Arlisa Coleman was tired and wondered out loud if she would make it through her next class: 5th period math. This would be the toughest test of her Thursday.
Coleman’s 5th period math students have been a challenge for her this year. They have been noisy, uncooperative and lacked focus in the classroom, but she has been determined to get through to them, especially to John, the raucous class clown who can spontaneously break out into songs or loud expletives in the middle of lessons.
The bell rang and her 8th graders started filing in and settling into their seats. John came in the classroom in his usual form, loudly singing a song.
Class promptly began. Coleman demanded attention and was about to start her lesson on fractions when one of her students abruptly and loudly declared: “John’s going to regular classes.”
Other students then echoed the news.
Coleman turned to John, who said nothing.
“Is that true? Are you leaving us?” Coleman asked.
John gave nothing away but a shy grin.
Coleman suddenly shrieked with joy. She knew John well enough to know what his shy grin meant; she knew it was true. She rushed towards him and embraced him. “I’m so proud of you!” Coleman exclaimed.
John had made it out of the special education classes. He would be entering the general education curriculum on Monday.
Coleman suddenly looked rejuvenated. The difference in the tone of her voice and the expression on her face before and after John’s news was noticeable if not striking. She was smiling. Her tired look was gone.
Arlisa Coleman teaches special education and has the reputation of being one of the toughest teachers in her school. However, underneath that tough exterior, there is a teacher who cares about her students and cherishes every small classroom victory, knowing how rare they are these days working in a school district she strongly believes is broken.
“Kids are no longer the priority anymore,” she said. “It’s all about the adults and politics.”
Coleman teaches math and science to about sixty 8th graders at Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in south Los Angeles. All of her pupils have been identified as “special needs students.”
Students with this label perform poorly at school, suffering from a wide variety of learning disabilities, from auditory and visual processing deficiencies to autism; many with behavioral problems are also included.
“Most of my kids have processing issues,” said Coleman. “They’ll see something on the board, they’ll write it down, but then a few minutes later, they won’t remember it. It’s like they’re looking at something but they can’t see it.”
Coleman’s class sizes range from 12 to 15 students. She tries to conduct them in a strict, no-nonsense kind of way, which has garnered her a well-earned reputation in the halls and classrooms.
“Everybody here knows that she actually teaches,” said Cinnamon Bee, Coleman’s 23-year-old teaching assistant. “She doesn’t take any crap and she controls her class. She teaches discipline.”
“The kids really respect her,” said Charmaine LeBeouf, a long-time colleague and history teacher who shares a number of students with Coleman.
Just recently Coleman was out sick for a day. When she returned, she found her classroom “trashed” and a defeated report by the substitute who had lost complete control of her students. Coleman was angry with her students. She immediately made every one of them write an essay about their inappropriate behavior and a letter of apology to the substitute.
“That kind of stuff does not get tolerated in my classroom,” she said.
What does happen in her classroom is math. Coleman’s goal for her students is simple: understand the essential basics of mathematics: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. However, she has found this to be easier said than done.
“Some of my kids have trouble with basic multiplication like two times two,” said Coleman. “It’s challenging but it’s a good challenge. I love it when kids finally get something; when they get it. I love that.”
Coleman said the greatest challenge she faces when teaching, aside from the learning disabilities, is her struggle to deal with the stressful problems her kids bring to her classroom from home and outside the school.
“It’s a wonder to me that they have any attention at all with some of the things that are happening to them,” Coleman said.
She explained that many of her students have serious problems at home with parents or guardians who are negligent or absent. She said other students are consistently involved with violent confrontations with other kids.
She said one of the toughest cases she had to deal with involved an 8th grader she lost last year to drugs and to the streets. She explained that his behavior became more troubling and defiant as the school year went on. Things finally erupted into an altercation in her classroom. She said the police had to be called. He never returned to school. She said that one broke her heart.
“She cares about them, not just in the classroom but outside the classroom as well,” said Paul Ngwoke, a special education teacher who works closely with Coleman. “She’s concerned about them overall. They’re like her own kids.”
Coleman added that the other great challenge for her in teaching is the Los Angeles Unified School District system itself.
“L.A.U.S.D. is not working. It’s broken,” Coleman said. “A lot of teachers like myself, who care about the kids, come into work every day and are expected to teach at a high standard without the resources we need.”
She is upset with how L.A. teachers have been poorly portrayed recently in the media. She said that, in general, teachers are being treated unfairly and that most of the criticism has been undeserved. She pointed to the L.A. Times’s recent printing of L.A.U.S.D. teacher evaluations as an example. She said that she understands the newspaper’s intent, but she said it was misguided and their reasoning was inherently flawed.
