Saturday, August 31, 2013

Common Core makes for strange bedfellows

I never anticipated a time where I would be on the same side of an issue as Tom Uebbing.

For those unfamiliar with the gentleman, he is an outspoken, crusading member of the so-called Citizens for Community Values - tireless fighter of the "homosexual agenda" and the like.  Mr. Uebbing likes to write, and this was his take on Common Core, as published recently in the South Bend Tribune.
A compelling reason to oppose Common Core is the inherent national takeover of Indiana schools. The power that controls the standards controls the tests that measure how the standards are being met. The power that controls the tests controls the content of the curriculum to be tested. Given the federal government's zeal for promoting to our youth unmarried sex, contraception, abortion and homosexuality, Common Core can be used as a strategic pipeline for selling our youth those destructive practices and an entire worldview through social studies classes.

Passing a tax of 1 percent for some alleged good cause is likely to receive little public opposition. However, once the tax law is established, incrementally hiking the tax to even oppressive levels lulls an unwary public. Similarly, the establishment of Common Core opens the door to the tyranny of destructive ideologies coming from Washington and eliminates Hoosiers' ability to govern themselves and safeguard the minds and hearts of their children.

Who knew?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

On pimping Common Core



People who carefully follow the development of and controversy surrounding the Common Core Standards could be excused if they found a recent Viewpoint piece penned by Justin Ohlemiller on the topic a bit at odds with the world they know.

It’s important to understand that the program was launched by the National Governors Association and its concept endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  Neither of these organizations could reasonably be characterized as “grassroots”.

The program was essentially reverse-engineered:  A desired result (at High School graduation) was determined, and various metrics adopted for the grade levels prior.  Indiana has only applied the new standards in Kindergarten and First Grade, but many educators have reported that the requirements are not age appropriate.

Andrea Neal (whose column appears in the Tribune) has characterized opposition to the standards in this way:  “The right is concerned about imposition of a “federal curriculum” and the loss of local control. The left fears “one size fits all” instruction that will turn teachers into widget makers whose primary purpose is to prepare students for testing, not learning.”

Though I think the characterization is true, it is also incomplete.  The program has many arbitrary requirements having to do with percent of time spent on (fill in the gap).  Though it claims otherwise, the program appears to favor rote memorization over critical thinking.  The curriculum would necessarily be narrowed to address the objectives.  There are other concerns as well.

But most importantly, the program is completely unproven.  It was finalized in 2012 and we have absolutely no data.

Yet it is being foisted upon the states by our national government as a replacement for the once ballyhooed, but clearly defective No Child Left Behind program.  And not only does the mandate carry the potential penalty of the loss of federal funding for non-compliance, it holds a provision even more odious: Teacher compensation and retention be tied to student test results – tests based upon the standards.

So who wins when an unproven program with extremely high stakes is implemented?  Testing companies, test preparation companies, private tutors and the like.

Mr. Ohlemiller didn’t mention any of this.  Sometimes the truth is inconvenient.

As mentioned at the end of his submission, Mr. Ohlemiller is the Executive Director of Stand for Children.  He also serves on the Board of Directors of Democrats For Education Reform.

As those who follow this topic carefully are aware, “reform” is code for a desire to replace public education with a system of for-profit and other private schools.  Dr. Diane Ravitch, former US 
Assistant Secretary of Education and renowned public education historian characterizes both groups as pro-privatization.  She has also noted that DFER was created by a group of hedge-fund managers.

And let’s not kid ourselves that Stand For Children is a “grassroots” organization.  How many grassroots organizations do you know that are sufficiently funded to be nation-wide and have paid Executive Directors in each state?

Mr Ohlemiller claims there is a groundswell of support for Common Core from citizens and organizations in Indiana, implying that the State Legislature is merely being obstructionist, rather than prudent.  Well I certainly haven’t heard any such clamor. Have you?

So his collection of odd anecdotes just represents him doing his job.  Well, me too, I guess.  I’m the father of a ten-year old public school student who wants her to be presented a well thought out curriculum.  I also want her teachers treated fairly and compensated justly.

Is it so crazy to suggest that maybe we should roll out the standards on a smaller scale and see how they work before we go all in?

Don Wheeler
Parents Across AmericaSouth Bend



Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Vicksburg Campaign - a storm attempt



by Don Wheeler, Jacob Wheeler, and Shelby Foote


The fact that the Confederate Army had held Vicksburg, Mississippi from the start of the war into 1863 had posed problems for the Union Army. Although the Union had successfully captured the Mississippi River north and south of the town, it couldn't make complete use of the river as a supply route. Vicksburg carried the nickname "The Gibraltar of the West" because of huge defensive advantages it had. Situated on a steep bluff overlooking the river, it was nearly unapproachable.

In fact, the Union Army failed in multiple attempts over more than a year's period of time to even get close. Finally, General Grant found a successful method, and it was time for the approach to the city itself. (The events described happened almost exactly 150 years ago in May of 1863).

From Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative
Their belief that they would carry the place by storm, here and now, was matched by (Ulysses S.) Grant, who issued his final orders before noon. "Corps commanders will push forward carefully, and gain as close position as possible to the enemy's works, until 2 p.m.; at (which) hour they will fire three volleys of artillery from all the pieces in position. This will be the signal for a general charge of all the army corps along the whole line." A closing sentence, intended to forestall the lapse of discipline that would attend a too-informal victory celebration, expressed the measure of his confidence that the assault would be successful, bringing the campaign to a triumphant close today: "When the works are carried, guards will be placed by all division commanders to prevent their men from straggling from their companies."

They were a confident bunch. They had some reason to be - as my great-great-grandfather, Jacob, described the approach of his unit, The Chicago Board of Trade Regiment, to the attack point:
It was said that General Grant, after Jackson was taken, and it was taken quick, telegraphed to Vicksburg to send on all the reinforcements they could spare; and signed some Secech (Confederate) General's name to it. They obeyed promptly by sending 40,000 men and a long train of ammunition, which was burnt by them to keep it falling into our hands. It was a shrewd Yankee trick and it paid off. We fell on them with nearly double their numbers - captured 72 pieces of artillery and a great number of prisoners.

We stopped the chase at
10:00 o'clock at night. They stopped about 3 miles ahead of us and built large campfires, but started on the run long before day with our folks after them. They succeeded in getting most of their troops over the Black River, but not before we captured 17 pieces of Cannon and 3000 troops, besides drowning 2000 of them. We were so close to them that they could not get all their troops over before they burned the bridge. If it was not for the river, we would have been in Vicksburg as soon as they were. During the night we built several bridges and early in the morning started for here (the rear of Vicksburg).

