Did someone say the R word at a school board meeting?

The rounds of meetings for the school district’s NCLB plan have been very interesting. This meeting had a fairly low bullshit level and the speakers were persuasive. Around 25 parents and teachers were there.

Some background: Last year several more schools in the district flunked under NCLB. The district as a whole is under “PI Status“. Unfortunately “PI” doesn’t mean we get to throw pies at each other or become private investigators. In September, all parents got a letter saying that we were in PI status. I had no idea what that meant. It meant that someone had to write a Plan… Meanwhile, I think before PI Status was declared, I went to a community meeting at my kid’s school where the new Superintendent spoke and impressed me a fair bit with talk about process, feedback, communication, and other fuzzy warm things.

Then a few days later we were all in PI status and were freaking out. What did it mean? At that point all it meant to me from my point of ignorance was that a 5 year countdown was started, and a scary one. And that drastic changes were probably going to happen.

(Let’s point out here I had the luxury and privilege of being ignorant about it all, because my kid was going to a “good” school, admittedly one that was recently and marginally deemed “good” or up and coming, but still; if I didn’t live in this “good” neighborhood then I would not be guaranteed a spot in this school. Parents and teachers and kids on the east side of town have been dealing with this for years now, since NCLB passed as law. My point is, I want to reject that luxury and privilege of ignorance; the philosophy that enables people like me to live in little enclaves and then do “charity”. That’s segregation and it’s inherently wrong.)

Then a lot of fighting happened on the school level and the incompetent weaselly creepy principal got replaced. I was reassured. I kept going to all the EL meetings (English Learners).

(Anglo parents were asking me questions like “What do they talk about in the EL meetings? How they can start learning English?” Ouch. How can white people be so dumb?)

THEN in early December we got a handout at several meetings that summarized the Plan. The Plan started in February (2 months away) and made what to our school looked like major, major curriculum changes as well as laying down how a large part of the day had to be spent. This jacks up the very schools that are passing and surpassing the tests and that are “working”. A week and a half went by with gossip, emails, meetings, and rumors building to a head. Teachers and parents were upset and confused. There was a meeting called quickly by the district (at our new principal’s invitation, I think) at which the Plan administrator told a roomful of parents that there was no room for feedback or change and this was the plan that was happening.

I was pissed off because after all that talk about community input and process from the Supervisor, this is what we got? No communication, no asking for feedback? I heard that other schools also had no idea this was happening or what the plan entailed.

What is at stake for the district is their own jobs. If the district fails in PI two years from now, if they haven’t implemented NCLB in good faith, then they could lose their jobs and the state takes over and replaces them.

So I felt extremely suspicious and angry, very mistrustful, as did many other parents at my kid’s school. You can see where I got cynical. I was so angry I didn’t talk about it on this blog.

Fireworks! More meetings! Massive meetings! A packed school board meeting where we all held forth with our best demogogue suits on.

The Plan scared the pants off me. To me it sounded like taking a barely adequate (for my child) program and changing it to be “cookie cutter” and making everyone study from the same page at the same time. The sticking point for me was the 90 minutes per day of on grade level uninterrupted language arts from a state-mandated textbook. With the teachers basically told what and how to teach, so that everyone in a grade gets the same thing. It was presented as being extremely inflexible.

At the meeting tonight it was spun a bit differently. The training for teachers was emphasized not as something punitive but as something that could be useful and good. (I have my suspicions because the curriculum itself doesn’t look very good.)

But the thing that came through was that the district views itself as fighting institutionalized racism. The English learners are treated as if they are several grade levels behind, when they aren’t. This new plan guarantees that they are all exposed to the grade level material, as well as getting extra EL help.

I was mollified by hearing that it would not be everyone doing the same work for 90 minutes no matter their ability. Instead, the schools can actually split the kids at grade level up however they want. There will be several levels within a level and the curriculum somehow allows for “two grade levels ahead” work. (I’m sure it’s lame, but at least it tries to be there, and the hope is that all the professional development for teachers helps them come up with ways to implement it in ways that don’t suck.)

You can see how my knee-jerk reaction was to be upset that my kid would be bored by the grade-level material, when the reality might be that many kids in his grade in the district never see anything as complex as that material. (Can it be true!? But that’s what they said.)

