edCored: The "Back to School" hemorrhage

This blog post was written by Juliet Perry, a parent in the Kent School District and 2011 Volunteer of the Year for the city of Covington, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

What do you call an annual financial hemorrhage? I call it “Back to School.” Those are the days when I am tempted to just drop off a blank checkbook and a signature stamp at my kids’ schools and then have them mailed back to me when they are all done. Fees, tuitions, academic and extracurricular extras; I am more surprised each year how it adds up to, then surpasses, my mortgage payment. I enter this withdrawal program with eyes wide open – I choose to enroll my kids in the extras; to expose them to new activities, expand their horizons and their minds. But I wonder at what point I have stopped paying for the extras and have started filling in the gaps in educational funding. Let’s look at my Back to School ledger:

9th grader:
• $200 school clothes
• $115 graphing calculator
• $100 other school supplies
• $30 ASB fee
• $60 Annual
• $100 Pay to Play fee
• $60 Tennis team uniform
• $185 Tennis gear – racket, bag, court shoes, etc.
• $25 donation to Tennis team fundraiser
• $80 cello rental fee (which means he has one at school and one at home; I don’t even want to go into how much the one at home cost!)
• $42.50/month tuition to Youth Symphony group
• $40 PTSA membership for 3
o Total: $1037.50

My 5th grader is a bargain in comparison:
• $150 school clothes
• $100 school supplies
• $20 supplies donated to the classroom
• $50/month tuition 0-hour drama club
• $64/month piano lessons
• $20 PTA membership for 2
• $50 donation to PTA fundraiser
o Total: $454

Grand total: $1491.50, which gets us through September 30.

For my kids the benefits, of course, vastly outweigh the costs; I will write my checks each year with only a small amount of grumbling. But my children are extremely fortunate to have these options. We enjoy financial stability when many do not. I am a non-employed adult, free to spend countless hours in the car, chauffeuring my children from one activity to the next. Frequently, hours not spent in the car are spent at their schools, volunteering my time and gifting the school district with unpaid labor. But we are an average middle class family. The choices I make on behalf of my children don’t come without a measure of personal sacrifice. We don’t take vacations. We don’t buy new cars. We keep to a budget for food and clothing. Even still, I can scarcely imagine having to choose between drama or music lessons; I can’t even fathom having to choose between pencils or breakfast.

Many of these Back to School expenses would continue to rest on my shoulders if education were fully funded. But it shouldn’t be too much to expect our state and our nation to put the future of our children first.

edCored: Innovate, create, invent and when you need to reinvent

Catherine Ushka-Hall is currently the Vice President of the Tacoma School District Board of Directors, having been elected to her first six-year term in 2009. She is a lifelong education advocate, and her two teenagers attend Tacoma Public Schools. She wrote this for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

As I sat at the dais at the beginning of discussions on budget cuts last year, I placed a note between myself and our board president that reflected the guiding principles we had agreed to over coffee. It had four simple words: “Innovate, Create, Invent, Reinvent.” These words reflect a commitment to not give up on improving the quality of education we provide for our students in spite of the cuts that lay before us. I underestimated the amount of courage it would take to remain true to those principals, and the extent of culture change those words represent from the classroom to Olympia. We must innovate and engage in continuous improvement as the stewards of our fate represented by the kids in each and every classroom in the state.

Silence is not an option.

The public was far from silent when more than 1,500 parents showed up to be counted or testify when the idea of closing a high school was suggested to reduce just $2 million of more than $38 million in cuts. The public was also not silent when we made the painful decision to close two grade schools for a total savings of $1 million. Our teachers were not silent when we sought to pass cuts to them, or alter contract language to allow us the flexibility to place staff where they best fit based on the skills of the teacher and the goals of the school community. Ironically though, the public was completely silent when I clearly stated during public session that the two school closures were likely to be the first, but not the last, as we would begin the 2012 school year with thousands of empty elementary seats, and anticipated the onslaught of further reductions.

