“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

It’s Lobby Day! Callooh! Callay!

Today I participated in “CEA Lobby Day” down at the state capitol, joining an impressive group of teachers and educational support staff from all over the state to ask our elected officials to reduce the amount of state testing and increase state funding for schools.  I’m hoping that by writing about it, I can inspire some folks to talk to their elected officials about education (and any other issue about which you are passionate, but yeah, mostly education).

I hopped on the light rail, caught the 16th Street Mall shuttle to the end of the mall, and hoofed it a few blocks to the Colorado Education Association building by 8:00 a.m.  They did a good job of filling us in on the main issues currently on the table in the Senate and House, though we didn’t have to know a ton about specific bills, so if you’re intimidated at the prospect of having to know all the ins and outs, you’re off the hook.  They mainly wanted us to focus on our stories, like why we love teaching, and how over testing gets in the way. They also explained something going on in ed. funding called the “negative factor,” which is to say basically creating an $800,000,000 I.O.U. from the state coffers to schools instead of meeting the obligation the state constitution mandates for school funding.

They also talked us through the process of lobbying.  Trust me, folks, it’s not rocket science:

  1. You need a business card.  If you don’t have business cards, get a few blanks and write your name clearly on one side.  We had cards that only had the CEA logo on them, and we hand-wrote our names next to it.
  2. Figure out which senator or representative you want to talk to.  I picked Senator Tim Neville because, well, I like a challenge.
  3. On one side (the back if they aren’t blank), write Senator _____________ or Representative ______________ and what you wish to talk to him or her about.  I wrote, “School assessment and finance.”  (Hint: You have to include the title “Senator” or “Representative” before their name.)
  4. Go to the appropriate chamber on the 3rd floor, clearly marked.  People in green blazers are the sergeants-at-arms for the House; those in burgundy are for the Senate.  They can help you out.
  5. There is a sergeant-at-arms posted outside each chamber.  Hand him/her your card.  (If you did not write “Senator” or “Representative” with the legislator’s name, the sergeant-at-arms will hand the card back to you and make you write it.  Take it from me.)
  6. When there’s a break in the action on the chamber floor, the sergeant-at-arms will send your card in to the person you want to talk to, and hopefully he or she will come out.  Our experience was that most did.  The sergeant-at-arms will call your name, you’ll introduce yourself to the legislator, and the two of you will step into the hall for a one-on-one chat.  Simple as that.

My first impression of Senator Neville:  I liked him.  He smiled.  He was engaging.  He seemed very genuine.  We spoke first about school testing and the fact that Colorado requires far more tests than the federal minimum.  We found instant common ground.  He spoke about it as a problem with the government trying to tell states what to do, and frankly, I let it slide.  I see it as an issue of non-educators making too many education decisions, which was close enough.  We both thought the ACT was quite enough testing at the high school level.  Then he launched into the problem being that CEA had been taking “bribes” from the federal government (I assume he meant Race-to-the-Top money) that caused all the testing.

I said that led nicely into the topic of school funding, and that if the state weren’t running such a steep negative factor, we wouldn’t be forced to go to the federal government for money.  He countered that there was no money to pay it down because of Hickenlooper’s expansion of Medicaid.  (Again, he didn’t refer to any federal program by name, but I assume this was an attack on the Affordable Care Act.)  I said that, given the requirements of Medicaid, the state needed to be more creative about finding money for schools, like monies saved by decreasing testing.  He replied that there was a voucher bill on the floor this very morning that gave a $1,000 tax break to people sending kids to private schools.  I asked him to clarify how this helped, as it actually decreased tax revenues for schools.  He said the decrease was modest, and that schools could still get all the remaining money for that student without actually having to provide him with an education.  I told him I was confused, since funding is done per student based upon student counts in October, and asked whether he was saying that the bill guaranteed that the monies which would have been spent for that student would still go to public schools.  He chuckled and said that a bill cannot mandate future legislators to use monies in a particular way.  I pointed out that this meant the voucher bill he was discussing could actually hurt schools, as decreasing the student count costs a school thousands of dollars without cutting costs.  He started to argue, but then quickly conceded that a loss of five students might cost a school all that money but would not decrease general overhead.  It was nice of him to make the argument for me, as he did, in fact, anticipate exactly what I was going to say.

