“A man will seek to express his relation to the stars; but when a man’s consciousness has been riveted upon obtaining a loaf of bread, that loaf of bread is as important as the stars.”
“Your whole house smells of dog, says someone who comes to visit. I say I’ll take care of it. Which I do by never inviting that person to visit again.”
This morning I watched last night’s MNPS school board meeting and now I have to ask, am I the only seeing a trainwreck of monumental proportions approaching? I appreciate Dr. Battle’s steady hand at the wheel but in order to execute a safe return to face to face learning, we need an actual plan, with actual details. Based on what I saw this morning, we have neither. Not only do we not have an actual plan, but we are not even asking the right questions.
Yesterday a survey went out to Nashville families informing them that they must make a decision by September 15th on whether to return to f2f instruction after October’s Fall Break or remain virtual. A decision that they must stick with for the rest of the year, hypothetically parents could change their decision in December based on a vague description of a change in factors. Does a drop in COVID numbers of 20% represent enough of a change to allow for alteration? What if the virtual instruction drops of in perceived quality based on a number of factors – district focus, teacher attrition, unresolved technical issues. Does that warrant a change? Who knows? Like the rest of the plan, details are lacking.
Before we go any further in this discussion, it needs to be acknowledged that district leadership has failed to instill virtual school with any fidelity, not just on a school to school basis, but even inside individual schools. There are MNPS schools in the district where some teachers are using the Zoom platform while others are using the district prescribed TEAMs. Some schools are expecting teachers to fully implement and adhere to the Florida Virtual Schools while other schools are allowing teachers to do their own thing. Discrepancies are vast, and it’s not just school to school varancies.
So say I decide to keep my child enrolled in online learning based on experiences over the last 6 weeks – the level of instruction, relationship with teaches, materials – there is no guarantee that the present experience will not be dramatically altered once students return to f2f. For example, my child loves two of his teachers, they use ZOOM, they assign a manageable asynchronous workload, and they have closely adhered to the FVS curriculum – these are all hypothetical circumstances btw. F2F resumes, and those teachers are now teaching in person. My kid gets a new teacher, one they don’t know who could possibly be utilizing ZOOM while disregarding FVS and overloading the kids with work. Or the new teacher could be a vast improvement over the previous teacher, there is no way of knowing yet, I’m being asked to invest a year of my child’s learning on the sketchiest of details.
The same holds true for in-person school. I have no clear picture of what class sizes will look like. Nor the curriculum or work load. My child could hypothetically be in a classroom of 30 kids, or they could be in a classroom of 10. The curriculum could be either FVS or something completely different, a continuation of what they’ve been learning or something brand new.
Much of that determination will be based on the demographics served by individual schools. And yes, those demographics always play a role in service, except for in this case they are potentially playing a role in child safety. That shouldn’t be acceptable.
Furthermore, I’m being asked to make a decision without a time table. I have a 5th grader and say I elect to send them f2f. That doesn’t mean that the week after Fall break they go back. It does not even mean that they go back the next week, or even the week after that. They may not end up going back until the week before Thanksgiving. My preference at that time may not accurately reflect the decision I made 2 months prior, in the midst of a pandemic.
The aforementioned concerns are strictly through the lens of a parent. As a teacher, I would be just as concerned, if not more so. Those that have been granted an accommodation to teach virtually are not guaranteed the right to teach remotely. What if I’m at a school with 6 teachers, 4 of us have been afforded accommodations, but student numbers require 3 f2f teachers. How is the decision made on who gets to stay virtual and who is forced back into the classroom? Leadership may argue that principals will never make value judgments on who goes f2f and who goes virtual based on interpreted risk, but remember these are the same people that argue that virtual learning has been implemented with fidelity and that all tech issues lie solely with the individual user.
Under questioning, by board members, the superintendent indicated last night that it was not the district’s intention to have teachers teach classes both in-person and remotely. There is a big difference between, “not our intention”, and, “not going to happen”. I don’t see a way it doesn’t happen, especially on the high school level. In talking to teachers from outside the district who have been forced to conduct classes this way, all attest to the difficulty in the execution of this mode of instruction.
Dr. Battle does deserve credit for clearly spelling out that when schools open they will not currently operate as they have in the past. There will be masks for all kids, social distancing when possible, potentially assigned seats for lunch. There will be no assembly’s, no mass gatherings, no outside speakers. There is no mention of what recess will look like and if it will even take place. The same holds true for gym class.
One of the benefits of virtual learning is that my 9-year-old son has the opportunity to go out and throw the baseball around for 15 minutes between classes. It’s quite possible that f2f participation could require him to be a whole lot more sedentary than in his current circumstances. That’s a serious consideration.
In her presentation to the board, Dr. Battle said that parents will be encouraged to consider alternative forms of transportation in order to allow for social distancing on school busses. If parents follow that guidance, it could either double or even triple participation in the car line, which would substantially increase the time required for both teachers and parents.
