“Miss Rogers, there’s flies, there’s flies.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
Sherri Rogers (not her real name) figured the girl in the back of the class was messing with her. She loved her students, but they had such a hard time paying attention. As she approached the girl’s desk, she expected to see nothing except the grin of a fifth-grader who has just punked her teacher.
But then there it was. A fly. A gnat?
Rogers peered closer.
Something flashed in her peripheral vision, down low, near the floor.
The floor seemed to twitch.
She looked again. The floor resolved into a rippling mass of what she would later learn were termites: thousands of them, writhing in the wood. She could no longer see the floor at all.
All of this took just a couple of seconds. “I disassociated from my body,” Rogers told me. She screamed a little, then her students screamed, too. She got on her walkie-talkie and radioed over to the administration. Rogers was told to take her class of fifth- and sixth-graders into the chapel of the church that was next door to the school.
It wasn’t the first time she’d been forced into the chapel. She and her students had spent weeks there over the previous winter, when something had gone wrong with the heat, and the kids had frozen in their parkas, exuding visible puffs of breath. The charter school was funny like that: One end of the main classroom building had no heat, and the other end had no air-conditioning. At a separate campus a mile away, a woman named Cindy Cole taught on the second floor of a dilapidated building. She remembers how one of her students had a medical condition that had left him on crutches. Every day, to get to his class, he had to scoot up the stairs on his butt, like a baby, facing backwards, because the building had a broken elevator that wasn’t fixed.
Something had obviously gone horribly wrong here. Emanuel Freeman launched Germantown Settlement Charter School in 1999 and had renewed his charter in 2003 with the support of his many powerful friends and allies — not just Democrats like Congressman Chaka Fattah and Councilwoman Donna Reed Miller, who praised Freeman to the skies, but also Republicans in the suburbs, like ex-Governor Mark Schweiker, who adored the idea of helping a black guy make the city’s public school system look bad. Freeman’s goal was to vault poor children in the city’s Northwest to “world class standards of academic excellence.” But the school ran into trouble almost immediately. Freeman wasn’t an educator. Not only was the school falling apart; it couldn’t supply enough paper or pencils or chalk. Settlement Charter failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress in state test scores in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2008. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of children who scored “below basic” in reading actually increased, from 40.6 percent to 45.3 percent. The children were drowning.