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 | Leave a comment

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

July 5 Chalice Lighting

In our religious tradition, we open our Sunday services with the lighting of a chalice. Different UU churches have different rituals around this, but at Jefferson Unitarian, a congregant is invited to share a personal reflection on that week’s topic before lighting the chalice.  I was given the honor this week, along with this description for inspiration: “In 1911, President Woodrow Wilson wisely observed: A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about. When celebrating our country’s declaration of its own independence from England, we recall the vision cast, as well as the shadow often overlooked that finds its way into the troubling voter suppression efforts.”

This was my chalice lighting:

In 2007, America had been involved in what I felt was an unjustified war, and it appeared the economy was in serious trouble.  Hoping to move in a new direction, I did something I had not done before.  I volunteered for the Colorado Democratic Party, going door to door through one of the poorest corridors in Jefferson County to register voters.

It felt very noble at first, knocking on doors of qualified citizens who had been marginalized, unable to exercise their rights in a free and democratic society.  Then I knocked on the door of a disabled man who invited me into his tiny, disheveled apartment.  I assured him that he could vote by mail, that his lack of mobility would not prevent him from casting his ballot.  He told me that he whether or not he voted would depend upon the outcome of the primaries: Using a despicable racial slur, he said he’d never vote for Barack Obama because “everyone ought to own one, but never vote for one.”

Sick to my stomach, I handed him the voter registration form, because I wasn’t there to register people whom I deemed worthy of voting.  I was there to give everyone—everyone—a voice.

I have recently witnessed the impassioned voices of parents, students, and teachers fall on deaf ears at local school board meetings.  This matters, because the only hope we have in a world where some people, like it or not, vote based on ignorance, is to have as few ignorant voters as possible.  Citizens must understand where our democracy has come from, knowing all that is worthy of pride in our history and all that is deserving of our chagrin.  They must understand real science, and experience the religious freedom envisioned by our founders.  These things are vital to education and to an informed electorate.

Sometimes, I imagine Thomas Jefferson, for whom our county and our church are named, attending a school board meeting.  I’m sure there would be some disagreement about which side Mr. Jefferson would take, but I think he’d be proud of the fight.  He would see in this conflict the active democracy to which he and his colleagues mutually pledged their Lives, their Fortunes and their sacred Honor.

I light this chalice in the hope that we will all be engaged.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | 1 Comment

“Because I Said So.”

How many of us grew up with that phrase?  I didn’t use it with my own children.  I didn’t want my kids to just do what I said, because I knew that one day they would be on their own, and I wouldn’t be there to tell them what to do.  I wanted them to understand why I made the rules and judgment calls I did so they could model the process.  I didn’t argue with them.  They didn’t have to agree with my reasoning; they just had to know it.  Understanding came with time and maturity.

I expected my children to question everything—even me.  I challenged their assumptions, even when I believed they had come to the right conclusion.  I wanted them to know that the why was as important as the what, that the facts mattered, regardless of whether or not I agreed with their opinions.  I still do this with my students.

I think raising our kids on that phrase has long-lasting consequences.  People make all kinds of assumptions about what’s going on in Jeffco right now, and simply by asserting their opinions, they have, as far as they’re concerned, made those opinions true “because I said so.”  If someone on their side says something, that is now true, too, “Because so-and-so said so.”

On Facebook, people try to tell me what happened at this school board meeting or that negotiation meeting which they did not attend but I did.  They read someone’s assertion about what happened, and often even the person whose account they read did not actually attend.  Still, those assumptions are more “true” than my first-hand observations.  I invite people over and over to come to any of these meetings—they’re all open to the public—but why spend hours watching actual events unfold when you can just make assumptions which are magically, somehow, more real?  It’s so much easier, and there’s never a chance one will discover one is wrong.  Board supporters get up for public comment and begin by saying, “I don’t actually know anything about this, but…” and ramble on for 10 minutes at a stretch.  (This has happened more than once and has been done by more than one group.  I’ve seen it with my own two eyes.)

