TRADING PLACES: Ben Bacon of Sonoma Country Day and Jessica Hughes of Roseland Elementary on the SCD campus.
Among the curriculum for teachers enrolled in the administrative program at Sonoma State University is the requirement to visit another school besides their own in the surrounding area. The goal is simple: by auditing classrooms, interviewing administration and seeing how other schools operate, potential administrators experience a school that may be slightly different than their own.
Or, in the case of Ben Bacon and Jessica Hughes, extremely different.
Bacon is a fifth-grade teacher at Sonoma Country Day School in Santa Rosa, a private school with a top annual tuition of $19,650. Hughes is a third-grade teacher at Roseland Elementary, a public school whose students represent those among the lowest income enrollment in the city. Hughes and Bacon chose to swap schools for a day to experience the full spectrum of classroom experience in Santa Rosa and to get a sense of the obvious differences, but also to note the essential similarities in their teaching environments. The Bohemian was invited along for the teachers’ visits, which occurred on consecutive Wednesdays.
The first visit began at Roseland Elementary, where Bacon came to Hughes’ classroom before class to check in; Hughes was at her desk, preparing referrals. “But they’re not referrals like ‘This kid kicked someone in the balls,'” she noted. On the top page, for example, she’d written that a student’s teeth were in bad shape: “They are rotten and causing her a lot of pain.”
Leaving the classroom to go to Pledge, a daily event out on the school’s asphalt playground, Hughes was greeted by three students, each of whom hugged her around her thighs. The principal addressed the 753 children of Roseland Elementary over the PA: “How are you doing? You look extra smart today!” The microphone was then given to two girls who led the school Pledge in unison, then to another girl who led it in Spanish and another who recited it in Portuguese.
Back in Hughes’ classroom, Bacon crouched down to talk to a young girl in braids, named Paula, about the Zip lock folder of tickets on her desk; Paula explained that the students in Hughes’ class get a ticket for good work or for being nice. “What happens if you don’t get the ticket?” Bacon asked. “Do you still feel proud that you got something done?” Paula smiled and nodded.
Checking in at the school office, Bacon signed the visitor’s log, which sits next to a box for donations to the family of a woman who had been stabbed to death down the street earlier that week. Bacon was invited down the hall to interview Dana Pedersen, the principal who had told the children earlier that morning that they all looked extra smart.
Pedersen came to Roseland Elementary three years ago after teaching in the district for 12 years, she explained, and wanted to bring to the school a “bottom-up” model in which teachers and parents have a say in administrative decisions. “A lot of problems schools are having is if you don’t come at it as an educator,” she said.
As a former teacher, Pedersen knows the importance of balancing social services with education. “Part of me wants to say, ‘Hey, we have enough on our plate!'” she said. “But another part of me sees these kids falling through the cracks, and I don’t want to let that happen. You can’t even imagine what these kids’ needs are. We’re still not meeting every need. And that’s something that I struggle with, as a principal, every day. Every day.”
When Pedersen came on as an administrator at Roseland, test scores were down and half the staff were first-year teachers. Pedersen explained that she works 15 hours a day and five hours on weekends to help the school succeed against the standards imposed by No Child Left Behind. Test scores have been up significantly every year since.
Bacon is no stranger to poor schools. He taught third grade for three years at a school in New York City’s Lower East Side. It was not uncommon for his students to live with 10-member families in two-bedroom apartments, he said. Many of them could not speak a word of English.
At Roseland Elementary, 82 percent of the students are ELL, or English-language learners, and 80 percent are low-income. White children are noticeably scarce. Getting parents involved in the school is a challenge. “We have a lot of undocumented families, parents who are wary of authority figures,” Hughes said. “They’re very friendly once they get to know you. But it takes a long time to work up to that.”
Bacon got up; it was time to visit classrooms. He noticed that in every room, laminated signs titled “STAR 2009 AYP TARGETS” were posted, with goals for test scores. Also in many rooms, laminated signs were posted with inspirational quotes like “Everything I Do Deserves My Best Effort” or “I Believe in Myself.”
In a fifth-grade class, Bacon walked into a room full of students, working while their teacher was gone making copies, who looked up at him in quiet surprise; in the next class, Bacon walked in and was greeted with a round of applause from the entire class. “We clap when visitors come in,” explained a young girl, “just to show our appreciation.”
“Well, thank you,” Bacon replied. “That’s very respectful.”
Another nearby classroom had dozens of mobiles hung from the ceiling, made from plastic clothes hangers and photos cut out from magazines. They described what students wanted to be when they grew up, and why. On one was an essay titled “Jose the Actor”: “I want to be a actor because I could be rich. I could buy my own house. I could be in magazines. I could be rich. Give some money to the poor.”