He clearly needed to get back to the chamber, so I thanked him for his time and recapped that it was good to know that we could reach across the aisle on the testing issue.

Several other teachers there felt he had been aggressive with me, but in all honesty, I thought he was just a spirited debater.  It was fun, and I was genuinely glad for the common ground.  I hardly expected him to just suddenly say, “By golly, you’re right about that funding issue!  Let me get right on that!”  We’re going to have to agree to disagree on the Affordable Care Act.

Later I chatted briefly with Representative Brittany Pettersen after a session of the House Education Committee to say “atta girl” to her, as she is already very pro-public schools.  She was warm and lovely.

Afterward I grabbed lunch with colleagues and froze my butt off at the education rally on the capitol steps feeling very patriotic and teacherly and generally like a good citizen.

In short, if you ever have the opportunity to participate in an activity like this, go for it!

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

An Attempt to Explain the Inexplicable

This is not about the school board.  After the month I’ve been through, I’m reclaiming the rather eclectic nature of this blog and writing about what has been more pressing in my life these last few weeks: My mom’s death.

What I want to do is further develop a short Facebook post that caused some unexpected reactions, which ended up making me feel almost fraudulent, so I wanted to explain.  Here’s the post, for those of you not on my friends list:

I’m having a tough time wrapping my mind around the fact that my mom is gone. The phone rings, and I’m pretty sure it’s her most of the time, because it usually was before she died. I went to her house to empty her fridge, and the place still smells like her and looks like she lives there. It’s just not really computing, you know?

Well, she donated her body to the Colorado Anatomical Society to be used for research and/or education. It’s brilliant, actually, if you’re not too attached to bodies once people are finished with them. It helps people and it saves a bundle on what we euphemistically refer to as “final expenses.” So the phone rings, and I think it’s her, but it’s a lady from the Anatomical Society finalizing Mom’s death certificate, and she needs me to clarify some things that were hard to read on the paperwork Mom filled out years ago. (We both have difficult handwriting–very similar.)

A) I think it’s Mom. B) It kind of is. C) Suddenly I must think about the fact that her body is not gone. I don’t know where her body is or when it will be gone. I only know that they have promised that, when they are finished with it, they will respectfully cremate it.

It’s weird. I feel weird. I thought I’d make you all feel weird, too. You’re welcome.

I thought the tone made it clear that this was not a moment of deep bereavement. There have been those moments, to be sure.  I’m not saying there haven’t.  This just wasn’t one of them.  See, my mom has pretty much been the main person who calls me.  (I’m not really a phone-talker.)  When she called, it was generally a 50-50 shot the timing was convenient, and she was not an easy woman to get off the phone with. (She was a champion phone-talker.)  I’d just stuffed a bunch of potato chips into my mouth when that phone call came, and thinking it was her, I rolled my eyes in exasperation.  Chewing chips is a very inconvenient time for talking on the phone.  Then I realized that the only person it couldn’t be was her, and the phone kept ringing, which didn’t really allow me to process whether or not to feel guilty about having been exasperated.  That was my condition when I answered.

The nice lady needed to verify Mom’s last address and my grandmother’s maiden name, which I did (pronouncing the “w” like a “v” because it’s German and that’s how my mom always pronounced it—adding to the general confusion), and I hung up.

And then I realized that Mom’s body is still out there somewhere.

Her parents were put into a mausoleum, Bradenton’s water table being what it is, and my dad’s parents are side by side in the churchyard.  I know exactly where they are, not that I ever go there because I’m never in Florida these days.  My father was cremated, and his ashes are in the memorial garden at church, with the exception of some that his widow kept to scatter at various other special places.  My husband’s mother and aunt were also cremated, and we scattered them, along with two lifetimes’ worth of pets’ ashes, down at land the family owns in South Park.  Mostly I am accustomed to bodies becoming ash within days of death or at least staying put somewhere.

Sitting at my kitchen table, phone still in hand, it occurred to me that the body that had created me was somewhere else; I didn’t know where and would never know.  My mother now has some sort of existence (as opposed to life) outside of the context of me or our family.  I put down the phone trying to reconcile this.  I mean, you can talk about how that body is not my mom, and I agree with that—I don’t think the mother I loved is still in there in any way—but you can’t deny that that’s her body full of her DNA, however inanimate, and that half that same DNA is in me, and how the hell does one define “existence” anyway?

