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Fall 2000

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“Devastated or elated”
Good days and bad, inner-city teacher gives his all

by Jens David Ohlin ’96

Peter Stiepleman ’97 brings musical, extracurricular, and just plain life enrichment to his Oakland third graders.

     Every weekday morning twenty Latino eight-year-olds form a ragged line outside a bilingual third-grade classroom at Allendale Year-Round Elementary School in Oakland, Calif. Clutching backpacks and jackets, they pause at the entrance: “Good morning, Mr. Stiepleman,” they say, extending their hands. Teacher Peter Stiepleman ’97, face alight with good humor, shakes hands with each one, and ushers his charges into the new day.

     “I thought I’d have a career in the foreign service,” reflects Stiepleman, who majored in Spanish and spent his junior year in Madrid. “I never dreamed I’d end up in the classroom.” But Stiepleman’s future sneaked up on him a year or so after graduation, when he read a story to a group of elementary school kids in Berkeley. “I was working as an insurance broker,” he remembers, “and I volunteered for a program where professionals read a story to a class and then answer questions about their jobs. I can’t tell you how great it felt. I got back to my office, looked around, and said, ‘This is not where I want to be.’ ”

     Within a few months, he was enrolled in the California Urban Partnership Intern Program (CalPIP), an accelerated teacher-training course at the University of California at Berkeley. The two-year program, which he completed in 1999, put Stiepleman into his own classroom right from the start—something of a trial by fire. “All of us in the program,” he says, “were teaching full time, going to school at night and on weekends, and brainstorming and troubleshooting with each other whenever we could. The support was incredible.”

     “Peter is an outstanding young educator,” says Linda Spatz, his CalPip supervisor. “I send people enrolled in CalPIP today to observe him in his classroom. He’s a good model of what a teacher can do for the community, and he puts a lot of his heart into his teaching and his students.”

     Indeed Stiepleman brings extraordinary enthusiasm to the classroom. “For me, every day is emotional,” he admits. “Either I’m devastated by the lives these children have or I’m elated by what they come up with in the classroom. I go home every afternoon feeling great about my job.” Still, being a public school teacher in Oakland isn’t all Hallmark moments. He and his colleagues face overcrowded classrooms; chronic shortages of school supplies; outdated or nonexistent computer resources; very little parent involvement; and, of course, low wages. One of the largest schools in the Oakland district, Allendale is in a run-down urban neighborhood of dingy homes, bleak apartment buildings, and mom-and-pop businesses. The student body is primarily African American, Latino, and Asian, and many kids are very recent immigrants, who, in addition to coping with reading, writing, and arithmetic, are struggling to adjust to a new culture and language.

     Like overcrowded schools all over the state, Allendale operates year-round. Students are divided into four tracks, three of which are in session at any given time, each attending classes for nine weeks and then taking three weeks off. Says Stiepleman, “I don’t mind the year-round paradigm, but I don’t like the fact that we use it because of population concerns instead of academic ones. The tracks are selected strictly according to the number of bodies needed to fill each classroom. A lot of these kids are already struggling, and I’m afraid this kind of education by the numbers will let too many of them slip through the cracks.”

 
“I need to help them see—and increase—their options.”
 

     It all sounds rather grim, but Stiepleman’s classroom is far from dreary. Colorful art projects and posters crowd the walls, and the class rules are prominently displayed. In addition to “no spitting” and “don’t say bad words,” his students are urged to “have goals” and “respect each other” and reminded that “no one can stop you if you follow your dreams.” An alumnus of the Skidmore Bandersnatchers a cappella group, Stiepleman isn’t stopped by Allendale’s lack of a music program: his kids learn to play the recorder on instruments he purchases for them, and he created and leads a choir for fourth and fifth graders. His students regularly venture outside for physical education sessions that he devises. And though the school district doesn’t mandate art or science instruction, Stiepleman integrates those subjects into just about every lesson plan. “It’s important for them to realize that mathematics is the basis of music,” he says, “and that cooking is chemistry, and that a picture or skit can be just as valuable as a book report.”

     He also stresses what he calls a “getting-along curriculum,” that includes active listening, basic etiquette skills like hand shaking, and conflict resolution. About three times a week he conducts a “community circle,” where students each name something in their lives that they’re happy or sad about. The kids come up with some surprising revelations, like the time one little boy said he was sad about his uncle’s recent suicide. “We spent the morning crying and hugging,” says Stiepleman. “He had no one else to talk to about it. We’re like a family; we take care of each other.”

     Many students have parents who hold down two or three jobs just to pay the rent. They often don’t have enough time to talk—or listen. To facilitate parent involvement, Stiepleman hosts twice-yearly outings to Oakland A’s baseball games. “Attendance at our school open house is very low,” he explains. “But the A’s have dollar-a-seat games on Wednesdays, so I buy twenty tickets and ten kids can bring one parent apiece. During the game I circulate and give each mom or dad a progress report.”

     Stiepleman also calls on outside resources. Last year he received a grant from UC-Berkeley that allowed a graduate student in fine arts to coach the kids in the creation of a prize-winning relief map of Oakland made entirely of recycled objects. He has organized visits to the symphony and museum, and he even chaperoned an overnight camping trip. Recently his grant request to VH-1’s Save the Music program resulted in the donation of 30 clarinets, saxophones, flutes, trumpets, and trombones to Allendale, and he was at the podium when the school’s first band was launched in September.

     Skidmore has been another source of support. During his first year at Allendale, Stiepleman facilitated an e-mail pen pal program between Skidmore education majors and his class. Skidmore’s development and alumni affairs offices have forwarded boxes of toys, books, and other gifts, and every month an anonymous donor sends a package full of markers, pencils, paper, and crayons. “So many people have shown support for me and my students,” he says, “it’s overwhelming.”

     When he’s not in the classroom, Stiepleman spends time with his girlfriend, tends his backyard vegetable garden in Oakland, studies ceramics, and goes camping at nearby Point Reyes National Seashore. But his mind is never far from his students. “I’m a different person than I was in college,” he says. “This job makes you grow up fast. I look at these kids and realize I’m not only responsible for getting them to a certain level educationally, but I’m a type of secondary parent. I need to help teach them right from wrong, and provide them with experiences that will help them see—and increase—their options. That’s the most important thing, I think: to help them realize they have options.”

California freelance writer Laurie Connor got her start with Architectural Digest, was contributing editor of Angeles magazine, and has written for SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology magazine.

 


© 2000 Skidmore College