Posts are best read in chronological order. The Beginning is the first of the mini-chapters that will be added consecutively like in a novel.
Please feel free to participate and share your own experience. You'll get extra credit for posting comments, adding yourself as a public follower or subscribing through the RSS feed! See the links on the right.
By 1995, I began student teaching at a suburban elementary school in Metairie, Louisiana. The children were mostly white and I got a lot of questions about why I was so tan. The few African American students would come right up to me, tell me I had good hair, and ask me if I was mixed. I would say to them, "Aren't we all?" They'd walk away puzzled, but wondering if it was true.
I graduated in May of 1996 and was sent out into the world in the Catholic tradition to serve and teach.
After blowing off most of that summer in an attempt to recover from school, I realized that it was time to get a job and applied to New Orleans Public Schools (NOPS). In mid-August, I got a frantic, but nice call from a lady in the NOPS Human Resources Department who gave me the name and phone number of a principal who had just been appointed to an elementary school on Martin Luther King Blvd.. She said they had an immediate teaching opening and that I should call, but I first drove to the neighborhood to check out the location. MLK Blvd., was the main thoroughfare into the Calliope and I saw that the school was located a block from the projects. To me, this was a no brainer, I wasn't going to follow up.
A few days later, the nice-but-frantic lady from HR called back and asked if I had connected with the principal. I lied and said that I had called him, but that no one answered. She then proceeded to get off the phone with me and hunted down said principal at a birthday party at his mother's house. He called a few minutes later and set up an interview time to meet with him the following day.
Photo credit: time.com
For more info on the Calliope Projects:
Without giving me a chance to process this information, they shoved me further outside as they themselves made their way out, locked the door and waited on the sidewalk for their ride. I regrouped and insisted that I had an appointment with the principal. They didn't care. Without a better option, I decided to wait for the principal for a couple more minutes. While we stood on the sidewalk, the ladies talked to each other and completely ignored me until one of them (the one who had originally answered the door) caught a glimpse of my blue toenail polish. For the first time, she showed some interest in me and asked,
"Blue polish, huh? You know who wear blue toenail polish, don't you?"
I didn't know and had to ask.
She laughed (the kind of laugh where you know it's at your expense) and said, "Hookers." Now the other lady laughed too and I was mortified.
Soon afterward, the principal drove up and apologized for being late. He walked me back into the building and I said good-bye to the ladies.
My interview with David Charbonnet, the new principal of the school, was more like a sales pitch. He was young (mid-thirties), tall, Creole, charismatic, handsome and did all of the talking. He was newly appointed and had fresh plans for the school. Mr. Charbonnet hired me right on the spot and told me to report to school in two days which would be the first day of school for staff.
I wasn't given a chance to think about it or to say no, but his pitch worked and I identified with him on some level. We lived in a city that only acknowledged two races - black and white. We, on the other hand, were both brown. Mr. Charbonnet was African American and came from a mixed, well-established, Creole family. He had light brown skin and straight black hair, and used to brag about the fact that he did not have any body hair and didn't have to shave his face. He said it was a genetic trait that he got from the Native American side of his family. I was mixed too, but not African American. But by our looks, Mr. Charbonnet and I could have been related.
As I worked at the school, I was surprised by how quickly the Calliope community claimed us both as their own.
Image credit: Sopoforic
I got about two hours to set up my classroom which consisted of a pile of old desks and broken chairs. Later I learned that all of the good furniture had already been claimed by the veteran teachers and that new teachers got the old stuff and the problem children.
My assignment was fifth grade and the first day with my 33 students was a blur. There was a lot going on that day and frankly, my students ate me alive. I don't remember much and I am grateful for the small mercy of forgetting. Thinking back, I've realized that it's not just what you remember that's important, but also what you don't remember.
On the first day of school, one of my students got up from his seat and stood by the window. We were on the second floor and I asked him what he was doing. He shouted back that he was opening the window so that he could jump out of it and sue me. I wouldn't have taken him seriously except that he started to dangle one of his legs out of the window. This led to me pulling him back in, pandemonium breaking out in the classroom, and Mrs. Prentiss coming into the room.
When Mrs. Prentiss came in, the class went silent and the student who had tried to jump out the window began to cry.
