, that there are vast differences in circumstances that should make the education reform debate highly nuanced and organic. Something as seemingly insignificant as having your own classroom, in which you can maintain a filing cabinet of resources, a closet full of supplies for students, a student library of books you have read and can recommend to kids makes a difference in student learning. It counts; it matters. Students immediately get a feel for you as a teacher by what they see in the classroom. Your room can be a magical tool that compels students to wonder and imagine about new learning, a reference tool that provides students with access to materials they don’t have at home, or even just a safe place where they know no one will hurt them. Or, it can be a place that stifle creativity at best, turn students off from learning at worst.
Governor Romer led the Los Angeles Unified School district for six years. But his foresight in building schools for children will be remembered and appreciated. As we begin our final year in an overcrowded school, teachers are already excitedly discussing ideas for their classroom design 15 months from now. I wonder if we can paint the walls?