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I sold my soul to the company store

Let me start by saying I think education is woefully and embarrassingly under funded. Now are their areas where I think we should tighten up and money is wasted? Yes. Though I also believe that at the same time there are so many needs not being met and one of those areas is teacher’s salary. I know many teachers that are literally paycheck to pay check living in fear of a child’s illness, a car breaking down or some other common occurrence. I think teachers should all receive substantial raises while at the same time society sheepishly says, we’re sorry it took so long. Except for those brave men and women who keep us safe I don’t think there is a more important, vital and special job than teaching. So with all that being said why do I feel so dirty about the huge raise, at least seven thousand and possibly as much as eighteen thousand dollars, that I just received? Why do I feel like I sold my soul to the company store?

My school and several others in the area received what is called a School Improvement Grant (SIG). It’s basically money given to struggling schools and the very first example of just throwing money at education that I have seen. The biggest change is the school day is going to be extended for forty-five minutes so students can have what they are calling a remediation or enrichment period added to their schedule, though if it were called f-cat prep that might be more honest. I asked if the kids would be getting credit for that class and nobody could give me a straight answer. Teachers and rightfully so will be paid for this extra work.

Teachers will also be given a signing bonus if they commit for three years. Teachers will be paid for as many as ninety hours of professional development, teachers will be paid to work one mandatory Saturday a month and teachers will also be eligible for performance pay. Doesn’t sound bad right? We work, we’re pay, that’s how things should be, unfortunately the problem is two fold.

The first is we’re not going to change the way we do things. I get it that reasonable people can look at a problem and have different solutions but at the same time I don’t get how any reasonable person can look at our current education system and think we’re doing it the right way. Like a child refusing to admit they are wrong even when caught with their hand in the cookie jar the powers-that-be seem bound and determined to stay the course, this despite the fact our current system leaves so many kids behind. It also means universal board configurations, word walls, massive data notebooks, that so many teachers make just to appease their administrations, teaching kids that want to drive trucks algebra II, teaching just to the test, the mistreatment or our disabled children and so many other slights, mistreatments and injustices are going to continue to be the way we do things, par for the course.

Then teachers at other schools, even other turn around schools where they will be required to do the same work as the teachers at my school won’t be eligible for all the additional pay. You should have seen it folks we were called into a meeting and I felt like a team of used car salesmen we’re trying to sell me that bright sedan with all the extras while at the same time telling me I wasn’t allowed to look under the hood. We were all given the option to opt out and transfer to another school. There was one caveat however. The school we could transfer to would be another turn around school where we would be required to do all the additional work but there we wouldn’t be paid for it. Talk about a choice not being a choice. So now the DCPS system is making distinction between teachers, some of us will be haves but others will be have-nots.

Like I said above I can use the money and I think teachers all teachers regardless if they are at a turn around school or not deserve more but you know what teachers need even more to do their jobs better? Why it’s the same thing most kids need to learn better too. They need administrations to take discipline seriously. They need then to alter their thoughts on the one size fits all curriculum that we currently have. Teachers need not to over burden teachers with task after task that has at best just a peripheral relationship with education. They need for an end to social promotions and grade scrubbing. They need legislators who have never been in a classroom to stop meddling and finally teachers need to be let teach. It’s really that simple.

A common definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and to expect a different outcome. And that’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to do the same thing with just a slight difference, we’re going to throw money at it.

Education Commentary

I thought Marvin Edwards’s commentary on local education was dead on. He is right the problems we are facing aren’t knew but sadly neither is our response to them. We keep electing the same type of leaders over and over. Our school board is still dominated by members of the political machine. All to often it is used as a stepping-stone for politicians on the way up or on the way down.

Tommy Hazouri has a long record of mediocrity, Stan Jordan left to run for state senate before his term was up, W.C. Gentry only ran for the school bard after a failed run at the state senate and Brenda Priestly Jackson recently announced she was running for the city council. What do they all have in common? Well like Eric Smith and Fel Lee two long time politicians who are running for the school board, they have either never been in a classroom or they were in one a very long time ago. If these are the types of leaders we repeatedly put on the school board is it any wonder we have such horrendous results.

Mr. Waters had another point about the money that the city has spent that could have gone to education but my question is what about the money that is dedicated to our school district that could have gone to education. Out superintendent, makes a hundred thousand dollars more than the mayor and as much as the superintendents in both St. Johns and Clay counties. The district spent a million dollars on new cars this year for it’s fleet of 520 cars. Thirty-two other employees most of who are on the superintendents inner circle and don’t work directly with children make over a hundred thousand dollars and we go through licensing agreements like water. Every few years there is some new software, computer program or miraculous education cure that the district uses only to replace when it proves ineffective. Then don’t get me started about the 750-person middle management that the district thinks it needs to perform its functions. These aren’t support or maintenance staff either but the amount of administrators the district has and like the superintendents inner circle they to don’t work directly with children.

I could go on and on adding to Mr. Waters’s points but then again I am the choir he was preaching to. I believe what he is saying and have seen the hopelessness on students, teachers and parents faces alike. Though that brings me to one problem he didn’t mention and that is the sad fact he is preaching to a very small choir. Unfortunately most people either don’t care or just don’t get how important education is. Our city and our children are suffering because of this.

Chris Guerrieri

The Death of Teaching as a Career

When I was in elementary school my third grade teacher was in her mid thirties and that was as young as I got. Back then most of my teachers were considerably older. They all had years if not decades of experience. You won’t find that now. It’s possible today for kids today to go all through school and not have a teacher who hasn’t been on the job for more than five years. Teaching isn’t a profession like it was just a generation ago, it’s a just a job and a job with a fairly high turnover rate at that and that is part of the problem.

Teaching is also a job that has tenure, which means if you do it fairly well it’s a job one can have for life. Teaching is a job that starts at a pretty decent wage and is also a job that has every holiday off. Despite all this, sadly this is a job that fewer and fewer people want to do, a job that fewer and fewer people stick with.

When John Thrasher and his ill-conceived senate bill six made the headlines a few months ago, one of his selling points was that a first year teacher could be as good as a tenth year teacher and where this is true it’s also highly unlikely. It takes years for teachers to hone their craft and I don’t know any teacher that thinks they were a better teacher when they started.

