School of Hard Knocks.
January 21, 2009 10:59 AM   Subscribe

"This is the safest place these kids have," Mr. McMonigle explains. "No matter how crazy it gets here, no matter how bad the school is, it’s still better than what’s waiting for them out there when they leave. The irony is that after all the bitching and the moaning about how they don’t want to be here, at the end of the day you can’t get them to go home!" School of Hard Knocks is a heartbreaking 7-part series of articles about kids with behavioral problems in a Philadelpha high school. [2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7] [via mefi projects]
posted by dersins (31 comments total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
NB: Part 2 aruguably NSFW due to photo of chalkboard graffiti.
posted by dersins at 11:02 AM on January 21, 2009

Hey, it's Metafiter's own The Straightener!
posted by piratebowling at 11:15 AM on January 21, 2009

Good stuff.
posted by GuyZero at 11:17 AM on January 21, 2009

Working my way through these now. Really amazing, The Straightener! Thanks for this.
posted by pineapple at 11:31 AM on January 21, 2009

Although, I quibble with Phawker's formatting choices... they should have gone back and added links for the whole series, to each entry. If it weren't for the MeFi link lists, I'd not know where to go when I finished one piece.
posted by pineapple at 11:34 AM on January 21, 2009

Captivating read.
posted by DrJohnEvans at 11:37 AM on January 21, 2009

This is a fantastic post.

I read the first two parts and can't wait to read the others.

This is a subject I've spent most of my life with (literally, my entire family works in inner city/behavioral education in Boston) and it's so refreshing to see something that takes these "inner city" problems and can cut through the BS with accuracy, grace and humor. It's not like these kind of stories are scarce or anything, it's just I haven't read something like this in awhile now and I have been getting depressed by how many seemingly intelligent people were so far from reality on the subject... I'm almost a little emotional about it right now.

I've felt like I've been weighed down by so much lately: People supporting no child left behind (without understanding it), people railing against no child left behind (without understanding it), vouchers, there was a particularly-lacking-foresight post here on mefi recently about compulsory attendance and homeschooling that made me really upset.

And all of it misses the complete and total point of our education system. Which (in purely general/broad strokes terms) is to be a rock, to be a constant, to be an option for those who might not even know how much they desperately need it. Because they're problems are rooted not in the schools, but in their homes, their streets, their parents, and in their image.

For every politician who has the nerve to talk about the plight of our cities schools they have deeply and inexorably missed the fact that the real plight is actually in the evisceration of our American Cities, which have come to adopt a seemingly Dickensian disproportion between the have-alls and have-nones. It is breeding ground for contempt for the working poor and the complete inability to see that with no middle, there is no foundation. There is no regularity, there is no stasis, there is no authority within the annals of those streets. With the exception of a few choice landmarks, we have given up making our American cities a part of Americana.

And in doing that there is no hope for inner city public schools. To think there is hope in a dying city is foolhardy.

The best teachers know that. Yes it's heartbreaking. But it's a reality. And they do everything they can help. To try an be the best alternative they can with no money and no home support. They do everything they can to do the best they can. I hate to have to actually remind people of this but nobody, NOBODY teaches in an inner city public school, unless they're there to do their best.

[paraphrase] "if you're not doing your job good enough we'll fire you and find someone who can"
-john mccain, during election cycle

Yikes. And they'll do that by test scores methinks.


/btw, watch season 4 of the wire. I've never seen anything get at the heart of this issue better.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 11:44 AM on January 21, 2009 [12 favorites]

btw, watch season 4 of the wire. I've never seen anything get at the heart of this issue better.

Room 315 reminded me a lot of the "special class" at Edward J. Tilghman Middle School. (It's almost unfair to The Straightener, really, as I expect lots of people will draw that comparison when this series gets the broad coverage it rightly deserves.)

Makes we wish we could also peek into the after-school lives of Eric, Corey, Hakeem, Diquan, et al.
posted by pineapple at 11:49 AM on January 21, 2009

Also, make sure not to miss Valley of the Shadow, The Straightener's (now sadly discontinued) series "documenting how those in Philadelphia’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods publicly mourn and commemorate their dead."
posted by dersins at 11:57 AM on January 21, 2009

Well, the site's broken. HTTP 500 errors all over the place.
posted by boo_radley at 12:12 PM on January 21, 2009

I can't access any of the stories. Did we break it?
posted by lekvar at 12:12 PM on January 21, 2009

Well, that's annoying.
posted by dersins at 12:20 PM on January 21, 2009

NCLB is such a joke. how will these kids ever pass a test? they can barely pass life because they're either not wanted or have parents that are absent due to working 3 jobs to keep food on the table and are too tired to discipline.

