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From Chuck Olynyk: “MULLING IT OVER”

November 14, 2010


There seems to be lots to mull over these days. One thing I am mulling over is why elementary teachers with no conference period taking home something like 2600 a month are getting named and shamed by the LA Times while administrators in the Club called the Council of Mexican -American Administrators take home about 6000 or more a month get off scot free – protected by the inner chamber of LAUSD. Meanwhile, teachers play into the hands of the privatizers and “thin contract” advocates like lambs going to a slaughter when if they looked around at other districts where teachers are not demonized and named and shamed they have a nice “thick” union contract.

Chuck’s post hit a chord with me- especially the part about us “slackers” responsible for the “culture of failure” at Fremont being mysteriously unable to get work in the months of January and February last year, even if we were offered work; and then denied letters of recommendation, ensuring we would have almost no chance to leave the district. And of course there is the ever present theme of how teachers causing a “culture of failure” somehow end up as “better” teachers when they move to other schools- Chuck does a great job of touching on that.
After talking to fellow teachers whether in person, on Facebook or over the phone, I feel a lot less alone. We are all going through our own weird adjustment/ dislocation periods while the snowball of neo-liberal privatization continues to gather more weight as it barrels squarely toward us.

Some are still admirably helping Fremont students the best they can in the most dysfunctional environment possible; some are being burned out by the pilot school model; some love their new positions and students; some are finding they just don’t quite fit the way the did at Fremont. I think most of us are finding we don’t quite “fit” the way we did at Fremont. The place had a vibe, a sense of unity even when we didn’t always get along. Many of us have found wonderful colleagues where we have gone, but it is just not the same.

I’ll admit something to you all and feel free to laugh at me. Sometimes I have this vision, that I am walking on Fremont’s campus and everything is the way it was. And I can’t shake it. Even as I note the positives of my new, if unfulfilling assignment: 9 miles from my house, almost no planning, every Tuesday is a short day, no back to school night, no worry about test scores (we are not title 1 and are in an alternative setting), my weekend is now my own for the first time in 8 years since I don’t need to really plan.

I always keep reminding myself of these “positives” as I dream of the day maybe three years from now when I can walk into Fremont for a visit long after the paranoid, anointed reconstitution administrators have departed for greener pastures and I don’t have to worry about being arrested for the messages I left on the walls of room 225 on June 25th on my way out -the room I can still see in it’s entirety as if it were yesterday, the students I can still see sitting exactly where they were. That day maybe I can walk through the halls and maybe, just maybe, see someone I know, a colleague, a former student maybe working in the Title 1 office. Maybe three years from now I will have forgotten all of this, maybe it will just be an unpleasant memory and my colleagues and students an even more distant memory. But somehow I don’t think so. Because like many of you, I get that Facebook message from a student saying how much they miss me, and if I had left under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t feel that stab in the gut the way I do when I get any message from a former student. Every time I think life is taking on that familiar rhythm of getting used to something new, I get pulled back in- a former student’s baby has died, or their father, or a student needs help with a report- and the links to Fremont just persist. I delude myself that writing a Public School Choice plan will put my closer back to the community and students that I miss, but I still do it. Chuck is more of a realist, an accurate social critic of what is happening in education. He was never in denial about what was to come.

“Mulling It Over”

Today is Sunday, November 14, 2010 and Day 139 PF. I have also completed my first 44 days at Roosevelt High or, more properly, the Humanitas Arts School (HARTS) at Roosevelt, one of the seven Small Schools. I’m still trying to fit into the rhythms of a traditional schedule (with furlough days) after twenty-three years of teaching on a year-round calendar, such as when grading

At the old place, it was every four weeks, which meant with the first set of grades, you would hear wailing and weeping from the faculty like a Greek chorus: “We hardly know the kids! We’ve just had them three weeks! How can we possibly give them grades?” True enough, that. I know my first set of grades rarely reflected the real world, because I’d give a lot of points at the beginning, to get buy-in; the only kids who attracted attention were the ones who did
absolutely nothing except recycle my air and leave sweat marks on the seats. Yet when we tried the alternative for a number of years, not giving any marks until the eighth week, that would mean half the semester on the year-round calendar
was gone; grades would get mailed home a week later, parent conferences would be in about the tenth week—and now one was expected to do academic triage in the remaining 37.5% of the semester.

Add to that, in my World History classes (which are taught in the 10th Grade, the year students pretty much decide to drop out), I often had over forty students per class. There were numerous complaints I had to make in order to get enough chairs for the students to sit in; the way I had to get them one year was to have students, with their parents, confront the principal at Parent Conference Night; he, in turn, berated me in front of parents, students, coworkers and my students teacher as if the lack of chairs was my fault. Got the
chairs, though. Heh.

Ukrainian proverb time:
“Let dogs bark. The wind bears their barking away.”

