Monday, June 30, 2008

Because it’s interesting

Our van needed to go to the shop for a few days in 2002 so we rented a car while it was gone. In the glove compartment of the rental car I discovered a three page handwritten letter. The words were neatly printed in blue ink on white lined notebook paper. Here it is, reproduced as written.

(Page one)

Missing my Bady

5-7-02

Say Baby,

By the time this letter reaches you It finds you In the best of health. As for my Self honey Im doing WeLL For now. WeLL baby I heard you were IN Jail and I call to see if you Got out yet dam baby Im not use to me comeing home and my Wife Is in Jail. Dam that’s a Fucked up Felling for th bothe OF US. I know you go back to court on May 16Th I will be out and at you’R Court Date Fell me. Dam honey I realy miss you so much. I miss hearing you’re voice. I hoPe they let you out on the 16Th Fell me. What they Get you for the same old warrant’s. Baby don’t take no Felony Probation. Ask you’re lawyer For some Court Probation and Credit For time Served Fell me. Baby I been real Scared when I come home Cause I don’t want to use Drugs It’s Got to be a better life out there. That’s why we need GOD In are life

Feel me

(Page two)

Love always

Well honey I’m not going to Start Preaching because I don’t have my Shit together So who am I to Speak (Feel me) Honey I just have to Get my Shit together First. (Feel me) I was thinking about going wright Into a Program. But baby I might be In denial Still. But aLL I can do Is ask God to give me Strength not to Pick up that Shit a Put It In my arm. Or Put that PiPe UP to my mouth. Because IF I do I will be Wright back In Jail. And baby to keep It real I am very tired oF comeing to Jail. Baby what Im Saying Is take time out and think about are future and are son We can’t live like this. Because Wer’e killing are Self. Baby We deserve better because we are blessed (Feel me) I’m going to stand Stall From Now on Say honey I will come to see you IF they don’t let you come home on the 16Th and Put some money on you’re books cause I know what’s It like not to have eany money

you dig

(Page three)

But check this here honey. I wish you a happy Mother Day even though we won’t be together (FeLL me) But we will be togethe in sPrit you dig. Have you talked to Mom’s or Alvin? I know you called richmond. I hope Mom’s Is doing cool health wise. Dam I hope we can have some kid’s together. Because I want you to have my kid’s. Baby I hope you Fill the same. OH by the time you recive this letter I should be geting out monday morning on May 13. Fell me. But I like I said I will be at court. You Dig. I hope everything comes out alwright (Fell me) Dam baby how I miss you so much. I can’t wait hold you and kiss and make mad love. (Feel me) OH Baby dont Get In to trouble while your’e In there. Stay Strong In the Struggle.

Love you’re Husband

D____ H____


I wonder how their children are doing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Unrealistic expectations

As I am becoming older, I am indeed becoming wiser. I’ve learned that unrealistic expectations will nail you every time.

A few weeks ago I started reading “Teaching in the 408” by Mr. TMAO. This blog has been relatively popular for education-issue-minded people, but it was new to me. Nominated as a finalist for the Edublog Awards 2007 (Best Teacher category), the postings and its reader comments offer a peek into the hearts and minds of smart, young, idealistic teachers.

The author, a skilled and clever writer, relates his insights and experiences at a tough, urban school in San Jose, California (Lee Mathson Middle School). This is a nearly 700-student public school that serves many low-income English learners. Entering the profession as a Teach For America corps member six years ago, he had continued working for four years beyond the two year commitment that TFA requires. Perhaps the experience took its toll, for it now appears that he has left the teaching profession for good.

TMAO is a young man who believes that the teachers of today have not only the capability, but the duty, to eliminate the achievement gap. This seems to be an attitude promoted by the TFA program. He says, “We must reject the ideology of the ‘achievement gap’ that absolves adults of their responsibility and implies student culpability in continued under-performance. The student achievement gap is merely the effect of a much larger and more debilitating chasm: The Educator Achievement Gap. We must erase the distance between the type of teachers we are, and the type of teachers they need us to be.”

With teachers being implied as both the cause, and the cure, for the achievement gap, I wasn't totally surprised to encounter entries in this blog that dismiss the conclusions of Richard Rothstein, one of my heroes. At one point the author even says, “That silly Richard Rothstein path is a slippery slope…”

Rothstein is a longtime education scholar who has completed an enormous amount of research. He also personally understands the childrearing process and knows about the world of public education. His wife was a public school principal in L.A. and his three children attended public schools. His perspectives carry a bit more credibility than those of a twenty-something-year-old who has been on the scene for only six years.

