Saturday, September 15, 2012


Community-based education reform TEACH: Together for better schools

By John Louis Meeks, Jr.

Instead of pointing fingers, this conference was about joining hands to improve public education at the first TEACH conference hosted by WJCT and Community First Credit Union at downtown’s Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Over 1,000 educators and education advocates attended this conference which carried the theme, “Better Together.”

Mayor Alvin Brown helped to kick off the event with a pep talk for the attendees with whom he shared his personal story of how family, friends and supporters helped him to better himself through college and in his career.

Although his grandmother and mother did not attend college, he said that they had a “PhD in common sense.”

The father of two boys who attend public schools in Duval County also shared how he was a supporter of education in both words and deeds as it is “an investment in our future, our workforce and our economy.” In the past 14 months, he said, his administration has worked hard in “meaningful ways that have brought results” – including an aggressive campaign to remind families to send their children to school during the first days of school, visiting classrooms and seeing the work that is done every day and appointing the city’s first education commissioner.

“I believe in education. With education, come many opportunities,” the mayor said. This is why Mayor Brown said that he worked to either implement or promote programs like Mayor’s Mentors, Communities in Schools, and Teach for America.

As a former professor at Jacksonville University, Brown especially took pride in his Learn to Earn program that gives students a firsthand look at college and the workplace as many young people are familiar with post-secondary education or the means of advancing themselves.

“It’s not where you start off, but where you finish,” the mayor said in his remarks, addressing the chance for all students to achieve the American Dream through setting goals and playing by the rules. And, to teachers, Mayor Brown expressed his gratitude.

“I am proud of the work you do,” he said, adding that educators are the “salt of the Earth.” The morning general session keynote speaker was Dr. Lucy Calkins, who seeks to transform the new Common Core standards from a mandate into a mission for all educators.

The ambitious new national standards have been written and ratified, Calkins said, but they have yet to be implemented.

She said that the key to putting Common Core into action is the buy-in from the educators and education leaders who are responsible for executing them.

“It is up to us,” she said.

As an object lesson, Calkins gave an anecdote in which she talked about the word ‘curmudgeon’ with her students. She explained that she asked students to treat a book like they would a soiled diaper – in the way a curmudgeon would approach something new. She said that this illustrated how some educators approached new programs and initiatives and how their attitude carried into their delivery.

“We could take the same approach with Common Core standards. We can either use a curmudgeon attitude toward the new standards or we can treat the new standards like gold,” she said.

With the challenge of implementing new standards at hand, Calkins addressed the biggest problem facing American schools – poverty.

Twenty-five percent of American students live in poverty, she said, and as many as thirty percent of students in a city like New York live in such conditions.

While the United States was a pioneer and leader in creating public education as we know it, Calkins said, other nations around the world were taking the lead because they do not face poverty on such a level that American educators face.

“If the United States had less than ten percent of its students in poverty, we would be the number one nation in education.”

Instead, we are putting the blame on the teachers, she said.

“One of the best things that we can do for children is to give their parents access to jobs and health care.” Calkins cautioned that, as a solution to failing schools, Common Core is not a curriculum that micromanages schools and recommended that educators study the new standards for themselves. “If we are to make a difference, we are to read the Common Core.”

The necessity for new national standards rose from a wake-up call she said in which forty percent of college students graduate and in which the average college student reads only one book a year. “We are not doing well in education,” she said, “Business as usual is not okay.”

This was particularly true in a world in which eighty-five percent of our jobs require high levels of literacy, she said, on top of the fact that the careers in unskilled labor were a thing of the past.

On the bright side, Calkins said that Common Core was much better than the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation of the second Bush administration.

Even under the previous president’s education policy, Calkins said, the federal government listed Florida’s core reading programs as bad for comprehension. One reason is because they focused on main ideas and not central ideas. And this was after putting over $87 billion dollars into such core reading programs after four decades of research that dispel the notion that such work is not effective.

“We are looking not just for high-level comprehension, but critical reading,” Calkins warned, saying that students need to move up the ladder in text difficulty and to learn the new standards on all grade levels.

Calkins is aware of the way to apply Common Core in the classroom because she has written “Pathways to the Common Core,” a bestselling book that explains the standards’ three main clusters – key ideas and details, craft and structure, and integration of knowledge and ideas.

“Those are the standards. The question is what you do with them.”

After the morning keynote address ended, attendees moved on to various breakout sessions addressing topics like technology, involvement and advocacy. Because advocacy is an issue that is close to my heart, I chose “Telling Your Story: Becoming an Ambassador for Students and Public Education.” Facilitated by Deborah Gianoulis and Colleen Wood of Save Duval Schools, this session was designed to help education stakeholders find a voice in the corridors of power in Tallahassee.

