Monday, June 11, 2012

Last Day


It's Parker's last full day at Shamrock, and I'm in the garden again. So much to do: bulbs to move, mulch to spread, seedlings to water. The long, hot summer looms.

When we got to school this morning, one of Parker's teachers was standing in the corridor outside her classroom, holding a copy of the Charlotte Observer. Students gathered eagerly around, marveling at the article that filled the center of the page. "Shamrock Gardens blooms with its kids," the headline read. We started at Shamrock with a story on the front page of the Observer, and now we're ending it that way.

Six years ago, the coverage struck an ominous note. "If it were your child, would you risk it?" the headline asked, invoking the phrases that strike terror into ambitious parents' hearts: "low scores," "high poverty" and "struggling school." The reporter followed several middle-class families who were thinking about sending kids to Shamrock, their neighborhood elementary. By the end of the article, we were the only family left.

Now, the pendulum has swung the other way.  "An elementary once so bad the state took it over has some miracle growth," the Observer informed its readers. The article went on to detail the progress we have made: new programs, more strong teachers, higher test scores, an abundance of gardens and a growing number of the neighborhood families who once avoided the school.

Growth? Absolutely. A miracle?


Schools and gardens teem with miracles, with seeds that unfold into magnificent green towers, caterpillars that transform into gossamer-winged wonders, children who surprise you at every turn.

But building places where children, plants and butterflies will thrive has little to do with miracles, magic wands or silver bullets. It calls for plain, old-fashioned, day-to-day hard work.

I say old-fashioned for a reason. We entered Shamrock in the midst of a national school "reform" movement whose backers clamored for sudden, radical transformation, championed firing staffs and closing schools, embraced the idea that destruction could somehow be "creative."

That isn't how we did it. Our successes were rooted in time-tested ideas – small classes, a stable, experienced staff, racial and economic integration – tempered with the understanding that good work takes time and patience. To use a garden metaphor, Miracle Gro may help you for a season, but if you want lasting success you have to build your soil. Our principal, Duane Wilson, had been an educator for more than thirty years, long enough to know that. 

We used some new ideas, of course. Teachers tested and retested students, studied the results and spent hours discussing specific strengths and weaknesses. A pilot bonus program gave staff an incentive to stay at the school. Mr. Wilson liked the young people who joined Teach for America, and several of them passed through Shamrock's doors.

But most important, we built connections. In the end, a school depends on the people who work there, day in and day out. A good school is a place where those people work hard, hold to a common goal, care about and look after each other. That kind of school doesn't make for a tear-jerking movie, or a riveting Power Point. It just works. 

It wasn't easy, and it definitely wasn't fast, for the school or for the garden that became my pet project. A couple of years into the garden work, I got frustrated with how long it was taking. We won a grant from Lowe's in the spring of 2008, but didn't get organized enough to build the beds until almost a year later. We didn't put much into the ground until the fall, when we cleared out the weeds and planted a handful of ragged-looking seedlings. 

One day, looking over those scraggly beginnings, I apologized to a fourth-grade teacher about taking so long. I shouldn't worry, she replied. It was good for the kids to see that some things take time, to learn the value of patience and persistence.

I don't know if the students learned that lesson, but over the years I certainly did. If you hit an obstacle, look for a way around. If something doesn't work this year, regroup and try it the next. If you hold together and keep pushing, step by step you'll move ahead.

One of my greatest pleasures was watching our young teachers bloom. When Parker entered kindergarten, Shamrock's staff was full of novices, the result of the revolving door that plagues so many high-poverty schools. As the school began to improve, more of those young teachers chose to stay, growing stronger and more confident with every passing year.

The garden grew as well. Our spindly transplants filled out and swelled the beds with leaves and vines and flowers. Butterflies began to visit.

One day, as a friend and I looked over one of the beds, she reached out to unfurl a spicebush leaf and reveal a bright green caterpillar, complete with yellow-rimmed black eyespots. Students crowded round.

A few months later, the passion vines were covered with fritillary caterpillars, spiked black and red. A nearby brick wall gleamed with their green-gold chrysalises, and a sharp-eyed student spied a spangled butterfly emerging from beneath a drainspout. 

The butterflies weren't alone in noticing the changes. Two years ago, nearly a dozen of our neighbors decided to put their kindergartners at Shamrock, bringing with them the time, money and connections that make middle-class parents such an asset to a school. Their work helped expand the garden, and multiply our enrichment programs. This past year, an even larger group enrolled.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how much that students, staff, parents and volunteers, all working together, have accomplished. Academics have taken off. Along with "gifted" classes, Shamrock has added Science Olympiad, Engineering is Elementary and chess instruction. The fourth grade traveled to Raleigh for the first time in recent memory, and the school now boasts dozens of garden beds for growing fruits and vegetables as well as flowers.

