By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In one of her classes, Motevalli was given a roster with 60 names on it, 40 of them special-education students, and 10 of those classified as severely emotionally disturbed. "The classes were large," she says, "but they shrank down" — only because there weren't enough seats. "Generally when students come to a classroom and they see that there's no place for them to sit, they don't come back."
There was no set curriculum, so Motevalli was asked to create one. She had no materials for her art classes and had to pay for them herself, which "meant that I could not pay my phone bill the first two months. After the second month it got shut off," she laughs. She had no books and no slides for an advanced-placement art-history class. "I would stand there and just sort of make a physical shape with my hands to show the kids what a ziggurat looks like." She complained to the principal, Annie Webb, and was repeatedly told the books were coming. They finally arrived in March — the A.P. exam is in May — only after one of Motevalli's students complained to a visiting auditor from the state Education Department. "This was advanced placement," Motevalli stresses. "Advanced placement got priority."
When they did have books, says Ivan Zuno, there were never enough. They were usually old and out of date and missing pages, and several students would have to share a single book. Only very rarely were students permitted to bring a book home, and some teachers were forced to employ the rather medieval pedagogical method of having students copy passages verbatim from the few available books. Until the arrival of Motevalli and Simone Shah — another new hire who started at the same time as Motevalli — Zuno's art classes had no supplies at all, he says, just "pencils and paper."
While they give enormous credit to some teachers, Motevalli and Shah among them (Zuno says he doesn't know how he would have gotten through his first years at Locke without Shah's support; Cuevas can't help but smile each time she mentions Motevalli's name), Zuno and Cuevas remember others who might as well not have been there, and some who simply weren't. In "certain classes I passed just showing up one or two days. The teachers were just halfway there," Zuno says. "The students weren't focused 100 percent on school," he admits, "and then when you have a class of 60 students and a teacher who's frustrated, the last thing that goes on is teaching." Cuevas remembers teachers sleeping through class, others leaving their students unsupervised to take cell-phone calls in the hallway. "I actually thought that was normal for a while."
Motevalli did not. She became increasingly disturbed not only by the staff's apathy, but by what she describes as a general atmosphere of hostility at Locke. Both during and between classes, the halls were filled with students. "Teachers, administrators, campus aides, police officers were constantly yelling at the kids, calling them names." Discipline was a problem, in class and out, but the administration's reactions were erratic at best. She would send students who acted up to the dean's office, but "there was no follow-up, or the follow-up was too severe." She recalls going to a dean at the end of the school day. "At 3:16, right after she signed out, I asked her, 'Can you help me out with this student?' She literally blew up at me, 'I'm off the clock!' That was the type of response I felt I was getting, period. It was hostility, anger and irritation. It was like, 'Just go baby-sit, don't complain.'"
Much of the staff had eased into what another teacher calls a "just-collect-the-paycheck mentality." One longtime teacher, a good friend of Webb's assigned to Motevalli as a mentor, laid it out for her. "These kids are not gonna do their work," Motevalli remembers being told. "Just go in there, give them whatever you can, that's it. You can't have any expectations." The students didn't care, their parents didn't care, so why try? Despairing of help from the administration, Motevalli began to call parents on her own, to visit the homes of students who were having trouble in class. "When I called houses," she found, "whoever I talked to — parent, guardian, grandma, grandpa, whatever — they cared. Very rarely was there someone who just didn't care."
Many of the students cared too, and more of them likely would have cared if they had ever been allowed to expect something better, if anything had ever been expected of them. They cared that some classes were taught almost entirely by substitutes, often a different one each day, and some were simply minded by security guards. Cuevas' 10th-grade math teacher left Locke at the beginning of the second semester. "They had to transfer him out of the school for some sexual-harassment issues," she remembers. He was replaced by a series of subs, few of whom even tried to teach the material. She didn't learn anything for the rest of the year. "They just gave us a final in the end, and that was it." Cuevas studied on her own and passed, but other students in similar situations often failed because no one had ever taught them the material they were being tested on. Enough failed classes means no diploma, which means little hope of escape from the two possibilities stretching in front of too many inner-city kids: a grim chain of demeaning, low-wage jobs or, grimmer still, prison.
Locke today: By all accounts,
a different, better place