Assumptions happen on both sides, of course.  I frequently correct people on my own side, even though allowing them to continue believing their mistakes makes my side seem stronger.  I just don’t happen to think misinformation makes anyone’s side stronger.  Adulterated mortar doesn’t make for a solid fortress.

No one I have encountered who has actually spoken at any length to kids from Jeffco Students for Change thinks they are pawns or “useful idiots” (a phrased used by one of my own former students, I’m ashamed to admit).  The only people who make such assertions won’t sit down and talk to any of these kids.  The only reason anyone has to believe that JCEA is behind the recall is because someone who doesn’t actually know anything about it “said so.”  There are no facts to back that up. Jeffco United, the group that is behind it, is run by two Jeffco moms and a Jeffco dad, none of whom are teachers.  Remember, just because “so-and-so says” Jeffco United is a “union front” doesn’t make it true.  Anyone who asserts such a thing cannot prove it because the proof doesn’t exist.  It’s not true.

It’s frustrating.  I have a front-row seat to this circus.  I know what gets said in public and much of what is said behind the scenes on both sides because I have heard people directly or at least confirmed with them what I have heard.  I sat in a negotiation session and heard a union negotiator argue against language proposed by the district that would make it possible for a principal to pass a problem teacher off on another school.  The union representative said, “We got rid of the dance of the lemons, and this language makes it possible again.  If a teacher is ineffective, they need to be dealt with, not passed along.”  I sat in on a private union negotiation caucus—no one there to mislead—and heard the union president say, “Remember, the most import goal is to have no teacher in a classroom that we wouldn’t want teaching our own children.”  And still, people double-down on rumors and assumptions about teachers’ unions.

But don’t take my word for it.  Talk to, listen to, and challenge folks on both sides.  Come to or watch board meetings and negotiations.  Bypass infotainment talk-radio and corporate infomercial “news” and find out for yourself.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

Mulligan?

Well, the citizens of Jeffco United for Action have a busy summer ahead of them, and I can hardly ignore it on my blog.

As Thomas Jefferson said, the truth is that “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed,” so it seems appropriate to assume that the founders of Jeffco United for Action and those who support them are highly motivated.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: In our political system, when people get really fed up with the actions of their elected officials, they are allowed to ask their fellow citizens whether they’d like a do-over.  If the People choose to go for a recall, they will either affirm their original choice or change direction in a way they believe serves students and the community better.  Go democracy!

As an individual citizen, I have not yet decided what, if anything, I will do regarding this.  My husband has jumped in to contribute, and it would be a lie if I said I disapproved.

As a member of the teacher’s union, I will continue to attend to the union’s focus this summer—negotiations.  Yes, next week I will be stopping by the Ed Center to resume my thuggish crocheting, as is my wont.  (Incidentally, I have finished the lovely blue scarf featured on Channel 9 a while ago and given it to my daughter.  It’s too warm for it now, but she was excited anyway.  Now I’m working on a baby blanket to be donated to Denver Health Medical Center.  I just wanted y’all to know that the fruits of my labor are not going to some “union boss” somewhere.)  I will also be meeting with my teammate for a little lesson planning at a local watering hole.  No, not “lesson planning” as in really partying it up.  Lesson planning with tacos and a beer.  It’s summer, you know.  :)

As always, I encourage folks to stay informed.  Go to jeffcounited.org if you’d like to sign up for their newsletter.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything, Politics | Leave a comment

That Which You Call a Choice by Any Name Smells Fishy

Jefferson County has a new Minister of Truth: Devan Crean.  She has hearty corporate reform chops, working almost exclusively for corporate-profiteer-style Republican publications.  To be clear, I am referring specifically to the corporate profiteer variety, not the traditional conservative Republican Party I have known much of my life and with which my husband identified when he registered to vote over 30 years ago.  I’m still not sure what happened to that party. Neither is he. Anyway…