The Super also talked about her disagreements with NCLB and its treatment of special ed students. She said she thought that would be the first thing to change in the law when it’s revised in 2007.

The EL director talked about many things that were amazing and cool; one was that in her view the district focused on only the EL students (“still learning”) and not the Spanish speakers who were classified as proficient in English. Out of 8000 students in our district, 5200 of them speak more than one language. Their new plan tries to emphasize helping all of them keep their proficiency and develop it. (I’d like to see how, but, at least they seem to have a good philosophy.) She sparked a meeting by personally calling and inviting all the EL parents at a school to the meeting. And she outlined what they came up with (and what the EL committees) came up with for what they wanted to see happen. Their points were: parent resource libraries available locally, more tech help on a local level to help with digital divide issues and make communication better, explanations of the American and California school systems as opposed to those in Central America and Mexico; more trips with parents and kids to college and university campuses, and more cross-school committees with parent representatives.

So much for the numerous people (really!) who said that because our district has so many Spanish-speakers who are used to a different system and who don’t question authority, (so inaccurate of an assumption!) it is a waste of time to try to get their input. (I’m still appalled at this viewpoint but I have heard it time and time again. There are some reasons why white upper class women might not hear the opinionated moments of women of color, i.e. power differential; not some kind of inherent cultural meekness. Argh!)

The superintendent wants the school day extended at the schools that have shorter days. Her mantra is “I want any parent to feel comfortable and happy about sending their kid to any school in this district.” Actually, I can’t argue with that.

I really liked the substitute teacher who spoke up to talk about her perceptions as a person who went from school to school all throughout the district. She had a lot to say. I was sighing with relief that she pointed out that if “enrichment” happens during the EL time, then the EL kids will be missing out on it and it is insane to make the genius spanish speaking kid who just got to this country miss out on the Lego robot programming class (if we had such a thing, which we don’t – much) to sit in remedial kindergarten English phonics. Hear hear.

Our school’s great dance program was mentioned as something the district wants to preserve – and to spread. Of course, we only have that great dance program because our neighborhood gentrified and then the dot com crash happened and then none of the yuppies could afford private school, and also we were radicalizing a bit online to do public on purpose and to Be Involved, and thus our PTA was able to raise 50K for a dance teacher, and on the other side of the tracks they don’t have that 50K. Instead it was a big deal for them to raise $3000 in donations of materials for their school garden. I feel horrible whenever someone points to the Fabulous Dance Program at my son’s school because all it does is emphasize the basic inequities in our school system. No – we don’t want to destroy them or to punish or stifle or drive away the creative independent-thinking teachers – Well, if we don’t then the district had better scramble fast to undo the damage done by leaving those teachers out of the information loop and the planning process.

The superintendent mentioned with a somewhat evil leer that she put the special ed autism kindergarten at Roy Clod (previously the school all the uber rich yuppies fought to get into) to level things out and to make them have to deal. (Unlike the previous district policies which were deliberately concentrating the special ed and “problem” kids at Fenry Horde. And while I’m mentioning Fenry Horde let me add that they had the best poetry in the poetry contest that I judged last year. So much for the “bad school” myth.)

This is all too long and I’ll have to make another post to go into the details.

But, I felt like a bomb thrower by using the words “institutionalized racism” at all. I also suggested that some of the education that needed to happen was education the Anglo/English speaking parents about what “institutionalized racism” means and looks like. Oooo… I said “racism” and suggested we need to have some community discussions about how it gets swept under the table.

My feelings after this meeting are that NCLB still sucks. But the district’s ideas might be good. I still want my kid in the gifted/talented school as it stands. And yet I’m conflicted, because I want all the schools to have excellent gifted/talented programs and would also like all the creative education and fun projects and depth of learning and connection NOT to be just for the g/t kids. (Who perhaps need them least.)

I feel like my brain just got hijacked by subversive maoists, unexpectedly, where I thought I was dealing with incompetent ass-covering bureaucrats. They are revolutionaries and idealists and if a bit of my privilege and my kid’s gets axed in the process, is that such a bad thing in the long run? I want my kid to grow up with peers who have good educations, and who are not discriminated against, more than I want him to program a lego robot when he is in 4th grade.

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