The hundreds of findings in Richard Rothstein’s book, “Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic, and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap” (2004) describe how factors outside of school invariably influence academic achievement. Rothstein paints a detailed and utterly realistic picture. Here are just a few findings from the section in the book about social class differences in childrearing (pp. 19 to 32):

1. Literacy and pre-literacy activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Are read to more frequently by their parents. As a result, they become more familiar with the experience of reading.

· Have more books in their homes. As a result, they become more familiar with handling books.

· Are asked questions by parents that are creative, interpretive or connective (i.e. “What do you think will happen next?”) when they are read to. As a result, they experience more enjoyment when their parents read to them.

· See their parents reading for entertainment and/or to solve problems As a result, they have more opportunities to see books being used by the adults in their homes (strong modeling).

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Are read to less frequently by their parents. As a result, they become less familiar with the experience of reading.

· Have fewer books in their homes. As a result, they are less familiar with handling books.

· Are more likely to be given commands by parents (i.e. “Pay attention,” “Don’t interrupt,” and “Sound out the word”) when they are read to. As a result, they experience less enjoyment when their parents read to them.

· Do not see their parents reading for entertainment and/or to solve problems. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to see books being used by the adults in their homes (weak modeling).

2. Conversational activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who converse with them as infants by asking questions and providing answers. As a result, they receive more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who engage in conversation with them and explain things to them. As a result, they receive even more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who give instructions indirectly (“It’s cold. Don’t you want to put your coat on?”) As a result, they receive even more of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Are told more stories by their parents. As a result, they have more opportunities to hear words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents with larger vocabularies. As a result, they hear a greater variety of words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents who are more likely to ask open-ended questions. As a result, they are stimulated to develop greater abstract reasoning or conceptualization abilities. These abilities are needed to master high school level academics.

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who do not converse with them as infants by asking questions and providing answers. As a result, they receive less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who do not engage in conversation with them and explain things to them. As a result, they receive even less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Have parents who give instructions directly (“Put your coat on right now.”) As a result, they receive even less of the stimulation that develops internal reasoning abilities.

· Are told fewer stories by their parents. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to hear words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents with smaller vocabularies. As a result, they hear a less variety of words that can be incorporated into their vocabularies.

· Have parents who are less likely to ask them open-ended questions. They are more likely to be given direct instruction. They are more likely asked to recite facts, identification and simple recall. As a result, they are not stimulated to develop greater abstract reasoning or conceptualization abilities. The thinking abilities which are stimulated help to master elementary school level academics only.

3. Discipline and confidence-building activities

In homes which practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who permit negotiation and explain rules (parents’ occupation is more likely to entail authority and more responsibility). As a result, they learn to feel strongly that they can affect their environment and solve problems (“I don’t have to tolerate this situation. I’ll do something about it.”).

· Have parents who draw them into adult conversation and encourage them to express their opinions. As a result, they learn to feel comfortable with addressing adults as equals and develop a sense of entitlement.

· Are punished less. (Even if the intent was desirable, for example, pouring milk but then spilling it by accident).

· Have parents with behavioral expectations that are more likely to be aligned with the schools’ expectations. For example, it is not acceptable to hit a person, even if they have hit you.

· Have more opportunities to experience after-school activities. As a result, their self confidence is built and they see that unfamiliar challenges are exciting. This contributes to their becoming more likely to succeed.

In homes which do not practice middle-class values, it is likely that children

· Have parents who do not encourage them to negotiate and do not invite extended discussion (parents have more routine occupations that are closely supervised). As a result, they do not learn to feel that they can affect their environment and solve problems. They are more fatalistic (“That’s just the way it is. There’s nothing I can do.”)

· Have parents who do not draw them into adult conversation and to encourage them to express their opinions. As a result, they do not learn to feel comfortable with addressing adults as equals and are inhibited from developing a sense of entitlement.

· Are punished more. (Even if the intent was desirable, for example, pouring milk but then spilling it by accident).

· Have parent with behavioral expectations that are sometimes in conflict with the schools’ expectations. For example, it may be acceptable to hit a person at certain times.

· Have fewer opportunities to experience after-school activities. As a result, their self confidence is not built as much. They do not see that unfamiliar challenges are exciting, so they become less likely to succeed.


