5 Changes I Want to See in Schools Right Now

1. I want schools to be beautiful spaces. 

Television is full of beautiful rooms. Every sitcom and drama has a crew of designers paying attention to every last detail from the paint color to furniture and accessories. In movies, actors and actresses move from one decadent set to another even in low-budget films. Commercials are shot in stunning, immaculate homes making many families green with envy. Reality television is teeming with renovation and design shows.

Yet our children, who are supposed to be our pride and joy, spend hours, for 180 days a year, in schools where little attention or money is paid to design. Sure some schools have a mural or two. And many teachers do a stellar job of making their classrooms more inviting than just slapping a few store-bought posters on the walls. But overall, most schools are painted drab industrial colors with flooring that is uninspired at best. Our children sit in uncomfortable chairs and look out unadorned windows.  The problem is even worse in low-income areas. In Baltimore City, I taught in a school with roaches and mice running across my classroom floor and lead in the drinking water. Many schools need to improve their cleanliness way before they consider design. But, wouldn’t it be nice if there was just a little more beauty? Don’t our children at least deserve quality lighting and a soothing wall color that doesn’t scream institution?

2. I want tissues in every nurse’s office and classroom to be softer. 

Don’t laugh. I am not asking for Puffs Plus with lotion or anything (though that would be nice), but kids have runny noses A LOT. It is so sad as a teacher when I would run out of the tissue I bought from home and my students would have to use the cheap industrial ones from the nurse’s office or classroom supply. Their sad red, raw noses are so unnecessary. We adults like soft tissues, so why not give our kids that same comfort at school.

3. I want suggestion boxes in every classroom and main office. 

I have written before about how important it is to listen to the kids. Read my post here. But really, schools would be much better places if the adults stopped more often to ask the kids what they think. Sure you would get some silly ideas and comments, but those are harmful compared to the wisdom that could be discovered. Their perspective is so different, if we were to get down on their level, who knows what we might see.

4. I want to see a student representative from every school in the district at every school board meeting. 

I have attended quite a few school board meetings over the past 2 years and most of the time they are very poorly attended events. Some school boards do have student representatives, but usually just from the high school. Why wouldn’t a school board want to hear from their younger students as well? Is their school experience any less valuable?

Secondly, I want to hear those representatives report more than just a list of events at the school. Sure I love the positive stuff. I want to know how many cans were donated at the food drive and how many scholarships were awarded to the senior class. But I also want to know if those representatives have heard their classmates talking about an increase in heroin usage or if they have concerns about graduation requirements. I want to hear if the middle school students want more arts programs or want more guidance with the challenges adolescence throws at them. I want to hear if the elementary students are stressed out by too much homework or struggling to learn typing skills for the upcoming PARCC test.

So many decisions are made in education without anyone asking the students what they think or what they need.

5. I want to see just as many parents at PTA/PTO meetings and school board meetings as I do at sporting events. 

I like sports. I played sports. I grew up in a home where sports were always on the television no matter what time of the year. But any good coach will tell you that number one should be your family, number two your schoolwork, and then maybe number three would be your sport. Yet many adults do not model this belief system and practice what they preach.

Family gatherings, dinnertime, and reading or other educational pursuits are often sacrificed or curtailed to make room for practices and games. With travel and competitive sports leagues starting younger and younger, many children are getting the message that sports is number one. And parents are so spread thin that they are not making time to stay informed and involved in the type of activities, instruction, and testing going on in their children’s schools.  And while many parents were not paying attention, education changed drastically right under their noses.

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No….WE Raise NJ

The new coalition called We Raise NJ, headed by the NJPTA, was formed to add a different voice to the debate around the upcoming PARCC test in NJ. But really it is too little, too late.

Acting Commissioner of Education David Hespe, said back in October that there was no opt out movement. Maybe back in October there wasn’t, but the movement has been gaining steam ever since. The biggest obstacle has been ignorance. How can you warn parents who are largely unaware of the new education reforms and their impact on their children? How can you get them to pay attention, get educated, and rise to a call to action?

Well, it wasn’t a propaganda campaign of misinformation that did it or a small group of loud parents as the incoming NJ PTA president suggested in an article for NJ Spotlight.