I will not be silent now as if there is a possibility of $2 billion in reductions not affecting us, or as if this is not a crisis.

Whether pitting neighbors against each other or education against corrections, “do it to someone else” is not the answer that we need. In our hearts and minds we know this is true. As a board member I am steward of the educational system, however as a citizen, I am also a steward of our whole community. These are not conflicting interests, and we must expect citizens, staff, and our leaders to have the courage to forgo individual politics and personal fears so that false premise is not galvanized as fact. To do so would create a climate where innovation is impossible at a time when it is essential to our success.

You may be wondering what my point is beyond deep-felt frustration. It is this: we cannot allow cuts to levy equalization or all-day kindergarten that would harm those children and districts most at-risk and further drive inequality in our system. We must insist that our legislators make whatever cuts they do on the state level so neighbors are not pitted against one another. We must honor them personally and politically for having the courage to do so. We must temporarily put aside the battle to ensure that the state meets its paramount duty of funding, and we must identify and support the creation of new revenue streams that allow for stability in education and all of the government services that we rely on. If that means overturning the requirement of a 60 percent supermajority, or insisting that the supermajority define itself, then so be it. If that means the creation of a state income tax, or the removal of some loophole, then so be it. If that means that we ensure Washington works with Washington to untie our hands from the limitations of No Child Left Behnd so that we can work without fear of condemnation, then so be it. I am not claiming that these are the answers; however, I am insisting that we find the answers together and move forward with clear intent to find and implement innovations that empower us to provide excellence in our new economy.

As we begin our board review of further anticipated shortfalls, I will add a fifth word to my notepad to ensure I do not lose sight: courage.

I challenge myself and my peers to define it in their words and actions. In the end, it truly is all about the kids. I will strive to be able to tell my grandchildren (not a hint to my teenagers, by the way) how people from otherwise opposing sides came together to recreate a system so that they and every student of their generation is empowered with the greatest tool we can provide: a quality education. As we move through the sometimes ugly process of democracy, I urge the citizens and leaders of our great state to create this story with me. I cannot promise we will be successful. I can promise that it will be a story worth telling.

edCored: The day the music died

This blog post was written by Laura Kexel, a music teacher in the Kent School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

I am an itinerant orchestra teacher. I am currently assigned to eight elementary schools teaching sixth grade beginning orchestra. When I was hired in 2007, I was assigned to five elementary schools teaching fifth and sixth grade orchestra. Every year that I have taught in the Kent School District, not only have elementary band and orchestra been on the chopping block, but the district has threatened to cut all elementary music to save money. Last year, fifth graders lost the chance to start in band and orchestra. The district is desperate for money, and our children are suffering.

I have a Masters Degree in Teaching, yet I spend only three hours a day in contact with students. I make enough money on mileage checks to pay three car payments in a school year.

Besides having to fight every year just to keep music alive in elementary schools, we have suffered some pretty devastating cuts. The district owns hundreds of band and orchestra instruments but has cut the repair and maintenance budget to ZERO. Would you buy a house and then never mow the lawn, vacuum, paint, etc.? They have a set maintenance fee for students to rent those instruments – $80 – but if a student has free or reduced lunch, the fee is reduced down, often to a mere $20. This $20 buys two strings (almost) or 1/2 of a new bow or 1/3 of a new case or almost none of a repair when needed for normal wear and tear issues.

Itinerant band and orchestra teachers used to get an allotment to spend on new music. Unlike math or science, we don’t have a set of textbooks that the district purchases and adopts every five to 10 years. Our books are purchased by the students themselves, and music is our textbook. We have to share that music, and now that we only teach beginning orchestra and band, we can’t use a great deal of what we have because it is beyond the skill level of the students. Our allotment was reduced to ZERO last year and has stayed the same. No new music, despite the changing needs of our students. Are we supposed to write the music ourselves?