First year teachers even the ones with teaching degrees often don’t know what to expect and they don’t know what questions to ask. This is often compounded by the fact that most first year teachers are sent to the most struggling schools and are often inundated with extra paper work and tasks to do. The first few years of teaching is less about teaching and more about surviving. I have said it and it’s the same thing I heard my first year; “Just get though the first year kid, it will get better.”

In Jacksonville at the start of the 2009 school year 27 percent of teachers had less than four years experience. This matches up well with the fact that forty percent of teachers don’t last five years and this at a job that many say with a smirk gets summers off while they sit in front of their televisions and think to themselves I could do that.

Starting in year five and going through year 22 the amount of teachers in each subsequent year declines, 509 495 419 329 279 264 237 227 226 196 148 129 157 135 130 117 124 115. Over half of our teachers have less than nine years experience. Now nine years is a long time but as I stated above the teaching profession has changed.

Why do teachers leave? Well many feel overwhelmed, they are given more tasks than they can possibly accomplish or do well. If it was just teaching more would make it but sadly teaching today has less and less to do with teaching than many might think possible. Furthermore teachers are put in unattainable positions, every year the pressure on teachers seems to grow, while at the same time, parents, the community, the administration and the government seems to get a pass. Then others quickly grow weary of having to raise other people’s children. Teacher’s sighed up to teach and when they did so they knew some mentoring would go with the job. They didn’t know they would have to teach manners, basic rights from wrongs and how to be respectful as well. Others and I personally think this is the biggest reason that many have left the field is a lack of support.

The first year teacher shows up bright eyed and filled with optimism, ready to change the world, and this is an incredible feeling to have, though it is fleeting as many first year teachers have to go into survival mode. They try all sorts of methods to get the children to take care of their responsibilities, which are simple enough, come to class, listen and learn; First they come in as a strict disciplinarian, as this is the standard advice given to first year teachers. They are told to come in tough and then they can ease up as the year progresses. If this fails with some students, the first year teacher often reverts to being a social worker, trying to figure out why they act the way they do and tries to help solve their problems, then with some students they try to become their friend, figuring if they were friends, the students would treat them better, that's treat them with some with dignity and respect. They do this because it takes different strategies to get through to different students.

And for the most part with one of these strategies they are successful, as ninety percent of all students want to be there, they want to learn, or at worse are followers, which means if there ring leader isn't there they fall in line with the children who do want to learn. After a while it's just that ten percent of students that no matter what they try to do continue to cause them problems.

They talk to their mentors, as every first year teacher is assigned one, and their colleagues and department head as well. They ask what they can do to get these last few students in line. The first year teacher laments when the unruly students are absent, "it's dreamy, I can actually teach". They veterans look at the rookies with sympathetic eyes but they also have problems of their own. Just survive the first year; we tell them, it gets easier. But how do I get through to them they ask, we shrug our shoulders and suggest, try and get the parents involved maybe they can help somehow, but in our hearts we know they are fighting an unwinnable battle with some students.

So they call the parents trying to set up parent teacher conferences, to discuss the child's performance both academically and behaviorally, because often-poor performances in these areas go hand in hand. Some of the parents can't be bothered figuring it was the teacher’s problem once the child came to school, others report having the same difficulties at home where they to are at a loss. The two parties might get together and try a few interventions and some students might actually turn it around, but just as often many students don't.

Backed into a corner the first year teacher writes the student up, only to find them back in class before the period is over or at best the next day and angry that they were written up, the problem begins to worsen. You see most likely the child received no meaningful consequences for their behavior, and thus continues it. The teacher writes the child up again and again the child is back in class the next day, except this time the teacher is paid a visit by an administrator or called to the office. Why can't you control this child, they are asked, they explain all that they have done and how none of it has worked. The first year teacher is then told, that referrals are only to be written for the most extreme circumstances and then only after every alternative has been exhausted. Most likely they aren't given any new alternatives as they slump their shoulders and heads back to the classrooms. Because of this lack of support many won’t make it.

When school starts up I will meet twenty or so first time teachers. Of those twenty a few won’t last through the first semester. I say this with some assuredly because this has happened every year that I have been a teacher. They just don’t make it, preferring to get a job at the mall or waitressing instead of sticking with the job that many of them spent years preparing themselves for.

Forty percent of teaches won’t last five, over half won’t last ten and probably less than a quarter of all first year teachers make it a career.

School Board, district 6

I think in the past for the most part the outcome of school board elections were determined by name recognition and party affiliation. I hope that is changing because Jacksonville can know longer afford to do “business as usual.”

The economy is rough, crime is up, civility is down; apathy, hopelessness and hypocrisy have replaced motivation, hope and sincerity, well look at education because all those things can find their roots in our schools. If we don’t get serious and make changes our problems will only get worse. We cannot continue to do the same thing over and over and hope things will miraculously improve. That makes as much sense as passing a student to the next grade level that doesn’t have the skills to be there. Oh wait that’s something we already do with regularity.

One of the biggest problems we have had here in Jacksonville when it comes to education, which affects the city like nothing else, is a lack of effective leadership. Traditionally the school board has been either a stepping-stone for politicians on the way up or way down or a place where part time, casual observers, with tenuous ties to education, who are filled with hubris, think to themselves, I can fix that.

Jacksonville and its children can no longer afford this. Fortunately this year we have a real opportunity to make a change and we can start with the School Board district six races which has four main contenders.

First there is Eric Smith a career politician who I am sure is banking on his name recognition and supposed clout to get elected. Though I wonder if he has such tremendous clout why hasn’t he already been down at city hall or using his contacts in Tallahassee to change the culture “where it’s never time for the kids.” If he has this amazing clout, why hasn’t he been using it, instead of sitting back as the Duval County School Board forced every child into a one size fits all curriculum, divided the county up into haves (those that attend magnet schools) and have nots (those that don’t), practically gutted discipline, ignored the plight of many of the counties disabled children and started blaming teachers for not succeeding when put in unattainable positions.