If you are a teacher, what was your first day like?
Feel free to read with a southern accent. If you know a N'Awlins accent, even better!
"Excuse me baby... I forgot to call about my pig," with that, she whipped out her cell phone right in the middle of my fourth period class where she was helping me distribute textbooks to my students.
When I first laid my eyes on Prentiss, she frightened me; she still does. This late middle-aged, dashingly dressed, high-heeled, Virginia Slims 100's smoking (out of a fifties cigarette holder), black woman with a jutted jaw and a martini voice, is my colleague. We teach fifth grades at a school in what locals call a blighted neighborhood within the New Orleans public school system. She has been here for twenty-seven years, knows the families in the neighborhood, taught the children's mamas, grand-mothers and aunties. I've been at the school for three weeks now. Prentiss and I are peers.
"...err, yeah...Hello. I dropped off my pig yesterday to be worked on."
Here's where I couldn't hear too well. She mumbled pig's name.
"His problem...?" He's been urinating blood... This afternoon? Okay...When you might think I can pick him up? ...Okay...."
"I'm sorry baby... I had to call. My pig hasn't been feelin' too good. ...he's a pot belly... 'took him to Baton Rouge yesterday to the hospital, but they haven't worked on him yet. 'hope he's gonna to make it."
'Um....now where was I?... Taylor, Dondrel...You're next."
Next morning, just to make conversation, I asked Prentiss for news about pig.
"They found out what's wrong with him," she says.
"Oh yeah, what's the matter?"
With impeccable frankness, she delivers the following line:
"Baby... his penis is bleeding because he masturbates too much."
I didn't know where to look or what to say.
Part 2 to follow.
"What's the matter with ya'll?" Woods asks flustered. I wouldn't have traded places with her for anything.
"How can you sit there eating those things when pig's in the hospital?" Jones pipes.
"What?... Who?... What are you talking about?"
"Mrs. Prentiss' pig!" Jones answers annoyed and assuming that Woods knew already.
Woods yells across the table, "Prentiss! What's the matter with pig?"
"Baby, he's sick."
"What's the matter with him Prentiss?"
Prentiss doesn't yell back. Her voice carries very well, even when she is talking in a hush.
"He's been masturbating too much. His penis is bleeding."
"What? Masturbating! Pigs masturbating... how do pigs masturbate?... I mean, I didn't think they could."
"Woodson, you fool!" Boudreaux joins in, then explains basic sex to Woods.
"He rubs himself on furniture... a table...a chair."
"That's terrible!" Woods is genuinely upset.
"I feel sorry for him... you know... I never thought about that. How do pet pigs have sex? If you are a dog or cat or somethin', you can just run away and get some."
"So, what's going to happen to pig, Prentiss?" Woods yells across the table.
"Baby, I don't know if he's going to make it."
"Of course, he's going to make it! They'll fix his penis." Boudreaux interrupts Prentiss.
"Prentiss, what happens if they can't fix it?" Woods keep on the subject.
"I don't know, baby...."
Woods answers her own question innocently and then sighs, "If pig doesn't make it... pig is livestock."
All together: Shut up Woods!
That year, I watched our shiny, new principal unravel into a fatigued, cranky, and self-serving leader whose new agenda seemed to be moving on up to a district level director job. However, as I know now, that would not happen for a few years. The reality is that our district office expected administrators to do their time (and to demonstrate that they had served their time loyally) in order to get out.
With no real leader, my colleagues stepped up and took over my education. The person who had the most direct access and influence over me was Mrs. Prentiss. We both taught fifth grade and our classrooms were next door to each other. There was a door in the back that connected both our rooms together.
In order to have a relationship with Mrs. Prentiss, I had to compartmentalize what I knew about her as a person and what I would find out about her as a teacher. I had to learn how to put my thoughts and feelings into separate boxes in order to move forward. This was a skill that I came to rely on for many people and situations during those first years. If I had not used separate boxes, I would have lost my mind.
It's still confusing for me to write about her. On the one hand, she was my mentor and was a great support to me for my first years. I liked her as a person. She had a sharp wit and a gripping life story which included overcoming the abject poverty of her childhood, and as an adult, surviving breast cancer. She was a wife and a doting mother. Her only child, a daughter, at that time was graduating from medical school. She was well traveled and a phenomenal cook.
