This is part of a series of letters written by practicing teaching professionals in classrooms around America. These teachers have daily direct contact with schoolchildren. K12NN is proud to present Letters to President Obama. Letters were delivered to President Obama as part of an overall conviction by many teachers that federal education policies, as currently implemented, are not benefiting public school students.
About the writer: Kristin T. Vogel, MA, is a Special Education teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her area of focus is the importance of mental health services in the classroom and community.
President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC, 20500
Dear President Obama,
My name is Kristin Vogel, and I am a Special Education Teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area. This is my ninth year in the field of education and I would like to express how concerned I am with the condition of schools and students in our neediest areas. As government employees at the local and federal level, you and I are required to provide students with special needs with a Free, Appropriate, Public Education, as outlined in the IDEA. In my experience we are not only failing to do this but also allowing situational segregation and creating situations where children and teachers have an insurmountable mountain to climb to attain “success”. This is perpetuated by the creation of charter schools in low-income areas that cherry-pick the top students from community schools, leaving an overwhelming majority of students with special needs and learning difficulties
From 2011 to May of 2013 I was a Kindergarten through 2nd grade Special Education Teacher at Bret Harte Elementary in San Francisco, California. Bret Harte is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Francisco; a five minute walk from Candlestick Park. Students from the community attend the school and often arrive in the morning hungry, without weather appropriate clothing, and lack of sleep. They are witnesses to verbal and physical abuse in the home and in their housing projects. They are victims of environmental and physical trauma. In the two years that I taught there we did not have a school counselor on staff. We shared a social worker with another school; in the two to three days a week that she was there she spent the majority of her time with 3-5 of the neediest students in the school. A nurse was on site 2-3 days a week. My classroom had roaches, spiders and rats. One time a rat died in one of the pipes in the ceiling and the room smelled for weeks. The First Lady of The United States visited our school on June 22nd, 2009.
At the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year there were two Caucasian students in attendance at Bret Harte. One requested and was granted a transfer in the middle of the school year. The other child stayed through the 2012-2013 school year but transferred out for this academic year. The school is comprised of African-American, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students. This is an apartheid school. The students who have the resources and opportunities to transfer out and have bus fare to travel every day take advantage of this. Those that do not are trapped. How can we educate our children in schools like this? Who is to blame for the horrific conditions at this school? Certainly not the community, nor the teaching staff, nor the students. Yet blame was placed on the teaching staff. Under a new administrator, at the end of the 2012-2013 school year 8 of the 14 teaching staff, including some of the most experienced teachers, left Bret Harte either voluntarily or involuntarily. Teacher morale was low because they were being blamed for factors beyond their control. Student morale was low because their beloved teachers were leaving. All of the teachers that left found jobs elsewhere. Many of us moved to jobs in the suburbs. I still feel guilt for having left my students in such a toxic environment, but it was also toxic to the teaching staff and adults.
Despite all of this the community takes pride in Bret Harte. Generations of families have attended school there and school wide celebrations at graduation time and the Polynesian Festival attract members from the surrounding communities. Parents, students, families, teachers and administrators want the school to succeed. The lack of resources for the school and lack of access to pre-natal care and mental health services in the community leads me to believe that those who are in a decision-making role think otherwise.
I appreciate you reading my letter, and encourage you to act with your heart. Everyone in this country deserves justice, especially our children.
Kristin Vogel, MA
San Francisco, CA