See, it’s an existential problem as opposed to a grief kind of thing.  I think.  After all, there’s also the quandary of not being able to objectively gauge one’s own emotions at a time like this.  And even that’s complicated because my relationship with my mom was complicated.  She was a good person with a good heart, but you may know that mother-daughter relationships can be a mixed bag.  I’m just sayin’.  (My mom would have said the same thing.)  So when people assumed I was coming from a place of grief because it wasn’t her on the phone, I felt a bit odd accepting heartfelt sympathy over something that wasn’t really the problem at the time.  (By the same token, I admit to calling her old number once to hear her voice on the machine, so there’s that.  It was emotionally confusing—I don’t recommend it.)

I will, however, take any and all sympathy for my existential crisis, as well as whatever random philosophy you want to put in the comments.

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

Politics Schmolitics

My last post prompted a young person to reply.  This young man or woman wanted me to know that he/she is a proud conservative, and to assure me that conservatives do, very much, care about kids.  It is so discouraging that this person read my last post and came away with the idea that I believe conservatives don’t care about kids.  That is not what it says at all.

The controversy around the JeffCo school board is not political.  It’s not about Democrats vs. Republicans or liberals vs. conservatives. Citizens for Responsible Education, a website which describes itself as “dedicated to informing the entire Jefferson County community about the actions of the Jeffco School Board majority,” is run by politically independent, fiscally conservative JeffCo resident Michael Clark.  Shawna Schantz-Fritzler, one of the founders of Support JeffCo Kids is a conservative Republican.  Wendy McCord, a JeffCo conservative who truly believes in transparency, has been holding the board majority accountable by filing Colorado Open Records Act requests to reveal the secretive actions of the board three.  At this point, they’ve taken to stonewalling her, pretending they can’t find documents and insisting she pay thousands of dollars for documents that she, as a taxpayer, has every right to see.

A broad range of people are now standing up for all students: On Facebook pages and websites, in letters to the editor and house party hosts, one can find Democrats and Republicans, people of faith and secular humanists, liberals and conservatives, parents of kids in neighborhood schools and parents who love their child’s charter school.  As disparate as their personal beliefs may be, they are united in their passion and commitment to public schools.

The vast majority of conservatives do care very much about kids.  The New Oxford American dictionary defines “conservative” as: holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.  There is nothing conservative in readily sacrificing resources meant for traditional neighborhood schools and long-standing homegrown charters for untried outside charters run by for-profit management companies.  Where are the traditional values?  Where is the caution? You see, it is specifically Witt, Newkirk, Williams, McMinimee, and their handlers I am calling out for not making kids their priority.

Fiscal responsibility? McMinimee is a much less experienced, less educated superintendent than his predecessor, yet Witt, Newkirk, and Williams are paying him $75,000 a year more than her. Brad Miller, the lawyer they hired despite the protests of two board members and a sizeable number of JeffCo residents, makes about $90,000 a year from the JeffCo coffers.  McMinimee hired a communications chief who had no experience but who is a political cohort of Newkirk and Witt.  He settled her with a salary around $5,000 more a year than her predecessor, a woman who had been in the position for 8 years. She’s in so far over  her head that she’s calling upon Novitas Communications for help.  Or maybe it’s just the board majority throwing more money at a politically affiliated company.  Either way, JeffCo taxpayers will foot the bill with money that was meant for kids. This is not fiscal conservatism.

In the long run, they won’t win.  There are simply too many people united in fighting for JeffCo public schools and the kids who attend them.  Now that the board majority’s true colors have been revealed, people from the entire spectrum of politics, religion, and educational schools of thought are united by things far more important than money: kids, the future, the long-term well being of the entire country.  Short-term personal gain doesn’t stand a chance!

