In the mid-80s Odis Richardson wanted out of teaching. He was a special-education instructor and debate coach at south-side DuSable High School, which draws most of its students from the Robert Taylor housing project. And he’d been teaching in the Chicago Public Schools since 1965.
But it was less that Richardson, an outgoing man in his 50s, was burned out than that he wanted “additional challenges.” He wanted to be a leader and was taking administration courses at Roosevelt University in hopes of becoming a principal.
Then in 1986 a former student nominated him for one of ten Golden Apple awards. The prizes, new that year, were the brainchild of a venture capitalist named Martin J. “Mike” Koldyke, a way to recognize excellence in city and suburban teachers. Winners were to be given a year’s sabbatical to study at Northwestern University. Richardson won, and studied English literature and attended seminars with other winners. He ended the year renewed as a teacher. “Becoming a principal faded into the background–I knew I could be a teacher and a leader too,” he says. “Being a teacher is honorable. We don’t get the kind of respect we once did, but that’s not to say being a teacher is without any respect at all.”
The profession does seem to be in decline, at least according to a statistical portrait painted by the Golden Apple Foundation. Older faculty are retiring; an estimated 5 percent of Chicago public-school teachers bow out every year due to age. Meanwhile, the supply of new teachers has declined radically; the number of new elementary instructors in Illinois dropped by 55 percent between 1975 and 1986, just as the demand for such professionals, fueled by a mini baby boom, was rising. Worse, according to a 1989 report by the National Education Association, only 5 percent of education students plan to teach in the inner city.
DuSable is just the type of place education students want to avoid. The school, which has been educating black students since it opened its doors in 1935, was where Harold Washington went. But Washington came in a great reader; few of those who enter now read well. According to principal Charles Mingo, only 16 of the 500 freshmen arriving this year were reading at national norms. Scores on the Illinois Goals Assessment Programs tests, released in late October, placed DuSable among the worst city schools in reading and math. The dropout rate is 58 percent–an improvement of 15 points since Mingo’s arrival three years ago.
Though DuSable offers some special options designed to attract students–both computer and medical-assistant programs–it can’t compete for top students with private schools and magnet programs at other public schools. The brightest youngsters in the neighborhood get skimmed off. “We end up getting the kids who are left over,” Richardson says.
But Richardson, who only recently left the classroom to become a school counselor, is great with the leftovers. “How ya doing, ladies?” he says as he waltzes down the hall. “How are you, sir?” The kids brighten at his voice.
“Odis is good at raising the low self-esteem of many of our kids,” says Mingo, “He’s a troubleshooter for the underdog, for the young person the system is trying to crush.”
Richardson is just as dogged with their parents. If youngsters are screwing up, he calls their home–sometimes every day–or pays them a visit. “I don’t care how bad some boy is–and no matter how poor the mother–she still wants that son to get an education,” he says. “She doesn’t want him out there embarrassing the family. That mother will respond to a call. I’ve seen it time and time again. Sad to say, many teachers try to make a family contact and nothing happens, so they give up. That’s how kids get out of control.”
Richardson, a native of Louisiana whose laborer father only went through third grade, was the first black graduate of the University of Tampa. On a stopover in Chicago in 1965, an aunt encouraged him to apply for a teaching job. His first assignment was as a substitute at Parker (now Robeson) High School.
Later he taught kids with behavioral disorders and coached the debate team at Kenwood Academy in Hyde Park. “He was very helpful to us,” recalls New York lawyer and Harvard graduate Robert Yarbrough, a debate-team member who later nominated Richardson for his Golden Apple. “He had us read the New York Times and the New Republic. But he was less interested in college-bound kids like me than in getting those at the bottom of the heap out from under.” In 1980, when his Kenwood position was eliminated, Richardson chose to transfer to DuSable.
He has never regretted the move. “Kenwood was very U. of C-ish. The kids there wear their hearts on the inside, whereas at DuSable the hearts are on the outside. I’m more simpatico here.”
In the years since completing his Golden Apple sabbatical, Richardson has become committed to cultivating more teachers who are, like him, excited about urban education. His vehicle has been the Golden Apple Academy, which is composed of the 60 teachers who have won the award so far. The group meets quarterly and acts “sort of like a brain trust,” according to Terry Schwab, the academy’s coordinator and a teacher at a Des Plaines junior high.
Every year the academy’s flagship program, backed by the Golden Apple Foundation, gives 25 high school graduates financial aid and moral suport so they can study education at one of six Chicago-area colleges. During the summer the so-called “academy scholars” take courses at the University of Illinois at Chicago and work with children in day-care centers, schools, and camps. After they graduate, they must take positions in schools that serve the poor. In exchange, the foundation starts forgiving their college loans. If the scholars are still on the job at the end of five years, the foundation will pay each one a $12,000 bonus.
Like other Golden Apple winners, Richardson has taken under his wing two scholars, both Northwestern students. “You take urban black boys and put them in a place like Northwestern, where everyone else comes from privilege and has certain kinds of social graces, and they could quickly become dropouts,” he says. “So I try to give my boys some little advice.”
The two students, Stephen Bournes and Dawayne Whittington, frequently talk to Richardson on the phone and get together with him over pizza. “I’ll ask Odis if I should take such and such a course, and he’ll look into it for me,” says Bournes. “He’s that extra contact in my life.”
Bournes expects to remain a teacher. “I’m not your typical person who needs to make six figures a year. I see how a black role model is needed in the classroom, and I’m comfortable there.” But Whittington, a high school valedictorian, refuses to close his options. “I’m only 20,” he says. “My life experience is limited. As an African American male, I know a lot of doors are open to me. I’ll be offered more money than I can make teaching. But hopefully my decision will be a rational one.”
Richardson is also heartened by a new venture–a joint project of the Board of Education, the Chicago Teachers Union, and the Golden Apple Foundation–that also seeks to draw people into urban teaching. Next year 25 public schools or school clusters will be able to hire four interns–either fresh college graduates or people changing careers–to work under a master teacher while taking college courses for two years and three summers. The interns will make only $16,000 a year, but at the end each will emerge as a certified teacher with a master’s degree.
Richardson may someday apply to be a master teacher, but says that right now he’s busy enough. Besides being a mentor for the two Northwestern students, Richardson is a foster father to two young men and the newly elected president of Citizens Schools Committee, an advocacy group. He also runs a student-exchange program between DuSable and Stevenson High School in northwest-suburban Prairie View.
The exchange grew out of Richardson’s friendship with a psychology teacher at Stevenson, Barry Bernstein, a fellow Golden Apple winner. Twice a year the students, all seniors, attend class together and talk in groups. Richardson says the program is valuable because the ghetto kids and the middle-class suburbanites come to appreciate their similarities as much as their differences. He recalls a young man from DuSable telling him, “This is the first time I’ve spent any time with a little white boy–and he’s OK, he’s all right.” Bernstein says the program has created “some nice lasting friendships.”
Richardson has a zillion commonsense tips he wishes he could dispense to new teachers, beginning with how to face students on the first day of class. “Be ready. If it takes you four minutes to get started, you’ll spend another 15 minutes fussing for the kids to settle down. So be set with an assignment to give. When they walk in, plop it down.”
He says veterans like him are too often ignored. “Experts come into the classroom for five minutes, look around, and say, ‘Oh, that’s what the schools need.’ Then they write a program and sell it to us. What I think is that it’s us who should be doing the counseling.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.