Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Live in the Land of the Real

I'm a brass-tacks kind of person. I like theory, but when we are talking about how to fix things, I need to make it real. I want to know when, what and with whom-- not leave things amorphous and undefined. So, when I watched as much of Jon Stewart's interview with Michelle Rhee as I could stomach, the "real" that was missing from their sweeping statements jumped out at me like a plague of frogs.

Rhee stated that to her, obvious changes for the better in D.C. were to "close low performing schools, cut central office bureaucracy and fire ineffective educators."  Big round of applause from the audience. Fine. Frost that mud cake and take a big bite. Or- we could talk about some of the "real" I've experienced in my nine schools in five months in the Pittsburgh Public Schools for a moment. Then we'll come back to Rhee's prescription to fix schools.

The Good:
Wallace Sapp, a community member who devotes over 40 hours a week to the school. Building relationships with teachers, Mr. Sapp runs a hugely popular math enrichment program during class time. Teachers trust him to support the curriculum enough to give him instructional time-- and it works. Mr.Sapp and his wife Lisa Freedman have the community to their home, a block from the school, where they host parents to work out problems and concerns with the school. They are a driving force in the successes at Pittsburgh Manchester because they bridge community and school- and foster trust between these groups.

Miss Smith, a grandmother at Pittsburgh Lincoln Elementary, who volunteers twice a week in a third grade classroom, in a relationship built on trust and respect with students, teachers and parents.

A grandmother at Pittsburgh Faison who daily volunteered to serve breakfast before she went to work, talking to kids, encouraging them, offering to read to them at her house after school. This grandmother visited the school library daily with her two adopted sons, making them report out on books they had read the night before, and borrowing new books to read to them and to other students at night.

The art teacher at Pittsburgh Mifflin, whose classroom is filled with blooming hibiscus plants and a busy kiln. She stays late to refire the children's creations so the glaze will be brighter--and hangs the brilliantly painted, bejeweled and glittering life-sized Egyptian Gods and Goddess down a "Hall of 7th Grade Egyptian Art" in the school. Next to this are the three-dimensional African masks younger students created.

The scores of teachers who buy and bring pretzels, fruit, cereal bars and crackers to school daily to feed their hungry students who need the extra food.

Ms. Applebaum, who buys silk flowers and florist's tape to create flower pens with her students at Pittsburgh Arlington. It keeps their hands busy so she can talk to them about their rage, their distrust of school, their problems with their peers and parents. Her classroom door, decorated with a rainbow sticker announcing her class as a safe place for LGBT youth, swings wide for all children in her embattled school. Behind it they find an adult who listens.

Mr. Dap Porter, a former Pitt Basketball star, who works with autistic children at Pittsburgh Arlington. He plays academic "Jeopardy"-style games with all of the kids during indoor recess and gives hugs as rewards.

Ms. Deonne Arlington, Principal of Pittsburgh Lincoln, who bought coats, hats and gloves for her students when the wind chill was below zero.

Mrs. Gail Livingstone, school librarian at 5 schools, who sneaks books between classes to children who didn't get a turn to visit the library.

The Bad:
The experience of students with learning disabilities at one school who have to take standardized tests with no adaptations allowed. Their frustration, their pain, and their internalization of failure.

The empty supply cabinets at some schools. No scissors, crayons, markers, glue, white copy paper.

The children who face a locked nurse's office most days of the week in every school I've worked in, who go without needed medications or suffer through asthma attacks, fevers and stomach disorders in busy classrooms because their working parents can't take them to the doctor or pick them up from school.

The students in all of the nine schools I've worked in who think they don't like reading because they don't have access to a school library, a loving and close relationship with a school librarian, a book store or a public library.

At one school, the science teacher was still waiting to receive her science curriculum in December.

The needed supplies moldering in closed schools because budget cuts from the state have cut central office personnel. There is nobody to inventory, assess needs and dray out these things. And when supplies get to schools, there are not enough tech staff to fix computers, printers, SMART Boards, networks, etc. to get things to work or keep them working.

