Teachers at the San Antonio ISD school are blowing the whistle on the “racist, classist” instructional and behavior management frameworks being imposed upon their students.
Teachers at Ira C. Ogden Academy have felt compelled to speak out about practices that they have described as unethical, dehumanizing, and intended to create “little learning robots” or “learning soldiers” incapable of critical thought.
In a series of interviews conducted this fall, teachers at the SAISD elementary school sought to call attention to the practices mandated by the Relay charter company operating the school on behalf of San Antonio Independent School District. Whistleblowers spoke on condition of anonymity, and reported fear of reprisals for sharing details of the practices at Ogden that stand in stark contrast to the PR narrative espoused by Relay representatives, SAISD leaders, and local reporters.
“During my year at Ogden, I witnessed the most horrific teaching practices ever.” (Former Ogden teacher)
Teachers’ concerns focus on both the instructional and behavior management techniques that are mandatory at the school which is described by its principal as an “energetic, orderly, and productive environment” with “[s]chool uniforms, clear and consistent discipline and merit systems, daily routines and rituals.”
Dehumanizing Discipline Practices
Each of the teachers we spoke to spoke of being pushed to enforce dehumanizing discipline policies that forced their students to behave like "little learning robots".
Students are required to sit with hands folded, both feet on the ground at all times, tracking the teacher with their eyes. These standard practices in Relay schools, in these teachers' eyes, reduced students, or "scholars" as they are called in the corporate charter vernacular, to passive recipients of lecture-based instruction.
These approaches are nonnegotiables at Ogden, and, as one teacher explained, attempts to create welcoming classroom cultures that differ from the regimented Relay approach are quickly squashed. School administrators enforce Relay practices, forcing students to model the rigid classroom behaviors, "getting in their faces" and "yelling at them" until they do, and admonish teachers who fail to impose such discipline practices on their students.
Silence Before and During School
Teachers reported that students begin their days in strict silence - eating breakfast surrounded by their peers but not allowed to speak. “Scholars” at the “empowering” SAISD charter are required to eat breakfast in silence before beginning their days. One teacher told us that during his time at Ogden, “hallways were silent, breakfast was silent, lunch was silent... towards the latter part of the year the kids were given more opportunities to interact but could still lose it as a punishment.”
Scripted, Lecture-Based Instruction
Teaching at the Westside school differs markedly from the ‘best-practices’ encouraged at other schools throughout the district.
“Our grammar curriculum is completely scripted - it's like 90 minutes of making kids read the same words over and over again”, reported one teacher. Even as they recognize the behavior problems that might result from these scripted and didactic lessons, teachers are required to follow a lesson structure that centers on repetition and memorization, rather than inquiry or critical thought. One teacher described their grammar lesson as being 90 minutes of teacher-centered repetition, demonstrating the process for us: “the word is reading, the word is reading, the word is the word reading, the word is reading, the word is… the word is…. just Joaquin: the word is… just Edna: the word is….”
Empathizing with their students, the teacher asked, “how would that make you feel, for 90 minutes?”
These accounts match descriptions of the Relay teaching model from around the country: a model that focuses narrowly on test scores, memorization, repetition, and "filling the pail".
It’s worth asking whether students at Bonham Academy, or the Advanced Learning Academy would ever be treated this way. Or whether students at the new YWLA Primary School will be exposed to these kind of pedagogical strategies.
Of course not. But why?
Why are these teaching methods acceptable for some students and not for others?
For which students are they acceptable, and what does that tell us about the “innovative” and “empowering” vision of SAISD district leaders?
“Racist, Classist” Practices
We asked Ogden teachers the following question:
Which students would this never happen to?
One answered (others agreeing):
“White kids. Or rich kids.”
Why, we asked, would young people of color living in poverty be educated in ways that we wouldn't accept for affluent white kids? The teacher continued: “Some people compare it to the re-education of Native Americans; the schools in the 1800s and up to the 1950s where they would take kids away from their parents. I think it's because people feel like nothing else has worked so let's try military school now... Maybe it works, maybe it’ll get some to college, but I don't think it's culturally sound, and it doesn't respect and honor my kids, where they come from, and who they are."