The return to in-person coincides with the flu season. Students who exhibit signs of COVID will be forced to quarantine. What happens when a parent who needs their child to attend school in person argues that the symptoms are not COVID, but rather flu-related. Will testing be mandated? What quarantine protocols will be required? What happens to on-line class size if a school has a large number of students out due to COVID? What if the online teacher is using different materials than the in-person teacher?
Think this won’t be a concern for MNPS? Want to point to other districts as having successfully opened? Let’s look at some number for the neighboring WCS which opened in person 2 weeks ago. Per school board member Eric Welch, as of yesterday at 3pm,
- 11 Staff members in Isolation w/a confirmed positive case
- 44 Staff members in Quarantine due to exposure
- 26 Students in Isolation w/a confirmed positive case
- 438 Students in Quarantine due to exposure
- Cases spread across 33 of 49 schools and central office
All of this, and more impacts my decision on which method I choose to enroll my child? And yes, much is in flux and it is impossible to predict future circumstances. But it shouldn’t be permissible to use the pandemic to excuse the lack of a concrete plan while not granting parents the same grace in forming plans for their children.
Perhaps my biggest fear is that we’ve spent the last 6 weeks brutalizing teachers and parents, and now the imminent return of f2f schooling will render all of that sacrifice and innovation meaningless. There has been a very vocal contingency that has decried virtual learning as a complete failure, but what I hear and observe in my own children does not substantiate that assessment. I’ve seen some incredible innovation, as well as things that could be built on for future success. One of those being the teaming up of teachers to simultaneously teach a class. Hopefully, that potential and innovation won’t be lost in a rush back to some kind of perceived normalcy.
Tuesday’s board meeting brought no new answers in regard to district athletes. To me that’s inexcusable. There are families desperately waiting for decisions to be made and plans to be implemented, yet we continue to treat their concerns as merely an afterthought. That is not the way to retain engagement in the district’s public schools.
Yes, these are difficult times. Yes, there is no plan that will please everyone. Yes, every plan will have plusses and minuses. But if you are a member of the district leadership team, this is what you signed up for and this is why you receive the level of compensation you do. Just slapping a skeleton plan together and expecting others to fill in the details is not acceptable. The best way I’ve heard it is expressed is that the district is in need of more structure and less control. District leadership needs to grasp that concept and alter current practices before irrevocable harm is done to MNPS.
AN INTERESTING RECOLLECTION
The recent recall motion submitted by District 8 parents against School Board representative Gini Pupo-Walker has spurred local education blogger Vesia Hawkins to return to the keyboard after an 11-month absence in defense of Walker. In her piece, she defends Pupo-Walker against the recall challenge by evoking the board member’s love of children, “Since meeting her nearly a decade ago, her commitment to children has been a comforting constant.”. She goes on to quote Ms Walker’s blog post from August 31, 2020, “You see, in the second-to-last paragraph, Pupo-Walker states, “and to ensure we are doing all we can for our students who are most at-risk” as further evidence against a conflict.
This is congruent with Pupo-Walker’s own defense. In the Tennessee Lookout article on the recall effort, the school board member defends her votes as being in alignment with who she is as a person, “My position is that my work and my day job is 100 percent aligned to my values and what I think is best for MNPS children.”
First off, I don’t think that anyone is questioning Ms. Walker’s support and love for children. I think Ms. Walker is a fine individual, but she fails to acknowledge that as an elected official she serves in a representative capacity. That means she represents all families in District 8, not just the neediest. If our schools are truly to be considered public schools than they must equally serve all families. These days that may not be a popular opinion, but it’s the reality of an elected government.
Looking at the demographics for her district you will see that per the Scarlett Foundation’s District Report, she represent a district with the following characteristics,
- Serves the smallest number of students in MNPS
- Has the lowest percentage of English Language Learners in MNPS
- Has the lowest percentage of economically disadvantaged students in MNPS
- Ranks at the top of MNPS in measures of academic achievement
- Has the highest “College Ready” scores in MNPS
If you look at the mission statement for her employer Education Trust, it says,
The Education Trust is a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families. Through our research and advocacy, Ed Trust supports efforts that expand excellence and equity in education from preschool through college, increase college access and completion particularly for historically underserved students, engage diverse communities dedicated to education equity, and increase political and public will to act on equity issues.
In essence, Education Trust is an organization dedicated to representing primarily impoverished low achieving children of color. As such, test scores are a readily available means of making the case for supporting the work of Education Trust. District 8 is made up predominately of wealthier academically high achieving children. Therefore tests scores are considered less essential than other services.
In looking at the two entities she serves, it becomes apparent that either she doesn’t believe all families deserve the same level of representation, or she has a conflict of interest. Her recent vote on testing just serves to clarify that challenge.
I raise this point not in an effort to disparage Gini Pupo-Walker. She has a long track record of doing admirable work with the neediest of MNPS’s families. But to raise the question, that perhaps her life work is best done while not holding down an elected representative position.
Now her boss at Education Trust is another story. Personally, I find it despicable to hold down a job dedicated to helping the impoverished while drawing an exorbitant salary. I would argue that over half a million dollars a year, certainly qualifies as exorbitant. But I leave that up to you.
ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER…DISCONNECTION FROM THE TRUTH
President Trump is not the only leader that has discovered that it is not necessary to be 100% honest, 100% of the time. All you have to do is make people believe that you are in the vicinity of the truth every once in a while. It’s a practice that Tennessee’s Education Chief Penny Schwinn has also adopted.
A couple weeks ago she created an uproar by rolling out a program that included child welfare checks for all students. The public, and by de facto legislators considered it a huge overreach by a department that has a history of overreach.
In the aftermath of the uproar, the commissioner sent a letter to legislators claiming,
“The goal of this document was to serve as an optional resource for local leaders to guide their efforts for at-risk kids who continue to navigate prolonged time away from the classroom,” Schwinn wrote. “Although well-intentioned, we have missed the mark on communication.”
A just-published article by the online magazine, The Center Square, uses obtained emails and meeting notes to dispute Schwinn’s claim,
In an Aug. 6 draft update to the governor’s office, Katie Houghtlin, a former colleague of Schwinn at the Texas Education Agency who now facilitates the Child Wellbeing Task Force and orchestrated feedback on the well-being checks document, noted suggestions from the task force on how to administer well-being checks for nonpublic school students and children from birth to age 5.
“As the goal is to conduct a wellbeing check for ALL children, not just those enrolled in public schools, our superintendent engagement group voiced concern that they would not be able to coordinate the effort to also administer the wellbeing checks for private school students, birth to age 5, homeschooled and homebound children,” Houghtlin wrote, noting the task force suggested superintendents be able to designate an administrator of well-being checks.
The Houghtlin mentioned is the same person who was recently disciplined for workplace bullying. Further communication from Houghtlin is of particular interest,
A week before the initiative was launched, Houghtlin emailed Schwinn a progress report on the document, including details of a conversation Houghtlin had with Schwinn’s assistant, Chelsea Crawford, surrounding the document.
“Chelsea and I landed on a strategy to ‘encourage’ but not require checks so we can use data collected from counties who committed and implemented with fidelity to demonstrate possible benefit in creating county specific wellbeing committees which could serve far beyond COVID,” Houghtlin wrote.
In her letter to legislators, Schwinn promised to discontinue the program and go back to the drawing board. However, look what keeps getting pushed by the Tennessee Department of Education, the LEA Reopening, and Supports Grant. Buried in the eligible expenses – conducting wellness checks. So the department quietly funds LEA’s doing wellness checks and then turns around and utilizes their data to make the argument for wellness checks for everybody. Again, is it really a conspiracy theory if they tell you they are conspiring against you?
A recent Tennesse Star article offers further evidence of Schwinn playing loosey-goosey with facts. Some of which have been previously reported here. The allegations paint a damning portrait and include that TDOE officials, on Schwinn’s orders, gave falsified records to a reporter who had submitted an open records request to the TDOE.
Will any of it matter? Reportedly Schwinn has been out meeting with members of the education committee’s and serving up her particular brand of Kool-Aid. Indications are that those legislators are lapping up her servings. She is eliciting support from both sides of the aisle as Representative Mark White, a Republican, and Representative Akbari, a Democrat have been particularly ardent in their defense of the Commissioner.
Governor Lee is also an ardent supporter. He’s been calling critics up to his office to inquire whether or not they are “Team Lee” or not. Apparently being a member of “Team Lee” is more important than being a member of “Team Tennessee” and requires additional fidelity to the Governor and his appointees.
Time will tell if Team Schwinn can continue to get away with her Schwinigans or not. I just remember a certain Director of Schools who thought he was immune as well. Unfortunately for him, the perception of immunity proved false and he has since been sent home to the North. I believe that the same fate awaits the Commissioner and eventually, she’ll be sent packing back to the West. We shall see if I am correct.
Anna Thoreson is a tireless advocate for children with Dyslexia. She is also Dyslexic herself. I encourage all of you to read her latest blog post on navigating virtual schooling as the parent of a dyslexic child. A must-read.
Look who is coming to dinner next state legislative session. Josh Thomas has registered to represent Excellence in Education National inc d/b/a Excellence in Education in Action. Thomas is a veteran Republican strategist. ExcelinEd was launched by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in 2008, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd) supports state leaders in transforming education to unlock opportunity and lifelong success for each and every child. Still, think vouchers aren’t on the menu?
At yesterday’s MNPS board meeting Christianne Buggs was elected chair and Rachael Anne Elrod was elected Vice-Chair. Congratulations to the two.
If you need technical help for your student, you can get it at the following locations, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. August 31 to September 18 at these six school locations:
- Robert Churchwell Elementar
- Glenview Elementary
- Mt. View Elementary
- Tusculum Elementary
- Jere Baxter Middle School
- Donelson Middle School
That’s it for now. See you again at the end of the week.
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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August first marks the beginning of an annual funding drive for the blog, as hosting fees are due. So I’m rattling the virtual cup. Any bit you can do to help would be greatly appreciated. Now more than ever your support is essential.
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