There is so much to take on here, but I’d like to focus on “choice,” which is complicated enough to take some time.  Ms. Crean wrote for pro-profiteer publications like National School Choice Week, The Education Reform Bulletin, and The Colorado Observer, and she tweeted that a “tax credit gives ALL parents an opportunity to meet child’s education needs.”  I mean, this is the crux of the thing, isn’t it?  Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Jeffco citizens do NOT want more charter schools (see page 8 of link), the board majority keeps insisting that this was the platform they ran on (not that you could tell, given how very, very few interviews they granted during their candidacy).  Therefore, they will continue to pursue this to the detriment of all else.  To that end, they have hired someone whose job will be to market whatever new charter schools they can bring into Jeffco.

Now, I have said this before and genuinely mean it: I am not opposed to choice in education.  I teach in an alternative program imbedded in a neighborhood school.  It’s a choice.  Ms. Crean’s tweet about tax credits included the statement that “one size fits all doesn’t work,” and we are in agreement there.  But understanding how “choice” really works for all families requires people to step out of their bubbles of privilege.

If a family has the resources to navigate a system of choice and to make transportation arrangements, the world is their oyster in Colorado.  We have open enrollment, which means any kid can go to any public school, regardless of district, provided that school has space to take choice enrollees.  Jeffco also has some great option schools, from the Dennison/D’Evelyn duo to Jeffco Open to McLain.  I think it’s terrific that we have STEM at Deer Creek and charter schools with Montessori and Waldorf approaches.  But we simply cannot have a system where kids MUST go to a charter school because their neighborhood school is bad.  If that is already the case for some, then the answer is to improve their neighborhood schools, not abandon them.  Why?  Because many, many kids do not have a choice, no matter how many choices there are.

Let me tell you about some of the kids I’ve taught over the years:

A high school sophomore who was removed from her home when she was 8 because her father was selling her body to pay for his drug habit:  At the age of 10, profoundly broken emotionally and spiritually, she was adopted by a loving couple who committed to taking care of her extensive needs.  A year later, her adoptive father was in an accident at work and was left paralyzed from the waist down with other complications.  The mother was plunged in over her head, as there was no other nearby family support.  She was simultaneously managing her husband’s ongoing health issues and her daughter’s constant truancy and behavior problems.  If you think this woman could wrangle a choice system and transportation, think again.  Not to mention that she was back and forth to the school quite often, leaving her disabled husband at home.  The fact that it was in the neighborhood was imperative.

A junior boy, also removed from his home, this one at the age of four, because his teenaged mother had been giving him LSD:  When he arrived in my class, he had moved back in with her after a 13-year separation during which he had bounced around the foster system.  She was clean, but still immature.  They were more like teenaged roommates than mother and son.  He was in charge of his own life, for the most part, and working hard to get back on track after years of failure and truancy.  This was made possible largely due to the fact that he had a good school with counselors who guided him to a solid program for at-risk kids in his neighborhood.  Neither he nor his mother had the emotional or educational savvy to navigate a “choice” system.

A junior girl in the foster system, but still in contact with her drug-dependent mother and emotionally unstable siblings (2 lost to suicide):  She switched foster homes several times while I knew her, for a number of reasons beyond her control.  Child Services was able to keep her in the same school by keeping her in the same general neighborhood.  Her school and her peers were the main source of stability in her life.  I cannot attest to the ability of each of those families to keep her in the same “choice” school, especially since at least one of those homes had other foster children.

A junior girl whose mother worked two jobs—a swing shift and another right after:  This allowed the mom to make ends meet because she left her high school daughter in charge while she worked and the children slept, and she didn’t have to pay for childcare.  Sometimes, she couldn’t get home in time for the teenager to get to the neighborhood school on time, even when the teen’s schedule was adjusted to give her first hour off.  What would have happened if the only good “choice” for my student hadn’t been right in the neighborhood?  What if it had entailed a long bus ride? (The family had one car, and it didn’t consistently work.)