We have now got them surrounded. We occupy the center, the Left of our Army rests on the
Mississippi River and the Right on the Yazoo River. We are on the left of Sherman's Corps. It is the strongest point of their fortifications...
It looked like a promising situation, but as was often the case in the Civil War, things did not always go as planned.

From Shelby Foote's account:
At the appointed hour, the guns boomed, and the blue clots of troops rushed forward, shoulder to shoulder, cheering as they vied for the honor of being the first to scale the ridge; whereupon, as if in response to the same signal, a long low cloud of smoke, torn along its bottom edge by the pinkish yellow stabs of muzzle flashes, boiled up with a great clatter from the rebel works ahead. The racket was so tremendous that no man could hear his own shouts or the sudden yelps of the wounded alongside him. What was immediately apparent, however, amid a confusion of sound so uproarious that it was if the whole mad scene was played in pantomime, was that the assault had failed almost as soon as it got started...

...Emerging into the open, an Illinois captain saw "the very sticks and chips, scattered over the ground, jumping under the hot shower of rebel bullets." Startled, he and his company plunge forward, tumbled into a cane-choked ravine at the base of the enemy ridge, and hugged the earth for cover and concealment. All up and down the line it was much the same for those who had not scattered rearward at the first burst of tire; once within point blank musket range, there was little the attackers could do but try to stay out of sight until darkness gave them a chance to pull back without inviting a bullet between the shoulder blades.

This was, of course, Jacob Wheeler's outfit - and his account is even more graphic:
On the 22nd we made a charge on their works, but were repulsed. The air was literally filled with shot and shell. They had a fire on us from three different directions and it was fearful. It is a miracle to us all, how any of us escaped alive. Our Regiment had 106 killed and wounded in less than half an hour. Our Lt. Colonel lost an arm. LT. Whittle of our Company was hit in the arm - he had an artery cut. The captain of Company K lost an arm. Company G lost their Lieutenant; so did Company E lose theirs. Their Captain had a ball through his face. Our Company had five killed and nine wounded: one was Will Maugle; Joe Ebersoll was badly wounded in the left shoulder - both from our town. All the rest of the Ottawa boys were all right.

The boy that stood before me had both of his legs shot off, the boy that stood by the side of me had his head shot off, and the one who stood behind had his bowels thrown all over him.

It was a fearful scene, but I understand there will be no more charges. We intend to take the place by siege.


Which they eventually did. Confederate General Pemberton, seeking good terms, surrendered Vicksburg on July 4 of that year.
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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Remarks as presented to the SBCSC Board of Trustees re: appointment



Since I knew our time would be limited today, I previously sent you a bit about who I am and what I work on when it comes to public education.  As you’ll remember, my involvement in the school corporation is not limited to just my own child, but others I’m responsible for as their CASA as well.

I’ve spent many of my working years as a front line manager for various service industries.  My days were filled with giving direction to staff members who encountered problems, and to a lesser extent, addressing issues brought to me by customers.

Over time I learned techniques to prioritize the challenges brought to me; differentiating between what was urgent vs. important, identifying where a partial solution would mitigate the immediate problem, allowing for further study for complete resolution, and the like.  I would imagine it is a lot like that for you.

In fact, you’ve had one of those thorny issues presented to you recently. I believe that the community is going to need some better account regarding the issue of grade changing at Washington High School.  I’ve read the lengthy South Bend Tribune article multiple times and, as a community member, I don’t feel any confidence that I know what happened.  The Board cannot allow the article to stand as the public record of the matter.  There must be an investigation and there must be a report.  There also needs to be a policy adopted on whether grade changing is ever appropriate, and if so, when and how.  A proactive approach would make a repeat of this sort of issue unlikely, and could serve to reassure citizens of the school corporation.

I know that your particular challenges have been made much more difficult by injurious decisions made in state government.  Failure to restore past funding levels, instead choosing to lower taxes and making Indiana’s voucher program the most expansive in the nation certainly makes clear the lack of regard for public education by our decision makers.  I want to work with you to change these priorities.

I do think that the community needs its school board to at least challenge these policies.  And maybe this board should join with other boards in large communities to issue some joint resolutions expressing dissatisfaction with the state.  They are, after all, financing their priorities at the expense of our children’s needs.  It’s hard to calculate what the cost of that will be.

But here’s where you’ve distinguished yourselves, in my view.  We know that the two most significant indicators of student success are first, the family situation of the child, and second, class size.  You folks can’t do much about the former, but you have held the line on the latter.  I read about class sizes of thirty to forty-five kids elsewhere and wonder how teachers can possibly be effective in those situations.  I am grateful you have not allowed that to happen here, and would pledge to stand with you to keep that the case.

So I am here asking to join you.  I understand the degree of difficulty, but it is work I wish to do. And for anyone who wishes to know what I would like to accomplish as a member of the Board of School Trustees, it would be this:  Up to now, our daughter has had a fantastic experience as a student in the district.  She runs up the steps of the bus every morning – she’s that eager to get to school.  I want that for every parent’s child.

Don Wheeler

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

My letter of introduction to the SBCSC Board of School Trustees



I’ve lived in the area for the past twenty-three years – first near Riley High School, now in Center Township.  I’m married to Dr. Patricia Blanchette (Paddy), Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, and together we have a ten year old daughter, Sarah.  Sarah has nearly completed her experience at Hay Primary Center and is enrolled at LaSalle Academy for the next academic year.

I’m a product of a world-class public school system.  I was born in and grew up in Evanston, IL.  Everything in my life has been made easier because of the education I got there.

My interest in the local school system naturally increased as our daughter approached Kindergarten age.  Paddy and I took the search for the best program very seriously – as any parent would.  I wrote of our experiences in a three part series:


As it turns out, we couldn’t be more pleased with our decision.  Sarah has had a fantastic experience at Hay, and is clearly ready to take the next step.

The search for the best intermediate program went a bit differently.  I wrote about that as well.

http://www.southbendprogressive.org/2013/03/we-win-lottery.html

As a Dream Team Mentor, I worked with a young boy at Eggleston (prior to my marriage).  As a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children, I’ve worked with children attending Wilson, Monroe, and Marquette – sometimes, only for a while. 
These experiences have exposed me to many, many issues.

I also devote time and study to state and national education issues.  I’m a member of the Network for Public Education, chaired by Dr. Diane Ravitch, founded the South Bend chapter of Parents Across America, and network with many other public education advocacy groups around the state.