Just as our bodies need a variety of complimentary nutrients to grow, and to be healthy and strong, there are many factors (both
internal and external to school) that contribute to a child's ability to learn. Teachers are just one essential nutrient, one portion of what a child needs. It is a naïve and grandiose belief on the part of new young teachers that they alone are capable of, and responsible for, eliminating educational inequity. This mindset might be invigorating for a while, but it eventually becomes a heavy and painful burden that wears at physical and mental health.

So Mr. TMAO, in a few more years when you have a baby (if you still have the same opinions that you have expressed in “Teaching in the 408”) it won't matter to your child's outcome if you suppress your middle-class impulses and try a new style of parenting.

Avoid talking to your baby very much, especially using the big words you know. When your baby becomes a toddler, make sure you hardly ever read to it and never let it see you reading a book. Don't ask your toddler questions; just tell it what to do. When your child is a preschooler, tell it that it's sometimes okay to hit classmates. Then send your child off to school and expect the teachers to fill in the blanks. A few years later, I am certain you will discover that the student achievement gap is not merely the effect of an “Educator Achievement Gap.”

Teach For America’s corps members would benefit by learning the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

High 9’s, low 9’s and homerooms

When I was working at Bret Harte, a closet in my room became the depository for old school memorabilia. Whenever people found something ancient in one of the many stray cupboards or mildewed corners on campus, they knew to bring it to me. I was very interested in the history of the school and would accept the discoveries as if they were gold.

One day I was looking at an old photo of the school's first graduating class (the Class of 1930) and suddenly realized that the 75th class was going to graduate that school year. I immediately started planning for an anniversary celebration to take place in May 2005.

In preparation for the event I sought out former teachers and students. A number of people responded and I was delighted to tap into their memories. By talking with them, and by studying old documents and photos, I have learned quite a bit about the school. Someday I might get around to compiling the bits and pieces into a narrative. It would certainly reveal how much things have changed, but also how much things have remained the same.

Here's a short background. Bret Harte (in Oakland, California) was a junior high from 1930 until 1996. The following year, the school was turned into a middle school; ninth graders had been eliminated and sixth graders had been added. From counting up the number of graduating students pictured in old yearbooks and class photos, I learned that the size of the graduating class has always fallen in the 275 to 339 student range. For its entire life it has been a large school with about 900 students. Bret Harte was placed in Program Improvement Year 4 for 2007-2008.

Small schools and “small learning communities” are the popular models for school reform these days, and large schools have become a threatened species. However, one problem that seems to be arising with small schools is that they are more expensive to operate. Another is that the choice of classes they are able to offer to their students is more limited. So the pursuit to develop ever-more-perfect models continues on. I read recently that one Texas school district “is trying to implement smaller learning communities within the confines of bigger high school campuses” by dividing up a high school into two 400-student “houses” per grade level.¹ What I know from studying the history of Bret Harte is that something similar to this was in place long ago.

From 1930 to the 1950’s, each grade level was split into two groups. Old panoramic photos of graduating classes show that each of those groups had 140 to 150 students. One group finished their school year in the wintertime and the other finished in June. My neighbor who attended the school in the 1940’s recalled that the two class groups were organized by the age of the incoming students. For instance, the younger seventh graders were grouped together as “low 7’s”; the older ones were grouped together as “high 7’s.” The “high” and “low” terminology continued through the 9th grade. I would love to find out the details of this system, such as how scheduling and instruction were implemented and how students were advanced into high school, but not too many of those teachers would still be alive today, so it might just be too late.

Another “innovation” being tried at the Texas high school is providing each house of students with “…dedicated counselors who stay with that class of students from ninth through 12th grade.” That’s funny because Bret Harte used to do something like that, too, before services were whittled away.

Today the 850 student middle school has just one counselor. On the other hand, for the nearly thirty years between the early 1970’s and 1997 it was staffed with three counselors, one for each grade. From 1998 to 2002 the school had two counselors. With the rapid staff turnover and ongoing loss of institutional memory, if it wasn’t for the memorabilia, how would anyone know that there had been such a drastic change?

In the near future, I won’t be surprised if school reformers come up with a new innovation called “homerooms.” Maybe they could use the model of homerooms that existed at Bret Harte from 1930 until at least 1971. In these homerooms, a group of students (alphabetically assigned) met together for one period everyday to take care of important assorted business before they all split off into their other classes.