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

To Tell the Truth…

One thing from my last meeting with Dan McMinimee has been bugging me.  At one point, he essentially called me a liar, which—if I had been lying—would have been fair enough, since I’d pretty much called him the same.  The thing is, anyone who knows me well will tell you I’m sort of freakishly honest.  Not brutally honest.  I won’t express a negative opinion about your haircut unasked, but really, I just don’t lie naturally.  I had a tough time doing the whole Santa Claus thing, because, you know…

See, I told Dan that all we talk about at JCEA is kids, and yeah, he basically called me a liar.  He seemed so sure, and honestly, I was shocked.  At first, I thought, “Geeze.  The very concept of focusing on kids is really this unthinkable to him?”

But I’m not the kind of person who just takes a glib, unexamined position.  (I had to laugh internally when a colleague was explaining to me how “complicated” this whole school board thing is—like I don’t research both sides of everything ad nauseam before I take a side.  I know the key arguments of both sides well, and if you think this is a “union” issue, you need to study up.  If you know what’s really going on, it isn’t complicated.  It’s a “schools are yet another great place to push a free-market ideology” or “schools are a place to teach children” issue.)

Anyway, on closer examination, I want to clarify my statement that all we talk about is kids:

Conversations at JCEA begin and end with our commitment to kids.  We believe passionately in public schools (and yes, that includes home-grown, quality public charter schools).  We talk a lot about the importance of public schools in any democracy.  We talk a ton about the kids we teach.  It is no coincidence that many (though certainly not all) of the most active members of JCEA teach vulnerable kids—at risk, low-income, special ed, etc.  Our kids are lost without strong neighborhood schools, and to us they are people with names and faces.  They live in our hearts every day.

But in between—sure, conversations go other places.  We talk about the Tea-party attack on public schools, waged primarily by attacking teachers couched as attacks on “unions.”  Why do we talk about this?  Because this attack is hurting our kids.

We talk about negotiations and what will happen to our contract.  Why?  Because our contract protects kids from being buried in class-sizes or teacher loads so heavy they get lost in the shuffle.  Because the contract keeps our voices in the decision-making for our students.  Because we want teaching to stay the kind of profession that attracts people who will love kids as we have, but if young people never see their way clear to the kind of salary they can raise a family on, good-bye committed teachers of the future.

Have we talked about a strike?  How can we not?  It’s what the board majority wants most in the world.  Teachers don’t want to strike.  We want to negotiate in good faith.  In the secret confines of JCEA, those teachers who teach vulnerable kids worry desperately what will happen to those families if we strike, but we also worry just as desperately about what will happen to public schools if we don’t fight for them with everything we have.  Talk about complicated.

We talk about what we can do to get the general public involved.  How do we get JeffCo small business owners, and retired folks, and folks with no kids but who care about the quality of life in JeffCo and the nation to take notice and care enough to act—go to school board meetings, write letters, talk to friends and neighbors.  Why do we talk about this? Because it takes a village to raise our children, and our village is patently under attack.

So I guess these things are not directly children, but they are 100 percent about children.

A new aspect of conversation about negotiation for us is the board majority’s insistence that these talks occur part of the time during the school day.  It was pointed out that the teachers on the negotiation committee have students.  Every day that they are forced to miss school for negotiations, they are unable to teach their students.  Negotiations may very well occur during the high-stakes test window.  Our kids need us.  We need to get them through these high-anxiety tests, and then they need our instruction.  Julie Williams kept saying, “But their leave time is paid.”

THE MONEY IS NOT THE POINT!!!  The teachers on the team have made it clear—they want to volunteer to do this in their free time because they need to be with their students.  Paid or unpaid, they do not want to leave their kids.  The board majority just didn’t get it.  They kept coming back to the idea that the leave is paid.  They simply cannot wrap their minds around the idea that kids could possibly be anyone’s first priority.  Because to them the negotiation process is all about ideology, they are unable to conceive of any other paradigm.  Negotiations being about a good learning environment for children?  About preserving neighborhood public schools because kids need them?  It just doesn’t compute.

I think Dan and I just come at this from very different angles.  He cannot imagine a group of adults so focused on kids that it’s all they talk about, and I can’t imagine a group of teachers not having kids at the root of every conversation.  To him, when we talk about negotiations, we’re talking about money for us.  To me (and the vast majority of teachers, including very active JCEA members) it’s about great schools and great teachers for kids.

