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"A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops." Henry Brooks Adams

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

My Comments at the Rally Against Tax Abatements today

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My name is Kristin Luebbert, and I am a teacher in Philadelphia. When we talk about these huge numbers it all seems very ephemeral—what does it really mean to say that twenty buildings keep almost $15 million in revenue away from the Philadelphia schools that desperately need it?  Or that the 20 buildings with the largest 10-year tax abatements are cumulatively valued at more than $2.2 billion? Or that 10 Rittenhouse Square gets an abatement for most of its value, which costs the schools over $1 million annually? What does it mean to say that these losses in revenue could fund 446 Counselors for our schools?

I can tell you what it would mean to two of my students, right now, this week!

The first student I worry about (one of the many actually) is a middle school boy who is new to our school this year. Because of that, I do not know his family or his circumstances. He is a quiet boy, a boy who does his work and mostly stays out of trouble. A boy who eagerly asks to borrow books from the class library.  But, I worry because I notice that he is just a little too sleepy, a little too hungry, a little too skinny, and not very healthy looking.  What is wrong? I don’t know. In past years—when I got done with my day of teaching 80 plus students—I could email the counselor and let her know my concerns. She would have investigated, set up a meeting, and let us know what was up with this child. Now….our school has an itinerant counselor who is doing her best to keep up, but she has a caseload of over 3000 students, and I have to wonder why the owner/developer of this building is considered more deserving of a break than a 12 year old boy who clearly needs help?

My second concern is a young man who is literally screaming for help—in that loud, obnoxious way that 8th grade boys are so good at when they are in distress.  He is living in circumstances that no one his age (or anyone for that matter) should have to—despite this, he manages to get himself up and come to school every day.  BUT, he is flailing and failing—we are desperately afraid that we are going to lose him in one way or another.  Everyone at our school is working hard to get him help, but without a full-time counselor it is a slow, piecemeal effort that is taking longer than it should.  I have to wonder why a young man who lives in dire conditions is less important or less deserving than people who just want a tax break on their expensive properties?

These are just two stories from one floor, of one school, in one neighborhood of Philadelphia—the extraordinary thing is that these stories are not extraordinary—there are dozens of them in my building and thousands of them in the schools of this city.
Our students need and deserve for the people who can afford it to pay their fair share of taxes.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Why "Helping" Doesn't Really Help

    As the Philadelphia Public school year limps forward with a severe lack of funding, many principals are trying to figure out ways they can get their schools and students the resources that they desperately need. As a parent and teacher, I truly understand this impulse--but I have to argue that trying to hold schools together with volunteers is the equivalent of trying fix a complex machine with duct tape and baling wire. It may work just enough to barely get us through a tough time, but will work neither optimally nor for the long term.
     Principals at many schools, including magnets like Masterman and neighborhood schools like Houston, are practically begging parents to volunteer to help staff schools.  While parent volunteers certainly have a place in schools, and have often provided valuable auxiliary help to principals and teachers, these requests are different: this year principals want parents to provide basic, needed services to schools that should be provided by the district. There are several problems with this kind of "help":
  • Principals are asking parents to help with services that involve students' confidentiality. Even if you are simply answering the phone in a school office (and many principals have asked for parents to do this), you may be privy to confidential information. DHS might call to check on a students or leave a message for a teacher, a doctor's office might call to verify an absence, or a lawyer's office might call to relay changed custody arrangements. NONE of this is the business of anyone who is not official school staff.  Frankly, any principal who is allowing this is a fool because they are opening themselves up for complaints from parents whose confidential info finds its way in to the wrong hands. Parents manning late desks or helping with high school or college applications for students present the same problem.
  • Parents or community volunteers who are "helping" with essential school tasks are taking away a paying job from someone who probably needs it. This hurts the economy long-term, and it hurts the school district long-term.  If we make it seem doable to make due without essential personnel, they will never be replaced. It is not sustainable because eventually parents will get tired of or need to stop volunteering, and then we will be right back where we started from--with schools chronically underfunded.
  • This also sets up an inequitable system within schools.  The parents who have the economic and social capital to volunteer most often will be a known presence in schools and will have more opportunities to gain the principal's or teachers' ears. This gives the volunteers' child or children an advantage or the kids whose parents' work schedule or family obligations to not allow them to volunteer.
  • The volunteers, no matter how well-intentioned or skilled in their own job areas, are not educational professionals (usually) and cannot truly replace the school staff whose role they are trying to fill. Parents or community members volunteering in school libraries are not an adequate replacement for certified School Librarians/Media Specialists.  They probably do not know how to level books for students, or teach internet safety, or address the varying reliability of internet sources for research. Volunteers in a library are poor replacement for true professionals who can really help students. Even in a recess yard or playground, parents cannot adequately replace Noon-time Aides who have worked in a school community for years and understand the varying relationships that come in to play in such spaces.
    Helping out in these circumstances is probably doing more harm than good. What volunteers are doing (even though their motives are probably pure) is making this unsupportable lack of resources seem okay.  It is NOT okay, and we need to stop pretending that it is! Parents need to tell principals:
 "I want my child's school to have the resources it needs! I will NOT replace a person who was laid off!  You--as a principal--need to communicate the legitimate needs of your school to your superiors at the School District! Please stop begging for free help from parents, and truly advocate for your students!"