The best thing about this concept is that a mixture of students was kept together in the same group, in the same homeroom, with the same teacher – for all three years they attended the school. Talk about providing a way for kids to bond with other people at the school! And because of the way they were organized, I wouldn't be surprised if homerooms might have helped a bit with combating some of the harmful aspects of school cliques.

The former teachers and students I spoke with had very fond memories of their homerooms, all because of the deeper relationships that developed in those rooms over the years. One alumna from 1933 told me a lovely story of how her class group bonded with their homeroom teacher so strongly that they had reunions with her for decades, and most of her classmates stayed in touch with each other into old age.

Schools in the past knew that homerooms and a sufficient supply of school counselors were a great way to support their students. I don’t know why these things were eliminated, but I would guess it probably had something to do with meeting goals of instructional minutes and coping with decreases in school funding.

I want to mention a couple of other changes that are revealed in Bret Harte's yearbooks. One is that a school librarian was pictured every year from the 1960’s on, until 2002 when the position was finally eliminated. Another is that school used to have many, many after school student clubs. They’ve come and gone, but in previous years the students had an Art Club, a Golf Club, a Bowling Club, a Welcome Wagon Club, a Safety Patrol Council, a History Club, a Human Relations Club, a Stage Crew, a Book Club, a Dance Committee, Campus Commissioners, Junior Red Cross, a Hiking Club, and a Photography Club, just to name a few. Typically, teachers would stay after school to be advisors for these student-run clubs.

These types of clubs are non-existent today, and have been for a number of years. When I asked a teacher why he thought this was so, he told me that it's probably because teachers are so burned out at the end of the day, none of them want to stay around to help with an after school club.

For the past several years, after school activities at Bret Harte have been provided by an outside, grant-funded program. So rather than being given opportunities for practicing leadership skills by being in charge of a club, students take a class. And rather than having the opportunity to make a deeper connection with a teacher who is dedicated to the school, students have a set of part-time, minimally experienced, young adult instructors revolving in and out of their afternoon lives.

I’m not so naïve to think that the problems in our schools would be fixed if we could only go back to the “the good old days.” However, by gleaning information from yearbooks, old photos, and conversations with former students and teachers, I know at least one school in Oakland was doing things years ago that worked out better for its students.

Knowing some of the details of the past can be useful as we sit in that pot of water on the stove – by helping us perceive how much the temperature of the water has changed.

¹ “Is bigger better? Advocates say smaller schools provide better learning environment,” The Brownsville Herald, 6/14/08, http://tinyurl.com/5djcx3

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Parent Center years

When it came time for our older daughter to go to middle school in 1999, we decided to send her to Bret Harte, the local public school. Despite its ragged appearance, the school had an “accelerated” academic program for its motivated students, a strong instrumental music program, and was within walking distance from our home. We knew a few other neighborhood families who had decided to go there as part of an emerging movement to “reclaim” the school, and who hoped – like we did – to “turn it around.”


At this time Bret Harte had a reputation as a “ghetto” school to the people in the neighborhood and was referred to as such by at least one local realtor. Things had not always been this way. In years past, all of our older neighbors had sent their children to the school without hesitation. They would tell us, “It used to be a really good school.” Of course this was before a major demographic shift took place in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.


Over a short period of time, the school’s student body went from majority white (working and middle-class) to majority black (poor). Initially, white flight to the suburbs reduced the number of white middle-class kids who were attending the school, after which kids from outside the neighborhood filled those spaces. This started a snowball effect as the white (working and middle-class) families that remained in the neighborhood began to feel uncomfortable and pulled away from the school, too. They sent their kids to private schools or to Montera, the public middle school in the hills. Also during this time, Asian kids from poor immigrant families started attending Bret Harte, and as the years passed, more and more Latino kids from poor immigrant families came to the school as well. The climate at the school changed not only because of the demographics, but because of reductions in education spending caused by Proposition 13. The human and material resources that helped to make the school stronger just dwindled away.


As a stay-at-home mom, I had been an extremely active parent volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school and had also been involved with the co-op preschool my younger daughter attended. As soon as I arrived at Bret Harte, it was clear to me that this was a school that was in dire need of more adult attention. I immediately cut down on my volunteer activities at the elementary school and started showing up at Bret Harte to do things. What bothered me most was the filthy and neglected condition of the campus, so I joined with a few other parents to work on custodial and littering issues.