Then there’s businessman Steve Berrey whose wife is a teacher. Though I am glad he’s not running on that alone because that would mean if my brother were a surgeon I could start cutting things out of people. His big idea is more professional development for teachers. Unfortunately he must not have talked to his wife because if he had he might know that most teachers consider the Shultz Center and professional development here in the county somewhat of a joke and in fact there is a pretty good one going around. How many district people does it take to hold a training? The answer is five, one to put it on and four others to look bored and work on their nails. Sure professional development has it’s place but what teachers really need is an administration who backs them up when they are having a hard time with a child in their class. Sending them back with a please don’t do that again, seemingly the districts only discipline plan, isn’t working for many.

Next there is resource office Gary Oliveras. At least he has been working in a local pubic school, something neither Berry nor Smith could say. Though comparing the school he works at, Stanton, to most of the schools in the county is like comparing a vacation in the Hamptons to relief work in Haiti. I think both have roads but the similarities end right about there. He is right though when he says the administration affectively knee capped teachers when they focused on reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions without putting options in place. First that takes a tool out of the discipline tool box, second it stops parents from being parental, third it allows some teachers to teach and some kids to learn as the only time that happens is when so and so is absent. Teachers throughout the district pray some kids will be missing so they can do their jobs and if suspensions help that even just a little maybe we should encourage more.

Finally there is Becky Couch. To be honest what she says is no more or no less impressive than what the other candidates have to say. They all seem to have sincere and good faith ideas. What sets her apart is the fact she has been in a classroom working with children. She has also heard what other teachers have had to say about what is working and what isn’t working and I believe the fact that she is a teacher gives her a better perspective than the husband of a teacher, a lifetime politician and a school resource officer could possibly have.

I like her idea about backing up teachers and principals that discipline, but I also like Berry’s proposal that the JEA start paying their fair share. I have no doubt Eric Smith does have clout, but he doesn’t have Couch’s experience working with present day teachers and students and I think that’s far more important. I don’t believe Oliveras sees the school board as a stepping-stone to other political offices but I don’t think Couch does either.

If you actually take the time hear what they say it’s really hard to say one sounds so much better than and that’s why to me it comes down to, who’s been in with the kids and who has shared the trenches with other teachers. I believe those two things above all else will give somebody the best idea of what works and what does not work. As far as I can tell Becky Couch is the only one who has those very important qualities.

Though regardless of whom people decide to vote for, I hope the citizens of Jacksonville realize we can no longer do “business as usual.” Doing things the way we have has seen us dig a deep hole for our city and many of its children. A hole that sadly many of our children will never be able to get out of. Jacksonville has real problems with education and it’s time we took them and who we decide to lead us through them seriously. I also hope people realize we can no longer make our decision based on whose name we recognize and according to what political party we like best. Our children are far too important for that to be the sole deciding factors.

Gianoulis

It’s nice to see a politician or a prospective politician who gets it and that’s what Deborah Gianoulis seems to do. To paraphrase a famous political quote, it’s education stupid.

The economy is rough, crime is up, civility is down; apathy, hopelessness and hypocrisy have replaced motivation, hope and sincerity, well look at education because all those things can find their roots there.

If we want society to improve, we need to better prepare the next generation and that means we can no longer can we just play lip service to education or allow our leaders to be at the beck and call of special interests unless it’s what should be all of our ultimate special interests and that’s our children.

Though I wonder what good this advocate of education will do, just as I sometimes wonder what would happen if we funded education properly as long as we here in Northeast Florida continue to have a school board that has a one size fits all curriculum, ignores discipline, blames teachers when they are put in impossible situation and don’t succeed to the level they hoped for and seems more interested in protecting their positions than doing what’s right for the children and city of Jacksonville.

However If Mrs. Gianoulis a long time children and education advocate does get elected and then practices what she preaches maybe just maybe that could be step one on the long road of turning this thing around.

A Teachers Lament

I am part of the problem....

It definitely won’t make the news, but Duval County failed another student today, though they are not alone as I failed another student today as well. I am not talking about failed in the sense we gave them a bad grade, and F, I am talking about it in the sense we let them down, we set them back, we have just made the rest of their lives more difficult.....

If you aren’t already fired up by the county failing students (the second version) something they annually do to hundreds if not thousands of them, don’t feel alone because sadly very few people are, and if that’s the case then don’t get fired up about me failing this last one either, as she definitely won’t be the last one I let down. I teach a special education science class at Ed White high school and I am part of the problem.

Don’t get me wrong, everyday I come to class prepared to teach. I roll up my sleeves and jump right in it’s just as my peers do, unfortunately like many of them I also feel like I am chipping away at a mountain with a plastic spoon. Teachers and students alike are handicapped by the FCAT, unrealistic graduation requirements, a lack of discipline and other policies and procedures mandated by the district or state that don’t make sense, nor do they seem to be in the best interest of us or the children. Everyday so many teachers who want to do well, who want to help the students in their charges do as well as they can go to work feeling like the deck is stacked against them and stacked very high.

My group of students has what we call varying exceptionalities, which means we group, educable mentally handicapped, emotional handicapped and students with specific learning disabilities together. Not only do I have students from all three categories in most of my classes, but I usually also have all four high school grade levels represented as well, and then during a few classes I am expected to teach a few different subjects.

All of my students including those that are capable of doing so much more are on what’s called a special diploma track. When they graduate they won’t receive a high school diploma, instead they will get a certificate of completion, which has more in common with three squares of toilet paper than it does with a diploma.

A lot of my students could achieve so much more if they were in classes with low teacher pupil ratios (two of my classes have more than twenty students in them) and received intensive remediation in reading, writing and math, in fact if those services were provided I may just be able to find a rocket scientist or two, but the powers that be don’t think they those things are important, so instead I am turning out students who at best after many years of dedicated service might make it to lead associate at a box retail store, if they aren’t jailed, living on the streets or on welfare that is.

Instead of giving my students what they need, what would make sense and prove beneficial to them giving their circumstances, I break open my fifteen year old text books that recently talked about an exciting new technology called laser discs, and has used the twin towers in several examples, and try to introduce them to topics they should have learned about years ago, but aren’t nearly as important when considering the fact many can’t read or write or do math on any level approaching their grade level. I have a friend that teaches fifth grade science and I am amazed at how often what the two of us are teaching overlaps.