Every school principal has warned against making too many copies. Again, I don’t have a textbook curriculum. Everything I do is from a photocopy. I don’t always have time at every school to make copies for just that school, so sometimes I have to make all the copies I need for the week in one place. I try to spread that around evenly, but I’m not always successful. My schedule doesn’t allow me to be. I sincerely hope that I make it to the end of the year without getting cut off.

There are many more ways that budget cuts affect us and our students, but I have to stop here before I let all this wash over me. I need to keep positive despite the tough road ahead, and I can’t do that when I dwell on all the bad news. The bottom line is that I teach whoever shows up in my class, whatever their needs. I spend my weekends calling parents to make sure every student has an instrument. I make extra trips on my own time to the district warehouse and music stores to get supplies. I do all of this because someone has to do it, and it is important. I want what is best for my students, and I will do what is necessary to make that happen.

edCored: Explaining the operating fund balance

This blog post was written by Janet Suppes, a budget analyst who lives in the Bellevue School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

Most people seem to pretty easily grasp the concepts of school revenues and expenses, even the seemingly arcane walls between one fund and another. It may not make sense that bond money can’t be used to staff the classroom, but those are the rules set up by law, so no reason to argue about the rationale. But after the discussion of this is done, and the discussion turns to the fund balance? Eyes begin to glaze over. People just assume that money comes in and goes out in equal portions, and that’s the end of the story.

But it isn’t. Schools have what is essentially a savings account: the operating fund balance. It’s what is left over after expenses are paid. If the balance drops below 2% of prior year expenses, the state regulators will start looking to see if there is a problem and if there is a danger of insolvency. A district has to have a contingency fund, just like any of us should do. One district in our state is now going through that process; it isn’t a theoretical.

The question is: how big should that fund balance be?

To answer that, it is important to understand what is in the fund balance. It isn’t just cash in the bank, ready to be spent. Some of it is non-cash, like inventory waiting to be put into service. Some of it has been purposely set aside for legal obligations, such as insurance payments. Some districts have chosen to put money in the bank in case the state does what it did this year, which was ask for money to fund public employee pensions for past years. The Bellevue School District has chosen to bank those funds in the last few years, rather than let that money go into that year’s expenses. Now that the state wants to collect it, it is there, and cuts are not required from the current year’s budget to meet the obligation.

Once those amounts are accounted for, called restricted and designated funds, the remaining money is what the district has for unseen events. The government board that oversees school districts has asked each district to establish a board policy for what this amount should be. Most districts are setting that amount at 5% of the previous year’s general fund expenses, which is the sum total of what it took to run the district to operate schools. That money is held aside, and not available for current year expenses. It is only used if there is an emergency (the roof blows off a building), or other unforeseen event that has a major financial impact on the district.

But that level may not be high enough for ratings companies, such as Moody’s, thanks to our elected officials in Olympia. Last year, the state Legislature demonstrated that they could reach out and take district reserves, by making mid-year cuts. The teachers were already hired for K-4 class size reductions, so when that income disappeared, districts were forced to pay those teachers with money from their reserves. It is possible that the reserve should be closer to 10%, if the state is going to make this a regular practice. Otherwise they could be faced with having their credit rating reduced, and their borrowing costs increased.

I would hope that districts and unions keep this in mind as they negotiate contracts. That money isn’t there to fund ongoing expenses, such as pay increases or hiring. It is there for the long term financial security of the school district.

edCored: The F word

This blog post was written by Jennifer Harjehausen, PTA member in the Kent School District, for our edCored series on education funding. If you want to be notified when new content is published in this month-long series, please subscribe to the LEV Blog’s RSS feed or once-a-day email digest.

At the end of August, our school board approved and the teachers ratified a new two-year contract. The 1.9% salary reduction mandated by our state legislature was not passed down to our teachers. Kent School District, like many districts, pulled the money from somewhere else.