On the other hand, to most of her students, Mrs. Prentiss was an abusive monster.
One of her favorite forms of torture was punishing her students (especially boys) by having them stand in the back of the classroom for the entire day. This meant that they would miss lunch and would not be allowed restroom breaks. I remember incidents where standing students would urinate on themselves because they could not hold on any longer. I also remember an incident that I debated whether to write about, and then decided to include to illustrate the degree of humiliation that some of Mrs. Prentiss students had to endure.
I remember a time when a male student was left standing, and by the end of the day was moving his legs from side to side indicating that he needed to use the restroom. As the pressure to go grew stronger, he held on to his crotch area to further indicate the urgency. Mrs. Prentiss, came up to him and in front of the entire class said,
"Boy, what do you think? You are a man now? Baby.... Starch couldn't make that string between your legs hard!"
He was humiliated and she was surprised to see me standing in the doorway. I had the student go to the restroom and he ran from the class.
Mrs. Prentiss had a way with words and she used them creatively and daily to remind her students where they came from and how without her, they would be destined to "run the streets like their parents."
Beyond the daily emotional abuse, I recall a couple of times where she took her students into the restroom for their punishment. The school had a history of corporal punishment and I learned that the staff had only decided to stop the practice where the new principal came on board (in 1996) . I don't think Mrs. Prentiss stopped and I would hear her warn her students how she would "tear them up."
The origin of assessing risk is a medical model. In researching the the term, I was not able to able to find when it became widely used, but I did remember a lecture that I attended many years ago where the speaker identified the term used during immigration through Ellis Island, NY, as early as the late 1800's. As immigrants to the US disembarked from ships from Europe, they were corralled through a series of checkpoints. The medical checkpoint was the most important and here they were examined to determine their risk of carrying communicable diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, trachoma, and measles among others. Once a diagnosis was made, their clothes were marked with chalk symbols (such as an X for medical defect). Many immigrants would wear their marked clothes inside out from fear and embarrassment. Interestingly enough, those who had traveled with first or second class tickets did not have to endure such humiliations.
Even during my first years as a teacher, it became clear to me that my students were acutely aware of the label that they were given by society. While "AR" wasn't drawn on their clothes with chalk, it might has well been as I could tell that my incredibly bright students would spend the rest of their childhoods turning their clothes inside out. There are a lot of fingers to point for this, but the bottom line to me is that we get past the blame and deconstruct our labels for what they really are.
Two editors who turned the at-risk model on its ear are Beth Blue Swadener and Sally Lubeck. Their Children and Families "at Promise": Deconstructing the Discourse of Risk is a good read and adds a much needed counterpoint to the discussion. We'll also talk more about the "at-promise" model in posts to come.
One boundary edge of our school in the Calliope was lined with single family homes and one of these homes sat across the street from our playground fence where students assembled. Every morning, the resident, an African American gentleman in his mid sixties, would sit on the top step of his stoop with a large painting propped up to face the street. The themes of his paintings would change as the weeks would go by, and each day, both the children and their families would check to see what he had in store for them. Mr. Thornabar would greet everyone who passed by on the way to school with a smile and a positive affirmation. It was a nice start to our mornings.
While I would wave back at Mr. Thornabar every day, I also wondered about his story. The school staff had apparently known him for years, but only across the fence. After a few months, I decided to go over there and introduce myself, but I ended up getting a lot more than I had bargained for.
Mr. Thornabar answered the door in his usual jovial manner and invited me in to talk. Just as an aside, my father once told me that I was a child who was likely to end up on a milk carton because I loved talking to strangers. In any case, I accepted his invitation and stepped inside and this was where I was met by the most extraordinary space, decorated with paintings from floor to ceiling. These works of art were created on old scrap pieces of wood and on the actual walls themselves. The style of his house was a typical New Orleans "shotgun" with high ceilings and where each room was connected to the other going straight back from the front door. As we walked through each of the rooms to get to the kitchen, I was enveloped in art, history and community.