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 16 Comments

Meeting with the Superintendent 2.0

Good news!  Apparently there were just some messaging problems again in the district communications I recently wrote to Dan McMinimee and the board about.  (I’m sorry, am I speaking clearly enough?  My tongue is in my cheek, you see.)

Our superintendent of schools assured me that when he wrote to parents about the district’s ability to “develop and implement community based solutions to give students all the resources and the systems they need to succeed” being “distracted by outside influences,” he wasn’t talking about JeffCo teachers.  He handed me minutes from the Boulder Valley Education Association at which John Ford (the president of JCEA) spoke.  I read it.  Nothing new.  John Ford is, after all, a JeffCo teacher.

Yes, I confirmed, the National Education Association and the Colorado Education Association, accompanied by JCEA members, did knock on the doors of Jefferson County teachers over the summer.  I explained to him that teachers are actually not outsiders in education.  We are, in fact, very much on the inside.  The NEA and CEA (both organizations comprised of teachers) were providing support to their members.  (If you’re a member of JCEA, you are, by extension, part of CEA and NEA.)

Why did we need them? he asked.  I explained that 5,200 doors (the number upon which we knocked) required more manpower than we had.  I detailed how we went in pairs, and while one person carried on a conversation with the teacher, the other was recording data: What were the teachers’ concerns and what did they want from their association?  This is a perfectly appropriate thing for such an association to do.  Furthermore, I informed him, Jefferson County is not the only public school system that is, indeed, under attack from outside organizations like Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute—neither of which is comprised of educators.  The representatives from NEA were learning what kinds of steps teachers can take to preserve public schools across the country.

He agreed—by the way—that the outside forces I referenced are becoming very influential on school boards across the country.

I asked him repeatedly how our summer door-knocking activities distracted anyone from education.  Did they delay the start of the school year?  Did they prevent teachers from planning?  No, no problems there.

So he did what many debaters try to do: pivot. This only works with me when I want it to.  In this case, I was happy to take the redirect.  He referred to a video John Ford released to JCEA members telling them we were getting in shape for a fight.  What fight? he wanted to know.  “The fight for public schools,” I replied.  “The fight to keep the voices of teachers—the people who actually know what kids need—in the decision-making process regarding classroom conditions.”  I also invited him to share that information with the board—we will fight.

Of course, I assured him, the worst could be avoided if the board decided to negotiate in good faith.  He said we don’t know what will happen when negotiations begin.  I said the last round of negotiations hadn’t done much to instill confidence.  “In DougCo,” I said, “teacher voices in schools were lost because people weren’t geared up for the fight they had on their hands.”

Eventually I brought it back to my issue:  “Groups like the ones we’ve talked about are using a general anti-union sentiment to gain ground.” He nodded as I said that.  I continued, “I have an issue with a district publication that looks as if it is trying to deliver that message.”  He assured me again that this was unintentional.  I pointed out that it didn’t look unintentional when the inflammatory sentence about being “distracted by outside influences” was included in the parent communication but not another communication to teachers which included all the other connected verbiage.  He apologized and said he wasn’t aware that a different message had gone out.

I brought up that teachers do not use district communications to express our viewpoint, and this is where things got a little interesting.  He tensed visibly and disagreed.  “You have those buttons and the—the posters plastered everywhere!”

If you don’t know, we teachers have been wearing buttons that say, “Stand up for all students.”  On our classroom walls are 8.5X11 “posters” (sheets of paper) with a fist holding a pencil.  Underneath it says, “Educate!” I pointed out that this was all they said.  He said not everyone agreed with our point of view.  “Not everyone agrees we should stand up for all kids?” I asked.  He said they stood for something else.  I repeatedly asked what he believed they stood for.  He never answered.  He would only say they stood for something not everyone agreed to.  Well, true that, I suppose.

We chatted briefly about the Lisa Pinto appointment.  He was definitely not happy that I know as much as I know.  We didn’t spend a lot of time on it, and it was another of those agree-to-disagree kinds of things.

I don’t know how enlightening this is to anyone, but I will say this: Wear your button everywhere!  We do not want Newkirk, Witt, or Williams to ever forget that it is we who have not yet begun to fight for Jefferson County Public Schools and the kids who attend them!

Posted in Education, Life, the Universe, and Everything | 11 Comments