Monday, September 21, 2015

The Bigger Picture

Last week a 14 year-old Texas teen named Ahmed Mohamed was handcuffed in school, and suspended, because teachers and staff mistook a homemade clock he'd brought in for a bomb. Yes, the boy is a Muslim. Did Islamophobic based paranoia play a role in his treatment? Probably. Truth be told, though, this incident is less a commentary on how Muslims are viewed in the US, and more a commentary on something else: Guns in our schools. 

I can tell you from personal experience that when teachers report back after summer, one of the first things reviewed is lockdown/live shooter procedures. Typically there is at least one more staff session devoted to this during the year. In addition, there are multiple lockdown drills with students during school hours. Ask any school teacher (or college professor) how many staff development, in-service training hours, and regular school time is spent on school lockdown drills, and live shooter protocols. You'll be shocked to hear. There's a reason for this: We live in a country where mass school shootings occur on a semi-annual basis. In fact, I can say with a tone of certainty (and sadness) that there will be at least one this year. It's not out of the question. 

Since the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings, the Washington Post reports at least 44 school shootings at k-12 schools or college campuses. The non-profit group Everytown For Gun Safety reports 94 school shootings. In the k-12 shootings, where the shooter's age was known, 70% of the gunmen were minors. Take that in for a minute:  70% of school shootings were done by kids less than 18 years of age. So when we ask was there some paranoia involved in Texas, the answer is "Yes" - but this is justified. That fact should piss off any parent with a child in school. 

People need to understand that todays teachers are required to do more than teach. In addition to coming up with creative and inspiring methods in which to bring our subjects to our students, we must also be their protector. This is overwhelming. In one school where I taught, the building went into actual lockdown. I had a classroom full of kindergarten students at the time (I'm a music teacher), and I can tell you the anxiety that hit me - once I had all of the students under the table and out of sight - was harrowing. As I was calming down a crying five year-old girl, I suddenly became aware that I was responsible not just for her, but the other 24 lives as well. You can't imagine what that feels like (after it all ended, we discovered the individual who'd entered the school was unarmed). In addition, we have to listen to what kids say. How they appear. What their mental or emotional states are like, and whether or not they're being bullied at school. If something is missed and people die - it's our fault.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said "Effective teaching and learning cannot take place unless students feel safe at school". Has anyone ever thought that maybe the ever important US test scores are lower than our competitor's due to our rate of mass school shootings? When you compare the number of school shootings between us and Europe, the numbers are unreal. In fact, they're embarrassing.

One of my nieces recently told her family "I try and be friends with as many kids at school as I can." Her father said "That's great. Be nice to everyone." To which she replied "That's one reason I do it, but the main reason is, if one of the kids at school brings a gun in, I don't wanna get shot."

There you have it.

Monday, September 14, 2015

The Golden Rule

The single greatest thing about the American Public Education system is its obligation to educate all children who come through its doors. It does not base admission on race, creed, income level, or ability/disability. This is incredible. Many people do not recognize the magnitude of this nor do they see the big picture.

Let's say, for example, that your child is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder. Not only would your district's schools be responsible for teaching her, but also providing the subsequent services so she could be educated fully. This includes, and is not limited to, speech and occupational therapy; and perhaps physical therapy and social skills lessons. She may be put into a inclusive classroom with other children on the spectrum which has one on one aids in addition to the teacher. Or, she may be mainstreamed into a typical class - again, with the help of an aid - so she can perhaps model their learning behaviors.

What if you had a child who was classified with a behavioral and/or emotional problem? Not only would your public school be obligated to teach her, but also provide the subsequent protocols needed so she can get a proper education. This might include an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") that is created with the help of parents, teachers and therapists. This will include specific methods and/or approaches that may include outside therapies in addition to what goes on in the classroom. If this does not help, and your child still proves to be difficult in the classroom, she may then be given a Behavioral Modification Plan ("BMP") - which will also include additional methods and/or professionals. If that doesn't work, she may be placed in an alternative education program or perhaps an in-house "bridge" program. Regardless, the district must make every accommodation to ensure your child's education.

If the above child was enrolled in a charter school chances are she would be thrown out. Unlike true American Public Schools, charters operate outside of the rules - they have their own charter that stipulates the rules and regulations of their school. This is sketchy because while accepting public funding (aka "taxes) they are under no obligation to educate who comes through their door. I have spoken before about my experience in Newark Public Schools and the students who showed up around late December/January who'd been kicked out of charter schools. Many of these students could have benefited from an IEP or BMP, but charters don't want to be bothered with that. They have test scores to worry about.

It is these issues that played into the recent ruling by Washington State stating charter schools are unconstitutional. In the ruling, the courts sighted how charters use public funds, but don't abide by the same rules as true "public schools". Maybe this is why they often classify themselves as "public charter schools".

I've written here before about the weird connection between corporate money and charter schools. They seem to be more about profit and/or privatization than education. Educating a child fully takes time, patience, training, and empathy. It also takes additional costs as well as accommodations. These are two things that charter schools don't have - and certainly don't want to concern themselves with.