There’s nothing “pleasant” in Pleasantville
After leaving the Trenton charter school, I landed in Pleasantville, NJ. Immediately indicative of how things would be in Pleasantville was “Back to School Night,” when parents would eagerly come to meet their children’s teachers, perhaps ask a few questions, and make some personal contacts and face time. If there were 25 kids in class, a good turnout would be four parents. Maybe three.
The rule of thumb is that on Back to School Night, you only see the parents you don’t need to see because those parents care and want to meet the teachers, and that attitude rubs off on the kids. The ones who don’t care will also have kids who don’t care. It’s not 100%, but every teacher knows it’s predominant. On average, I probably neither met nor spoke with more than 40% of parents there. Only a small percentage of phone calls to parents were ever answered. There were occasions when the vice principal came to me for a working, valid phone number for a particular student. I would say, “If you – the principal – don’t have the right phone number, how am I supposed to have it?”
Pleasantville is a place that the rest of New Jersey and education have left in the dust. For example, when they create a schedule for the beginning of the school year and place 30 kids in a certain classrooms, nobody there makes an effort to ensure there are enough chairs, tables, and/or desks for 30 kids in those rooms, nor do they ensure that those particular rooms definitely have the square footage for such a population. It is not uncommon for teachers to arrive for their first day with students without having yet received a list of the students assigned to that teacher’s classes. Teachers also are forced to wait until up to 30 minutes into that first day without yet having schedules for the students in their homeroom classes. They end up wasting time keeping kids busy and quiet while waiting for schedules to be delivered and trying to stop kids from bouncing around the room. If I’m a kid without a place to go, I might also bounce around the room because it would at least seem as if my life had a purpose at that moment. But a lot of kids in that town often felt without purpose because the school district had no clue how to provide them with a purpose.
Beginning around 1998, there was a stretch of ten years during which Pleasantville had ten different superintendents. Each one arrived as if they knew what they were doing, and each one left without having done anything except make things worse. When a close friend received superintendent certification a few years ago, he was asked if there were any school districts he had been considering. When he named Pleasantville, he was asked, “Why put yourself through that hell?” Here was a district in such sad shape that state representatives were trying to convince good people not to go there. So while good people were staying away, they hired dregs.
One superintendent, whom I won’t name only because she never did anything to me personally, had previously been a superintendent in a Philadelphia suburb where, after 1 ½ years of a three-year contract, they agreed to pay her the remaining 1 ½ years provided she stay home. In Pennsylvania she averaged one union grievance filed against her per day, many of them for allowing both teachers and students to attend unsafe buildings and intentionally ignoring contracts and policies. In Pleasantville she improved to 1.5 grievances filed per day. Mold was growing wildly and visibly on walls and in ceilings of every building. Recommendations for repairs were ignored until Mike the union president met with state health officials. It worked, and eventually the superintendent was again asked to leave a job early, this time without getting paid beyond her last day.
Early in my time there I did not hesitate to question things I saw, and I often asked why certain wrong things were happening. The answer I usually heard was, “No, no. You don’t understand. This is Pleasantville. Things are different here.” As years went on and I watched failures mounting, something I said very often was, “If you can’t get the little things right, how can you possibly get the big things right?” Too many little things were wrong in Pleasantville.
1. A student stole $10 from a teacher’s desk. When the teacher asked the vice principal to punish the student, he refused and said, “Why? It’s your fault. You were dumb enough to leave money lying around.” Little things.
2. Someone sprayed a black swastika on a gray wall in a boys restroom on my floor. After I informed the main office, a custodian painted over it with white paint. So instead of a black swastika on a gray wall, we had a white swastika on a gray wall. That was three years ago, and it is still there today. Little things.
3. Every fire drill occurred with about ten minutes left in a class period. Typically, kids would hurry from the room while 20 laptops remained on tables and me without time to assign homework or wrap up the lesson. Kids would return to my room to get their things and then arrive at their next period about 10 minutes late. I asked the vice principal if we could have fire drills in the middle of a period so as to only interrupt one class instead of two. The vice principal said, “But what if a real fire happens at the end of a period and goes into the next period?” I said, “Sir, if there ever IS a real fire, we probably won’t be going back in the building for that next class.”
4. Assemblies, performances, guest speakers, and special events were almost never announced before the day of the event. I might have a big test planned when I would hear an announcement of an assembly beginning either in five minutes or later that day. So the preparation the kids might have done the night before had been wasted. Little things.
