August 17, 2001

Chismes de Mi Gallinero:

California's Teachers Failing Latino Kids

By: Julio C. Calderón

Today — is one of those days, it is hot and dusty, and I have zoned out on the solitaire game in the computer — what a waste of time, technology and gray matter. I thought, certainly there were more important issues to consider. So, I go feed the chickens in the gallinero. They were arguing about the news that the California Teachers' Association (CTA) complaining that the California Legislature to give more attention to teachers. I wonder what the CTA would do if the Legislature and the governor gave education 99 percent of the budget?

Teachers, or at least their association, state, annually, that they could teach kids better if they were paid more. Every year or so they are given a raise. They complain that teachers don't get the respect due their profession. However, where Chicanos are concerned, the only constant in education, in terms of figures and statistics, is that Latino kids drop out of school, and are among the under achievers, in greater numbers than their counterparts. The CTA never comes to the state capital prepared to discuss failing kids, even though they hide behind kids in their fight for personal economic advancement.

Economics are important to the CTA. If teachers make more money, the CTA makes more money in increased membership dues. If students fail, the CTA still makes more money.

As a Chicano, I have always watched and wondered and prayed that one year I would see the drop out rate of Latino kids turn around — show some sign of dropping. It never has.

The only place where Latino kids excel academically, it seems, is in the California Youth Authority (CYA). The number of Latino kids in the CYA has nearly doubled in the last ten years. They enter the CYA with major issues. They come with problems of drug and alcohol abuse — a criminal history — and a gang mentality. They come with mental problems, and they are labeled "uneducable," labeled as such by the school districts that gave up on them long ago. In the CYA, they are labeled "under-educated."

There is a major difference in the terms. The difference isn't only in what they describe — the most important difference is in the attitude each term represents. "Uneducable" is a hopeless term — it gives up totally on the child. "Under-Educated" is a term of hope — it says this child is intelligent — that this child can learn. The CYA utilizes the same curriculum, as do public schools. They use the same textbooks and teaching aides. The other, and most important, difference is that the "uneducatable" youth sent to the CYA leave the CYA with G.E.D.s, high school diplomas, AA degrees and some, depending on the length of stay, with BA degrees.

The teachers in the CYA high schools are a different breed of cats. The CTA would say I give them too much credit. CYA classroom sizes are smaller. The students are not distracted by outside activities — they can't date.

But if they want to argue the size of the student body, we must discuss the make-up of the student body. We must discuss the conditions under which they must teach. The classroom in the CYA is filled with angry, dangerous young men. Every one of them is in that classroom for committing crimes. Some are petty car thieves; most are gang-bangers, rapists, murders and child molesters. They are the collective of every school's throw-aways; the troublemakers shunted off to continuation school and then the streets.

That is the CYA high schools' student body. The classroom or teaching arena varies. There is the traditional classroom setting with rows of desks and blackboards and laboratories with computers. But the CYA teacher isn't relegated only to classroom teaching. The CYA teacher also has one-on-one teaching to do.

Don't mistake CYA's version of one-on-one education as a privilege. One-on-one in the CYA is a teacher standing outside a cell door talking through a food tray slot because the pupil on the other side is too dangerous, even for a CYA classroom. One-on-one is a teacher talking to a young man in a steel mesh cage, again, because this teacher is dealing with a dangerous young man, but has helped this young man move from the cell to the cage, and has hopes of moving him to the classroom.

Teachers in the CYA face the same dangers the correctional officers face. They have been physically attacked — some killed by this student body. Still, they come to the institutions filled with hope — and measure their success with one turned-around life at a time. They teach, they counsel, they provide calm and caring, and they never lose enthusiasm.

Any one of these CYA teachers could leave and immediately earn more money in a public school district. But they don't leave. They retire after 25 or 30 years or more, only to return as retired annuitants or volunteers. Obviously, for these teachers, it is the kids, not the money.

When I, as a Chicano, see the population figures show that 50 percent of the CYA population is Latino, I take comfort in their educational successes. I take pride in these teachers and their dedication to the traditions of the teaching profession.

This is why I rile at the CTA's claim that their members would do better if they were paid better. "Do better and I will pay you more!" I find myself screaming at the radio or television when I hear their lament. Bring down the more than 50 percent drop out rate among Latino kids — and I will pay you more. Don't be so quick to label a Latino kids uneducatable. Listen to the child and try to find out what else is going on in his life. You cannot help that child if you don't know whom or what you are competing against for his attention and inspiration.

Ya calmaté, Julio! Mé dice, mi gallo Javier Soliz. Y respondo, cantá me mis mañanitas…mis `Gitaras de media noché.

I am getting too old. After 30-some-odd-years, in el movimiento, Me canso…I tire. Patience, the aphrodisiac of optimists, wanes.

Julio Calderón can reached at Latsac@aol.com

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