SF Chronicle: Chaos at SF’s Aptos Middle School

School disciplinary problems reflect bigger issues in our society. I believe there is a connection between them and the increase in car burglaries and other thefts/break-ins in our community.

Problems locally may also be impacting the regular stream classes, especially in math.

The San Francisco Chronicle has a podcast entitled “Fifth & Mission.”  On Feb. 15th, 2020 the topic was “Chaos upends San Francisco’s Aptos Middle School.”  The podcast is a discussion of Heather Knight’s column of the same date entitled “‘Lord of the Flies’: Fights, bullying, chaos upend San Francisco middle school.

Aptos Middle School is near the well-to-do St. Francis Wood and Monterey Heights neighborhoods several blocks east of Stonetown Galleria, but has students bussed in from other parts of the City including the poorer Bayview and Portrero Hill neighborhoods.  Somewhere between only 5-20 students between the ages of 11-14 years old at the school

managed to wrest control of the school from the adults.

And everybody agrees these kids, just 11 to 14 years old, need far more support to cope with the horrifying trauma they’ve experienced in their short lives and get them engaged in school. Where families and teachers disagree with administrators, however, is whether the school district — which is big on talk about social justice — is actually providing that support.

The district says it is. But the mayhem — physical fights, bullying, chaotic hallways and vile language — shows that’s clearly not the case.

In fact, for the 1,000 students at Aptos, there’s just one social worker. And the only real concession the district has made after complaints about safety has been allowing Principal Nicole Trickett to use money tagged for new technology to hire a temporary security guard for more protection in the hallways.

Why should this concern us here in the suburbs??

In the course of my tutoring work, I talk to students every day about their classes.  While we may not have problems locally that are quite this severe, this is not isolated to Aptos Middle School.  I taught for a year at one of the better high schools in San Francisco where a female teacher was beaten up by two female students who were subsequently suspended.  I constantly saw kids roaming the halls when they should be in class and at times deciding to barge in to other classrooms to talk to their friends in the middle of lessons.

The disrespect shown to teachers and the constant barrage of foul language in the halls between periods was shocking enough to me at the time, and I would not be surprised if it has become worse since then.

I generally work with more serious SMUHSD students in precalculus, calculus, physics and chemistry, but have some students in the regular math stream.  I often hear that about half the regular math classes are filled with students who come in to high school with very weak math backgrounds, have basically given up on the subject, and cause disruptions in class.  This clearly impacts the learning of the better students in the class.  I have no quantitative data on how frequently this happens, but I suggest that parents reading this article talk to their own kids and try to get a sense of the occurrences from them.

In the past I have written many times with a degree of disapproval about the frantic rush to accelerate kids in math, and said that the regular stream should be considered.  However, I have also argued for an honors stream that presented the material at a level in between the regular and AP classes.  There seems to me to be a significant number of students who would benefit from this intermediate stream which would save them the stress and expense of the AP exams.  Possibly due to lack of resources this has never gone anywhere despite a similar attempt by Aragon parents several years ago to request an honors stream from the administration.

When I first started tutoring eight years ago, I had several regular stream students and was fairly satisfied with the regular math classes at that time.  However, as my reputation grew, I increasingly focussed on the higher level math classes.  Since I have worked with some families for as long as 6-7 years, I have accepted some siblings in regular stream math classes in the last few years and am now concerned about the pace of the regular curriculum.  These students are competent in math but are bored in the regular math classes.  Textbooks have been abandoned in favor of worksheets, and the level of difficulty seems to have decreased.  One Algebra 1 class this school year spent the first 10 to 11 weeks on simplifying algebraic expressions and the slope-intercept, point-slope and standard formats for the equation of a line.  Most work was completed in class and a weekly homework worksheet took the student only about 20 minutes to finish.

Possibly because teachers have to deal with such a wide variety of math skills (and this problem may have been exacerbated by aborted curriculum experiments such as Everyday Math in the local K-8 district), this slowdown may have been necessary.

However, combining a slower curriculum with kids that are bored with or given up on math is a recipe for problems.

Public school teachers are in a tough position with disruptive kids.  Serra High School, a local Catholic school, had a staffed after-school detention center for discipline problems which gave Serra teachers an acceptable disciplinary option.