The Ugly:
In one school, each Kindergarten class has 33 students. One undiagnosed child screams for at least four hours a day. Unrelenting. In January, not all of these children knew the names of their classmates. Some do not yet know how to spell their own names. The teacher goes into the hall for a moment when she needs to cry. Then she goes back into her class and carries on.

The students who arrive not knowing their names. The students who can't tell you what their last names are.

The 38 fourth graders in a computer lab with 18 working computers and a malfunctioning school furnace, making it 88 degrees in the room with broken windows-so opening one risks decapitation.

The mentally ill child who screams "FUCK YOU BITCH" and other colorful phrases in the hall or in class many times a day at one school. He was released from a placement to his local public school without necessary support by our broken mental health system.

The child who sits in class having seizures because his mother consistently does not give him his seizure medication.

Each of these "Good, Bad and Ugly" lists could go on for pages. Let's stop now and think about the brass tacks of Rhee's prescription for success.

None of the schools I listed, above, are doing particularly well on state assessments. Several of them are doing exceptionally poorly. Rhee would call them failing, and they could do better, be more. However, if Rhee closed Pittsburgh Manchester, Lincoln and Faison, the trust relationships built so lovingly by Mr. Sapp, Miss Smith, that grandmother who reads to the community and the parents and staffs would be obliterated. It is not easy to establish trust relationships in communities of any color, but the North Side, Lincoln-Larimer and Homewood are particularly fragile neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. Destroying the connections between communities and schools is not a kind of collateral damage we should accept.

Governor Corbett's calamitous budget cuts began with central office. Dr. Lane valiantly began with her own house-- but the effect has been difficult. Without enough staff at central office to adequately oversee schools, rebuild broken technology and keep networks running, situations like broken data systems occur- making it hard to record attendance and grades, let alone do anything else. We need human infrastructure in our central offices. They do the work of keeping the schools running right.

Firing "ineffective" teachers begs the question: ineffective based on what? We know Rhee relies on test scores, but how can any of us accept the scores hungry, sick children get? Do these scores really indicate what kids know, what they can know, what their teachers are teaching? Would Rhee, Jon Stewart, members of his enthusiastic audience or any of us want to be held accountable for the test scores of that kid who has seizures? For the kid who has to sit next to the mentally ill screamer? The kid who needs the school nurse-- but--whoops-- the funding for school nurses has been cut, there isn't one, suck it up asthmatic kid? Kid who needs his ADHD meds? Kid who has a flare of her sickle cell and is in terrible pain? Kid who came here from Somalia, via a Tanzanian refugee camp last week and speaks no English?

You may think I'm picking out the red herrings-- the exceptions to the rule to excuse bad teachers. I'm not. I'm speaking from the trenches. Five years as a certified Librarian and fifteen years of work inside and outside the classroom. From the daily realities of working in public schools, disproportionately filled with the neediest. With her three years' experience as a teacher, self-admittedly poor experience, can Rhee really speak to how to fix public schools? Why is anybody willing to listen to her?

I tell my library students, when I have them, to consider an ultimate question when they are confronted with any information or source of information. The ultimate question is, "Who benefits? Who benefits from you accepting this information and going about your life with this bit of information as a given?" Please, my friends. Take it from a brass-tacks Librarian. If you aren't aware of what is REAL, you have no place making decisions about educational policy. If you aren't working to be sure that kids have food, access to books, medical care, shelter, acceptance and love-- Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs-- you can't work toward fixing schools. Because if kids don't have their basic needs met-- and many of them don't--they can't learn as well as they should.

To anybody who is interested in education: Live in the land of the real. Know about whom and what you speak. Or, you'll pardon me, but shut the hell up.


Read this! At The Chalk Face's Update on Stewart and Rhee

Yinzercation Fighting On Many Fronts

PSEA and Governor Corbett's Ruinous Cuts to Education

Sign Our Petition for Adequate Funding for PA Schools!


1 comment:

  1. Sheila, this is amazing. You are amazing. These words are so important.