If Not Us, Who?

I have discovered in the midst of our school board crisis that, when political predators invade your community, you cannot be neutral, as much as you might wish you could.  Turning away from something like the three members of our board bent on dismantling public schools is like turning away from a crime because the thief’s not directly mugging you.  Maybe he’s not even mugging your kid, right now, but if you have a child, and you do nothing to stop the wrongdoer, what will happen tomorrow evening?

Maybe you and your kids can avoid walking home at night.  You drive or stay in after the sun goes down, but what is becoming of your neighborhood, your home, your children’s home?

So you join the neighborhood watch and put a sign in your window.  Don’t get me wrong, recall signs and signs with our five pro-public schools candidates are a start, but a neighborhood watch sign doesn’t mean much once the thieves figure out that everyone’s watching, but no one is going to step outside his or her comfort zone to actually stop them.

You can talk to your friends and neighbors.  That’s a start.  But again, if all it amounts to is a handful of people tut-tutting about the state of affairs, how does that make anyone safer?  It is true that every drop of water fills an ocean, but we don’t have enough time to fill this ocean one drop at a time.

Sooner or later, you must take to the streets or surrender your neighborhood.  At some point, everyone has to stop looking around, hoping someone else will do all the work that must be done.  A handful is not enough; like it or not, part of the weight is each of ours, and if too many refuse to lift their load, we will all be crushed, our kids with us.

If you have been telling yourself that there is nothing you can do, or that you’ve put out your sign or talked to your friends, and that’s all you have to give, please consider where that leaves you and everyone you know.  Refusing to act is an act in itself.

I have knocked on doors.  There are so many people out there who still don’t really understand what’s happening.  They know there’s some controversy (something they wouldn’t have known if there hadn’t been people knocking on doors for over a year now), but they don’t really understand what it is.  I talked to some of them just last Saturday.  If a friend were going to tell them, they would have done it by now.  If signs alone were enough, they wouldn’t be so grateful for the information my walking partner and I gave them (and they are grateful, we heard so many thank yous).

It’s going to take an army.  It’s going to take you.  Don’t worry.  You get a partner, and if you’d like, we can probably find you an experienced partner.  You get a script and literature.  The time flies.  You put steps on your Fitbit…

And you secure the future for your children and their children.

Click here and sign up.  If you walk, we will win.

Posted in Education | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Jon Taffer and Education Reform

My husband occasionally watches Jon Taffer’s Bar Rescue on Spike TV.  It’s kind of sucked me in, too, but I often find myself watching the show and thinking about education reform.  Yes, I think about school pretty much all the time.

The premise of the show is simple: Someone has a bar that once did well and is now hundreds of thousands or even a million dollars in debt because it’s failing.  Jon Taffer, a professional in “bar science,” comes in and turns the place around.  He runs several successful bars himself, so he’s not an outsider to the industry, and he is invited in by the bar owners.  He doesn’t just show up.

Now, at the beginning of the show, he pretty much always gets into a screaming and swearing match with someone at whatever bar he’s rescuing.  It’s obviously part of the formula.  He always announces that if the owner doesn’t straighten up, he’s not going to rescue the bar.  Most of the time, it’s a gimmick, but occasionally they just refuse to cooperate, and he does walk out and let them flounder in their own mess.

It’s after the gimmicks are done that I think about what he does and doesn’t do to rescue these bars.  (And those who cooperate improve their business anywhere from 30-100 percent.)  I’ve never once seen him look around and say, “You know what would improve this bar?  More competition.  I’m going to build another bar in the neighborhood, and that will motivate you to do better.”  There is already competition.  Patrons already have other bars to choose from, or they can cook a meal and have a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine at home.

Schools are like that.  Colorado has open enrollment, and Jeffco has charters, options, and neighborhood schools.  Also, people can home school.  All of these choices exist right now.

I have never seen him look at a bar—even one that was over a million dollars in the hole—and say, “Let’s shut this place down and bring in a corporate franchise.”

Each bar has its own clientele.  Each exists in its own neighborhood.  Some are in swanky districts in places like New York City, others in blue-collar neighborhoods in cities like Detroit.  Some are positioned off highways and function as stopping places for travelers.  One size of reform doesn’t fit all.  He knows that the kinds of menus, drinks and décor must be dictated by the market each bar is in, and he adjusts all of these accordingly.

“One size fits all” reform is no more viable in schools than it is in bars.  What Jefferson needs to improve is not the same as what Columbine needs to improve, though both schools have challenges.  We serve different communities.

Some bars have terribly ineffective cooks or bartenders or wait staff.  Some have ineffective employees in every area.  I have never seen Jon Taffer come in and say, “All right, we’re going to have a new evaluation system.  If you can prepare two drinks at once, measuring accurately, and without spilling, you will be ‘highly effective’ and receive a 1.3 percent raise. If you can prepare one drink at a time, measuring accurately, and without spilling, you will be ‘effective’ and receive a .75 percent raise.  If you spill or measure inaccurately, you will be ‘partially effective’ and get no raise.”  I’ve never seen him do anything remotely like this.