Image: painting by Lories Thornabar, Black Mona Lisa)
As Mr. Thornabar and I sat down to talk at the kitchen table, his sister excused herself and walked toward an armchair in the next room. He seemed happy to have a visitor and very open to sharing his story which included a career in the Navy and a later disability that left him essentially homebound. It was at that time he took up painting and when he could not afford canvas or artist paint, he used old boards and house paint mixed with tints. When he ran out of boards, he would paint over them and when he ran out of those, he painted on the walls.
The subjects of his work ranged from famous New Orleans landmarks, like St. Louis Cathedral, the now infamous New Orleans Superdome, Streetcars, but also cartoon characters, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. In his house we were surrounded by portraits civil rights leaders alongside Zulu kings and queens and Mardi Gras Indians (see links). These paintings were hung beside images of people in the community going about their daily lives. He even painted a picture of the school where I worked, with a yellow school bus waiting out front.
While talking, my eye focused on the painting of our school, so I asked about it and if he sold his work. He replied, "Yes", and when I inquired about the price, he said, "Seven dollars." This seemed like a ridiculously low price to me, but given his small income, he seemed to think that it was fair. Not sure how to negotiate upward, I offered him thirty dollars and he accepted.
I worked in the Calliope for three years and purchased several paintings from Mr. Thornabar during that time. What made him even happier was that I was able show off his art to more buyers. As the demand went up, he was able to raise his prices and took pride in being a working artist.
After leaving the Calliope, I lost touch with Mr. Thornabar. When I returned to see him in 2002, I was surprised to be greeted by his sister at the door. She was happy to see me, but sad to tell me that he had passed away from kidney disease a few months earlier. She now lived in the house alone.
While Mr. Thornabar never had formal training or showed in a museum, his form of art, like Grandma Moses', could be categorized as "outsider art". The impact he made as an artist was in the genuine way he documented the everyday events of the community and and found beauty, elegance, warmth and grace in a place that most people found terrifying. I would estimate that his public stoop paintings were viewed by several thousand people over the years.
Image: painting by Lories Thornabar, Calliope School, 1986
For more info on Zulu:
For more info on Mardi Gras Indians:
Mrs. Prentiss had a strong ideology. She herself had broken from the cycle of poverty of her childhood and wanted the same for her students, however the methods she chose were questionable. As one of our fellow blog readers, writes, "The teacher must have felt that humiliation would pull [her students] out of poverty." This resonates with another ideology, that of the American Puritans who believed that the state of bring poor was a result of moral depravity. Perhaps Mrs. Prentiss believed that physical suffering would lead her students to their moral and economic salvation.
As a 27 year veteran teacher in the community, she had taught two or three generations of students. Parents weren't likely to complain about her because they themselves had "experienced" her.
The staff and administration were equally intimidated. As the teacher's union representative Mrs. Prentiss was actively involved with negotiations with the school district. If you were a teacher, you needed Mrs. Prentiss as your advocate. The principal needed her support so that he could work with his staff effectively and keep his job. And the district needed to be on her good side as she was a member of the union team that negotiated the teacher contract and salaries.
These systemic aids enabled her poor behavior, and there was one additional and important contributing factor that existed, a quality that most abusers share. Mrs. Prentiss was sometimes nice. Not fake nice, but really nice. This left her students and all the rest of us confused just long enough before the next wave of abuse hit, and the cycle continued. This is a hard lesson for adults to learn, nevermind children. How do you reconcile your definition of a monster when there are moments when they draw you in lovingly?
Mrs. Prentiss went on to teach for a total of 30 years and retired the same year I left the school. I went to her retirement luncheon where there were hundreds of people in attendance, no former students though. Speakers described her work as a teacher and all of the important advances that she had contributed to as the union representative, all valid in some way.
I lost touch with her after that, but looked her up last month only to find that she passed away from cancer a year ago.
What you are going to see is real and the life that my students experienced around them. The nature of the Calliope forced children to grow up quickly because of the adult language and situations to which they were exposed.
The documentary, Straight from the Projects - Rappers that Live the Lyrics, was produced in 2003, two years before hurricane Katrina hit the city. It is narrated by rappers Ice-T and C-Murder. C-Murder actually grew up in the neighborhood and speaks from his own experience. Both rappers give a glorified, yet no holds barred account of the CP3.