Here's what parents and community members can do in these awful circumstances:

Friday, July 26, 2013

Comments to the School Reform Commission today 7/26/13


Good morning, 
My name is Kristin Luebbert. I am a community member, teacher, proud member of the PFT, TAGPhilly, and the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools.
I stand here today astounded and saddened that you, the people charged with making sure our children have available to them a “thorough and efficient system of public education (Sec.14of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Constitution)," have decided to funnel yet more money away from the true public schools and give it over to charters.  I am hearing that this will cost the district at least 3.9 million.  Even though these are Renaissance charters and are supposed to serve the same students that the SDP schools they replace served, we know from experience that this will not be the case.
Meanwhile, I and every other teacher in a District School will arrive at school in August and September with an impossible situation: No counselors, no lunch-time personnel, and no secretaries.  How will my students be kept safe in school? Whom will I call when a student threatens suicide, or confesses that they are being abused? These things happen often! There will also be very few opportunities for Music, Art, and other crucial forms of enrichment.  How does this situation provide our students with a good education (or in your odious term “high-performing seats”)?
I guess I would really like you to answer these questions: You always say there is no money, yet you have hired two high-salaried executives recently, and you have ads in job-search forums for two more high-salaried positions.  There seems to be money for executives, but no money for the things that directly help the children you are supposed to serve.  Why is this?

Has the Special Education issue at Mastery Clymer been resolved?  If not, why give them another school?

Has the rent issue with Universal for Audenried and Vare been resolved?  If not, why give them another school?

I await your answers.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Great School Search: Calm. The. Heck. Down.

Searching for the "Perfect" School: Hint--It does not exist!

     This post is directed mostly at the upper middle-class parents who seem to have made a second full time career out of finding a school for their 4 and 5 year-olds.  This mad school search especially happens in big cities like my own Philadelphia as well as places like New York and Chicago.  This is partially a function of parents wanting the best for their children (a perfectly understandable feeling), and largely a function of the reformers lie that "American education is failing".
     As a teacher in a regular old public school and a parent whose two daughters were raised and educated in Philadelphia (the actual city, not the "surrounding area"), and who now are successfully ensconced in graduate school and undergraduate school, I can tell you this: your kids are going to be alright!  Or, at least, the school you send them to is not going to make or break their educational careers nearly as much as what you, the parents, do (or do not do) at home!  It is certainly not worth the hand-wringing, breast-beating, and outright keening I have seen when parents find out that their kid (for one reason or another) will not be attending their "first-choice" kindergarten. Your child's educational life is not ruined! The biggest indicator of a child's success in school is the socio-economic status of the parents.
     So, all you parents who have read to their kids since before they were born, who take them on trips to the zoo, museums, apple-picking, plays, concerts, limit their exposure to inappropriate amounts of media, etc...., your kids are going to do just fine educationally no matter what school they attend!  Of course, no parent wants a school in which their child is going to be abused or mis-treated or be miserable everyday--and a child with documented special needs requires a special school placement.  But, barring those kinds of extraordinary circumstances, almost any school will be OK for a kid from a middle to upper middle-class family.
    No school is perfect, not even a school that you pay many tens of thousands of dollars a year for. Each school my daughters attended had its good and bad points, and I would have changed things about each of them if I had been in charge of them.  I spoke up when I needed to, adjusted course when I needed to, and overall I think both my daughters had good educational experiences in  K-12.
They have good memories, some complaints (who doesn't?), had great social and emotional growth experiences, made good friends from many different backgrounds, and so far both have been very successful in their post-high school endeavors.
    My point is this, do the best for your kids, but you and the income and experiences you provide for your children are much, much more important than the school they attend.
    So worry more about raising good citizens of the city, commonwealth, nation, and world and less about finding the perfect school.  When it come to choosing a school for your kid, calm the heck down!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

