Lessons learned

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Southeast Missourian's "Taking on the Challenge" series about first-year teacher Jason Bandermann is over, and I can almost hear the sighs of relief resonating throughout Cape Girardeau.

Mr. Bandermann is probably puffing out more sighs than anyone, thankful that his year at Central Junior High School is over and that his face will no longer be plastered on the front page of the newspaper almost every month.

There may also be some anxiety lifted from shoulders over on Clark Street, as school administrators forgo worrying about what outrageous occurrence I will write about in the next installment.

I'm exhaling happily myself, glad to be done with the criticism and controversy I've faced with this series.

More than any other issue I've written about in my nearly two years as a reporter at the Southeast Missourian, this seven-part series has had an impact on my coverage of education in Cape Girardeau.

Since the series began in August, administrators have accused me of misrepresenting the atmosphere at Central Junior High School. Teachers in other schools have refused to let me in their classrooms for unrelated stories because of the events I described in "Taking on the Challenge."

But a half-inch-thick folder sits on my desk filled with comments received via e-mail, letters to the editor and Speak Out from parents and educators across Missouri expressing gratitude for the series.

Now, with the conclusion of the project, I'm mentally weighing the experience, trying to determine if I accomplished what I'd hoped.

These stories were intended to represent Jason Bandermann's first year as an eighth-grade math teacher. The series was not, however, a representation of every teachers' experience at CJHS nor of every students' behavior there -- and it was never supposed to be.

I chose to write about the issues that seemed most challenging or most rewarding for a new teacher, based on the estimated 35 hours I spent in Mr. Bandermann's classroom between August and May. The challenges were ones I saw him deal with throughout the year, not isolated occurrences.

After the second installment of the series ran in August, a district administrator asked why I was "portraying the junior high as an inner-city Chicago school."

I've replayed that question often over the past months. Following that second story, administrators threatened to end the series, citing concerns over the effect it was having on the first-year teacher.

With Mr. Bandermann's agreement, the series continued, but that initial conflict stuck with me throughout.

The administrator's question about my depiction of CJHS as an inner-city school shows a general refusal to acknowledge that such behaviors and problems exist in Cape Girardeau. That lack of acknowledgment illustrates, I believe, one of the key reasons these problems exist in the first place.

Cape Girardeau is not inner-city Chicago. But the district does face some educational challenges similar to those found in low-income schools across the country.

The achievement gap between white students and black students who scored proficient on state assessments last year was an average 22 percentage points. The dropout rate for black students was four times as high as that for white students in Cape Girardeau last year.

These issues cannot be adequately addressed until administrators fully grasp and acknowledge what is happening in their classrooms, even at the cost of public appearance, which seemed to be the main concern of those who opposed the series.

Jason Bandermann resigned this week to take a higher-paying position at a local car dealership. The money in education simply doesn't measure up to the challenges a teacher faces, and students are suffering for it.

Thank you, Mr. Bandermann, for having the courage to share the ups and downs of your year at CJHS with Southeast Missourian readers. Cape Girardeau is losing a good teacher.

Callie Clark is a Southeast Missourian staff writer. The final installment of her series "Taking on the Challenge" begins on the front page of today's Southeast Missourian.

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