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Unsocial Studies 

The real lessons of Hamilton High

Wednesday, May 12 1999

Page 6 of 7

"I had to do some soul-searching before I jumped in," she says. "But black parents were saying to me, 'These people [AAPCEE] are crazy!' I figured it was time for this stuff to stop. When my daughters had Kaplan, they would come home from school actually excited by what they were learning. They don't say that about too many teachers. He's cutting-edge, provocative -- as a parent, I hear the things he says and sometimes think, 'Well, I might have said it differently' -- but you have to respect him." Wallace says she has confronted assistant principal Evelyn Mahmud about what she sees purely as a vendetta, asked her why Fred Martin has not been disciplined for his stumping at the gospel concert. She also questions why the coalition is expending all of its energy on Kaplan and the magnets if its real fight is with institutional problems and the main school. "For them, Kaplan is the battle," says Wallace.

She has settled on a name for the counter parent group, which has roughly 100 parents and students on its roster: Reasonable Adults and Children for Education. RACE, for short. "We have to act fast," says Wallace. "The school year's almost over."


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Gregg Beytin says that after all the racism battles in and out of the classroom for the better part of 12 years, it's come down to this bizarre Waterloo. "I'm actually kind of glad that it broke like this, because tensions had been brewing for so long," he says. "If I cut and run now, it would be admitting defeat."

Beytin is an excitable guy, glib and prone at moments to hyberbole and sweeping political allegory ("This is a little bit like fundamentalists against the Enlightenment"). Ursine and slightly rumpled, he has a clear passion for his work that is being sorely tested by all this. He wants to be back in the classroom. He says that if Alan Kaplan leaves, he will likely leave too, as will at least a dozen other teachers who are poised to put in for transfers pending the final district decision about Beytin's place at Hamilton. If he is axed, Beytin â believes, the humanities magnet will fall, and status-quo education -- handouts, crossword puzzles, safe, antiseptic discussions about antiseptic readings -- will prevail. Beytin says that such a void of challenges is racism at its most insidious, but that is exactly what the coalition seems to want. "I'm trying to stay afloat, trying to save my school, but this will be with me the rest of my life," he says. "Being called a racist is very, very serious, and we've been soldiers in this war a long time. If they want better education for minority kids, I'm in complete agreement. If they want to say, 'That person did it,' then I say no. What infuriates me is that we are not part of the problem, but we could be part of the solution very easily. We do a better job of raising minority achievement than anyone."

Kaplan is the last one to talk here. Initially he didn't want to talk at all; he'd had his fill of allegations and misrepresentation and his words being taken out of context, plus he figured that Beytin had talked enough for the both of them. But it was odd, being the eye of this whole storm yet never once being a voice in the Times stories. So he talked.

He's more low-key than Beytin, more deliberate but no less intense. Once he overcomes a certain wariness, he is actually eager to talk and to throw ideas up for debate; it seems to be his second nature. He paces at points, slowly, and tugs at his goatee a lot. His voice is a little ragged -- from teaching for 18 years, from the last year of stress, from both. He grew up in the Valley but sounds a lot like Brooklyn. "I'm not perfect," he says, shrugging. "I've made mistakes. The kids get all of me, which means they get my bad moments. Having high expectations may even be construed as racist, but social promotion -- passing kids from one grade to another without demanding much of them -- is more racist."

Kaplan is mad as hell, partly because his career is on the line but mostly because students might be shortchanged in the future. "Those who don't hold you accountable don't care about you," he fairly snaps. "Yes, I'm speaking to mainly black and Latino students when I say, 'It's shameful that you read four years below grade level.' But I don't single out black kids -- I talk about everybody. I talk about Westside white girls who use language like, 'You know, like . . .' We are elite as a magnet, but that doesn't mean we're better human beings, of course."

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