Monday, October 20, 2014

It should be Stan Wruble for the "Riley" District

In terms of the quality of school board candidates in the Second District of South Bend, it is very nearly an embarrassment of riches.

Carolyn Peterson is a retired teacher and former President of our local National Education Association chapter.  She has been a tireless advocate for quality public education.

Oletha Jones is the local Education Chair for our NAACP chapter.  Ms. Jones has been a valuable asset to our community in that she tasks us to focus on issues which are not often discussed and not easy to solve.

Stan Wruble was appointed by the Board to complete the term of the late John Stancati.

Stan grew up on the south side of South Bend, attending SBCSC schools before graduating from the "old" Riley in 1990. His daughter is a First Grader in the South Bend School Corporation. Though he had other opportunities, he chose to settle here.

 As a citizen, Stan feels it's important to give back to the community. In addition to the time consuming duties of school board trustee, he offers his expertise in the law to benefit others - serving as a Public Defender for folks who can't afford the services of paid counsel, and as Adjunct Professor at Notre Dame's Law School (of which he is a graduate).

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know Stan a bit over the last few months.  He seeks and values input from the community.  He’s wisely suspicious of the quick fix schemes touted by the so-called education reformers.  He knows that where we want to go will take time and great effort.

Stan has shown good judgment and a tireless work ethic as a Board member.  For me, Stan is the man.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The not so smart streets idea

Don Wheeler

Pretty much everyone agrees that downtown South Bend would benefit from significant changes in traffic handling.  The streets are wider than necessary and many don't connect well.  Crossing them is challenging for pedestrians and the street scape is pretty uninviting for retailers and restaurateurs.

So groups have been pushing a plan they not so modestly call "Smart Streets".  "Smart" is a term marketers often use when they don't want people to think too hard about something.  It also tends to connote something new, and technologically advanced.  In actuality, the program hearkens back to the good old days.

The vision of the proposal has great merit.  Making the downtown more aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian and bicyclist friendly is an excellent goal.  Increasing citizen access to the river front is an excellent goal.  But though the proposal claims to resolve some significant challenges, in reality it does not address them in any meaningful way.

Below is the presentation the City has on their website.  The first forty-five minutes is essentially a sales pitch, with pictures of changed cities - many of which aren't particularly comparable to South Bend.  It's only at that point South Bend comes into the picture.  Unfortunately for viewers, shortly into the South Bend section of the presentation the slides no longer appear in the video.  This requires the viewer to use his/her best visualization techniques in an attempt to follow the presenter.

Essentially the idea is to change William, Lafayette, Main and Michigan/St. Joseph streets (two of which are now four lanes one way) to two-way streets with one traffic lane each direction and a center turn lane.  Sound crazy?  It is.

For most of the drivers who find themselves on the two main arteries, the downtown is an obstacle.  They are either north of it and want to be south, or vice-versa.  Typically, municipalities create some sort of bypass for this sort of traffic.  This makes it easier for commuters to commute, and for those wishing to do business or recreate downtown to do so in a more pleasant and relaxed manner - since much of the traffic has been relocated.  This plan offers nothing like that.  And the Bypass we have is several miles to the west, and can't serve this purpose.

The presenter pays lip service to this contradiction, but offers only magical thinking in response.  He claims placing a roundabout just south of the Leeper Park (Michigan Street) Bridge will result in an even distribution of traffic on each of the four new two-way two lane streets.  And unless I missed it, he doesn't address what happens with the traffic coming from the south at all.

As we know, traffic from the north often backs up ahead of the bridge currently.  This, even though it soon empties into four lanes.  Imagine the fun when it instead encounters a roundabout, then an assortment of single traffic lanes.

Then there's the street parking.  The concept is for angle parking on each side.

Small town America features many two lane streets with angle parking.  I've been in many of them.  You know what happens when someone wants to leave a parking place?  The traffic has to stop until the person backs out, then drives away.

In the end, it seems clear that vehicles will be bottled up downtown for much longer, emitting higher levels of exhaust, and causing a lot of frustration for a lot of people.  That doesn't seem so pedestrian/bicyclist friendly to me.  That wouldn't seem to advance the interests of commerce  Maybe we should try for a Smarter Streets proposal.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Time to cast off the testing demons and do what's right

One thing most citizens agree on is that no cost, high quality K - 12 education should be available for all children.  The benefits seem quite clear for both the individuals, and our society as a whole.  The trick is - how to you determine that a child is receiving a quality education?

Many of us would echo the famous Justice Stewart observation regarding obscenity:  “I know it when I see it”; but we live in the era of Big Data, so test scores have become a surrogate.  The belief accepted: high test scores indicate a high quality education.   

At first glance, one can see some merit to the concept.  After all, in High School and College students take a final exam at the end of a semester for each class taken.  Excluding those folks who have general test-taking issues, the results of these tests tend to give us a pretty good idea of how well a student has mastered the material.  If we believe this type of test has validity, it is because they are written and scored by the people who presented the material in the first place.

Even these tests have a drawback.  Many people think tests do their best work by informing teachers about the areas in which their student needs extra assistance.  But at this point the class is over.  There is no opportunity for feedback, no option for remediation by the teacher.

Indiana administers the ISTEP test from Third Grade onward – as mandated by federal education policy.  The design and administration is outsourced.  The tests are scored by temporary workers.  There is no connection to the classroom experience for the students.  But the results have become life and death matters for both schools and teacher’s jobs.  Due to these kind of stakes, we’ve seen cheating scandals in Washington DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere.

In the early years, only math and language skills are tested, later science is added to the mix.  It’s no surprise then, that curricula are often narrowed to focus on these areas – especially in schools with a high proportion of students from challenged backgrounds.

This has a perverse effect.  Research is clear that course enrichment: music, drama, visual art, physical education, and the like, help keep children engaged and motivated in school.  And these are the kind of students most in need of any support we can manage.  But the powers that be seem to think that narrowing the curriculum is the way to achieve optimal test scores.

So we have devised our strategies around the surrogate goal, rather than the original one.  That creates a dilemma:  There’s no guarantee that what works for one will work for the other.

In South Bend, Indiana, where we live, there are neighborhood schools and so-called magnet schools.  The “magnets” draw from the entire district by offering specialized foci.

About a year ago we sampled the menu, as our daughter was ready to move on to intermediate school.  We then saw pretty clearly the results of under funding and test mania in our public school system.

The two finalists were LaSalle Intermediate Academy and our local school, Jackson.  To enter LIA, one must pass an entrance test and succeed in a lottery.  LIA offers a much wider course selection than the alternatives (though somewhat short of my own public middle school experience).  Still, we wanted to take a careful look at Jackson, as well.

We were highly impressed by Principal Schaller, and school building itself 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 sporadically 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 (one would assume per subject) with the class results posted on the cafeteria wall.  So, there is little in the way of enrichment, and lots of lost instructional time – all in service to the budget cutters and the testing fiends.

It is true that test scores have nudged up a bit at the school.  But that’s true almost everywhere.  And surprising as it may seem, we don’t send our daughter to school to secure a high score on once per year tests which are meaningless to her and us.  No, we send her to secure a high quality education – which she will get due to the enrichment programs and increased instructional time at LIA.  And no doubt, better test scores.

So in the end we had no choice because we had a choice.  Unfortunately for most families, they have no choice because they have no choice.

An organization’s budget is clear statement of values.  The State of Indiana needs to quit looking for scapegoats and sending public instruction funds to commercial vendors.  It should instead, reinvest in its children at levels to get the job done properly.  In other words, it should align its strategies towards the original goal, rather than the surrogate.

What do you think it symbolizes?