He brings in people who actually do these jobs—amazing bartenders who can whip up two drinks at once, accurately and without spilling, all while chatting up customers and having a great time—and he has these bartenders train the existing bartenders at the place he’s rescuing.  The trainers are demanding, insisting upon top performance from the people they’re training, sharp with criticism and lavish with praise.  The vast majority of each bar’s existing employees rise to the occasion and end up beaming with pride at their newfound competence.  Every now and then, someone doesn’t make the grade, and they get fired, but every effort is made to get them where they need to be before anyone gives up on them.  If the cook is the problem, Taffer brings in the best chefs in whatever cuisine is appropriate for the market of that particular bar, from wings to burgers to gourmet.  A burger isn’t seen as a step down, like no one should ever cook or serve a burger.  It’s more like, “If you’re going to make a burger, make it a damned good burger.”

What if we did that?  What if, instead of punishments and rewards, we brought in teachers who get phenomenal results from kids in various types of neighborhoods to train teachers in the best practices for the kids they’re teaching?  What if we assumed everyone could be highly effective, and we treated them that way?

Now, I think we can assume the good wait staff will get better tips, but they’re not necessarily competing for them, and tips aren’t the main objective.  I’ve never seen Taffer set up a competition where waitresses and waiters try to outdo each other for tips.  He builds a sense of teamwork—if the whole bar runs well and the food is terrific, more people will come and everyone gets raises and makes better tips.  Also, everyone takes pride in the success of the business.  Their contributions are valuable, and they feel valued, so they work hard.

What a concept.  Maybe education reformers should watch a little of Jon Taffer’s magic.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Election 2015

I was asked by John Ford to give the closing speech at the all-member meeting of JCEA last Friday.  I spoke on the heels of other compelling speakers who had pointed out the absolutely vital importance of getting a pro-public school board elected this November. We absolutely, positively must get at least 3 of the five seats up for election.  Five of five would be better.  Failure in this endeavor would be catastrophic for the kids in Jeffco. John asked me to tell my story, explain why, with only three years left to retire with very good benefits, I have devoted hundreds of hours to this cause.  This is what I said:

I wasn’t planning to be a teacher.  I was going to be an actress.  I started acting in community theater when I was nine, and I didn’t stop—community theater, school plays, dramatic interpretation in forensics.  I knew what I wanted.  Until my freshman year in college.  I decided to get my teaching license as a backup career, but what was supposed to be a simple college student observation led to a teacher’s challenge to write and deliver a lesson plan, complete with student assessment (we just called it a “paper,” back in the day).  The day I stood in front of that classroom, barely out of high school myself, my soul caught fire, and nothing—not even the murders of kids I loved by a kid I loved—has ever been able to extinguish that flame.

I am a teacher for the same reason I am human.  I was born to it.  I cannot be anything else.

I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it, but I didn’t get that way on my own.  I was mentored, challenged, pushed to excel by my consummately professional colleagues at Columbine.  They took a 23-year-old idealist who wanted most in all the world to be the kind of teacher who changed kids’ lives…and they made her one.

That’s why I’m a member of JCEA, because I challenge anyone out there to find an association of people more dedicated to kids, to the future, to inextinguishable optimism than the teachers of Jefferson County Public Schools.

My story is not unique here.  I know for a fact that I am not the only one who walks into my classroom every day because that is where I am called to be.  I am not the only one here who cannot imagine not teaching anymore than I can imagine not breathing.  No, I am not alone in this arena—not by a long shot.

And I know that I am not alone in feeling that somehow three people have entered my classroom uninvited, into the lives of my kids, and sucked some of the air out of the room.  You know the feeling.  Agreeing to years of sacrifice to protect our kids from budget cuts, only to be told that promises made to us so we could teach our kids and provide for our families didn’t matter (gasp).  Being told that, despite the achievements of Jeffco schools, our evaluation system needed an overhaul because our current one didn’t do enough to make us look like failures (gasp).  Watching profiteers circle our kids, looking to skim off community resources intended to educate our children and put them into the pockets of men far across the country who already have more than they can spend (gasp).

I’m not the only one here who has, at times, felt suffocated.  I’m a teacher, not a warrior, not a crusader.

But wait.  Thirty years ago, I didn’t know I was a teacher.  I had to be thrust into the front of a classroom to discover that.

All of us–you, me, Polly Positive who just didn’t want to believe that our schools were under attack, Negative Ned who keeps insisting there’s nothing we can do about it now—all of us have been thrust onto a battlefield.  And you know what I’ve discovered? I am a warrior!  You mess with my kids, and I am a warrior!  You try to highjack public schools, the cornerstone of my democracy, and I am a crusader!

