Forget the politics of the School Board race for just a moment.
If you're a taxpaying citizen with a conscience, you need to know about what's happening within the Stigmatized 5 schools. In the last 48 hours, I have been overwhelmed by angry messages, pleas for help, and general lamentation from a host of terrified people who may or may not work in those schools this year. I say "may or may not" because its not entirely clear to many of the messengers themselves. They don't know what's going to happen to them.
Here is the crux of the matter, as I understand it from multiple (20 or more people who have talked to me about it from multiple points-of-view) sources:
The state DoE ordered the Polk District to remove a bunch of teachers at those schools based on state VAM score (an incomprehensible test-driven effectiveness measure generally discredited across the country) just as the school year started. Of course, because we have a teacher shortage, Polk had no one to replace these teachers. That meant subs for these kids the state cares so much about.
After a week of subs, the District decided, without preparing anyone for it, that many administrators and "coaches" would replace these subs -- at least on a temporary basis. Coaches and administrators are good candidates for replacing the teachers because most of them haven't been in the classroom for some time. Thus, don't have a VAM score. And the DoE is fine with that.
I attended the School Board work session last week. And in the 90 seconds or so of discussion about the staffing plan for these schools, I think I heard that the administrative coverage is supposed to be temporary. How temporary? I don't know. Neither does anyone else, apparently. If they do, they're not communicating it publicly.
One can make good arguments in favor of moving administrators and coaches back into the classroom as a concept. But this isn't a concept; it's chaotic reality for real kids and adults. A number of these people apparently have grant-funded responsibilities. If they're not fulfilling those responsibilities, who is? And what are the legal repercussions for us as taxpayers?
On the upside, the principals in place at those schools now, after years of chronic turnover, seem to be making progress on behavior and discipline -- where behavior and discipline were particular problems. And that's another pernicious issue with lumping these middle schools together as if they are one. Kathleen, Westwood, Boone, Denison, and Lake Alfred Addair have individual strengths and struggles. They deserve to be treated as individual schools -- the same way that children deserve to be treated as individuals.
That's a bloodless summary. But every one of these stories has blood in them. The are rife with botched communication; wrong information; abrupt transfers; and sacrifice of teachers who want to teach kids from the neighborhoods these schools serve. Moreover, the District or DoE has apparently threatened all of these teachers with some sort of ethics violation if they talk about what's happening.
For my part, I think District and DoE are committing massive moral violations by not talking about it. This is from a teacher I respect and trust deeply, who described one of the teachers unceremoniously moved last week. My source called this woman one of the school's "best" teachers:
She knew our kids well. She understood how to reach them, how to talk to them. Because she "looked like them" and was from their neighborhood, she had credibility with the students and parents. She was professional, always did what was best for students. She had coached several different sports teams over the past decade. Her VAM score just wasn't good enough.
The repetition of stories that sound just like this from these five schools is numbing and heartbreaking at the same time. Our School Board needs to hear them; but it has no interest in doing so.
Now let's imagine this from the point-of-view of parent and child.
For years, if you're a parent or student at these schools, you've been told what a failure and problem you are because of the misuse of the aggregate test scores by people who enjoy judgement from afar. High-minded folks in brightly lit meeting rooms sadly lament your lack of motivation or caring.
If you're an 8th grader, you're probably on your third principal -- and third "new culture." Neither Hunt Berryman, nor anybody else on your School Board ever cared or talked about this turnover. Not until the DoE and District conspired to suddenly make it an existential crisis.
Suddenly, the only source of academic and developmental stability you've known -- the core group of teachers at your school -- is blown up days before you're supposed to start. And you hear your school may close. You are greeted by a Kelly Services temp on the first day of school. (Nothing against subs. Thank you for doing this job. I know it's hard.)
All those subs look bad to the public. So in your second or third week, you get a temporaryish administrator/coach as a supersub. If you're lucky, you'll get one with a highly evolved moral sense who sees this as as important duty. If you're unlucky, you'll get one that quits. (That's already happened, according to several reports I've heard.) Most likely, you'll get one that will do their best despite really not wanting to be there.
Finally, you may or may not get a third and "permanent" teacher at some point. And then you'll get punished again for something at the end of this year.
And of course, rather than address this ongoing crime against children and humanity, the high-minded people in brightly lit rooms will go right on complaining about parents.
This is personal to me
My family, mostly my 13-year-old son, decided together late last school year to change the school my son attends. We moved from a charter system to Crystal Lake Middle. Our son decided he was ready for a change in environment; and he had our support and encouragement. This had nothing to do with the campaign, even though it coincided with my decision to run. I accept some people may not believe that. I can't do anything about what people believe.
I have struggled with how to talk about this decision during the campaign -- because it's unseemly to "politicize" one's own children. I've touched on it here and there. A few times, I've noted it as an aspect of kinship with crowds at various places. I am, to my knowledge, the only traditional zoned middle school parent in this race. And probably the only one for a long time.
I'll say this once: we got a lot of looks that mixed pity/terror/wonder from well-meaning friends and acquaintances when this move came up in conversation. And it's hard not to get a pit in one's stomach when you face that kind of perception, even if you know better intellectually.
Two weeks in, I can tell you that the kids and staff of Crystal Lake -- which is a majority minority school -- have been extraordinarily welcoming to my son. The only friend he knew entering the school waited for him at the front gate and walked him around the school from class to class on the first day.
Two weeks in, my son is happier than he has been for a long time at school. And he's never been an unhappy kid. My son is tall, smart, athletic, and good-looking. (Don't know where most of that came from.) So maybe this is an easier transition for him than it might be for other kids. And maybe it goes bad tomorrow. One never knows. But I am pleased with his friends. I'm very pleased with his teachers. I'm very pleased with his experience, which is presenting him with real diversity of class, race, and achievement level.
I go into this detail because Crystal Lake Middle is a "D" school. The state has made it escape-eligible. We could choose to enroll my son somewhere else. The state would surely honor that choice much more than it honors the choice we've actually made. The second we made that choice, our state government started looking at us as bad, irresponsible parents. DoE's every action shows it.
Moreover, I think Crystal Lake technically "underperforms" at least one of the Stigmatized 5 schools on the point scale that produces the fraudulent school letter grades. The DoE and District may well try to carry on their co-dependant dance of death at Crystal Lake next year.
Over my dead body.
Let me say that again. You can have Crystal Lake when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. I am a high skill, high wage, traditional D-school parent. With a platform. I may have a little bit of power this time next year. I may not. Either way, I'm not going anywhere.
Try to commit this crime against children at Crystal Lake next year. I dare you. I will make it painful for you. All of you. I will name and shame the state educrats responsible. You won't be able to hide like you're hiding now. Cowards. And you can ask people around here if I have the capacity to make life unpleasant for people who deserve it.
In the meantime, I want to thank the many, many teachers and staff and administrators who have shared their stories with me about what's happening at these five schools. They're not sending these notes to Hunt Berryman, I assure you. They know he's indifferent to them. They know it by his actions.
These folks are terrified and uncertain about the future. But many are still fervently dedicated to their children and schools. Maybe, just for once, we could ask them for their insights and treat them like partners -- not cheap scapegoats.