Night School: A classroom of mediocrity

April 6, 2006, midnight | By Ravi Umarji | 14 years, 9 months ago

Bigger class sizes, a relaxed atmosphere and an understaffed administration give students an easy path to graduation

It's 5 p.m. on March 1, 30 minutes into Marie Davis's Night School Physical Science class, and students are still filing in. The newest arrival barges in with his headphones blaring. Davis beckons him to the front of the room, hands him the worksheet that the students have been working on since the beginning of class and directs him to his seat. She doesn't mark him late.

Allowances like these contribute to the lax atmosphere at Night School, says senior Sean Conte, who characterizes it as "a complete joke." According to MCPS Alternative Education Specialist Marjorie Jenkins, of all MCPS high schools, Blair sends the most students to evening classes — classes that some teachers and many students believe to be condensed, lenient versions of their day-school counterparts. Even after the administration took steps last year to increase Night School's rigor and raise student effort by making starting times earlier, Night School remains to many of these students what it always was: a shortcut to a high-school diploma.

The atmosphere

For one student, that shortcut allowed him to miss the last three weeks of classes. With six classes to go until the end of the course, a student in Conte's Geometry class realized that he had not been absent once. "The teacher said, "Okay, we'll see you at the exam,' and he skipped the last six classes," says Conte.

At the time that occurred — during first semester — the attendance policy allowed a student to be absent seven times, excused or not, before losing credit, says Jenkins. However, the policy was revised in the fall to align with the Board of Education's day-school absence policy, which specifies that students lose credit with five unexcused absences.

Night School Principal James Short argues that steps like making the absence policy stricter help bridge the gap between Night School and day school. "I'm not going to deny that kids aren't going to manipulate the system, but the teachers are holding them to high standards," he maintains.

But the teacher was the one disrupting senior Muhammad Waqar's Consumer Math class. "We used to watch 'Oprah,'" he says. "She'd turn it on and tell us to work, but when she's watching 'Oprah,' everyone's watching 'Oprah.'" The "Oprah" viewings and subsequent discussions consumed two-thirds of each class, Waqar says.

Jennifer Dunson, an English teacher who has substituted for various Night School teachers for extended periods of time, says that such occurrences are facilitated by a lack of resources. She says that while there are four administrators for the entire school during the day, Short is the only administrator for evening programs. And since one of the primary roles of an administrator is to evaluate teachers, the lack of administrative oversight at Night School opens the door for deviations from normal classroom conduct like watching "Oprah" during class, according to Dunson.

The lack of oversight can also result in other administrative errors. Waqar, who moved here from Pakistan last year and attended Night School to satisfy his math requirement, thought he lost credit for Consumer Math after accumulating 11 absences. He compensated by taking two math courses this semester so he can graduate on time. However, he saw his transcript in March and found that he had received credit for the Night School class, even though he hadn't taken the final exam. The credit was stricken from his record only when he brought it to his counselor's attention.

While Waqar enrolled to gain credits he couldn't have gotten earlier, senior Arnold Garcia goes in Night School for an altogether different reason: It's easier than day school. "Sometimes in class, you're like, '[Expletive] day school, I'm going to Night School,'" he says. Garcia says day-school classes are significantly more difficult than their Night School counterparts from the rigor and amount of work to rule enforcement.

This culture of mediocrity in Night School classes is encouraged by the behavior of the students, says Dunson. "A lot of students think they should get a D for just showing up," she says.

And Garcia succeeds at just that. Instead of going to day school, Garcia says he used to go home and get drunk with his friends. After recovering, he would go back to Night School, attend his class and still receive a passing grade. Garcia has since stopped doing this because he realizes that Night School is his only chance to earn his diploma.

The buffer

Some Night School students believe that the ability to pass a class after failing it during the day or after getting drunk, for that matter, indicates that Night School is simply too easy and gives students too much leeway. "It's babying the student," says senior Corinne Bell.

Bell, who was recently diagnosed with sleep apnea, wasn't getting enough sleep at night, so she would drift off in class despite her best efforts, which caused her to fail English 11A and 12A at day school. Even with her medical condition and lack of proper rest, Bell says that Night School was a crutch on which she subconsciously knew she could lean. "If I didn't have Night School, I might have tried to stay awake more," she says.

The problem is that, depending on the teacher, Night School can be a rickety crutch that allows students to coast to graduation without a proper education, according to Conte. For example, Conte says that in day school, he actually learns material and goes over hard problems while leaving the easy ones for homework. At night, however, a typical class consists of 20 problems from a textbook, or, as Conte puts it, "busy work."

Dunson agrees that Night School courses are condensed versions of their day-school counterparts and attributes that problem to Night School's large classes with upwards of 30 students. "With that many students, you almost need to let the reins go," she says. "That basically means you end up giving fewer harder assignments."

Bell says that pared-down education allows students to slack off. "Night School is such a buffer," Bell says. "Some of the kids who clearly don't care are getting a place where they can not care again." She recalls an episode in which a student and teacher nearly came to blows over a grade. They took the confrontation into the hallway, where the noisy argument lasted for several minutes. Security eventually led the student out of the school. Bell believes that episodes like this are emblematic of a cultural problem: Students don't value the second chance at an education that Night School offers them. "It's saying a lot about our age group," she says. "We feel comfortable disrupting our classes like this."

Even with all of these disruptions, Jenkins says Night School can be necessary for students to learn from mistakes like skipping classes, failing to do homework or engaging in other activities that would result in loss of credit. "These are young adults. They're works in progress," she says.

Getting out

Night School's laxity makes Bell think that its goal is to give all of its students diplomas, but Jenkins also says that any emphasis on graduation over learning is not necessarily a bad thing. She argues that with the passing of a course — either in Night School or in day school — comes mastery of content.

But after taking English 11A and 12B and Physical Science at night, Garcia says he hasn't gained much knowledge. "I haven't really learned anything," he says. "The most I've learned is how to multiply." Instead of mastering math, Waqar has learned most from his teacher's stories, ranging from her cross-country trips to hopes of inheriting her parents' fortune.

Luckily, Waqar feels he's learning a lot more from his day-school Consumer Math class. Still, he emphasizes that this only highlights the contrast between day-school and evening classes. "In day school, you learn. In Night School, you just have to show up on time," he says.

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