**Please be advised that scenes contain adult content.**
Now I was left with thirty fifth grade students (ages 10-11), and while they all had their own issues, we were off and running as a class. That said, they seemed to have their own collective agenda - to test my patience and strength on a minute by minute basis. They did this by constantly talking out of turn, cursing, leaving the classroom without permission to go to the restroom, breaking pencil points on purpose, and chewing gum loudly and incessantly. While I did have firm rules and consequences which I enforced, to be quite honest, my students weren't phased by them at all. They had lived through much harsher situations out in the world like witnessing drug deals and shootings, so by giving them my textbook punishment, I was really instead rewarding them with the one-on-one attention which they craved.
So, how did I get my students to buy into MY education agenda? I did it the old fashioned way, by bribing them with the things that meant the most to them. Starting with bubble gum. For most teachers, the no gum chewing rule is a sacred tenet, usually because gum smacking is disturbing to others and students tend to leave a mess under their desks or seats. I decided to work with their likes and did what I'm sure accelerated my nomination straight into the bad teacher hall of shame, I did allow my students to chew gum in class.
When I first proposed the idea, they were a little thrown (This is good. Always keep your students on their toes). We had a talk about why we should chew quietly and why the trash can was the only sensible receptacle to discard old gum. Another concession made (this was their idea) was that they were allowed to get up from their seat without permission to throw away gum. I let them know that if these conditions weren't met, we'd go back to the no gum chewing policy and the whole thing would be ruined for everyone. All I asked in return, was for their undivided attention while I was teaching.
I was pleasantly surprised by how well my students, for the most part, abided by our social contract and there were some added benefits. While I'm not a dentist, I've read studies where gum chewing (sugarfree) is in some cases encouraged for good oral health. Another benefit, is that the repetitive motion of chewing can be soothing (think of baseball players as an example), and finally, it's hard to chew and talk at the same time.
I'll share more unusual strategies in posts to follow and would like to hear what you've succumbed to with your students or with your own children for the sake of furthering your personal agenda.
Most recent visitor stats:
BTW, if you do drop by from Antarctica, please be sure to say hi : )
The exercise went something like this:
1) Students sat in a large circle or smushed together on the floor.
2) I introduced the idea that words can have different meanings depending on how they are expressed. For example, we all got a chance to say the phrase, "I love gorillas" using a range of voices (angry, sad, irritated, softly...).
3) After practicing with a few different phrases, I picked one with a curse word for my students to repeat in a happy voice.
4) Not one student wanted to participate, and they seemed stunned to hear "I f****** love french fries!" come out of their teacher's mouth.
This led to an in-depth discussion about our words and our intentions. It was normal for some of my students to curse as a part of everyday conversation like a kind of punctuation to sentences, but things would sometimes go terribly wrong. There was always someone who took it to the next level and crossed the line with a classmate. This would usually escalate into a fight.
We then created another classroom agreement by doing two things 1) analyzing why we curse - something that is just part of our learned language or copying how our peers talk, and 2) discussing why it might be good to curb cursing in the classroom - we're stuck together for the entire day and we will eventually get on each others' nerves, possibly leading to a fight.
We didn't always stick to our agreement a hundred percent of the time, I slipped once (in three years), but it did encourage students to be more open to talking about their feelings instead of going straight to the @#!@&* shortcut.
Any other ideas for limiting cursing?
This post gives readers a brief, historic context for understanding Calliope School beginning with the US Supreme Court ruling on the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954.
While the historic decision ended segregation, the Supreme Court never specified a timeline for implementation, only that the law should take effect, "with all deliberate speed." When we fast forward forty-two years (to 1996) and take a look at demographic make-up of New Orleans public schools by ethnicity, we find that desegregation never really happened, at least not in the spirit of the law.
After the Brown decision, white parents in New Orleans who had the financial means, steadily abandoned the public school system and enrolled their children in private or parochial schools. It's also important to note that black parents who could afford private tuition (while fewer in numbers), also sent their children to non-public schools. In a city whose total population was a black majority (60%), the student population in public schools in 1996 was disproportionately African American (94%).
Essentially, New Orleans schools operated under a system of de facto segregation, said another way, segregation still occurred in a different form despite the law.