Yes, if anything a test score-based system results in pressuring good schools to force kids out of the system to improve scores. From a NCLB perspective, what's the point of a school with 1500 students in spending so much time, money, and effort on a few high school kids who will probably never reach a 6th grade level in any subject? They would be better off expelling the kids and passing the buck to someone else. But once you get down to the level of what the lives of these kids are like, it's clear that they need more help than anyone, even if that help doesn't result in improving test scores.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:29 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

sio42 - even if No Child Left Behind worked to get kids to pass certain tests, curriculum and focus in the struggling schools all pushes to teach for the test. Toss in some sports teams doing well, and the focus can shift from learning for life, to learning to pass exams. But I digress ...

Cheers The Straightener/Jeff - well written and insightful.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:31 PM on January 21, 2009

I can't access any of the stories. Did we break it?
Well, that's annoying.

It is annoying---especially since I was on part six and almost done. Is there a mirror anywhere, or maybe Straightener posted it somewhere else (personal blog)?
posted by librarylis at 12:36 PM on January 21, 2009

Google has cached versions of most of the articles. Also, I'm able to access the site directly now, so the traffic problems may have subsided.
posted by burnmp3s at 12:43 PM on January 21, 2009

Yeah, it appears to be working again.
posted by dersins at 12:52 PM on January 21, 2009

Whoooooaa, what's up front page. Thank you guys! I will comment more substantively when I'm not up to my eyeballs in social work!
posted by The Straightener at 1:31 PM on January 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

Mr. McMonigle has to be mindful when reprimanding Tony for acting up, remembering not to reflexively threaten to call his mother after school if he doesn’t settle down. Instead he says he might have to call Miss Pam, the night shift supervisor at the facility for orphaned children where Tony lives.

This is heartbreaking.
posted by availablelight at 1:35 PM on January 21, 2009

i don't believe any of these kids are inherently bad.

With all the authority of 2 years of parenting (that is, not much 8), I have run into virtually no kids that seem inherently bad. I've run into quite a few kids who are developing terrible behaviour and will likely end up as bad kids, bad teens, and bad adults - but pretty much every time I've seen it (which is fortunately rarely) it goes back to the people around the kid, not the kid itself.
posted by rodgerd at 1:40 PM on January 21, 2009

Philadelphia might as well be Memphis every major urban school district.
posted by absalom at 1:51 PM on January 21, 2009

Sorry for the late chime in, I'm a social worker in the judicial system now and I'm in court on Wednesdays.

Anyway, what I hoped to accomplish in writing this was to have the reader experience emotionally the entire range feelings I had during the weeks I worked there. The children were all broken but each beautiful in their own way. I wanted readers to fall in love with them the way I did, despite the fact that every day they spent such a tremendous amount of energy each day trying to make me completely insane. The school was in a state of horrendous disrepair and was criminally under resourced like a lot of big, urban public schools are. Yet, between classes there was a vibrance in the air that was almost electric as the hall monitors and teachers and coaches and vice principals moved through the crowds of students performing ad hoc counseling and crisis intervention sessions. There were definitely teachers there that were just collecting paychecks on tenure but overall I had the sense that most of the staff were playing for keeps, every day. This was it, this was where each of these kids would be won or lost and the stakes across the board were so incredibly high. I wanted to capture all that good and all that bad and present it as I experienced it, sort of this swirling chaos punctuated by little moments of incredibly powerful and meaningful human connection, and moments of institutional and personal failure.

I pitched this to the local alt-weekly and they wanted to make it something different. They wanted to cut down the narrative and interject analysis of different programs like the Harlem Children's Zone and such. I didn't want to make this into a news piece about urban public schools just to get it in print. There's tons of stories like that out there. I wanted it to be just a story about the kids and the staff working with them, a day in the life of the wildest classroom in the city. I'm glad it's posted here because it's unique and I do think it deserves the wider audience. I'm planning on pulling it together into a single piece and submitting it to some magazines, but I've honestly never had much luck with that because at the end of the day I'm not a professional writer with lots of media connections, I'm just a social worker in Philly who likes to write about his job. We'll see, who knows.
posted by The Straightener at 2:49 PM on January 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

I wanted it to be just a story about the kids and the staff working with them

It is. Well done and thank you for writing it.
posted by dersins at 2:53 PM on January 21, 2009

Oh man, so fucking grim. Tough stuff Jeff, thanks for writing it.
posted by Divine_Wino at 2:58 PM on January 21, 2009

"so fucking grim."

Could I try and make the point that it's not so grim? Or at least we shouldn't treat it as such?