Attendance at school events can number in the hundreds, and volunteers step up from all the different communities our school serves.

Many of our students have risen to the occasion. The day of Parker's graduation I watched with pride as his classmates picked up end-of-year awards: Lawrence Thomas, who didn't get less than an A all year, Filiberto Esparza, who scored a triple 4 on his End-of-Grade exams, Phillip Nguyen, who started in the below-grade-level "inclusion" class, but ended in the advanced class and on the principal's honor roll, reserved for straight-A students.

It's still far from a miracle. Shamrock has not become an enchanted place where students' struggles are magically stripped away, and everyone soars into a bright future. More students pass exams than used to, but too many still do not. Many students seem primed for success. Others still face enormous struggles, both personal and academic, and it's hard to see what lies ahead for them.

Our nation's hard times have also hit the school, along with other challenges. Budget cuts have eaten into support staff, even as our students face growing economic and family stress. The small classes that allowed young teachers to develop their skills without being overwhelmed have grown much larger. Yet another budget-cutting move landed a hundred preschoolers in our midst, crowding our limited space and complicating school logistics. Federal and state initiatives focus far too much on high-stakes testing, and far too little on what really matters to schools and children. Mr. Wilson retired last year, and this spring a number of our key staff members decided to move on as well.

So the challenges are far from over. But with dedicated staff and a strengthened community base, the school and its supporters have the means to meet them. I know they do, because we did. 

Was it a risk to send Parker to Shamrock? Maybe. But we could not have asked for a greater reward. We made so many friends from so many walks of life. Working together, we all created a place where children who were sometimes overlooked could thrive. We learned that you can set out to do what you think is right, and with hard work succeed. Nothing in my life has given me greater satisfaction. I highly recommend it.

Note: Ann Doss Helms, the terrific Observer reporter who wrote the article on Shamrock, did not write the "miracle" headline. That person shall remain nameless. Ann knows better. Observer photographer Todd Sumlin took the beautiful swing picture.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Testing our souls

My son stands on the corner, holding a bright yellow sign in front of passing vehicles
"Standardized testing made off with my SOUL!" the hand-printed letters read. "Honk if Your Child Deserves Better."

I watch him thrust the bright rectangle forward, working to catch each driver's roving eye, beaming ear to ear at the sound of each responsive beep. His fellow demonstrators, gathered to protest the American Legislative Exchange Council summit here in Charlotte, ply the sidewalk behind him. I can't help grinning. My son's soul remains his own – for now.
Not that test companies aren't trying.
Case in point: the now-infamous Pearson, Inc. eighth-grade exam item involving a race between a hare and a talking pineapple – the item pulled by New York State officials after students and parents complained that neither the passage nor its questions made any sense.
In brief, the item involves a story about a pineapple who challenges a hare to a race. A group of other animals decides the pineapple will use some secret trick to win, but the pineapple never moves and the hare triumphs easily. The moral? "Pineapples don't have sleeves." You are welcome to read the whole thing for yourself, but I promise you that it makes no more sense when told in full.

The test does all right with basic questions, such as: "Before the race, how did the animals feel about the pineapple?" But when it reaches the questions that are supposed to measure higher-level thinking, things go badly wrong.
What really gets me is the question about wisdom. I fear it takes a sad and narrow soul to imagine that wisdom could lurk within the restricted confines of badly written texts and multiple-choice answers, even those which don't involve talking pineapples. Yet test-makers are always asking students to locate it.

It's not simply that the phrase that Pearson deems to be the "wisest" – the owl's "Pineapples don't have sleeves" – is far from any kind of wisdom with which I'm familiar. It's the rationale that Pearson's Chief Measurement Officer, Dr. Jon S. Twing, provided for the answer: 
The owl declares that "Pineapples don’t have sleeves," which is a factually accurate statement. This statement is also presented as the moral of the story, allowing a careful reader to infer that the owl is the wisest animal.
(It's tempting to note here that Dr. Twing has violated a cardinal rule of careful reading: the question didn't ask which animal was the wisest, it asked which spoke the wisest words. But I digress.)
Given that the hare also makes a "factually accurate" statement – "You're not even an animal! You're a tropical fruit!" ­– I'm going to deploy my own carefully honed powers of deduction and conclude that for Pearson and for Dr. Twing, the use of the sleeve comment as the story's "moral" clinched its status as the "wisest."
As one of my favorite movie characters (Bunty from Chicken Run) puts it: 