When my daughter was in the sixth grade, I was vaguely aware that there was a Parent Center at the school. I knew that there was someone who worked in it named Howard, but I didn’t really understand what he did. The few times I went in to talk with him he was sitting in the corner of the room alone with his leg up on a chair. The room was filled with boxes and furniture and the lights were always turned off. I would sit down and rattle to him about my frustration with the negligent custodian who mostly wandered around campus doing nothing useful. He listened to me and seemed nice enough.


The PTA had purchased an answering machine for the Parent Center hoping that Howard would record school announcements on it. Parents were frustrated and would gripe because he couldn’t often seem to get this simple task done. The following year when my daughter was in the seventh grade, he wasn't at the school anymore. The Parent Coordinator position was vacant for months until I made an offer to the principal: I would take on the job if I could work part-time and set my own hours. She accepted my proposal.


In February 2001, I started working as a part-time Parent Coordinator at the school. I did not receive any training or much guidance, but I was given free rein to do the things that needed to be done and I was highly motivated. Since the Parent Center had become a catch-all room for storage, I cleaned it up, brought in a desk from home, purchased a sofa at the White Elephant sale and started making pots of coffee in case anyone stopped by. I hunted down the person in the district who knew how to set up voice mail and then started to record regular school announcements for parents.


The following year the school hired another Parent Coordinator to help with its communication to Asian parents. In an incredible stroke of luck we found Eva, an intelligent and conscientious woman with tremendous language skills; she could speak Cantonese, Mandarin & Vietnamese and also write Chinese. She and I worked together for seven enjoyable and highly productive years. A Spanish-speaking Parent Coordinator position was added but the two different people who filled that spot did not happen to have the same longevity and devotion to the school.


In the years I worked at Bret Harte, word got around about the good things we were doing at the Parent Center and it became a model that representatives from other Oakland schools would come to see. Skyline's Family Resource Center was based on our model. Even representatives from other districts heard about us, and would stop by to find out what we had created and how it was done. The two people who had been Parent Coordinators before me had not worked out well, so the principal and the teacher who had conceived the idea of starting a Parent Center were very proud that it had finally been actualized.


As a Parent Coordinator, my main focus was to give parents consistent, high-quality communication from the school so they could know what was going on. I also constantly scanned the community so I could provide them with a wide variety of useful resources. We worked with the PTA to produce a monthly newsletter, we worked to help develop a web site, we offered our own classes and promoted others, we installed the messages on the outside marquee, we organized special events for the school, we produced multi-lingual documents, we started a listserv and sent out weekly announcements, we promoted the positive things that were going on at the school, we answered questions from members of the community, we collected resources for the school, we helped parents with their problems, and we connected people with each other. Mostly, we were a dependable and devoted presence intent on providing high-quality information and interactions to parents and other people at the school.


As the years passed, things changed at Bret Harte. No Child Left Behind altered the milieu at the school as testing, preparing for testing, and tensions about testing started to dominate. When the Oakland Unified School District was taken over by the state because of fiscal mismanagement, the new state-appointed administrative team made changes that damaged the integrity of certain positive things at the school. I watched as, one by one, a number of dedicated, skilled, and experienced staff members resigned from Bret Harte in frustration, and as the teachers who were left behind suffered from a weakened morale. I don’t think the district’s downtown management, to me a set of arrogant outsiders with agendas incompatible with the health of school sites, has any clue about just how many of this school's resources they drove away, and it is just one public school in Oakland. This is a district that simply cannot afford to lose a single resource because of this sort of carelessness.


For some reason in my seventh year at the school, the new principal, her new fiscal officer, and OUSD just couldn’t seem to process the Parent Coordinator contracts to completion. In the years I had worked there, this had not ever happened before. As a result, for month after month, we were not issued our paychecks.


As dedicated employees who were being strung along with superficial statements from the principal, the three of us continued to work without pay because we could manage financially just enough, we liked our work, and we were extremely hesitant to abandon the school. As the first semester advanced and our financial hardships grew, I became more and more insistent with the principal about finding out what was really going on. Realizing that this was being caused by some sort of incompetence and/or deception, I started to emotionally detach from the school. In addition, in my free time I had become very outspoken about the motives and direction of the district’s state-run administration. Being a public school parent and community member, I posted my opinions on the Oakland Public School Parents Yahoo group and on the opinion pages of the Oakland Tribune.


