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Review of “Davonte’s Inferno: 10 Years in the New York Public School Gulag.”

Published by Written Warrior Press
Published by Written Warrior Press
cover designed by ICEYDESIGNS

On Wednesday May 14th 2014, The Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street was the venue for a reading by Laurel Sturt from her recent memoir, “Davonte’s Inferno: 10 Years in the New York Public School Gulag.

Hers is a vivid, passionate and at times outrageous account of her years as the art teacher in one of the lowest scoring and most poverty stricken elementary schools in the South Bronx. While her descriptions of the school, and classroom life, are all authentic, the book also takes on the parallel narrative of the impact of political and academic shifts that emanated from the perfect storm of the Bloomberg administration, the Federal State and local governments' embrace of education “reform”, and the economic downturn. The sequential reporting of these events, woven into the reality of daily school life, takes us along the slippery slope experienced by teachers, who constantly believed it couldn’t get any worse, and yet it did.

Meanwhile, power was also passing to new administrators, often with little or no classroom experience, coming out of the Leadership Academies, and in Sturt’s school, nepotism was rampant. Her school’s succession of Principals, (dubbed Cruella deVille, Principal Dearest, and Rosemary's Baby) come in for laser-sharp scrutiny, and the opportunity they seized upon to secure their highly paid positions through fear and favoritism is pitilessly exposed. The humor of the descriptions is belied by the deadly seriousness of the outcomes – teachers routinely were hospitalized for stress related trauma, and two for stress induced miscarriages.

If power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, look no further than the NYC teacher evaluation system in the hands of insecure, vengeful Principals to prove it!

In light of the current negotiations on the Union Contract, ratified on May 7th to be put to the rank and file, it is important to understand the implications for teachers of contractual stipulations: See the M.O.R.E. (Movement of Rank and File Educators Caucus of the UFT) website for full details:

  • continued focus on Professional Development, instead of smaller class size (the one scientifically proven method of improving outcomes) and more adults to provide for the children daily;
  • the failure to fully include the support Staff (Speech and Language, O/T, P/T, SETTS teachers, etc.), Paraprofessionals, Guidance Counselors, and evaluation specialists in all of the proposed benefits.
  • The divisive tactic of merit pay which fosters competition when every shred of evidence supports the effectiveness of collaborative work among teachers. This results in the destruction of solidarity, a basic tenet of the Union movement, which unfortunately, younger teachers ignore at their own peril.
  • The egregious handling of the ATR’s, most of whom have been displaced through no fault of their own, often because they were brave and caring enough to be on the frontlines in ‘failing schools’ which should have received infusions of support, and not the ax.
  • We don’t get the original 8% raises until 2018 and we won’t get all the retro pay until 2020. Other city workers got their two 4% raises already and continue to earn them each year. We will get them only in small increments beginning in 2015, thus delaying pay increases which date back to 2009, but which will not be completed until 2020 - with not one penny of interest on the deferment, and not even keeping up with inflation! How we can seriously look our teachers in the eye and say it is a good contract defies comprehension.

The proposed contract does nothing to address these inequities, and in fact concedes everything to the Dept. of Education, the union-busters, text book /curriculum manufacturers, and the privatizers.

By all means, run out and read this book! Sturt’s message at all times shines through with a depth of concern for the children in her care, the limitations of their circumstances, and the ways in which school might have enriched them immeasurably with a better distribution of resources. Her heart breaks open on every page, whether describing some new indignity; enduring the hassle of an art room shared with a colleague who is a hoarder; the loss of the library and all of its resources when the librarian leaves and isn't replaced; or the glimpses of the children, individually and collectively. A must read for anyone who cares about children, about society, and about changing the direction of our current educational goals.

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