In all my life, I've never heard such a fantastic 

I want my son to learn to think for himself. I don't want him to "infer" that a silly statement is somehow wise because the author of a story that makes no sense decided to use it as the "moral."
This is one of the major problems with these tests: the lack of substance. Students are expected to arrive at the "right" answers not by real thinking, but by responding to clues planted by the authors. Legions of sophisticated statistical tools are then used in misguided efforts to wring meaning out of test scores that are hollow at their core.
Because we have made the stakes riding on tests so high – they can determine whether students move from grade to grade, whether teachers keep their jobs, whether schools remain open – we are teaching a whole generation of our citizens that manipulating artificial clues found in prepared texts is more important than grappling with the far thornier dilemmas of real life.
There is currently a lot of hand-wringing about how badly American students do on exams like these. But perhaps they're simply smarter than we give them credit for. Perhaps they haven't been deluded into playing the games that produce high test scores and instead search for real meaning – a quest destined for futility amid the forest of windmills the test-makers have so assiduously constructed. 

Recently, I joined with a group of national organizations seeking to restore some sanity to the way we assess quality in education. We've drawn up a resolution that calls on state and federal officials to end the high-stakes testing that has so significantly warped American education.
This kind of testing has woven itself so deeply into the system that it's going to take all of us, working together, to bring our leaders to their senses and get them to change their policies. Please join us.
Honk if your child – if every child – deserves better.

Sunday, April 22, 2012


A green and leafy jungle of tomato plants overflows the bed of the white pickup parked on Ashland, Alabama's courthouse square. Their overall-clad caretaker cheerfully expounds on the merits of each variety, the canning tomatoes that ripen from the inside out, the hearty beefsteaks, the heirlooms that grow to almost grapefruit size. His silver hair shines bright beneath the sun. Each pot sports a popsicle stick with a handwritten name.

I settle on a Rutgers, and Parker hands him our dollar. He takes it, then turns to survey the abundance in the truck.

You're sure you don't need any more? he asks.

No, I say. I don't have space for more than one.

It's a weak excuse, of course, and doesn't slow him down a bit. He picks up a second pot, and hands it to Parker.

That's a jellybean tomato, he says. You can grow it in a five-gallon pot. His daughter lives in military housing where pots are all they have, and the jellybeans do just fine for her.

As we keep talking, I tell him that we've driven down from Charlotte. His smile brightens, and he picks up a third plant, this time a beefsteak. You can grow that in a pot, too, he says. Since we came all this way, we ought to have another one. He'll tell his friends that some of his tomatoes are going to North Carolina. He looks back at the truck, clearly trying to find a reason to give us yet another, but decides it's time to stop.

Parker looks down at his armful of tomatoes and grins.

This is why I brought Parker to Clay County, Alabama. I wanted him to meet the people I once saw almost every day, the ones who don overalls and live on gravel roads and have the most generous hearts I've ever known.

If only Ken Elkins were here to take a picture.

If only we hadn't come to Alabama for his funeral.

For almost half a century, Ken Elkins and the rural people that he loved made art together. They raised children, grew tomatoes and worked hard at mostly low-wage jobs, while work, sun and age roughened their hands, swelled their joints, etched wrinkles deep into their faces. 

They decked their houses with American and Confederate flags, with pictures of family members, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King. They turned the task of making do into an art: fashioning door locks from pieces of rough wood, staking gorgeously straight rows of beans, hauling ponies in the back seat of a car.

Ken devoted his life to catching them on film, not from a distance, but up close. I remember the way he'd sit down on someone's porch steps to chat. After a while, he'd raise his battered camera and start sighting it around, casual, just looking. By the time he got down to business, taking shot after shot, trying angle after angle, most people were ready to give back, to share of themselves the way they shared flowers, cucumbers and recipes. The results touched people all across the state. 

As he made his rounds, Ken schooled generations of young Anniston Star reporters, opening their eyes to a world they never knew, sharpening their appreciation of texture and detail, teaching them the secrets of getting to know the people whose lives they sought to depict. I was one of those.

Eventually I left the Star to follow in Ken's footsteps, bearing a tape recorder instead of camera gear, asking questions instead of making pictures. During the year I spent in Clay County I heard stories about goats and raccoons, about car wrecks and tornadoes, about faith and love and war. I drank home-churned buttermilk, played practical jokes, turned my violin into a fiddle and went to my first open-casket funeral. 