My leadership experience dates back to High School.  At the YMCA’s Illinois State Youth & Government I won office and presided as Speaker of the Illinois House in Springfield.  At Southern Illinois University-Carbondale I was elected Senator, Senate Finance Chair, later, Senate President.  I also served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Illinois Student Governments (AISG).

I have experience working on other Boards  – and working for them.  I served several years on the Board which plans and operates the Mathew 25 Habitat for Humanity house build in South Bend.  I also served five years on the Board of Trustees of First Unitarian Church – including two terms as President.  I’m not unfamiliar with Board dynamics, nor the time investment required to serve well. 

And I really enjoy my role as a House Captain in the annual St. Joseph County Rebuilding Together (formerly Christmas In April) program.  I come from a family where service to the community is an important part of our identity.

Thank you for taking time to read this.  I look forward to answering your questions on May 28.

Don Wheeler

Monday, March 25, 2013

We win the lottery

The meaning of "public school choice" varies significantly by locale.  In the South Bend Community School Corporation (SBCSC) while there are a couple of small Charter Schools, what we are primarily talking about are Magnet Schools vs. your neighborhood school.

I wrote about our Kindergarten search five years ago and our Intermediate School selection process this past January. I mentioned that we had settled on the LaSalle Academy program as our first choice.  Sarah's three closest friends made the same determination.  (I refer to this group of BFFs as the Fearsome Foursome.)

To secure admission to LaSalle one must pass an admissions exam.  School officials know that more children will pass the exam than there will be spots available for admission, so the "winners" next enter a lottery.  The lottery determines those accepted immediately, the others go on the wait list.

This process and situation create two significant problems for the community.

As mentioned in the prior post, it is the case that the facilities and course selection at LaSalle are significantly more attractive than the other public school alternatives.  I mean no disrespect to all the hardworking, inspired and inspiring individuals working in the other schools.  LaSalle enjoys much in the way of outside investment, and due to its reputation seems likely to keep it.  You folks aren't given the same resources.

Last January, Oletha Jones of our local NAACP chapter had a viewpoint published in the South Bend Tribune entitled "Consent Decree Speaks To Current Problems".  The consent decree she refers to is a desegregation agreement by the South Bend community schools which came as a result of the Brown v. Board Of Education Supreme Court ruling.

I'd characterize her argument this way:  We have successfully moved from the prior "separate but equal" status quo, but we are now in a "not separate, not equal" condition.  She wrote:

We will not dispute student assignment is perhaps one of the most important requirements of the law, but there are other requirements to the law that need to be followed. We will refer to the Civil Rights Project most recent report of "Deepening Segregation, and Challenges Educators and Political Leaders to Develop Positive Policies." In this report, the authors underscore the fact that "simply sitting next to a white student does not guarantee better educational outcomes for students of color." And among the recommendations stated is that schools give "priority in competing for funds to pro-integration policies; changing the operation of choice plans so that they foster rather than undermine integration."

Even if the corporation is in compliance of the consent decree through student assignment in the magnet schools, how does that bring about compliance in the other schools? When we discuss compliance we are not simply talking about student assignment, we are also referring to equality in academics. Even if the student assignment is diverse, does that guarantee the students in the magnet program are diverse, especially in the school within a school, like the
High Schools?

I served on the magnet committee last year for the corporation. A suggestion that I made was the same curriculum and environment afforded to Kennedy and LaSalle, the blue ribbon schools, be afforded in all of the buildings. This is really the only way to establish full compliance with the consent decree both by the letter and spirit of the law.

The other problem is that even were we unconcerned with the first problem, not all children who are equipped for challenging curicula will have the chance to participate.  This is where the consent decree muddies the waters.  We can't have a straight up gifted school that admits by test score rank (assuming that was valid) because we need to honor demographic factors.  Separately, we can't have all our Intermediate Centers offer the same rich ciricula because the State of Indiana doesn't believe in making a reasonable investment in public education.  Its an unfair situation which tends to place members of our community in competition with each other when what we ought to be concerned about is good outcomes for all our children.

This came home to roost as the LaSalle letters were received by parents late last week.

The Fearsome Foursome are all very bright, well regarded, hardworking, Honorollees.  No doubt that any of them can handle the work. All of them passed the test.  Three of them were accepted (including our daughter), one was wait-listed.  What would you say to her?

The Search For Next Year's School

This is a re-post of an essay from January - "Middle School Mambo" in preparation for a follow-up piece.

It's been five years, though it sure doesn't seem like it, since I wrote about our process of picking the best primary school situation for our daughter.  We have been entirely pleased with our choice.  At Hay Primary Center our Sarah has blossomed and thrived.  But we've run out of grade levels there and another choice must be made.

In South Bend, IN (in the public school realm) parents have a few options for grades 5 - 8.  Our district school is Jackson.  Parents can also apply to some magnet programs:  LaSalle (Academy Program), Jefferson (Traditional Program) and Dickinson (Fine Arts).  We explored all four options to some degree and I thought I'd share our experience.

The magnet concept grew out a desegregation order coupled with the recognition that programs were being narrowed due to continual budget cutbacks.  Not without some drawbacks, it is a fairly neat strategy.

The basic premise is to offer attractive stuff to entice advantaged children to buildings located in neighborhoods primarily populated by disadvantaged kids. The district residents enjoy preferred status in most cases (in terms of admission) but have other options as well.  As you'll soon discover, the magnet programs vary significantly in terms of offerings and resources.  This is due to significant portions of their programs being dependent upon grants - outside the resources of the School Corporation budget.  One can easily visualize the potential that there will be ebbs and flows - thus some worries about the stability of offerings.

The first step is the South Bend Community School Corporation Magnet Fair.  This happened last fall at the Century Center, and each magnet program had a table set up with literature and people to talk with. We were primarily focused on learning about the LaSalle and Dickinson programs.  We planned to explore Jackson's offerings at a future date.

It was nicely done.  Dickinson had student musicians performing, LaSalle had their robotics club, etc.  There was a big crowd coming to see the offerings. It was crowded and noisy, and pretty darn great.

The Academy and Traditional middle school programs have counterpart programs in the Primary Centers, and I'd never been clear about what differentiated the two.  When you read the literature you have the impression that serious study and discipline are the prime focus of both.  Adding to my confusion was the insistence by the Primary Academy spokesperson that their program was not a "gifted student" program.

Anyway, we spoke with the LaSalle and Dickinson folks, picked up an application and made note of their open house dates.  Then we noticed Jefferson's table. Though we hadn't considered Jefferson, we thought we'd take the opportunity of talking with their representatives as well.