“Her successor, incoming NJPTA president Rose Acerra, added: “There is a small group of parents making noise, but I think there are more who are looking up to us to give them information.”

More and more parents became involved because they are seeing the effects of the PARCC test first-hand. Their children are coming home with typing homework. Their children are being school budgets are being spent on technology upgrades to support this test. Their children are being test prepped to death with worksheets and pep talks. Their children’s teacher’s are stressed and that stress easily trickles down.

Acerra is wrong to suggest that it is just a “small group of parents making noise”, because more than half of the states originally slated to take the PARCC test have now declined to use it. When whole states are saying no to the PARCC, the opposition cannot be downplayed to just a few rabble-rousers. No one needs the NJPTA to give them information, because, though they help support essential school programs, they do not deal directly with educating students.

Parents need to hear from administrators who feel comfortable to speak candidly. Superintendent Michael Hynes from Long Island published an OP-Ed piece about the dangerous direction of data-obsessed, mandate-laden education reform.

Parents need to hear from experts in the education field about what exactly is developmentally appropriate for their children. Parents need to hear from teachers who are not afraid to lose their jobs, like those threatened recently in Philadelphia to not speak with parents of their students about testing concerns. Parents need to talk to their pediatricians about the AAP’s recommendations to limit screen time and the impacts of early and extensive use of electronic devices.

“We’re cautiously optimistic with the test, but we’re watching it like everyone else,” said Tyrrell, who lives in Neptune Township. “Unfortunately, we don’t know all the answers until after we give the test,” she said. “I think a lot of people are preemptively judging something without seeing the results.”

Maybe former NJPTA president Debbie Tyrrell is content to just “wait and see”, but many parents have already seen enough, particularly those parents who are also teachers and administrators. Sample tests are posted online, so what the test entails is no secret. T

Many parents do not want to give one more dime to the testing company, Pearson, until they know the results of the federal investigation into their business practices. They do not want their children to sit through a minimum of 9 hours and 45 minutes of a test as an experiment to see what happens. They do not want their children educated in the narrow confines of test preparation. They do not believe that a test with confusing and convoluted questions will provide any more enlightening information about the intelligence or ability of their children.

And let us be clear that they do not want the NJPTA to give them more of the same song and dance that they have heard all along.

WE Raise NJ…not the NJPTA, not the legislators, not the education commissioners, not the companies or their C.E.O’s, not even the president.

It’s time to listen to those who are the closest to the kids.

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Refusing to PARCC in NJ

Wars are won one battle at a time.

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Yesterday nearly 100 people attended the State Board Meeting in Trenton, the overwhelming majority went to voice their concerns about the PARCC test slated to be administered in the Spring.

It may not seem like a large turnout, but it was. I have been attending local board meetings for two years now, and I can tell you that they are not well-attended events.

Many teachers do not feel comfortable going, because they worry about the consequences of voicing concerns. With teacher tenure now in jeopardy and evaluations tied to test scores, their fears are understandable, particularly since the test itself is riddled with problems.

Many parents don’t attend, because they don’t really know how much of an impact they can make by going, being educated, and voicing their opinions. Also, parents are tired; I get it. Many households have two working parents or if one parent stays home the other is working ridiculous hours. (And babysitters are expensive!) After a long day of work or caring for kids, there is homework,laundry, lunch boxes to clean, lunch to make, religious obligations, sports practices, talent shows, school concerts, and a million other things. Most board meetings start at 7:30/8pm on a weeknight, just when many parents are putting the kids to bed or getting a minute to actually relax a little. It takes dedication to make a cup of coffee and head out (especially in the dark, cold winter) to a school board meeting.

Therefore, the fact that nearly 100 people traveled to Trenton on a freezing cold weekday to attend a meeting that started at 10am was impressive. (The NJEA knew this and smartly offered free lunch to those registered to speak.) Those people waited for 4 hours until 2pm for the public comment portion to start, knowing that they would only be allowed to speak for 5 minutes.

Nearly 100 people!!!

This is IMPRESSIVE in this day and age where most business and even friendships are conducted from home via the computer. These people took time to write something and drive somewhere and speak publicly.

