As a substitute teacher, I'm privileged to experience the best of Tucson's schools—and the worst of Tucson's schools.
On a recent Thursday, I was teaching at one of the city's best schools, in the Catalina Foothills School District. The next day, I was working in the Sunnyside Unified School District. What I saw convinced me that some children are given the tools to succeed, and some are not. The determining factor too often appears to be a child's ZIP code.
Orange Grove Middle School is a pleasant series of grayish buildings set against the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Catalina Mountains. I know from experience that middle school students are the most difficult to control. Imagine my surprise when 30 students filed into the classroom, sat down quietly and waited for instructions. I spent most of the day in a state of barely suppressed shock. I had worked with at-risk youth for so long that I'd forgotten that a classroom could be a place where students actually did work and learned.
At one point during second period, the students needed computers, and 30 brand-new MacBooks were wheeled in. These kids, I thought to myself, really do have the tools they need to succeed in the world. (So does the teacher, who had not one, but two MacBooks at her disposal.) There were three occasions throughout the day when I had to ask a student to sit down or be quiet. Otherwise, the students were well-behaved and interested in their studies.
The next day, I was working at Chaparral Middle School in the Sunnyside district. The room I was assigned to was separated from the main building and looked like it was a converted mobile home. Just as on the previous day, 30 students filed into my room. However, they did not sit and await instruction; they ran around the room, threw objects, practiced the art of using obscenities, and caused a general ruckus. I spent 10 minutes getting the students settled and was interrupted by behavior problems on a regular basis. I felt more like a baby sitter than a teacher, and spent most of the day dealing with students who either wouldn't or couldn't stay on task.
If this had been an isolated incident, I could chalk it up to my own inadequacy as an instructor, but I have worked for Sunnyside and Catalina Foothills several times, and it's always the same. The students in the Catalina Foothills district receive excellent instruction and have an amazing variety of electives, resulting in a well-rounded education. Catalina Foothills High School has an excellent theater department, a ceramics studio and a choir class. The students at Sunnyside are too busy with AIMS prep for electives like ceramics or choir. The buildings at Catalina Foothills High are new, clean and reminiscent of a college campus. The campus of Sunnyside High School resembles a prison barracks. (People often dismiss or underestimate the effect the appearance of a campus has on its academic performance, but you will be hard-pressed to find quality education on a campus of run-down buildings.)
The two worlds bear little resemblance, although both are part of our city's public-school system. The trend is prevalent nationwide. Visit the public school in a rich neighborhood of Anytown, U.S.A., and you'll likely find a school that resembles our own Catalina Foothills High School. The same is true for poorer areas, where the schools typically mirror those found in the Sunnyside district.
Most children can succeed given the chance. I also believe that there is no connection between race, gender and educational ability. While I have been very critical of the schools in the Sunnyside district, the students there consistently impress me with their creativity and critical-thinking skills. They can succeed, but many won't under the current set of circumstances.
Education is the backbone of opportunity. If we want to continue to believe our national rhetoric of liberty and justice for all, we must address the inexcusable differences between schools in poorer neighborhoods and those in rich ones. Using property taxes to help fund schools ensures this trend will continue. Until we change that, public schools will work well for the rich, and continue to fail the poor.