(1) The Beginning

I decided to start this blog to give educators, parents and other cool people a real life account of my work with public, urban schools and one suburban school over the past thirteen years. I also wanted to remember the many people and experiences that have brought me to my current thinking about issues of equity in K-12 education. I'm going to keep it real except for some names and places which have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent and the villains. In order to tell the whole story, I use a pen name.

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.

(2) Deadly Years

New Orleans, Louisiana, was named the murder capital of America in 1994 and the majority of murders were happening in the Third Ward's B.W. Cooper Apartments, affectionately called the Calliope Projects by locals (and pronounced KAL-ee-ope or KAL-e-o). At that time, I was in my second year at my private, Catholic college, majoring in Elementary Education and beginning to take my core courses.

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:

(3) A Lesson on the Sidewalk

New Orleans is subtropical in climate and it was the end of an especially balmy summer where wearing flip flops or open toed shoes was a must. I came by for my interview at the school on time and knocked on the large, metal, orange doors. No one answered. I knocked some more, and a gray haired lady finally opened up and irritatedly asked what I was doing there. She was followed by another woman. I later learned that they were custodians who were doing summer cleaning. I told them about the interview and they informed me that 1) the principal was not there, 2) that their shift was over and 3) they were about to lock up the building so I needed to go.

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.

(4) Color

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

(5) First Days

We had two days of staff meetings before my first day with students. The "Professional Development Days" as they were called, went by quickly. I spent the time getting to know the staff and learning about numerous school procedures. Mr. Charbonnet continued to be charismatic and the staff responded well to their new leader who dressed in snappy suits accented by colorful Save the Children ties which depicted children's artwork.

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?

(6) Mrs. Prentiss' Penis Problem, Part 1

I'm going to post a story that I think best illustrates the kind of camaraderie that we had as a teaching staff. I wrote it at the time because it was one of those events that I really wanted to remember. The story is longish, so I'll post it in parts. Just an FYI, it was our custom to call each other by our last names without any title.

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."

"His name?"

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.

(7) Mrs. Prentiss' Penis Problem, Part 2

The staff lunchroom conversation that afternoon was interesting. By some perverse destiny, Woods, a special education teacher, happened to be eating pig fried chips. The rest of us told her to have some respect and decency for the sick. Prentiss was eating at the other end of the table.

"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!

(8) Boxed Up

The first year of teaching for anyone is usually a learning curve, but to teach in the Calliope made that learning curve exponentially harder. As a first year teacher, my college teacher preparation program did not prepare me for the kinds of situations that I would have to face on a minute by minute basis. I learned what I needed to know to survive from my colleagues and the community.

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.

(9) Sad Sad People

The title of this photo by A. Maheshwari best sums up the emotional climate in Mrs. Prentiss' classroom. I want to preface this post by saying that Mrs. Prentiss was the exception at the school. The other teachers that I worked with were, for the most part, caring professionals. We all, at different times, made attempts to rescue students out of her room, if only for a short while. Looking back now, I am struck that Mrs. Prentiss was enabled for so long and would be for her entire thirty year career.

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."

(10) Labels

One of the most widely used terms to identify urban children is "at-risk". There are 28,000,000 Google entries that describe risk in the context of students, but most of us know the general idea. Labeling a child at-risk is to say that they will potentially have learning delays, drop out of school, do drugs, have poor self-esteem, become violent, become pregnant. If you are a poor, minority child, research tells us that the chances of these things happening to you are even greater, and so you are at greater "risk".

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.

(11) Community, Part 1

There are several famous musicians who were brought up in the Calliope. Among those you might have heard of are the Neville brothers, and rappers Master P, C-Murder, and Lil Romeo. I'd like introduce you to a visual artist who I had the great fortune of knowing. While I have not revealed real names of school community members thus far, Lories Thornabar, is an exception because his talent deserves to be shared and remembered.

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)

(12) Community, Part 2

I was surprised to find someone else in the kitchen. Mr. Thornabar introduced me to a woman who was boiling water for tea in a pot on the stove. She was his sister who lived with him and they seemed to be about the same age. The kitchen felt very warm and I realized that the oven door was deliberately left open. They explained that the oven was the only source of heat for the house.

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:

(13) Mrs. Prentiss In Memorium

While Mrs. Prentiss reign of terror was deeply disturbing, so was the behavior of the adults around her, including myself. We were educators who had invested our lives in the welfare of children yet, we allowed her to continue the emotional and physical abuse of children. I'm sharing what I learned with you because there are many forms of Mrs. Prentiss in the world, both in and out of the classroom, and in rich and poor communities everywhere. It's important to unpack how these people settle in to power so that we can alter the dynamic and prevent abuse. This is my take:

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.

(14) CP3

I didn't want to presume that I was qualified to write about gangs. So, I'm posting a video today (aprox 7 mins. long) to give you another perspective on the Calliope, where I worked and where my students lived. I want to preface this clip by saying, please keep in mind that it is only one of many contrasting perspectives. Missing are the voices of mothers, grandmothers, children and the many men who never involved themselves in gang life.

