Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Bully Project

I had this really detailed post written.  Yesterday, over on Twitter - Sara Goldrick-Rab suggested that maybe school choice was a good option in light of failing Madison schools.  Rebecca Kemble countered that schools aren't uniformly "failing" -  there *are* successful programs out there - we just need to provide sufficient resources to fund them.

Somehow, in the midst of it all, Sherman Middle School was brought up as an example of what is working. So I started writing out a list of all the good things happening at Sherman - the successful programs that are raising achievement, etc. 

But I just deleted it. 

You see, tonight - my 13 year old daughter asked me to watch the movie "Bully" with her.

I just spent 90 minutes crying.  Near-sobbing, actually. Because for the entire movie, all I could think was: "If those kids had been at Sherman, they'd still be alive."

Of course, there is no guarantee of anything in this life. But the one thing that Sherman (under the leadership of Principal Hernandez and his amazing, dedicated, incredible staff) does better than any school I've ever seen is to create a culture of acceptance, community, and respect.

Sometimes I get a bit sad because so many people choose to opt-out of attending Sherman. There's a report out there that lists the # of kids in the attendance area who don't go to their "assigned" school. Last I saw, Sherman has one of the highest numbers of families who opt-out. Who can blame them? Look at our demographics:  72% low income; 25% ELL and 70% non-white.  We are a very diverse group. That's scary. I get that.

But, at the same time - at the *very same* time - Sherman also has one of the highest numbers of families who live outside the attendance area who *opt-in* to attend. Kids who don't fit in elsewhere find a welcome community at Sherman. When a student at Sherman has a difficult situation, everyone responds with support.

As I tucked my daughter into bed tonight, I hugged her tight and told her how incredibly proud I was of her and her school. Not for the advanced math they offer.  Not for the great books programs. Not for the amazing WCATY programs.  Not because they cook with L'Etoile chefs. Or any of the other academic achievement programs we've enjoyed at Sherman....(and there are many.)

No, I am most proud of the community they have created. From the leadership of Mike Hernandez, to the support of every single amazingly dedicated teacher/staff member, to the students themselves.

Sure, there is still lots to be done. Problems exist. Big ones. The achievement gap has not disappeared.  Poverty persists. But at Sherman, they are operating from a base of strength, compassion, and community.

...and really - go see the movie. It's on Netflix and iTunes. Have your tissues handy.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Girl Rising

I'd received a few emails from various friends about going to see Girl Rising. They all had the same tone: "Let's take our daughters to this they can see how lucky we are, etc. etc"

It was a week already too-full-of-activities, so I politely declined all invitations.

Then daughter D came home from school yesterday and said that friend R wanted to see the movie.  Instantly, I bought tickets and rearranged the entire schedule to make it happen.  R recently moved from a small African country and is in D's class. She is simultaneously learning a new language, culture, climate, school system. I suspect it is difficult.

D was having a tough time a few months ago - truly nothing out of the ordinary - run of the mill teen friend issues combined with a medical scare combined with just turning 13. I ran through all my parenting techniques of attempting to be supportive, encouraging, upbeat.  To no avail.

...and then friend R gave D a handmade book for her birthday.  It was called "All the great things about D" - and each page was dedicated to a different nice thing about D.  some big. some small.  all illustrated.  The look on my daughter's face as she read the book will stay with me forever.

If our house burns down, the first thing I'm grabbing is that book.

And now R has given me an amazing gift - this movie was so incredibly powerful. Turns out, it was the very first movie she has ever seen.  Turns out, there might not be very many degrees of separation between her life and beautifully strong girls we watched tonight.

So, watch out world.

I do feel lucky after seeing that movie. But not because we live "here" instead of "there."  I feel lucky because my daughter is blessed with friends like R, who demonstrate strength, kindness, and perseverance. 

And I think it is NO coincidence that half the teachers at their middle school were there - each with groups of girls of their own.  Public education is the key to Girls Rising - all over the world!

Friday, March 1, 2013

Race in Class

A few weeks ago, MMSD School Board President James Howard came to our school to read to kids during "Read Your Heart Out" day. In my son's class, he read Freedom on the Menu and led the kids in an insightful discussion about race, class, and equality in the civil rights movement.

At one point, an African-American boy turned to the Hmong girl sitting next to him and asked, “Do you ever feel like you don’t have equal rights in Madison?”  This started another conversation about immigration, language, and life in Madison. The kids respectfully discussed tough stuff with honestly and directness. 

Why do we adults not manage this?
This article on Huffington post on the equity and excellence commission report is interesting, stating:
"Because the current system of distributing educational resources short-changes poor and minority "exacerbates the problem" of an unequal starting point on the road to being a productive member of the economy. "As a result, we take the extraordinary diversity -- including linguistic backgrounds and familial relationships -- that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it."

I think the elephant in the room is our country's dismal failure to distribute educational resources. We can argue until the cows come home whether the achievement gap is because of race, income, or parenting. We can argue whether a charter school is a better structure or an unfair squandering of resources.  We can argue that teachers unions are good or bad. But under all that arguing, we are losing sight of the simple fact that we aren't funding our schools. That's what we need to fix.

Full disclosure:  I'm a supporter of James Howard in this year's school board race. I'm also a supporter of TJ Mertz.  I support them because I think they both have the ability to look beyond the current conflicts, respectfully work with their differences, embrace the extraodinary diversity of Madison schools,  and take actions to close the achievement gap.

(And yes, the kids did lobby the sitting school board president for a longer summer and shorter school day. Good luck, BOE, with that one.)