Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Basic Thoughts about Reagan HS Meeting

There was another Reagan High School meeting last night. We chatted about action plans, witnessed the Reagan band and ROTC perform, and had a breakout session with our groups. There was one thing in particular I found of interest. Here it is.

A pamphlet was printed for the meeting. The pamphlet broke down the general action plan strategies that we hope to take over the coming months in order to ameliorate the large issues at Reagan. These include supporting ELLs, African Americans, the school community, etc...

In what is akin to a KWL chart activity, we discussed a page in the pamphlet that listed Reagan's "Strengths, Challenges, and Resources." I was struck by this page more than any other thing at the meeting. Well, the end was quite cool, but we'll get to that. I'll recreate the SCR sheet, then subsequently add my thoughts.

-Proud History -After School Programs
-Loyal alumni -New Principal Garza
-Dedicated teachers -SLCs
-JROTC -Great Band Program
-Cultural Diversity -Wonderful Students
-Art Program -Community Support

-Attendance -More teachers for ELLs
-Inexperienced teachers-Transfer policy
-Weak Organization -Lack of support for families
-Uniform Discipline -Poor presentation in media
-Transient Population

-Political Support -Alumni Association
-Solid Church Support -Large pool of volunteers
-Business Partners

This is a truncated list, although it does contain the majority of things present on the original sheet. I noticed a few things; trends, you might say. First, I thought about the locale of conception for the first two sets, STRENGTHS and CHALLENGES. For many of the strengths, you might notice that the point of origin of programs and efforts to create said strengths are, for the most part, within the school. That is to say that Reagan is being quite successful within its four walls at creating and appreciating "cultural diversity, wonderful students, [an] art program," and the other extracurriculars. These things cannot have their origin outside of the school, such as from district mandates or support.

On the other hand, when looking at CHALLENGES, one can see that the problems facing Reagan High School are largely those that begin and are assumed to be dealt with at the administrative level, including at the district level. Think, for example, of who has a bigger hand in "services for families, transfer policy, more teachers [and therefore, funding], and poor presentation in media?" Clearly, although one could legitimately argue that schools must be partially responsible for said elements, there exists a substantial burden on the administrative organization of AISD to ensure that goals in these areas are met.

You notice, I might add, that under the heading of RESOURCES does not exist anything on a district level. This is a clear enough indication that there is a disconnect. I fear that this may be a situation wherein two entities are not adequately communicating their strengths, challenges, resources, and even goals and strategies.

Additionally, I pondered the effects of the STRENGTHS Reagan students, teachers, and employees identified. Unfortunately, the state has decided that these positives are not worthy of assessment under their high-stakes, "blame-shame" system of accountability. I wonder, would we be happy with a school devoid of extracurriculars, arts, alumni loyalty, after school programs, and a positive, diverse community? The answer is clearly and resoundingly, "Yes. As long as the scores are up to par."

Speaking of accountability, and I hate speaking of accountability, I think the government fails to see that it is a two-way street. They may embed this language into their weightless rhetoric, though action clearly follows not. I ask that we make the government accountable just as they have requested/required of us. Just as they approach each classroom with mistrust as to the ability of the students and the teachers, I suggest we approach them as if they have absolutely no idea what they're doing at the capital. Not only that, but I suggest that we demand an explanation of what these test scores and school closings mean, on a practical level. Beyond the statistics.

I see that there are few options for them, assuming they had the integrity to speak candidly. Truth Number 1-Poor students and non-white students, many times inaccurately dubbed "urban students" regardless of geography, are just down-right dumb. Not only are they dumb, or at least more so than upper class, whites students, but they are also lazy because of their culture, angry because of their "barrio," and violent because of a cultural deficiency. According to Truth Number 1, there are remedies. We can keep "these" kiddos in school longer, on weekends, and focus on teaching "skills," in the most basic and disconnected sense. Doing so, and even worse, praising the results, is doing nothing but validating the testing paradigm as fair, equal, and unflawed. That's our option 1; see KIPP academies for a real-life example of this.

Truth Number 2-The high-stakes accountability system, a system historically based in racism and classism, is still wrought with said racism and classism. The teachers in predominantly poor and non-white schools are torn between keeping their jobs while running the race in which they start a mile behind, and teaching what they know the kiddos need - an realization of the institutional inequities that exist in our society as well as the ways, means, and support to fight them. Of course, many great teachers, dealing with an internal struggle between what they know is right in the long run - social justice - and what will earn their students jobs, albeit menial in nature, end up fluctuating between the two approaches, and a clear goal is lost on the students and parents. The result - schools whose identities have been stripped, as the internal struggle becomes projected on the students, parents, school, community, as a whole. The state calls these failed schools.

To use a metaphor. Picture a straight line. On one end is a student of any age. On the other is some administrators, media, tutors, testing materials, good luck pencils, menial jobs, and most importantly, parents. All these folks and things are enticing students to get from one side to the other. Easy enough. However, off to the left exists a teacher. Is the teacher alone? Absolutely not. Unfortunately, the benefits offered by the teacher are not as shiny or quantifiable as those offered at destination 1. She or he only offers self-esteem, cultural pride, self-actualization, critical analytical skills, and a future of learning and fighting for what one truly believes in.

Take a guess at where the student might focus her or his effort. If you guessed both, you're right. Students, depending on day, time of year, attitude, hell, even the weather, fluctuate between concentrating their effort towards quantifiable benefits coupled with parent praise versus the future of their intellectual, social, and cultural lives. The result - students don't achieve either goal. They end up somewhere in between, without the basic skills to earn employment or attend college, and also without the level of self-actualization that helps them see the beauty in the struggle for happiness, equality, and empathy.

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