In December 2007 just before winter break and having still not been paid for the school year, I asked the principal to have a formal meeting with me and my co-workers. Instead of agreeing, she asked to meet with me alone. When I arrived in her office she was accompanied by the school's Network Executive Officer, her supervisor from the district. They both apologized to me for the problems with the contract, informed me that the contracts had finally just been approved (as if by magic!), and told me that our paychecks would be issued in a few weeks. But then the meeting took an uncomfortable turn.


The principal told me that she felt that I didn't like her and that I always seemed angry. I reassured her that I liked her just fine, but that it’s definitely been a problem that we haven’t been paid all school year. Then her NExO started a little inquisition of me – asking what I liked about my work at the school and asking if I was unhappy. She told me that I didn’t look happy whenever she saw me. This seemed very odd because we rarely crossed paths. It also seemed irrelevant to why I was meeting with them. Then she slipped in the piece of the conversation that made everything clear. She told me that she had read some of the things that I had written about OUSD, and reminded me that the district is where my paycheck comes from. Then she explained that she, and the principal, felt it was time for me to step down from the Parent Center. The principal sat next to her mute.


When I returned to school after winter break I delivered my resignation letter to the principal. I have concluded that my complaints about OUSD’s current state-run administration may have finally become big enough that they decided to uproot me from Bret Harte. I suspect they sent the NExO to do the deed. I know for certain that I had been providing the school with consistent and dependable high-quality service and that my elimination had nothing to do with my work. I left the school in February. In the days that followed, I started this web site (I hate the word “blog”) so I would have a place to post the things I like to write about.


I still think about Bret Harte quite a bit, and wonder how everyone is doing. The school is in the process of being “restructured” because of NCLB, so I know that many things are changing there. Of course, we are all constantly moving on to new things. At this last week of the 2007-2008 school year, I send out warm wishes from my heart for a good summer to the many Bret Harte community members I left behind. As always, go Bobcats!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Different kinds of parents

During the seven years I worked as a Parent Coordinator at a large middle school in Oakland that served many low income kids (about 550 kids, or around 62%), I learned how some parents behave in relation to their children’s schools, and to their children’s educations in general. For instance:

· One parent urinated on the floor in a school’s restroom because she was angry with the school.

· Quite a few parents take their kids out of the country for several weeks in the middle of the school year. They do this even though their children end up missing 15 to 20 days of instruction.

· A parent blocked a residential driveway with her car while she was waiting to pick up her child. When the school’s neighbor arrived and asked her to move, the parent called her “bitch.”

· One parent came to the school, hunted down one of her daughter’s classmates on the blacktop, and then she and her daughter began to beat up that child. They did not stop when the security officer intervened. When the assistant principal intervened, the parent also hit her, broke her eyeglasses, and then sped off in a car.

· Some parents who come in to conduct school business are drunk and reeking of alcohol.

· Some parents angrily reply, “I ain’t joining no PTA!” when asked by other parents at registration if they would like to do so.

· One parent had her children stay at a relative’s house many miles away. Her 13-year-old daughter was left responsible for transporting herself to her middle school, and her two much younger siblings to their elementary school, alone and by bus. All three kids showed up at the middle school at 11 a.m. The daughter had given up with trying to get the younger ones to their school.

· Some parents think it is acceptable if their children call White teachers “bitch” but warn their children to never do the same with Black teachers.

· There are parents who tell their children that they should beat up other kids. There are parents who give the principal permission to hit their children.

· One grandparent publicly beat his adolescent grandson with a belt in the front driveway of the school. That kid was in prison two years later.

· There are parents who have no idea when the school year begins. They bring their children in one or two weeks after the school year has already started.

· One parent came to the school and was upset because their child has received an “F” in math. She screamed at the math teacher, “You’re the teacher. You’re the one that’s supposed to be teaching them!” There was a complete disconnect re: the student's responsibility.

· Some parents absolutely refuse to permit their children to see a psychologist even though their children’s teachers are advising it because they are observing possible severe emotional problems. The parents are not refusing because of financial reasons; the school provides this service for free.

· Despite information being mailed home, some parents still have no idea what grades their children are receiving.

· One parent spit sunflower seed shells all over the carpeted floor of the principal’s office when they came in to meet with her.

· There are parents who are in and out of jail and who intentionally train their children how to steal things from other people.

· Some parents who are members of violent gangs will have their children join the gang, too.

· One parent was talking very loudly at a school music performance and became very angry and confrontational when she was asked to be quiet by another parent in the audience.