I cannot count the number of students I have taught whose parents did not speak English.  I had to rely on the kids themselves to give their parents an accurate accounting of how they were doing in school.  (It helped that, if they weren’t doing well, I could hear the parents’ raised voices through the phone, even though I was standing several feet away, so I was pretty sure the kid had been honest.)  I’ve had kids whose parents were working hard to master English, but conversational English and the kind of English required to navigate educational systems are two different things.  How would you explain Montessori to a mother who is a legal immigrant but is still learning the language skills necessary to navigate the supermarket?  How would you describe even board-majority-supported Golden Classical Academy and the system used to get into it to such a mother?  Opción mi Tía Fanny.

This is a tiny sampling.  I’ve had siblings whose father was shot right in front of them, kids who found their parent’s dead body (two such kids, not from the same family), kids who have been beaten by parents or older siblings, orphans living with grandparents who have never known anything but the neighborhood school system and are already overwhelmed raising kids in a different world than the first time they raised kids. I’ve had students who lived for years without running water and a kid who spent his early childhood running from the cops with his parents, not attending school at all until late in the game.

Judging these families (those parents shouldn’t have been doing drugs or engaging in illegal activities; that mom shouldn’t have more kids than she can afford; those immigrants should learn English—presumably even the most advanced levels instantaneously), as many who support corporate education profiteers do, does not help the kids!  This is the true crux of the issue.  The board of education should not be about profit-driven schools or political agendas.  It should be about kids—all kids, even the ones who had the nerve to be born into less than ideal circumstances beyond their control.  My kids, whom I love in all their pain and confusion and all their wonderful zaniness and curious strength, need strong neighborhood schools!

While I was pushing and pleading and hugging and holding these kids accountable, Ken Witt, Julie Williams, and John Newkirk were campaigning against a tax increase for schools.  Okay, fine.  But now they’re in office and raising the amount of money being allotted for charters at the same time they are seeking new charters—spreading thin resources thinner every day.  It would be one thing if they were simply shoring up existing charters or allowing Jeffco community members to organize charters they see a genuine need for in Jeffco.  What they’re doing, though, is inviting in outside charters whose agendas are profit, politics, religion, or some combination of those.  What’s missing from those agendas?  Kids.  Besides, if they wanted to expand charters and increase their funding, shouldn’t they have been the first to support a tax increase?

It’s kind of like this: All members of a family need nutritious food, from the able-bodied, working adults to dependent children and the elderly or disabled.  It’s as though the board majority are the able-bodied working adults, and they want to have choices—a local Mexican restaurant one night, maybe some fast-food when they crave something greasy, a top-notch steakhouse for celebrations with friends from their same station in life.  Unfortunately, they can’t afford all those choices, unless…yes!  All they have to do is cut what is available for food for the rest of the family!  The weaker members of the family, not bringing home the bacon for whatever lame reason—too young, too frail, too ill—can eat less, and the food they eat can be of a lower quality!  That will allow for more money for those steak dinners!

See, the old-school Republicans I know would have insisted that the heads of families are responsible for the weaker members.  You take care of your kids and your parents when they cannot care for themselves.  Then if there’s money left over, go out and eat what you can afford.  If you want more than that, you need to increase your revenue.  Ask for a raise, if you deserve one.  Get a second job to earn a little extra.  You want to increase funding for choice schools?  Great!  You should have been on board with Amendment 66.  Otherwise, make do with what you have, but do not leave our most vulnerable children with the scraps from your table!  And the most worthless scraps at that—the rancid and the empty-calorie-filled.

Vouchers and tax credits allowing for choice?  A great school like Colorado Academy is going to cost around $25 thousand for a high school student the first year.  Even a $7 thousand dollar voucher leaves a family with an $18 thousand dollar balance per child.  Can your family afford that choice?  Mine can’t, and we’re solidly middle-class.  The families I told you about can’t even dream of it.  It’s true that Colorado Academy offers scholarships, but are they going to take the kids I described above?  A voucher will cover the cost of some Christian schools, but what if the family isn’t Christian?  And many of the Christian schools in this price range do not hire highly qualified teachers or teach what most scientists would consider science.  And again, since they can choose kids, as well as families choosing them, will they choose the kids I’ve told you about? Some private schools are truly kid-focused and would be willing to take some at-risk kids, but they cannot afford to scholarship them all.  A tax credit offers even less.  What it does do is decrease revenue for public schools.

