“What exactly was the difference? He wondered to himself. And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”
“Besides all those whaling details, Moby Dick is about someone who’s looking for something so huge, something they’ve wanted all their life, yet they know when they find it, it will kill them. ”
Here we sit on the eve of a new school year. It arrives in a manner few envisioned. It comes in a manner that is nearly unrecognizable to us. It comes with hopes as in the past, but also with new fears and trepidation. Yet still, it comes.
Across Tennessee, kids will resume their daily trek to their classrooms. For some will mean simply padding across their bedroom floor to their desks and logging in. For others, it will be a more traditional journey – one that will require buses and car lines, albeit with new entry procedures.
Whichever form schooling takes, it will be filled with unanswered questions and second-guessing. Is it really possible to emulate schooling through a digital platform? How long will this last? Will classes be engaging enough? And probably the most important – am I doing enough to keep my child safe while protecting their future.
Throughout the summer, I’ve been fairly critical of Metro Nashville’s Public School’s effort to prepare for the upcoming school year. In my opinion, back in May and June, there wasn’t enough urgency in recognizing that school was not going to have a traditional look come August. Too much time was spent focusing on a return to normal instead of embracing the required innovation.
Not enough was done to get new curriculum in the hands of teachers in a timely manner in order that they could adequately plan.
Information was held too closely by too small a core group of administrators. As a result, too many stakeholders still remain in the dark, and uncertainty about what is about to transpire is still rampant. This uncertainty has created high levels of anxiety that only makes execution more difficult.
Instead of wasting time with shuffling deck chairs, key leadership positions should have been filled by June 1. Instead, too many of those positions remained influx into late-June. That leaves many schools at a decided disadvantage.
While I understand the district’s adherence to principal autonomy, not having a more common structure has led to increased inequities. The information has been disseminated in an uneven fashion, with some schools receiving more than others. To be fair, an argument can be made that this is a regular occurrence throughout the course of the year during the best of times, it’s one of the reasons I’m not completely sold on the theory of school autonomy.
Along with the fluctuating timeliness of information, comes the fluctuating accuracy of information delivered. Too much contradictory information has been shared only to be walked back or changed shortly after being shared. Some may argue that this is a result of information on the ground being constantly in flux, I disagree. I believe it’s a direct by-product of not doing enough planning in May and June, and as a result, July’s work was over rushed.
It should have clear to everyone way back in early May that distance learning was going to be a major component of the next school year. Yet computers weren’t ordered until mid-June and stipends weren’t paid to teachers to participate in professional development until recently.
Which brings us to where we are today. Teachers are being forced to learn a multitude of systems in a short period of time – TEAMS, Schoology – raise your hand if you ever heard of Bookings, the Microsoft scheduler before yesterday. Not to mention that many of MNPS’s teachers are just now getting a look at the curriculum they are supposed to be teaching and none have seen the SEL lessons that kids will be participating in starting tomorrow.
Parents are equally confused. Yes, the district has done an admirable job providing education efforts over the last two weeks, but not all parents have the same whereof all in order to take advantage of those opportunities. Parents all come with varying bases of knowledge and means of communication, something that hasn’t been adequately addressed.
Yesterday, I was in Office Max and an elderly couple was trying to buy a copy of Office 365 for their grandson because they’d been told by their school that he needed Schoology and 365 in order to participate in distance learning. I politely explained that MNPS provided both and there was no need to make the purchase. They looked at me suspiciously, but in the end, believed me. Should we consider this incident just an outlier or is it more likely that it is representative of what’s transpiring across the city?
The reality is that this is a very difficult time for parents. They are trying to balance the physical and mental safety of their children while ensuring that they have the proper tools to thrive in the future. All while balancing professional responsibilities. It’s impossible to know what the right decision is, and as a result, they are having to depend on a system that quite frankly hasn’t always been as responsive as necessary. A system that has frequently let too many down.
I’m scared to death that the commitment to a virtual learning platform will allow too many kids to fall through the cracks. Too many of our middle school immigrant middle and high school kids are off working manual labor jobs during the summer. What’s to ensure that they and their families see the value in 2 weeks of SEL instruction as opposed to several more weeks on the job site earning a paycheck?
Many of our impoverished younger children live in apartment complexes where they are left unattended for most of the day. They have parents that are forced to work several jobs and as a result, are not as easily reachable as other kids. They spend their days roaming the complex’s playground. The only way to reach them is to physically go into those neighborhoods and make contact. But who will do that in the age of COVID? How will these kids receive the education they so desperately need?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of public education. I believe it’s a cornerstone of our democracy, but in fighting to preserve it and improve it, it’s imperative that we recognize the weaknesses as well as the strengths. My experience with public education is not the same as it has been for everyone. Now more than ever we need to fight to make schools more responsive to the public than ever before. 2020 is forever going to be recognized as the year that parent choice kicked the door wide open and the public landscape was forever changed.