· One parent provided a cell phone to her daughter and permitted her to wear a grill (teeth ornament). When that child failed multiple eighth grades classes, the parent threatened to take those things away. No consequences were ever given, though. The girl dropped out of high school after the following year.

· Some parents have homes where the TV is constantly on, but not a single book other than the Bible can be found in the house.

· Some parents just throw the school newsletter in the garbage can and “never bother to read it,” according to their children.

· A number of parents will never come in for special school meetings with teachers even though they are asked to attend because their child is in danger of being retained.

· Some parents come to the school two weeks before the end of the school year and are absolutely irate. They are angry because they have just learned that their children will not be allowed to graduate from middle school because of failing multiple classes all year long.

· Some parents are either oblivious, or in denial, about the fact that their children are gang members, even though the warning signs have been there for months and assistant administrators have had talks with them about it.

· One parent “helped” with a yearbook project, collected thousands of dollars from students, and then disappeared with the money.

· Some parents never, ever attend back-to-school night or any other school event.

· One parent asked her husband to turn off the home TV in the evening so that their kids could concentrate on homework. He absolutely refused because he wanted to watch TV.

· Two parents were completely dismissive of the fact that their daughter was getting a master’s degree. They told her that she was only wasting her time by going to college and thought she should just go get a job.

· One parent had to call the police because an ex- spouse with a drug addiction was breaking down a door to get into her house. On the morning of their first day of school, the four kids watched as their father got arrested in front of their house.

In the capacity of my work, I became acquainted with this type of behavior on a regular basis. Dealing with it, and the consequences of it, is one of the immense challenges that these schools must face. The average behavior of parents was not this extreme, but this type of behavior was not atypical. In a middle-class school, this type of parent behavior would be rare.

I would occasionally observe some low income parents exhibiting behavior at the other extreme. For instance, one mother was so bothered by a small error on her child’s otherwise perfect attendance record that she found her child’s schoolwork from that day, brought it in as proof of her child’s attendance, and insisted to have the error officially corrected.

Having observed incident after incident, and knowing that the behaviors are indicators of home values and parenting abilities, I find it impossible to believe that schools – on their own, with the resources currently allotted to them – will be able to sufficiently counter most of the attitudes that children learn in their homes and/or be able to adequately compensate for the things that parents are unable to provide.

As always, if you are interested in learning more, I suggest you read Annette Lareau (who describes the difference in parenting styles of middle class and poor/working class families and how these styles affect the behavioral outcomes of their children), Richard Rothstein (who looks at numerous other studies about family functioning as it relates to children's ability to learn) and Elijah Anderson (who describes behaviors typical in “street” (vs. “decent”) low income Black families and tells how fourth graders with a “street” orientation have already started to tune out of school).

Monday, June 2, 2008

On nurturing

As an Oakland public school parent, I’ve seen many changes in my local schools over the past several years. Various methods are being tried to improve the academic achievement of students. A number of the changes have been about increasing the testing of students, subjecting schools to penalties, and revamping school communities. Unfortunately, many problems continue because important pieces of the puzzle are still missing.

When I contemplate this situation and think about possible solutions, I often recall an experience I had in college. It was in my last year of nursing school when a guest lecturer spoke to my class about “nurturing.” As nursing students, we had been studying diseases, procedures, and care plans for the past three years. A lecture about nurturing was unlike anything we had heard before and seemed lightweight and slightly irrelevant to me, the soon-to-be critical care nurse.

But as it turned out, time after time I have learned from experience that nurturing is the essence of care-giving. Now thirty years later, the issues at these schools remind me of the wisdom of that lecture once again. One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle for helping the schools, and one that is never mentioned, is nurturing.

The schools are expected to give an excellent education to the children, to elevate their social status, and to also repair the harmful effects of family breakdown, poverty, illiteracy, violence, values that have lost their moorings, and living in a neighborhood with a thriving underground economy – all on a meager budget. To me, the schools aren't necessarily the thing that is “broken” but that everything around them is sick. Individuals can be sick, and systems can be, too. It’s no wonder that schools are struggling and that so many children are doing poorly.

The children’s low academic achievement is just one symptom of the illness. Unfortunately, members of the society far outside these schools have concluded that the schools are the cause of the problems, not the other way around. Their mandate is for the schools to be “fixed” and they call the current attempts which are inadequate “reform.” So far, it seems as if the people inside these schools, who know better, are too few and too weak to effectively battle the misconception.