See folks, it’s not just us.  The people attacking Jeffco aren’t just attacking Jeffco.  They’re launching offensives nationwide.  There’s a reason our story is being told by The New York Times.  There’s a reason that the Vermont Teacher’s Association, just now beginning to smell the smoke of the battlefield drifting in their direction, called upon JCEA to send a couple of its leaders out there to help them marshal their troops for the fight ahead.  We have been called to be the ones who stand up and say ENOUGH!  NOT OUR KIDS!  NOT OUR SCHOOLS!

Look, the truth is, no one wants to be called to something like this.  We signed up to teach children with front teeth missing how to read.  We wanted to get kids to see that doing cool stuff in chemistry could lead to careers developing cleaner fuel.  We wanted to help kids express themselves through art, music, letters, and numbers.

But honestly, when we signed up for that, what did we really want to do?  Change the world.  Leave it better than we found it.  To do that, we are called to this fight.  We cannot not answer.

So how are you going to answer the call?  I have been writing my blog and posting on Facebook.  I’ve been facilitating house parties.  My yard is full of signs.  This fall, I am walking every single Saturday, because by God, I am not going to give up my kids, my school, my community, my country to profiteers.  You’d better believe I’m a freaking crusader!

But I can no more do that alone than I could become the teacher I am today without my colleagues.  I need you.  Your kids need you.  Their kids need you.

I’d like to close by quoting Marianne Williamson:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world… as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Together, we can stop the advance of corporate profiteers upon the kids in our community and our nation.  We can be the light that shines.  We can liberate others from their fear.  What will you do with your power, your light?  Failure is not an option.  We, the teachers of Jefferson County, must join with our community and win this war.  Will you knock on doors?  Will you phone bank?  Will you hold house parties?  I’m not asking whether you will do any of these things.  You are called. I am only asking which of these things.  And by the way, “all of the above” is an option.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

Don’t Tread On…Anyone

I’ve been reading about teacher shortages from North Carolina to San Francisco, from Indiana to Arizona.  Yesterday, I heard an Ad Council advertisement on an indy rock station imploring young people to become teachers.  CEA president Kerrie Dallman pointed out on Facebook that enrollment in teacher prep programs statewide is on the decline.

There are so many reasons that this saddens me.  Of course I care about kids, so I want people to want to be teachers, but I also feel sad for people who feel called to teach but despair that teaching is no longer a viable profession.

People often say things to me like “You teachers should be paid like professional athletes or CEOs, your job is so important.”  Don’t get me wrong; offer me a multi-million-dollar contract and I won’t say no, but really, the pay I agreed to going into the profession was just fine by me.  I agreed to a salary schedule that went up in modest increments as I gained experience, and I could have moved more quickly if I’d gotten a master’s, but between weekends at speech meets followed by raising kids, I opted to stay at a bachelor’s with graduate credits that never jelled into a master’s.  My choice.  The salary wasn’t amazing, but the benefits were excellent.  All in all, I felt fairly compensated for the majority of my career.  Now in Jeffco, three people with zero experience in any aspect of education arbitrarily bestow four percent here, one percent there, even as the cost of living has risen fifteen percent since teachers last had a reliable salary schedule.

Of course, just as you cannot measure all the good teachers do in our kids’ test scores, neither can you measure all the benefits of teaching in dollars and cents.  I have loved my career.  I cannot begin to tell you how many terrific kids I’ve taught—from the “slackers” to the type-A overachievers, they all bring something to love.  I love all the ah-ha moments and the laughter and the thoughtful silences as they have grappled with Big Ideas.  I love my colleagues, who share my passion and are so, so smart and funny.

But I wouldn’t encourage a young person to go into teaching right now.  Probably the biggest reason for that is because education, as a field, has become more and more adult-focused, and less and less kid-focused.  Our evaluation system is based on what adults want to see, rather than what kids need.  It’s based on tests adults create for profit, rather than on what kids need to be curious and scrappy.  Policies are based upon what makes adults’ lives easier, rather than on creating an environment conducive to student growth as whole people.  Laws around education are created by the American Legislative Exchange Council based on wringing profit from tight school budgets rather than by educators.  The only people we seem to believe are singularly undeserving of any voice in education is teachers.

I know that education is not alone in this.  Insurance companies dictate much of America’s medical care these days.  The fact that they are profit-driven, rather than care-driven, has resulted in America having one of the most expensive, least effective healthcare systems in the industrialized world, despite dedicated healthcare workers’ efforts.

See, it’s not just teaching.  It’s everything.  There is this emerging mindset that the best system is one in which people at the top of an industry (preferably people who have not actually worked in the industry, but rather just invest in it; people who work very briefly in the trenches will do in a pinch) make millions or even billions by virtue of the fact that they already have billions of dollars.  All those who actually make an industry function, be it production, customer service, basic daily administration, etc., should be paid as little as possible because none of us are making much, and it is good and proper that we should muddle through life terrified of the people at the top and sniping in petty jealousy at those closest to or below us.

The big social stuff drives me nuts and makes me want to discourage people from teaching, but really, I can’t think of a better field.  Instead, I wish we’d all work toward what I have in my very own classroom.

