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The Point | Courage, idealism and disgrace

Eight years ago, one of my young colleagues here at The Inquirer left reporting and writing for a year to teach sixth grade at a middle school in North Philadelphia.

Eight years ago, one of my young colleagues here at The Inquirer left reporting and writing for a year to teach sixth grade at a middle school in North Philadelphia.

It was a bold move. Christina Asquith, then 25, had barely gotten her foot in the door as a journalist. She had worked here under a two-year internship program designed in part to help place its graduates in full-time jobs in the field. But Christina was passionately interested in education, and she believed that if she was going to write about it, she needed to experience it.

She was in the right city: Want to teach in Philadelphia? Well, you can, with no experience, no training, no guidance, and no questions asked.

What Christina discovered was a disgrace. The general condition of public education in parts of this city is as clear a statement as society can make that children in certain neighborhoods - most of them Hispanic and black - simply don't matter. Her starting salary that year was $30,000, $8,000 below the starting salary of her suburban counterparts - schools that were not hiring people off the streets to teach, and which had, among other things, actual textbooks.

She found a city school system so desperate for teachers in 1999 that it was willing - and this is only slightly stretching the truth - to take anyone. The district had a program for "emergency" certification. Typically, teachers spend their college years preparing for a classroom, and then log many hours working and observing alongside veteran instructors before taking over a class of their own. Christina had none of this. She even signed up too late for the one-week instruction course. The school district recruiter was unfazed.

"Can I really teach without any experience?" Christina asked.

"Believe me, we need you more than you need us," he said.

She was placed before a class of sixth graders at Julia de Burgos Middle School, then in a massive, gray-stone building with all the charm of a 19th-century prison on the corner of Eighth Street and Lehigh Avenue. Some readers might recognize Julia de Burgos as one of the schools where a teacher was recently assaulted by students. Christina was simply handed 33 rambunctious early teens (most of them mature well beyond any sixth graders Christina had ever known), all of them fluent in Spanish but less so in English, from some of the most troubled neighborhoods in the city.

There would be minimal to no support from school administrators. The whole experience, from the very existence of an "emergency" program to lure the naïve and idealistic to the reality of Julia de Burgos, was like a bad joke. Slender, blond, heartbreakingly earnest, this woman from the suburbs of New Jersey was being offered up cynically. She had no lesson plan, no coaching, and, as it would turn out, no books - she would eventually discover boxes of old, outdated, undistributed ones on her own. The biggest laugh, as Christina was quick to see for herself, was on the kids.

"I hate the fact that untrained teachers are being assigned here," said one veteran teacher at the school, who asked not to be named, and noted that the program that lured Christina is still in place. More than 10 "emergency" teachers were placed in classrooms there this year alone. Only an experienced teacher at the same school can fully comprehend the folly of giving the most challenging (read: "unwanted") classrooms to complete novices. In a society concerned about the escalating violence and lawlessness of inner-city neighborhoods - or one that simply paid teachers commensurate with the level of difficulty - any teacher willing to tackle Julia de Burgos would be making top dollar.

Many of the untrained recruits take a short look and flee. Joseph Smith III, the substitute teacher who was attacked at the school in March, was filling in for an "emergency" teacher who quit after the first month. Another left this year after only one week. There were similar desertions in Christina's year, but she found something even worse: teachers who had given up long ago but who stayed in place, going through the motions, waiting out the years to qualify for a pension.

There were varying degrees of abdication, from those who simply threw their most difficult students out of class, leaving packs of unsupervised teens to roam the halls, to one male teacher who simply ignored his students altogether, spending class periods reading the newspaper at his desk.

"Failure is not an option," the school principal had intoned impressively in a staff meeting at the start of the year, which sounded firm and inspirational, and which turned out to be literally true: Teachers were encouraged to falsify grades on exams and report cards to meet assigned goals.

Christina was tougher than that. She battled her way through the full year, never more grateful for her fluent command of Spanish, buying books and supplies for the children out of her own thin wallet - her parents helped with the rent - and finding a small network of skilled teachers inside the school who inspired and counseled her. She fell in love with her students.

I visited her class midway through that year. I had sent three of my children to public schools in Philadelphia, but nothing prepared me for Julia de Burgos. The only thing that struck me as normal about the place was her class. It was warm and boisterous and fun. There were kids in the back of the room who were off in their own worlds, and there were brassy kids clearly unconvinced that being in school was worth their while, but Christina had the full attention of a core group of smart, focused, genuinely curious children eager to learn.

As I left that day, she asked me what I thought, and I didn't have a terribly coherent response. I was shocked, but I didn't want to jump to any conclusions - I didn't know whether the herds of wild children in the halls were a temporary problem or the status quo - and I didn't want to discourage her by being too critical. I told her that, at the very least, she had a great story to write. I was moved by her courage and accomplishment.

Christina left after that year, after months of painful deliberation. She had taught herself how to control a class and to teach in the worst of circumstances. She went on to earn a master's degree in education at the London School of Economics, and then covered the war in Iraq as a stringer for the Christian Science Monitor, writing about education issues in that war-torn place. Her marvelous and important book about her experience at Julia de Burgos, called The Emergency Teacher, will be republished soon. It is a fascinating story of stubborn idealism, ingenuity and courage, and as sweet and revealing a portrait of a troubled urban school as you will ever read.

Since she left, the school has moved into an impressive new building at Fourth and Lehigh but still suffers the same problems. The teacher quoted above, who had known Christina during her year of teaching, said there have been some improvements - despite the recent teacher assault.

"There is a lot more learning going on, thanks in great part to the core curriculum that is being used across the entire district," he said, "although I am strongly opposed to the emphasis placed on test results."

Classes remain very challenging and overcrowded. There are fewer classroom supplies than there were seven years ago; teachers are still quitting (both those who walk away and those who stay in place), and wild children still roam the halls, preying on the kids who are trying to learn and, as we have seen, occasionally on their teachers. Abandoned students get dumped on the teachers who stay, making their jobs more difficult.

The only real remedy is to offer salaries that equal or exceed those paid in the suburbs. Why would anyone who is not a saint take a harder job that pays significantly less? Schools like Julia de Burgos don't need more novices; they need the most resourceful and dedicated teachers that can be found. Study after study has shown that the most important factor in any child's education is a good teacher.

We need to stop throwing novices into difficult classrooms. Any program to hire untrained teachers needs, at the very least, to mandate rigorous training and preparation, and the time do it is now, not at the end of summer when city schoolchildren are buying their new school supplies.