A report by Tulane University's Cowan Center, linked the challenges that urban districts faced to "white and middle-class flight, a predominantly high-needs population of students, and decreasing public investment in education." We'll look at why these contributing factors struck such a blow to the school system by talking about social capital in the next post.
*Would anyone be willing to share situations where you have had to advocate for your child's educational needs and the outcome?
First, a few NCLB reference terms. Program Improvement (PI) is used to describe schools that have not met one or more academic targets for two consecutive years. Targets are set for overall student achievement and for children who belong to specific subgroups. The PI designation forces districts to make targeted efforts to turnaround failing schools or face consequences that may include school reconstitution or in extreme cases, state takeover of the entire district. A school's individual Academic Performance Index (API) is a score (ranging from 200-1000) used to rank and compare schools across districts and the country. A score of 800 or more means you are generally safe. A Similar Schools Ranking compares schools with similar demographic characteristics.
This is how our conversation went:
The Super (waving his arms in front of himself in a slow Tai Chi, swirling motion): Now Sabine, I want you to picture our district. (pause) Now, picture it as if all our schools are in Program Improvement - because that's how I see it.
Me (What was I thinking, but didn't say aloud): Huh? Not all your schools are in PI, actually only four out of the thirty schools in the district are designated PI. But I replied only with an, "OK...."
The Super: Look, I don't worry about API scores. We can't keep up with the national standards. I look at our Similar Schools Ranking. That's where I want to see progress.
Me (Again, what was I thinking, but didn't say aloud): Are you actually serious? You, the superintendent, the leader of this entire HUGE school district is telling me not to worry about students making any real academic growth. You just want to look a little better than all of the other crappy schools and districts that you are grouped with! You cannot be serious! I continued not to say anything. There's really no point arguing with a superintendent, so I said, "OK."
Here's my take on the current implementation of NCLB in the U.S.:
What concerns me about NCLB, is that it requires the leaders of failing districts to fix things, to fix themselves, usually without outside assistance. This is like asking a dysfunctional family to just snap out of it. The lack of funding for NCLB is an obstacle, but frankly, if you are a district in trouble, it's safe to say that you are probably also having issues managing your resources. I'm just not sure pouring more money into the mix is a wise idea.
As we think about the latest federal legislation designed to support low performing schools such as Race to the Top, let's just ask ourselves, whose standards are we racing toward? When we consider the School Improvement Grants (SIG) that are currently being offered to persistently low performing schools throughout the country (up to $2 million per year per school), you have to evaluate the wisdom of handing large sums of money to districts with "persistently low performing" systems of management.
After the time spent establishing a behavior contract for our fifth grade classroom, I was left with the more daunting task of instructing my students. We didn't have many supplies or books. I did have a pile of teaching manuals for each textbook my students were supposed to have, but there weren't enough of any subject to go around. The school did eventually place an order, but I remember that it took a while for the books to come in. Even if everyone had a text, most of my students' reading levels ranged from first to third grade. I did have two students who were close to grade level.
While the community was poor, the school was not in bad shape financially. We received Title One money (supplemental federal funds given to schools with a certain concentration of students who live below the poverty line) and had a business partnership with the local office of a major oil company (They sent their staff to tutor kids once a week and supported the school financially as well). Our school even had an on site "business manager" (The new principal's idea) who handled all of our different sources of funding.
The trouble with the Title One money was that the school's stakeholders (parents and staff) didn't actually have a say in how the money was spent. The feds require that each school receiving these funds form a School Site Council (SSC) committee and that all the stakeholders are represented, give input and vote on budget items. In reality, parents were either too intimidated, too respectful or too uncertain about what was being presented to them to ever speak their mind.
Title One did pay for a teacher on special assignment (TSA). Her job was to work with the staff and to run small academic student intervention groups. She was given the nicest classroom at school and the room was filled with Title One materials (books, manipulatives, charts) that were supposed to be shared by all the classrooms. It was a beautiful sight. In reality, we were rarely able to use this stuff because the Title One teacher guarded the bounty as if she purchased everything with her own money. She seldom ran student groups and was more of a confidant than coach to teachers. I've seen this setup at several Title One schools over the years. Same privileged teacher, same museum of instructional materials and not a whole lot of support. While it goes without saying that not all Title One teachers fit this description (I've also worked with a few excellent Title One teachers), I bet there are quite a few folks reading this who have crossed paths with this school archetype.