I’m not better than my students because I have more money, or even because I have more education or more life experience.  I’m not better than my students at all.  In human value, we’re equals.  I have authority (because I have more education and more life experience).  Ultimately, I call the shots in terms of how my classroom runs, but kids get input.  Why shouldn’t they?  I have found that most kids want a good future, so they want a classroom that runs well, is safe, and allows them to learn.  Really—they do!

My principal has authority over me, because he has education specific to school administration and sees the bigger picture of the school, but he listens to and respects me when I have something to say.  The superintendent, school board, even taxpayers should have a voice, too, but as big investors with no experience in education gain power, these voices are increasingly ignored or paid off.  I get that every large organization needs a hierarchy.  I even get the idea that, the more of the structure you oversee, the more money you should be paid.  It’s a big responsibility.  But I challenge the notion that the hierarchy entitles those at the top to treat the people down the ladder like chattel.

People say, “You have a choice about what work you do.”  But if this is standard practice in every industry, what choice does anyone have?  Isn’t that what fuels the sniping?  “I get treated like dirt, so you should, too!”  Really?  This is the best system we can devise, the one on which all industries should be modeled?  I don’t think so!

This is why workers organize.  No one knows better than tradesmen what makes their workplace safe, what enhances their ability to be productive.  (By the way, there comes a point in demanding hours and refusing to make allowances for work/life balance where you actually begin to undermine productivity and erode cost efficiency in every field.  Penny-wise and pound-foolish.  How is that a good model?)  No one knows better than those who spend their days in schools and classrooms, for whom every child has a name and unique gifts and challenges, what makes schools good for their kids.  Sure, there may be some parts of the big picture that individual teachers, even collectively, may not see.  That’s why collaboration all along the hierarchy is vital; if you have that collaboration, you have healthy schools and the foundation for a thriving democracy.

Get that kind of collaboration going in every industry, and you’ll improve the quality of life for everyone in America.  Then people can answer their calling—whether it’s teaching, healthcare, manufacturing, service, whatever—and everyone gets by just fine.  Will there be indolent people who don’t want to work hard at the top and bottom of the hierarchy and everywhere in between?  Sure.  But let’s face it: most of us just want an honest day’s wages for an honest day’s labor.  I don’t believe we can’t work it out.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments

To Ratify or Not to Ratify

For the second year in a row, Jeffco teachers are returning to work without knowing what they will be paid.  In fact, we are returning to work without certain knowledge of our work conditions at all.  If you have kids in Jeffco schools, you should know that you don’t have certain knowledge of your child’s learning conditions.  What you can know is that, for the second year in a row, the board majority’s lack of respect for kids, teachers, and the community will not be visible in your child’s classroom, because teachers are going to rise above this.  For now.

A tentative agreement has been reached between the district negotiators and the teachers of Jeffco.  It must be ratified by both sides.  Last year’s tentative agreement was not at all what teachers believed was good for kids, but the district made clear that it was their last, best offer, and in the interest of district stability, the teachers ratified it.  The school board agreed to it, and then three of the five members reneged on that agreement.  Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams decided their ideology trumped kids, teachers, and the community.

I don’t know what will happen this year.  Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams decreed that negotiations should start from a blank sheet of paper.  The district wasted at least $30,000 (a conservative estimate) on a negotiations facilitator when they could have used a free one from the labor board. District administrative personnel who have many other job duties spent hours in negotiations, away from other important work.  Teachers volunteered hours and hours to meet with the district team.  The cost—in volunteer hours and taxpayer dollars—was considerable.  In the end, they built a collaborative agreement that met the interests declared by the board and many of the things teachers believed served the interests of kids (yes, including language to attract and retain good teachers).

Now, the board majority has decided this agreement should last 10 months, and then be renegotiated from scratch—or more likely, be allowed to lapse and teacher and community voices regarding classroom conditions be silenced.  They simply aren’t transparent enough to say so.

It’s a tough call for teachers as we all mull over whether to accept or reject this agreement.  I do not know a single teacher who believes this is best for students.  Stability is best for students.  We get that some parts of the agreement may require adjustments; that’s why we suggested that the district be allowed to open whatever parts of the agreement it wishes for renegotiation next year, but the stability of a multi-year contract creates a healthy work and learning environment in our schools.  Why don’t Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams want this?

If we ratify a 10-month agreement, we do so knowing that, should the recall fail, we will lose a collectively bargained agreement in June.  That’s what happened in Douglas County, and it is the secret plan here.  The mainstream newspapers will report that our board majority is awesome, because it “successfully” negotiated with the teachers, but make no mistake, that will be a lie.  It is a deal with the devil in the hopes that the better angels of our nature will intervene in a few months.

