Why Two Whitman Seniors Returned to 9th Grade

It was spring of my senior year in college, and there was just one more class I needed to take before I graduated: 9th-grade biology.

Every Tuesday, my fellow nature-nerd Eva and I volunteered in a Wa-Hi classroom. You can watch our interview with the Walla Walla Public School District here, and read below for the whole story.

When you live in Walla Walla, the name "Wa-Hi" rolls off the tongue. It's short for Walla Walla High School, one of two (along with Lincoln High) in the Walla Walla Public School District. That's about all I knew until January, when I got to Whitman for my senior spring.

During my three years at Whitman, I'd been wanting to get more involved in community service, but there never seemed to be time. I volunteered in small ways: I brought Whitman's crested gecko and rock python to bilingual elementary-school classrooms and did yard work for the elderly on Martin Luther King, Jr. day. Then I got an e-mail from our Science Outreach Coordinator asking for volunteers in a Wa-Hi 9th-grade biology classroom. I signed up for one hour a week on Tuesdays. My friend Eva signed up for the same time so we could carpool and work together.

The Wa-Hi campus.
Photo credit: Breanna Baltrusch.

When we got to Wa-Hi, I was amazed to see a barn full of sheep. In high school, I would have given anything for the chance to attend a rural school with an Future Farmers of America (FFA) program. And here I was, living ten minutes from an FFA school! I wish I'd gotten involved on my first day in Walla Walla, maybe volunteering with the FFA kids or a local 4-H club.

The campus is spread out between green, grassy commons and bisected by a restored section of Yellowhawk Creek. Eva and I signed in at the main office and walked through a maze of outdoor hallways to find Ms. Burt's classroom.

The Wa-Hi hallways are outdoors.
Photo credit: The Whitman Wire.

Mary Burt is one of those teachers students feel lucky to have. Even though these 9th graders were not always thrilled to spend their 7th period learning about cells and forest ecology, they were always happy to see Ms. Burt. She has a sense of humor that keeps her classroom's attention through laughter instead of discipline.

Here I am in the classroom with Eva, my volunteer partner, and Ms. Burt, the 9th-grade biology teacher.

I loved working with Wa-Hi students. I would have liked to invest more than one hour a week, but even so, I got to know the students' names and personalities. That's the great thing about high schoolers -- they'll tell you exactly what they're thinking. When a student would tell me, "No, I'm not going to do the work; this is boring and I hate it," I took her at her word. I remember feeling trapped by worksheets and standardized curriculum.

I tried to make every interaction about the student first, asking how he was doing and building a human-to-human relationship instead of just a teacher-to-student one. Second, I tried to bring in curiosity.

"Science is not about memorizing things, it's about asking questions," I told one student. "So if you don't know the answers about cells, why don't you write a list of questions?" Then, we'd pick which question sparked the most curiosity, and I'd help the student pursue the answer to that question instead of the ones on the worksheet.

Some students were motivated by drawing, so I encouraged them to draw their work. Others were distracted by YouTube during class, so we found relevant videos as inspirations for project topics. One student was making a scene by drinking a Dr. Pepper instead of working, so I asked him to explain the day's concept, diffusion, in terms of soda. His improvised explanation was so good, I used it with other students for the rest of the class.

The barriers to success in this classroom were high. It was the last period of the day; the honors and Advanced Placement students had been separated into other classrooms; and I imagine Ms. Burt would have loved to have a full-time assistant rather than a couple of volunteers a week. There were simply not enough resources to allow for the creative, engaging education these students deserve.

This semester, I was a teaching assistant for a Whitman course, Plant Identification Laboratory. Spending Tuesdays at Wa-Hi and Thursdays in a Whitman lab, I was amazed and disappointed by the enormous gap between the two classrooms.

Picture Wa-Hi: the desks were mismatched and graffitied. They barely fit inside the small classroom. There are no paid assistants, only once-a-week volunteers. The students were responsible for stacking the chairs each Tuesday so the custodian could mop, and Ms. Burt was responsible for keeping the blackboard clean. There are about 1700 students, and the student-faculty ratio is 19:1.

Now picture Whitman: the students are spread out across five rows of pristine laboratory benches, with extra space in the back for projects. The microscopes and stools are upgraded regularly. There are two paid teaching assistants (me and my friend Lia). We can leave the blackboard messy with chalk because the custodian will take care of it. There are about 1500 students, and the student-faculty ratio is 8:1.

I made up a name for this divide: the Classroom Privilege Gap. Obviously, a private college and a public high school are not parallel institutions, but this gap also exists among high schools, rural or urban, private or public, north-end or south-end. Working in these two classrooms each week was a reminder of how unfair and damaging this gap is.

Behold the Whitman classroom, replete with 45 microscopes and carefully arranged plant samples.

The weekly lab is planned by our professor, Heidi (right), set up by two paid teaching assistants (Lia and me), and supported by the biology department staff. Compare that to Ms. Burt's five-days-a-week Wa-Hi biology class, run entirely by Ms. Burt and a couple volunteers.

Teachers like Ms. Burt need more support, and students like the Wa-Hi 9th-graders deserve better school infrastructure. There's no easy solution, but adequately funding public schools is a place to start. Only 2-3% of the federal budget goes to education, and the Trump administration's budget called for a $9.2 billion (or 13.5% cut) to education spending. We can do better.

Edit: My friend and relentless activist for justice, Annie Want, just sent me this NPR article about why funding in public schools is so unequal across America. Did you know that school funding depends on local property taxes? And that in 1973, the Supreme Court decided in a 5-4 decision that the U.S. Constitution guarantees no right to equal funding for education? And that by doing so, the Court negated the intention of the famous Brown v. Board of Education decision to provide equal and integrated public education to all children, regardless of race or economic means? If any of this is news to you, as it was to me, read that article! Seriously.

As Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote in Brown v. Board of Education:

"It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms."

Finally, I'll leave you with this sign I read every Tuesday in the Wa-Hi office:

I love this sign. It doesn't require you to believe that you are special or perfect or amazingly talented; it just reminds you to do what you can with what you have.

What can you do? Call your representatives. Volunteer in public schools. Vote for administrations and taxes that support education. If you have more ideas about getting involved, leave them in the comments. I'd love to hear from you.