Journalist Barbara Shelly is spending a year inside two classrooms in an elementary school in the Hickman Mills School District. This is her latest report.
Marcia Pitts lets her 4th graders know they have a big job ahead of them on this Tuesday. Open house at Ingels Elementary School is scheduled for the next evening, and Pitts is preparing her students to write a short essay. The best of their work, she says, will be posted on the bulletin board outside of her room to show to parents.
The essay assignment is biographical, and Pitts has written a sample about herself.
“Let me tell you about Ms. Pitts,” it begins. “I am a 4th grade teacher at Ingels. Let me begin by saying I love to travel. I enjoy being on the beach.”
With the dramatic flair she has used to captivate elementary students for more than four decades, Pitts expounds on her theme.
“If you want to see a happy 4th grade teacher, put me on the beach,” she tells her class. “Oh, to hear the surf, to breathe the smell of salt water, to feel the sand between my toes. It’s so peaceful. It’s so relaxing. I could live on the beach, I really could.”
An adult in the room, like me, can detect a bit of wistfulness in Pitt’s recitation. She actually retired two years ago, but can’t seem to cut her ties with Ingels Elementary School. Right now she’s on a long-term substitute assignment, filling in for a teacher on family leave.
Over the first few weeks of the school year, in the rare moments when she wasn’t directly engaged with her students, Pitts filled me in on her long history in the Hickman Mills School District.
She arrived there 30 years ago with 10 years of teaching experience. At the time, Pitts said, about 70 percent of the district’s students were white. She was one of only 12 African American teachers in the district, and three of them were at Ingels.
The district’s demographics were different then. Many of her students’ parents were homeowners who worked at Bendix Corp. or Marion Laboratories or the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base.
Parental involvement was off the charts. “We had a lot of non-working mothers,” Pitts said. “They practically ran this place when I came. It was hilarious.”
Parents distributed school supplies, copied and laminated papers and even took attendance, she recalled. “We had room mothers, they did all the parties, anything you’d need.”
Over the years, Pitts said, “I’ve always had very good parents and I’ve worked with them very well.”
But the stay-at-home moms have been mostly replaced by parents working one or more low-paying job and stretching to pay their rent. I’ve watched as they pick their children up from school, many wearing the uniforms of city sanitation workers, painters and food service employees.
“I’m tired,” one mother told a staffer from LINC, the agency that runs Ingels’ before- and-after-school programs. “I worked overnight last night and I’m working again in 15 minutes.”
Pitts has observed the district’s transformation since 1986 from her perch at the blackboard.
“Around my tenth or eleventh year, you could see it start to change,” she said. By year twenty, we just had question marks. What in the world happened?”
The answers to her questions could fill a book. Hickman Mills provides a sad but fascinating study of how a community that once considered itself a working-class suburb rapidly took on the look and the problems of urban poverty.
About 75 percent of Hickman Mills’ students today are African-American, with white students and Hispanic students each accounting for about 10 percent of enrollment. Nearly all of the district’s students come from households poor enough to qualify for free- or-reduced lunches.
A declining tax base, inadequate state funding and what school district Superintendent Dennis Carpenter describes as “more than a decade of disinvestment in our school district and community” has left teachers like Pitts facing bigger challenges with fewer resources.
“This can be a difficult job and we have children coming from a difficult environment,” she told me.
Pitts was worried that a couple of her students who had transferred from other schools weren’t keeping up with the class. And by the sixth week of school, one girl had attended fewer than 10 days of classes.
“It hurts because some of these children could make such enormous progress if they were here,” Pitts said.
The teacher’s desk was about to experience some mobility as well. The regular classroom teacher, Angelica Saddler, was due back the last week of September. “They’ll have a new face in front of them,” Pitts said of the students.
But on this Tuesday, she was upbeat as she reviewed the class’s mini essays. “Oh, I like that,” she told one girl. “That’s attitude!”
Pitts collected everyone’s papers, eyed her students and delivered her verdict. “For your first writing project I am very, very pleased,” she said. “I know your parents are going to be happy when they see these on the board.”
But the next night, the open house was lightly attended. Only a handful of parents drifted into the 4th grade classroom.
Pitts takes these disappointments in stride. “Some days I go home skipping and jumping. Some days I go home dragging,” she said. “The good lord has blessed me to always see people’s potential.”
Barbara Shelly is a free-lance contributor for KCUR. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.