So we wandered over to the table, where the woman there proudly expostulated about their "B" rating from the state this year.  We gamely nodded, but my wife and I are highly unimpressed with the Tony Bennett grading scheme - particularly since the school that has set up our daughter for success was saddled with a "D".  Still, it seemed a good opportunity to ask the question I had on my mind.  The woman seemed a bit flummoxed by my query and motioned to the man a few steps away - the Principal apparently.

Turning towards him, I explained my confusion and asked, "So how does your program differ from LaSalle's?"  He gave a bit of a smirk and replied, "Well, it's like Lyndon Johnson explained the difference between the Senate and the House - 'one is chicken soup and the other is chicken ....'"

I was taken aback, to say the least.  I was a serious parent asking a serious question, and this was far from a serious response.  Plus, he seemed to be implying that LaSalle's program was somehow inferior to his - a laughable proposition.  So I stopped taking him seriously.

My wife was more game and pressed for useful information.  We discovered that Jefferson is primarily a neighborhood school with a magnet subset.  The magnet program appears to be of the infamous "no excuses" ilk - where children are taught to submit and become useful worker ants in the collective.  Our inference in the end was that this program was aimed at parents who thought their kids are screw-ups or might become screw-ups in the future.  One down.

Our first open house was at LaSalle.  Small groups of parents were assigned three LaSalle students (each) as guides.  The students took turns describing the facility and answering questions.  LaSalle has pretty complete offerings in terms of curriculum - including three years of Spanish.  Bus transportation is available and the school enjoys an excellent reputation, even nationally.  Students must test in.

Next up was Dickinson.  The fine arts magnet was the one I originally thought might be the most comfortable fit for our daughter.  She's a bit of an artsy gal, and I thought she might really blossom with more opportunity to explore that.  I also have some concern about how she'd react to the pressure of an Academy program.

But Dickinson is very much a work in progress.  They don't have anything much like a science lab.  They offer no foreign language instruction.  Their arts program is heavily weighted towards the visual category - it would be difficult to do much music and theater in combination.  Also, no bus transportation (though we did know that in advance).  On the plus side, like LaSalle, they offer pretty extensive after school options.  It's pretty clear that a great deal of what they offer and what they hope to offer is dependent upon grants - which makes it's future less predictible.

My wife then made an appointment for us to see Jackson.  Unlike the other schools, we went while classes were in session.  A teacher showed us around the building and answered many of our questions - then we had a sitdown Q & A with the Principal. 

If the decision were to be made purely upon the Principal, the nod would have to go to Jackson.  Margaret Schaller is an extraordinarily impressive person and a clear force for good.  As for the school building itself, Jackson is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporaticly offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes, and one would assume that would be per subject.  Ms. Schaller tried to put a good face on it, claiming "Kids learn by taking tests" - her only dubious claim in our meeting.

It's bad enough that kids lose 90 minutes of instruction time every three weeks (in service to only the ISTEP monster) but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

I've known kids who have gone to LaSalle and (prior to that) Kennedy Academy, and many of them seem emotionally wounded.  It's a chicken and egg proposition to determine what caused what, but they certainly seemed ill suited for programs as demanding as these.  This knowledge in part caused us to choose Hay over Kennedy five years ago. I am also bothered by the knowledge that if you have a high acheiving kid and want to be in the public school realm - there really is only one clear choice in intermediate centers in South Bend.

But our daughter, who we view as sensitive and perhaps a bit delicate, comes from two very tough-minded parents.  She'll probably do fine in a more demanding setting, and course availablity and content begins to matter more at her current age.  Also, her three closest friends have picked LaSalle as their number one choice.  So they all four will be taking the entrance exam soon.

Since Kindergarten, our daughter has raced up the steps of her bus each day - she's that eager to go to school.  Our great hope is that that won't change.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Part 3: Decision Time

Part 3 of our Kindergarten Odyssey

Beginning with the Kennedy Academy Cattle Call , and followed by parts two and three , I have shared the process of enrolling our daughter into Kindergarten for the next academic year. This has turned out to be a very different process for Paddy and me than it was for my parents.

Growing up in Evanston, IL (District 65), my parents probably walked the two blocks to Willard Elementary School and registered me. Because I was born in the first half of the calendar year, I was placed in afternoon Kindergarten. Willard would have been the obvious choice. That school system was very good and remains so today.

In our case as parents, we considered four public school magnet programs, our neighborhood school, one charter school and two private school options. The private schools were terrifically expensive, and I'm a firm believer in participating in the public school system - unless there's serious evidence that doing so will harm your child's chances for a good outcome.

If everyone withdraws their advantaged child from the public school system it will soon become a Medicaid version of education. That's what people like Bush and Daniels are shooting for. The children in it will be from poor families, or developmentally challenged, or both. Class sizes which work fine for kids "ready to learn" don't work so well with kids who only eat at school, or have dysfunctional family lives or worse. The anemic Title 1 programs can't keep up with the current circumstances - there is no chance of them being able to handle every kid in every public school.

I've made this sound like a simple decision, but it isn't. It's very hard. Where does the line of your child's outcome intersect with you being a responsible citizen? I'd only suggest that it should be thought about carefully.

We have the incredible advantage of a good neighborhood school. Sarah will be able to meet kids in her neighborhood (as I did), whom she can form friendships with, invite here, etc. She will be going to Hay Primary Center.

But let's say we were living in my house on Dayton St., and the neighborhood school was Lincoln - everything would be different. The neighborhood school option wouldn't be nearly so attractive - we'd likely pick another option. All because we lived a few miles away from where we do; though in the same school system.

So I'll be happy Sarah's at Hay, and I'll be thinking about how we can make all our neighborhood schools more like Hay.

Update:  Hay received a "D" rating from the Indiana DOE for the 2011-2012 academic year.  A total crock.

Our Next Stop

Part two of the Kindergarten Odyssey series

When Paddy started looking into our daughter, Sarah’s, options, she contacted Kennedy Academy to arrange a tour of the facility. The response from the administrator was that they didn’t permit that sort of thing there. We were told we could attend an upcoming open house - if we liked.

Well, we didn’t much like, but that’s what we did. I wrote about that experience previously.

Our neighborhood school is Hay Primary Center and that was to be our next stop. Paddy’s call there had a completely different result. The principal (who has miscellaneous other duties) had to check his schedule, but then called back and set up a meeting for 12:30 earlier this week.

As it turns out, Hay is one of the best performing of the neighborhood school system. Though its test scores are not as high as Kennedy’s they are at or above state average and well above the district averages. And it’s important to remember, Hay does not self select for “students ready to learn”.

