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

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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Reality Is Not An Excuse, It is Just, Well.....Reality

When I took attendance for my eighth grade advisory this morning, several students were missing. That is not all that unusual, I have several chronic late arrivers, so I thought they would show up eventually. One of the missing, however, is almost never absent. I figured she had a doctor or dentist appointment and went on with the day. When my other 8th grade class came in, one of the boys asked me, "Is, C______ here today?" When I said no, he said "I think I know why." Under some questioning, he told me that there had been a shooting in the neighborhood late last night and he had heard that her older brother had been killed. I was, of course, horrified, and wondered when we would hear for sure. When would she come back to school? What shape would she be in? How would she and her family get through this grief? Would she be able to successfully complete 8th grade? If I were Arne Duncan, or Michelle Rhee, or Geoffrey Canada, or Bill Gates, or any other of the 'education reformers' we have been blessed with lately, I would say, "NO EXCUSES"--no matter what happens in kids' lives, the poverty, the instability, the murders, the chronic grief of the survivors, the inability (as a child) to make ANY of it better, SCHOOL must go on! You MUST achieve! PSSAs are in two weeks!
The reality of it is that, this situation--and others that are equally tragic-- are occurring every day all over this city and country and have a dire impact on kids' attendance and achievement in school. How important does 8th grade seem when your brother is dead? How important is first grade when you are hungry and cold at home? How important is finishing high school when your Mom has lost her job? We have dedicated and caring teachers and counselors in every school, but the reality is that no matter how hard they work, no matter how much of their own money, time, tears, and soul they pour into their work every day--they can NEVER make every child's life the way it OUGHT to be. There ARE people whose job it is to do that, but--for whatever reason--they choose not to. Teachers try every day to make school the way it ought to be, to make it a refuge for every child, and I think we largely succeed. We are not making excuses, we are holding back the flood of societal ills, and we cannot do it by ourselves. We need the no excuses crowd to step up and change the lives of children OUTSIDE of school, maybe then all kids can come to school ready and excited to learn.