If we ratify, it will be to protect due process through the recall.  Without a collectively bargained agreement, I can be fired for this blog.  Bear in mind that I am rated highly effective, not just overall…not just in every category…but on every single indicator in every single category.  How is silencing me best for kids?  (And actually, that won’t silence me.  I will risk my job for your kids, even though I have two years of college tuition payments to go before my own child graduates.  That’s how important this is.  Is due process really that much to ask in return?) Ratification will only happen with the dear hope that Witt, Newkirk, and Williams will be recalled and a more rational, kid-focused board voted in.

If we do not ratify, it will be because we know this agreement is the devil’s deal.  The mainstream media will say teachers were uncooperative, but no one who actually attended this summer’s negotiations would make such an absurd allegation.  We know that if a recall fails, this agreement is merely dragging out the death of Jefferson County Public Schools.  If the recall fails, profit- and ideologically-motivated schools will eventually be all that are available to the general public.  People who can afford a real education for their kids will bail out of Jeffco, and the kids who are left will become less and less competitive in the global market place.  If we do not ratify, it will only be to try to wake up those in Jeffco still sleeping—either unaware of the conflict or unwilling to look at the facts, and therefore supporting this board based on shallow, uninformed ideology.

The recall is crucial, no matter what happens to the agreement.  No one can afford to sit this out.  The petitions to get the recall on the ballot were so encouraging.  No longer can people beg off of doing the hard work ahead by saying “I can’t make a difference.”  But 37,000 (the number who signed each petition) is not enough to actually recall Witt, Newkirk, and Williams.  People cannot stay at home, figuring the job is done.

Collectively bargained agreement or no agreement, you (and I mean everyone in Jeffco reading this) have been called to serve your community.  In fact, I would say that education is the cornerstone of democracy, and the fight in Jeffco is a bellwether for the nation, so I would argue that you are being called to serve your country.  We have asked people to sacrifice life and limb for America.  Don’t tell me you can’t knock on doors or phone bank.

And by the way, a couple of billionaires in Kansas are already pouring money into Jeffco to buy our kids’ education out from under them.  Our grass-roots community representatives, Jeffco United for Action, have only us to depend upon.  If you want something to do to help right this very minute, go here and donate.  If you don’t live in Jeffco but care about our schools or want to stem this tide before it overtakes your own schools, feel free to kick in a little, too.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

What’s It All About? KIDS!

We’re gearing up for a really important election in Jefferson County this November.  Hopefully no one will challenge the 37,000 recall signatures per school board member that Jeffco United for Action gathered.  It would be a frivolous challenge that would steal a half a million dollars from kids by delaying the recall and requiring a separate election.  JUFA worked so hard to make sure our kids didn’t pay for the mess Ken Witt, John Newkirk, and Julie Williams have made.  Let’s hope their supporters care as much about kids.

At any rate, I’ve been thinking about the possibility of an entirely new board, and trying to crystallize what I want from the new candidates.  It’s very simple; I want candidates that focus on kids.

I don’t need candidates that are ideologically or politically just like me.  I’m not the sole reflection of the entire community.  Our community (of which I am part) just needs candidates that are transparent about their ideology, candidates who explain clearly and honestly why their philosophies are best for kids.  That way we can make the best decisions for the kids who depend upon us.

If candidates want or don’t want a teachers’ union, I want them to say so, and their reasons had better revolve around kids.  Just being ideologically in favor of or opposed to unions doesn’t cut it. Witt, Newkirk, and Williams clearly wish to dispense with JCEA; they just won’t say so.  Why won’t they? Here’s what I know: Statistical analysis of state SAT/ACT scores, published in the peer-reviewed Harvard Educational Journal, controlled for factors like race, median income, and parental education. They found that the presence of teachers unions in a state did have a measurable and significant correlation with increased test scores — that going to school in a union state would, for instance, raise average SATs by about 50 points (Angus Johnston).  That looks good for kids to me. Similar results can be found studying the findings of the internationally recognized Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which administers the PISA test—an exam that has been used for years to compare student achievement among countries.  A school board candidate that wishes to cease negotiating with JCEA would need to be honest about that, explain why this is best for kids, and produce compelling evidence.  The community must know what it’s getting.

I want candidates to respect the whole community. Jeffco has done a number of surveys about what people want, and any new candidates need to promise to honor those wishes and deliver on the promise or explain why veering from the community’s wishes is best for kids. Witt, Newkirk, and Williams seem to believe they need only respect a limited constituency of their choosing.  I do realize that numbers alone may shrink the voice of charter parents, but not their importance.  I’m not asking for a tyranny of the majority.  All I ask is that, if candidates want to give more to charters, they explain how it benefits kids, and not with vague statements like “choice is always better.”  For the sake of our kids, we can’t just focus on the quantity of choices; we have to focus on quality. If the reason for allocating more money to charters is kid-focused and compelling, I think most Jeffco citizens would get on board. But if candidates want to take money away from kids attending existing neighborhood and option schools and homegrown charters in order to invite in new charters, they must explain exactly what unfilled need Jeffco kids have that the new charter would provide.  If, as has been the case with Witt, Newkirk, and Williams, they can’t articulate how a particular new charter would help kids who currently need what that charter has, then they should respect the community’s wishes that we simply support our current schools and the kids in them.

