By Amy Ambrosio

“I keep having the same nightmare,” said Sharon, a math teacher who works across the hall from me. “I am designing a math test. Next to me is a shark tank. If I don’t design the test right, so the kids who know the material can pass it,” she gestures with her thumb, “they’re going to end up in the tank.”

It’s the perfect metaphor for how I feel teaching in a high poverty school under the shadow of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

I teach at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Oregon. My school is home to the most ethnically diverse and lowest income high school student population in the Pacific Northwest. We serve a little more than 900 students from 33 different countries, who speak 26 languages. Our hallways and classrooms are a swirl of cultures, languages, and skin colors.

But instead of recognizing the diversity and tenacity of Roosevelt’s students and faculty, the government is setting us up to fail. Under NCLB, the federal government has labeled Roosevelt a “low performing” school. Working under the gun, Roosevelt has just this school year to “fix” our problem, our students, and ourselves. If not, then the entire staff may be replaced, the school turned over to a private corporation — or the nearly bankrupt state of Oregon could take it over from the school district.

Becoming Unacceptable

The “low performing” designation under NCLB means that for at least two years we have not performed adequately in at least one of many areas measuring school performance, including graduation rates and student scores on the state standardized reading and math tests, called the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM), which are administered to grades three, five, eight, and 10.

But the state gets to grade us, too. The Oregon Department of Education releases school report cards to the public each year. This past school year, Roosevelt slipped from “unsatisfactory” to “unacceptable” in the Oregon ratings because too few of our students passed the state CIM reading, writing, and math tests, attended school in high enough numbers each day, or remained in school for four years.

Behind the Labels

Since the beginning of the 20th century, North Portland has been the metropolitan area’s dumping ground for industrial waste. In the past, cattle yards and slaughterhouses poured their refuse into the Columbia Slough, a waterway that snakes through the community. On many mornings, the air blowing over the Roosevelt tower reeks from the bitter fumes spewing from waste incinerators and pulp mills, causing our eyes to sting and our throats to burn.

Hunger and unemployment plague our community. Our students don’t always eat three meals a day. Many of them help support themselves or their families by working until 11:00 or midnight in many of the fast food joints that saturate the community. Then they have to get up to make it to school by eight o’clock the next morning. Many students move two to three times during the school year when their families face evictions, job loss, or domestic violence.

Being labeled “unacceptable” has been demoralizing for my students and colleagues at Roosevelt. This designation codifies the stigma that students from Roosevelt experience around Portland. My students have described security staff trailing them in stores, police randomly stopping them as they walk down the street, and strangers on the bus insulting them for speaking Spanish in public. My students know that their school is perceived as a “ghetto” school and is called “Looservelt” by students from other high schools.

Despite the unacceptable air quality, the unacceptable disenfranchisement of the community, and the unacceptably high unemployment rate, the federal government and the state government are not being labeled unacceptable. It is Roosevelt — the students, the teachers, and the school — that earns the unacceptable label.

Student Portraits

Even though they live close to the fragile edge of survival, Roosevelt’s students are extraordinarily open and welcoming. I want to introduce you to some of my students.

Carmen* is a 17-year-old mother of a toddler just learning to walk. Carmen missed school every Monday morning last spring to take her developmentally delayed son for physical therapy. As soon as she got back to school, she made certain to ask what she missed and catch up on the work immediately. Unaccept-able.

Farida came to Roosevelt from a refugee camp in East Africa. Her heart is full of the deaths she witnessed — family members lined up and shot. She had never held a pen or pencil before coming to Roosevelt at age 15. As a newcomer to the United States, Farida was forced to take tests in English, a language she only just began learning three years ago. She needs time to recover, to learn to read and to write. She needs time. Unacceptable.

Michael, at 17, reads at a fourth-grade level. Every paragraph holds undecipherable mysteries for his struggling mind. No wonder he gave up on the state standardized reading test, the test he has now tried and failed three times. Unacceptable.

Faith wrote with passion and newly discovered authority about Link, a white character who helps Melba Patillo Beals survive as a member of the Little Rock Nine in Warriors Don’t Cry . Faith memorized nearly every scene in the book, yet her dyslexia causes letters to skitter around like ants when she tries to spell correctly. She cried the days she took the state direct writing assessment, knowing that she had no hope of passing when conventions such as spelling count double and she couldn’t ask for help. Unacceptable.

Jana takes care of her father, who is nearly deaf and severely crippled from a severe stroke. At 17 she does all the laundry, cleaning, and cooking. Jana pays the bills and keeps track of the household budget. But she doesn’t attend school regularly and is often too distracted to pass her classes. Unacceptable.

Mariama, just turned 21, attended three high schools. When she came to Roosevelt this past year, she still needed 10 credits to graduate from high school. Mariama did graduate this spring. While she can spill a poem about her wild self across the page, she struggles to organize her thoughts and her work in a linear fashion in order to complete an essay. Unacceptable.

Gabriel — kind, gentle Gabriel — moved to Oregon at age 15 to live with his two older brothers, leaving his parents behind in Mexico. He has not seen his mother or father for the three years he has lived here. Gabriel often lost his assignments hidden deep inside his backpack. While his body sat in my classroom, his mind traveled far, far away. Unacceptable.

When I asked Nick to write about his experience with injustice, he tried to write about his father’s death when Nick was 10 years old. Instead, Nick ended up hospitalized, the despair from memories of that time drawing him down into the deep abyss that he tumbles into several times a year. Upon his return, Nick handed me several of his poems and told me, “If you read my poems, you’ll know where I’ve been.” At 15, Nick had not passed a class in five years. He wrote in one poem, “Life is not worth living.” Though the poem lists what keeps him alive, including a 2-year-old niece, it may not be enough. Unacceptable.

