18 February 2013

Tug of War

As I mentioned in my last post, I've been spending time chatting with educators in super-small school districts. About 1 in 5 districts in our state has student enrollments of 200 or less. So even though their individual constituencies are small, their collective concerns represent a large number of communities.

One of my personal beliefs about public education is that we should enable every student to be college and career-ready. As adults, we don't get to decide the path they take...that some classes aren't appropriate for "those" kids because they'll never do x. We don't know for them any more than we know for ourselves what the future holds. The best we can do is give them access to a high-quality set of knowledge/tools/learning/whatever-you-want-to-call-it so they can pursue whatever is next for them, based on their choices.

I believe this is true for every child, and at the same time, I'm struggling with whether this viewpoint represents social justice or imperialism.

In many conversations I've had with teachers and principals in small districts, the topic of community and parental values comes up. There is a lot of support within high schools to get kids into college, but the consensus is that almost all of them are back home after a semester. Teachers spend a lot of time helping kids fill out applications for college and scholarships...but there isn't much in the way of parental involvement. Most parents would be quite happy (according to the stories) to have their kids just stay at home after high school. And there can be a real stigma for a kid who successfully navigates the outside world...that they think they're "too good" for their family/community. Is an 18-year old supposed to choose between parental acceptance and a college education or job/apprenticeship)? Taken to its extreme---is it right to produce college/career-ready graduates at the expense of their connection to their families?

I think that a student should get to decide what happens with their post-graduate life, but what if parents do not? What makes my belief system about public education any better than theirs?

This is what keeps me up at night. I'd like to think that as adults, regardless of our role, we want kids to grow and reach their dreams. I don't want there to be a tug of war, even an unspoken one, between us. But I don't know how to let go.

Jason's post on What Gets Left Behind gets at something similar, but for urban students. Go have a look.

12 February 2013

Hanging with the Smalls

When was the last time you (a) could only get dial-up Internet and (b) there was no cell phone signal where you lived? For me, close to 20 years, although that's probably cheating a little. There may well have been a cell phone network available long before I could afford one in 1996. It was probably 10 years ago before I got DSL (and then broadband). A lot has changed on Teh Interwebs since then.

I've spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks meeting with some of the smallest districts (n students less than 200). Many of these districts are "invisible," not just in terms of policy, but also basic services.

Some of these districts have only two teachers...instructional materials may be quite aged (I heard about a district that, until recently, was still using "Dick and Jane" readers from the 50's)...and access to professional learning (or even prep time during the school day) is limited, at best. A few districts have no kitchen access---so no hot meals for kids (or only what can be microwaved from home).

Teachers (and administrators) wear many hats in these districts. If you're teaching, you may have 3 or 4 grade levels of students in a single classroom. You may also be the person who has to get up on the roof and sweep off the snow...or make repairs in the classroom. A teacher I met last week is also the bus driver for the district---so by her attending a meeting that day, kids had to find their own way to school.

I share this to only outline a picture for you, not to elicit sympathy. The fact is, teachers in these communities are incredibly passionate about the work they do (just like teachers everywhere) and embrace their role in their communities. They know their students incredibly well and believe that small schools have an incredible advantage for learning. I find their stories and dedication inspiring.

The digital divide, however, looms greatly in these places due to the lack of connection with the world at large. True, some people move to remote areas to be away from the world, but some of these areas had no say in being left out of technological advancements. A telco will not put a cell phone tower in (or run broadband to) an area with only a couple of hundred customers for the same reason a pharmaceutical company won't develop treatments for exceptionally rare diseases: it's not cost-effective for them. And so the world moves on without these families.

It all makes me a little angry (okay, a lot angry), that in 2013...with all of the expectations we push out to schools...that there hasn't been anyone fighting for these little guys. Teachers in these areas are more than willing to bring Common Core into their classrooms, for example, but when all of the resources are developed for single-grade non-looping classrooms with access to the Internet in all of its glory (or budgets which permit additional materials...or even school libraries), what are they to do? How many teachers in any school district can plan for four grade levels of simultaneous instruction across multiple subject areas...without a prep period, access to release time, instructional support in the form of coaches or curriculum specialists?

So, I'm helping to do what I can. I have a great partner to work with and a little pot of funding. We are bringing these teachers together and starting to build some networks and see what is possible. There is nothing more heartbreaking than hearing them say at the end of the day that they don't feel so alone now...or realizing that all we have at the moment is a lifeboat. There is not enough room to connect all of these teachers. But we'll build a model together and then see about expanding it to others. Small steps, I keep telling myself. One foot in front of the other. Make things happen as we're able.

And fight like hell for those kids.