As I write this article, teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky are starting their second week of striking. [Teachers in Oklahoma ended their walkout on April 12.] Due to decades of neglect, conditions for students, faculty and staff in those states (and West Virginia, which recently settled its strike) are appalling. From out-of-date textbooks and unsafe buildings, to low wages for teachers, the tipping point for accepting those conditions was finally reached.
A Teacher's Voice
People generally look forward to spring as a time of renewal after a long, dark cold spell. In Ohio, April brings thoughts of a different kind to many public school teachers, because it is when students are required to take state tests. Many of my colleagues dread this time of year, and non-school folks can probably guess the reasons. I will focus this article on the lost potential that occurs when we are mandated to give state tests.
At the high school, there are four end-of-course exams given to ninth- and 10th-graders. Each test has two parts, and each part takes 90 to 110 minutes to administer. The state allows for a one-month period, usually beginning in April, for districts to give the tests.
When I was a Cub Scout at Taylor Elementary School there was an enormous uproar because a woman wanted (was willing) to become the leader of our pack. This was new and different for the early 1970s. Once registered and trained, she did a great job, as we all expected. I stayed in scouting through high school and volunteered with a troop when I was in college.
A month after I started teaching in CH-UH, I was asked to become the scoutmaster for the troop in which I was an assistant. I accepted even though I had no sons of my own (and still don’t). Over the next 25 years as a scoutmaster, I believe that I did as much teaching in scouts as I did in school. I dedicate this column to my experience in this alternative education setting.
In 1988, I was hired by Principal Pat Ackerman to teach math at Taylor Academy, an alternative high school that CH-UH had opened the previous year. Taylor was “ a small school,” serving students who were not quite ready for the high school, or ninth-graders who were lagging behind.
There were 13 staff members, who worked to advance students academically, and help with their social-emotional issues. Taylor provided a close-knit, intimate environment where we knew one another. It was an experimental school that I believe helped many students who would have been lost in the large high school. Taylor Academy continued for several years, until Small Schools, another experiment, emerged as the new model.
We are fortunate to have many locally owned businesses in our community. From grocery stores to bookstores, restaurants to beauty shops, there are many people invested in owning businesses in the Heights. My wife and I believe in supporting those independent businesses because, in many cases, the owners are people we know and trust. It’s also convenient to be able to walk to a nearby store instead of having to drive a distance away.
I knew my way around the old high school extremely well. I grew up a few streets away and remember hitting tennis balls against one of the gym walls, which then led to climbing all over the roof of the building to retrieve the balls. One time I got stuck while exploring the roof of the high school and ended up climbing in an open window to a room on the third floor. My other exploits included the times my sister and I went through lockers after school was out for the summer to collect supplies for the following year. It was like a treasure hunt.
It seems to me there is a fundamental conflict between differentiating instruction for students and, at the same time, ensuring that all students are prepared to take the next big state test. How can teachers take a classroom full of students who might be grade levels apart and make sure that everything in the curriculum is taught and learned by all by a specific time?
I feel the same way about the pacing charts that are in use throughout the district. For example, all fifth-graders are expected to complete a particular unit at the same time. Lock-step learning makes little sense to me. Teachers end up skipping important information, or some students end up frustrated because they may need extra time to master a concept.
It is not everyday that I get a chance to host the president of a 1.7 million-member organization who is interested in our schools and our community. On Sept. 6, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the teachers’ union affiliate of the AFL-CIO, spent the day in the CH-UH school district.
We started our visit at Boulevard Elementary School. There were nine adults walking around the building trying not to be disruptive. Keep in mind that Boulevard is an open building: you can see over cabinets into classrooms, and there are no doors or walls.
Summer is usually the time my wife and I do some work on our house. This summer we had to find someone to repair our brick stoop, a job we could not begin to tackle on our own.
When our mason quoted the job he had a helper, but when he arrived, he was working alone. He told us that he had trouble finding and keeping employees. Some prospective workers wanted set hours. In masonry you have to work when the weather conditions are good. Some of our mason’s other hires had walked off the job after a few days (or in one case at lunchtime) because the work was too hard. He ended up working alone, way behind, and frustrated by the lack of interest in learning an important trade. There are countless reports of similar shortages of skilled workers among many technical trades and professions.
This summer, my wife and I are taking our first vacation without kids in 23 years. We have been fortunate to have taken our daughters all around the world. They have experienced cities, mountains, oceans, museums, and more. Travel enables people to see the world in new and different ways, and provides background for new learning.
We also exposed them to whatever enriching things we could in the Cleveland area, visiting parks, museums, zoos, going to concerts and plays, music lessons, camps, and much more. Our daughters had every possible advantage and incorporated their varied experiences into their learning in and out of school.
What are boards of education elected to do? According to adopted policies, their primary purpose is make policies and to hire a superintendent of schools who will enforce them. I would agree with this statement, but would add that they are also elected to ensure that the interests, values and needs of the community they represent are being met in the operation of the schools.
In April, without any public discussion, the CH-UH Board of Education (BOE) decided to privatize the before- and after-school programs. The primary reason was economic.
Before- and after-school care is not seen as the school district’s main mission. One could make the case that as long as families have access to before- and after-school care for their children, the district should not have to shoulder the burden of organizing, supervising, staffing and recruiting for the programs at each of our elementary schools.
I believe that discussion with the public prior to the board taking action could have helped determine if there could have been a better solution or confirm that the proposal was best.
Bad legislation is still bad, even if it might benefit our school district’s short-term bottom line.
Ohio Senate Bill 85 (SB85) was introduced in late March to expand our state’s already bloated voucher system. School vouchers damage the public interest by allocating tax dollars to support families whose children were already slated to go to private or parochial schools. Supposedly, these children are being saved from the so-called “failing” public schools, but most parents of these children never intended to make use of public schools anyway.
Last school year the Cleveland Heights Teachers Union conducted a listening project with various parent groups throughout our community. Our purpose was to find out what parents like about their child’s school as well as what they believe needs to be changed. In March 2016, I reported out some of our findings in the Heights Observer.
In preparing for contract negotiations last spring, the concerns we heard from parents were fresh in our minds. The first union issue brought to the negotiating table was “How can we ensure the success of our partnerships with parents and the community?”
We advocated for a wrap-around services commission dedicated to coordinating supports that outside agencies offer in our schools. From our own knowledge and discussions with parents, we know that there are great things happening in all of our schools. However, sometimes a need exists that is not filled.