The next week, it was Hughes’ turn to visit Sonoma Country Day School. Hughes walked through the quiet hallway into the main office, where she was offered coffee by the receptionist. The office was furnished with chairs, a couch, a coffee table, a flat-screen TV and an aquarium. Out in the hallway, a second-grade teacher walked down the hall and was greeted by one of the school’s 265 students.
“Hi, Mrs. Eichelberg! I drew this for you! I did it in 10 minutes!” The student handed Mrs. Eichelberg a drawing. “You are such a talented guy!” she said, as a wave of more students, in uniform dress code and clutching sculptures, paintings and drawings, came bursting through the doors and filed into the classroom.
Cindy Rodenbaugh, Sonoma Country Day School’s dean of faculty and admissions, welcomed Hughes and mentioned the school’s emphasis on art. “That’s something that’s really big here,” she said. “One of our luxuries here is that we really get to have art and music. Every student graduates from our school playing a musical instrument. And it’s really unfortunate that in public schools, with the cutbacks, that’s the first thing to go.”
Bacon approached, and the two teachers talked about the school’s philosophies, set forth in laminated signs in the hallways: “Our search is for those moments and situations when we are most alive,” one read. Other hallway signs quoted James Joyce or Alexander Woollcott. “We have a saying here: nerds are cool,” said Bacon. “A lot of kids come here and they may have been ostracized for being good readers or writers or into theatre, and they really find a home here.”
Bacon led Hughes to his classroom, where a poster proclaiming “Meet the Candidates” compared John McCain and Barack Obama. Bacon’s students were recently assigned to write a persuasive essay about the election, and Hughes asked if there were more Obama supporters in his class. “It seems like it,” Bacon said.
Throughout the school, high-tech education was prevalent. Around Bacon’s classroom, 21 Macintosh computers lined the windows and walls. Each student, Bacon explained, has his or her own hard drive. In other rooms, there are banks of cubby holes for laptops or high-tech digital chalkboards called Activboards which save lessons and interact with students’ devices. In a Spanish classroom, the kids played Battleship on the Activboard by conjugating verbs to sink their classmate’s boats.
In an art classroom, where the children were studying Alexander Calder, the teacher explained to Hughes that the students’ mobiles hang outside the classroom on a PVC pipe beneath the eave, so as not to activate the motion security alarm inside the classroom at night.
Strolling through the school’s garden—which includes tomatoes, roses, sunflowers and lavender—Hughes and Bacon talked about school size, tenure, contracts and salary. It is generally true that private school teachers’ salaries are lower than public school teachers’, said Bacon, “but the amount of staff development money you get here makes up for other things.” The talk turned to the socioeconomic differences between the two schools, and the noticeable majority of white children at Sonoma Country Day.
“Are you trying to be more diverse?” asked Hughes.
“Absolutely,” Bacon answered. “It’s always sort of a subject that people are talking about. ‘When are we going to be more diverse?'”
“We’re technically diverse,” said Hughes, “but we just don’t have white kids. A lot of the time ‘diverse’ just means Mexican and black.”
At the end of the visit, Hughes met with Philip Nix, the headmaster and founder of the school. When Sonoma Country Day was started, it had no founding money at all; it was just an idea, with tuition, and Nix is very proud of this. He quickly laid out his three-point process to successfully start a school: “One, be unable to work for other people. Two, have very opinionated ideas about education. And three, have someone give you $4.5 million worth of land.”
Nix is an assured, confident man who speaks in metaphors and stories to emphasize points. In speaking of his upcoming retirement at the end of this year, he quotes French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty; among the many books on his shelves sit a wooden abacus and a Buddha statue. He said he has always remembered what Joan Baez, with whom he worked for Biafra relief in the 1960s, once said to him. “Money does things,” she told him, “that no money doesn’t.”
Hughes asked him what he thought of the public school system—Nix immediately corrected the term to “state schools”—and if he thought his school was at all similar to a public elementary school. Nix paused for a very long time.
“For the K-6 element, the public schools I’ve visited are essentially joyous, because the kids bring their untrammeled spirit,” he said. “But I think in the junior high level, especially with the sexualization of society, it’s dissimilar. There are social issues a public school has to deal with that we don’t have to deal with. We don’t have kids that come to school beat up. We don’t have kids whose parents have disappeared over the weekend.”
It was time to leave, and Hughes walked out to her car. Tears streaked down from behind her sunglasses as she exited the school and turned left.
“It’s like a castle,” she said. “This big, beautiful castle that my kids can never go to. We just do the best with what we have. I mean, they’re great, that school is great. But how do we make that work for everybody?”