Saturday, September 15, 2007

I Work At A Failing School

I work at a failing school.

Two weeks ago, schools in my state received their grades. Yes, schools receive report cards, too. Some are labeled ‘highly performing’. Others receive labels of ‘performing’. While others are labeled as ‘failing’. These labels are based on the percentage of students (typical, special ed, Title 1, etc.) who take annual standardized tests with and/or without accomodations. If the scores haven’t made enough gain, or ‘annual yearly progress’, we are labeled as having failed, according to the federal government's 'No Child Left Behind' act. If this dubious achievement is made two years in a row, then people are brought in to show us the error of our ways, teach us how to teach, how to administrate and get us back on track so that our tests scores rise; a sure indication that we are teaching children.

The problem is the laws behind two acts, the N.C.L.B. act and the IDEA act for special education, conflict with each other; thus making it nearly impossible for our school to achieve what the the federal government wants. Because of N.C.L.B., an act made by people who have never written a lesson plan, nor conducted a parent/teacher conference, nor taught the sound that ‘ea’ makes in a ‘cvvc’ word, our school comes out as an under-performing school on paper. Yes, our scores are not the highest in our district. Yes, there are ebbs and flows in tests scores at different grade levels from year to year. But our scores hold their own and often rise in many areas; thus indicating progress and growth in our students. But...

I work at a failing school.

My school is a melting pot of ethnicities, economic statures, demographics, religions and cultures. Vietnamese, Muslim, Mormon, Catholic, white, African-American, Hispanic, Title 1, independently wealthy, home owner, apartment renter, homeless, cabin-in-the-mountains. Let’s not forget the uniqueness of our students, either: autistic, emotionally disabled, diabetic, epileptic, having rheumatoid arthritis, artificial limbs, blood disorders, heart conditions (one of which can lead to instant death), skeletal anomalies, learning disorders, scars from multiple surgeries, Asperger’s syndrome, attention deficit... to name a few. Other characteristics include families consisting of two moms, no mom, no dad, no mom or dad, boyfriends, current girlfriends, parents in jail, grandparents, ex-spouses. All of these families make my school’s community rich, educational, diverse, and welcoming.

But I work at a failing school.

Because of my school’s demographics, we often have needs and situations arise that other schools might not encounter. These situations have a profound impact on a child’s ability to learn. You see, just because ‘Johnny’ walks through the classroom door in the morning doesn’t mean that Johnny is ready or able to learn. Often times, Johnny comes without breakfast to feed his brain and allow him to learn. Often times, he comes tired, having been up part of the night due to a parent’s alcoholic rage, taking care of younger siblings or staying up late playing video games with parents unaware. Just because Johnny is physically here doesn’t mean he’s mentally here. But my teaching responsibilities remain the same; to give him the best education for that day that I can and to make him feel good about himself, believe in himself and treat others around him with kindness and respect.

You see, I work at a failing school.

Several years ago, a kindergartener was dying of leukemia. Her father, a single parent, had quit his job so that he could be by his daughter’s side and take care of her during her final weeks. This created a hardship; both financially and mentally on this man. Our hearts were aching as we watched this little girl’s decline to the point she could no longer attend school. We felt beyond hurt for this father who was losing everything. So, on each Wednesday, students and staff brought in their pennies; every week. Each classroom had a decorated can for ‘Penny Wednesday’ and we would put our pennies and dimes and nickels and quarters and even dollar bills into the can. Then a classroom would collect all of the money and count it up. This money was given to this man to help pay his rent, buy groceries and pay for the medical treatment his daughter received as she died. And die, she did. But our school dug deep to help a father through his horrific journey and try, in some small way, to ease the burden of his heavy heart.

I work at a ‘failing’ school.

One of our student’s mother was pregnant. This family was financially strapped. There was little money to pay for basic groceries; let alone anything extra. Unfortunately, the mother experienced some problems and was told that the baby she was carrying had died. She needed a medical procedure. She had no insurance or the money to pay to have the necessary treatment needed. Our school staff found out about this and within a day, money was available to pay for this grieving mother’s procedure. We couldn’t change what had happened to her baby, but we could take care of her. And we did. Because...

I work at a ‘failing’ school.