Many public high schools require the teacher who assigns detention to stay after school to monitor the student themselves!  This clearly does not encourage teachers to use detention as a disciplinary tool.  Instead, for example, when I taught in SFUSD, the helpful classroom management advice that I was given by a vice principal was simply, “Don’t let them see you smile until after Christmas!”, i.e., the teacher is expected to control the classroom by giving stern looks and emulating a prison guard persona!  Whatever happened to parental responsibility for teaching their kids proper behavior?  When I tried to call home to talk to parents, I frequently found that the parents were not available because they were working two minimum wage jobs to make ends meet and older children were taking care of younger kids!

Stern looks will clearly not work with disruptive kids from traumatized family backgrounds, some of whom have no hesitation to yell, “FU, I don’t have to listen to you!” and storm out of a classroom.  A relative of mine worked as a school security officer in southern California and has told me stories of veteran teachers coming to him in tears telling him that they can no longer control these kids.

Various ACLU lawsuits have enhanced student “rights” over the years, to the detriment of teachers in my opinion, and I have also heard of cases where teachers have been threatened with lawsuits by parents to halt disciplinary measures against their children.

Public schools also have to accept and teach all students, and, instead of the “old school” method of streaming kids into advanced, regular, and remedial classes, the tendency now is to “mainstream” the slower students and have them work in groups with some of the better students, in the hope that they will learn from their peers as well as from teachers / “authority figures.”  While this may work to some extent, it has also led to interesting incidents like a student being criticized by their group for being out sick, thereby resulting in a lower grade for others in the group!!

Our society can no longer afford to ignore the trauma in the poorer segments of society if for no other reason than the cynical one that it negatively impacts the rest of us.  Drug addiction, homelessness, joblessness, single-mother families –  the list goes on.

If children emerge from school without a decent education, their odds of becoming productive members of society are clearly lowered significantly.  Even worse, if they leave school with the idea that they can engage in antisocial behavior with impunity, do not be surprised if you can’t leave your cars at night with anything visible inside of them or that people brazenly snatch iPhones and iPads in broad daylight from Apple Stores.

San Francisco is not that far from San Mateo…

For some thoughtful perspectives and possible solutions for these problems I recommend the following:

Hope and despair in the American city – Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant

and chapter 6 entitled “The Only Valid Passport from Poverty” in the book

The Teacher Wars – A History of America’s Most Embattled Profession by Dana Goldstein.

I only hope that we have not let this situation fester until it is too late to act.

 

Author: David Kristofferson

Retired scientist, teacher, bioinformatician, IT director, software product manager, AAAS Fellow, avid cyclist (7690 miles and 724,300 feet of climbing in 2015), backpacker, you name it! Current avocation is tutoring high school students near San Mateo, CA in mathematics, physics and chemistry. Please see the Bio link in the right sidebar for my detailed background information.

2 thoughts on “SF Chronicle: Chaos at SF’s Aptos Middle School”

  1. Great article Dave.
    We also hope disorderly conduct and general teaching practices can be improved before they further deteriorate. Only involved school aged parents truly know what occurs on these campuses. We can appreciate why so many families in our community, the Tehachapi Unified School District within Kern County, have either chosen private schools or home school their children.

    Like

    1. I particularly want to emphasize the two references I gave at the end of the article. A lot of people complain about the problems that we face in this country’s cities, but the Gerald Grant book is a serious look at efforts to tackle urban decay and fix schools.

      The Dana Goldstein chapter referenced in her book “The Teacher Wars” is a detailed study of the history of the problem dating from back before Brown vs the Board of Education in the 50s.

      For example, I was surprised to learn that one of the unintended consequences of school integration in the south was that many black teachers lost their jobs when their students were sent to white schools, and black children were then taught by white teachers who had very low expectations of them…

      We need to stop governing by TV sound bite, and focus serious resources on these problems before they pass the point of no return. The story in the Chronicle article about two middle school girls pushing down a third and kicking her repeatedly in the head is shocking, but our tendency is often sadly to look the other way. The “restorative justice” meeting held with the perpetrators afterward is another eye-opener.

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