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  March 5, 2018

Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education (3/4)

In Part Three, former Teach for America corp member Dwight Draughon says sending inexperienced college graduates to teach in high-need schools will not bring transformative change
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DWIGHT DRAUGHON: I am from...hello everyone. I'm from the South Bronx of New York. I went to public school from kindergarten to eighth grade. I was very aware of gangs growing up. I knew a lot of people who were involved in gangs. I was friendly with drug dealers in my neighborhood and the role models would be the gangsters. You didn't respect the nine to five man. You grow up watching Scarface and Goodfellas, coincidentally not black people. But these are people that idolize an underground system and telling you that working is for suckers. That's what I grew up being aware of.

I always tested well and I tested well. I cut school one day and the vice principal looked at my grades and my tests and was like, what are you doing with your life? Long story short, she had me go to boarding school in New Jersey called Lawrenceville down the street from Princeton. That was a pivotal moment for me because it exposed me to a lot of things. I was suddenly behind, academically, even though I tested 99th percentile in every test I took. So, then a principal said tests ain't no end all be all, that's right because boy, could I not write and did not know a thing about grammar.

But it opened my eyes to the inequity of the system, in that I grew up with 25, 30 kids in my classroom. My teachers were often absent for most of the year, for various reasons. We ran the hallways. I used to play cards in class. I was being cool. And when I went to Lawrenceville, there were 10 kids in a class and my teachers had PhDs and I was meeting celebrities because they were the parents of my kids coming through. It's all you can eat food.

I learned to take my headphones off and not look so mean all the time. I still don't smile enough apparently but I'm not as hostile as I was. This teacher was like,"You don't have to do that anymore. You're not in the Bronx anymore." What people often don't understand about children living in impoverished communities, it's not just about the classroom. There is a background of having to worry about so many other things. They're like, “Oh, I'm just going to make you be invested in school.” Turn on my heat. Give me food. Stop the kids from jumping me when I come home. There are a lot of other things you don't know. So, when you're preaching to me and telling me it's just school, you're missing the point.

So,when I went to boarding school, all of those burdens were alleviated some, and I hesitate because my family is still in the hood. I'm still dealing with those burdens indirectly. From boarding school I managed to go to Princeton. That was the end goal for me. I went to Princeton because of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, if anybody's wondering. There was no college people in my neighborhood. Obviously the teachers went to college but they didn't talk about college. No one talked about college. It happened to be TV, Uncle Phil went to Princeton. Will Smith wanted to go. I'm like, it must be dope.

So, I went for that reason. Because that was the end goal and that now put me above all of the people I grew up with, there was a relaxation. Professor Rooks caught me when I was chilling because I made it. Then I had a rude awakening at Princeton which forced me to get myself together. I did Teach for America, coming out of Princeton because I wanted to at least push one kid forward the same direction that I was pushed because if that vice principal didn't pull me to the side, I would have continued with the drug dealers and the gang members. So, I wanted to be that voice of reason. I wanted to give the kids that humble pie. Like, “Yeah, you test well here, but that's here. You got to think nationally.” I would tell my kid, “Look, they're going to baby you here and they're going to let you spaz out and say it's because you're stressed but I'm telling you when you're 18 the world don't care, and suddenly you're in jail because you've been babied and coddled by your teachers for 15 years.” I wanted to bring that perspective.

I went to a charter school. My wife who did, she's here. She was the better student than me and a better teacher than me. She went to a public school. She came in making more money than me off the bat. I'm like, “But I'm older, I'm supposed to be making more money at this point.” She just had more resources. I was, so, I started off teaching fifth through seventh grade but it wasn't three different classes. I taught fifth/sixth grade, sixth/seventh grade because there wasn't enough space. I had kids who were related to each other in different grades in the same class.

When the fifth grader does better than the sixth grader, it's non-stop harassment. My class, which was significantly small, maybe around that size, there was a barricade that split it. I taught math on one side. There was a science class on the other side. One day, because I'm a strict person. You're not going to talk in my class. I told my kids, we got 55 minutes. We're doing it no matter what. So, if you whisper, that clock stops and you got to sit here because you can't get out the door. I guess I shouldn't say that, but that's what I told them and they believed me.

One day I told my kids, I was like, "Why are you all talking? Don't you all know the rule?" They were like, “Mr. Draughton, it's not us.” So, I have 24 kids in half of a room, being disrupted by 20 plus kids on the other side of the room. I felt helpless. I felt like there's a limit to what I can do for these kids because I'm fighting up against a system that is experimenting with their education. Every two weeks, it seemed there was a shift in ideology. One day, we're arts infused. One day, we want to focus on marching through the hallways with our hands to our side. One day we have stickers on the wall. There was always something and it's like, “Can we just teach?” Can we not do the politics? Can we not worry about how pretty the school is when funders come through? Can we just make sure the kids are happy and learning? That didn't seem to be the focus. I had three principals in two years. It was actually three in one year. Then the other guy just stuck around another year. And I would have like 60 kids in a class because the other teachers were out. I had 60 kids and I played them a video and the principal yelled at me and I'm like, "I'm a first year with 60 kids because your other teachers are out, and you're mad at me?"

She's like, "Well you're my strongest teacher." And that wasn't a compliment to me. I think it was indicative of the type of school we're in. These parents, they're having these kids bused 45 minutes, and this was in DC. They're having their kids bused to the school, thinking their kids are being taken care of and they weren't. I knew SPED kids or, I don't know what the politically correct term is now, but I knew kids that had IEPs and they were not being adhered to. I had kids that were deaf in one ear and I didn't know that til midway through the year because the SPED coordinator dropped the file in the back of the file cabinet, this is literally, dropped the file in the file cabinet and never told me.

I had kids being suspended for four weeks, even though their IEP said they should not be suspended because they were not cognitively developed enough to know what they're doing. I mean, it was just a lot of things that showed me that maybe this is not the place I need to be. So, I was fortunate that my wife ended up in a stable situation. It was kind of ironic. She teaches in Anacostia and it was more stable than my school and I hope to one day circle back and be a part of the education system but I need to figure out how to effectively do that.


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