This year had been amazingly frustrating, instead of teaching them the water downed science that I am, I felt I should be teaching them to read and write properly, or running a G.E.D. prep class as my students who may have aspirations of doing more will have to take it one day, that’s it had been amazingly frustrating, right up to the moment it became down right depressing.

It started when I got a new student right before winter break, she moved here from Michigan. I thought it a bit strange she came on the last day of class, but if you met this girl you might think it fit her. A little quiet and introspective she often writes in her journal when her work is finished deciphering the latest song lyrics or pondering the make up of the world. I asked her why she had come on this day of days (all we were going to do was watch movies) and she replied she didn’t want to have too many absences and since she was here she felt she should.

She has dyscalculia a math learning disorder that makes learning higher maths very difficult if not down right impossible. Except for her math classes and my science class, which I am sure they just threw her into she has all regular education classes.

Despite her above average I.Q. her disability and the absurdity of the situation, one size fits all graduation requirements, has served to seriously set this girl back in life just as it is beginning, and the thing is nobody seems to care, that she is going to earn a special diploma. I was told that for any student not in one of the work programs to graduate with a regular diploma they had to have algebra I and two other higher maths, if they couldn’t pass them regardless of disability they had to be on a special diploma track, though if they renamed it worthless diploma track that would be more accurate.

She’s not the only one, at my school for the most part we don’t even try to put capable, with accommodations, modifications and a differentiated curriculum special education students in regular education classes at my school, students that with help and accommodations could pass most subjects. After all if we don’t think they can pass the advanced math classes required what’s the point.

Here is the thing, when I was in high school, I took general math II as a junior and no math as a senior, if I were in school right now, I would be on a special diploma track, I would be graduating with a piece of paper that wasn’t worth the ink printed on it. In case you were wondering I have two college degrees from the University of North Florida, and my two degrees required a total of 7 credits of math, that’s two classes and a lab. Let me ask you a couple questions, how many of you would have received a special diploma based on our counties present requirements, how many members of the school board would, also how many of you recently used algebra II in your everyday life, and how many members of the school board do you think did.

In our mad rush to catch up with the rest of the world in math and science, despite the fact as far as I can tell we still lead the world in technology and scientific breakthroughs, I wonder how many students we are leaving behind, I don’t know the exact numbers but I know for a fact we are leaving more than a few behind in portable one at Ed White high school.

Why are kids that can barely read and write learning about the Revolutionary War and the cell, again? Why are we forcing students to learn higher maths that many who if they even go to college will not need or use again. Why are we trying to fit every child who is individual and has different needs into a one size fits all curriculum. Why do I get up everyday and go in despite the fact I know I am not giving my students what they need, despite the fact that I know I am part of the problem?.

I don’t have a good answer to any of those questions; maybe you do, because the school board doesn’t seem to have any good answers either

School Board Questions

An editor for the Times Union told me they plan to interview the candidates for the school board next week and asked if I had any questions I would like to see them answer. This is what I came up with and then for fun I answered them.

Do you think principals evaluations should be tied to how many suspensions they give out? Definitely not. It takes a tool out of their toolbox and hurts discipline in general.

Do you think severely disabled students should be taught access points or learn life and employability skills? No access points are watered down academics that they will never get or use. We should be teaching them things that would be beneficial to them.

What do you think about reintroducing the teaching of skills, trades and the arts on a district wide level? I think this should be a priority.

What do you think about school board employees making in excess of a hundred thousand dollars? No school board employee should make more than a hundred thousand dollars. The argument that we have to pay to attract top talent for me doesn’t hold water especially since so many teachers are paycheck to paycheck.

Do you think students who can’t read at grade level or read several grades below grade level should be promoted? After school and summer school should not be optional for these students. If a student is more than a grade level or two behind it is going to greatly diminish the chances of them being legitimately successful.

The district currently has a one size fits all curriculum, a kid that has an I.Q. of 130 who loves school and wants to be an engineer has to take and pass algebra II just like a kid with a ninety I.Q. that doesn’t care for school and who wants to drive trucks. Do you think this one size fits all curriculum benefits all students. No it hurts many of them and leads to many of the problems we are having. We need to develop alternate curriculums.

How would you have teachers evaluated? I would have them evaluated by teams of peers from other schools, they will no what should be happening and have little concern for office politics.

Would you support making grade recovery just for students who had legitimate reasons for missing class or for students who came, participated and tried but still failed, instead of the anybody can take it for any reason system we have now? Only kids that legitimately missed class or tried should be allowed to use grade recovery.

Diploma option 2 conveys none of the same benefits as a regular diploma, kids who graduate with one cannot go to college or join the military do you think having them take GED classes instead would be more or less beneficial? GED classes should be worked into their curriculums.

How do you think enforcement of the code of conduct should be handled? It should be vigorously enforced. Kids need consequences for inappropriate behavior.

Many teachers work dozens of hours of unpaid over time a week to complete all the tasks assigned to them. What do you think about paying them overtime or prioritizing the tasks they need to complete so they don’t have to work so much unpaid over-time? Either works for me but regardless teachers should not be working dozens of hours of unpaid overtime.

Do you think being in a classroom makes one more or less prepared to be a member of the school board? More prepared by far.

Would you be willing to substitute one day a week in the schools you represent? Yes

In order, whom do you think you will represent the most too least: the administration, parents, stakeholders, students, and teachers? Students and teachers would be 1 and 1A, then parents and stakeholders with union and administration concerns coming in last.

Do you think students who are classified a level one, two or three should be allowed to take advanced placement classes as they are now? No, they are not prepared.

Superintendent Pratt-Dannals said, we are a good community away from having a good school system. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? Why? I vigorously disagree where I think the both play a role on each other, schools have a bare minimum they should be doing, such as instilling discipline and ending social promotions and until we are doing that we are exacerbating societies problems.

What’s your big idea to turn things around? Getting back to the basics. Discipline, multiple curriculums and ending social promotions.

The Education Czar

A recent letter to the editor, I believe with tongue in cheek, suggested I become “Education Czar” for the district. The author sited my common sense approach to education and the fact that I couldn’t do any worse. It got me thinking, where I am not sure about my qualifications, I am definitely sure what my approach would be.