“Evaluations or test scores don’t tell the whole story,” said Coleman. “For example, this year, I was told to teach the science class two days before school started. I don’t even have the teacher’s edition (book) for that class. I’m learning along with the students. I’m doing the best I can. If my students don’t do well on the test, is that entirely my fault? Is that fair?”
Coleman also explained that teachers now are faced with having less time to concentrate on their primary job of teaching. She said they are being forced to take on more administrative and extra responsibilities because schools are cutting so many administrators, staff and support personnel on a daily basis due to budget cuts.
“I would throw out the entire system and start over,” she said. “Everything we’re doing is just band-aiding. And it’s just not L.A.U.S.D., it’s California-wide.”
Coleman is one of fifteen special education teachers at Bethune. Her school is one of twelve middle schools in District 7 of the L.A.U.S.D. grid system, covering the neighborhoods of Watts and Avalon Gardens among others. It is the highest scoring middle school in the their district with a 619 API, Academic Performance Index. The API is a measurement of academic performance and progress of individual schools in California. Scores range from a low of 200 to a high of 1000. Scores of 700 are generally considered to be adequate to acceptable.
The total number of students attending the middle school is about 1,990 according to the most recent survey. Out of that number, over 200 of them were identified with a disability or needing special education.
Coleman fears that the continuing cuts by the school district could result in her or many of her colleagues losing their jobs in special education programs where she feels they are needed most.
She and the rest of her special education instructors have reason to be concerned. According to a report in the L.A. Daily News, special education funding was dropping but the special education population was not.
The total number of students enrolled in L.A.U.S.D. is about 672,000, it’s lowest point in over a decade. Eleven percent of that number was identified as being special education students.
Currently, special education is funded based on a district’s total enrollment, not on the number of special education students. So, as L.A.U.S.D. loses more students to increasing charter enrollment, families moving out of Los Angeles and other factors, it loses funding for special education.
Bethune’s Principal Carlos Gonzalez, however, in recent school announcements stated that he wanted to focus more of the school’s energy into improving the scores of their special education students.
Bethune serves the community of south Los Angeles where roughly 60,000 people live around the school. According to the latest census figures, over 30 percent of the local residents are African American and close to 45 percent were identiftied as Hispanic or Latino. Only 36 percent of the area residents had a high school degree, with the average household income being just over $22,000, compared to the US national average of $42,000.
These figures are reflected in Bethune’s student population and in Coleman’s classes. Her classes are predominately populated with Latino and African American students.
Coleman, a Los Angeles native, said that she understands the community because of her own background and feels a connection with the students, especially the children with special needs.
She started as a young teaching assistant in the L.A.U.S.D. system and worked her way up. While working, she also attended school and received a Master of Arts in Special Education in 1996. She has always wanted to be a teacher. She explained that both her mother and grandmother were teachers who paved the way for her.
Coleman has taught at every level, public and private, and has over 30 years of experience in schools as an educator and administrator. Before arriving at Bethune, she was an assistant principal for two years at the Willenberg Special Education Center in San Pedro. After failing qualifying tests that would keep her on the job as an assistant principal, she decided to get back to teaching. She ended up at Bethune but she quickly regretted her decision.
“I felt like I’d been thrown into the pits of hell!” said Coleman with a laugh. “I was here for three days and I left. I couldn’t deal with it. In fact, it was so bad I was going to leave the district. I was thinking about going into a whole different profession. I had to leave for three months.”
The difficult environment at Bethune initially traumatized Coleman, who had been away from teaching for two years. However, after some time away, she found herself missing teaching and decided to give it another try.
During her short self-imposed sabbatical, she realized she had to adjust her expectations, not of the students, but of the school if she wanted to make her teaching career work. She had to learn to do more with less.
She will turn 50-years-old next year and is looking forward to retiring as soon as she can. She has her eye on helping out her daughter, who is starting a non-profit organization that would help at-risk students and their families in many different facets, including counseling with crisis situations, education, and medical issues.
For now and the near future, her plans are to continue teaching her special education students.
“I love kids and we need to help them,” Coleman said. “I’m going to be an old woman. What are these kids going to do for me in the future if they’re not prepared and educated?”
She then mentioned her student John. “I’m so happy for him,” she said. “He looked scared. I think he’s scared to go into general education, but he has to go. I’m going to miss him but it’s great for him. It really is.”