5. A principal in one building was out sick for a month. Instead of hiring a replacement for one month, a qualified teacher would be taken out of a classroom while a substitute teacher took over that classroom for a month. The administration cared more about a teacher’s desire to be a principal for a month than they cared about kids having their instruction interrupted for a month. Little things.
6. A summer program was established for kids from kindergarten to 8th grade to provide a safe place to be during the day. There were roughly 100 high school students hired at $12 an hour and 50 teachers at $25 an hour, six hours a day, somewhere around 45 days. All that time and money was spent, but only about ten K-to-8 kids signed up for the program.
7. Detentions were held after school for anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes, and of course kids hated it – on the rare occasions they showed up. If they skipping going to detention, they were assigned a day of in-school suspension, which meant they just sat in a room with other kids, barely did any work, and left at the end of the day like everyone else. They much preferred that to staying an hour after school. When I asked the vice principal about changing that process, he said he understood and agreed with me, but it was board policy and not his decision. That was it. Instead of taking action and fixing a broken system, he was satisfied to simply say it wasn’t his decision. He had the ability but not the drive to fix the situation because it did not directly affect him.
8. Dozens of kids in Pleasantville were known to not live in town and were legally ineligible to attend the school and use resources. When this was brought to the proper person’s attention, it was ignored for two reasons. First, more students in school meant more money was gained in state aid. Second, the administration’s approach was that it was better to know that those students were not out on the streets getting into trouble. My answer was, “Yeah, but now they’re in our school getting into trouble. Why not kick them out and let their parents take care of them?” I was told, “Because the parents won’t take care of them.” That was probably true, but the result was sacrificing the education of other students and enabling irresponsible parenting.
9. Scheduling seemed beyond the reach of the administrators. Kids who spoke fluent Spanish would spend three years in Spanish instruction while never setting foot in art, computers, physical education, or music.
10. There were often disagreements between students and teachers, and occasionally it would result in a student putting hands on and pushing a teacher. Instead of punishing the student, the administration would reprimand the teacher for not having foreseen the likely result of upsetting a student.
11. It’s hard to teach literature without also teaching history and using a world map. One August I visited the social studies teacher who moved into the classroom next to me. While welcoming her to that wing of the building, I noticed that her world map looked a lot like mine. I said what I needed to say, went to my classroom, and noticed that my map was gone. I waited until she left for the day and then checked to find that I was right, she had taken my map. I won’t argue that a social studies teacher might need a world map more than me, but she could have at least had the decency to ask.
12. A teacher was having trouble controlling a noisy class in the school library, much to the dismay of the librarian. No, the librarian did not talk to the teacher, did not talk to the principal. She directly e-mailed the superintendent to complain about the teacher with the noisy class. This breaks professional protocol immensely.
13. Back to School Night always started at about 7 pm on a Wednesday during September. Daily dismissal was at about 3:30 pm. Every year at about 4 pm on Back to School Night, the principal would announce that she would be providing a pizza dinner at about 6 pm for any teachers who wanted to partake. The invitation was always inexplicably not announced until most of the teachers had already left the building.
14. On the last school day before the Christmas/Winter break, an announcement was made for all teachers to report to the auditorium at the end of the day for their Christmas present from the superintendent. It turned out to be a half-hour presentation from a representative from Omaha Steaks, a meat company, telling us all about the special prices available to us through a special offer. I’m not sure how much money the salesperson paid the superintendent to pitch his products to us, but she proudly stood at the door handing out order forms and expecting us to thank her as we left for the holidays. Many of us checked and double checked, still not believing that sitting through that commercial offer was a “gift” to us.
15. In August, the language arts teachers spent a week training to use a new, computer-based literacy program, but the new computers needed were not installed until early December. We had no choice but to use the textbooks from prior years and were then reprimanded for not wanting to switch to the new program in the middle of the year, even though we all totally forgot what we had learned in training because that was four months prior.
16. Full-time secretaries and teachers have been heard complaining that their welfare checks have been reduced. Then they walked to their Jaguars in the parking lot and drove home.
And let’s make it an even 17. It is against state law for a board of education to hire any family members of any board personnel. I would safely guess that there are at least a dozen related employees who were hired by that panel of board members.
Okay. Enough characterizing a failing school district. I could go on another thousand words. In the next part, I will discuss some specific people, good people, and bad people.