We need candidates who aren’t afraid of accountability.  When asked to produce documents like a lawyer’s bill with reasonable limits on redaction of information, they should be happy to produce it.  Then they would explain how this lawyer’s work is improving kids’ education in Jefferson County.  They would make all of their discussions open and public, and that would be obvious, because those of us sitting in board meetings would never feel like we’d come into the conversation halfway through from the moment they open up discussion.  They would articulate why each decision was best for kids.  This simple step would most likely reduce the number of documents requested under the Colorado Open Records Act, but the new candidates must flat-out agree that whenever documents are CORAed, they should be produced in a timely fashion at minimum expense.  They must promise NEVER to tell their supporters to text their personal phones about school board business in order to avoid having to make that communication open to the public, as Julie Williams did.  That way, we could decide for ourselves whether or not the items under consideration would benefit kids and we could hold the board accountable to that goal.

So far, I’m impressed with Amanda Stevens and Ali Lasell.  You’ll have to decide for yourselves.  All I ask is that, when you listen to all the new candidates in candidate forums or read what they have to say online or in papers, you always look for what they have to say about how their decisions will affect kids.  That’s what it’s all about.

(Sorry about the Caulfieldesque use of italics.)

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything | 2 Comments

Go Set a Watchman

Believe it or not, this one’s not about the school board.  At all.  Really.

It was with no small amount of trepidation that I plunged into Go Set a Watchman.  I had preordered it from Barnes and Noble a while ago, all English-teachery excited.  Then I read The New York Times and learned that Atticus—yes, Atticus Finch—is a racist in this book.  Say it ain’t so, Scout!

I was going to start reading it the very day it came out, but drugged out of my mind for a medical procedure, I slept the day away.  The delay meant that I only just finished it today.

Though I was born in North Carolina, I’m not really Southern, because we moved when I was two.  My father was, and my mother, born in Washington D.C., moved to Florida as a teen.  I have deep Southern roots.  Maybe that’s why I wasn’t shocked or appalled by the Atticus Finch of Go Set a Watchman.  He wasn’t at odds at all with the Atticus I felt I already knew so well.  To be sure, this book reveals an aspect of Atticus unexplored in Mockingbird, but it is not antithetical to me.

My grandparents, contemporaries of Atticus Finch, were racist.  All of them.  For the purposes of understanding Go Set a Watchman, let’s focus on my father’s mother.  My father’s mother was one of the truest Christians I have ever known in my life.  She lived her faith in humble service of the Lord and the patch of earth He gave her and her husband to farm in rural Florida.  She raised 5 good children who raised good children of their own.  My daddy was the best of men due to her kind, yet strict, influence.  I admired her so much that I named my only daughter after her.  God commanded her to love her fellow man, and she did.  She did not hate Blacks.  They simply weren’t part of her world, and in the world in which she grew up and lived out her life, it seemed ordained that it should be that way.

Racism is evil, but not all racists are evil.  Most especially those from regions or eras where there were so few influences in any other direction.  Our grandchildren will be flabbergasted that our generation could fail to see such an obvious thing as White privilege.  It will be a given to them looking back.  And if any of us go to our graves still denying it, those grandchildren will love us anyway, despite our blindness.  They will understand that we, like all generations before and after, had our virtues and our vices, that no one is perfect, nor is anyone, to quote Corpsman Dey in Guardians of the Galaxy, “100 percent a dick.”

Go Set a Watchman would not be what it is without To Kill a Mockingbird, but anyone with Southern roots will understand that Mockingbird’s Atticus is not at all diminished by Watchman’s.

Addendum:  Since people have asked what I thought of the book, itself, here are my two cents: As a first draft, I would say that it was clear Harper Lee had talent. That said, it is also clear that Tay Hohoff was a gifted editor. Without Mockingbird, Watchman wouldn’t be worth publishing. Lee refers briefly to people and events that are, in our minds, fully fleshed out, so they work now in Watchman. For example, both Dill and the Robinson trial are mentioned in Watchman, but without Mockingbird, they would have zero meaning or impact. I cared about Scout only because I had seen her come of age (many times, over several years of teaching Mockingbird). There is no Boo Radley in Watchman, and that’s sad. Even if she’d only mentioned his death, as she does Jem’s. As a writer, I am in awe of Tay Hohoff’s contribution to literature, something we would never have understood without Watchman.

Posted in Life, the Universe, and Everything, Writing and Being a Writer | 2 Comments

Truth Will Out

Somewhere around 10 or 10:30 at night on April 20, 1999, I got a phone call from a reporter.  I can’t remember whether it was the Denver Post or Rocky Mountain News.  It doesn’t really matter.