Hay has also achieved Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) (as determined by the No Child Left Behind act) each year. Ninety-four percent of their teachers are deemed “highly qualified” and most of the faculty has long tenure in this particular school. Interestingly, Kennedy’s figure is eighty-four percent.

When we arrived for our meeting, I felt a big difference in the atmosphere of the building itself. The entrance opened into a generous lobby, almost every running foot of the facility was covered with students’ artwork. Though a modest structure, the cinder block walls were painted with warm and bold colors. The place felt comfortable and welcoming.

Because Kennedy wouldn’t allow visitation while in session, some comparisons between the two schools become difficult. The students we saw at Hay seemed relaxed, attentive and pretty happy, for the most part. This impressed me quite a bit because the learning atmosphere interests me at least as much as the specific programs available.

After a short wait, the Principal, Craig Haenes, welcomed us into his modest office which was adjacent to the Teachers’ Lounge. Unlike the Kennedy principal, he was a very warm and more relaxed person. He was genuinely pleased to talk to us and very proud of the work and record of his school. There was a lot he wanted to tell us.

He told us their superior English test scores were likely due to a reading program (Wilson LiPS) he had successfully lobbied for that only his school (in the SBCSC) was using (up until this year). He told us that Hay had accepted a number of students from Wilson Primary due to that school’s AYP challenges. He boasted of the active PTO at Hay, went into great detail about the many programs and answered all of our questions. Then we went on a lengthy tour.

It was pretty impressive the way they had made do. The school has been through changes over the years and in the latest incarnation the number of grade levels in the building is fewer than in the past. So when a computer lab was deemed necessary a no longer needed shower room off the gym was converted to that use. It’s an odd sight – children leaning into old Macs in a room that is completely lined with ceramic tile.

He let us poke our heads into several working classrooms, introduced us to passing faculty…

In all, he spent over an hour and a half with us in an attempt to close us on his enterprise. As you can tell, he did a heck of a job on me.

I suspect the Academy model is highly beneficial for many students. If your life lacks adequate discipline or structure, then I have no doubt of the benefit of those characteristics in one’s schooling. Unfortunately, the children who probably need those elements the most are unlikely to be “ready to learn”.

Underlying those things appears to be a serious drive to success and I’m not sure these qualities are what our five year old really needs at this point in her life.

I wish I knew more children who attend Kennedy. The only two I know are fairly nervous people.

There is a certain mythic ism among people we know, about the program. Originally, I bought in completely to the idea of -- if you have the choice – this is where you want your kid to go. But now I’m leaning the other way.

Of course, maybe we’ll be turned down by Kennedy.

And to be honest, it’s a nice problem to have to pick between these programs.

The Kennedy Academy Cattle Call

I am re-posting the series I wrote when we were exploring our daughter's options for Kindergarten.  This was the first installment.

My wife Paddy, I and daughter Sarah recently visited John F. Kennedy Academy on the west side of South Bend recently for Sarah’s admission test. That’s right -- there is a test to determine whether one is worthy to enroll in Kindergarten in that school.

To be fair – some winnowing is needed. This year, for example, 295 students are vying for 115 openings in the program. Still, the idea of my child facing a pivotal moment in her life -- when she’s not yet five – makes me uneasy. More on that later.

For those unfamiliar with the evolving South Bend School Corporation program, a magnet school program has been in place for some time. By next year, the program will have expanded to four target schools. The purpose of this concept, as I understand it, is twofold:

SBSC has struggled to achieve racial balance in the system and (like in most areas) forced bussing has not gone over well. Our neighborhoods probably are segregated more in terms of socioeconomic status than by strict racial lines, but of course there is a racial component to SES. By placing attractive programs in schools which are located in “minority” neighborhoods, a certain amount of voluntary integration is achieved.

The other half of the strategy is to offer programs with specialized emphases at the magnet schools. I won’t attempt to explain the distinctions (I’m not sure I understand them entirely) – rather I’ll use the broad terms employed by the school corporation. An academy program, a traditional program, a fine arts program and a Montessori Method program are available by application to students in the district – all in addition to the standard neighborhood schools.

Back to the stock pens…

Our odyssey to primary education began with an orientation session in early December along with dozens of other families. This consisted of a presentation and a tour, which I found pretty useful. But it, and the subsequent event, began somewhat inauspiciously.

The Kennedy School building was constructed in the 1960s when architects seemed to be fixated on innovation. Necessary components of innovation seemed to require that the buildings be severe and dramatically ugly. Rough, unpigmented concrete was the fa├žade of choice in many of these buildings and Kennedy is no exception.

The main entrance can only be described as weird. One enters through a short, narrow vestibule (which provides an airlock). That empties into a small, round lobby. There are no exterior windows, only glass block. There is one small interior window – reminiscent of a ticket window – on a curved wall which offers the only contact with the front office. Every event seems to begin with us being held in this small pen until those in charge granted us access to a larger area.

On our test date about thirty children were invited. They were split up into six groups of five and led off to their testing out of our view. I found that mildly disconcerting – but that’s on me, not on them. I’m the parent of a young child and I will have to adjust. And I will.

That left the parents and ancillary children in the gymnasium for a presentation given by the school principal. There’s no point in sugar coating this – it was dreadful. The principal is likely a highly capable administrator, but the material was not well organized and redundant in a repetitive way. The delivery was bordering on admonishment.

Here’s what I got out of it. They expect children to come to school. Children can’t learn if they’re not at school. Children need to behave in socially acceptable ways. The Academy program is not targeted at “gifted” students; rather, those ready to learn. (That point was made three or four times). Parents are expected to help teachers, if not in classrooms, then in other ways. Unlike the Traditional Magnet program, we weren’t required to pledge a certain number of hours of service. (Whew – there’s a load off). A certain level of conformity is expected of the children -- including corporation approved attire. You get the idea.

At a certain point, glancing at my bride and noting her expression, I leaned over and whispered something like, “Don’t worry, it won’t really be that bad for her”. She replied with a quick, somewhat weak, grin.

At this point you may wonder why Paddy and I would be so interested in having Sarah go to Kennedy. As Pad and I discussed later, where is the emphasis on the joy of learning, personal growth and creativity so necessary for successful learning?

The answer is that we have a lot of anecdotal information that tells us that children thrive at the Kennedy Academy. We socialize and interact with people who value the concepts of joy, growth and creativity and have heard many accounts from them that their children do very well in the program. In fact, I have not heard an exception to this.

We are relying a bit on that. The information from the school itself is rather off-putting.

