OK, everyone. If you're reading this, you're a newspaper reader. If you're a newspaper reader, you know that the industry is in crisis. That daily newspapers, like General Motors, are endangered not just by a brutal economy but also by decades of top-level greed, hubris and bad management. That the decline of newspapers threatens democracy itself. Though you can't yet accept it, you know that the unstoppable march of technology will — will — make newsprint obsolete, no matter how much you like it spread out across a table with your coffee in the morning.
Here's a little story to make you feel better.
It's 8:20 in the morning on a miserable late-winter day at Chester A. Franklin Elementary School. The building, at 3400 Highland, probably isn't the worst in the Kansas City School District, but it's no magnet. Classrooms don't have doors; instead, metal partitions separate learning areas from hallways. Katie Boody, a 22-year-old math teacher, has put up posters of U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, Martin Luther King Jr. and Duke Ellington. She has hung slogans on the wall — "We Will Succeed"; "We Are Diligent"; and, in 3-foot letters cut from purple and orange construction paper, "R-E-S-U-L-T-S." The motivational decorations can't hide the grungy pink paint.
It's Boody's first year as a teacher. The Prairie Village native graduated with an English degree from Western Washington University in Bellingham, then finished a five-week "boot camp" and joined 49 other recent grads in the city's first wave of Teach for America recruits, all committed to teach for two years in high-poverty communities.
"I graduated from Shawnee Mission East High School," she says. "I hated Johnson County and suburban people. When I graduated from high school, I wanted to teach in urban schools."
She figured it would be tough. But, she admits, "It's a million times more difficult in every way — it's physically and emotionally draining."
Franklin, built for kindergartners through fifth-graders, now has sixth- and seventh-graders; next year, eighth-graders will join them. "We have no lockers, no bell system, no passing period, no doors," Boody says. No education course prepares a teacher for managing middle-schoolers who suddenly show up in what's supposed to be a grade school.
She hadn't planned to be a math teacher, either. She put in a request to teach English, but the only thing open was math. "There's a huge shortage of math and science teachers in the country," she says. "Fortunately, sixth- and seventh-grade math isn't too hard."
Out of the 50 kids in her math classes, not one tested proficient when she started. Now, three are proficient, and 15 others are within range. But that's another story.
Right now, this morning, a camera has arrived.
Every day, before school officially starts, there's an "advisement" period. To fill the time, Boody basically had to make up a class. "I thought, What can I do?" Having freelanced as a journalist during college, she decided that her sixth- and seventh-graders would put out a paper.
They had to start from scratch. "We had two computers, no printer." She hijacked four computers from other classrooms and scraped up some cameras. Before they could use the equipment, though, they had to learn the fundamentals. They spent the first quarter just reading.
"We read The Star because it was donated," Boody says, "The Call because C.A. Franklin is named after the founder, The Pitch because it's free."
Let's not kid ourselves about what a dozen or so middle-schoolers can accomplish in half an hour before school. It can take more than five minutes just to get everyone settled and another five at the end to get them all sitting still just so Boody can dismiss them. As in many newsrooms, half the staff just sits around yapping with deskmates. On a good day, an especially focused kid can get in maybe 20 minutes of writing.