I’ll start by saying I don’t believe it wouldn't take reinventing the wheel or breaking the bank to dramatically improve education in Jacksonville. What we need is vigorous enforcement of the code of conduct, to stop social promotions, to put legitimate safety nets for kids struggling either with academics and or behavior in place, to develop alternative curriculums, which means we reintroduce trades, skills and the arts across the district and finally we need to start treating teachers as valued assets by giving them autonomy, encouraging creativity and by not overwhelming them with task after task that only had a superfluous relationship to education. Instead I would want them to spend that valuable time with their students. In effect I would want to do everything we should be doing now, some might say it is common sense but aren’t.

I also believe the object of a public school education should not be to prepare every child for a post secondary education so they can compete in a global economy (the districts mantra) but to prepare every child to be a productive and civil citizen in whatever path they choose to take.

Which goes back to the letter writer’s thought, if we did it that way could it be any worse? I certainly don’t think so.

Chris Guerrieri

Whose fault is it?

Superintendent Pratt-Dannals joined with several other superintendents to challenge some of the recent f-cat results. I don’t know how that will work out. I do know that in recent weeks, he blamed the college entrance test that Florida State College at Jacksonville gives for not asking the right questions and that’s what leads to seventy percent of grads having to take remedial classes. I know he said that we are a good community away from having a good school system and he has pointed the finger at parents and teachers alike for many of the woes Jacksonville’s school system is experiencing.

The community, colleges, parents, teachers, the different tests, it seems like everything is to blame for our problems but the districts leadership and it’s policies. I guess it’s good to have one good thing going for us.

Chris Guerrieri

Drop outs, only a small part of the problem

Kids’ dropping out of school is a huge problem and not just for the dropouts themselves and it was rightfully identified as such in a recent Times Union editorial. Dropping out not only handicaps the future of the children that do so but also likewise damages society. However the following isn’t about those kids it’s about the significant amount of students who somehow mange to pass the “minimum standards” and graduate ill prepared for college, the workforce or life.

Florida State College at Jacksonville reports that seventy percent of recent graduates have to take remedial courses. Business owners also report having a hard time finding qualified workers from the pool of recent graduates. If local dropouts are costing Jacksonville millions of dollars how much money are they costing us? In a way school is even more tragic for them. They stayed all the way through and then aren’t ready for anything.

One of the biggest reasons kids drop out is the counties insistence on a one size fits all curriculum that has every child on a “go to college track.” Do you know what the difference in classes between a kid with 130 IQ, who loves school and wants to be a doctor and a kid with an IQ of 90, who hates school who wants to drive trucks, is? The answer is there is none, both children are expected to take and pass the same classes to graduate.

We have serious problems with our education system in Jacksonville, problems that are not going to get better unless the powers-that-be entertain the thought that different children have different desires, needs and abilities. Dropouts sad to say are only a small part of the real problems we have here.

Chris Guerrieri

Hoodwinked

Hoodwinked, bamboozled, had the rug pulled out from under or just plain lied to all fit for what the state did to thousands of teachers the other day. With little fanfare the Florida Department of Education announced they ended the Critical Teacher Shortage (CTS) loan forgiveness and tuition reimbursement program. They did so because the legislature decided not to fund it anymore.

This is the same legislature that told thousands of people in the business world and prospective teachers that if they joined the profession and taught in areas of critical needs, math, science and special education that they would have their loans forgiven. Now all of these people are going to be saddled with debt that they were told that if they did the right thing that they wouldn’t have to pay. Though it’s not only the unfulfilled promise that’s the problem here but why would teachers stay or go into the most challenging areas of education now?

This happened during the same legislative session where they capped the amount of taxes that the buyers of new yachts have to pay.

This happened during the same legislative session where they tried (and may still do) to circumnavigate the will of the people by rolling back the class size amendment.

This happened during the same legislative session where it took a veto from the governor to stop from passing, the punitive towards teachers and badly written senate bill six.

This happened during the same legislative session where they continued to violate the constitution of Florida by refusing to fund education in a first class manner.

This happened during the same legislative session that approved increased tax breaks to companies that finance vouchers taking even more money away from the already cash starved public school system.

This happened during the same legislative session where they dramatically increased graduation requirements despite the fact that thousands ands upon thousands of students can’t reach the requirements already in place.

The other day thousands of teachers who counted on the promise of having their student loans forgiven if they agreed to teach in an area of critical need were hoodwinked but they weren’t the only ones. Parents who believed the legislature had the best interest for and actually cared about their children had the wool pulled over their eyes too.

Hoodwinked, bamboozled, had the rug pulled out from under, the wool pulled over their eyes or were just plain lied to all fit for what the state did to thousands of teachers the other day. Sadly that’s the same thing they have been doing to parents, children and the citizens of Florida for a while.

School Reform

The editorial about school reform had several significant statistics about the high school in Rhode Island that recently garnered national attention when it fired it's whole staff. Though it omitted a few. Like the fact there were recent fairly impressive gains in reading, gains in math and that the staff was only fired when the teachers there balked at working for free. I think it's important that after years of neglect the Times Union editorial board has suddenly taken an interest in education but I think they would do their position and the city of Jacksonville more benefit if they didn't cherry pick facts.

Furthermore the article talks about teachers and the school board working together but at the same time several schools here in town have had school improvement grants forced upon them without the approval of their staffs. One of the possible outcomes of the grants is a firing of a schools entire staff if certain criteria is not met.

The truth is there are serious problems with education here in Jacksonville and until we as a city decide we want to take then seriously and the first step is to stop blaming teachers for what is going on, then we're going to have the same problems, and our children and are city will continue to suffer because of it.

The girl with muddy feet

She came to my class with mud up to her ankles, I looked at her and shook my head, I considered asking what had happened, but I decided not to, I had Individual education plans, behavior plans and lesson plans to write along with a class to teach and twenty other disabled children to attend to.

She took her seat and within a few moments her head went down to her desk, I considered asking her to sit up and participate in class, but experience had taught me this was probably not the best thing for everybody involved. She rarely does her work and most of her interactions are negative. I would love to save them all but the reality is I can’t, days like this I didn't feel like I could save any.

Later I saw a few colleagues in the lounge and I considered asking them how the muddy footed sleeping girl was doing in their classes, and this time for some reason I followed through. “How is little Suzy doing?” I asked.