Many of my kids won’t have a choice, no matter how many choices are offered.  They must take whatever their neighborhood school can provide at whatever level of funding it receives, and my kids won’t disappear.  If we don’t pay for their schooling, we may very well pay for their prison sentences.  (Incidentally, many of the people who invest financially in for-profit charter management companies’ “choices” also invest heavily in private, for-profit prisons.  Think about that.)

On the surface, choices for everyone sounds great.  It is pretty great, so I am entirely in favor of providing high quality neighborhood schools with good choices—pathways for different kids with different needs.  That’s an awesome way to invest in education reform.  Creating systems that—by complexity or price—exclude the kids with the highest needs serves no one.

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

Taking Back Our Schools!

Several months ago, Scott Kwasny and I sat down at JCEA to talk about what more we could do to get the Jeffco community feeling empowered—to beat back the repeated refrain that corporate education profiteers have all the money, and therefore, all the power.  See, he and I both firmly believe that power rests in the hands of the people. The question was how do we get that message out?  How do we get folks to see that no one is in this fight alone?  We know that far, far more people are pro-public schools than pro-privatization, but somehow, many of those people were convinced they were in the minority.  Those of us who have knocked on doors and talked to our neighbors know better.

It started with the idea that we could do regional rallies, hoping we could get enough folks gathered at each one to share each other’s strength and bolster spirits.  Then we assembled a committed team, and soon it became clear that thinking small wasn’t the way to go.  If we wanted to help people (including the board majority) believe, truly believe in the power of the people of Jefferson County to determine the fate of our schools and the future of our children, we needed to get everyone together in one place, at one time.

In the weeks since, a group of dedicated planners have been hard at work. Community partners Support Jeffco Kids, Citizens for Responsible Education, Jeffco Students for Change, and Jeffco United have joined in.  We called around, looking for a place that could host an event for 1,000 or more.  We reserved the amphitheater at Clement Park, have ordered porta-potties, signed on food trucks, engaged musicians and speakers, and will be training crowd marshals.

It’s exciting!  I know how exhilarating Boots on the Boulevard was when we lined up along Wadsworth Boulevard for miles, thousands strong, and now we get to be together, all in one place.  Together, we will roar so loudly they will hear us all the way to Denver West!

So what if it’s supposed to be 60 degrees and raining? There’s something about the indomitable quality of spirits that literally cannot be dampened.  We will gather rain or shine.  We will hold each other up and build the framework we need to protect our children’s futures.

We will TAKE BACK OUR SCHOOLS!!!  See you at Clement from 4:00-6:00!

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

Anticipation…

As you may have noticed, I blog a lot about the Jeffco school board—the politics, the lack of respect for teacher and community input.  Sometimes, though, I think it’s best just to give readers insight into me, my classroom, what makes me tick as a teacher, because I think it will lend insight into teachers as a whole.

So today I’m going to tell you how ridiculously excited I am to be starting a ninth grade ACE class at Columbine High School in the fall.  First, ACE stands for Alternative Cooperative Education, and it is geared toward at-risk students.  Unlike other classes at Columbine, this one meets every day and counts for two credits, but for all other classes, they’re with the rest of the students in the school.  For around 20 years, ACE classes have existed only for juniors and seniors at Columbine.  It was designated for higher grades because we didn’t want to “label” students “too early.”  For years, I have been frustrated, because I kept thinking I could have done so much more for my students if I could have gotten to them before they dug a hole so deep in failed classes and missed credits that they gave up hope.  At last, we realize that ninth grade ACE isn’t labeling kids too early; it’s intervening in time.

