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.)

Friday, October 5, 2012

The scary, silent P word

It sure was fun following the first  debate on TV and Twitter - Romney's inaccuracies; Obama's less-than-stellar performance.  The Big Bird jokes alone, made it worth the time.

But, two days later, I still can't shake my morning-after feeling of disappointment. How in the world were these two powerful men able to debate for a full 90 minutes about the US domestic economy without even uttering a word about poverty?

An excellent education blogger, Jersey Jazzman, refers to America's Invisible Poor Children.  We have the highest child poverty rate in the developed world.  Nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty. Are we really OK with that? 

In my experience, well, yes, most of us are.  Most people I know go out of their way to avoid any contact with poverty.  It's not that hard to do: choose wealthier schools, avoid certain streets at night, join country clubs instead of community centers, live in nice neighborhoods.

Poverty is being ignored in education too.  Wisconsin is about to give each school a comparison "grade" - without any consideration for widely diverse demographics. This has been done before in other states. Not surprisingly, the poor schools get low grades.  The wealthier schools get high grades.

Yesterday, I had the afternoon off.  My son's school (68% poverty rate) was going on a field trip to a local community garden. At the last minute, the President decided to stop in Madison for a campaign speech. I toyed with the thought of going to see the President instead of spending the day with the kids.  A Presidential visit is once-in-a-lifetime, right?

In the end, I chose the kids.  And had the best afternoon I've had in years.  Because behind the childhood poverty statistics are some amazing, incredible, curious, energetic and all-around awesome kids. (And let it be known that they are being taught by amazing, incredible, and all-around awesome teachers, too.)

The President and Gov. Romney may be able to ignore them, but I can't.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Low performing schools - or not?

I read the story in Mother Jones today (yes, we actually subscribe in print) and cried.  Really:  tears, streaming down my face.  THIS is my kid's school.  Except substitute "Wisconsin" for "California" and "middle school" or "elementary" for "high school."

Most people in my neighborhood flee to private schools.  Or "open enroll" to a whiter, richer public school in Madison.  

For a multitude of reasons, we have stuck with our diverse, low-income schools.  And we have loved them.  More than loved.  Seriously, some of the Teachers and Principals we have met along they way have been life-changing figures in our lives.  I keep a running list in my brain of the 10 most influential people in my life - the people who inspire me to be a better human.  The people who make me work harder for all that matters in the world.   Currently, 6 of them are from one of the kids' schools.  (And I'm related to the other four....)

Registration is tomorrow.  Yes, we have another round of neighbors fleeing our school.  But this year, I'm not going to feel sad about that.  This year, I'm going to post this Mother Jones article on my bulletin board and continue my inspired fight for education for ALL.

Monday, April 23, 2012

But pineapples don't have sleeves!

This started out as a comment on Ed Hughes' fabulous school board blog.  (And if you live in Madison, you absolutely need to be reading that blog - He does a wonderful job of keeping the rest of us up to date on local education issues.)

Disclaimer:  my children do very well on standardized tests.  They come by this honestly.  My entire family does very well on standardized tests.  We have never met a scan-tron sheet that we didn't love at first sight.

But guess what?  It doesn't really matter!  If standardized tests were an accurate prediction of life success, my sister and I would currently be President (her) and Vice President (me)....her tests were always a percentile higher than mine, you see.  Or we would have invented Google or Facebook or a cure for cancer or something.

But we're not.  She's living in Alaska, saving the environment.  And I'm living in Madison, working, raising kids and going to too many school board meetings.  We both have very average lives. Lovely lives, for sure.  (But truly not 99th percentile lives, if one is measuring value by career or economic success.)

I very much want to defend standardized tests.  Left to my own world experiences, I would argue passionately that standardized tests were quite obviously the one and only measurement of pure intelligence.

But.  It isn't true.  The more I experience life outside of my own sheltered view, the more I am quite sure that isn't the case.

I've been following the story of the sleeveless pineapple all week and it just gets better and better. 

I've come to the conclusion that most of these tests don't really measure anything beyond how one manages to manipulate the test.

The one area in which I have been most disappointed in Obama has been education and his insistence that more testing is the answer to all our ills.  (Looks like I'm not alone - Matt Damon seems to agree.)

Why the emphasis and focus on standardized testing? Seriously. We already grade our children.  Why can't the grades speak for themselves?  Do we have such little trust in our teachers that we need some testing company to swoop in and charge us a ton of money and tell us our kids are super smart?  (or super dumb, as the case may be?)

In the past, I've defended standardized testing.  Now, I'm not so sure.

And finding out the story was really about an eggplant?!  Now, that was the last straw.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Jacket

I hosted a birthday party last night for my 'Little'.   I piled her friends into the minivan and headed to the local roller rink.

After a rough start (locating 14 year old girls who living in various apt. complexes turns out to be harder than it sounds,) we all arrived in the designated party room, ready to have a fabulous evening.

The excitement and laughter were brought quickly to a halt when a manager of the rink rushed over and proceeded to interrogate the birthday girl, claiming that someone who wore the "same color jacket" as she had on caused trouble the previous weekend.  Evidently someone with this same color jacket had started a fight.  Police were called.  She was banned from the rink for 6 months.

The rink management assumed that my little was this troublemaker.  As they accused her of being a criminal, I saw her fold a thousand times over inside herself to the place she goes when this happens.  (And yes, dear white liberal friends....this happens. a lot.)

I intervened, of course.  Explained that this must be a case of mistaken identity.  Explained that the girl they were accusing had never been in a fight in her life.  Explained that they were with me.  Explained that we were there under our BB/BS relationship.  Explained that this was a birthday party.

The rink management quickly backtracked and couldn't have been more gracious.  They explained that she looked a lot like this other girl.  (And again, they mentioned that both girls had the same color jacket.)  They were wonderful hosts for the remainder of the evening.

The jacket in question was light grey.  It was a very stylish jacket - cropped with short puffy sleeves.  My Little hopes for a career in the fashion industry and pays a lot of attention to her clothing.  She may have a very limited budget, but she always looks amazing.

We put it behind us and ended up having a fabulous time.  We rocked that roller rink.

Midway through the party, I noticed her jacket crumpled up and stuffed in the corner of the box that held our shoes.  With every fiber of my being, I wanted to rescue the jacket and go to her and tell her to put it back on and wear it proudly because she is beautiful and young and stylish and awesome.

But I didn't.  I left the jacket crumpled in the shoe box.  I think it may still be there.

Because we both know that this incident wasn't about the color of her jacket.  It was about the color of her skin.

We have a long way to go.