Shawn Beightol's home: a 40-foot wooden sailboat anchored off the 79th Street Causeway
Jacqueline Carini

The Missionary

This past October, television cameramen gathered at the gates of Miami Edison Senior High, a Zone school in hard-pressed Little Haiti. The news crews trained their lenses on Shawn Beightol, a slender, bearded man waving a piece of paper and wiping sweat from his brow. A veteran chemistry teacher at Michael Krop Senior High School in North Miami-Dade, Beightol was agitating for increased education funding, including a more substantive pay raise for teachers; he was also campaigning to become the next leader of the county's teachers' union. (The election will take place next month.) The contract then under negotiation — ratified two months later — fell short, he said.

"This is the kind of school that is going to get hurt," Beightol shouted as he motioned to the hulking, almost windowless building behind him.

Beightol had been rattling cages for weeks. A former youth minister who doesn't shy away from spouting four-letter words or firing off impassioned political e-mails at three in the morning, the 41-year-old educator had been gathering teachers in the back room of a Chili's in Doral to organize protests over the painfully slow salary negotiations. He'd urged colleagues to work no more than required by contract until the district guaranteed across-the-board raises and put starting teachers' pay on par with Monroe County — $40,000 — effective immediately, instead of three years down the line.


Shawn Beightol

On October 5, he'd circulated a list of school district employees who earn more than $100,000 (there are 225, including twelve who make more than $165,000) in an e-mail that likely reached thousands of fellow teachers. He hammered on that message at Edison, pointing to a chart showing that the number of administrators making more than $100,000 had increased at more than one-and-a-half times the rate of teachers and students during the past five years. That's money that could be going toward better teaching at suffering schools like Edison, Beightol said. "It's racism. It's classism."

For about two weeks this past fall, district administrators had rewarded Beightol's efforts by transferring the award-winning teacher to desk duty at a bus depot. They pulled the plug on his e-mail account.

Schools superintendent Rudy Crew was calling for a $40,000 starting salary — to be phased in over three years — as part of his plan to retain more teachers and throw lifelines to sinking inner-city schools like Edison. Under Crew, teachers at the Zone schools receive twenty percent more pay for twenty percent more work and, in exchange, are expected to raise significantly their students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), the standardized measure by which the state's schools are judged. If scores don't increase, pink slips follow.

Standing in front of Edison, one of the state's lowest-performing schools, Beightol for a moment looked like some kind of sidewalk prophet. He motioned insistently with his hands and warned that teacher turnover would continue unabated unless there were a cultural sea change. Education needed to be valued, educators respected. It's not simply a matter of salaries, he said, but also resources and support — trusting teachers to teach instead of constantly saddling them with the FCAT and more overpaid administrators. It began with the new contract.

The diesel-pickup-driving single father, who makes his home on a sailboat off 79th Street, had become a strident, if somewhat quixotic, symbol of deep dissatisfaction with schools. One newspaper profile labeled Beightol "The Insurgent." He was hailed as a hero by some, denounced as a grandstanding wannabe messiah by others. His pickup suffered three unexplained flat tires in two months and, at one point, a screwdriver showed up in the air-conditioning condenser.

With 50,000 employees, the lumbering, bureaucratic megalith that is Miami-Dade's school system is South Florida's largest employer and the state's second largest. Boasting a budget ($6.1 billion) that dwarfs the individual gross domestic products of 50 world nations, it is the region's largest buyer of goods and services, accounting for $3.2 billion in annual purchases from local businesses and $2.3 billion in annual income for local households.

The district — the fourth largest in the nation — has largely remained mired in low graduation rates, low test scores, administrative corruption, and deteriorating infrastructure. And so the recent ratification of a three-year contract for the county's 21,000 teachers was heralded as a major breakthrough. It won overwhelming approval from the United Teachers of Dade (UTD), the county's teachers' union.

Florida ranks dead last in education funding when compared against income, and 32nd when it comes to teacher salaries, behind states like Tennessee and South Carolina. Voters' tax gag reflex and expanding homestead exemptions have made raising school dollars here an effort not unlike drawing blood from a stone. Declining student rolls will cost Florida school districts $203 million in state money this year.

If respect for educators is measured by their compensation, teachers have been steadily losing society's esteem for decades. The gap between the average teacher's pay and salaries for other workers with four years of college is the widest it's been in 60 years, according to the National Education Association. Turnover is a problem across the country. A 2003 study found that a third of all public school teachers are in transition — starting, retiring, or just quitting — in any given year. Half of all new teachers leave the field within five years.

"If you're the valedictorian today, do you think you're going to go into teaching?" asks Karen Herzog, a librarian at G. Holmes Braddock High School who is preparing for retirement. Off the top of her head, Herzog mentioned three young teachers at Braddock, one of the county's top schools, who are plotting their routes out — one to a better contract in Broward and the others to higher-paying careers.

Harbor West Marina in North Bay Village has been all but abandoned since Hurricane Wilma rolled through in October 2005, obliterating most of the houseboats docked there. This past Christmas Eve, Beightol was standing on one of the marina's docks amid snapped power outlet boxes and splintered wood beams, waiting for a guest to squeeze through an opening in the locked chainlink gate. Beightol wore jeans and a sweat-stained blue T-shirt bearing a chemical map of sucrose and the words "I never met a carbohydrate I didn't like." A short rowboat ride away, past yellow floating oil booms and occasional masts of boat skeletons sticking out of the water, was Beightol's home.

The 40-foot wooden Taiwanese sailboat Beightol lives on is anchored amid a phantom community of mostly derelict boats inhabited only by the occasional pelican. A solar cell and a gas generator supply energy when needed, but there's no refrigerator and the stove gets little use. A paperback copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude lay open on a small table in the galley. Briefly thumbing through the book, Beightol sighed. "It's amazing, man."

The boat — cramped with boxes of food stacked on shelves and under tables, and clothes hanging from the ceiling — shows its 30 years. The paint has worn down in most places, and Beightol has been forced to tear out rotting plywood and do homemade fiberglass patch jobs. Sitting on the deck in a sun-bleached canvas folding chair, he was still for the first time all day. Between sips of Coke, he recalled Christmases past and a childhood filled with wonder.

The oldest boy of five children, Beightol grew up in Apollo Beach, a small town south of Tampa, hiding out in tree forts in the woods behind his family's home, building telescopes from kits, and attending Baptist church three or four times a week.

His father scraped money together by fishing for mullet, working construction jobs, and, occasionally, selling marijuana out of his van. To make ends meet beyond monthly welfare checks, Beightol's mother cleaned houses most days, dropping her children off at the library for the bulk of the day on weekends. Beightol devoured books about weather and astronomy, chemicals and space travel. "I was always a geek. I was a science fiend."

Beightol's younger brother, Neal, remembers it a little differently. Far from a geek, Shawn was a burly kid with limitless energy and curiosity, Neal said recently. Shawn was always up early, first to fix any piece of machinery — "he was the problem solver" — constantly messing around with chemicals, experimenting on the fly. Neal, a dermatologist in Naples, recalled coming back from elementary school one day to find his big brother, home sick from third grade, electroplating pennies with a contraption he had jerry-rigged in the family fish tank. "Somehow he had heard about electroplating."

When Beightol was twelve years old, his parents divorced and his father all but disappeared, marrying a Creole woman and setting out cross-country. Beightol last saw his father eight years ago when they met up in the desert outside Las Vegas. "As far as I know, he's panning for gold in Utah." Beightol turned to his teachers for inspiration. He worshipped some of them, like Ms. Colding, the first-grade teacher who taught him how to spell. There were Ms. Lump, who kept a blue jay in her third-grade classroom, and Mr. Moore, the high school algebra teacher who helped Beightol go from a C to an A in math. "They all inspired me in different ways."

In seventh grade, Beightol fell madly in love. The girl's apparent lack of reciprocation didn't dissuade him from pursuing her to private school when she transferred. Without the money to pay tuition, the thirteen-year-old Beightol persuaded the school's headmaster to admit him in exchange for a few hours of scrubbing buses and mopping classrooms each day. "I'm such a romantic sop."

Without a plan after high school, Beightol figured he'd join the navy. A chance encounter with a dean at the former Miami Christian College changed everything. Armed with a full academic scholarship, Beightol set out for Miami, his first visit to a big city. "I jumped in a Camaro with $100 and a suitcase."

He didn't exactly make an ideal seminarian. Intellectually querulous, Beightol refused to sign a document swearing off various temptations, including drinking. He cited Proverb 31 in his defense: "Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish." He was seen as a rebel and placed under special supervision. At his ordination, he wore a wrinkled suit and boat shoes without socks.

During his time at Miami Christian, Beightol attended weekend Bible studies at Central Alliance Church on 106th Street. He became a missionary in Liberty City, working with kids making the transition from juvenile detention back to inner city life. Beightol's intense earnestness could be overwhelming, said Jack Edwards, a former elder at Central Alliance. "He would sometimes take over in [Bible] class and I would have to slow him down," Edwards remembered. But his energy meshed with the troubled teenagers. "He just sort of had a gift where he could speak to kids and bring something out of them," Edwards said. "He was always one for the underdog."

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.

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.