I mean, what a lot of these kids go through is some of the most awful stuff ever. I'm not denying that, it's just what I'm saying is that one of the things that I loved about the post is there seemed to be a great sense of humility to it and twinges of sense of humor too. This isn't so important in OUR treatment of the subject but it is thoroughly critical to the development of these kids.

When we paint a picture to the kids as relentlessly grim that's instantly what it becomes. They know their world is undeniably harsh and when they truly get a full sense of that... that's it... they're gone. Look, I know what I said above is true. If we don't revive our american cities then it's freakin' hopeless, I know that. But if we treat their situation as that, it hardens them instantly. I know it. I've watched it.

That's where the sense of levity comes in. I'm not talking some patch adams bullshit. I'm talking about a kind of appropriation. When you're dealing with urban schools you have to understand these kids have seen the hard stuff. They've all had a friend who was shot. They've gone through more trials than most adults I know ever will. What they always seem to want underneath everything, is for someone to treat them their age (more or less). The things that make a seven year old inner city kid happy is not that different from what makes any other seven year old happy. High school is a bit tougher, but more or less the same. They want to be allowed to be YOUNG. They've missed so many opportunities to do so in a world that wants them to be 18 really, really quickly. For guys it's being a tough motherfucker. For girls it's being sexualized immediately. So basically it's not just about laughing or that crap, it's just about being trying to be as normal as possible for as much time as possible.

Find something that makes them happy. I had an advantage in that I wasn't a standard teacher and more a special programs kinda guy so some instantly liked me better and some instantly resented me more. I ran chess clubs. I ran comics clubs. I balled with them. I brought in (edited) krs 1 and tribe records. I then brought in run-dmc records and they looked at me like I was grandpa. We talked about kung fu movies. I tried to explain that it wasn't just latino kids who had to play baseball. I tried never to dumb stuff down. I learned how to braid hair. I tried to be honest. I helped them with homework. I tried to convince them to even attempt their homework. I had my life threatened. But I can tell you that there's way more kinds of kids who just want to get through the day without something horrible happening... then there are ones looking to do some horrible.

Basically I tried to do everything to simulate being a young kid in a normal school. Because we know it's not. They know its not. They know how "fucking grim" it is. But it's about getting them to forget about that for a second. The more "normal life" experiences they have then the more chances they'll have to normally live.

I dunno. I'm not like my parents, and brother who've committed their lives to it. That was just my experience.
posted by Lacking Subtlety at 5:14 PM on January 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Haha, man, I totally forgot an installment (this is what happens when you post a Project at work while trying to juggle a caseload of 50 corner boys).

The Lunch Room
posted by The Straightener at 6:48 PM on January 21, 2009

In Part 1, Miss Patterson is introduced as a black female, a single mom, professionally dressed who has a desk at the back of the room. In Part 5, the Patterson character is suddenly "Mr." Patterson who easily restrains overweight and out of control Corey. What gives?
posted by Oriole Adams at 9:13 PM on January 21, 2009

Oriole, I assume that's a reference to Mr Thompson (he's first mentioned in part three). Since the names are all fake anyway (note the disclaimer in part one), it's easy to mix them up when typing in a hurry, I would imagine.

Oh, and The Straightener, much thanks! A very interesting series, now that I've managed to finish it. I'm reminded of the people in my school career who fit these characters (I knew a "Corey," I knew an "Eric," and I could probably name others that fit the rest of the crowd).

It's true that once you get to high school, which is pretty strongly tracked (the 'college' track versus the 'McDonald's' track at my underfunded schools) these people just drop out of sight.

So it's not necessarily *great*, but definitely valuable to get a glimpse of just what happened to 'that guy' you knew who threw a toddler's tantrum in the fifth grade and who you just knew was never going to be able to handle a regular classroom---he's in 315, floundering.
posted by librarylis at 1:09 AM on January 22, 2009

What gives?

I don't really have the benefit of a professional editor at the moment, for the past couple years a journalist in Philly has been kind enough to edit web projects like this for me pro bono because she likes what I do but she's been busy with her own writing and her family and it was over the holidays, etc. Thanks for pointing it out, I'll have it changed when I get a chance.
posted by The Straightener at 5:24 AM on January 22, 2009

Lacking Subtlety,
What I should have said is that the situation that these kids find themselves in is objectively grim, the way the teachers react to it, the way it is written about are complex and interesting and largely incredibly positive.
posted by Divine_Wino at 7:25 AM on January 22, 2009

Thank you for writing this.

There's another point in part five where you accidentally use what I assume is Eric's real name.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:11 PM on January 29, 2009

« Older Shoot Different   |   Queens of InfoVis Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments