First Bell
4:00 am
Mon March 17, 2014

First Bell: State Superintendent's Lunch Hour Lessons

State Superintendent John White
When you come in with your nice uniforms ... and you play guys whose uniforms don’t quite look the way they should, or the gym’s in bad shape, ... you get a very material view of what inequity looks like.

The First Bell series is a growing collection of stories from students, parents, and educators about pivotal experiences in education. To tell your story, email amy@wrkf.org with "My First Bell" in the subject line or tweet with the hashtag #MyFirstBell.

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When state Superintendent John White was playing sports in high school, he says the poverty of the kids who lived a mile or two away from him came into view.

"I think there was something always, in a way, powerful, about being in a low-income community’s home court. Because, when you come in with your nice uniforms and, you know, you practice everyday in a nice gym or on a nice field, and you play guys whose uniforms don’t quite look the way they should, or the gym’s in bad shape, and the field is also a soccer, also a baseball, also a something else field, you get a very material view of what inequity looks like."

White found the disparity was something he couldn’t turn his back on.

He now oversees the education of Louisiana’s roughly 700,000 public school students. But he started his career teaching English in a high-poverty high school in Jersey City, NJ.

He says he never considered a career in private education, even though he went to an elite all-boys school — St. Albans in Washington, D.C. — from elementary school all the way through 12th grade. And he loved it.


I didn't fully appreciate it, I don't think, until I started teaching ... The whole school had lunch together. We sat at tables just like it was family style.

"I loved every day of it, and I didn’t really fully appreciate it, I don’t think, until I started teaching. It inspired me because of the relationships and the rituals.

"We had lunch together everyday — the whole school had lunch together. We sat at tables just like it was family style. We went to the kitchen, we got the food, we came back, we all sat around and served each other, we scraped the plates and took the dishes back ourselves. It was like a family time and you sit at the same table for a month and then you rotate to a different table.

"And it struck me as I was teaching — I taught English, ninth grade through 12th grade, I taught every different grade from remedial to Advanced placement; that was in Jersey City, NJ, which is right across the Hudson River from Manhattan. I was teaching kids, for the most part, who were poor. There was a lot of movement in their lives, and it struck me that what an incredible difference for me to come to school everyday with guys that I’d gone to school with for a decade, to walk through a ritual we’d been going through for a long time, versus some kids who were new in the community, new to the school, the school had 3,000 kids in it, at lunchtime the kids had to leave the building.

In a school that kicked 3,000 kids out of the building everyday at lunch ... sometimes we would have 80 kids packed into my little room ...

"So, I think one of the most important things I did as a teacher was, in a school that kicked 3,000 kids out of the building everyday at lunch because the teachers were entitled in the contract to have a lunchtime to themselves, I just said, I think that’s unconscionable. We have challenges with crime, we have challenges with truancy, it’s just cold in New Jersey. I wanted my kids to stay in my room. So sometimes we’d have 80 kids packed into my little room, just hanging out at lunch and tutoring and writing and having a good time.

"It was a disciplined environment, but it was also an informal environment. And I think that good schools primarily educate informally."

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The First Bell series is a growing collection of stories from students, parents, and educators about pivotal experiences in education. To tell your story, email amy@wrkf.org with "My First Bell" in the subject line or tweet with the hashtag #MyFirstBell.