The next day Beightol didn't make it to his classroom. As he pulled into Krop's parking lot, he noticed three school police cars parked out front. The assistant principal lifted a walkie-talkie to his mouth as Beightol rolled past. Krop's principal approached the teacher and, with a trembling hand, held out several forms for him to sign on his truck's hood. Beightol was to leave the grounds immediately. His reassignment: office duty at a bus depot, where he spent the next few days in a ten-foot-by-ten-foot room reading and writing notes for his legal defense, should it come to that. His offer to work on bus engines or clean up had been rejected.

In Beightol's classroom, next to a white dry-erase board on which is scrawled "All light comes from relaxing/falling electrons," a relic of that time hangs on the wall: a large poster inscribed with "Please Bring Him Back," bearing the signatures of dozens of teachers and students. Posted by the door are three lined spiral notebook sheets, each emblazoned with a single word:


His critics were equally vocal. On a Yahoo listserv for Miami teachers, someone using the screen name "Urall scabs" chided Beightol's supporters: "As for those who say 'vote no' to a contract, what you really mean is vote no to any contract that SHAWN didn't negotiate. He is your hero, your messiah. Please, what a joke."

Paul Moore, a member of the UTD's executive board and a veteran social studies teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School, went a step further. In a rambling October post on the listserv, Moore took a not-too-subtle swipe at Beightol. Urging unity, Moore decried "our misguided brothers and sisters [who] have chosen martyrdom over leadership." Weaving into the thread Rosa Parks, Hurricane Katrina, Detroit's economy, and President Bush's recent visit to a Washington-area school, Moore continued:

Some have chosen to form a divisive cult inside the United Teachers of Dade rather than fight for the unity of the whole public school workforce. Some have chosen to call people to reckless rather than effective disciplined actions. Men like David Koresh in Waco and Jim Jones in Guyana moved people in much the same way with pie-in-the-sky ravings. But to what end? Is the Kool-Aid to be our destiny?

Sounding more restrained on the phone recently, Moore described the contract as "the best option" for a union struggling to find its footing in the wake of "near-destruction" by Tornillo. "We have breathing room now," he said.

In mid-November, as a contract was beginning to look like a done deal, Beightol called for one last rally. On a clear, sunny Saturday morning, about 60 teachers marched from the school district headquarters downtown to Bayfront Park, where they gathered at the small amphitheater.

Sitting on the edge of the stage, Georges Lesperance, a French teacher at Krop and friend of Beightol's, spoke softly yet forcefully into the microphone. "What we're working for is a change in the way we're perceived," Lesperance said to a smattering of cheers. In Japan, teachers are referred to with an honorific title, Lesperance said. They are the highest-paid public employees in some countries. Here, Lesperance said, he makes do with outdated textbooks in a trailer classroom that lacks air conditioning.

"When a student walks into that situation, it isn't so much what it does to me," he continued. "That says to them that I'm not valued to society. It says to them that what I have to say must not be that important."

Marlen Valle, a special education teacher at William A. Chapman Elementary in Homestead, shook her head knowingly. Valle's predominantly black and Hispanic students have more than enough obstacles before they get to school. They struggle with the language and often show up to class unwashed and tired from lack of sleep, Valle said later.

At the rally, teacher after teacher spoke of working second and third jobs as tutors, chauffeurs, wedding videographers. They talked about having to live with parents and shop at dollar stores. Some mentioned moving plans: There were good teaching jobs and affordable houses to be had in Georgia and North Carolina.

Behind them, couples hand-in-hand strolled by, glancing at the handwritten signs stuck in the ground around the amphitheater — "Work to Contract," "More than Praise, We Need a Raise" — as they passed. In the distance, a towering cruise ship pushed off from its moorings.

A little more than a week after the Bayfront Park rally, Beightol sat on an aluminum picnic bench outside Krop and rubbed his red eyelids. He was still recovering from an all-nighter two days earlier — meetings followed by hours of get-out-the-vote e-mails. Union voting had just closed and it didn't look good, Beightol said. There was no will to restart negotiations after nine months of back-and-forth.

"I used to think all it would take is somebody to stand up," Beightol said slowly, his chin on his chest. His district e-mail account was still off-limits, and he had yet to be given permission to resume using the district's computerized grade system. His students didn't know what their grades were, and he wasn't sure where he stood in general. "I've been neutered a bit."

A group of drama students walked by. A few shouted, "Hi, Mr. Beightol." Swiveling in his seat, Beightol opened his eyes wide, smiled, and waved. A special education teacher sat down and, ignoring Beightol's state, began complaining about her overcrowded classroom. Switching half-heartedly back into his role as union steward, Beightol promised he'd do what he could. "Let me look into the square-footage thing."

After the teacher left, Beightol placed his elbows on the table and reflected on the past few months. The school district is like a machine, he said. "I learned that the machine is larger, with more inertia, than I imagined."


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