Hmmm . . . the first thing I thought when I read this was – “Great, more PTA fundraising.” To say that fundraising is a challenge at my school would be an understatement. We are very small – hovering around 300 students – and are 70% low income.

As state and district and building and PTA budgets drop year after year, the pressure on our PTA to eliminate the “fun” programs continues. Things like having the Pacific Science Center visit are memories. Unless it’s a free assembly or a “must-have” program, it’s just not happening anymore. Our PTA must supply the trash bags used at PTA-sponsored events. We buy the sanitizing wipes for the computer lab. We buy the underwear and spare clothes kept in the office for when kids need them. And, more and more each day, it’s just about these bare necessities.

Just yesterday, my principal wrote to me asking if our PTA had found a grant-writing chair yet. While the PTA historically has purchased 15 copies of “Battle Books” each year, the school can no longer afford to buy five extras that it usually does for study groups. To think that our kids may not have the same resources as other kids to participate in this district-wide event is truly heartbreaking.

Of course, I want to jump in and fix the problem. I’ve already started thinking of ways to get the books, but then I remember that I need to continue to advocate and share my knowledge with others. Only by changing the big picture can we change the outcome. By fixing problems as they arise and putting band-aids on the ever-increasing gap with fundraising and grant applications, we as PTA ARE NOT serving our children. We are enabling the system that is not putting our kids first. We are contributing to the achievement gap, opportunity gap, funding gap, or whatever you want to call the gap between the kids who have and those kids who have not.

Instead of the dreaded Fundraising word being associated with PTA, let’s get back to our roots and put Advocacy first.

A little respect

This post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate.

I am a busy mom. I’m not the only one, I get that. I have great admiration for the moms who stay on target and keep up with everything all the time, but I am certainly not one of them. Judgment is one of the things about parenthood that I was not prepared for, and I have a knee jerk argh reaction whenever I run across completely unnecessary expressions of the inability to see things from another person’s perspective. A busy person, who, maybe, flat forgot about the bake sale and the form required to get her into band. But that’s a different story. A few weeks ago (I’m behind on … my life … but we covered that) I read this story, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

I am so busy that I have become one of those people that mostly gets my news from what my friends posts on Facebook – and because I am who I am I clicked on this story after I’d seen it pop up a few times … and as the kids say, OMG.

Can’t we all just get along?

The story’s premise is that we, as parents, should take all of this on face value. These are instructions … but I am not in school. There are aspects of being a parent that require this conversation to be a conversation, not a test.

First of all: you all are leaving the profession in droves because you can’t stand the parents? Really? It’s my fault? That’s quite a burden — and one I would think I and other parents share with a thousand other factors, many of which are caused by people who could help and don’t – they just watch us fight with each other.

Trust us, you say. Approach a conversation about a concern by saying “I know kids exaggerate”, you say. If you are telling us something, it’s true, you say, so you just have to believe it and back it up. The problem here is that we’re with our kids for a lifetime – you have them for a year, or a couple of years, or an hour a day. If a teacher tells me something happened I am absolutely going to verify it, because Jane needs to know that I am in her corner. Every public school situation she’s been in has been big and crowded and full of opportunities for overworked teachers to miss things that are important — and there is no way that I am going to punish her for something without gathering as many facts as possible.

What few teachers will admit to me is this: teachers have favorite students. When I first got Jane she had a lot of habits that made her, um, not their favorite. I understood why, and I didn’t fault them for it. She was frustrating. This was painfully clear to me as I watched the 8th grade graduation ceremony and all the clearly popular kids got hugs and high fives from every teacher as they walked by with their diplomas, and the loners, the awkward children, the children that clearly struggled got semi-engaged handshakes or were left to just walk on by. Teachers who had Jane when she had behavior problems universally took the side of other children when Jane was in an altercation, even when there were no adult witnesses and clearly there was more to the story than was being told. She was frustrating, but not every problem was her fault.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are a handful of teachers that I would walk miles barefoot in the snow for. Jane told me once that one of those teachers was mean, and I knew she’d gotten in trouble with him that day and I said, “No way, you’ll have to try harder than that—he’s the nicest teacher you’re likely to have for a great while, and you need to treat him with respect.”