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.**

(15) Bribes and Consequences

After the first few challenging days with my students, things settled down quickly, especially after three students, all boys, were placed on extended suspensions pending expulsion hearings at the district office. I'll post more on them in weeks to come.

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.

Thank you

I just wanted to take a moment to thank everyone who has checked out the blog thus far. I ran a few statistics and was surprised to learn that, in less than two weeks, we've had visitors from six continents drop by. It goes to show how universal our interests really are. Thank you for reading on and sharing your experiences. You all get extra credit, gold stars AND smiley face stickers for your efforts! Keep up the great work and have an awesome weekend.

Most recent visitor stats:

BTW, if you do drop by from Antarctica, please be sure to say hi : )

(16) *!@#$%

To curb "cussing" in the classroom, I improvised a drama exercise. Please do not attempt to do the same with your students as it will upset your principal and you will get written up. Luckily for me, my principal only visited my class once a year. Since we were on the second floor, his secretary would call Mrs. Prentiss and give her a heads up when he was on his way.

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?

(17) The Big Easy's Big Secret

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.

(18) Social Capital

There were a few public schools in New Orleans that functioned well. They were usually located in middle to upper middle class neighborhoods, and some were magnet schools that had more rigorous academic requirements for entrance. Student populations of these "good" schools were more diverse and academic achievement was significantly higher. What students had in common wasn't necessarily parents who had more money or higher education levels. It was that parents who sent their children to these public schools were more in the know. They banded together and played a greater role in how the schools and district were run. Their ability to know and work the education system for their children's benefit made all the difference, regardless of their ethnicity. This social currency is called "social capital".

My students and their families also had wealth of social capital, but in a different form. In order to maneuver the complicated life-and-death landscape of the Calliope, residents needed to be able to develop complex networks and establish credibility in the community (a.k.a. "street cred."). My students and their families were able to breeze through social interactions and synthesize complex information in order to be safe and lead fulfilling lives. As an outsider, I was at a disadvantage. Social capital like currency isn't always transferable outside of your community. To use money as an example, you can't use American dollars in Australia.

Even though my students' families desperately wanted their children to succeed in school and had earnest intentions, many of them expressed to me that they either did not understand the system or were intimidated by teachers and administrators (some of the teachers had been their own teachers growing up). There was also an underlying parent sentiment that teachers were the professionals and it was disrespectful to argue with them. As a result of the important parent advocacy piece missing, more often than not, school staff and district officials would take advantage of parents and make decisions that were self-serving rather than student-centered.

*Would anyone be willing to share situations where you have had to advocate for your child's educational needs and the outcome?

(19) The Age of Accountability

This is another post to give you a bit more context for the times. I'll be back to writing about my class and school next time.

When I began my teaching career in 1996, the US was entering into a new era of educational reform. While No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was still a few more years in the making, the development of a "standards based education" was beginning to become established. To me, this was good thing and it helped begin to set academic expectations for teachers to consider at Calliope School.

Five years later, NCLB not only mandated that each state establish academic standards for each grade level, but required that students in underrepresented subgroups (limited English proficiency students, students with disabilities, students eligible for free and reduced price meals, and white, black, Asian Pacific Islander, American Indian, and Hispanic students) make sufficient growth to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP). If growth wasn't made on annual assessments, schools and school districts faced punitive sanctions including being taken over by the state. The implementation of NCLB, its general approach,and lack of funding, have been the center of controversy since its inception and for valid reasons. However, it was (and is) important legislation for urban schools because it forced districts to focus attention on the most overlooked students.

Even though there has been a great deal of discussion over the many internal and external factors that cause a school to fail, I was curious to learn why, even in a low performing school, instruction varied so drastically from classroom to classroom. Why was it that students could be on grade level in one class, then move on to the next grade only to lose a lot of ground? One possible answer lied in the space between Mrs. Prentiss and Mrs. Williams.

More about Mrs. Williams next.

(20) Children "At-Promise"

Mrs. Williams was a kindergarten teacher at Calliope School. She was tall and thin, African American, and wore her hair short in large curls. She was not a snappy dresser. Her work wardrobe was very plain, almost nun-like, a collection of dark A-line skirts and light-colored button-down shirts. This simple fashion sense coupled with a raspy voice made her seem older than her actual age which was forty-seven years old when we met. But once you got to know Mrs. Williams, you realized that there was something very special about her that transcended her age, her clothes and the times. She was a master teacher and good teaching is timeless.

On the first day of school, kindergarten students came to class ready to learn. There was not a lot of fussing or crying at the door. The Calliope School community had a strong Head Start program, and the incoming kindergarten students had already become familiar with classroom routines through their preschool experiences. The majority of students were on grade level or were on developmentally appropriate paths to learning. The children were too young to know this, but their teacher would be the main factor that would determine the trajectory of their learning. Mrs. Williams met her students at the door on the first day of school and these kids had lucked out.

The general quality of instruction at Calliope School was hit or miss. While Mrs. Prentiss was an extreme example of bad teaching, there were other teachers who were perfectly kind and well meaning, but whose classroom instruction lacked academic rigor. If you were a student in one of these classrooms, you would not likely make much academic growth in a year. You might even lose the skills that you had once mastered. If you had the bad luck of being assigned to a series of poorly trained teachers over a period of a few years, it would be extremely difficult to make up lost ground. If on the other hand, you were able to work with a series of highly skilled teachers, the achievement gap became small or ceased to exist.