“We are watching our public schools lose resources every day,” said Gianoulis, a former WJXT anchor who ran for the Florida Senate in 2010. She said that state leaders are shifting these resources to private, charter and parochial schools because of the aggressive lobby that private interests have in the state government.

Instead of a level playing field, Gianoulis said, politicians unfairly compare public school ‘apples’ to the ‘oranges’ that exist among the private education interests.

“We need choice between apples,” said Gianoulis, referring to the uneven accountability and standards to which public schools are held.

“Can you imagine if the Jaguars played by different rules than the [Houston] Texans?” she asked rhetorically, saying that public education is the most over-regulated industry in the state.

Floridians have the power of the vote to advocate for their public schools, Gianoulis said, but they are not using it.

It does not have to be this way, she said, pointing to a recent town hall meeting at Jacksonville City Hall with then-education commissioner Gerard Robinson. A mother of a special-needs student shared her frustration with how she had a difficult time reaching the education commissioner’s office. After publicly calling out Robinson, Gianoulis said that the mother finally got a telephone call from Robinson.

Most of the time, however, it is up to Floridians to make the trek to the state capital to truly make a difference in public policy; Wood acknowledged that it can be like crossing a very wide gulf for people to take time from their already busy lives to visit Tallahassee.

In spite of the logistical difficulties, Wood said that it is up to families to rise to the challenge because we “have to be fighting for the very existence of what public education can be.”

There are ways, however, for everyday citizens to communicate with leaders.

Wood said that it is essential for education advocates to admit that they do not know an answer if asked by a politician about their issues. Otherwise, these well-meaning people will be perceived as ignorant, unprepared or unprofessional and would not be taken seriously. This is especially true at a time when private, parochial and charter school interests have an open door to legislative offices and chambers and public school advocates are often locked out.

“Tallahassee does not take the field of public education very seriously,” Wood said, “It is petty. It is stupid. They will judge you and walk out the door.”

Wood said that the goal of education advocates is “champion building,” however, as they develop working relationships with allies on both sides of the political aisle.

“Every interaction is a chance to create a champion,” she said.

This work, Wood said, involves looking beyond today into the future.

The Florida House of Representatives and the Senate elect their respective leaders (House Speaker and Senate President) up to a dozen years in advance in a leap of faith that trusts potential leadership based on their personal connections and pledges.

“You don’t know if they can speak well,” said Wood.

Wood pointed to the example of a new state legislator whose college roommate is married to a member of the Duval County School Board and how the school board member has been advocating for causes that are important to local schools.

As the legislator rises through the ranks, it will be harder for him to say no to the personal connections that he has developed over the years with local leaders, said Wood.

Because of this, Gianoulis said optimistically, “Things can change and leadership can change.”

To best influence the changing leadership, Wood and Gianoulis recommended that public education advocates communicate with the legislative staffs that serve as the gatekeepers to lawmakers, to get to know the lawmakers on a personal level (Wood used a colorful ping pong story to get the attention of one elected official) and to know the lawmaking process.

The unseen power structure, they said, included receptionists, aides and assistants who have a great deal of say in the operation of legislators’ offices – including the drafting of legislation and who gets access to the legislators.

One important tip for increased access to such staffers is to make an appointment to the home offices in their respective districts. Constituents, said Wood, are more likely to get access to someone than with arranging for a meeting in the state capital.

With regard to the cumbersome process of lawmaking, Wood advises that advocates not wait until the bill is on the floor to take action.

“It is important to speak out during the committee process,” she said, using the recent failed ‘parent trigger’ legislation as an example. If passed, the parent trigger will give parents the opportunity to vote on the fate of their children’s schools if the schools do not make the grade. It even goes as far as to allow middle and high school students to have a say in whether a public school is turned over to private interests.

This legislation will be back, said Wood, and the time to speak out is by asking to attend committee meetings and to show up in full force.

“We will be texting and tweeting and Facebooking,” she said about getting the word out about this fight. Gianoulis said, “None of you will ever have to do this alone.”

“This is your life,” said Wood, “You know more about this than anyone else in the room.”

After this session and a lunch break, I attended the breakout session that was hosted by Co’Relous Bryant, the manager of community mobilization for the Jacksonville Public Education Fund.

Titled ONE by ONE: A Conversation with Teachers, it was a chance for educators to learn more about the JPEF, a private partnership that is engaging the community in solutions to challenges in the education community.

