Visitation School is a private K-8 Catholic institution in Kansas City, Missouri. This semester, the Spring of 2013, I have the opportunity of student teaching at Visitation for 6 weeks; this paper is meant to serve as a reflection, in the Jesuit tradition of Rockhurst University, of how the school and community settings will impact my teaching and my relationships with students, parents, and other teachers. In the following pages I will posit that Visitation, as a school for the upper class, is an institution that largely shelters its students from the world of less privileged classes; I will first examine the demographics of the school and the neighborhood in which students live, followed by a theorization of how these facts will affect my practice.
Visitation is full of bright, happy, polite students. The total enrollment is 565 for this school year. Put bluntly, it is a school for the privileged, a school with a tuition cost of $6,300 a year for each student and a student body that is 91% white. It is where wealthy white families who live along Ward Parkway and nearby neighborhoods send their children. Between tuition costs, fundraising, and investments from Visitation Parish across the street, the total operating sum is over $2.7 million a year (School Profile handout, 2013).
It is an exemplar of wealthy neighborhoods, still very much secluded from non-whites, opting for private education that is fully funded by rich families and is likewise overwhelmingly white. According to the handout I was given from the office, Visitation is 1% black, and indeed I have only seen 1 black student in my nearly two years of observing, subbing, and now student teaching at the school. He is mixed race; my cooperating teacher tells me he is adopted, as are several other minority students. She can only think of three black students in the building, and one does not have to be a mathematician to determine three students of 565 would indicate the black population would actually be half a percent. The school is 4% Hispanic and 4% “other.” This includes a couple Indian children. There is no ELL population. A black man and Hispanic man clean the building after school.
Naturally, a fully-funded institution such as this does remarkably well on standardized tests. Across the board, in reading, language arts, math, social studies, and science, Visitation pupils consistently score somewhere in the 80th percentile of all American students on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The average class size is 21, with a pupil-teacher ratio of 17:1. Graduation rates are virtually 100%, most students will go on to private high schools, and there is no tracking that my cooperating teacher can think of save the upper-grades math courses. The classrooms are well-supplied with SMARTboards and iPads.
There are suitable accommodations for 38 students with IEPs, according to the Special Education Coordinator. Disabilities include everything from dysgraphia to ADHD to visual processing difficulties. My cooperating teacher says she has students with Tourettes, panic attacks, or Epilepsy, among others. There are two children with Autism and one girl with Down Syndrome. These students are integrated, but have paras. The school has a Student Improvement Team for each student who needs modifications or accommodations. The teams determine student concerns and strengths, objectives, instructional methods, and strategies. Each IEP is over 20 pages long.
The neighborhoods from which the students come are those of the upper class. I spent many months tutoring a 5th grade boy from Visitation, seeing his street, home, and lifestyle. He lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Ward Parkway, and many of his classmates are his neighbors. In the 64113 area, the median household income is over $250,000. The median home value is nearly $1 million. It is one of the richest neighborhoods in Kansas City. The population is virtually 100% white, according to City-Data.com (2013). The students enjoy membership at the Carriage Club, dinners on the Plaza, and other amenities. Many interrupt school for vacations to California or Chicago. I have several times heard students who live in the area describe peers who have a newer version of an iPad or iPhone than they as “spoiled.” They live privileged, unicultural lifestyles. They do not see how other children live.
My instructional planning for Visitation’s social studies classes will emphasize societal themes which both interest me most and are most important for all children to understand, but particularly upper-class children. When students pass through their history classes learning nothing of class, they are left in ignorance. When they make it through school learning nothing of race, they are left in ignorance. I was astonished to learn that the 5th grade text I will be working with, Houghton Mifflin’s United States History: The Early Years, does not contain the word “racism.” There is no examination of the decimation of Amerindian tribes after the European invasions. There are two paragraphs on slavery, mostly focusing on the life of Olaudah Equiano, an African who fought for the abolition of the British slave trade. Social class and racism have been whitewashed from history textbooks, leaving no foundation from which students can reflect on social injustices and inequalities, on why they have so much and black students who attend school on Troost a mile away have so little. I intend, as I have always intended since the day I decided to become a teacher, to stress the prevalence of racism and class conflict in American and world history, in hopes that students will understand that their presence in the upper class was a product of history and not merit, just as children born into the lower class were dealt a hand they did not choose and will have a difficult life trying to change. To this end, the first lessons I will teach to my 5th graders will be Indian-European relations and conflict, and the first lessons my 6th graders will experience will examine India’s caste system, emphasizing the plight of the Dalits (the “Untouchables”) and comparing the historic class structure to that of the United States.
In conclusion, focusing on themes such as these will not only prepare Visitation students to recognize and confront social injustices, but I predict it will better capture their interest and help me build more positive relationships with them. Nothing is more dull than sugarcoated history. Controversy and conflict, those are interesting. My students may be shaken to learn Pocahontas was 10 when she encountered the residents of Jamestown, and far from saving John Smith from certain death, she was kidnapped by him and the English and was held for ransom. But it will fascinated them, they will remember it, and they will learn to question everything they see and hear. Hopefully this process will aid my relationships with parents and other teachers, who will see student interest sparked and true learning and growing taking place. I write “hopefully,” for not everyone is comfortable with the teaching of social history, nor the examination of themes conservative textbook authors and publishers have desperately avoided for decades.