I wasn’t surprised to hear she rarely came to their classes, though I thought to myself what am I doing wrong, because she is always in mine, nor was I surprised to hear she didn’t do any work for them either. I shook my head and said something that you will hear daily in schools across the county. “You know that girls not dumb, she’s just so immature.”

“What do you expect” another teacher replied, “She was in fifth grade two years ago, socially promoted to sixth grade last year, a few months later grade adjusted to eighth and then boom she’s in high school after one year in middle school, I feel sorry for her, really I do.”

Welcome to special education in Duval County.

I feel sorry for her, really I do, is a sentiment I share, sometimes when you look into her eyes you can see a fast fading spark of potential. There have been a few times when she was bright and engaging but sadly there are sandwiched around to many wasted days.

Despite the fact she is in an age appropriate class, she is clearly overwhelmed. But it’s as if the powers that be have decided the grade adjustment is the cure-all for children with disabilities, though I have to say this is better than their last plan which seemed to be to sprinkle fairy dust on their heads and then sit back and watch their disabilities fade away.

She is just one of a dozen kids grade adjusted to Ed White this year many of whom are doing poorly, though the problems in special education don’t just stop there.

Another ESE girl has sat in, in school suspension (ISSP) for weeks, because there was no where else for her to go. When you ask her teachers about her, they say she rarely comes but when she does she is incorrigible. She has been in a half dozen fights this year along with multiple other offences, last year she earned one credit and she is on a pace todo worse this year. She is the poster child for needing an incredibly restrictive environment, social work services and counseling, but instead of getting those things, here she sits in ISSP a danger to herself and others. Special education children can only be suspended over the course of the year for ten days, and I don’t think it has dawned on the powers that be, that perhaps the reason these particular children are suspended so often is because they are misplaced.

It is incredibly difficult to move the special ed. child, regardless of their needs or what is best for them. The students in my classes remind me of Goldilocks porridge options. I have students in the same class that with accommodations and modifications could be successful in regular classes, students who should be in functional classes lower than mine and then the ones that are just right. When I taught severely emotionally disturbed kids (normal intelligence severe behavior problems), I had mentally handicapped kids in my class. When I taught trainably mentally handicapped kids I had a young autistic man, when I taught autistic students there was a little girl in my class I believe there just so her family could receive a social security check and when I worked at the magnet high school for severely disabled children one of my students drove to school. The process to change misdiagnosed children placement is time consuming and complicated and supposed to be done by teachers that already have incredibly full plates.

Warehoused studentsthat aren’t gettign the attention and services they both need and deserve, new edicts, which force teachers to teach water downed academics to kids that will neverget it,instead of life and employability skills, increasingly complex individual education plans, which no one can decifer and fewer people care about, people never in the classroom passing down new rules during the middle of the school year which just serve to cover the counties ass, and not the children, it’s maddening, and it’s depressing and it’s defeating.

Don’t get me wrong there are so many caring teachers who despite all this roll up their sleeves and everyday do great things and countywide there are many success stories, but they take place within a system that is broken, run by a school board that is afraid of being sued and has lost sight of why they are here and that’s to help kids, not just warehouse them until the age out. Children can’t be done halfass which is what is happening herein Duval county.

A colleague once told me that years ago many of the students I teach would have been institutionalized years ago. The thing is, for a lot of these children as things stand now, they may have been better off.

I later learned the girl with the muddy feet was skipping her early classes so she and a few other students could go to the woods, most likely to do just what you are imagining. She would return and attend my class because it was later in the day and she needed to be able to catch the bus home. I considered doing something, taking up her cause, demanding she get the help and services she needs, like I said I considered it but then I thought why should she be the one lone exception that happens to, why should she be special. I can't save anybody. I can't even save me .

I then went home with my shoulders slumped and my head down and despite the fact the sun was still out and would be for quite some time, I went to bed.

I went to bed.

Statistics

There is an old saying that I think is somewhat appropriate when discussing education and that’s only liars and politicians use statistics. Friends that’s the set up.

I recently read an editorial in the Times Union describing how over the next decade the nation will desperately need more individuals with college degrees and we were projected to fall about three million short. They sited several impressive statistics from several impressive organizations and implied America’s economic future was at stake. I was sold, just like that.

Just like I was sold when years ago the school board gave a talk about how children who fail the sixth grade rarely finish school and like I was sold when the same school board explained why they needed to tweak ninth grade promotion requirements. It seems if a kid fails sixth grade their percentage of reaching high school is greatly diminished and if they failed ninth grade their chances of finishing high school also drop greatly. That’s why it only takes five credits to pass ninth grade. The powers-that-be reasoned students would be able to make up the missing credits over the next three years.

On the surface I found none of the aims and statistics unreasonable, after all we want kids to pass, we don’t want kids to drop out and we want kids to go to college and I also believe we should do almost anything we can to make sure those things happen. Nope none of it is unreasonable at all, when taken in a vacuum that is.

Though that’s the thing with statistics, they can give you percentages or odds but your son or daughter, niece or nephew or neighbor is not a number on a spreadsheet they are an individual and should be treated as such. When we don’t fail kids, push them along or put many in situations they have no business being in then they pay they price not the statistics. Furthermore when the above statistics play a role in developing our policy and philosophy as a district we can easily see the problems that they create, and that my friends, is the rub.

If we pass sixth graders without the skills they need to be successful we have just sent their problems down the line and we can do so all the way to high school where even there it only takes five credits to pass the ninth grade. However once they get to tenth grade there’s nowhere else for them to get moved to, then friends it’s sink or swim and many aren’t swimming. I would be very interested to know what grade sees the most kids drop out. I would bet it would be right around tenth grade where promotion requirements loose much of their flexibility. But hey we got them there right?

Then not every child is going to college and our push to make every child do so is littered with failure. Our graduation and drop out rates are high. Seventy percent of our graduates have to take remedial classes and the rates of kids passing advanced placement tests has been steadily declining. What good is having all these rigorous classes like algebra II and chemistry if we don’t have the rigor.

Friends you have to realize that just passing kids along and then them not being prepared are directly related to each other. We can have the great hopes and dreams but don’t our children deserve realistic ones. Then you have to realize we have to make a change before more of our kids become nothing but statistics.

