Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Blackboard Jungle anyone?

Acton High School

The other day on the news we watched a report on the news of a school experiencing traffic problems as middle-class parents dropped off their children and then picked them up in the afternoon, all the while creating some dangerous situations for passing cars and pedestrians. They didn't want their precious children to walk because they thought they lived too far away or that the kids might be in some kind of ill-defined danger as they make their way through the leafy almost suburban district. The neighbors and commuters didn't like it.

That will never be a problem at Benedict's school. Based on admittedly superficial observations and the comments from the school counselors, there don't seem to be many middle-class kids attending Acton High School.

Benedict completed his third day of school today. He's had the extreme jitters before going Monday and yesterday, and much less this morning. We have to say that all three days have been successful--at least in the sense the boy survived and even made a friend or two.

Benedict doesn't wish to pose in his new school uniform.
On Monday the two year 8 pastoral staff (counselors), Mr. Coyle and Mr. Archer, took Benedict under their wing at the beginning of the day and whisked him off to destinations unknown to us. Mr. Coyle looked like one of those guys who had performed some of the anti-social behaviors as a youth that he is now employed to prevent. We learned later that a student named Louie escorted him around most of the day, showing him classrooms and where to eat. He had PE (played badminton in the gym), French (the students have to write a paragraph in French), history (they're studying the Civil War--the English Civil War of the 1640s), and English. He missed math, the first period, because Mr. Coyle and Mr. Archer were showing him around. On Tuesday math wasn't on the schedule and during two periods of English students read a short book and answered some questions; history, music (basically unsupervised free time, from the sound of it), and religious education, where the discussion seemed to revolve around the after life, completed the schedule. He made it math class today and said the teacher covered material with which he is already familiar. Every day the schedule changes, and there are two sets of weekly schedule, red week and blue week.
He has yet to be assigned homework.

As far as we could see, no kid was dropped off or picked up in a car. There are no school buses. There are 1150 of them, most of them, it seems, live within walking distance of the school, and many others rode the bus, which students ride for free, and some the tube. Based on the bus trip home, a bus we shared with a large number of students, Benedict lives at outer limit of where Acton students live. The bus trip only takes 10 minutes when there is no traffic, almost twice as long when cars clog up the rode as they sometimes do in the morning rush hour.

While the school likes to brag about the improvement in test scores among its students, one may wonder how such a good results were achieved. This is not a school filled with ambitious middle-class students. Quite the contrary. Based on my observation during the pre- and postschool arrivals and departures, a significant number of the kids lack a certain degree of self-control. St. Helen's, Benedict's Texas school, only has about 200 students. This school has 1150. In all the years he's attended the school, never have any of his immediate classmates been in a fight at school. At his new school wrestling matches regularly seemed to break out before and after school, and Benedict reports that fights occur during classes with the amateur pugilists slapped with 20 minutes of after school detention which, he says, they don't seem to serve. In the year 8 French classes on the first day a total of 20 kids were given detention for various infractions. Today in Drama the kids didn't pay attention to a TV soap opera they were supposed to watch in order to imitate it to write their own soap opera. In general, he says, the students don't respect or listen to the teachers.

Remember as I mentioned in an earlier post that English is not the native language for 65% of the students.

Though he's a year ahead of where he would be in Texas and he's the absolutely youngest student in year 8, the academic work so far isn't a problem. He hasn't had a bit of homework, and the work done in the classroom, with the obvious exception of French, he completes quickly and easily. The pastoral counselors told us that he would be assessed and placed in the proper classroom for someone of his abilities. We hope that will be the case so that he will be at least minimally challenged academically. He used to be bored in school, but that won't be an problem here given the wealth of extracurricular activity that goes on in the classroom; that he will keep him constantly entertained.

Many of the kids already know who he is even though he may not know who they are. Apparently not only is he the only American in the school, he's the first American to ever attend the school. That makes him a bit of an attention grabber, a celebrity, a situation with which he is very uncomfortable. That bothers him more than being a member of a racial minority, the large majority of kids being Asian (mostly from India and, I'm guessing here, Pakistan or Bangladesh, plus a few from east Asian countries) and African or West Indians. That doesn't bother him at all, perhaps because he hasn't had the opportunity to form racial prejudices. He's already experienced kids from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in his kung fu classes and soccer teams so that isn't anything new for him. He's also conscious of his own ethnic background. He hasn't developed the sense that because someone comes from a different culture or whose skin color is different they are therefore significantly different than he is in some important way. His discomfort seems to stem more from the size of the school and the seeming overwhelming number of students. The constant rambunctiousness of the students probably affects his sense of decorum and desire for order, qualities that he's used to in a school. This is a completely foreign environment, one that takes some adjustment in attitude and expectations.

And those are among the reasons we want him to go to school here--to experience something different than the school environment he's taken for granted; to gain an understanding that the education he receives is unique and privileged; that most kids don't have the kind of advantages he has; to learn to get along with people who are radically different from him; to deal with the anxieties and fears that arise when thrust into a completely fish-out-of-water situation; to realize that many of these anxieties and fears are the creation of his imagination and not the way the world really is. These are the sorts of things he must learn on his own, that no teacher or parent can teach him.

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