Those moments don’t hold their weight if you do support teachers when it isn’t warranted. Jane had a terrible teacher last year that shortchanged her and didn’t think she was capable of much. I really couldn’t lie to her and say the teacher was worth respecting. She wasn’t. What I did say was that I’ve had bosses I didn’t like and who didn’t like me, and that didn’t change the fact that I needed to do everything on my job description — regardless of personality.

Teachers have hard jobs. I’ve seen that. I have a hard job too, in addition to being a foster parent. I am always struggling to stay ahead of the game, and in that struggle, I remind myself that her educational success and happiness is most important. I support every teacher who has supported Jane. I support every school that has listened to her. I support every situation that has asked her to be the best person and student she can be. Blind support helps no one, especially Jane.

In the decades I have to spend with Jane, I’d like her to think that I was the one that convinced her to be the best version of herself. I’d like for my relationships with her teachers to reflect that wish. I don’t see that in this article. I don’t see that in the mainstream media. How do we make this the highest priority?

Back to school update for Jane

This post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate.

Tonight the most important question I have to ask will be: is it appropriate to wear my t-shirt that has hip-hop stars on the side of Mt. Rushmore to the evening for new Upper School students and their parents at the fancy private school Jane will start this week? I can’t decide.

Yes, she was accepted to the private school. It was a pretty long admission process as the school wanted to be sure she had at least some idea of what she was in for. She starts this week. We were so lucky to find a way to pay for it—neither the agency with which I am licensed nor I have $22,000 lying around for one year of her education. In fact, when the check came in to the agency to cover the cost one of the administrators didn’t know what it was for and nearly had a heart attack. It was a letdown for him to realize it was already spent. (When I told a lawyer friend this story he said, “You know, one of the partners I work with said the other day that you can give a non-profit $5 to do $20 worth of work” – but that’s neither here nor there).

Her books cost $525—and most of them were used. When she saw the pile of them, she immediately took a picture to send to people so that they could be thoroughly impressed. There are TWO math books. The English books are on a wide range of topics, and she has already written a paper on her summer reading book. She didn’t write a paper all of last year.

What’s more, there is an English teacher from the school who has been voluntarily tutoring her this summer. She has been to several sessions, and is incorporating his feedback as she goes. We had a meeting with the advisor, the learning specialist, Jane’s caseworker, and my friend who works at the school already, tonight is the first of several back to school meetings. All the meetings include dinner.

It’s a good thing that there’s been so much preparation, because Jane’s got the summer doldrums. She’s been working as a counselor in training for the summer, and it’s not exactly what I hoped. All of the other kids from the Middle—that area of public school where kids get dropped off and left to their own devices –seem to be in this program too. The point of the program seems to be to have youth who are stuck in mediocre programs all through the school year teach younger kid how to be ready exactly for that too when they get older.

Jane’s interpretation of her job is to make sure the kids cross the street within the lines, that they are quiet, that they don’t rough house in the pool. None of the activities are memorable, but she has told me numerous times how important it seems to be to not bring peanuts in her lunch. There are so many campers, they need some extra help to keep track of them, and they seem to use the Counselors In Training as a second set of eyes to make sure kids aren’t misbehaving. When she gets home every day, she’s done so little actual thinking that she is super hyper all evening, asking me a billion questions while I try and push her out the door for a bike ride before the sun goes down.

When I was young I went to Shakespeare Camp. We performed comedies for four summers, and while I was there I learned to juggle, hang a spoon on my nose, and sing Elizabethan songs. After those years I worked as a junior counselor in a program that focused on wellness in combination with fairy tales of the outdoors that led to all of the junior counselors writing clues that were left throughout hiking trails for the kids to follow on an adventure.