This experience did make me think about some larger issues. That will be the theme of a follow-up piece.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Michiana Viewpoint 2/11/2013

 
In a Tribune article covering the first South Bend Community School Corp. Board of Trustees meeting of the year (mostly about the election of officers) my jaw dropped when I got to the fourth and fifth paragraphs.
 
“After two years in the position, outgoing board President Roger Parent said last week he was ready to turn over the reins to some-one else.
 
“Parent said he wants time to focus on big-ticket is-sues, such as potentially hiring an outside provider to run low-performing schools in South Bend.” (emphasis mine)
 
I’d never heard of this idea being endorsed by the board – and after checking with the other trustees it is clear that the board had not discussed this as an option.
 
Since it appears that one of seven Trustees is setting time aside to pursue an initiative not sanctioned by the Board - namely, privatizing at least some of the public school system, I would expect The Tribune to look into it.
 
It's important to remember that tactics like hiring private management companies are a response to a defective assumption that standardized test scores are the end-all, be-all measurement of student proficiency. The trouble is, there is no such magic stick.
 
For the most part, tests were designed to evaluate progress in individual students so that teachers would know what needed more emphasis in that child's learning process.  Sure, there were always some high stakes tests: the SAT, ACT, LSAT, PSAT, etc., etc. - but these tests began late in a High School Career.

Someone, somehow got the idea that we should start using these throughout a student's career (there are pre-school admission tests now for crying out loud) - and the stakes are high not only for the student, but now even the teacher, the Principal, the district...  It's nuts.

We all agree (I think) that every child is entitled to a good education.  Our goal as a society is to provide that.  Some of us think that the goal lies even beyond that:  We think that a good education is a strategy towards the goal of every citizen having a satisfying life.

But those things are hard to measure, so some folks have come up with test scores to serve as a proxy.  As a result, we have become dedicated to working towards the proxy instead of the actual goal.  But there's the rub - in many ways the two things are mutually exclusive.

The good education/satisfying life approach is collaborative.  Creativity is critical.  Exposure to all sorts of diverse learning and participation increase the likelihood that even a challenged student can find something that lights her up.  Critical thinking and sound argumentation are important skills.

The high stakes testing approach is competitive.  Conformity is encouraged.  Subject matter which does not directly serve the Testing God is a luxury - either held out as a reward for test mastery, or discarded entirely.  To this end, at Jackson Intermediate Center students are pre-tested every three weeks for 90 minutes - time lost for real human growth and intellectual exploration.

It's bad enough that time is lost in service to only the once a year ISTEP , but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

So you might think, OK.  Some outside innovating firm could come in and turn things around.  Well if firms like that ever existed, much like other industries, they have been subsumed by the giants.

Unsurprisingly, since the mission has been narrowed to the proxy of test scores, the giants need be neither flexible nor innovative.  In city after city they cleave to the “No Excuses” model where minor transgressions by students like disobeying the dress code, being too enthusiastic in class, etc. are cause for shaming – and often suspension. 

These companies create their own version of Charter Schools, which allows them to dismiss beloved teachers and administrators – replacing them with far less experienced, but cheaper folks.  While it’s not hard to train people to behave as minor dictators as teachers and administrators, statistics show these folks last three years on average before they move on to something better.

Children crave predictability, routines, and community connections.  These institutions churn programs and personnel.  They are laboratories and our children the guinea pigs.

Expulsion rates are high.  Special needs and English language learning students are not welcome.  The more challenging students are returned to the public system, whose funding will have been diminished due to the new for-profit schools.

All this has been experienced in communities all over the country.  So when a school board member throws out the possibility of privatizing public schools, it should command our attention.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

SBCSC, a two tiered system?



I wrote this about five years ago when we were contemplating Sarah's options for Kindergarten.  Little has changed.

As mentioned in the Kennedy Academy cattle call post, I started thinking about larger issues involving what happens to children in our education system locally.

It occurs to me that our magnet school strategy, left as it is, could lead to a two tiered public education in South Bend.  The fine arts and Montessori programs are just rolling out, so it’s not possible to speculate much about them.  But the academy and traditional programs have been in place a while. 

If this is a transitional phase leading to a complete reworking of the school system, then it might be just the ticket.  But if we focus just on the Kennedy program and the current conditions – there are things to talk about.

The phrase “students ready to learn” echoed in my thoughts and not just because it was used so many times in the presentation.  This is the key factor in admissions, and the fact it is stressed emphasizes that many children entering Kindergarten aren’t “ready to learn”.

I can’t claim any in depth analysis I’ve done to prove what I’m about to claim, but I have a pretty clear impression that students who come from stable homes, full of books, where learning is encouraged, valued and recognized seem to do pretty well in our system.  My impression that these higher achievers are identified and funneled into honors programs and some eventually to Advanced Placement (for college credit) programs.  That’s pretty much what happened to me in the 1960s and 70s, and it began (to a minor extent) in first grade.

But the Evanston, IL school system had a lot of money, and the students whose learning pace was slower seemed to get the attention they needed and do OK.  At least, I think so.

In South Bend it seems clear to me that they do not.  Little else would seem to explain our low graduation rates.

So, we have a program for those kids who are good to go.  It seems to me we need a comprehensive program aimed at children who aren’t.

I used to be a mentor in the Dream Team For Unity Program , a program I highly recommend.  I met weekly with James while he was a fourth and fifth grader.  Generally mentors meet with students for lunch, but my schedule didn’t allow for that, so we met after school.  There were reasons for James to be in the program, but he was very smart and school came easily to him.  I’m guessing he’s doing fine – but I can’t say I know.

At the beginning we met privately, but in the second year we met in his classroom.  His teacher ( the same woman both years) held after school sessions with a group of half a dozen students or so who needed extra help.  These children were not ready to learn -  most wanted to be, but weren’t.
Their neediness was almost suffocating.  They didn’t have mentors, and so envied James.  When their teacher was free, it was almost like watching a nest full of recent hatchlings beseeching Momma Bird for sustenance.  It was heartbreaking.

I am ashamed that I don’t remember this valiant teacher’s name, but I will never forget her expression of fatigue every single week I saw her.  She never let it stop her, though.  She would be there every time – ready to help.

Some readers may be aware that I supported John Edwards for President.  As part of a tapestry of policy proposals to create or restore (depending upon your point of view) a condition of One America he proposed a very aggressive education component.