Each year when we return from Thanksgiving weekend, there is a Christmas tree in our front office. Tags hang from the boughs bearing the age and desire of a member from our ‘Christmas family’. A new bike. A sweater. Socks and underwear. A doll. A football. A nightgown for the grandma. Simple gifts needed for a family with so little. Our staff clears the tree off in a matter of days; tags taken for an upcoming shopping trip. The tree stands naked but for the lights that bear promise of upcoming generosity.

Then one morning, boxes begin to appear; festooned in bows, Santa Claus, red and green wrapping paper. Gift bags sprouting tissue paper with secrets tucked deep inside for that special little girl or boy...or grandma. More boxes and bags appear. They begin to spill out from under the tree and around the secretaries’ desks. They stack upon themselves. They smile at you as you walk by...of future glee, shouts of joy and promises from a jolly old elf who fancies a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.

Last year I had the distinct privilege of sitting on the office floor with our secretary for several hours one Saturday morning, carefully matching up tags with gifts and writing out labels with family names. A few days later, she and I loaded up our two cars. Packages, bags, boxes and oh yes... three bikes. We drove over to the house and met grandma; the matriarch of the home. We explained that we had gifts for her grandchildren for Christmas and we began unloading Santa’s sleigh. When we left, her humble living room was filled to the brim with a Christmas that otherwise, would not have happened. She hugged us with gratitude in her arms and tears in her eyes; ours matching hers.

But I work at a ‘failing’ school.

The parents of some beloved children were having serious marital problems. These problems escalated to the mother being raped at gunpoint by the husband. The father was arrested. Mom and the children were safe for the time being, but money was scarce and the electricity was turned off due to lack of payment. In distress, one of the children confided to their teacher of the trouble at home. Nothing more needed to be said. Within a matter of hours the electric company had their money and the electricity, and dignity, were restored to a home that was hurting.

Yet, I work at a ‘failing’ school.

Some intermediate students were having a difficult time finding the purpose and value to doing their nightly homework. What's the point? Why do it? Why waste my time? And besides...who cares anyway? Loss of recess, backlogged assignments, a poor grade on a report card...all had little effect in motivating these students to apply themselves to better themselves. As is the norm, staff met to discuss what could be done to encourage these students, to help them find a purpose. And then, an unlikely incentive was found. These students had the opportunity to earn a box of food for their families. Suddenly, homework was being completed on a regular basis. Assignments were turned in on time. And each Friday, these students went home with a box of food in their arms, a beaming smile on their faces, knowledge in their minds and a deeper sense of self-worth in their hearts.

But remember, my school is failing.

I work at a ‘failing’ school.

Our school had a much beloved teacher on staff. She had been there for years and families continually requested her to teach their children and siblings beyond. Her husband had left her years ago, and she was the loving mother to three sons; two of whom had serious medical issues. She was a modest woman and had spent her time, energy and money supporting her sons and herself the best she could. This beautiful woman became sick several years ago. Dealing with several illnesses, she continued to come to work and teach these children whom she loved. She would cruise around campus on her motorized scooter, never complaining, always smiling and always full of beauty. Our staff quietly found out that her home was in need of some serious repair work; something that she was too embarrassed to share with anyone or ask for help with. So, with hearts and hands, our staff performed the original “Extreme Makeover” for this amazing woman. Carpet, paint, was all done by our staff ‘after hours’ and on the weekends. The final result was a home made beautiful and comfortable. It is where this beautiful spirit spent her final days; surrounded by labors of love. Her loss, to this day, is still profound to us.

I work at a ‘failing’ school.

We have something at our school called the ‘Tiger Buddy’ program. Students in need of mentoring, friendship or just a buddy are matched up with a staff member. Several times throughout the year, we all get together for a breakfast and spend some time just visiting and talking. Often, the staff ‘buddy’ will treat their Tiger Buddy to a lunch at MacDonald’s, a birthday present, a Christmas present, or just a hug.

The sad truth of the matter is that more and more of our students are in need of this mentoring. Due to situations in their lives, these students are dealing with difficulties that make life tough. Each year, the number of names turned in to the committee to be paired up with a staff mentor increases. This year, as has been in the past, the number exceeded the number on our staff. So some kids went without a mentor... right? Not at my failing school. Our secretary’s two grown children were there Friday morning, meeting their new Tiger Buddies. So was our school nurses’ daughter. And a teacher who left last year to stay home and raise her new baby boy was back, baby stroller and all, to greet her Tiger Buddy with hugs and smiles.