I was watching TV, vacillating back and forth between crying and staring glassy-eyed at the screen and searching fruitlessly for faces I knew, at some level, I’d never see again.  I was thinking about one of my students, worried that she would be left outside in the snow overnight, with no one there to put a blanket on her.  Never mind that she could no longer feel the cold.  I knew I had kids still in the library, and I was irrationally glad they had a roof over their heads and were surrounded by books, not that these could help them.  That’s what was going on when the reporter called.

He said he just wanted to confirm a few facts: The Trench Coat Mafia was a group of about 30 kids, right? No, I explained.  It was a group of maybe 8-10 kids.  They were Goth and wore makeup, right?  No.  I knew one who had painted his nails black one day because he’d lost a bet.  They listened to Marilyn Manson?  None of the kids from that group that I knew did.

The next day, the article came out.  Basically, it reported that the Trench Coat Mafia was a group of 30 or so kids who were Goth, wore makeup, and listened to Marilyn Manson.  In the weeks that followed, this myth and others would be completely debunked, but many who read those first news articles refused to budge in their thinking.  To this day, people who have never been anywhere near Columbine High School try to tell me, a teacher there since 1986, all about the Trench Coat Mafia and what happened to me and my school on April 20th.  So what if I was there?  What do I know?  They read the news!

I haven’t watched television news in over 16 years.  What I know about TV news broadcasts comes from posts on Facebook.  I read the Times, but I try not to judge what happened in a major event for several days, knowing the first reports will invariably be inaccurate.  I place almost no faith in our local paper.

Once again, I find myself on the inside looking out.  I listened to a former district employee go on the radio and lie.  Okay, embellish the truth.  Omit certain critical facts.  A fake Twitter account set up in her name?  The Twitter handle to which she referred was her name preceded by the word “not.”  Now, I’m not a fan of anonymous posts (notice my real name at the top of this page), but whoever owns that handle has made it clear that the one person it is not is this employee.  As the woman detailed a supposedly racist comment on the account, she substantially embellished the details.  I saw that post, because someone showed it to me.  A very close paraphrase is this: These board meetings go so long, I get hungry.  I wish we had a contract with the Burrito Guy.

That’s it.  No So-and-so’s “insatiable desire for burritos and guacamole” as the woman (a Latina—hence the “racist” angle) told the talk show host. Just a Twitterer’s (is that the word?) hunger during the course of a meeting that ran from 6 p.m. until after midnight.

In an effort to discredit a student activist, the board majority put up an overhead projection of a carefully blended amalgam of three different images—a picture of the student with the board minority from one source, and two responses to completely different Twitter posts taken out of context—creating a libelous narrative around her that didn’t actually exist.  The district “investigated” and said this wasn’t bullying.  If I did such a thing to a student, I would lose my job, as well I should.

Channel Seven News cheerfully reported: “Teachers in Jefferson County School District closer to new contract ensuring 40-hour work week.”  They go on to quote the proposed agreement:  “The Scheduling Committee will develop schedules that account for no more than 40 hours of the work week.”

Now, let’s look at our last contract:  “All teachers on the regular salary schedule may be assigned teaching and school-related duties for a maximum of forty (40) hours per week, including duty-free lunchtime.”

This is a “new contract ensuring 40-hour work week”?  Yes, the contract is new, but that headline is designed to make it appear that it has done teachers huge new favors for which we are ungrateful.

I know that as the recall heats up, some people will tell me that “the union” says racist things. People I talk to will bring up the “fact” that we have a “new” contract guaranteeing a 40-hour work week, and complain that they have to work many more hours than that.  They won’t have read (or at least won’t remember) the part of the new agreement that says, “The parties acknowledge that educators work outside the scheduled workweek to accomplish tasks to support learning and teaching.”

(By the way, I honestly don’t know who is behind the Twitter accounts that use district names with the word “not” in front of them.  I imagine they are individual union members.  I have seen at least one post I felt was cruel, and I most certainly do not approve of cruelty.)

I am on the union board of directors.  As a union leader, I voluntarily gave up my right as a citizen in a free democracy to carry a recall petition because we, as a board, agreed that there must be a real and visible wall between our association and Jeffco United for Action, which is the organization behind the recall.  I’m on the inside.  I know with absolute certainty that Jeffco United for Action is not a union front.  I know Wendy McCord is not a “union lawyer,” as board majority supporters have taken to labeling her.  I’m not sure how to respond to the notion that she is somehow not a Jeffco mom, but rather an agitator.  She is a real Jeffco mom who is genuinely agitated about her community’s schools.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Something is different this time, though.  In 1999, we were told not to talk to the media.  We were discouraged from speaking the truth publicly.  It was a highly emotional time, fraught with trauma.  This time there have been a whole lot of people with open eyes and clear heads attending school board meetings and witnessing first-hand the lack of respect from the school board majority.  People have leaked and CORAed documents that prove the lack of transparency on behalf of the board majority.  Citizens are tallying for themselves the amount of money this board majority has wasted in the last year and a half.  I still may have little faith in the media, but I have tremendous faith in our citizens.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 5 Comments

Committing for Kids

As you may know, contract negotiations for Jeffco teachers have hit a rough patch.  The district has offered a 10-month contract for teachers.  It would expire on June 30, 2016.  The teachers have asked for 3-year contract, expiring Aug. 31, 2018.

