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Young Teacher Welcomes Challenge Of Hartford Classroom

Grace E. Merritt

November 08, 2010

Chris Gentile, a teacher at McDonough Elementary School, listens as one of his students, Dashua Morales, translates directions on a worksheet for three classmates.

But Gentile doesn't understand a word Morales is saying.

The three students, recently arrived from Puerto Rico, don't speak much English. Gentile doesn't speak any Spanish.

Gentile, alert, serious and freshly graduated from Boston College, isn't complaining. He's adapting.

At McDonough, 90 percent of the students are Latino, 62 percent come from homes where English is not spoken and 24 percent are not fluent in English.

"It's difficult to even communicate with these students. It's a challenge," Gentile said.

Some days he'll ask one of the students, like Dashua, to translate crucial material, and he's also found some Spanish-language worksheets.

Although the school has two teachers to help students learn English, Gentile worries about students becoming frustrated and possibly dropping out of school later.

Gentile, 22, has just started his first year in the Teach for America program. He has been assigned to teach seventh-grade social studies at McDonough, a failing school in a poor city. In the brick school in the city's Frog Hollow neighborhood, 95 percent of students live in poverty and only one in three students reaches the state goals on reading, writing and math standardized tests.

Gentile asked for this challenge.

He grew up in East Hartford and knew about the academic achievement gap across the river in Hartford. He knows that Connecticut has the biggest achievement gap between poor, minority students and their wealthier, white peers. He knows he can affect these children's lives for years to come.

Gentile is one of 55 Teach for America teachers in Hartford, and one of 150 in Connecticut. Besides Hartford, the program has sent teachers to New Haven, Bridgeport and Stamford. The nonprofit organization is trying to eliminate educational inequity by recruiting potential leaders to commit to teach for two years in schools with large enrollments of poor students.

Gentile one of the few to make it into the competitive program. This year, 46,000 people applied for just 4,500 teaching spots. Despite the daunting nature of the job, applicants are attracted to the satisfaction of having an impact on children's lives.

In many ways, McDonough School doesn't seem that different from any pre-K-to-grade 7 school. It's spotless and well-maintained. Gentile's students, all wearing white polo shirts and navy pants the school uniform are lively and attentive. The teachers are engaged.

But a closer look shows a few problems. Unlike many suburban schools, Gentile's classroom doesn't have a "smart board" a touch-screen whiteboard. The four computers lining the wall are older and run so slowly students find them frustrating to use.

And most of the students score very low on standardized tests. Scores have begun to improve over the past couple of years, but still an average of only 27 percent of sixth-graders at McDonough have reached the state goal for math on the Connecticut Mastery Tests, compared with 71 percent statewide.

Gentile knew what he was getting into, but he said he was still surprised when he got in the classroom and saw it for himself.

"It is tough when you realize how far behind, how much progress we really do need to make," he said. "You're walking into a situation with kids with almost no exposure to social studies and they're in the seventh grade.

"I was talking about Frederick Douglass last week and maybe only two kids knew who he was," he said. "They did not know what the Boston Massacre was and they didn't know the difference between the Civil War and World War II. These are things that we take for granted.

"The achievement gap is one of opportunity, not innate ability. These students don't have the same opportunities as other kids. They have the potential and don't always have same advantages as suburban kids."

As a social studies teacher, his personal goal is handwritten on a sign taped above the whiteboard: "Students will develop the tools to think, write, speak and act like global citizens and civic leaders."

"I want them to have the ability to understand that history is not just black and white, and I want them to be able to form their own opinion and speak and write it," he said.

Gentile carries a clipboard as he roams around the classroom. He steps into the center of the horseshoe shape formed by the desks. His voice has a habit of rising as though he's asking a question in the middle of his sentence when he's explaining something.

"What's something else? we actually might have? that would tell us about an event?" he asked the class during a lesson on historic research.

"A picture?" Teroy Knight responded. Gentile is pleased and writes the word on the board.

Paula Erickson, interim principal at McDonough, said Gentile has good control of his class and keeps his lessons interesting to students. She likes the way he kneels down to talk to students at their desks.

"I just love the way he gets down to their level. He's not hovering over them. He has them in the palm of his hand," she said.

Less than two months on the job, Gentile has been selected to be on a council that will review the school district's social studies curriculum, Erickson said.

His first few weeks have taught Gentile several lessons. For one thing, he discovered that walking into a classroom, hearing the door close and feeling all eyes upon him is a lot different from how he pictured it. He has a renewed respect for teachers.

"You don't realize how difficult it is until you're actually doing it," he said.

He's also trying to figure out basic classroom routines, such as when to allow students to sharpen pencils or how he can slip out for a bathroom break or write on the board without losing the class's attention.

"You don't want to be standing up there writing an essay on the board with your back to class. It's not engaging," he said. He has now learned to write longer passages on the whiteboard before students come into the classroom.

"I am definitely still developing my style," he said. "I'm trying to figure out what works for me and for my kids, and that may change from class to class."

One of his students, Christian Gutierrez, 12, was asked after class to size up his new teacher. Gutierrez thought for a moment. He said Gentile is doing pretty well so far, and he likes how he talks to students individually. But he can tell that Gentile is a rookie.

"He doesn't look like a teacher. He looks like he's a beginner, just starting out," Gutierrez said.

To get ready to teach, Gentile did extensive independent reading and spent the summer taking classes at an intensive training institute in New York City and did student teaching in the Washington Heights section of the city.

"There is so much training and preparation and background work that it's been great to finally be here and meet the kids I'm going to be working with," he said. "I've started to build relationships with them and help them realize the potential that they have and realize how we can be successful."

Gentile also gets support and coaching from a local Teach for America adviser who helps him solve problems.

One of the biggest challenges Gentile has faced is time management. After school lets out, Gentile sits down to write the next day's lesson plan and grade papers, and sometimes he phones a student's parents to talk about the child's progress. He also is still taking classes at Southern Connecticut State University on Saturdays to get teacher certification.

"I'm trying to juggle all those things and maintain relationships with friends and family." He said. "It's hard to cram it all in. There's always something more you could be doing."

Gentile grew up in East Hartford, started his education at the East Hartford/Glastonbury Elementary Magnet School, then went to private schools, attending the Kingswood Oxford Middle School in West Hartford and East Catholic High School in Manchester. He lives at home with his parents, both of whom are lawyers, his mother for The Hartford, his father for the town of East Hartford.

He got his first taste of teaching when he was in college and worked for the Peer Health Exchange, a program in which college students conduct health workshops in inner-city schools in Boston.

"It showed how much of an impact a dedicated core of teachers can have on students," he said. "After we went in there, we did a survey that showed they had a 24 percent increase in their knowledge on health. It was clear how much of an impact we had. It really kind of got me thinking about teaching."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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