In order to procure materials for my classroom, I wrote a series of library mini-grants (funded by our oil company partners). I also put the word out to students that we were in need of book donations for our classroom library and my students came through. They were excited about giving away their old books and I placed placards in each donated book that read "This book was generously donated to our classroom library by **insert student's name**". They liked that a lot. Just as an aside, I learned over the years that my students were incredibly resourceful. Whenever I put the word out for paper, art supplies, materials for a Science experiment, whatever, there were always a couple of students or parents (different ones at different times) who would magically bring us what we needed.
More about what we actually did with the stuff we acquired in the next post.
What follows is another "back to the future - 2010" post and is written in response to a timely question asked by fellow blogger Bartacus:
Q: One comment I hear a lot is that poorly performing schools are simply the result of poor funding, with the amount of money spent per student (out of the local tax base) correlating directly to student performance. Has that been your experience?
Last week, a historic lawsuit was filed against the state of California. This lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of California's education funding system. You can read more about the suit by clicking on ACSA, the website for the Association of California School Administrators.
Before I proceed any further, a disclaimer: My background is not in school finance, but I can share with you some of my observations on how money is allocated and spent at the school site and district level.
How are public schools funded in the U.S.? While specific methods of funding public education vary from state to state, the baseline budget for schools is generally determined by revenue from real estate taxes. Some states allow for a community's taxes to go directly to school districts within its boundaries. Other states pool all of the money collected statewide and distribute it equally (more or less) across the state. California uses this second option.
When you hear of 'state funding' for education, this usually means the baseline amount funded per student, aka the per pupil allocation that makes up the general fund.
The short answer is that school finance is complicated. The long answer is that it can be so complicated that schools and districts have to be in the know and proactive about procuring additional funding for students. Not all schools and school-districts are knowledgeable or effective at applying for and securing these supplemental funds. This can lead to big differences in the resources available to individual schools and school districts even in a state like California that seeks to distribute its funds equitably across school districts.
Here's a menu of options for schools and school-districts seeking more funds for their schools:
Baseline funding from the state, or the "general fund" is unrestricted and usually pays for teachers, staff, instructional materials, building maintenance and anything else that a district needs to operate. This budget is calculated using the average daily attendance (ADA) for each student and the district receives x number of dollars per student. When we hear of teacher layoffs because of funding issues, it's because the general fund is low or is operating in the red.
In addition to unrestricted general funds, school and districts can receive certain restricted or "categorical" funding.
Since the "categorical" funds need to be spent for specific purposes, schools and districts usually can't use the money for full time teacher and staff salaries. Categorical funding can come in the form of additional state or federal money. Some examples of supplemental sources of funding are federal Title One funds for schools where a certain percent of students live below the poverty line; funding for English Learners; Migrant Education; After-School education; and Economic Impact Aid (EIA). Other sources may include state block grants from lottery tax revenue, local bond measures, federal stimulus funding (ARRA), School Improvement Grants (SIG) and a multitude of other program grants. There are still other sources of funding like federal Race to the Top grants that only individual states can apply for.
In order to be considered for any or all of these sources of funding, a school or district usually has a person, an office or department that takes care of applying for these programs. If a school does not apply, they do not receive the funds. Not all schools and school districts apply. When you compare schools and districts across the country, some are more "in the know", "on the ball" and politically connected than others, resulting in a hit or miss desegregation of available resources for children.
Put another way, some schools and school districts have less 'social capital' and are less effective at drawing in these supplemental sources of funds.
To further complicate matters, some public schools form business partnerships with local companies and other community organizations. They are able to solicit and secure additional funding and in some cases, recruit volunteers who work at the school site. Other schools directly raise funds from the parent population. From first hand experience, I know one affluent school district in my area where each school has a non-profit education organization run by parents and devoted to raising funds for the schools. One elementary school receives $400,000 per school year from the fund and pays for teacher assistants, Science Lab and Technology teachers and other priorities on the school's wishlist. In effect this is a local, elective tax.
So to answer Bartucus' question - it's complicated. While state per pupil allocations may be inequitable, I also have concerns about how additional funding is secured and spent. What the general public is presented with in the media doesn't always tell the entire story.