It is important to understand what kinds of things this contract does and does not do.  It does not, and has never, guaranteed salaries from one year to the next.  Once upon a time, it offered a salary schedule that basically said, “Assuming similar funding in the years to come, this is what a teacher can expect.”  The salary schedule did not prevent salaries being renegotiated every year; it was a prediction and good-faith commitment, not a binding agreement.  It allowed teachers to make informed decisions for their careers.

But that was a long time ago.  The last time teachers had a say in their salaries, they willingly took pay cuts followed by freezes to protect students from budget cuts.  The last time teacher compensation was decided, it was done by three people on the school board, and teachers were left out entirely.

The contract JCEA went to discuss Wednesday July 15 included a pay increase of around one percent for teachers this year.  Nothing more in terms of compensation.  No clue what next year will bring.

What it does do is determine class size, protect academic freedom and a teacher’s ability to appropriately address student discipline, define leave time, make sure teachers have the training and planning time to execute effective lesson plans and proper assessment of student progress, outline viable assessment of teacher effectiveness, and actively foster collaboration within buildings for the benefit of kids.

The district and JCEA came to agreement on all of these things.  In fact, the district negotiators wrote a lot of it themselves, and anything the union wrote was subject to their approval.  If the district believed any of it was not in the best interest of kids, they wouldn’t have agreed to have it in there.  If, in practice, some of it doesn’t work out as planned, the traditional negotiations process has allowed each side to bring three things to the table to renegotiate each year.  (Not including salary, which is always renegotiated.)

The overall content of the contract is not at issue for either side.  Only the duration.  If the district gets what they want, it allows them to refuse to negotiate next year and leaves the teachers scattered for the summer, unable to bring to bear any sort of collective pressure.

So here’s the question:  What is in this contract that the district (most likely, really, the board majority) wants to be able to eliminate as soon as possible?  Do they want to raise class sizes, inevitably lowering the quality of instruction?  Is it academic freedom, so they can get rid of AP U.S. History once and for all, denying Jeffco kids a chance at college credit?  Do they want teachers to fear that keeping discipline in their classes will lead to the loss of their jobs?  Do you want your child in the classroom of a fearful teacher?

How does any of this benefit kids?

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 3 Comments

Just the Facts, Ma’am

It has been brought to my attention that the Jefferson County Republican Party has some questions about how Jeffco residents feel about the school board majority.  It is my understanding that a significant number of Jeffco Republicans have already sent their answers to their party leaders.  (Newsflash—being fed up with the board’s lack of transparency, accountability, and respect is a bi-partisan issue.  One of the 3 leaders of Jeffco United—the group in charge of the recall—is a Republican, as is one of the leaders of Support Jeffco Kids.)

At any rate, I thought I’d go ahead and answer the Jefferson County Republican Party’s questions:

What things don’t people like about Ken Witt’s, John Newkirk’s or Julie William’s efforts to improve student achievement?

Um…what efforts?  True, they set “clear, measurable goals” to increase achievement, but the measurement tool designated was the TCAP. (Click on Board Goals.)  The thing was, even then, we all knew Colorado would be switching to the PARCC the next year, so there was no actual way to measure whether or not we attained their goal.  Sounds like a great way to get credit for setting goals without ever being accountable for reaching them (or even trying to).

Do people think rewarding effective teachers is wrong?

I am, according to the rubric, a highly effective teacher.  For some reason, I feel like a little respect for my colleagues and me (via good-faith negotiation) goes further than 1/3 of a COLA.  (Cost of living went up 2.9% last year; my “reward” for being highly effective is a pay increase of about 1%.)  Perhaps this is why Jeffco’s teacher turnover rate has increased 50% in the last year.

Do people think we should increase our debt for new schools when $18 million was available to build a new school?

Given that a quality building should cost about $25 million, yes.  I do think we should have taken out a loan.  A cheap, modular building is penny-wise and pound-foolish because it won’t last.  Long after the board majority moves on, taxpayers will be stuck with the renovation bills.

Do people think all children deserve access to a great public education?

Yes.  This is why, rather than inviting in new charters with for-profit management companies, we need to concentrate on our neighborhood schools and homegrown charters.  We can’t keep spending money on more and more “choices.” We need the many neighborhood, option, and charter schools we already have to be supported.

Do people think parents and local communities should have input on decisions for their school?

Absolutely.  One of the biggest problems with the current board majority is their lack of respect for community input.  Take a look at the 2014-15 community budget survey.  Tell me how a board that makes charter schools its number one priority is responsive to community input. Not to mention the fact that they have curtailed public comment at board meetings.

By clarifying these issues for your friends and neighbors, they will understand the real facts of the matter.  Ken Witt, John Newkirk and Julie Williams are prioritizing their political agenda and driving away effective teachers!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 2 Comments