The senior counselors in that program were directed to take us under their wing, and mine gave me The Prophet by Kahil Gibran and Johnathan Livingston Seagull while trying to convince me to write short stories and read them a loud on camp overnights.

The summer after my junior year in high school I was sent to math camp at Mt. Holyoke – a rebellious girls only program to aimed at ending the math divide between girls and boys. I made life-long friends there, and it gave me an opportunity to visit Fenway Park for the first time.

All things are possible. My parents never had a lot, and I honestly don’t know how I managed to get all of those opportunities. Nor should I have. It was their job to figure it out, and now it’s mine for Jane. I screwed this summer up, but have now learned my lesson. I know the kids at her new school aren’t working at keeping younger kids following the rules and only the rules this summer—at least I think they aren’t. I have visions of them serving as crew on sailing trips to Europe and learning to become trapeze artists. Next summer we’ll do a better job; there’s got to be some equivalent of learning to juggle or visiting Fenway Park.

In the meantime, I have Upper School New Student Night, Tenth Grade Outdoor Education Night, and I have to figure out what to wear to each while getting ready to be the youngest parent in the room again. If I had given birth to Jane I would have been 21 when she was born, which is much more common at public school than it is in the private ones I have been around.

Jane’s first day is Wednesday. Two of her teachers have PhDs. One is a retired military veteran who has lived all over the world. She’s hoping to be in the fall play.

The Journey Out of Not-So-Special Education

This blog post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate

My first parent teacher conference was two and a half years ago, at a public junior high across town from my house. Jane is my teenage foster daughter, and she had been placed at my house for a couple of weeks, and I had no idea what I was getting into. Jane had never learned most of what she was supposed to; after ten years with neglectful parents and three years and 7 placements in foster care she didn’t know how to count money, measure time, or do her multiplication tables. She was in the resource room all day with all of the other children they didn’t know what to do with. I knew so little – but it was surprising to me because my first experience with Jane something they didn’t seem to see — hearing her recount every plot point in the Twilight series and falling in love with the movie Wall E. Say what you like about the vampire novels, but this version of her seemed so incongruous with the one I saw at school, where the only concerns they had were for her discipline. The conversation was about all of the things they were asking her not to do – and there was a very long list.

Over the course of the next six months she got suspended more times than I can recount; some of the suspensions meant she was sent home, and some were in school. When she got suspended in school she was set down in a room by herself and allowed to read Harry Potter books – her very favorite thing—all day. What seemed obvious to me – that whenever she was lost in uncertainty she did something disruptive so she could go read books – was not so clear to them.

A few weeks after my first parent teacher conference I asked Jane what she wanted most in her life. She said that she wanted out of special education, and she wanted to get off of medication. When I started bringing these goals up with teachers, principals, and school psychologists I got the same reaction from all of them – a mix of pity and condescension. They knew it was hard to see a child with so many limitations, and it was hard, they knew. But medication was complicated, you see, and there were these test scores to prove that she was exactly where she was supposed to be. And my favorite response: we could test her again, but we know what the outcome will be already.

The thing is, I ask questions until I get an answer that seems to make sense. It’s my nature. I kept asking why she was on these medications, and no one knew for sure. I kept asking what they were doing for her, and no one had a way to evaluate that. I kept asking what progress she could make academically and how we could go about that, and they said she would likely never learn her multiplication tables and that she didn’t need to. None of this made any sense to me – in my regular every day life multiplication tables are the one form of math I need constantly – to be a person in the world. They said she couldn’t learn.

Meanwhile, I was teaching her. I taught her to measure time and count money. I signed her up for private swim lessons and within three months her teacher said she was skilled enough to pass the swim test at camp and survive if she fell off of a boat (my father is a sailor, this has always been his measurement of swimming education success). She learned to manage her own schedule and get herself on the bus in the morning. At school, I couldn’t figure out what, if anything, they were doing. They didn’t give her homework, and she seemed to have free unsupervised time on a regular basis where she would get online and instant message me.

