The Education of Brother Mac

Torthel McClodden taught at one of the worst high schools in the city and loved it. Now they don't want him back.

Brother Mac says he'd love nothing better than to become certified and get full pay and benefits to teach something he knows something about. Given the chance, he says, he would get qualified to teach social studies. But with $132.50 a day in income and three teenage kids at home, he hasn't been able to afford health insurance for his kids, let alone college tuition for himself. Would he attend evening classes and pursue a degree and certification if the district paid for it? "I'm there," he says.

But he has been waging a different battle against the St. Louis Board of Education. He has been showing up at board meetings and politely but firmly asking them to address the concerns of substitute teachers, whom he began trying to organize last year under the auspices of the St. Louis Teachers Union Local 420. They have proposed, among other things, that daily substitute pay be increased from $132.50 to $140. In August, less than two weeks before school opened, says Brother Mac, the district sprang a surprise: Not only didn't the subs get the pay raise, they had their retroactive pay, sick days and bereavement time yanked. Asking the district to pay college tuition for the substitutes seems pointless under the circumstances.

When he spoke at the Dec. 12 school-board meeting, accusing the board of misleading the substitutes early in the year and then springing the cutbacks in the fall, nothing happened. Board president Marlene Davis politely shut the door in his face. "We approved a budget, and that's it -- that's the end," Davis told him. "I have nothing else to say about it."

Brother Mac outside Beaumont High School, where he can't teach anymore
Jennifer Silverberg
Brother Mac outside Beaumont High School, where he can't teach anymore
Brother Mac says the students at Beaumont were "as motivated as you showed concern for their lives."
Jennifer Silverberg
Brother Mac says the students at Beaumont were "as motivated as you showed concern for their lives."

Three days later, Brother Mac was notified by the principal at Beaumont High that his substitute-teaching gig was up: The district had hired another teacher.

Not only was he no longer working at Beaumont, he was back last week dialing up the district's computerized phone system for substitute assignments. He filled in for a learning-disabilities teacher at an elementary school. The next day brought a different school, a different assignment. Worst of all, his daily pay is back to $85, down from the $132.50 he was making at Beaumont, because he no longer has 25 consecutive days of teaching to qualify for the higher amount.

When he showed up at the Jan. 9 school-board meeting, he told the board of the things beyond the call of duty he had done at Beaumont: how he had helped start up a young men's rite-of-passage program that was about to get a $1,500 grant; how he was helping prepare students for a Shakespeare contest; how he was called on to provide rides to students to and from home when there were threats of violence; how he had worked with the ninth-grade "initiative facilitator" on a Saturday program aimed at keeping problem kids in school; how he had planned to perform at a February fundraiser with the Beaumont choir, the same choir that sang at his mother's funeral in October.

He asked for an explanation of why he was removed from Beaumont. "People told me I would pay a price for taking the stance that I've taken on behalf of the substitute teachers," he told the board. "But I was foolish enough to believe in the possibilities. I guess now I am foolish enough to believe that no one in this room knows a blessed thing about what I'm talking about, either."

After a brief exchange, Brother Mac was referred to someone in the district who could tell him about a private fund that might pay for him to finish school and get certified.

It was the first Brother Mac had ever heard of it.

Known as the Parsons-Blewitt Fund, it was set up in 1916 to help recruit and train teachers in the St. Louis Public Schools. Mostly it pays for the district's certified teachers to pursue graduate work. Tom Stinger, a spokesman for the fund, says income from about $35 million (the principal amount) is used each year to help teachers. Last year, says Stinger, about $1 million was spent, with about 60 teachers getting some form of aid.

In October, says Stinger, the fund announced a public meeting at a local cafeteria to inform teachers how to apply for grants. About 15 people showed up, and grants for two were actually approved as a result of the meeting.

For a school district that has been under threat of having its accreditation revoked, a district whose primary goal is to improve test scores, neglecting the large pool of substitutes right under its nose seems insane, if not a dereliction of duty. Surely Brother Mac isn't the only substitute who would take up a district offer of help getting certification. If the district were to set up a focused program aimed at interviewing and selecting current substitute teachers, paying college tuition for one or two years so the subs could get their degree and certification, they would fill a large chunk of the vacancies with qualified teachers -- and not have Brother Mac trying to teach biology all year. What better way to improve the quality of education than to direct as many resources as possible toward getting qualified teachers? How on earth is it acceptable to have more than 300 substitutes teaching classes every day that they are not qualified to teach?

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