It&s Wednesday, the 16th day of the teachers' strike, and 17-year-old Jed Worrelm sits in the school cafeteria at McKinley High School doing nothing in the middle of what normally would be his fifth-period English class.
Around him is a District of Columbia public high school trying to stay open in the middle of a strike that has taken away three-quarters of its teachers. *tAbout 50 students are joking and chasing each other around tables or playing backgammon. At one table students are trying to sing the 1950s song, "What's Your Name, Is It Mary or Sue..." Upstairs, on the first floor, a dozen classrooms are open with at least one nonstriking teacher ready to tutor students in every subject except math.
In the morning about 350 of the school's 2,400 students attend the makeshift classes, which mostly are review sessions. By afternoon, the dozen classrooms are empty except for teachers listening to soap operas.
"I come every day," said Worrelm, a senior. "It's like a habit, you know. I been coming here for three years and there's nothing else to do. I come and see who's around, socialize. Everybody leaves after lunch unless you see people getting ready to do something, go someplace or something. This is my last year; I only got so much time left here so I want to be here.
"The worst part of it (the strike) I'll tell you, is a shortage of females (at school)..."
Outside the school, all day long, students, many of whom say they come to school to get free breakfast and lunch and see their friends, stand around watching picketing teachers, talking, riding bikes and bouncing basketballs.
The strike has a serious side for students at McKinley. They are worried that they will score low grades on standardized tests to be given this spring; seniors are worried about recommendations written by teachers that could be the difference between getting into college or getting jobs or being rejected; seniors who want to take advanced placement tests for college are worried that they now may not be able to pass the tests and students in math and science courses are worried that next year they will not be ready for the advanced level of work because they have missed so much of their course work this term.
In addition, McKinley students, like students around the city, are worried about extra-curricular activities, such as getting the yearbook out, senior class trips, and keeping the dates already set for graduations.
Many students express a fear that the school board may extend the school year, causing students to lose hard-to-find summer jobs that they have agreed to start the Monday after school is scheduled to end.
According to the school's principal, Athel Q. Liggins, as well as to teachers and students, the teacher's strike is not seriously hurting the quality of education at the school, which test scores indicate is one of the best in the city.
"A three-week strike, a four-week strike is not going to affect the kids that much," Liggins said. "So much of the work can be done individually if the kids really want to do it... Even if it's a six- or seven-weeks strike the work can be made up if the students choose not to do the work [during the strike]."
Liggins said he feels he is running a better school than he would normally because "the students who come now really are serious, they want to learn."
"We have the classes,"Liggins said, "and some teachers. So if a student really wants to learn we are giving him or her the opportunity. It's noncompulsory education. I think it's beautiful. Maybe we've been giving education away too easily. The students take it for granted. In other countries, students walk miles to get to school. We have students who live across the street and have a bad attendance record."
Liggins, a friendly man who runs McKinley all year without the familiar clanging bells that mark the beginning and end of class periods at most schools, said he thought a strike might be coming a few days before teachers walked out and prepared for the strike by asking teachers to give him their course outlines.
"... And once the strike was underway I went out on the picket line and asked teachers to give me assignments for the kids in school to do, and many of them did it," said Liggins, who was wearing green patent leather shoes with green suede on top. "Several of them gave us month-long assignments.
"It made me happy to know that the teachers, even though they are walking the line striking, are concerned about what is happening to the students. Some of them told me students have called them at home and asked them for assignments."
Jerry Ainsfield, union representative for teachers at McKinley said he knew of no striking teachers giving Liggins assignments.
During the first two weeks of the strike, Liggins said there were no classes in the high school but students could sign-in at a desk at the front entrance. The students were given takehome assignments that were due the next day at the front desk. Students could sit in classrooms or the cafeteria if they had nowhere to go. *tThis week, Liggins said, he has enough teachers back in school (about o/ of 135) to start classes. Under the new arrangements, students who need an English class can go to a classroom where an English teacher is temporarily Iocated. Students who need a history course, are able to go to the classroom where the nonstriking history teacher is.
The classes are not divided by grade. Nor is regular course work being continued. Students get general assignments on which they are graded and Liggins said those grades could help students bring up their final grades when teachers return. But students who fail to do the work or do not show up for the classes will not be penalized when regular classes resume, Liggins said.
"Some education is taking place but classes really aren't being attended," said Bessie Berry, a &oods and nutrition teacher who decided to cross the picket line after staying out for two days. "Many of the students don't like the idea that their regular teachers aren't in the classroom and they don't want to be bothered with a new teacher who is not familiar with them."
"The kids were dying to get out of class and school when the strike started," said crafts teacher Vernice Turner, who had 17 students all morning Wednesday. But now the novelty has worn off. They're bored and ready to get back."
"As far as being behind," said Jed Worrelm, "I think it really doesn't matter. We'll be able to catch up on anything important. Man, people get sick for this long. It's not like we're missing something that's going to hurt us later in life."
"I might have to take the PSATs (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Tests) but I don't think this (the strike) is really going to hurt me too much for that," said Darryl Watts, 16, who was chewing gum and eating yellow Jello in the cafeteria.
"They say you can't study for what's on that test anyway. It's just common sense. But like next year, people who are taking algebra now and want to go on to geometry, they'll be behind."
Liggins, the principal, said he held a special assembly last week to hear what students had to say about the strike. He said their main fear was that they would not have time to improve poor grades they received at the start of the marking period because of the strike.
"I told them if they come in and do work it will be graded and I'll see that the teachers consider that when it comes time for grades," Liggins said. "No one will fail because of the strike. The only failing work will be done when all the teachers are back and school is in full session."
"The work they do now can only help them," Liggins said.
One group of students who have been coming to school regularly since the strike started are members of the school band.
"I was out for three days," said bank teacher Peter Ford, "but I decided I'd come back for the kids. Basically that's what got me back. But I'm torn. Those are my colleagues out in the street."
Teachers crossing the picket line and striking teachers largely dismiss concern about how the members of the two groups will get along when the strike is over and they begin working together again.
"We're going to have a meeting and make it clear that everyone has a right to do what they feel they have to do," said Liggins.
One student at McKinley who has been following the strike situation closely is the 16-year-old daughter of Washington Teachers' Union president William Simons.
For Simons' daughter, who asked that her full name not be printed in the newspaper, the strike has meant coming to school every day during the first week of the strike because her mother told her to come. But during a few days in the the second week she and her friend, Pamela Cothan, 16, went shopping downtown. This week it has been back to school.
"I'd say I miss getting my work, assignments the most," said Simons, a 10th grade honor roll student with a 3.80 grade point average (4.00 is tops). "... I guess I think the teachers are right in what they are doing but I'm not sure about their new proposal, the demands for more money... I think the school board knew there was going to be a strike and I wonder if they really tried to prevent it."
Simons' daughter was asked if she thought much of the persons who are leading the school system and the union through the strike: "I don't think much of any of them," she said.