I emailed her teacher/special education case manager one day in total exasperation, asking him to give Jane some positive reasons to participate. He wrote back saying that he does say positive things to her everyday – but couldn’t provide any examples right then. What he could provide was a list of the negative things he needed me to support them on today. I remember the day I got that email very clearly – it was the straw that broke my back and all I could think was “This. Is. Impossible.”

So I started looking into private schools. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions. On the suggestion of a friend of the family I found an alternative school in a rural part of town in a beautiful old building with thirteen kids in the class she’d be in and an arts program that was integrated into the rest of the curriculum. When we pulled up in front of the school for a visit Jane said, “I can go to school here?”

She could, and she did. She had an amazing year there. She learned about buoyancy and displacement, built contraptions that conducted electric current, and memorized 68 lines of Shakespeare for the class play. She went on a class trip that included hiking in the Grand Canyon and a visit to the missions of Santa Barbara. When she called me from California the first thing she said was: “Mom, do you KNOW how FUN it is to swim in the ocean?!”

After the year ended, the options for private school seemed too limited, and so Jane followed many members of her class to the local public high school. Early on we discovered that she had jumped seven grade levels in reading in the last year. (When I mentioned this to her teacher from the private school he kind of cocked his head to one side and said, “Huh. I’m not really sure what that means, but it sounds great.”) She tested out of two of the three areas of her Independent Education Plan. This was phenomenal, I thought. If she can do that in a year, what else could she do?

I really should know better. In the first conference to set up her high school schedule, they told me that community college would be a great option for her, or maybe a vocational program? I said, “She’s in the 9th grade. Let’s not make that decision today. If she isn’t able to go to a four year school, that’s ok, but we’re going to give her the opportunity to try.”

And so I’m in another year of struggle. Conversations that were easy last year are like rolling a giant rock up a mountain. I switched her out of the English class that is designed to instill a love of reading – that goal has been met. I’m trying to get her out of a health class that’s not teaching her to be healthy. I took her to see the Picasso exhibit in Seattle and when she told her teachers about it they just shrugged their shoulders – a moment that was upsetting to me only because she’d been inspired by her day at the museum, listening to the audio commentary, picking out her favorite piece, and deciding that maybe Picasso was a little too moody for her.

Her teacher from last year came to the house last month for a party we had. He asked Jane and some of the other kids about school, and they said they were reading a Steinbeck novel and that it was boring. “Boring?” he asked. “You can say a lot about that story, but it’s not boring!” And then he drew them into a conversation about it, and within five minutes, their attitude was totally turned around – talking about Steinbeck became fun.

There are so many fights. Everyone one is digging in their heels: schools are great or they are hopeless. The problem is poverty, class sizes, teacher salaries, standardized testing… whatever it is, whoever is speaking insists that the problem they’ve identified is the one that needs to be fixed first. In the meantime, the clock is ticking on my child’s life and education, and I feel this incredible pressure, every day, to give her the help she’s asking me for. All I want is that five minutes where the conversation turns around and becomes what it could be, a discussion that’s fun to have.

Parent-teacher dialogue, from a foster parent’s point of view

This post was written by Emma Margraf, a foster parent and advocate.

I am a foster parent to a teenage girl who goes to public school. I’ve had her for two years, and in the time I’ve had her I have attended what feels like approximately 9 million parent teacher conferences, school meetings, back to school nights, etc. I have the access code for the online system where you can see what classes your kid has been late to and what assignments they’ve missed. I supervise homework time and answer the questions I can and challenge her with extra books and encourage her to ask for extra credit, extra help, and extra time.

The other day I read something by Kelly Munn, LEV’s State Field Director, that really struck home with me–in a post she wrote called the Blame Game. Why, in the education world, is everyone having a monologue with themselves? I, like Kelly, am that parent in the video satirizing parent teacher conferences. I give. That’s totally me. I’m sure a number of teachers dread my presence and hate my emails. That reaction – the one where you go on a tirade of all of the reasons why your child can’t do this, is a human response the veritable brick wall you run into when you go into a school and say: this isn’t working. A partnership is possible.

