Sunday, November 9, 2008


this morning's metro section of the washington post has an article about the violence in a dc middle school. on first read i found myself clutching my coffee cup in horror and thinking, wow, this makes me believe in the voucher program.
except that, sure, parents should have the right to take their kids out of that school, but that doesn't solve the problem. that doesn't mean your neighbors' kids aren't going to be stuck at that school, learning to defend themselves from violence, and bringing their new knowledge back to your neighborhood. even if i got my 14 year old out of that school, i'd want to know my neighbor's 14 year old wasn't going to come home with a gun one day. we can't hand out vouchers and then close our eyes to the problem of why the vouchers were needed in the first place.
part of the problem, the article says, is that another school was closed for low attendance and was combined with this middle school. at first i believed in the closure of the small schools for financial reasons. dc needs to make the best financial choices they can. but small schools promote community and safety, particularly in middle school when children are beginning to go through the teenage angst stage of life. when you know all the teachers and recognize most of the students you are less likely to be lost in the shuffle. you know you can't get away wtih as much as you'd like to.
the school in the article has also been "restructured" under nclb, but it sounds as though the restructuring has created more problems than it solved. putting in place "good on paper" administrators seems like a great choice, but this school needs an administrator who can deal with angry parents and angry teenagers. i'm not sure there is much at wharton business school, or even in some admin masters programs that prepares administrators for this kind of violence. you need administrators who can guarantee a safe learning environment. period. test scores mean nothing if your students do not feel safe to learn.
my junior high was fairly violent my first year there. i learned my own subtle version of 'self defense'. my friends and i would carry our violins around with us every day to have something to "accidentally" hit people with if they tried to mess with us. without it i remember being picked up by a large 9th grader and 'tossed' across the hallway. we learned to keep use our instruments to keep a 'bubble' around us so someone couldn't come up behind us and yank us down by our book bags. so yes, good kids can go wrong at a bad school. safety first.
luckily there wasn't violence in our classrooms and i was still able to learn. but no one can learn when they are worried about being hit by marbles in the back of the head. when you are worried about being attacked your blood pressure goes up, your muscles become tense, and your body moves to being on-alert. your brain is not available for learning- it's ready to protect you- it is not going to let you relax and process new information. without a guarantee of safety for students all the good teaching strategies in the world are not going to get through.

my suggestions for dc schools (so that we no longer need vouchers):
-smaller schools, lower teacher/student ratios, administrators who know their communities. make parents feel welcome, let every student know you know their name.
-experienced teachers (offer 'em high pay and steal 'em from the fabulous counties around dc- montgomery, arlington, fairfax. take all their good training and experience with classroom management. then acknowledge that these schools are different- give even these experienced teachers support with classroom management. keep class sizes low. higher less teach for america students, or, give them tons of support. they have no classroom experience, or classroom management experience. good intentions are wonderful, but they are not making our students safer)
-have enough admins per school so they know each student and each parent. admins should be attending parent conferences when needed to prevent attacks and to make the parents feel like someone cares. at my school i know i can call an admin to come sit at a parent conference if i feel the conference may go south (and i'm not worried about being choked). i trust my admin to not turn the meeting around on me (i'm not sure dc teachers feel this way about their admins- particularly after the restructured admins are put in place). i know my admin will "have my back" while helping me build trust with the parent.

the article reminded me that we can live with our pie-in-the-sky dreams for what good teaching is, but without safety nothing is going to happen.
eek... ranting is about to make me late for church. oops.

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