JPEF has actively solicited solutions from the public for solving the problems that face students today. Mr. Bryant, a product of Duval County Public Schools, moved to the area from Perry, Florida when his mother left the rural town for economic opportunity.

At eight years old, he went to Oak Hill Elementary School. He took a moment to acknowledge Vicki Wall, his former teacher.

Mr. Bryant explained how he became a “son of the school” because adults believed in him and entered him into the school’s gifted program in spite of his circumstances and his environment. He later went to Darnell-Cookman Middle School, where he gave the morning announcements.

“Make it a great day or not – the choice is yours” was Mr. Bryant’s daily sign-off. This sign-off is still used to this day at the now Middle-Senior High School.

Mr. Bryant entered the International Baccalaureate program at Stanton College Preparatory School, he said because he had educators who told him that he was capable of rising to the challenge.

Mr. Bryant, as a youth, found his gift as a speaker. He won American Legion-sponsored oratory competitions, rising through the ranks as the best speaker in the county, state and then represented Florida in national competition.

One of three finalists in the competition, speaking about the United States Constitution and then speaking on a topic drawn out of a hat. Of the three, Mr. Bryant became the 2007 national oratorical champion. “I trusted my teacher. They handed me the road map and I took it,” he said. Branded a modern-day Cicero, he was offered a free ride to attend New York University and graduated with a political science degree.

“I came back home to join the fight,” he said.

In March 2012, Mr. Bryant drove back to Jacksonville to take part in what he called the “number one fight in Jacksonville.”

“Sign me up,” he said.

It is a high capacity, independent non-profit,” he said.

When he asked how many attendees knew about JPEF, about half raised their hands. He set about telling the audience what his organization is about.

“We have got to put the public back into public education,” he said, explaining what JPEF is about. “How to you make community involvement essential to systemic change?”

It is the responsibility of the public, said Mr. Bryant, to become actively engaged in the public education system.

This can help combat is situation in which one out of three Duval County public school students graduate from school on time.

“The community has heard you,” he said, “How do we make it happen?”

To create the One by One initiative, JPEF looked to Mobile, Alabama because it had similar historical circumstances to Jacksonville and faced similar challenges. He said that they had low achievement rates. The community created the “Yes we can” campaign and gathered input from the community.

After five years, the percentage of schools that were proficient by state standards increased from 23% to 90%.

Innovation after innovation after innovation leads to incoherence, however, said Mr. Bryant, referring to the morning keynote speaker – Dr. Calkins. He said that the first step toward progress in Jacksonville involved listening to the people.

One by One participation, he said, represented all sectors of the community. This was no small feat, as JPEF had a staff of half a dozen people. A team of volunteers had 165 conversations with over 1,600 participants.

JPEF illustrated this mission with a special exhibit that was featured at the Cummer Gallery of Art and is now at Jacksonville City Hall. Over 75,000 people have viewed this art exhibit that was designed to portray the students who have the potential to become leaders in the community – if only with the right support from all stakeholders.

Mr. Bryant said JPEF took on the mission of documenting the district’s educational needs because it was important, in his opinion, to present the next superintendent of schools with input from the people whom the school system serves.

“There is a variety of… input,” said Mr. Bryant. All of this conversation is available on the JPEF website. He said that the data and evidence includes a cross section of ideas from all over the county – from San Marco to the Beaches, from neighborhood to magnet schools.

One problem is communications, he said, because 72 percent of survey respondents were unable to understand what the school district was telling them. They believed, according to the same JPEF study, did not feel fully integrated into the school system.

Climate and culture is one of the top three priorities that the community is talking about, said Mr. Bryant. He said that educator morale cuts to the question of whether educators can actually teach or if they are beholden to mandates.

Resources, Mr. Bryant, said are another community concern. For years, funding is part of the divide that separates the more affluent neighborhoods and their schools from the schools in areas that have to do the same work with less.

Third of all, community support was a factor that respondents said they include as a priority in public education. The community understands, he said, “how important it is to partner with you.”

Closing out the day, Dr. Brad Cohen, the afternoon keynote speaker, told the conference about how he grew up with Tourette’s syndrome to become an educator.

Before he made his remarks, the audience watched a clip from a made-for-television motion picture that showed the inspiring story of how one principal helped Cohen to transcend shame to enter what he called “a brand new world.”

Tourette’s or no Tourette’s he said that he knew that he was going to be a teacher. “I know what it’s like to make a difference,” Cohen said.

“I have a story that I believe each and every one of you need to hear,” said Cohen.

Growing up, he said that he wanted to be treated like everyone else – with respect.

He related how his mother sent him to an overnight summer camp for one month.

On the last day of camp, there was a camp fire. Each of the counselors announced awards for each of the counselors gave out prizes.