Learning Intended To Create Docile Future Workers
In stark contrast to the narrative being sold through press releases, tweets, and fawning, one-dimensional profiles, the teachers we spoke to see no “empowerment” in the way their students are being treated.
In response to the question, “What does this kind of education prepare the kids you're educating for?”, one teacher responded:
“We are teaching kids to not question, to just do, and that is what they're trying to teach the teachers as well: “don't question us just do it”... But in order to disrupt the issues that our society is facing, which are racist, which are classist, which are sexist, people have to question. And specifically the people who have not been listened to for so long; my students of color, my Latino students in San Antonio, Texas, are the people who need to be questioning, and they need to be loud, because their voice has not been heard yet. And I can’t provide them with the tools to grow that voice in this current structure, because this structure is meant to hold them down. This structure is teaching them to sit down and be quiet and do as they’re told, which is not going to disrupt all of the issues that are causing their families to remain at a low socioeconomic status. It might get kids to graduate, and might get kids to get better grades, but it's not going to help us to disrupt the issues and the structures that are keeping them and their families down.”
“The community and the parents deserve to see what truly lies beneath the pristine portrait district leaders are attempting to draw.” (Ogden Teacher)
For all the talk of disrupting the status-quo, and challenging the deep-rooted inequalities endemic in San Antonio’s school system, the model being employed to serve low-income communities of color in the Westside silences, literally and figuratively, the students whose lives it claims to be transforming:
“Our kiddos were hardly ever allowed to socialize and would only be able to do so if we gave them permission to. Recess was only 10 minutes if that, and some students were even stripped of this due to behavior or missing assignments. It's not right to do this just because you've done well putting a veil over all the shady things you're doing at Ogden Academy.”
An Innovative Approach
District innovation chief, Mohammed Choudhury, has painted his San Antonio experiment as a mechanism for desegregating San Antonio’s extraordinarily segregated and unequal schools. But, while the district’s boutique schools cater to economically diverse populations, Ogden serves overwhelmingly poor students of color from its local neighborhood.
Is there a relationship between the models being forced upon the most disadvantaged communities in SAISD and the economic status of the families they serve? All of the teachers we spoke to thought so:
“If this was not a predominantly low socioeconomic status neighborhood they would not be getting away with this.”
Indeed, at Ogden there's no sign of the "[c]ustomized, project-based learning, interdisciplinary curricula, open-ended exploration with real-life application" celebrated so publicly at the opening of the district's Advanced Learning Academy in 2016; a school whose vision is described as "empowering students with agency over their learning and fostering a concept of knowledge as something to be created rather than absorbed."
Perhaps this stark disparity and inequity is what Mohammed Choudhury was referring to when he recently tweeted “No doubt this work is messy”. Perhaps, in his view, the dehumanization of students at Ogden is the price that must be paid for SAISD's transformation into a "model urban school district".
Recently Choudhury recently retweeted this powerful message:
We couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. The irony is that the plans that Choudhury and Superintendent Martinez have forced upon local communities, from Stewart on the Eastside, to Ogden on the West, are silencing and dehumanizing the very people they claim so loudly to champion. Once again, it’s the historically marginalized students and families who are sacrificed for the vision of the “serious people” - the decision-makers - whose insistence on making decisions for, not with, the communities they serve so clearly demonstrates the deficit thinking that animates their actions.
In the stark, honest words of one Ogden teacher:“what’s happening at Ogden is that children are humans but they're not being treated like humans.”
We should never accept for other people’s children what we would not accept for our own.
And we should never accept dehumanizing, militaristic pedagogical practices for poor students of color, no matter how revolutionary and empowering the “innovators” downtown say they are.
District leaders repeatedly reassure us that they know best what our communities need.
We're not so sure.