Because of budget cuts, Kelly O'Keefe-Boettcher was told she had to teach 171 students in five English classes at Rufus King International Baccalaureate High School, up from 147 last year. It was tough enough with 29 students per class. Now she has an average of 34, and one has 38. That gives her 90 seconds per student, per class.
"I can feel a huge chasm growing between me and my students," O'Keefe-Boettcher said. "I always made it a point to call parents to tell them about the positive things their kids were doing. Last year, I made 90 or so calls. It's been six weeks since I've made a call. It's like a stake in my heart."
King is Milwaukee's and one of Wisconsin's premier public high schools; 85 percent of its students go on to college. Its college preparatory courses are so challenging that even though 40 percent of its students qualify for free lunch, it was the top Wisconsin public school in Newsweek's 2003 national rankings, ranked above its wealthier suburban neighbors.
In May of 2002, President Bush came to King and praised the school. He boasted of spending $3 billion on teacher training to give teachers "power in their classrooms." He said teachers are "incredibly important for America." He said, "You can't have a high school as good as this unless you've got great teachers."
The great teachers are now groaning. Bush has been up and down this battleground state defending Iraq and promising a better economy. His visit to King is a distant memory after the loss of an assistant principal, two teachers and several support staff.
"This is the first time in my career that I've felt burned out," said social sciences teacher and National Honor Society adviser Steven Wagner, who comes to school at 6 a.m. and leaves at 6 and comes in most Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. "We're doing everything we can so we're not throwing them half an education. But they're cutting my heart out."
Principal Andrew Meuler has a heavy heart. Up to now, his school of nearly 1,500 students has won many state and national academic, athletic and extracurricular awards. It is the only Milwaukee public high school that teaches Spanish, French, German, Latin, and Italian. It does so with a student body that is 55 percent African-American and 35 percent white.
"Trying to keep morale up is now the biggest part of my job," Meuler said. "Every time I try to explain to the central office that you can't expect us to do the same job with less, they tell us to bite the bullet. . . . One day that bullet's going to explode."
It was report-card and teacher-conference day at King, and within an hour after the doors opened, the school's gymnasium was packed with proud but nervous parents and students who sympathize with the stress on their teachers. "You don't really get one-on-one time any more. It's frustrating," said Vanessa Armstrong, 17, a National Honor Society member who is running for student goverment.
"It doesn't give teachers a chance to be creative," said Leah Cameron, 17, a member of the swim team. "Now I'm a little baffled why President Bush was here in the first place."
Jeff Spence, a parent who is a member of the Milwaukee school board, and Fred Curzan, a parent whose daughter graduated from King and whose son is a freshman there, said the woefully underfunded federal edicts of Bush's No Child Left Behind, which place increased emphasis on testing, have placed an unfair burden on states and cities. "I'd give Bush a B for rhetoric and a D for execution," Spence said. Curzan said, "I would not give him a glowing report card. It's well below Cs."
Assistant Principal Gregg Willis is concerned about teacher flight within two to three years if conditions do not improve. School bookkeeper Marianne Sem, citing how budget cuts and central bureaucracy have held up significant numbers of textbook deliveries this semester, said, "As good as this school is, we're being set up for failure."
O'Keefe-Boettcher, 39, wonders how long she and her colleagues can keep teaching so many youths in so little time.
"There is a huge disconnect between what the president said about teachers and the fact that it is physically impossible to attend to each student," she said. "His slogan is `No Child Left Behind.' How about `No Teacher Left Behind?' I don't hear John Kerry talking about it, either.
"No teacher here is selling out. We'll stay up all night because we are not willing to cheat these kids. But do I really want to be known as a teacher who is great with 171 students and have that be considered normal? At some point, the kids will pay a huge price for teachers who are simply exhausted."
© 2004 Boston Globe