Home at Last
Tragedy compelled California teacher Paul White to do even more for his students.
When a student dies in a teacher’s arms, that educator is changed irreversibly. One day in 2002, after White dismissed students from the alternative high school he teaches at in Canoga Park, California, one of his 17-year-old students was shot in the chest in a drive-by attack. White held and consoled him as he died.
He determined that the one-room West Valley Leadership Academy would become more than a daily holding facility for alternative students. Instead of merely babysitting students sent there because of severe behavioral problems, he would turn them into active participants in their own education—men and women who hungered for achievement.
With school board support, White instituted new discipline measures, such as random drug testing, and banned gang-related clothing and paraphernalia. Monthly meetings with parents became the norm, as did more lessons in the curriculum relevant to students’ lives. A typical day now includes lessons on life skills, such as business etiquette and treating people with respect. And every student has White’s cell phone number for 24-hour assistance.
His approach is working. More than 80 percent of White’s students graduate now. That exceeds the Los Angeles traditional public school average. Part teacher, part counselor and parent, White also sounds a little bit like a revolutionary when he talks about the changes needed to help his students. If the current system of reaching such students isn’t working, White says, “it needs to be knocked down and rebuilt.”
Photo Coral Von Zumwalt
Maryland’s Johnnie Mae Armstrong helps the mentally ill find new homes.
On the weekends, one might find Armstrong combing flea markets and discount stores for bargains on chairs, beds, and other home furnishings. But it’s not to feather her own nest. Rather, Armstrong sits on the board of directors of a nonprofit organization in Montgomery County, Maryland, that provides neighborhood housing for people recovering from mental illness. Her specialty is interior design, and the treasures she buys end up in the 21 houses purchased and renovated by her group, which currently serves 75 county residents.
A member of the Montgomery County Teachers Association-Retired, Armstrong says she started helping people with mental and learning disabilities during her 34-year career as an elementary school teacher, when they were her students. Her interest became more personal once she retired, when she learned a relative was struggling to recover from a mental illness.
“I tried to learn everything I could about the support available to people with these disabling illnesses, and quickly found out that publicly funded help was sorely lacking,” says Armstrong. “The first time I saw people sleeping on grates in Washington, D.C., it brought tears to my eyes, and I realized that I needed to help.”
She’s been doing that for eight years. “No one should ever sell a person in recovery from mental illness short,” says Armstrong. “Our residents work as cashiers and as drivers. They’re going to college—and finishing. They flourish when given the opportunity. I feel blessed that I have my health so I can keep helping those who can’t always help themselves.”
Photo Charles Votaw
Iowa teacher Julie Benge lost her eyesight on a field trip, but returned quickly to the classroom.
Benge, a special education teacher at Fort Madison High School in Fort Madison, Iowa, always figured it would be her left eye to one day give her trouble. Born with glaucoma in that eye, the 45-year-old wife, mother, and educator, could see just fine though. But while embarking with her students on a field trip in December 2004, she lost her balance exiting a van and slammed onto the cement.
“The van door opened wider than I expected it to and I just fell flat on my face,” says Benge.
Her bad eye wasn’t affected by her fall, but her good one was. She suffered severe damage as her right cornea and retina ruptured. “I had many surgeries and the doctors were excellent,” says Benge. “I could get around with some sight.” That was short-lived though, and as her eyesight deteriorated, she found herself plunged into a new, dark world.
It wasn’t dark enough for Benge to lose her way. Just two months after her accident, she returned to school, teaching half days. “With wonderful support from my family and associates, I was able to finish the year and see what I needed to see,” says Benge. Her two classroom assistants’ work make it possible for her to remain an active and involved teacher for the students. And those students know that nothing gets by her, even if she is visually impaired.
“I am still very much aware of what is going on as far as what skills my students have passed and what skills they need to repeat,” says Benge. Her students have also helped in her return to the classroom, becoming more cooperative and independent learners as the situation warrants.
It’s a new life, Benge says, and it’s a positive one. “Life keeps going. There is never any reason to be down.”
Photo Mark Tade