Mrs. Williams was one of those highly skilled teachers and her students often exceeded the academic benchmarks that were set for them. Her lessons were well planned, exciting and challenging. I would duck into her classroom during my periods off so I could learn how she taught.

Mrs. Williams "wore her students out" by engaging them in collaborative activities where they would work with their classmates as learning partners or in small groups. They learned by doing. She led them to form opinions about stories that were read to them and taught them how to ask good questions. She stretched their vocabulary and had them write and illustrate their work every single day. She made them love math by making it meaningful. It wasn't unusual to see her walk her class through the school grounds as they collected data for a question that they were wondering about.

What made Mrs. Williams a truly extraordinary teacher was that she brainwashed her students with her high expectations of them. She cultivated their imaginations, their confidence in themselves, and taught them how to be resilient when they got stuck on a problem. These traits not only made her students strong learners, but strong people. That said, elementary students spend most of the school day with one teacher, so children who are already overcoming challenges in their everyday lives need a Mrs. Williams in their classroom every school year. Unfortunately, this doesn't usually happen.

On a personal note, I would only know Mrs. Williams for a short while. She was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of forty-nine and passed away a year later. I clearly remember her funeral service where I sat next to Mrs. Prentiss and in the company of hundreds of family, friends, colleagues and students who had packed into the small Baptist church to say good-bye.

A Little Lagniappe!

Lagniappe (pronounced LAN-yap), in New Orleans, means a little unexpected something extra. I wanted to share a link to an unsolicited review of of My Public Education posted by blogger Bartacus. Please check out his blog if you are interested in education, unsolicited comments about space exploration, and other interesting topics.

(21) 2010

I wanted to go back to the future for a moment and tell you about a conversation that I had last week with an urban school district superintendent. His district is located in California. I was meeting with him to talk about a plan for reaching academic growth targets set by No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and to support the district's overall reform efforts.

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.:

NCLB was created with good intentions. It does focus attention on students who have historically been underserved. It created a framework for defining basic minimum academic standards in each grade level. I don't have a problem with the annual testing. I'm not a fan of using standardized tests as the sole measure of skill or ability, but they do provide a snapshot of students at a point in time.

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.

The bottom line here is that we are left with district administrators - like the Superintendent here - who are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get out of the hole. They're stressed out, their jobs (and mortgages) are on the line and they're looking for a quick fix. In order to get Language Arts and Math scores up (two subjects more heavily weighted), some elementary schools have had to forsake Science, Art, Music and Social Studies. The instruction of state standards are broken down into unrelated "capsules" of information. Teachers are sometimes even forced to teach directly from 'scripts' so that instruction is uniform across the district. One teacher colleague describes her elementary school as a former Soviet state where the principal comes on the loudspeaker and gives inspirational speeches at times during the course of day on how her students WILL meet the standards and how they WILL NOT continue to be a FAILING school.

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.

A penny for your thoughts?

Image credit: from the motion picture, Back to the Future, 1985 & 1989

(22) Things

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.

(23) School Finance

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.

(24) As Seen on TV

Someone asked me the other day if I watch the HBO series Treme. I've heard about the show and I know that it's set in the Treme public housing projects in New Orleans. That same someone said that Treme (the show) was like The Wire, a cable TV show set in the projects of Baltimore, Maryland. While I've watched The Wire, I don't really have the desire to watch Treme. These types of shows, in their attempt to entertain us with their gritty scenes of reality, fall short of telling a complete and honest story.

As an outsider to the Calliope, I came to see the community as a complex system that was highly organized and tightly knit. Even though crime statistics for drug selling, violence, prostitution, robberies, and so forth, were quite high, the community itself did not seem to see itself as a moral failure. What we as outsiders would deem illegal, immoral or even pathological activities, were viewed by insiders as the the means of doing business, part of the Calliope's economic model if you will. Frankly, there weren't a whole lot of other options for earning a living. Transportation in and out of the neighborhood itself was hard to come by and the education system was awful.

But wrong is wrong, right? That depends on how you look at wrong. To use current criminal activity as an example, we have a community of bankers and brokers on Wall Street who bundled and sold real estate mortgages as high grade, low risk investment tools that they knew were worthless. This behavior initiated the domino effect of the mortgage crisis, the creation of billions of dollars of bad loans, Americans losing their homes to foreclosure, the collapse of businesses, and devaluation of pension accounts. There is some talk of these activities being immoral and illegal. But, at least for now, Wall Street continues with business as usual. The Wall Street traders who created the economic crisis, and their chiefs, are still employed for the most part, profitably so. We haven't heard about criminal convictions of these individuals, much less stories of prisons overfilling with investment bankers. In fact, Wall Street had a highly profitable year in 2009, taking profitable positions against the stock crash after the 2008 financial crisis.

I find it interesting that as a nation, our tolerance for crime based on greed is a lot higher than for crime driven by survival. Maybe the latter just makes for better TV.