The fixes being imposed have been a “left-brain” approach that has been dictated by bureaucracies and businessmen. It goes along these lines: “Let’s collect data about all the different parts and analyze it. Then we are going to solve the problem by remaking the schools so that they’ll work more efficiently. We don't trust that anyone in the schools is working hard enough, so we're going to force them to work harder, too. It’s all very logical, you see.”

Sadly, this approach is narrowly focused and punitive, and it is doing more harm than good. Some people believe this the underlying intent. Limited in its view, it completely ignores other things that are needed to create health and build more human potential in these schools – in the students, their parents and their teachers. It completely disregards the wisdom that the “right-brain” has to offer.

Sick people are human beings; they are not just numbers that are occupying space. Restoring health takes much more than drawing blood and taking vital signs (or testing kids and closing/reopening schools). The students, and their schools, will need consistent, compassionate care – and plenty of it in order to get well. Both the urban public schools and their students desperately need acts of kindness done for them, just as sick patients need to have their hands held, sips of water offered, and kind words of encouragement spoken to them. The schools need nurturing.

Nurturing is action. It means to nourish; to feed. It consists of many, small, physical acts of kindness, quietly done over time, that make people feel better, and let them know that someone cares. This type of care can’t be measured or mandated, but the results can clearly be seen. If they choose to, members of the society who are stronger can do this for members of the society who are weaker.

Middle class families are lucky. They have less of a struggle to make ends meet so they have the time, money, and inclination to nurture their children’s schools. They contribute additional resources by providing the school with things that are enriching and morale building, such as student awards luncheons, teacher appreciation events, classroom help, meaningful input at meetings, community work days, multicultural fairs, talent shows, refreshment sales at performances, newsletters produced and sent to parents, small grants to teachers, etc. Eliminate these extras from those schools and watch them start to wither.

Less fortunate schools simply don’t have enough of those kinds of things; in addition they’re often criticized and attacked by community members who don’t fully understand the dimension of what is going on behind their walls. The inhabitants are trying to cope with an immense amount of stress by themselves, with not much to offset it along the way.

I remember the first time I felt the envy of not having those things that would have made it nicer at my daughter’s middle school. Coming from an elementary school that was well nurtured, we found ourselves in the harsh environment of our local middle school that lacked enough parents to do very many of the extras. Most of the parents were poor and uneducated. Many wouldn’t consider joining the PTA or attend school meetings, and a number of them were even hostile at the suggestion of it. The vast majority wouldn’t ever offer, or even consent when asked, to help at the school, not to mention take the initiative to organize something special for the students.

I soon entered a phase where I felt resentful towards them. From my perspective they were neglecting the school and its children. I was at first disgusted by their lack of participation but started to understand it when I read “Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life” by Annette Lareau. People from different backgrounds have different points of view and abilities, and that’s just the way it is. In the meantime, the school was crippled by, and was suffering from, a lack of adult attention – even though most of the staff was doing their best.

I would like to see members of the wider community, and the organizations in them, tapped so that they would provide acts of kindness – and nurturing – to disadvantaged schools. Their participation should be institutionalized. This would help with lowering teacher turnover and building the community.

I would also like to hear the word “morale” spoken by school leaders more often than it is, and for them to demonstrate a heightened sensitivity to this extremely important feature. Teacher morale is continuously and devastatingly eroded because of the extraordinarily difficult work conditions in urban schools, conditions that very few teachers are able to tolerate over time. The high levels of job dissatisfaction lead to teacher turnover and apathy. So with the resulting loss of support for students, why is this problem so minimally addressed?

To help find our way out, perhaps we could look at the model provided by the U.S. military, an organization that recognizes the tremendous importance of morale. For generations it has known that strong levels of morale (of both the servicemen and their families) are essential for functioning; it even has an office called Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR). This is the type of support that the education-reform-minded-billionaires could have provided to OUSD which would have made a difference.

A few years ago, a friend told me what happened when his church decided to help an East Oakland elementary school. One of the first things they did was to give the teachers a luncheon. He told me how one teacher was near tears as she expressed her gratitude, “I’ve been here for 20 years and no one has ever done anything for us.” Just stop for a moment and imagine yourself in the position of that teacher, then you'll be able to understand how nurturing can help morale.

Arrogant minds might find it odd or silly to hear, but wiser folks will realize that I am right. By finding ways to provide more nurturing to these schools, the people in them would be helped a great deal and more progress towards wellness might be made. When acts of kindness are done for people in need, they tend to respond beautifully.