Cohen, then in grade school, received the ‘Froggy Award.” He was the most popular child at camp for making sounds mimicking that of a frog. He said that he was on top of the world and ran to his mother upon returning home from camp. He excitedly shared his noise with his mother.

Over time, the young Cohen could not control his involuntary sounds, even though the consternation of others around him was growing. His family refused to take him out into public because of the shame that he caused them.

The young boy’s mother researched his condition and soon learned that he had Tourette’s. His fifth grade teacher, however, was merciless and made the young boy apologize for making what she called annoying sounds. After she made him promise not to make these noises, his tics continued.

When he entered middle school, “No one wanted to be friends with a noise maker,” he said.

In math class, “that math teacher didn’t get it,” Cohen said.

The young boy’s mother tried to educate his teachers, but this did not stop the math teacher from sending him to time out.

“I tried to learn anyway that I could,” he said, “I knew that I had more in me than the teachers and students saw.”

The bullies paraded around him and mocked his noises.

“They tried to shut me up because they knew the teachers couldn’t.”

“I hated every single one of those bullies.”

He needed someone to understand what he was going through.

“It is the people who don’t know and the people who won’t want to know,” he said.

The principal stepped forward and asked the boy if he would like to educate the student body about his medical condition.

In Cohen’s family, he was the first generation to be born with this hereditary condition and he explained that it was not contagious

“On that day, I knew that we were making a difference.”

He made himself available to his schoolmates to ask him questions about Tourette ’s syndrome. At the end of this lesson, the school gave him a standing ovation.

He said that it was then that he realized that the students’ negative treatment of him was rooted in the need to know more about him.

“On that day, they learned.”

It was then and there that Cohen wanted to be the teacher that he never had who focused on their strengths and not their weaknesses.

He wanted to be the teacher who gave out scratch and sniff stickers, he said to the amusement of the audience, because he never received such positive reinforcement because he was too ‘noisy.’

In high school, he had a new confidence and could finally focus on his academic work. He no longer faced bullies who exploited his perceived weaknesses. He developed relationships with others around him to not only succeed in school, but life.

“I began to make genuine friends,” he said.

One day at high school in St. Louis, Cohen told the audience how he fell in love with Bradley University.

“You cannot fall in love with a university just because of its name,” his father implored him.

“Let’s go Bradley!” The cheerleaders shouted at games.

The crowd spelled out his name.

He added that he did not just choose the university because of its name, he appreciated the proximity to his home, the size of its student body and the school gave freshmen the chance to teach in the classroom. As a college student, Cohen asked his professors to allow him to share about his condition with his peers at the beginning of class.

His education professor said that he did not have time to allow the college student the two minutes to explain his Tourette’s because there was no time at the beginning of class.

During the first day of class, the education professor ended up giving the time to the nervous student who became more at ease because he knew that the students understood.

For four years at Bradley University, “I studied my tail off,” Cohen said.

“I never made excuses,” he said, “I tried to learn like everyone else.”

“My resume looked nearly flawless.”

“I was ready to take on the world.”

He headed to Atlanta to begin his teaching career. It was cool going to the Olympics at night. But during the day, he endured interview after interview. He could not convince any elementary school administrators to hire him. They were concerned that they would be unable to explain Dr. Cohen’s medical condition to the education communities.

He was even cautioned by one principal that their fifth grade students would react violently.

He walked out of one interview with a principal angry because he asked a principal how a school would treat its special education community if they treated an applicant like him with such disrespect. He decided that he did not want to work for such a person.

“I knew I could do it,” he said. Feeling dejected, he went to bed in tears.

His family asked him to return to Missouri, but we woke up with a new positive attitude. His father recommended that he work as a substitute teacher until full-time work was available.

He printed out a stack of new resumes and set forth to find a new job with a newfound assertiveness. One day, a principal called and asked if Cohen had been hired yet. The principal invited Cohen to an interview.

Instead of focusing on the Tourette’s, the interview was geared toward Cohen’s teaching skills.

Mountain View Elementary School in Cobb County, Georgia hired Cohen after his 25th interview, three weeks into the school year. The new second grade teacher, however, was not in the clear. Having joined late in the year, the other second grade teachers farmed out their children with the greatest challenges and the most high-maintenance parents to him.

After graduating cum laude, he did not know what lessons would help him reach the parade of children who literally moved their desks into his classroom.

But Cohen had the talent and the gifts to come full circle and rise from disability to ability and being able to be the kind of teacher that everybody, including a young scared child making funny sounds, deserves. I am looking forward to what TEACH has in store for us next year.

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