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Lesson Unplanned

West High School's Alan Chimento is sent to the principal's office.

Teaching "is a craft, not a job," says Chimento, whom students address as "Mister." "Madison Avenue has figured these kids out. Hollywood has figured these kids out. But our schools haven't figured these kids out.

"I'll be the first to say I don't connect with every kid," says Chimento, who notes that a lot of "academically oriented" students prefer learning mainly from outlines and textbooks. "The kids who work best with me are the ones who are already disenfranchised with this system."

"Alan's a teacher who's able to empower kids who traditionally are not engaged in school--in a way that's really quite remarkable," says Nick Cutforth, an education professor at the University of Denver. When Cutforth invited the West High teacher to speak to a group of pre-service teachers, Chimento brought along four West students. The youths wowed the university class with their knowledge and poise. Cutforth paraphrases some of the journal entries the DU students made after the experience: "Teachers like Alan Chimento," said one, "are the reason I'm becoming a teacher."

Chimento admits that his style doesn't sit well with everyone, however. "I can be a pain in the ass to work with sometimes," he says. "But it's because I want results, not excuses."

In the fall of 1998, Chimento's students took on the condition of their school as a project, researching education funding and polling their teachers on how the facility could be improved.

The students at West walk through hallways painted decades ago in dismal greens and blues and lit by weak overhead lights. Teachers and writing classes are issued outdated computers, and the library has only ten Internet hookups for the school's 1,800 students. The cafeteria, which everyone shares during the same lunch hour, has only 440 seats. A sophomore pulls two worn textbooks from her locker; her Modern Biology book, she points out, is copyrighted 1989, and her American literature book is five years older than she is. "That sends out a message to students: 'You're not welcome here,'" says Chimento.

But when they took their complaints--complete with a slide show--to the January meeting of the Denver school board, the students were "cross-examined" about "who had written their speeches for them," Chimento recalls. An all-white group from East High also addressed the school board that night on gay-student rights but wasn't grilled in the same way, he says. Chimento told the school board that its attitude smacked of racism and was an insult to his students. The next day, principal Irene Martinez Jordan called Chimento into her office. "There's been friction all along," says Chimento, who admits he "takes on tough topics." In his meeting with Jordan, he made "concessions" and reached an agreement with her to tone down his act. It didn't help. Last week he was told that the school's personnel subcommittee--Jordan and three teachers--had decided he should leave.

Jordan says she can't comment on a "personnel issue" or on Chimento's work performance. "I choose to protect Mr. Chimento," she says.

Mark Stevens, spokesperson for Denver Public Schools, says the decision was made by the school, as is the norm, and was part of a "very fair process."

Now Chimento will join the "dance of the lemons," the pool of tenured DPS teachers looking for a home. Chimento doesn't know where he'll land; when he was transferred from Montbello, he was given his course assignments only one day before school started in the fall. "I've been a target in this district because I do speak up," says Chimento, adding that his transfer is a "message" to other teachers to keep their mouths shut. "I think they do a disservice to the students," he says. "They think equality is a bad thing for Denver public schools."

Many other teachers at West admire his gutsiness, says one who asked not to be named. "He often says things that many of us are thinking but didn't have the nerve to say." Chimento "has a way of making kids buy into projects and making them feel some ownership," adds Linda McCurdy, who has been at West since 1975. McCurdy was counting on Chimento to help her work with other teachers next year on a new curriculum. "I was very unhappy about the decision" to transfer Chimento, she says.

The students were also unhappy, but because of what Chimento had taught them, they "knew who to contact" among local school and government officials, McCurdy says. "These kids have been very self-directed--and that's not something that kids at this school usually have an opportunity to do." Without any prompting, the students mailed dozens of letters to local officials, drafted a petition for student signatures and last week met with a city councilmember. Twenty-five teachers have also signed their own letter protesting the transfer. "Some people say he puts ideas into our heads," says sophomore Endy Enrriquez, part of the campaign to keep Chimento. "They're not used to people speaking out and pointing out things that are wrong."

Now that he's received his marching orders, Chimento says it'll be tough to get through the rest of the semester. But it's impossible to tell from the lively discussion in his eighth-hour social issues class. Chimento begins by asking his seventeen students what they think about the day's headlines stating that 31 percent of Denver third-graders can't read at their grade level. The students are so eager to offer an opinion that they seem ready to burst. By the end of the class period, the group is already planning to reunite over summer vacation to visit the Capitol and speak with the governor about education issues. Half a dozen students say they'd like to volunteer in a summer reading program for grade-school kids; Chimento promises to get them names and contact numbers.

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