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?