Quite frankly, MNPS should have pushed the start of school back a minimum of two weeks. Time could have spent on training both teachers and families in the intricacies of distance learning. Training could have only served to increase the comfort level of participants and would facilitate the building of those relationships between stakeholders that are essential to success.
While I believe all of the aforementioned are legitimate concerns, it’s now time to let them go. For better, or for worse, we are where we are. School is officially starting tomorrow. Distance learning is going to be the primary vehicle for delivering instruction. Everyone is going to have to be flexible and forgiving.
Sometimes the focus has to shift from what you don’t have, to what you do have. What Nashville does have is a corp of dedicated highly qualified professional educators. I’m confident in their ability to adjust and adapt. School won’t look like it did in past, but it will still be guided by individuals driven to provide the best opportunities for children.
None of this might be where we want to live, but it where we live now. So I’m not saying don’t criticize, but I’m saying, push for adjustments in the realm of where we are now. Push to make trainings better. Push to make communications better. Push to make schools more inclusive. But always do so with an eye towards improvement for all and recognition that we are all fighting our own individual battles, so a little grace goes a long way.
Tomorrow a great journey begins for MNPS teachers, students, and families. Like all journey’s it is filled with the possibility of riches, while the threat of disaster lurks ever near. How it will turn out is unknown to all. What is known, is that we don’t have to travel the path alone. We share this trip with 1000’s of fellow travelers. Travelers we can lean on when the road becomes treacherous, and those who will need to lean on us when facing their own obstacles. It’s often said, that the journey itself is as important as the destination. I share that sentiment and look forward to traveling this road with all of you. I couldn’t think of any better travel mates.
On one final note, traditionally, social media is inundated with pictures of children embarking on their first day of school. I hope that tradition doesn’t fall by the wayside this year. Please share as many of your snapshots as possible.
Over the weekend news trickled out about the increased activity by Governor Lee’s political forces trying to influence the upcoming election. Across the state, Tennesseans for Student Success were releasing their Krackens in an effort to make next year’s General Assembly a lot more friendly to Governor Lee’s dubious education reforms. Their efforts targeted voucher opponents from both sides of the aisle while paying scant attention to factual details.
You might be scratching your head right now and thinking, “What’s the connection between Governor Lee and Tennesseans for Students Success?”
Here’s the thing, in order to keep up with these education disruptor groups, you almost need a bulletin board like they employed on the TV show the Wire. One that features a picture of the person of interest and string that illustrates their relationships. In this case, TSS morphed out of a group that was initially founded under the moniker of Students First before morphing into 50Can and now it’s present incarnation.
Students First were founded by Michelle Rhee. From 2012 to 2018 the organization’s director was the governor’s Legislative Director Brent Easley. If you look at the hires of Governor Lee, you will see quite a few key people that were previously employed by TSS or one of it’s incarnations. Rumor has it that through TSS, Governor Lee reached out to the Jeb Bush founded pro-education reform organization ExcelinEd who paired with Federal Education Chief Betsy DeVos to secure the services of Mrs. Schwinn. Remember the commisioner never applied for the job, and it was only after pushed did the governor produce a resume.
This weekend I was thinking about how hard Commissioner Schwinn works to not have a picture taken with DeVos. I always worked under the assumption that it was due to Schwinn – a self-proclaimed Democrat – finding the DeVos agenda distasteful. But recently I’ve come to believe the opposite is true, her reticence is instead rooted in a fear that the public will discover how closely they are aligned. To further illustrate my point, let me take you back to Sacramento circa 2011.
Under California law, a Charter School Chain can apply to the county school board for the right to open a number of Charter Schools. The first Fortune Charter School opened in August 2011 with the second, William Lee College Prep, opening August 5 a year later. The Fortune Schools were founded by Margaret Fortune with an eye towards attracting Black students and narrowing the achievement gap. In 2011 they applied to the SCOE board to open a series of charter schools throughout the city. If approved, individual districts with in the county would have no say in where these schools were located.
Sacramento’s school district has long struggled financially. Out of fear of increasing fiscal complications, and concerns over the further segregating of the city’s students, the Fortune application was rejected. This rejection led to increased questioning of the school district and how it serves its Black families. Concerns were raised because 2012 was an election year and 4 seats were up for the grabs. Board president Brian Cooley, the sole SCOE African American trustee, was not seeking re-election of his Area 5 seat. Cooley was a strong proponent of the Fortune School effort and threw his support behind a young Penny Schwinn.
