On Friday I shared a letter that I had received from students enrolled in German studies at Hume-Fogg HS here in Nashville. They were concerned because due to purported budget cuts their beloved German program was being phased out. Not only was it being phased out, but it was being done in a manner that was leaving student’s with more questions then answers. For example, they were made aware of the plan for students taking German 1 to be able to take German 2, but what about the ones who were currently in German 2 or the ones in German 3 who were planning on taking AP German. (I am told that their is a plan for advanced students to be allowed to continue their studies virtually. Though I’m not sure that’s been communicated to students effectively.)
I talked to a few of the people I know, to try and help these students get some answers. I feel compelled here to put in a plug for our long term MNPS administrators. Despite the brush some school board members have tried to paint them with, I find our administrators, at all levels, to be extremely helpful and forth coming people. Rarely have I run into one who has been less then willing to answer my questions or engage in dialog. (I even had lunch with the infamous Jay Steele once and engaged the nefarious Dr. Register while shopping at the grocery. Shudder) Keep in mind though, getting answers and getting the answers you want are two different things.
On the surface the phasing out of German seems to be a question of a subject with declining interest and a reduced budget. But if you look at numbers, that doesn’t seem to quite be true:
2016-2017 enrollment projection: 920
2017-2018 enrollment projection: 920
2016-2017 per pupil budget allocation: $4,500
2017-2018 per pupil budget allocation: $4,571
2016-2017 total allocation: $4,094,935
2017-2018 total allocation: $4,205,426
2016-2017 staff FTE (Full Time Equivalent): 63.3
2017-2018 staff FTE: 63.7
Furthermore, when you take into account that the principal has chosen to sacrifice teaching positions in order to increase admin positions questions start to arise. You have to ask what the rationale is to continue adding administrative/support positions and reducing the teaching positions and course offerings for student when compared to fellow Magnet School Martin Luther King:
- Hume-Fogg has over 300 less students than MLK (and 2 less grade levels) yet will have more counselors next year (unless MLK has included additional counselors in their budge next year.
- Hume-Fogg has 2 Campus Supervisors whereas MLK has one this year.
- Hume-Fogg has 4 Secretaries/School Assistants whereas MLK has 4.5 for more than 300 additional students.
- With the phasing out of German HF will offer 3 languages compared to the 5 offered at MLK.
While German numbers are not enough to support a full schedule, that has always been the case; the numbers are not down from recent years.
This narrative paints a different picture. It makes it seem like a classic case of money being diverted from the classroom to administration. But, not so fast. You have to take into account that Hume-Fogg is located in the center of downtown and therefore presents some unique safety challenges. There is an argument that they have been administratively understaffed the last several years. In order to get a clearer picture of the schools needs you would need to assess the previous staffing and the pressure put on that staffing.
I’ve also heard that the teacher can be a bit “difficult”and that phasing out the program may be cover to get rid of her. Lord knows the phasing out of positions has been used that way in the past. I can’t speak on whether that’s the case here or not, since I don’t personally know anyone involved, but I can say that almost any teacher with over 10 years experience could be painted as difficult. If they’ve managed to last that long they’ve probably had to ignore at least one or two mandates from up high and twist a rule or two. Unfortunately the priorities of the classroom teacher and administration don’t always align. One tends to focus on the micro while the other the macro. It doesn’t make either always right or wrong, it’s just what it is.
In my mind, we look at experienced teachers like we look at strong willed children. We all say we want intelligent, creative, independent children until we actually have one. Then we realize, that with that creativity, independence, and intelligence comes the ability to be a pain in ass. My experience has been that this ability is usually exercised at the most inopportune times – when I’m focused on a task that runs counter to their will or I’m tired or I’m focused on a task that doesn’t involve them. Ashley Lamb-Sinclair has an excellent article in praise of challenging children in the Atlantic that I think speaks to the value of the “difficult” teacher as well. (Let me be clear here though, I am not ascribing any of the behaviors cited in the article to any long term teachers and obviously I consider being a pain is the as a compliment.) When it comes to professional management, It wouldn’t hurt us to have a few more “difficult” teachers. When it comes to professional management, I’ve always preached that the title of the job is “manager” not “dictator”. Sometimes managing is more difficult then at other times.
Per any situation of this nature, there are legitimate counter arguments to be made by both sides. What is crystal clear to me though, is that the administration hasn’t made it a priority to speak with the kids and their families that are directly affected by this change. Once again the “public” has been left out of “public education”. This is a prime example of decisions being made without soliciting the opinion and feedback of those affected. It is no different then district administrators deciding to house McMurray MS 5th and 6th graders in a dilapidated building instead of portables without ever engaging the families affected. Just one more example of why “transparency” needs to be brought back as one of the districts core values. There may be very good reasons for the decisions being made but if you are not sharing those, people default to the negative.
I’ve heard some feedback from people that it’s hard to feel sorry for these Magnet School kids because there are so many pressing demands on the system right now. That’s troubling to me. Have we really become so comfortable sorting and ranking kids that we are willing to do it across the board. Folks, it’s called “Public Education”. That means it’s about the “Public.” Last I checked, the “public” was made up of Black people, White people, Hispanic people, Asian people, Arabic people, rich people, poor people, and a whole bunch of others not mentioned. ALL CHILDREN needs to mean ALL CHILDREN and it means talking to the public. We should also applaud when any student or group of students take ownership of their education, no matter what their socio-economic status.
It’s my sincere hope that Hume-Fogg principal Dr. Hargis and Executive Lead Principal Kathleen Dawson will make it a priority to meet with these students and their families this week. It’s clear to me that the students have thought through their arguments. (Many are presented here German Position Paper). I am confident a solution that all can feel comfortable with can be worked out. I’d also encourage the district to use this situation as a reminder to keep the “public” in “public education”. I know, they can be a pain in the ass, but the rewards almost always offset the challenges.
(Please note that due to wanting to get this out in a timely fashion this post was not run through my normal editor. Usually I would never post a piece of this length without doing so. Therefore any grammatical errors or spellings are all mine. It’s obvious that she makes me, and has made me, a better writer. I also recycled the graphic. I have a great team that none of this would be possible without and I am extremely grateful to them. I just didn’t want to miss the window of opportunity on this story. Thank you for your indulgence.)