So, besides frequency of grading, there was also the attendance issue. According to Superintendent Ramon Cortines, when he accused the faculty and staff of Fremont High School of being slackers (December 9th, 2009), he stated that the
average student at Fremont missed 25-30 days of instruction per 162-day year-round school year; ; that tallies somewhat with the figures I’ve kept—on the average, my 10th grade students miss 14 days per 74 days of an 81-day semester (nearly three weeks out of sixteen—or fifteen, depending how you look
at it), although there would always be one period (almost always sixth) which would average 19 days or nearly a month of school

My reasons for the trip down Amnesia Lane, As Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating of “Dead Poets Society” would call it: several, as is my habit. Part of it is to
show what we (even though I am no longer a Pathfinder, but since public education is facing that perfect storm of attack, that makes it “we”) are up against. Crowded classes. Truancies or merely pandemic absenteeism. The struggle to provide academic rigor.

Maybe if we just all wrote on the whiteboards the same, we wouldn’t have this problem, eh?

Yet, while we seek to provide academic rigor (hard to write that phrase without a snide comment about rigor mortis), we are chastised by administrators for failing (in so many senses of the word) the students. It reminds me of tardy sweeps at the Mont, where the kids were told in nearly the same breath: “Hurry Up!” and “Slow down!” while the William Tell Overture blared over the P.A.

Back to Big Stick High. The rhythm at a traditional high school is different. Instead of the four, eight, twelve and sixteen-week marks for year-round, we have them due at the five, ten, fifteen and twenty-week marks. I have, at 44 days in, just completed Week 9 and grades are due tomorrow, the start of Week 10. I noticed something, while I was working on the grades: I know who all the
kids are. Even the quiet ones. Because I have about 125 students for World History, not my 178 10th Grade students I had last year.

There’s something else I picked up on. By this time in the first semester at the Mont, I often had 54% of my students who had either D’s or F’s, usually about 46% F’s, even with providing extra credit, second, third and fourth chances, having kids talk to the lead teacher, the counselor, parent conferences.

The grades I just completed and published? The combined D’s and F’s come out to 29%. The percentage of students who currently have an F in my class: 19%.

Why is that?

If I was a part of the “culture of failure” that Superintendent Cortines claims existed at Fremont, that we were all responsible for failing both students and community, why was I told to reapply? Why was it made nearly impossible to go anyplace else during the Countdown at Mont-town, with the infamous memo issued by the principal on pink paper, stating that no administrator would provide
letters of recommendation to any staff member leaving the Mont? If we were such a detriment to public education that only the radical procedure of reconstitution—which get relabeled restructuring—was the only way to solve the problem (and Secretary Arne Duncan, Davis Guggenheim, Michelle Rhee, Eli Broad,
Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, and Dr. George McKenna III would agree), why are my grades going up? (Ferengi Rule of Acquisition # 239: “Never be afraid to mislabel a product.”)

Is it that the kids are better? Does someone want to claim that there are fewer English Language Learners in the Roosevelt population than in the Fremont population? Does someone want claim that there are fewer students with Special Needs attending one campus rather than another?

Maybe there’s another angle of attack. Did I lower my grading standards? Or did I miraculously become a better teacher in the 139 days since I left the Mont? Or did I become the better teacher 80 days after I left the Mont and started classes at Roosevelt on September 13th?

Or is it possible that there is an improvement because I have two English partners I confer with, and that one of the partners, with whom I share 60% of the students, share a common conference period, and that we confer daily during said conference period, nutrition (yes, we still do nutrition at Roosevelt—helps
the kids, don’t you know), lunch and about an hour after school, while the other partner, since we don’t share common planning time, connects with me before school and sometimes after school? Would that have anything to do with it? Maybe
my partners are carrying me, making me look better, and that Superintendent Cortines is still right.

Or could it just possibly (I know this is thinking outside the box, here) that my load of students for the core subject class of World History is 70% of what it was at Fremont? That the number of students in a class matters? That student-to-teacher ratios have an effect on student achievement?

When Learning District 7 in LAUSD was still Learning District I (eye, as in the Lidless Eye) and we spoke with the then mini-district Superintendent about reducing class sizes, she came up with this response: she was certain that we
had students at Fremont who were escaping Locke and Jordan High Schools, and that they were there illegally. She demanded they bring proof of residence and
that the illegal children would be sent back to their schools. Of course, this would mean that now the population of the school would be lower and that would necessitate getting rid of any extra teachers—thus keeping the student-to-teacher ratios exactly the same (the ratios also counting the out-of-classroom teachers as teacher with students—driving up the ratios) as before the Stalinist purge.

Whenever the question of classroom size becomes an issue, this has been where the District has retreated to. When Roosevelt got its QIEA money, it reduced
class sizes. What did Fremont ever do with its QIEA money? Oh yeah, we still don’t know the results of the independent audit which was supposed to be taking place in that week of December in 2009, do we? Perhaps we ought to be asking the Department of Education to look into the audit, the results of which were supposed to be published in February—nine months ago. You can always ask here:

“Department of Education” or at the Office of the Inspector General “OIG Hotline” .

Whatever the reasons, it comes down to my classes are 70% of what they were at Fremont. The number of F’s are less than half what I had at the Mont. I doubt I became that much better a teacher since I left Fremont and became a Rough Rider.
I guess it’s been true all along.
Size matters.

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