Now here’s where I am tempted to say something completely silly, like some of my best friends are teachers. They are. I believe they deserve higher pay, smaller class sizes, and extra breaks. My step-father is a college professor, my mother is a retired elementary school teacher, and for years I kept in touch with my high school English teacher who, when she discovered I’d already read Macbeth several times gave me leave from class and assigned me Julius Ceasar and Romeo and Juliet, without any intervention from my parents. Mrs. Barnett taught me to write. Her method is the one I’m still using in this article, except I buried my thesis at the end of the second paragraph.

I’m often told that teachers have 140 students, and that if they allowed for the concerns of every student they’d never get anywhere. And yet: concessions are made all of the time. Kids leave class for sports events and get make up time, kids leave sex ed because their parents have moral quandaries, kids do alternative biology assignments because their family doesn’t agree that evolution was how we ended up here. How is that different than when I ask for my child to be let out of a unit on mental health issues because of her background? How is that different than when I ask teachers to let her do extra credit to make up for an area where she’s deficient as a result of previous negligence? These are just two of my current concerns, on which I am in the middle of my 5,000th email. Partnerships are possible.

In the comments to Kelly’s post, there were some great responses, and one of them asked why we can’t get syllabi at the beginning of the year. That was a great suggestion. If assignments were available ahead of time then we’d know what we were dealing with. Technology has become fairly advanced, why can’t we plug in the assignments ahead of time instead of the missed assignments after the fact?

What if parent teacher conferences were actually student centered? What if they started and ended with the student expressing their concerns about the particular class, and making a suggestion for what they think they can do to improve their work? What if that conversation between my child and my child’s teacher was really only witnessed by me, and driven by my child? I’m not sure about all of you, but in that scenario, if mine felt heard, she’d pay a lot more attention. It wouldn’t have to be a long conference; it’s the quality of the conversation that matters, and if she heard something other than follow the rules or else, she would listen.

I understand the argument about teaching children to survive in a big world. However, if something isn’t working it isn’t working, and my kid needs to see that there are solutions to problems that seem insurmountable, because there always, always are. Conversations have been a prized tool for answering the profound questions of the world for thousands of years. Let’s have a conversation to see if we can figure this one out.

Korsmo’s education news round up

Friday again. Is it my imagination or are they getting colder?

We are in the final stretch for this election cycle – anyone else not quite ready to give up those political ads? Didn’t think so – Lots of education issues playing out on the ballot and in the rhetoric, between Seattle’s supplemental levy (other districts have similar levies on the ballot as well), Initiative 1098 the income tax on the wealthiest Washingtonians which would fund education, R-52 , the bond measure that would retrofit schools with “green” building systems or Patty Murray’s ads featuring her education credentials the you’d think we make education a priority here. Remember to vote – and help your friends do the same.

Nationwide, races are tightening and one to watch is the Colorado Senate race where former Denver Superintendent and current U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is locked in a dead heat with GOP candidate, Ken Buck who has some, er, “interesting” perspectives. Bennet has been at the forefront of education reform and folks are wondering just what this election means for the Obama agenda moving forward.

There has been a fair amount of attention given to for-profit institutions of higher learning lately, but at least one opinionator believes that the focus has been misplaced. These schools are full of low income students – disproportionately so – who graduate at very low rates and therefore don’t improve their social mobility.

Wondering what D.C. Schools will look like in the aftermath of the Mayoral election and the shake up at Chancellor? WaPo lays down the five things to watch for.

That’s it for this week. I’m off to the national Race and Pedagogy Conference in Tacoma. This year’s conference theme: Teaching and Learning for Justice: Danger and Opportunity in our Critical Moment. Have a great weekend, all.