The Missionary

Shawn Beightol's education crusade is seeking believers

Idealistic and faithful to a fault, Beightol once made a house call in a notoriously dangerous housing project in the midst of a small riot. A group of teens jumped him, beating him from behind until several women came to his defense. "I thought God would protect me," Beightol recalled.

In a windowless classroom on the second floor of Miami Edison, second-year algebra teacher Hector Lopez was walking from desk to desk during a recent class, critiquing work and giving awkward high-fives. "My God, these kids are ready to work," he practically shouted. Speaking in hushed snippets of Kreyol, the 25 sophomores, juniors, and seniors consulted or, in some cases, copied each other's equations from FCAT workbooks.

Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Jacqueline Carini
Miami Edison Senior High, one of the lowest-performing schools in the state
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom
Jacqueline Carini
Math teacher Hector Lopez during a lull in his Miami Edison classroom

Lopez, a 54-year-old former software designer with a persistent cowlick and a frenetic classroom manner, left a six-figure job with IBM to teach in the inner city. After 23 years in the corporate world, he wanted to try teaching, do something more meaningful. "This is the front lines," he said.

He tries to keep things interesting with Internet-based lessons, but he has to share the department's one LCD projector with eleven other teachers. Inspiring his kids is an uphill battle. Just helping them understand the written directions is a challenge.

Miami-Dade, the fourth-largest district in the nation, educates more than a third of a million students from 168 different countries at more than 300 schools. One in three students lives in a home where English is a secondary language, if it's spoken at all. Nearly two-thirds of students qualify for reduced-price or free lunch. More than 30,000 have disabilities ranging from hearing impairment to profound retardation. About 40 percent don't make it to graduation day with their classmates.

Many teachers don't make it, either. One of Lopez's colleagues at Edison, a veteran math teacher, recently left midyear to take a job with Boeing at almost twice the pay. Lopez doesn't blame his colleague. "To be honest with you, I don't know what I'm going to do in two years. Money is the bottom line."

Shelves lined with multiple answer booklets instead of novels are testament to Edison's obsession with ending five years of failing FCAT scores. There are constant classroom visits by administrators and bi-weekly FCAT reviews handed down from the main office. "I'm spending my time giving bi-weeklies and FCAT bullshit," Lopez said of the previous school year. "A lot of times, the bi-weeklies had nothing to do with what I taught that week." Lopez was fortunate. His principal allowed him to give his own tests this year. "I'm lucky they listened."

At lunchtime in the teachers' lounge, some of Lopez's colleagues were less grateful. The pressure is intense, said English teacher Judy Brown, a 34-year veteran of Miami-Dade schools. Teachers leave, or are forced to leave, constantly. "It's a revolving door, baby. It's all about the scores. If your scores aren't good, you got to go."

Myriam Ariza, a nationally certified art teacher from Chicago, said she was ready to get out after a year. "In the big picture, I'm just concerned about real teaching and real learning. Basically real teaching has been limited to babysitting."

"Are we committing the resources to win this war, or are we fucking around?"

Beightol was sitting outside Zeke's on Lincoln Road after school one day this past November, sipping a three-dollar Miller Lite and talking a mile a minute about the contract, occasionally rummaging around in his tote bag for documents to prove this or that point. "Milk has gone up, eggs have gone up, insurance has gone up," he said. "Our people are living on credit cards."

When he first got into teaching fourteen years ago, Beightol recalled, Miami's teachers were the highest paid in the state. Their union, led by the steel-fisted Pat Tornillo, was unstoppable. But he proved more a capo di tutti capi than an idealist. After leading the UTD for almost 40 years, he was convicted in 2003 of stealing or misappropriating three million dollars from the union and took up residency in a federal prison. The American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers' union, swept in and took over for two years, rewriting the constitution and bylaws. Karen Aronowitz, a decidedly unflashy, soft-spoken former high school English teacher, took the reins in 2005. (Aronowitz could not be reached for comment.)

Beightol, a longtime outspoken union steward at Krop, was less than happy with the UTD's post-Tornillo evolution and hammered away at what he considered a lack of "fight." He presented himself as the "militant" alternative, believing the righteousness of his cause would carry the day. Factions formed among Miami's 21,000 teachers, and lines were drawn.

Beightol's dispatches to supporters were combative, frequently castigating district administrators and criticizing UTD leadership for rolling over. He would "be a bulldog" for teachers. His lack of diplomacy bordered on naiveté. Given its weakened state, the UTD was not in a position to twist the arms of a powerful superintendent and school board.

The unfolding drama came to a head in mid-October, when administrators censured Beightol for his broadcast e-mails, which he sent via his district account. That morning Beightol was scheduled to meet with Krop's principal to decide his fate. Then the hallway outside Beightol's classroom began to fill with his students and fellow teachers. "My doorway packed with bodies of teachers holding signs that spoke of the right to free speech, assembly, and to redress grievances," Beightol wrote in an e-mail that afternoon. The meeting was postponed.

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