This proposal had many things to commend it, but if we focus on the early childhood portion, he proposed universal pre-K (as he called) for four year olds as well as beefing up nutrition, healthcare and childcare programs for younger children.  This pre-K would be a natural point to get our children “ready to learn”.  Unfortunately, I think we can all agree we won’t be creating such a thing locally out of whole cloth any time soon.  And that’s a problem.

Our daughter Sarah has been attending St. Mary’s Early Childhood Development Center for two years now.  It is a fantastic program, but far from cheap (I just did our taxes).  Not much doubt if she’s ready to learn.  So to speculate that she has a leg up on getting into Kennedy really isn’t speculation at all.

When you are told the objectives of Kindergarten at Kennedy, it mostly has to do with reading and spelling and writing and math and operating computers.  This is more aggressive than I’d prefer, but it will probably be fine for most of the children admitted.  But some will need more of a foundation, and may end up leaving the program.  For those kids and the ones not admitted…here’s what I think.

Since there are and will be children who have no educational experience prior to Kindergarten as well as those who have challenges despite some preschool, we should agree that Kindergarten’s focused priority be preparing our children for learning.  Anything else should be secondary.  What does that mean?

It means rewarding curiosity, making learning fun and fostering early critical thinking skills.  It means encouraging creativity, early problem solving, collaboration and compromise.  Any human with this skill set will learn faster and face a better outcome in later life than those who lack it.  We should not want our children getting past Kindergarten without the confidence this foundation would give.

This may mean that Kindergarten classes need to be smaller – which, of course will make them more expensive.  If so, so be it.  The ripple effect of prepared students in the later grades will bring down many ancillary expenses.  Prevention is always cheaper.

And more young adults will enter careers that are more rewarding and have lives more fulfilling – which is what they’re going to need when they have to deal with all the problems we’re likely to leave them.

That’s how I see it.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Are South Bend Schools Up For Auction?

In a stunning case of burying the lead, The South Bend Tribune slid the following little gem into the 4th and 5th paragraphs of a recent story mostly about the election of officers to the South Bend Community School Corporation Board of Trustees.

After two years in the position, outgoing board President Roger Parent said last week he was ready to turn over the reins to someone else. 
Parent said he wants time to focus on big-ticket issues, such as potentially hiring an outside provider to run low-performing schools in South Bend.   (emphasis mine)
I've been told the Board has not discussed this at all, but in any case, following a course of action like this would be a pretty big deal and very controversial.  Just what local media thrives upon.

( I've written the other Board members for reactions and  I'll include any I get in a later post.)

So did the Tribune dig into this?  Heck no!  Apparently the editors felt it more important to re-hash the events leading up to and including the censure of Trustee Bill Snaidecki - something they've done three to five times already.

As I've mentioned previously, Parent is something of a loose cannon, but he should not be dismissed.  He has well established connections and is fully confident of his own vision and wisdom.  If he has in mind to do this, he will certainly put significant effort into it.

My late father gave me several valuable pieces of advice when I was growing up.  One of the most useful was, whenever possible learn from the mistakes of others.  In this case Milwaukee, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, and many other communities have walked down this road already.  So we know what we can expect.

But let's back up a bit.  It's important to remember that tactics like hiring private management companies are a response to a defective assumption that standardized test scores are the end-all, be-all measurement of student proficiency.  The trouble is, there is no such magic stick.

For the most part, tests were designed to evaluate progress in individual students so that teachers would know what needed more emphasis in that child's learning process.  Sure, there were always some high stakes tests: the SAT, ACT, LSAT, PSAT, etc., etc. - but these tests began late in a High School Career.

Someone, somehow got the idea that we should start using these throughout a student's career (there are pre-school admission tests now for cryin' out loud) - and the stakes are high not only for the student, but even the teacher, the Principal, the district...  It's nuts.

We all agree (I think) that every child is entitled to a good education.  Our goal as a society is to provide that.  Some of us think that the goal lies even beyond that:  We think that a good education is a strategy towards the goal of every citizen having a satisfying life.

But those things are hard to measure, so some folks have come up with test scores to serve as a proxy.  As a result, we have become dedicated to working towards the proxy instead of the actual goal.  But there's the rub - in many ways the two things are mutually exclusive.

The good education/satisfying life approach is collaborative.  Creativity is critical.  Exposure to all sorts of diverse learning and participation increase the likelihood that even a challenged student can find something that lights her up.  Critical thinking and sound argumentation are important skills.

The high stakes testing approach is competitive.  Conformity is encouraged.  Subject matter which does not directly serve the Testing God is a luxury - either held out as a reward for test mastery, or discarded entirely.  At a local Intermediate Center, students are pre-tested every three weeks for 90 minutes, in service to the once a year ISTEP.  Imagine the opportunity lost for real human growth.  Imagine the minor damage done to these young souls each time faced with the same drudgery.

This contradiction was recently noted by education writer Anthony Cody:

Last week there were two important studies released. One tells us that the international test data used to declare our schools broken and uncompetitive is bogus. The other tells us we have a very different crisis we should be concerned about: the percent of students who are engaged and excited about school drops dramatically between elementary and high school. The policies being pursued to fight the first, phony crisis are likely to be making our real problem of declining student engagement worse.

So bad strategies lead to bad results.  In the next installment, we'll look at how bad we're talking about.


My letter to state Senator Arnold opposing expansion of the voucher program

Dear Senator Arnold

I am writing to strongly recommend opposing SB184 - a measure to expand the K - 12 voucher program.

Vouchers drain badly needed funding from the public school system - often to the benefit of private religious institutions.  In addition, these schools offer no public accountability for their actions and often decline to accept students who are more difficult to educate.

Even if one thinks student test scores are a useful metric for determining student proficiency, voucher programs have not shown themselves to have made any significant change.  I would suggest that the Milwaukee voucher program, which has been in place for over twenty years illustrates that point well.

Instead of these types of gimmicky programs, we need to get serious about improving the public school system.  Sadly, the General Assembly doesn't seem to truly be interested. 

A budget, above all other things is a statement of values.  The GA has taken away the ability of citizens, through their local governments, to fund K-12.  Disguised as a benefit, the State has taken over that role and continually reduced financial support.  Not what many of us expected or support.

We should be discussing the institution of state sponsored pre-Kindergarten programs, not whether our schools can afford music classes any longer.  We know early exposure to education for children from challenging situations is critical for their futures and of great benefit to society generally.

And make no mistake:  Though some will honestly argue the perceived merits of programs like this, many others will advocate purely out of business interests.  It's not so easy to tell them apart all the time.

Thank you for reading this.