So many more people wanted to go, but couldn’t because they have jobs to go to and no ability to take a day off. Or like me they had children to take care of and to pick up from school and no one to fill in for them for the entire day. Or for a million other reasons, they couldn’t go. But they wanted to and that is important to recognize too.

There is a movement that is growing in numbers, and its collective voice will not be easily ignored. The PARCC test is not the answer to any of the problems in education; it IS the problem.

Yet as impressive as those nearly 100 people were to make the trip to speak out on behalf of our students and their teachers, many more will need to step up to the plate locally to keep the pressure on. Consider writing a refusal letter and attend your local meetings to voice your opinion and ask questions.

Please share this blog post with others on Twitter or your Facebook wall. I welcome comments as well.

Thank You!

Here’s an article about yesterday’s NJ State Board Meeting:

http://www.njspotlight.com/stories/15/01/07/anti-testing-turnout-puts-state-board-of-education-to-the-test/

This is an article about Sarah Blaine a former teacher and full-time practicing attorney in NJ, which includes her testimony from the Board meeting (a video link as well).

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/01/08/mom-spells-out-problems-with-parcc-common-core-test/

Here’s a link about Ohio’s decision to delay the PARCC:

http://wkbn.com/2015/01/07/educators-happy-with-delay-in-parcc-reading-exam/

My past PARCC-related posts:

PARCC Learning

PARCC Only Drives Instruction Into the Ground

PARCC Attrition

The Things I Can’t Change

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the Serenity
To accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

This prayer hung in my kitchen throughout my childhood. My father hung it there, when he received it as a gift from his sister.  When I would get frustrated about something, he would point to it.

I always thought the second line was stupid. Everything can be changed. I believed that with my whole, young fiery heart. And I think tonight, I finally realized my problem. I have never had, “the Wisdom to know the difference”. In my mind, I have always thought that if things don’t change, then people aren’t working hard enough.

Well, tonight I think it finally sunk in. That sometimes it’s not that things can’t or won’t change, but it’s a question of how long and how hard of an uphill battle do I want to fight?

When my husband and I decided to move, I promised myself to do the best research I could to ensure a quality school system and community for our children. The battle I fought in the town we were leaving was long and hard. Some said what I accomplished was impressive, but for me it wasn’t nearly enough. I felt like a failure.

I was leaving a profession that was so important to me. I wasn’t able to help those students I know were falling through the cracks and would keep falling without me advocating for them. I felt terrible that I couldn’t motivate and inspire more like-minded people (fellow teachers, friends, parents, etc.) to speak up and get involved. I felt bad telling parents of my former students that I was leaving and that I would never teach the younger siblings of families that  I had grown so close to.

But in the end, I took a deep breath and walked away. Knowing that I couldn’t stay somewhere and keep banging my head against the wall. I had already developed an ulcer and lost far too much sleep. Many asked me if I really thought I could find better. I was confident that I could and that I did. But one of my colleagues was right to say that the sweeping reforms were national and could not be escaped.

Tonight I realized that though I have found a better place for our family, I still am not sure that it is good enough. I wanted a place with more parent and community involvement. I found a place with three parent organizations. Yet tonight I sat at a meeting for one of those organizations as the ONLY member of the public at the meeting. Sadly the other groups and meetings don’t have much attendance either.

I feel cheated. I feel lost. I feel alone in this battle despite all of the Facebook groups that tell me that there are people out there fighting the same fight.

At what point do I just give up fighting for better public schools and just homeschool?

I just paid $100 to own this blog and $20 to print business cards to promote it. But tonight I feel like letting my kids finish out the school year and then just walking away…again. As inspiring as all of these Opt Out and other reform movements are, I just don’t know if I have it in me to lead one, because the battle is such a grueling one.

My first responsibility is to my children, and I know that leaving them in public school is not the best possible choice for them. But then I think that even if I homeschool my children, they still have to go out into a country that will be so much worse off, if things continue the way they are going.

Maybe I should be up late planning to homeschool next year instead of trying to fix a system that so many people are so complacent about.

Now that I am older I understand why my Dad’s sister gave him that prayer. Because he, like me, was never satisfied accepting that anything was unchangeable.