I work at a ‘failing’ school...?!?

Two young brothers were facing the prospect that their gravely ill father might not make it over the weekend. Their mother was by her husband’s bedside at the hospital. But when Friday night came, she was upset. She had no one to watch her two boys over the weekend while she was at the hospital. Since the boys were so young, they weren’t allowed into the ICU to be with their mother or father. She couldn’t leave the boys alone; yet, she wanted to be with her husband should this be the end. When the two teachers of these boys found this out, they set up a schedule where they took the boys for the weekend so that mom could be with her husband. The boys went swimming, to MacDonald’s, played with the neighborhood children, went to a pumpkin patch and picked out their Halloween jack-o-lanterns, spent the night, had pizza, played games. Sunday night, when one of the teacher’s drove the boys back home to be with mom, she had good news. Dad was doing better and the doctors were cautiously optimistic that he would eventually be well enough to come home at some point. She thanked and thanked the teachers for taking care of her boys during this difficult time.

I work at a 'failing' school?!?!

I could go on and on about my school. How not just the academic needs of the student are meet by extremely qualified teachers and staff, but how the whole student is cared for, as well. How new clothes and shoes find their way onto little ones. How medications are arranged for. How services are directed. How support is given. How teachers tutor students in need of extra help. How character is built through self-esteem, self-achievement and respect for our country and ourselves. A school where 1/3 of the student body is not in our boundary area – where parents request to bring their child to our campus because of who we are and what we do for their children! I work at school where respect, integrity, dedication and community guide our path. Where the whole child is embraced – not his test scores.

To some standards, my school may appear to be failing. To some criteria, my school may appear to not be making the grade. To some, my school isn’t making enough ‘progress’. To some, I work at a ‘failing’ school.

Oh, really...

... do I ?!?


Moron Family said...

YOU MUST send this post to Tom Horne and the ADE.

Bless you....

A fellow teacher in Tucson

Simplicity Wins said...

WOW, this is a profound entry my friend. I knew your school was special, you always speak of it so highly. I feel like I know your principal with the way you speak of her all the time. I never knew "you worked in a failing school" yeah right! You and your school are making a difference in our community...Thank you!!!!!!!Keep up the GREAT work! (In elementary school I had a teacher who one said "failure is a state of mind")

Autumn said...

I had no idea about this. It doesn't seem to make sense. Your school sounds like it's doing everything right!

Anonymous said...

Yes sweetie, you should send this to Tom Horne, but you should also send this to the AZ Republic. Until the general public realizes that our schools are being held responsible for so many things beyond their control, they will continue to use them as a scapegoat for all that is troubling in our society.
Your blog had me in tears of sadness and anger both.

Jolene George said...

I just don't know what to say. I sit here sobbing with tears all over my keyboard. I am profoundly moved by this post. You my friend are a special woman. I love and adore you. I agree that this needs to get into the proper hands and be published...seriously.

Hyperwrx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chickenbells said...

Oh...this made me tear up all the way through! You work at such a profound and amazing place...I know how much you love your job...and also, now, how much it must frustrate you at times too. But, to be in the position to help as well, is a great feat within itself. I have a friend who works as a sort of advocate for kids down your way, and I am always speechless when she comes in and fills me in on what her life looks like at the moment

I am as always, finding myself in awe at the amount of things that our schools are now being required to do for their little's as if the family is being moved to somewhere extremely different now (I guess where the kids spend most of their time during the day)

Perhaps we should not look at the schools as failing, but ask ourselves the question...Do I live in a failing society?

Jill said...

From one teacher to another.
Your school is amazing. I don't care what those @**%!*& governmental know-it-alls say.
Please continue doing what you do. The families and children you are touching each and every day need that kind of so called "failure".

Bless you all.
You make us proud.
You are what makes this country great.

linda t said...

Oh my gosh, I found you through a comment on Jolene's blog... and was stunned to read this profound, moving post! You MUST send this into the paper! A MUST-READ for ALL!

Susie of Arabia said...

Sheila told me I should look back through your archives and find this post and read it - am I glad she did. My husband is an educator too. I feel the US should be ashamed at how undervalued and underpaid our teachers are. This post was tremendous, and I do hope, as several other commenters suggested, that you submitted it for publication. More people need to know the predicaments our teachers are in, and the generosity and care they extend each and every day. "Failing school" is just a label and means nothing, obviously.