My Summer "Off"

     As I plan my Labor Day Weekend, I have been thinking back on my summer "off".  One of the constant criticisms that many "reformers" have of teachers is that we have "three months off". (To be clear, we do not get paid for the time we do not work).  Even though inaccurate , this is a moot point, because almost no teacher I know truly has the summer off.  Many teachers must work a summer job to make ends meet, and most of those that do not need to do this spend quite a bit of time in the summer preparing for the new school year.  For example, during my summer "off", I attended a four day meeting in Detroit, spent a week in Harrisburg at a training so my students can be part of a major art and literature program this year, attended a conference in New Jersey and did a training at School District Headquarters for the new RTII program. None of these conferences/trainings/meetings were paid. I say this not because I mind, just as a fact.  When I was not at conferences, I spent time studying the common core standards that are being implemented, researching and planning lessons, writing parent communications, and working (volunteering) at my school to help with registration. Yes, it was nice not to be on a rigid school schedule, but much work was still going on. Most of the teachers at my school (and many others) have been up at school working on getting classrooms ready before we are officially due back. We do this because it needs to be done before the start of school. One of my colleagues worked virtually the whole summer planning and implementing a vegetable garden in our school's inner courtyard.  Most of my colleagues, in my school, in my district, and nationwide, spent their summers in similar ways: gaining new skills and knowledge, networking with other educators, and generally working to improve their craft. None of this is unusual, it is just par for the course, and no teacher I know wants to be lauded for this. But, I think what we do want is the simple recognition that we are professionals, and that we act as such:  working in our "off" time for the benefit of our students, schools, and our profession.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Kid Like Xavier

I had the privilege of watching one of my eighth-graders play in the All Philadelphia Middle School Orchestra last week, and as I listened to him play, my mind wandered to the School Reform Commission's "plan" for Philadelphia public schools, and I tried to imagine where this young man (I'll call him Xavier) would be under a plan like the one the SRC wants to implement.  The SRC plan calls for privatizing many "seats" in Philadelphia public school--giving them over to charters and allowing charters (as they do now) to pick off the most motivated families and students in the district. This would leave the students with unmotivated (or simply overwhelmed) families to the actual, true public schools.
Why would an obviously talented student like Xavier (he made the All City Orchestra, after all) be left behind under the SRC's new plan?  Who wouldn't want a student who plays three instruments?  Well, I'll tell you: no charter in this city would have accepted Xavier--they never would have had a chance to work with him and discover his talents.  WHY?  First of all, Xavier has a significant physical disability.  Most charters in this city (and elsewhere) are not known for their eagerness to accept special-education students.  Second, Xavier's guardian is an older, over-burdened family member who very rarely comes to meetings or even answers the phone! His basic needs are taken care of, but nothing truly over and above the basics gets done for him. Xavier's family loves him, but the work of bringing up a child as a senior citizen is hard. Charters are notorious for the hoops parents must jump through to even obtain an application, and Xavier's family simply would not expend the energy to get him in a special school. A charter operator was asked at an SRC meeting recently why the application for his school was not online--he flat-out admitted that his school wants to select "motivated families".  Well, who wouldn't?  The reality is that true public schools are supposed to educate ALL students, not just the ones with motivated families.  Xavier was assigned to our public school because we had the capability to work with his particular disability--it was our duty to educate him no matter how difficult that task proved to be.  Xavier could be a challenge in many ways, and--if our school had had a choice--there would have been times when we would have gladly "counseled him out" like many charters routinely do. Luckily, for him--and for us--it is not very easy for a regular public school to jettison a student. We were stuck with Xavier--and he with us--so our staff worked together to help him be successful.  This required teachers, administrators, counselors, therapists, special education teachers, etc....  If our budgets are more severely cut to open additional charter schools, will we have the personnel to help the students who need it most, the students the charters (who will siphon off needed monies) will refuse to educate?  I fear not. Because our school has an instrumental music program, and Xavier expressed interest, he was able to nurture his musical abilities to become the young man he is now:  A performer who had a goal, was taught and encouraged by his music teacher, modified his behavior in required classes so he could attend music classes, and realized that goal.  Xavier learned--in a regular North Philly public school--that he could be successful.  Will our school be able to afford an instrumental music program next year?  I am not a music teacher, but I appreciate the good our music program does for our students and our school.  I appreciate what our school can do for a student like Xavier, and I appreciate what a student like Xavier can do for our school--we have helped each other grow and be better students, teachers, and people.  Will the Xaviers of Philadelphia even get a chance under the SRC's plan? With management groups and charter operators in charge, will anyone take the time to nurture the difficult kids, the special education kids, the kids with overwhelmed or abusive families?  Or will those kids truly become the "unwanted"--put together in under-funded schools without the resources to help them realize their potential? I truly hope not.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Lottery Before The Lottery: How Charters Select Motivated Families