All the while, Ken was riding the same roads, taking his magic pictures in-between assignments for the Star. His images and my new friends' words ended up in a book, You Always Think of Home.

When Ken died last week at the age of 76, I'd been absent from Clay County for almost twenty years. Still, as I turn onto Highway 9, the place looks just like I remember it. The ground rolls gently up and down, like swells out in the ocean, and you know that you're deep in the country. The long ride into Ashland traverses a familiar landscape of pastures, newly plowed fields, squat chicken house arrays and the occasional frame house with a garden and a porch. 

The biggest change I find is in the graveyards, where I have more friends at rest. Although we don't have time for all of them, Parker and I visit one small hilltop plot, where Annie and Hilton Dawkins, Teddy Freeman and my dear friend Howard Hamil have joined several generations of their predecessors.

We park at the courthouse square, and Ernestine, who still runs Sunshine Cleaners, grabs me in a hug. "Your mother loves Clay County," she tells Parker with a smile. Johnie Sentell, proprietor of High Points Coffee and Books, is delighted to meet us, and talks eagerly about Ken, about You Always Think of Home, and about the historical museum that he and other residents are developing. We explore the square, give out a couple of books, have a few more conversations. Parker talks me into buying him a second-hand CB radio. Then we stop by the tomato truck.

"I like Clay County," Parker tells me as we head back to Anniston for Ken's service. "I like it too," I say. 

Once home, I plant my Clay County tomatoes in the front garden, alongside a descendant of Annie Dawkins' forsythia bush and near the wren gourd that Howard Hamil made for me. I pull out my stack of Ken's photos and leaf through them, marveling once again at all the life he captured with his lens and with his heart, remembering the people and the place that changed my world forever. 

Thank you, Ken.

Sunday, April 1, 2012


The pair of white cabbage butterflies wheels in circles, spiraling up toward the cloud-streaked sky, descending to the green tangle of our emerging butterfly garden, tumbling over new-cut grass towards the school picnic benches, then veering back to the garden beds.


It's a gorgeous day – "abundant sunshine" as the weather reports put it, but not as hot as earlier this week. Winter-dormant plants are exploding from the ground, and the beds teem with life. The pussy willow we planted last year sports kitten-soft gray catkins and firework bursts of yellow. Robins, mockingbirds, chickadees and doves make their appearance, and the space around the garden rings with chirps and trills and snatches of melody. 

The wings of the cabbage whites have blurred gray edges, with black spots at the center. It's a little early for most butterflies, although I've spotted some tiny spring azures and a couple of yellow sulfurs in other beds. We don't have much in bloom right now, except the fourth grade's daffodil bed, and the cabbage whites don't seem interested in those. I wonder what they're whirling for – whether it's a fight, a mating dance, a frantic search for food or just a way to pass the time.

I've come to dig out cutleaf coneflowers, who have taken advantage of our good dirt and started to colonize our beds. The plants are already a good three feet tall, and if left to their own devices would overspill the beds in weeks. We have too many other plants to give them that much space, so out they go. 

It's the first day of spring break, so the pathways around the garden lie largely silent, bereft of their usual parade of children moving from one place to another. The birds and bugs will have a week of peace before school starts up again. The work goes faster without constant interruptions, enthusiastic questions and the customary stream of greetings and hugs, but I miss them.

As I prepare to sink my shovel once again into the damp, dark dirt, a flash of movement catches my eye. A tiny shape darts out of a birdhouse and is gone, too quickly for me to identify. 

The birdhouse – a small, wooden box with a sloped roof – has been in the garden for some time, hanging from a wrought iron hook that has patiently performed a variety of tasks over the years. I can't remember who put it there. One thing I like about our garden is the way it collects inspiration ­– a turtle box, a birdhouse, mystery plants, all of which just appear, and make themselves at home.

It's dark inside the house, and I twist my neck back and forth, trying to catch the light. Then I see gray feathers and, just barely visible in the darkness, three small, white speckled eggs. A miracle. 

Happily, it is a teacher workday, and two of our first-year science teachers, Robin Tench and Laura Howden, are working in nearby classrooms. When they emerge, I beckon them to look, and they light up with delight. A little later, when head custodian Grady Houston wheels a trash can round a corner, I call him over too. He leans down, peers back and forth, then smiles the biggest smile of all.

This is how we've built our school, one shared moment at a time. Even as we've piled up data and projects and assessments, this has been the glue that holds us all together. To create the kind of place Shamrock has been, people have to care about each other in ways that show, in moments that buoy spirits and cement bonds.