As a 15-year+ veteran ACE teacher, I have been consistently challenged teaching a class filled with 16-18-year-olds who generally don’t get the relevance of school and often don’t much like authority figures.  It’s been rewarding beyond measure to get to know them, learn their stories, earn their trust and respect, and more often than not, see them graduate.  A few weeks ago, I got to meet a boy who will be one of next year’s freshman ACE kids, and he was so, so young!  The reality of a class of 30 at-risk 14-year-olds hit home full force.  I was filled with a mix of anxiety and excitement I can’t begin to explain.  Oh, the challenge, and oh, the promise!

Freshmen, under any circumstances, are a very different critter than juniors.  They are more physical, more impulsive; their attention is harder to keep.  But they are easier to shape, in the long run.  For those who use drugs, I’m getting to them much sooner, before those drugs can annihilate their first two years of high school.  I can teach them to be proactive at school.  I can engage them about the pitfalls that imperil high school before they fall headfirst into them.  Oh, they’ll trip into some of them anyway, I know, but maybe fewer, and hopefully not headfirst.

How will I do this?  I’ll be having a panel of ACE seniors come do an “if I knew then what I know now” discussion.  I’m hoping (so if you’re a former student, I may be in touch) to have former ACE kids come talk about the paths they took after high school.  Recent studies have shown that drug use and addiction are directly attributable to a lack of sense of community, not to mention plain boredom, so I’ve purchased a set of cooperative board games like Pandemic and The Walking Dead, and we’ll have a game time every week to build community and teach kids that they can have fun without drugs and alcohol.  They’ll also build the collaboration and cooperation skills employers say they need graduates to have.  I’m hoping to do family nights where kids can teach their families to play.  I’d also like to do an evening conflict resolution class, teaching interested parents the skills I’m teaching their kids.

I’m choosing books I know they’ll love.  (Ask any junior ACE kid or senior contemporary lit kid—I’m pretty damned good at picking literature for kids who think they hate to read.)  We’re starting with Unwind by Neal Shusterman.  Over the summer, I’ll figure what the next book will be (Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, perhaps?).  Then comes the gathering of small collections of choice reading novels: Something Wicked This Way Comes to challenge the strong readers (who needs drugs to take a trip?), Room for those who struggle but want something that feels adult.  For an English teacher, buying books to ignite a love of reading is like a parent shopping for a preschooler at Christmas.  If you’ve had that pleasure, you know it is, indeed, better to give than to receive.

Now, one thing about ACE is that being there is a privilege.  Kids, even freshmen, sign a contract to be there.  Students cannot pass the class without turning in every assignment.  Yes, you read that right.  Every assignment.  And just turning them all in isn’t enough.  Each one must meet the standards set 100%.  Like I tell the kids, no one wants a mechanic who fixes brakes correctly 60% of the time.

There are 30 kids and 2 teachers, so there’s plenty of help.  They can redo and rewrite as many times as necessary.  Juniors call their parents or guardians every six weeks to update them on their performance and to alert them to the possibility that they will be kicked out of ACE if they don’t catch up.  Freshmen will call their folks every two weeks, and they will be expected to provide an update, not only on their progress in ACE, but in their other classes, as well.  Students with F’s at each 6-week interval lose the privilege of being in the program.

Most juniors are beginning to realize how close they are to actually not graduating, and that is often sufficient motivation.  It doesn’t work that way with freshmen.  Their frontal lobe is nowhere near developed enough to grasp the future that concretely.  The challenge to me is to make ACE so awesome that kids are willing to do anything—even work—to stay.

So you can see why this is both daunting and exhilarating.  In 3 years, I will have 30 years in the system, and I can retire.  At the beginning of this year, with everything that was going on, that was my plan.  Now…retire before my first ACE freshmen graduate?  I don’t know that I can do that.  I’d like to reap a little of what I sow.  Suddenly, I’m not so sure I see the end of my career yet.

This is reform.

Posted in Columbine, Education, Family | 2 Comments