It was 7:30 am and I was busy preparing for a long day of mandated state testing followed by a long teachers’ meeting to be held after the final bell, when the assistant principal appeared in my doorway.
“You’re not going to believe this,” he began, “although after 32 years, nothing should surprise me any longer. A kid and his mother showed up in my office. The kid produced a medical marijuana card from his doctor and then told me he now had the right to smoke on campus whenever and wherever he wanted. He even brought his mother along to give parental permission. I straightened them out pretty quickly.” (Smoking of any kind is forbidden on school grounds—even by teachers.)
“But that’s not why I came to talk to you,” he continued. “Our enrollment has dropped so low that the district is looking at closing our campus by the end of the year.”
I had known for at least two years that we were in trouble. Our relatively new school, built to accommodate 1,300 students, had lost enrollment every year: from 750 when we opened four years ago, down to 500 two years ago, and now 450. We were supposed to be a brand new, state-of-the art “green” school built to relieve overcrowding at neighboring schools which are now, themselves, struggling to stay open.
What happened? Charter, private, religious, and language-based schools have opened around us, about one per year for the last decade, scraping off our best students. Housing prices in the Los Angeles area are soaring and there are fewer children. We are left with many special education students—which the charter schools won’t take—students just out of jail or juvenile hall, students from group and foster homes, and transient students whose families move, or are evicted, every few months.
The language and culture-based schools that have opened all over the LA area cater to the large populations of Chinese, Armenian, Syrian, and Korean students whose families want to preserve their heritage. Imagine the outrage if whites demanded the same for their children.
My 11th grade students began to file into the classroom for first period.
“What time does the bell ring?” one asked me; never mind the over-sized clock that was in full view. I was about to tell him, “The same time it rings for first period every day,” when I remembered something that came up in the most recent weekly, mandated “professional development” session: Students can no longer read an analog clock. That skill is no longer being taught in elementary school because “everyone uses digital now.” Like cursive handwriting and memorizing the times tables, it is considered an outdated, useless skill. That’s why students are constantly asking the time and are baffled when I try to explain how the “big and little hands” work.
I began the state testing as quickly as I could, knowing the school WiFi is unstable even on a good day, and could shut down any time, immediately invalidating the tests. I made sure each student had a Chromebook for this test; despite spending $1.3 billion on iPads, the school district recently bought a multi-million dollar testing program from Scholastic that works only on the PC platform. Maybe instead of the iPads gathering dust in a locked steel cabinet I could use them as doorstops.