I like working in the garden because it makes so many of these moments possible – always something new to discover and to share. I remember the day that students gathered to marvel at our first spicebush caterpillar, the morning they discovered gulf fritillaries everywhere. I think back to all the wide eyes and open mouths as students got their first looks at baby rabbits, blue robin eggs, seed-snacking goldfinches and parsley caterpillars, bright green and yellow striped creatures which when poked rear up and shoot out small, orange horns. 

And of course our school is filled not only with the miracle of nature, but that of children, unfolding around us every day. I love the way our teachers revel in the dozens of individual miracles that parade through their classrooms, the way I hear them the hallways swapping stories and laughter and advice, searching for the way to touch each one of their students, building the bonds that nurture not only children but each other.

The six years I've been engaged in this endeavor have been among the most rewarding of my life, a day-by-day amassing of encounters and experience, one after another, much like the way we filled our butterfly garden beds.

When it came time to fill the beds we couldn't fit a truck into the courtyard, so we had to dump the dirt out back and bring it in one wheelbarrow at a time. We called it wheelbarrow day. Parents, teachers and neighbors descended on the school to dig, wheel, spread and haul. We cooked food, made paper butterflies, held a raffle and had a great good time. Wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow, the beds filled up. Moment after moment, we got to know each other better.

Three years later, the foundation laid that day endures, in the plants now springing up under the March sun, and in the friendships and connections that have grown as well. It's such a joy to share the results with newcomers such as Ms. Howden and Ms. Tench, to draw them into the circle of bird eggs and butterflies, moments and miracles, into the love that nurtures gardens and children and schools.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Breaking New Ground

On this warm winter evening, Shamrock Gardens glows with life.

Inside the bright-lit cafeteria, tables crowd with families of all sizes and descriptions, strollers fill the aisles, and the din of happy chatter reverberates around the space. Standing room only here tonight.

Up by the stage, students and siblings groove to a Michael Jackson dance game, shaking their hips and flinging out their arms to the familiar tunes. Volunteers dispense slice after slice of pizza, along with an abundance of brownies. Cars jam the parking lot. The stacks of empty pizza boxes grow steadily higher.

As families finish eating, many make their way over to the K-2 building, where community helper Jerry Gaudet, a steadfast fixture at Shamrock events for more than a decade, hands out sanitary handwipes.

Along the buzzing corridor, screens flicker in dim classrooms as kids toss virtual bowling balls, guide cars on digital tracks, try out new dance moves. Inside the gymnasium, basketballs hit the floor with satisfying thuds before taking to the air.

It took a lot of work to set up PTA Family Wii night. Volunteers had to be corralled, Wiis borrowed, pizza planned and ordered, brownies baked. It's the kind of event we could only dream of putting on five years ago, when we began to rebuild Shamrock's PTA. Back then we'd set a date for an event, send out a few flyers, and mainly improvise. If we'd gotten a crowd that numbered in the hundreds, we wouldn't have known what to do. In those days, with lots of time and effort, Shamrock's staff could pull off an occasional big event. Parents couldn't.

Now we can. 

The school's broadening appeal has drawn in planners, organizers and dozens of new helping hands. Growing interest among families has also brought in other volunteers, heightening the feeling that the school and its students belong not just to parents, but to the surrounding communities as well.

Being able to organize this kind of event means a lot to Shamrock. Our school gathers students from several neighborhoods, and from multiple racial and economic backgrounds. To build ties among our families, connecting them to the school and to each other, we need these face-to-face connections, this mutual enjoyment at watching kids cavort, the rush that comes with working side by side. The more events like this we have, the tighter our school community grows.

The best part of Family Night for me – I didn't do anything at all. I also didn't lift a finger for this year's Fall Festival, for the kindergarten or first grade dinners, for Beautification Day, or for Family Night Loteria back in October (being in Shanghai was a pretty good excuse). We've never had such a full event schedule, and each has been a success.

In our first few years at Shamrock, when most of the PTA planning fell to a tiny group, I worried whether other parents would carry on the work we'd done after we left. Now, as I walk the corridors and see familiar faces like Jerry Gaudet's joined by many, many others, that old anxiety eases. This year's Shamrock T-shirt proudly proclaims that we're "Breaking New Ground." It feels that way to me.

Note: Our Family Night, like the grade dinners of previous years, was generously sponsored by a Front Porch Grant, part of the Crossroads Charlotte program run by the Foundation of the Carolinas.