How Can We Teach Inner City Children?

by Phillip Lee

How do you educate Baltimore's neediest children? Creative and innovative new education programs, more books, and more computers simply do not address the roots of the problem of why these children are not learning.
The primary reason is that they are not prepared to learn. Many of them do not have a family structure that teaches discipline, consistency, respect, manners, and courtesy. Love and care do not exist in some homes. When they lack such traits and experiences, they enter school unprepared to learn. They are looking for attention, discipline and love before even thinking about what one plus one equals or the A, B, C's.
From my long-term experience as a volunteer at a city elementary school, I can say that the children are bright but, without a basic foundation of discipline, love and a multitude of basic values, they cannot learn. It is just not possible for early elementary teachers to adequately teach 25 to 40 such students in a single class. There are continuous disruptions from these children.
The solution is simple. Have smaller classes, with a minimum of 10 students and a maximum of 15. This would give teachers a controllable class size and afford the children a realistic opportunity to learn.
The consequences of lack of adequate attention at the earliest stages of education are that many students are passed to the next grades even though they are not academically qualified. When a ninth grader with only a sixth grade education level opens a geometry book, the student has no choice but to drop out.
Society must pay to have smaller classes to educate the youngest children now, or pay 100-fold in 15 years to address the problems created by a poor education.
My company has developed a partnership with the Dallas F. Nicholas, Sr. Elementary School P. S. #39, located at 21st and Calvert Streets. We have supported the school by working with the children and helping raise funds for such basic school needs as calculators.
For the past four years, on a weekly basis, I have served as a mentor, a teacher's aide, and an organizer for field trips.
It became obvious after working at the school for just one month that the way to teach the children was to have a small class. Each semester, I start with five children and each week add another student until the class reaches 15. Then I start over again with a new group of five.
I give discipline, attention, and consistency to the children, and then I teach. Before I start my class, the children go over my rules, such as raising hands to answer questions, respecting and listening when fellow students speak, and not using disrespectful language such as "shut up." Each child knows that he or she gets only one chance if any rules are broken.
My student helper, who rotates weekly, has the final say if a child is dismissed from my class. The dismissed child is allowed to return the next week, if he or she promises to obey the class rules. The children understand that it is a privilege to be in this smaller class.
For the past four years, I have lost count of praises, drawings, letters of appreciation, and hugs I have received from the children. But working with the children for an hour is very exhausting. I can't imagine being a full-time teacher. All the teachers are very dedicated and do not get credit or recognition for what they do in such a working environment.
My frustration in the school system hit rock bottom in November 1996. Since September 1996, I had been working at Dallas Nichols on Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. When I showed up the Thursday before Thanksgiving, my second grade class was gone. I asked the teacher what had happened. She told me that the school had just lost a second grade teacher due to budget cuts and that the three second grade classes (which had some first graders) had been combined to two classes. One class had 35 children. I was livid at the school system. It seems that it's planned for failure. The children deserve so much better.
One time I was teaching a class of second grade boys and was involved in a class on what makes up a city. Most of the boys drew two large rectangles on their papers, located between the homes and grocery stores. I asked what the rectangles represented. Their responses: a prison and a police station.
Another time I was teaching a class of third grade boys and girls and the subject was why someone is motivated to buy a product, such as a toy or a cereal. The children drew their product. Four boys drew cars. I asked them what kind of cars they had drawn. They drew two BMW's and two Lexus's. This is what they see on the neighborhood streets.
Another volunteer and I took three third graders and three second graders to an Oriole game. When picking up one child at his home, I told a grandmother he'd be back by 9:30 p.m. She said, "I don't care."
The past four years at Dallas Nicholas have been very rewarding. Individuals do make a difference, but the frustration and anger I have is that the education system fails to understand or ignores the problems.

Phillip Lee, an engineer, is a senior associate with Whitman, Requardt and Associates at 2315 Saint Paul Street.

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This story was published on May 7, 1997.