New Regime

In response to the federal mandate to make “adequate yearly progress,” our school is adopting a new regime of work, testing, and staff meetings. Some of these changes are for the good (and were in the works before NCLB became part of our daily vocabulary). Others have exhausted us, taken us away from our roles as teachers, and interfered with our ability to care for our families and ourselves.

Prior to NCLB, we discussed restructuring Roosevelt into smaller learning communities to improve the academic culture of the school and enhance the quality of relationships among students and teachers. This year we are restructuring into four “houses” or small learning communities. We believe this change will help teachers and students build stronger relationships and allow teachers to collaborate on curriculum and problem solve more effectively. I am part of a four-person team to create a small, alternative school (one of the four houses) within Roosevelt — a dream that one team member has had for the 26 years she has worked at the school.

This year, our district set aside half of the district language arts coordinator’s time to work with teachers on academic literacy across the curriculum. We started a new freshman academy last year and will add a sophomore academy this year.

Yet teachers are taking hours away from class time to make many of these changes happen, or they are meeting up to two or three evenings after school each week to put the plans in place. Common planning time and opportunities for collaboration across subject areas are not built into the schoolwide schedule.

The cost of the school reforms and the testing regimes has been an increasing stress level among the staff and severe burnout among some of our most involved and dedicated teachers. Over the past year, we have become far more serious, and we impose that stress on our students — teenagers who can ill-afford that burden. What we are doing is unsustainable and unhealthy.

An Unacceptable Situation

This past year, we spent eight weeks of our school year on CIM testing. Yet, in light of Roosevelt’s continuing low performance on the CIM tests and given that this is our last chance to turn things around, our school will be placing even greater emphasis on testing this year. Since more than 70 percent of the students fail the reading and/or math tests in 10th grade (the numbers are quite a bit better for the writing test, but don’t count for NCLB), most students will be forced to re-take these tests the remaining two years they are in high school. As Mike, one of my colleagues put it, “We keep inviting these kids to play a game of chess when they have already lost every time. Why do we think they want to play again? We’re just rubbing their noses in it.”

The test results are not the only factor we are graded on. We also have to enforce testing for all. In the past, before NCLB, certain groups were exempted from the testing regime: severely learning disabled students, immigrant newcomers with little or no English-speaking experience, and kids whose parents wrote requests for their children to be exempted from testing.

This year we were forced to test all of these groups to try to meet the magic quota of test takers-95 percent. But we still didn’t make it, so we were automatically put back on the “low performing” schools list. Also, as a Title I school receiving federal assistance, we continue to face sanctions leading to reconstitution and continue to suffer the public shame that goes with being labeled “low-performing” — and “unacceptable.”

Incentive to Transfer

Another unacceptable facet of NCLB has a long-term devastating impact on our school. The district is now required to offer students at low-performing schools the “opportunity” to transfer to any school in the district with transportation paid for by the district. Portland does not provide school bus transportation to its high school students, and many of our students’ families must come up with the money for the monthly bus passes. This new policy serves as a paid incentive to leave Roosevelt.

After nearly five years of a relatively stable student population balancing between 1000 and 1100, we dipped below 900 students this past year. We will be starting the school year with an enrollment that has increased — more than 950 students — but our incoming freshman class will be anywhere from one third to one half smaller than in previous years.

I worry that the dwindling enrollment and transfers to different schools will take students away from the welcoming multiracial environment we’ve created at Roosevelt. For example, Laurie, one of my high-achieving students, has a European-American mother and an Afro-Hispanic father; she lives with her mother and her African- American stepfather. She is very proud of her diverse ethnic background and feels very comfortable at Roosevelt, a school where “mixed” is a well-recognized and accepted ethnic identity among students.

When one of our class conversations turned to the transfer option, Laurie vehemently said that she had no intention of leaving Roosevelt, even though her mother would like her to do so. She cited her mixed ethnicity as a key reason for wanting to stay — she feels at home in a school where she does not feel compelled to constantly explain herself to others. Having attended predominantly white schools in the past, Laurie knows what it feels like to not be accepted anywhere or to be forced to choose between “being” white or black.

And I worry about students leaving behind Roosevelt’s excellent school and community support systems, like our teen health clinic and excellent ESL and special education programs.

The pressures that NCLB places on my school and students are unrelenting and unacceptable. Like the rest of my colleagues, I have chosen to remain in a school and teach the kids that the current educational system is designed to throw away and psychologically destroy. As a teacher who believes in social justice and equity, I remain at Roosevelt because the kids are “alive to the injustices in the world,” as one of my colleagues said. They experience economic, ethnic, racial, and linguistic injustices firsthand. And while they sometimes have little framework for understanding the causes of injustice, when we give them tools to think critically about these issues and their lives, many of them look for ways to use that knowledge and work to change their circumstances.

Like Sharon, the math teacher, I fear that our students are perched on the edge of a shark tank. The future of our school rests on the ability of our students to pass standardized tests. These tests are designed to punish schools like Roosevelt, not help students prepare for college, well-paying jobs, or other measures of success. And despite our hard work and thoughtful plans for improving our school, we are faced with helping our students overcome the humiliation of being labeled “unacceptable.” The pressure of the testing regime will drive many students out of high school before they graduate.

What could be more unacceptable?

Amy Ambrosio ( aambrosio@pps.k12.or.us ) teaches at Roosevelt High School in Portland, Ore. *All students’ names have been changed.