Monday, May 23, 2011

Best School Board Meeting. Ever.

I go to a lot of school board meetings. That either makes me certifiably insane, or a concerned citizen who is very interested in education policy. (please let it be the later. please.)

There are only a handful of us average-joe-citizen-parents who are regulars at the local BOE meetings. Sometimes I get really annoyed that no one else seems to care about this critical business of educating our children.

But then, there is a meeting like tonight's - and I am so very grateful that I have whatever recessive mutant gene I possess that attracts me to attend local education meetings.

Tonight, the teachers were out in full force. There was standing-room-only at the meeting. I saw almost every teacher from our elementary school. The teachers spoke so eloquently that I was moved to tears. More than once.

You would think, perhaps, that they were complaining about the millions of dollars of lost benefits and salaries they will not get in the next budget cycle. No, you'd be wrong. Perhaps they were complaining about the $900 million decrease in WI education funding. No, not that either. Or maybe they were upset about the people who continue to write to the local paper decrying the "union thugs" and the "fat-cat overpaid teachers" No, that wasn't it.

They came out because the district is contemplating a change in their planning time. The district wants to provide more time for professional development. They thought they could take a few hours away from teacher planning time to make way for classes/workshops/seminars. When I first read this, it sounded like a pretty good plan, to me. Really, who doesn't like learning new skills?

But then I spoke with some teachers. And I learned about the incredibly important work that they do in their planning time. I learned about the field trips they planned. And the science experiments. And the art projects. And the reports they write. And the amazingly creative work they do to keep students engaged. (I could go on and on...)

I am hoping that our board heard what I heard. We have amazing kick-ass teachers in Madison who care more for the students they serve than just about anything else. The passion for the kids came through loud and clear.

And reason #101 why I could never be an actual Board Member and why I respect them more than they will ever know: After listening patiently for over 2 hours of teacher testimony, they began their very-full regularly scheduled meeting. At 9 pm. When normal people should be headed to bed. That is when they *started.*

TJ Mertz, of AMPS, outlined the agenda items here. I went home and watched on TV and have two comments:

1) TAG ("talented and gifted") - I may be the only parent in the entire district who thinks TAG is doing a great job. We've had no problems at all getting our kids identified and getting amazing services from our classroom teachers and our instructional resource teachers. But I'm a parent who is in the school every week....and goes to board meetings....and is on district committees.

So, that makes me think that one of the big problems is perhaps *communication* to parents on the services available and how to make use of them. That is why I really like the new plan. I think it goes a long way to improve services and communication.

I was on the TAG parent committee, until I got kicked off. (Long story - but I don't recommend ever asking a group of TAG parents the following question: "Don't you think that the kids who are learning all of this stuff in their second language are just as smart, if not smarter, than our kids? What about kids who grow up in poverty and overcome obstacles our kids can't even imagine, but still perform well? Don't you think we should should have special TAG services for them?" If you do ask that question, you will quite coincidentally get a phone call the next day telling you that there is no longer room for you on the committee because they have too many parents interested in being on it. Total coincidence, I'm sure.)

2) 4K - I am so glad to see 4K in Madison that I am able to overlook some of the not-quite-perfect aspects of its roll-out. But TJ spoke so eloquently tonight about the lack of a 4K site at Allied Drive- one of Madison's poorest south-side neighborhoods. That is so very sad. I'm glad to see it offered at Northport and Packers on the north side of town. So, I'll take that, for now. But we can do better.

Monday, May 9, 2011

It's the poverty, stupid.

Oh, the intentions I had to keep this blog regularly updated again....sadly, life gets in the way.

But I have finally carved out some time to pen my thoughts on next year's MMSD Budget. You know, the one in which we ask the Madison teachers to collectively take a $15 million dollar pay cut.

Last year, the Board did not have the flexibility to ask the teachers to make such a sacrifice. Instead, they were forced to propose budget cuts that directly affected student programming. You name it, it was on the chopping block: sports programs, English-Language-Learner services, school closings. After months of difficult negotiations and community-listening sessions, they came up with a budget that worked for most people (within the realm of our very screwed-up school funding formula.) The community came out in droves to state their objection to the cuts. Most of the listening-sessions were standing-room-only. In the end, I felt like we avoided the most damaging cuts. Barely.

But in comes Governor Walker and his budget repair bill, and the tables are turned. Wave the magic wand and we can balance the budget on the backs of our teachers! You know - those overpaid fat-cat teachers.

John Matthews (Teachers Union leader) is calling "uncle" and Ed Hughes (school board member) responds.

I have much more to write on the interplay between management and the union in our school district. Surprisingly, I agree with the school board more often than with Mr. Matthews.

But, I think we are losing sight of the true key issue: childhood poverty. We live in a country in which nearly 20% of our children live in poverty (or "near-poverty.") In our district, 50% of the children qualify for free/reduced lunch. At our school, it is close to 70%.

Who do you think is the one key person who can actually help a kid escape poverty? In my experience, that person is their teacher. The teachers at our school do more than teach - they provide food, clothing, love, guidance, and support.

Every year, I put together a book through iPhoto for our teacher. I ask the kids to tell me their favorite thing about the teacher and we throw together some photos and their quotes. It's really nothing fancy, but it looks nice after Apple gets done with it.

The kids like my son, the ones who grow up with 2 parents and a bed to sleep in and enough food to eat, - they give boring answers: "I have a nice teacher. We do fun things." You know, generic, stock 8-year-old answers.

But the other 2/3rds of the class....they make me cry. They could fill the entire book with the incredibly meaningful things they say about the teacher. It is immediately apparent that for many of the Hmong kids in the class, their beloved teacher is the only person who is able to regularly read to them aloud. They remember she has read all year long. They describe her voice when she reads, the plot of the story, the twist at the end.

Teachers matter.

I am not willing to accept a society in which 1 in 5 children doesn't get enough to eat. And the people I see leading the charge to eliminate childhood poverty are the teachers.

So I'm just not sure how drastically cutting their pay helps anyone.