Martel Price stood in the doorway of Room 148, the last classroom before the emergency exit doors that separate Oakland Technical High School from the corner of 45th Street and Broadway. He looked over the two dozen students inside. All of them–except one–were at their desks, grouped into teams of four, flipping through textbooks and talking among themselves in their inside voices.
Fresh copies of documents in one hand, a pen in the other, Price circled the dimly-lit room and peered over the students’ shoulders, marking papers now and then. He’s six feet tall, with a sandy brown complexion and a noticeable patch of gray in the front of his hair; on this Monday morning in December, he was wearing khaki pants and an earth-tone long-sleeve shirt.
He held up the copies, using them as a pointer, and his voice boomed as he directed the attention of the entire 10th grade history class toward the assignment on the whiteboard. “Draw a picture that represents atomic theory,” Price read aloud. “Draw a picture that represents Darwin’s theory.”
Price made his way to his own desk, where he sat, placed the copies he had been palming beside his computer, and turned to speak to the one student who wasn’t working vigorously on the assignment. This was a young lady had decided to be disruptive that morning. She had talked out of turn. She’d refused to stay seated. When Price asked her to remove her hat, she refused.
So Price ejected her from class, with a note to take with her to the principal’s office.
Discipline—how to administer it, when to administer it, and whether African American students are suffering from its misapplication–has been a major topic of concern for Oakland administrators, teachers, parents, and students this year.
In September, the school district’s board members agreed to a voluntary Resolution Plan (VRP), after the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights filed an inquiry into the disproportionate number of young African American men being kicked out of class, suspended, and/or expelled from Oakland public schools. Among other pieces of evidence, the Office of Civil Rights cited a study published in May by the Urban Strategies Council, an Oakland based nonprofit that specializes in educational research.
Although focused on young African American men, the study showed skewed disciplinary statistics for all African American students in Oakland K-12 public schools when they were compared to their classmates of other races and ethnicities. The Resolution Plan, which calls for monitoring more closely the disciplinary patterns in 38 of the district’s schools, was an addition to the OUSD’s 2010 establishment of the Office of African American Male Achievement, an office the school district formed in effort to focus solely on the academic achievement of African American males.
Price has a special vantage point on the Resolution Plan, given the fact that he was once a disobedient student, and now sometimes works with students with behavioral issues. He’s a little ambivalent, he said—because he understands how tough classroom teaching can really be.
On the one hand, he said, monitoring their own disciplinary actions more closely will push teachers to find resolutions to kids’ problematic classroom behaviors, without kicking them out so readily. “It will cause teachers to deal with students,” Price said.
On the other hand, it will leave some students with the opportunity to “steal the education” from their classmates, Price said, referring to students who are disruptive to the point that it disturbs the class and ruins the lesson.
Price grew up in East Oakland, graduated from Montera Middle School and Skyline High – and was a self-admitted troublemaker throughout his teens. “I got suspended, like, twelve times in high school!” he exclaimed.
His own father, Earl “Marty” Price, worked as an educator at a number of local institutions, including schools inside the Alameda County juvenile detention center, as well as Oakland Tech.
But that did not keep Martel in line. The elder Mr. Price was once substituting at Martel’s middle school when Martel got in trouble.
“The teacher had bent Martel’s arm behind him,” Marty Price said during a phone interview. “I don’t remember what Martel did, but the teacher was out of place for what he did–and Martel was even more out of place, for provoking him.”
Martel would always talk back to teachers, Marty Price said, and that’s what got him in trouble.
His academic marks were just as unacceptable as his citizenship grades, “My first 3.5 was in my 12 grade year,” Martel Price said. “I got one in 7th grade, after that, I decided I was too cool to get a 3.0.”
Price says his school warned that if any further misconduct were to come from him, he’d forfeit his attendance to the senior ball and senior trip. And with that, he says, he straightened up.
Price made it through his senior year with some of the best academic and behavioral marks he had ever received. He was accepted into UC Santa Cruz. His life was on the right path. Then a run-in with a bike officer on a beach in LA landed him in jail: During his senior trip to Disneyland, Price was arrested for possession of marijuana and alcohol.
“I spent two days in an Orange County holding cell, thinking about how I might have just jeopardized my chances of going to college,” he said.
After Price was released from the jail in Southern California, his court case was heard in Northern California. An Alameda County judge dismissed the case on the grounds that he was a good student and headed to college, Price said.
Years later, Price finds himself in the teacher’s role, and he uses his experiences as a guide for his students. “I share my examples and my stories with them,” he said. He talks openly about the process of gaining an understanding of consequences for his actions. “I have kids–if they’re getting A’s and B’s, society is going to look at them a little differently–I give them a little leeway,” Price said, explaining his methodology of disciplinary actions.
Price says he knows many students also deal with uncontrollable circumstances at their homes, and that keeping them in the classroom is the key to their educational success.
In order to make that work for all students, though, the district can’t solely depend on teachers changing their methods, he said. “I like the idea of not suspending kids,” Price said. “But there’s is nothing in place in terms of alternatives.”
This means additional resources, he said—some of which require new staff. “(The schools) should have a counselor to talk to that kid, to get at the heart of the problem,” Price said. Oakland Tech does have three official counselors and two Vice Principals who also serve as counselors for 9th graders. Price said the school’s ‘Techniclinic’ provides health and psychological services, but he wonders whether that will be enough.
Price says that currently, some things are working. “Bringing parents in,” he said. “Using patience and understanding to get students to understand that life will be that much easier if they choose to ‘walk the path of education.’”
As a general practice, Price likes to say, kicking a student out of class—even very briefly—should be a last-straw sort of action, undertaken with planning. The young lady he sent to the principal’s office, for example, was at school under a disciplinary “contract,” written up because of previous infractions. She wouldn’t be suspended, but under the terms of the contract, Price would call her parents to talk over their daughter’s behavior. He wasn’t happy about it. “She’s going to sit in the office for a couple of periods, and not progress,” he said.
Price says his students to do the “heavy lifting on their own,” a phrase he says over and over, in hopes to encourage them to chose to be responsible young adults. “There are a lot of rules at this school that do not get enforced, and that is a terrible message to send to our kids,” said Price, pointing out rules about electronics and fashion that are overlooked by many teachers and administrators. “I think it’s a terrible message, because if you were to let me get away with something, I was going to try to get away with more.”
At the end of class, just minutes before the bell rang, the students had completed their assignments and were talking among themselves, as Price had advised them to. Price noticed one student in the back of the classroom, holding a phone or an IPod or some small device Price couldn’t quite make out. “If you have electronics, please put them away,” Price said. “I’d hate to be mean to you all. But that’s the school rules.”
Price concluded his short speech in which he addressed the entire class’ behavior, by saying, “After all, it’s not a reflection of ya’ll, it’s a reflection of…”
Price stopped, waiting for his students to fill in the blank. “YOU!” they shouted. They were pointing toward him.
And from the back of the room, a young African American male student, by the name of Kweisi Glenn, said, “I respect that Mr. Price.”