Wednesday, March 10, 2010

School Board Night

Last night, as happens every month, the CMS school board entertained what their agenda calls "Requests from the Public." On these days, anyone willing to follow a few simple rules – no profanity, no attacking anyone by name – has three minutes to address the board.

If you want to speak, you phone the board office, or show up at the meeting early, to get on the speaker list. When your name is called you have three minutes. A bell rings when your time is up. Board members do not respond. You speak, the bell rings, and you make way for the next anxious citizen.

Sometimes the room fills with people and the parade of speakers stretches for an hour or more. More often, only a few people make their way to the podium. A handful of these – myself among them – speak regularly, four or five times a year.

Three minutes is not much time. You can get in about 400 words, or just over a double-spaced page of type. It's hard to resist the temptation to pack in an extra thought or two, but that usually means you have to edit while you talk, especially as the clock ticks down. Some folks just talk until the bell rings and then stop, but it looks better if you finish on time.

A packed house displays political clout. The "butts in seats" are voters, and a board meeting can be a rallying point for a dissatisfied community. This works best with communities whose residents believe that they have power – that their presence and their statements can make a difference. Those who speak for low-income schools – as several of us did last night – can rarely muster this kind of imposing backup. We have only the power of words.

It's hard to know what comes of these brief moments. Sometimes board members watch and listen. Sometimes they seem more interested in the papers on their desks. They have heard most of the arguments before. In many ways, speaking before them is a formality, a ritual expression in which everyone plays a prescribed role.

The board meetings are televised, so speaking does get you on
TV. A surprising number of people see you there. Our family's hairdresser, who has no children, once told my husband that he had seen me speak, and that I needed to come in for a haircut. Why he was watching, I have no idea.

And there is a kind of power in speaking things out loud, in crafting words to make a point, however briefly. So last night, I spoke yet again about class size. I tried to be restrained, but I'm still mad about the bad consultant data, and that showed at the end. Parker and Peter came, along with a handful of friends. Parker brought a book.

I was the twelfth person to speak, and finished just before the bell. The superintendent kept his eyes glued to his papers, but most of the board members seemed to be watching. As I walked back to my seat, my friends – along with a couple of strangers – smiled and gave thumbs up. Several folks said they liked the angry part the best. "Sometimes we're just too polite," one woman noted.

I don't know who heard me, but it felt like the right thing to do.

Talk to CMS Board of Education, Pam Grundy
9 March 2010

Three years ago, as my son Parker was finishing up his kindergarten year at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, our school was bleeding teachers. I remember how the word dribbled out – rumors followed by confirmations – that someone was leaving for this school over here; someone else for that school over there.

Shamrock was struggling at that point. The school had just failed to meet NCLB requirements for the 5th straight year. Just 49 percent of our students had scored at or above grade level in math – 16 points below the district average of 65 percent.

In the years since then, our school has made great strides on many fronts. It's hard to compare reading scores, because the state recently changed the test. But between 2007 and 2009, our math scores jumped 30 points, from 49.3 to 79.6 percent, which is essentially the CMS average. We have met all our NCLB goals for two straight years, and are sanction-free. We have done this even as our poverty level has stayed relatively consistent, at around 90 percent.

This shift is not a miracle. It is the result of hard work by many people on many fronts. It is also rooted in classes that are a manageable size, and have thus made it possible for our teachers to succeed.

Especially important, small classes mean that although our teachers are working hard, they are not burning out. The exodus of teachers to other schools has slowed. Two years ago no one chose to leave Shamrock for another CMS school. Last year only one did, and that was to go to KIPP. We didn't have a single novice teacher last year, and we don't have any this year. We have the kind of experience and stability that our children need.

Poor and working-class children simply need more from their teachers than middle-class children do. Working-class families cannot supplement their children's education or their schools the way that middle-class families can.

But given a stable, effective school, their kids can do extremely well. And I will repeat: small classes help teachers be effective with kids who need additional help, and this effectiveness makes those teachers want to stay.

There's a lot of loose talk these days about money being spent on high-poverty schools not producing results. I say come to Shamrock and see for yourselves.

It has been tremendously satisfying to spend the past four years working with a school that has moved forward. I do not want to spend the next two years watching those gains drain away because CMS abandoned a proven policy to chase after the latest foundation-supported fad, based on reports by consultants who can't even get their numbers right. We need to build on strategies that work, not swap them out for something else.

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