Saturday, February 26, 2011

Finding the Perfect School

I wanted to take the time this week to reflect on a few things and get a little more personal about something that has really affected me. As many of you know, I have a passion for teaching that often overwhelms me, even to the point of tears, when I hear some of the sad stories about what is happening to kids with disabilities currently in the local public schools.  For those of you who don't know me, you will just have to take my word on this.  This week I was astounded and outraged as my heart broke at another expectation that wasn't met by a promise for something new.

On Wednesday I heard that a new private school finally announced their opening as an alternative for students with specific disabilities.  I had heard the rumors and was hopeful because it was a mom who helped start it.  Yet, when I visited the new website I felt let down and betrayed.  The trend I see in the private school arena in our area is very sad indeed.  The schools locally all seem to want the best and brightest kids, the ones who have high IQ's and no underlying issues with behavior or remedial skills.  When I see a school catering to a very narrow band of students with disabilities that probably could make it in the current public system, I have to wonder why they even bother?  I ask myself, “Where is the school that will take a student at their level, whatever level that is, and create an individual program that truly meets their needs?  Where is the school that isn't worried about behavior issues because they know how to effectively engage and educate the kids who come to their school?” 

Not only that, but the money issue is insane too!  20K, 30K, 40K or more to provide a quality education for these special children?  They advertise low staff to student ratios, but then you come to find out that this number doesn’t reflect teachers or paras in the classroom.  It includes staff that may be sitting on the other side of the building, behind closed doors, doing the business of the school.  It is the numbers game and if you can somehow make your ratio low by manipulating those numbers, then you can justify charging more.  Of course private schools don't have to provide any services or special education.  Which honestly doesn't bother me because, if they are a good school and provide quality for their price, I believe they will thrive as families see the value in what they do.  If not, then they will eventually close.  What does bother me is if they claim to serve a population, yet when you get down to the nitty gritty they aren't really serving that population at all.

So when are we going to see a real change?  When will our focus shift from private schools for high functioning students to meeting the real needs of all students at a price that doesn't rival the cost of college?  I hope to address those questions in the next few months for families in my local area.  It isn't an easy road I have chosen to take, but my passion and desire to reach all students is important enough that I would gladly go hungry for a day to see just one of them smile as they realize they can succeed in learning.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Higher Graduation = More Remediation?!?!?

I am not sure how they can explain this one away! The Denver Post reported last week that while High School dropout rates have dropped and more students are graduating, colleges are reporting that they are now having to provide more remedial classes.

This doesn't make much sense to me. But then again neither does the teacher changing a grade because the administration put pressure on them for failing too many kids or because the parent called to ask what all those extra special education classes are for if the child isn't succeeding in the classroom. Instead, it seems that the schools are lowering their standards rather than figuring out how to teach these children. However, I am not sure that is the only thing going on here. In our label happy, over medicated, and over stimulated society, I think we have hyped up disability as an excuse.

Yes, I did say that. I work with children and adults who have disabilities on a daily basis. It is very real and for some it impedes their ability to live independently. Yet, I see some families and therefore their kids using that excuse as an explanation for their failure. They become apathetic and no longer want to take personal responsibility for their own actions. It is something that has become more and more prevalent in our society and it makes me sad.

In my generation, Special Education was just beginning its movement. It was about bringing those kids and adults, who were hidden in the shadows, out to shine in the spotlight! Yet children who didn't fit in the mainstream had to find their own way. Hundreds of children went undiagnosed with Aspergers, AD/HD, sensory, or processing disorders. They had to forge ahead like those before them. Many of those people went on to be our best scientists and out of the box thinkers.

So how do we change the mindset? How do we get kids back on their feet, confident in themselves and their own abilities? I know that I don't have all the answers, but I am sure going to try everything I can to make every child and adult I work with see the value of wanting to learn, setting goals, and reaching for the stars! For my students, there is no excuse for not trying their hardest and working towards their goals.

Oh, and one more thing, it is  ok  fantastic to be different! That is what makes you special and uniquely who you are.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Bruce Randolph School

Guest Blog by Megan Miclette

Last week, Colorado got a special nod from President Obama during his State of the Union address. “Take a school like Bruce Randolph, in Denver,” he said, “three years ago, it was rated one of the worst schools in Colorado… but last May, 97% of seniors received their diploma.” He went on to describe a young woman who thanked her tearful principal at graduation, saying, “thanks for showing that we’re smart and we can make it.” So how did Principal Kristin Waters (now an administrator for the Denver Public School system) create such a drastic change? Is the new system actually working? What does this mean for the future of other failing schools?

In 2005, when Kristin Waters decided to create and implement her reform plan, the school was on the brink of closure. Her plan involved two major changes: re-evaluating each of the teachers—after the rehiring process, only 6 of 40 teachers kept their jobs--and gaining autonomy from the school district. That’s right—autonomy. Waters, as the principal, no longer needed district approval for hiring, curriculum, scheduling, or budgeting. Did it work? I would argue that it did, to a degree. What if schools got to decide how to best motivate and challenge their students? What would a school district look like that trusted its principals to make these sorts of decisions, rather than tangling them up in webs of red tape? Moreover, if more schools were willing to critically evaluate at their teaching staff and replace bad teachers, we might see a significant change in our children as well. What would happen if our children actually wanted to go to school because they were actually being challenged by good teachers?

With all of the changes that took place, the success of the school’s reform can’t be denied—in the six years since the school’s reform policies were implemented, the school has gone from one of the worst in the state to having a 97% graduation rate. Their test scores, dismal at best before the reform’s implementation, have been steadily and quickly rising in the last five years; in 2005, only 7% of the students at the school scored proficient on math, and only 11% scored proficient on reading. Last spring, however, 17% of students scored proficient or advanced in math, and 32% scored proficient in reading. Test scores two and three times better in five years is a great accomplishment, but let’s be honest here—despite the increase, the school is still failing. If only 17% of your entire student body is proficient in math, how many of those students who fell way below average got diplomas that year? How many of the 97% of students who graduated are really ready for college or the career job market?

There are no easy answers here. This model seems to be contributing to the steady increase in the school’s success, but that doesn’t guarantee that the students who go there are getting a high-quality education. If education reform was as easy as replacing the bad teachers, we wouldn’t still be here talking about it. If raising test scores was an accurate way to measure student learning, no one would be worried about “teaching to the test”—which, by the way, is probably partially to blame for Bruce Randolph’s success. While we can sit and complain about the how’s and the why’s, the fact is that the reform is working for The Bruce Randolph School, which means we might have gotten one teensy, tiny step closer to successfully reforming what I see as a failing educational system.