He grew up an Illinois country boy who went on to halfheartedly attend high school in inner-city Phoenix, a rural transplant who was woefully unprepared to learn in an urban environment. And so, after graduation and then a 20-year stint in the Air Force, Stephen Morrisette vowed he would re-enter the inner-city arena. This time, the venue would be Beaumont High School in St. Louis, and this time his role would be that of instructor, to provide what he could not get as a student in the inner city: an education.
Now, after two-and-a-half years at Beaumont, a school floundering at or near the wrong end of all of public schooling's measures of accountability (test scores; attendance, dropout and graduation rates), Morrisette is no longer teaching and has vowed he'll never go back. But his story is about more than just the idealistic teacher who couldn't hack it at an inner-city public school. His departure raises serious questions about Beaumont -- most through a litany of his own complaints, presented outline-style, that paint the school's top administrators as being more concerned with maintaining high attendance rates than with suspending or expelling problem students, which would result in the loss of federal and state funds; the school's teachers as too fearful of reprimands to object ("They punish us," one teacher nervously whispers over the phone); and the school's students, at least those who are sincere (which, Morrisette insists, are the majority), as helplessly dangling over an unenviable middle ground, somewhere between an administration that would rather maintain a façade of stability than tackle mounting internal problems and a dominant minority of students who take full advantage of the administration's stance.
"I slammed the administration pretty hard," Morrisette says. "But I think administration is doing the best they can with the student population, with one possible exception: There comes a point in time when you gotta figure out where to draw the line. When those kids have crossed the line, then they're not educable anymore; they're incorrigible. And we can't figure out where that line is. At Gateway [a magnet school near Beaumont], the line is way up. If you wear your hat backward at Gateway, you're incorrigible. Down here, you threaten to shoot somebody in the classroom, you might or might not be considered incorrigible. There has to be blood drawn before they really consider you not worthy to walk down the halls of Beaumont."
Morrisette isn't exaggerating. He's had students threaten to shoot each other in his classroom; he has been assaulted by students on more than one occasion; he was nearly run over by a student in an alley. "The kid looked me in the eyes, and I saw meanness," Morrisette recalls. "This wasn't mischief. This was meanness. And I said, 'I am afraid of this student; I'm afraid of what he can do to me; I'm afraid of what he can do to my other students.' And [the school] kept him. Two months later, he tried to run me over. I mean, I hit that one right on the head: This kid was just plain mean. The school did absolutely nothing because there were no witnesses."
Morrisette's concerns about Beaumont are many: frequent student-student and student-teacher confrontations, assaults, vandalism, unchecked sexual harassment in Beaumont's hallways, daily classroom disruptions, toothless disciplinary action by administration, seniors getting their transcripts "fixed" so they can graduate, department heads making up grades.
Most of Morrisette's criticisms about the school are corroborated by at least four current or former Beaumont officials, who say teachers are not supported by administrators on matters of maintaining order. Three of them also concur with Morrisette's allegation of administration meddling with student grades.
In fact, one teacher agreed to talk with us only after learning about an administrator's creating grades for students who hadn't attended a certain class. "We have kids enrolled in the wrong classes; the counselors don't check on it, but that grade-changing -- I just couldn't let that go by," says the teacher.
But for Morrisette, the problem at Beaumont amounts to more than just a laundry list. He came to the inner city to teach and left frustrated that he couldn't. Most teachers at Beaumont are already resigned to the fact, he says. One veteran told Morrisette he couldn't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, meaning that Beaumont students are sow's ears.
For Morrisette, though, just one sow's ear can disrupt everything. "Here's the scenario," he explains. "A kid creates a huge hubbub. I spend five or 10 minutes trying to straighten it out myself with no luck, so I sit down and write a referral. I send him out the door, and there's 15-20 minutes of my class shot because of one student. He goes out; 10 minutes later, he comes back in and destroys the rest of the period. One of the stresses these kids are under is the fact that there are so many disruptions in the classroom that a sincere student doesn't have a chance of learning things at school. And it's just not once in a while -- it's a continuous source of disruption."
James Nesbitt, an assistant principal who was relieved of his duties at Beaumont last year, attributes Morrisette's worries to an administrative problem. "Pretty much it's a leadership situation," Nesbitt says. "I think everything disseminates from the top down. I don't think the teachers were being fully supported, like Mr. Morrisette. What I tried to do, anytime I got a referral from teachers, instead of calling the kid in and just talking with that kid, I used to try to go back to that classroom during that period so I could see if there was still some friction there. I don't think all administrators did that. Many times, kids were sent right back to the classroom with no discipline taking place at all."
Asked about the allegations on Monday, Beaumont Principal Travis Brown invites us to come by the school. When we arrive there, two hours later, Brown has rounded up a motley assortment of about a dozen people, including teachers, department heads, administrators, a pastor and a parent, all expressing a version of Beaumont's atmosphere that is quite different from Morrisette's assessment. "We had the same students," notes social-studies teacher Patricia Banks-Slaughter. "That means football players, some of them 6-5. Why is it that I didn't have problems with them? Why is it that they obeyed me? He taught in the same corridor as I did."
The group speaks for more than an hour, essentially making it clear that Beaumont is a school on the rise, that it's "one of St. Louis' best-kept secrets" and that discipline problems -- which they believe Morrisette has exaggerated -- are dealt with quickly and efficiently.
Brown says he did not call the impromptu meeting to rebut Morrisette but to explain what Beaumont is about. "At no time do I want to belittle, berate or slander Mr. Morrisette," Brown says. "I only want to tell the truth about the climate here at Beaumont. We're an urban school. We have urban problems. Our task is to minimize those problems to ensure a foundation for our students. We don't have to put on any airs when we're doing the right thing. If Mr. Morrisette had concerns, he could have talked to the principal, the department heads, to his mentors, so we could alleviate or minimize any concerns he had. He didn't bring those concerns to me."
The Beaumont gathering affirms that the school faces challenges, but only those challenges any inner-city school faces. Morrisette, it is implied, just couldn't cut it.
Brown also says he had been "investigating" Morrisette since last fall for using insensitive language in class. Still, Brown named Morrisette teacher of the month in January. Morrisette left Beaumont in mid-March.
Morrisette, now working at Six Flags, can only wish he could have done more at Beaumont. As for Brown's claim that Morrisette never came to him with his concerns, Morrisette offers up a string of memos he sent in the last 18 months or so to Brown and other administrators, most of them detailing the student problems Morrisette had encountered and the lack of disciplinary action from administrators.
Morrisette can pinpoint when he first understood the limitations of teachers at the school: She was Beaumont's valedictorian, and he had urged her to transfer to the county to better prepare for college -- until he found out she was already enrolled in night college classes. "She broke my heart in that I went over there trying to change lives," he recounts. "And I realized I didn't make a damned bit of difference in her life. And I realized those kids who are going to become somebody have already become somebody. They're capable students by the time they get to me. And the best I can do at Beaumont is give them a company line."