Community schools, big data, indifferent districts and students lost in the middle
Updated: Mar 15, 2019
It's funny what becomes "clear" to us as we age. I was a good student, and I love learning, but I see now that hated school. I was an A-/B+ student mostly out of sheer will, and there were certainly subjects I cared little for (math-related subjects, mostly).
Ironic then that I found myself teaching at the start of my professional life. I dove into the career because I had found myself in love with school again at the end of my time in the system: I ended my life as a student as a "maker," a poet in a mostly studio-styled MFA program who, with a fellowship, was essentially being paid to write. Class time was devoted to discussing the poems we wrote in our private time. For inspiration, we mined the canon for inspiration. Read, attempt, discuss, revise—a not un-fun experience if poetry is your thing.
Most students in most modern American grade school settings, however, are not so lucky. For most, such hands on, idea-to-inception learning is not their experience. Instead, fact cramming for a long cycle of examinations is the routine. The result? Student apathy. Students may not always be able to articulate why they are no longer interested in school, but somewhere deep inside they can feel that what they're learning has little real-world applicability.
So what is the inverse? What kind of school would produce engaged, eager learners ready for trades or college? A school with low teacher-to-student ratios featuring hands-on learning which dovetails with real-world challenges. Learners need engaged encouragement, and that means adult attention, and those students need to know that the tasks by which we challenge them have real-world corollaries. As for ratio, adults—teachers—can't provide individualized attention if they are teaching a room of 30 plus students. They especially cannot keep tabs on their students if overburdened by a curriculum so full there is no time for "slower," activity-based learning. This "variable" is to me the real issue at the heart of our education crisis.
In education at present we are convinced we are one great idea away from maximizing teacher productivity. With the right instructional model, teachers can teach 35-, 40-student classrooms, or so goes the thinking. And there's no end at present to the ideas offered by fly-by-night gurus. To my mind, that word is the crux of the problem. Productivity. To me, it's a word associated with the factory; how many widgets could a productive worker churn out under optimal conditions? Who cares. Classrooms are not factories; students are not widgets; teachers are not technicians yanking on the arms of the great societal machine.
Anyone who really knows what it means to teach knows that successful teachers connect with the student as a person first. You can't meet your students where they are if you have four or five sections of thirty or forty individuals, each with his or her own baggage. And, if you've been assigned that load and are thus saddled with the grading and planning that comes along with, how are you going to find the reflective time needed to devise truly inspirational, hands-on lessons that have real-world applicability? You can't.
Classrooms are not factories; students are not widgets; teachers are not technicians yanking on the arms of the great societal machine.
I was "lucky" enough to attend a private school. I use quotes as I found the school's pervasive culture of privilege noxious and suffocating. The academics at this school were above par, but where the school excelled is where most private schools excel: student-to-teacher ratio. The private price tag often goes, first and foremost, to the cost of keeping the ratio low. I.e. to the cost of hiring enough teachers to do the job.
I ended my career in Denver Public Schools, an administration-heavy district in a state almost always dead last when it comes to per-student funding. At my first school, West Generation Academy, a school carved out of what was formerly just West High School, I taught five sections of 35 students, each class a mixture of 6th through 9th graders, a third of each class unable to speak English. I was hired in October to fill in for a teacher who had abruptly quit. It was nearly impossible to do my job. I was unable to connect with the students on several levels, but I tried, again and again. I came home each day exhausted and possessing of a little less hope each day. I can only imagine how the students themselves felt...
I hope to spend more time writing out my experiences at West. For now, all I can say is there is no curriculum or pedagogical practice that could have helped all of those students succeed. What those students needed was small classes taught by two adults, at least one fluent in Spanish.
But, standards. But, budgets. Denver Public Schools cannot even afford to bus all of its students to and from school (or even most athletic contests). Most DPS middle school students and nearly all DPS high school students rely on public transportation to get to and from school. Some students spend three or more hours a day commuting... And when they arrive, these students are greeted with formulaic curriculum and overworked teachers. Add in a helping of language barrier and a dose of poverty, and how can we expect these students to succeed?
But, standards. But, budgets. Denver Public Schools cannot even afford to bus all of its students to and from school (or even most athletic contests). Most DPS middle school students and nearly all DPS high school students rely on public transportation to get to and from school.
In my new life as a reporter and editor I've already witnessed so much. I've covered the good and the bad, the inspiring and the heartbreaking. One particularly depressing story I wrote for my paper Life on Capitol Hill involved the shuttering of Gilpin Montessori, an elementary school in Five Points, one of Denver's most embattled neighborhoods, a historically black and more recently Latino part of town which is at present under massive strain due to gentrification. Gilpin has a long history of failure. I won't catalogue its woes. But in its last academic year, 2016-2017, something magical was underway. Fights were down, student scores were improving, the community was rallying...
But then the school was evaluated by the district. And, after some very tricky accounting, the school was found just deficient enough to receive a score 0.5 points below the minimum required to remain open. Community protest broke out; Gilpin community members attended every DPS School Board meeting and used every tactic to encourage the Board to reverse its decision. Nothing doing. The decision to shutter the school stood; at the time of this writing it is my understanding DPS plans to use part of the building for administrative offices and the remaining square footage for a magnet-type (read citywide, not neighborhood-focused) school.
I walked the halls of Gilpin both before the final decision was made and in the weeks before the end of the spring semester. Good energy in a school is rare; Gilpin had it. The kids seemed happy (even as the teachers struggled to hide their sorrow); it was clear to me that learning, real, deep learning, was happening. You can just feel it.
Districts no longer take risks. Blame the economy, sure, but really we should blame ourselves: we don't fund our schools. So, budgets are stretched. And, the Federal dollars used to plug the gaps are ever more tied to standards. Gilpin had a bad track record; DPS wanted more offices for its ever-growing administration (something I'll write on in time) and another hallmark charter-esque (read "vogue" or marketable) school. It was clear to me and many others involved that the decision had been made and the data was worked to fit.
I remember talking to some truly panicked parents who were scrambling to find seats in nearby schools for their children. These were parents whose kids had been walking to the neighborhood school, who had bought houses or were renting nearby so that their kids could have this experience. Initially DPS said it would do all it could to help those families find seats in nearby schools, but in time it became clear those families would have to brave the same open enrollment process as all DPS families.
Where else can I go with this? The story of Gilpin is the story of Five Points, a rapidly gentrifying Denver neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying city in a time in American history when the bottom line is what matters more and more and when big, impactful decisions affecting the very fabric of our communities happen fast and with insufficient notice and care.
I wrote earlier about students also needing hands-on learning in addition to low teacher-to-student ratios. Gilpin had all that. Enough teachers, real learning, real community.
But, in the end, data had its way.