We can’t govern how we do things based on statistics generated in far off think tanks by people who have never worked with our kids. We need to get in with the kids ourselves and find their strengths and weaknesses and deal with them individually. If it’s fail them in sixth grade that should be all right as well as long as they use the extra time to get the skills they need to be successful. If that’s go to college great, if it’s not that’s great too. Regardless our aim should be to prepare them to be good and productive citizens.

Teachers can’t be forced to worry about how their students will do in a global economy if they can’t keep the students awake in their classes. We can’t demand that every student is prepared for college but at the same time be okay that more than a few don’t make any effort in school.

We need to worry about the students we have in front of us not the students we wish we had. We need to do what we can do and not be so fixated on what we wish we could do. We can look at the statistics and odds but we need to know that sometimes people beat the odds too.

If we don’t we’re going to have other statistics to worry about such as a spiraling economy that never recovers, a higher crime rate and more and more children neither prepared for college or the workforce who just drain society of what few resources it has.

If we don’t make any changes what do you think the odds of that are?

That my friends is the tragedy.

Recent Headline

An 18 year old was charged with a fatal shooting in Arlington.

Another teen 16 was part of a gang that murdered a man over a drug deal and stuffed his body in the trunk of a car.

Three teens, ages 15, 16 and 17 recently killed a man for three dollars.

This on the heels of last springs killing of pizza delivery woman Sarah Hotham being murdered by three teens age 18, 17 and 15.

When I read these tragic headlines about teenage murderers I can’t help but think, after I stop shaking my head in disgust, how were these kids in school? My guess is they weren’t the best and some undoubtedly were the worse. That and after a moment of reflection, that I also wouldn’t be surprised if their school experience led at least one of them if not more down the tragic and disastrous paths they took.

Schools are often a place where you meet your best friends at, the ones you go to the movies with, to the mall with and sadly these days where some children decide to kill with.

When schools don’t give children consequences for their behavior they learn however they act is acceptable and believe you me this is a lesson they will keep a lot longer than how to break down a sentence or how to do a quadratic equation. When other children see those students receiving no real consequences they learn that bad behavior is acceptable as well. This causes many to start, repeat or imitate bad behavior. Schools in effect are teaching numerous kids, even kids from decent homes with involved parents that bad behavior is okay. It’s an unfortunate fact but when schools ignore bad behavior they accept and teach it.

Many kids no longer look up to their teachers. We’re not the role models we were a generation ago. Now they look up to the kid who is always in trouble and I use the word trouble loosely. They are the cool ones to followed and revered and teachers are green or worse for not understanding why. It’s the norm to talk back, question and argue with adults, to curse in class or to dress however they want.

Students look up to those kids who always seem to get away with whatever they do or are unfazed by punishments. I have had kids come back from jail and captivate their peers with their stories. Jail sounds fun, are actual words I have heard from some students.

Teachers at many schools now days either accept a lot of bad behavior or just look the other way and hope for the best. There are so many battles we choose not to fight because there is usually a bigger battle coming or because we don’t get any back up when we decide to make a stand. What have you done we are asked or quizzed to prevent the bad behavior, almost as if kids aren’t supposed to know cursing, threatening, arguing, yelling, not doing their work or sleeping in class is okay to do.

Did you stop class and call the parents? What are you doing wrong? The student said this, what do you have to say about that? Are things I and others have heard from administrators. Though what I have heard from students is worse.

Besides expletive riddled tirades I have also heard, you’re the one who’s going to get in trouble if you write me up or nothings going to happen me or good I don’t want to be here anyways. These are all common responses from students to warnings that if their behavior doesn’t improve their presence will no longer be allowed. The inmates are practically running the asylum

I think I must have led my school in referrals last year writing about fifty but I could have written a thousand. Of the fifty referrals I wrote and like I said I wrote a lot more than most teachers, I would guess at least a third were ignored by the administration as I never received a copy of them back and of the rest for the most part their punishment was to finish the period in ISSP. I know teachers who have stopped writing referrals whose only defence is to accept or hope kids sleep in their class or are absent. There is a whole segment of students where for them doing work, being respectful or paying attention is optional.

I don’t know how schools fix families or neighborhoods. I don’t know how schools are supposed to make children who weren’t raised with a sense of whats right and wrong develop one but at the same time with all my heart I believe that schools must give children a snap shot of how life should work. They must say if you work hard you will be rewarded but if you act up there will be consequences and remember for a consequence to work it must be meaningful, it must make sure the child does not want to repeat the behavior. If it doesn’t do that it’s just an inconvenience and I believe an inconvenience that can lead to worse behavior, and in some extreme instances maybe even murder.

Education arguably plays a role in every facet of our city and when I read the headlines form above I become very concerned for Jacksonville. These kids should be trying out for football or preparing for prom but instead they are out committing murders. I am not calling for extreme measures. I am not saying lets blow up the system. All I am saying if we want things to improve lets do at least the minimum of what we are supposed to.

Could we have saved one of those kids above? Could we have saved one of their victims had we done just what we’re supposed to be doing? Worse however is how many more kids are we going to loose and how many others are going to loose their lives if we continue to do things the way we are? You don’t need to answer that last question, I am sure if nothing changes the headlines of the future will let us know.

Blame Game

I feel like Tonyaa Weatherbee’s heart is in the right place when she urges people to help find solutions to our education crisis and to stop playing the blame game. I just wonder how this is possible because many of the actors who have helped cause our current situation are still in charge and don’t seem to be moving forward with many ideas for improvement. Or the ones they offer are recycled and tired.

One of the things that drives me crazy is when business and community leaders get together and say what the school system needs is more mentors as if somehow that is going to be a panacea to all of educations problems. Mentors are great and do provide a service but do you know what schools need more? The need buses, lots and lots of buses.

Students who fail classes shouldn’t be given the opportunity to stay after school to improve they should be required to do so. Hey little Johnny, want to stay after and work on getting that F in math up? Nope, okay we’ll see you tomorrow.

Then students who act up should be required to get a consequence and for a consequence to be effective it must be meaningful, like say maybe staying after school to work or serve detention. And why don’t both of these things happen more often? Well in high school it’s because we don’t have buses, we don’t have a way of getting these kids home. Here’s a solution business and community leaders get off your butts and either raise money for buses or lobby the Jacksonville Transportation authority to put in bus stops at all the high schools and then to give all public school students who apply for them free bus passes.

