Section: Features

Peter Rutkoff’s non-traditional classgoes to Cleveland

Peter Rutkoff’s non-traditional classgoes to Cleveland

by Ian Round

During an interview, the first things Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff described were statistics about the Cleveland public schools. He said one in two children are hungry, illiterate, emotionally or physically abused and/or impoverished, and he estimated that about three-quarters of students fall into at least one of these categories.
Rutkoff teaches AMST 330: Sankofa Project: Theory and Practice of Urban Education, in which students read “basic classic texts that deal with schools.” They visit a Cleveland public school briefly over October Break and spend more time there during Winter Break. The class visited the Cleveland School of the Arts (CSA) this year and John Adams High School last year. Rutkoff said he had been planning the course with Kenyon connections in Cleveland for over two years. It is worth .75 credits, the extra .25 coming from a group project into the next semester.
CSA was closed because of the cold the first two class days they were in Cleveland this month, so instead students volunteered at the Cleveland Food Bank, where they learned the aforementioned statistics. When the students were in classrooms, they observed, took notes, helped with worksheets or other lessons and interviewed students and teachers.
“It was a pretty eye-opening experience,” Rutkoff said during a phone interview.
Casey Griffin ’14 said, “Our public education system completely discriminates against people of color and lower class and any sort of disadvantaged background, and our country often does not acknowledge that and does very little to try to remedy it.”
“Whatever the schools are asked to do they can’t,” Rutkoff said. “It’s unusual for a child to live in the same dwelling for the entire school year.”
Griffin, who took the class last year and had in facilitating it this year, said single classes at John Adams often have up to 45 students. She said there was a massive focus on preparing students for standardized tests and that the school was filled with social organizations like Teach for America and City Year, where recent college graduates teach or offer college counseling.
“There’s this whole influx of organizations that are trying to make the school better for students, which is great that they have so much help, but also sort of indicates the status of John Adams,” she said.
Because of all these groups, she said, “Some students were really excited,” about Kenyon’s visit, but “the majority of students just ignored us.”
She said many teachers felt “burnt out” because of the lack of resources.
Griffin said CSA had a much different atmosphere. Although it is a public school, students apply for admission. They spend half of each school day focusing on their artistic subject of choice.
“It was such a different vibe,” said Griffin, who is applying for a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Cypress. “The teachers want to be there and the students want to be there.” She said a student once took her into the hallway during lunch to show her part of a theatrical performance. “They were excited to show their stuff,” she said.
“It’s not the most typical of the Cleveland schools, but it deals with all the same problems,” Rutkoff said. Griffin suggested that parents of CSA students are slightly different because they have the wherewithal to have their children apply.
While Rutkoff’s class isn’t career orientated because students don’t learn how to teach, they do learn about education and teaching.
“We don’t really have a lot of opportunities to study education [at Kenyon],” she said, “[but] I think the class views it as a social justice issue.”
Rutkoff and Griffin acknowledged that their class doesn’t solve any problems during its short stay in Cleveland, and that the experience is for the Kenyon students, not the CSA or John Adams students.
Griffin said “you go through phases” of optimism and pessimism regarding the achievement gap, social inequality and urban public education.
“People come out of the class sympathetic to teachers,” she said. “I don’t think anyone comes out of the class feeling hopeful for the education system as a whole. I think people come out feeling hopeful for individual success stories like CSA.”


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