Despite being a political neophyte, and mostly unknown to the city’s voters, Schwinn enjoyed the support of Michelle Rhee’s spouse Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson – who’d founded St. Hope Charter Schools and had been involved with the Fortune Charter School. She also was supported by Democrats for Education Reform, a group that regularly spouts support for policies that run counter to traditional Democratic beliefs. The Chamber of Commerce, despite Schwinn’s opponent being a small business owner, also threw its weight behind the principal with less than a year’s experience, and 2 years in the classroom.
Schwinn’s opponent, Heather McGowan, was the owner of an education marketing company, the spouse of a high school teacher, and the mother of a first-grader and kindergartener. She was recruited by the teachers union and a staunch supporter of public education. In talking with McGowan, she remembers the race as being heated, due to conflicting ideologies, but never getting personal between the two candidates. Since it was about charter vs non-charter the race did draw a considerable amount of money.
School board races in Sacramento seldom draw much interest, this time was different. McGowan raised over 39K with Schwinn topping 30K. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. California campaign disclosure laws leave some wiggle room in releasing campaign figures. Those familiar with the race speculate the true number was probably twice that declared. Other races that year that featured a charter vs non-charter candidate drew equal amounts of money.
Who exactly gave the money is not exactly clear. California requires that someone who wants to look at the name of donors apply in person and view the documents in person. Seeing as I’m not traveling to Sacramento any time soon, we’ll just have to speculate. Since Schwinn enjoyed the favor of Michelle Rhee’s spouse Kevin Johnson and Rhee founded the lobbying group Student’s First in 2010 for just this kind of purpose, I think it’s safe to say, Schwinn benefited from their campaign and fundraising abilities.
The race between Schwinn and McGowan was closely contested. McGowan won election day by approximately 600 votes, but Schwinn won early voting by roughly 800. Things did get a little contentious in counting the provisional ballots because the race was so tight and both candidates teams were looking for an advantage. But in the end, it was Schwinn who earned the school board seat by the slimmest of margins.
But it was all for naught. All the money spent and all the volunteers who knocked on doors became meaningless because 11 months later Schwinn resigned to take a job with the Sacramento School District. But was it all for naught?
Since that little school board race, Schwinn’s career has taken a meteoric rise, as she has taken one high profile job after another. Always lurking in the background of these new assignments are the connections she made while running for the Sacramento County School Board – Michele Rhee, Students First, the Gates Foundation, ExcelinEd, Chiefs for Change. Now here we are in Tennessee and once again her friends are emersed in the fray.
A look at the issues that Schwinn was championing in Sacramento and the ones her boss is pushing here in Tennessee reveal a deep symmetry. Lee may be a Republican and Schwinn may ascribe to being a Democrat, but under it all, they serve the same goals. Goals that call for the disrupting and dismantling of public education. Goals that bear a distinct reflection to those espoused by the current Secretary of Education. Ultimately they are goals that will only prove to be detrimental to the children and families of Tennessee.
Let’s take a quick look at the results from this weekend’s poll questions. The first question asked for your opinion of who you thought was more incompetent, Governor Lee or Penny Schwinn? This was a tightly contested race all weekend, with one surging ahead only to be caught by the other. In the end, the Governor prevailed by the narrowest of margins 40 – 36. Worth noting, not a single vote of confidence was cast. Here are the write-ins,
|Tied for last||1|
|They both are equally awful||1|
|Incompetent or evil?||1|
|It’s a tie!||1|
|its a crap shot||1|
|It’s a tie for last. Both are IDIOTS||1|
|They both need to go.||1|
|They each exhibit the competence of Betsy DeVos.||1|
|Both equally inept||1|
|Neither are competent in educating students/teache||1|
|Photo finish. They are both losers.||1|
|In the educational field – neither|
Question 2 asked for your feelings about MNPS’s decision to focus solely on SEL for the first two weeks of school. Most of you like the idea, as 58% of you felt that it was a good decision that allowed people to acclimate before jumping in. 14% expressed misgivings but were willing to give it an opportunity. Here are those write-ins, they are a colorful lot,
|Kyla Krengel is the equivalent of a spray-on tan.||1|
|Doesn’t meet IEPs so doesn’t help me at all.||1|
|Good idea but plan not communicated too well to teachers or families||1|
|If it’s done well with pure intention. It’s been rough for these kids.||1|
|Not enough time for online training. Everyone will be lost.||1|
|Speaking of “rope-a-dope, wait until parents figure this crap out….||1|
|Their SEL is boring.||1|
|It looks good on paper, but we’re teaching humans.||1|
|A great way to cover for not being ready|
The last question attempted to assuage your current level of pandemic fear. 35% of respondents just wished everyone would wear a damn mask. 22% expressed a high level of fear, but one that was mitigated by cautionary steps they’d been taking. Here are those write-ins,
|Little concern for the lasting c’sequences of the virus. So short sighted.||1|
|As long as people don’t respect the virus, we should all be afraid.|
That’s it for now.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.
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