Don Wheeler
South Bend

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Middle School Mambo

Don Wheeler

It's been five years, though it sure doesn't seem like it, since I wrote about our process of picking the best primary school situation for our daughter.  We have been entirely pleased with our choice.  At Hay Primary Center our Sarah has blossomed and thrived.  But we've run out of grade levels there and another choice must be made.

In South Bend, IN (in the public school realm) parents have a few options for grades 5 - 8.  Our district school is Jackson.  Parents can also apply to some magnet programs:  LaSalle (Academy Program), Jefferson (Traditional Program) and Dickinson (Fine Arts).  We explored all four options to some degree and I thought I'd share our experience.

The magnet concept grew out a desegregation order coupled with the recognition that programs were being narrowed due to continual budget cutbacks.  Not without some drawbacks, it is a fairly neat strategy.

The basic premise is to offer attractive stuff to entice advantaged children to buildings located in neighborhoods primarily populated by disadvantaged kids. The district residents enjoy preferred status in most cases (in terms of admission) but have other options as well.  As you'll soon discover, the magnet programs vary significantly in terms of offerings and resources.  This is due to significant portions of their programs being dependent upon grants - outside the resources of the School Corporation budget.  One can easily visualize the potential that there will be ebbs and flows - thus some worries about the stability of offerings.

The first step is the South Bend Community School Corporation Magnet Fair.  This happened last fall at the Century Center, and each magnet program had a table set up with literature and people to talk with. We were primarily focused on learning about the LaSalle and Dickinson programs.  We planned to explore Jackson's offerings at a future date.

It was nicely done.  Dickinson had student musicians performing, LaSalle had their robotics club, etc.  There was a big crowd coming to see the offerings. It was crowded and noisy, and pretty darn great.

The Academy and Traditional middle school programs have counterpart programs in the Primary Centers, and I'd never been clear about what differentiated the two.  When you read the literature you have the impression that serious study and discipline are the prime focus of both.  Adding to my confusion was the insistence by the Primary Academy spokesperson that their program was not a "gifted student" program.

Anyway, we spoke with the LaSalle and Dickinson folks, picked up an application and made note of their open house dates.  Then we noticed Jefferson's table. Though we hadn't considered Jefferson, we thought we'd take the opportunity of talking with their representatives as well.

So we wandered over to the table, where the woman there proudly expostulated about their "B" rating from the state this year.  We gamely nodded, but my wife and I are highly unimpressed with the Tony Bennett grading scheme - particularly since the school that has set up our daughter for success was saddled with a "D".  Still, it seemed a good opportunity to ask the question I had on my mind.  The woman seemed a bit flummoxed by my query and motioned to the man a few steps away - the Principal apparently.

Turning towards him, I explained my confusion and asked, "So how does your program differ from LaSalle's?"  He gave a bit of a smirk and replied, "Well, it's like Lyndon Johnson explained the difference between the Senate and the House - 'one is chicken soup and the other is chicken ....'"

I was taken aback, to say the least.  I was a serious parent asking a serious question, and this was far from a serious response.  Plus, he seemed to be implying that LaSalle's program was somehow inferior to his - a laughable proposition.  So I stopped taking him seriously.

My wife was more game and pressed for useful information.  We discovered that Jefferson is primarily a neighborhood school with a magnet subset.  The magnet program appears to be of the infamous "no excuses" ilk - where children are taught to submit and become useful worker ants in the collective.  Our inference in the end was that this program was aimed at parents who thought their kids are screw-ups or might become screw-ups in the future.  One down.

Our first open house was at LaSalle.  Small groups of parents were assigned three LaSalle students (each) as guides.  The students took turns describing the facility and answering questions.  LaSalle has pretty complete offerings in terms of curriculum - including three years of Spanish.  Bus transportation is available and the school enjoys an excellent reputation, even nationally.  Students must test in.

Next up was Dickinson.  The fine arts magnet was the one I originally thought might be the most comfortable fit for our daughter.  She's a bit of an artsy gal, and I thought she might really blossom with more opportunity to explore that.  I also have some concern about how she'd react to the pressure of an Academy program.

But Dickinson is very much a work in progress.  They don't have anything much like a science lab.  They offer no foreign language instruction.  Their arts program is heavily weighted towards the visual category - it would be difficult to do much music and theater in combination.  Also, no bus transportation (though we did know that in advance).  On the plus side, like LaSalle, they offer pretty extensive after school options.  It's pretty clear that a great deal of what they offer and what they hope to offer is dependent upon grants - which makes it's future less predictible.

My wife then made an appointment for us to see Jackson.  Unlike the other schools, we went while classes were in session.  A teacher showed us around the building and answered many of our questions - then we had a sitdown Q & A with the Principal. 

If the decision were to be made purely upon the Principal, the nod would have to go to Jackson.  Margaret Schaller is an extraordinarily impressive person and a clear force for good.  As for the school building itself, Jackson is a duplicate of LaSalle - they were built contemporaneously.  But they are very different in terms of what it is offered inside.

Thanks to the gradual de-funding of public education, our neighborhood school no longer offers any industrial arts, home economics, or drama.  The visual arts and science facilities are dubious in quality - and foreign language (Spanish only) is a three semester proposition (grades 7 - 8).  Phys Ed is only sporaticly offered.  And the only after school things available are athletic programs.

If that weren't discouraging enough, we were told all children are tested in math and English every three weeks.  The time allocated is forty-five minutes, and one would assume that would be per subject.  Ms. Schaller tried to put a good face on it, claiming "Kids learn by taking tests" - her only dubious claim in our meeting.

It's bad enough that kids lose 90 minutes of instruction time every three weeks (in service to only the ISTEP monster) but on top of that either teachers have to grade these tests, or some company is paid to - a significant waste of precious South Bend Community School Corporation assets.

I've known kids who have gone to LaSalle and (prior to that) Kennedy Academy, and many of them seem emotionally wounded.  It's a chicken and egg proposition to determine what caused what, but they certainly seemed ill suited for programs as demanding as these.  This knowledge in part caused us to choose Hay over Kennedy five years ago. I am also bothered by the knowledge that if you have a high acheiving kid and want to be in the public school realm - there really is only one clear choice in intermediate centers in South Bend.

But our daughter, who we view as sensitive and perhaps a bit delicate, comes from two very tough-minded parents.  She'll probably do fine in a more demanding setting, and course availablity and content begins to matter more at her current age.  Also, her three closest friends have picked LaSalle as their number one choice.  So they all four will be taking the entrance exam soon.

Since Kindergarten, our daughter has raced up the steps of her bus each day - she's that eager to go to school.  Our great hope is that that won't change.


What do you think it symbolizes?