Raytown Central Middle School (RCMS) is a public 6-8 school in Raytown, Missouri, southeast of Kansas City. This is where my Spring 2013 student teaching semester at Rockhurst University concludes and, as during my first placement, I am writing an essay that examines the culture and climate of the school. Becoming a reflective practitioner includes considering how the school community will influence my decisions as a teacher. I will posit that the climate of the school, characterized by bored and controlled students, perpetuates restlessness and disruptive behavior.
The students of Raytown Central are largely good-natured. Many are sociable and eager to say hello to me and ask questions of me. The student population is 581. The school is more ideal than other American public schools in its ethnic diversity, being 40% black, 47% white, 9% Hispanic, and 3.5% Asian/Pacific Islander. The teacher population is not so diverse. There are 69 faculty and staff members, but I have only seen three African-Americans and one Hispanic. The vast majority are in their forties, fifties, or sixties. Of the students, there are 16 English Language Learners, 58 students with Individual Education Plans, and 13 with 504 Plans.
I am told that RCMS serves families in a better part of Raytown.
“We’re in one the wealthier areas,” a counselor tells me. “Meaning we don’t have trailer parks.”
The city as a whole has an average median income of $48,000, but with significant racial disparities (a median $51,000 salary for white families, $36,500 for blacks, $34,500 for Hispanics). Raytown is 65% white, 25% black, 5% Hispanic, and 1.2% Asian/Pacific Islander. 18% of the residents live on less than $30,000 a year, 33% on less than $40,000 (City-Data website, 2009). Raytown Central is not a Title I school, but 40-45% of its students qualify for the Free and Reduced Lunch Program (the school serves breakfast and lunch), and I am told 12-18 students are homeless this year, meaning displaced and living with relatives or other caretakers. Many of my students wear the same sweatshirts each day.
The students with IEPs seem well supported; I joined a meeting after school to discuss the needs of a boy with low IQ and behavioral problems, and it is clear the staff is dedicated to providing the modifications he needs to learn. Students with lower processing abilities are given preferential seating and provided hard copies of notes daily. I have not seen extensive differentiated instruction, but I have only observed one teacher, and for a brief period of time. Still, the education offered to students with special needs seems on par with other students. One of my students is blind, another is a quadriplegic. There is a full-time braillist in the building, and multiple paras. Most significantly, students on IEPs are fully integrated. The extent to which other students help their peers impresses me.
There are also students on behavioral plans. I sat in on a staff meeting on building-wide behavioral referrals. From August 2012 to February 2013, the number of referrals for lies and aggression were both in the hundreds. There are no metal detectors, but there are cameras in the halls and a policeman on duty.
The climate of the school is not particularly positive. The halls are painted dark grey, the lockers are black, and the lights are low. Teachers are authoritative and controlling; raised voices are commonplace, and some engage in arguments with students over things I would consider not worth the battle. Many teachers seem frustrated. They are not unkind, just tired. I can understand why; many of these students are difficult to manage. I wonder how many of them truly enjoy what they are doing, and how many simply tolerate it.
Attitudes are sometimes negative. A teacher referred to one of the classes I will teach as “a rotten group of kids.”
The discontent is shared by the students, who feel very much controlled. The school uses the BIST (Behavior Intervention Support Team) strategy, which strives to control behavior, but involves sending disruptive students out of the classroom. Usually the disruptive behavior is the refusal to stop conversing with peers while a teacher is trying to teach, and indeed it can get out of control. Most of my classes have nearly 30 kids. Students are sent out of my cooperating teacher’s six classes often; sometimes one or two a day, sometimes five or six.
Disinterest breeds disruption. Many students are bored, resigned to silently fill out worksheets as the central activity of some lessons. There are days when they watch interesting videos or do research on computers, but the classes I’ve seen are largely devoid of vigorous discussion, debates, group work, or activities that allow students to get up and move. As my teaching begins, I am seeing why, as there are some classes that simply cannot control themselves. The side conversations and disruptive behavior become impossible to manage.
My decisions as a teacher here will attempt to create a positive environment that sacrifices authoritarianism for interesting, thought-provoking lessons as the central driving force of classroom management. RCMS students need to have a reason for what they are doing. The majority seem to have little understanding of learning for its own sake. I believe I am off to a decent start: my first day I was able to spark student interest in the Greek language and maintain a relatively high degree of control. Students were excited to learn Greek phrases and examine root words. Many enjoyed greeting me with γειά σου for the rest of the day. However, the next day’s activities that involved student mobility proved to be difficult with certain classes, and I see why these teachers gravitate towards rote learning that maintains tighter control. I hope to find a balance, learning how to craft active lessons that still allow me to manage the classroom.
(2012-2013). School Profile [handout]. Visitation School, Kansas City, MO.
64112 Zip Code Detailed Profile. (2013). Retrieved from http://www.city-data.com/zips/64112.html.
Raytown, Missouri (MO) income, earnings, and wages data. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.city-data.com/income/income-Raytown-Missouri.html.