This is the time of year when many charters in our area (and others) hold their annual lotteries to see which children will gain admission to their schools.  Aside from the pure absurdity of students having to enter a lottery to get a place at a regular "public" school, there are other problems with these admissions lotteries at charter schools. Now if you want to register your child at a regular public school (in which you live in the catchment) in Philadelphia, you simply must provide the school with the child's birth certificate and immunization records, you also must provide proof of parentage and address.  If charter schools are "public' schools, why is anything else required?  Before most charters even get to the selection lottery, they have a myriad of ways they require parents to prove to be extremely motivated.  Every teacher, principal, and school would dearly love to select students whose parents are motivated to help their child in every way they can---but the mission of PUBLIC education is to serve ALL children, not just those who are lucky enough to be born to motivated parents.  Therefore, it creates an extremely un-level playing field to allow schools using public money and claiming they are true "public" schools to select only really motivated families to enter their admission lotteries.  Here are some of the subtle ways that charters make sure the families that are eligible for the lottery are motivated to help their children succeed:

***Families must pick up and hand deliver the application:  one of the most sought after charters in Philadelphia requires applications to be "dropped-off" at certain days and times.  All of these times are from 4:00-6:00 PM.  That certainly excludes anyone who works a 3-11 type shift.  A parent on a local list-serv also reported that the "drop-off" took AN HOUR of her time!  This does not sound like 'dropping-off' to me--an hour seems more like an interview or at least an opportunity to size up parent and child.  This obviously excludes parents that do not have time (because of work or family commitments) to spend an hour or more simply trying to get a chance to enter an admission lottery.

***Parents/guardians must attend an open house or information meeting to get an application:  Another charter (that does a good job) requires parents and prospective students to attend an open house.  Once you attend the open house, you get an appointment for a during-the-day interview (during which you fill out the application).  This process requires a parent to be motivated and able to have a flexible schedule in order to get a spot in this school.

***Some charter school applications have "voluntary" essay questions that ask a family to describe their educational philosophy or explain why they want to attend the school.  Are these essays truly voluntary, or are they a way to weed out less motivated or articulate families?  Since there is little or no transparency in charter school lotteries, no one really knows.

***Strict application and paperwork deadlines:  Applications are due by a certain date and paperwork once a child is  accepted is strictly due by an enrollment date.  This seems simple enough, but regular public schools cannot require this.  These rules eliminate the disorganized and chaotic families which try the patience of regular public schools but whose children are still entitled to an education.

These are all steps that must be taken BEFORE an application is even put in the charter lottery.  What I am always curious about is this:  How does the public know that ALL applications that are received are even entered into the lottery?  How can we be sure that staff at charters are not going through applications and weeding out "less desirable" candidates?  Charters say they enter everyone, but the truth is there is no way to really know this.  If these are public schools, perhaps the lotteries should be standardized and run by an independent third-party--then we could be sure they are above board.  However, that still would not address the issue that charters are not held to the same standard that public schools have long been held to:  Educating ALL students no matter who their parents are or how motivated they are.  It is patently unfair to compare charter results with the results of schools that have no choice of which students they educate.