Also last time I checked the school district was still being run by an administration who believed in a one size fits all curriculum, passing kids who don’t have the skills to be successful, doesn’t seriously believe in discipline and whose most important function seems to be putting a pretty bow on everything to ensure they stay in charge. How are we supposed to have meaningful change until those things are addressed? Friends all the mentors in the world aren’t going to able to help until we fix those things, buses might help though.

Teachers won’t speak up, the union seems only to be interested in teachers salary and time off, parents either don’t care or are overwhelmed by life, students don’t have self control, the state has saddled the district with both the f-cat and inadequate funding, and nobody wants to step and pay for a first class education system. All we have is blame and Ms. Weathersbee there is plenty of blame to go around.

The really crazy thing is it won’t take reinventing the wheel, blowing up the works or breaking the bank to make meaningful changes either. We start by enforcing the code of conduct; no longer can it be a practically ignored paper lion. Then we don’t pass children who don’t have the skills to be successful at the next level by making sure we have rigor in our classrooms. There should be no shame in failing a grade or even two if once a child graduates they are prepared for what comes next whether it is going to college or joining the workforce. Then we put in safety nets in place like social workers and counselors for our most troubled and desperate students and have both optional and mandatory after school and summer school opportunities. Then we develop alternative curriculums that service more children. We teach trades and skills and we make the arts as big a priority as math and science. We also have different tracks for those going to college because engineers, writers, and social workers all need different skills.

Some of that will take additional money but most of it will just take the will to do what is right. Until then every child who falls through the cracks, drops out, has their needs and desires ignored or graduates without the skills to be successful needs to be allowed to have their blame. Quite frankly they won’t have much else.

Same in Same out: The F-cat

If you are having a hard time judging how the county did on the F-Cat I think that’s understandable. It can be difficult to look at the statistics and know exactly what an improvement is especially when different parties might disagree. The Duval County School Board web site has a very positive spin, though if the past is any indicator they could spin a school burning down as an opportunity to practice building conservation. Then the Times Unions headline was Northeast Florida schools get mixed FCAT results and if you know anything about the typical Times Union coverage of the DCSB, that’s them pretty much blasting the district. So what to do?

Well when I wanted to know how to interpret all the data, the pluses, the minues and the pushes, to get to the real nitty gritty, I looked at one of my teacher colleagues updated facebook status which said, Checked out the FCAT Scores online .... Not pretty :( Next year is gonna be a WHOLE lot of *fun*

I sighed and not because I sensed sarcasm there but because this past year wasn’t a whole lot of fun either.

This past year saw a lot of changes to the teaching profession and to what teachers were required to do. When I started teaching a little over a decade ago I could fit six lesson plans on a page, where this year I was required to create individual lesson plans that were often more than two pages long. Next Data became the word as the year as teachers were required to create complicated and time consuming data notebooks that took the place of the information most teachers could get just working with their students for a few days. Then teachers were required to create word walls, board configurations, artifact maps, agenda boards, group justifications, basically a list of extra tasks a mile long and that was before teaching even began and for many teachers this robbed them of both their creativity and enthusiasm.

To make sure teachers word walls were correct and that the standards were posted, there were stress inducing and time stealing state walk throughs, district walk throughs, academic coach walk throughs and administration walk throughs too. Unfortunately there main concern didn’t seem to be how the teacher was teaching or if the students were learning but if everything was uniform and posted in the right position.
Then this year it seemed like we gave up any pretense of not teaching just to the test. In this era of high stakes test taking it has been going on for quite some time but this year it was more focused than ever. We had blitz sessions, practice tests days, after school and Saturday sessions, and meeting after meeting all about the f-cat. Speaking of meetings I actually went to one meeting, I kid you not about all the other meetings I had to go to.

Basically for a few extra points on the f-cat the district put yokes on the back of teachers, subtly cajoling then into working hundreds of hours of unpaid over time by giving them more responsibilities to do in a day than was possible. Forcing them to be away from their friends and families in order to complete tasks that at best only had a peripheral relationship with teaching. Since Jacksonville has a school district that is almost universally believed to be struggling this begs a few questions, the first of which is, what are we doing wrong?

Teachers are working harder and longer than ever before but for the most are just concentrating on the one thing the district has deemed important the f-cat but despite all that they are doing, on average kids are making marginal gains at best. You would think since the district has put all its energies into one task, we would be doing a lot better. There’s not a lot of joy in schools these days and even though there is a lot of hard work going on we are having less and less to show for it.

I may have a solution.

The Premack principal basically says people will perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity, for example, eat your vegetables before you can have your desert. There are no deserts in schools any more, not for teachers or for students.

What would happen if instead of micromanaging teachers, giving them more tasks than they can do, thus stealing some of the joy from many, the district gave teachers autonomy, just a list of what was to be covered. Encouraged creativity, telling them to find their kids strengths and to teach to them and then finally asking them to give just one extra unpaid hour a day so they don’t get burned out or feel overwhelmed.

What would happen if instead of making school a dreary place for many children filled with many classes they aren’t interested in we tailored curriculum's to their likes and at least in high school had reasonable schedules that aided them in being successful.

I didn’t always love school growing up and there were sometimes I didn’t even like it. I grew up in an era, not that long ago where one test didn’t determine my fate. I can’t imagine the pressure that must be on some kids especially the ones just marginally interested in school or whose schedules have no classes they could look forward to. There was a time however when I loved being a teacher, I would look forward to coming up with lessons and engaging and working with my classes. Now however I often feel as overwhelmed as the kids, actually teaching hasn’t become drudgery but so much else during the day has. It would be disingenuous of me not to say that hasn’t taken it’s toll and I don’t think I am the only teacher that could say that.

I see everyday the way we do things and I see the results and like I think you should be, I am unimpressed.

Would we do worse if we tried a different approach? Could we do worse?

I would bet we would do better and much better. People typically perform a higher level when they enjoy the thing that they are doing or have something to look forward to and that goes for teaching and learning as well.

So how did we as a county do on the f-cat? You tell me. How d you think we will continue to do unless we change things? You tell me that one too.