WILL THE DENVER PLAN BECOME THE NASHVILLE PLAN

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Last week, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph announced that the district was preparing to undergo a realignment that would change how the central office supervises the district. According to Joseph, the move will create four zones, each with its own community superintendent, overseeing numerous school clusters, or groups of schools. In talking to people about this, their initial assumptions were that the clusters would fall into north, south, east, and west zones. But that’s not quite how things worked out.

Hillsboro, Hillwood, and Overton will be one cluster. Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Glencliff will be another. Pearl-Cohn, Hunters Lane, and Whites Creek will be grouped together. As will be McGavock, Maplewood, and Stratford. If you never saw the official announcement from MNPS, despair not; it’s only been released through MNPS’s job postings. Let’s take a deeper look at what this change could mean for Nashville’s schools. National readers you’ll want to follow along and I’ll explain why at the end.

Before we go any further, I want to go on record as stating that this is an awfully big change to be announced in such a haphazard manner with very little public input or discussion. This is not just a “leadership change” but rather a  large-scale district realignment that could have serious repercussions for the district if it doesn’t work. All we have to do is go back ten years for evidence of how serious the repercussions could be. Nashville operated under a similar structure during Dr. Pedro Garcia’s tenure as Director of Schools. But then MNPS changed to the current system after the state took over the district in 2008 due to low performance. Currently we have three Executive Officers who oversee all the schools in each separate tier: high school, middle school, and elementary school. That means we have an expert at every tier, which is important because the needs of each tier are so disparate.

To be fair, some would argue that the previous system under Garcia was not a major contributor to the need for corrective action by the state. Low performance was more a result of No Child Left Behind being enacted, which changed the way things were measured. It was also at this time MNPS first saw an explosion of immigrant students, so that presented more new challenges. I’m sure that these events contributed, but we still have to look at the structure that was in place at the time of the takeover, recognize that the state changed it early in the takeover process, and from that, we can see that the new alignment – again, which is what we currently have now – contributed to us getting out of corrective action.

Part of the conversation on this realignment should be an explanation of why we are undertaking it in the first place. According to Joseph, “Having one person for the parent to be able to contact from K-12 will help strengthen communication over a student’s career. The realignment will increase equity and access to supports. The community superintendents will know the schools, the programs, and be able to better align supports and resources.” The reasoning here, to be honest, baffles me.

First, are we to assume that the new Community Superintendents will be remaining in their positions for the remainder of their careers? That’s a stretch. At the very least, if the superintendent were high quality, I would think they would eventually move on to a job as director of schools somewhere. I mean, it is unrealistic to assume that anyone in this type of position would be there for the duration my children’s school years. We’re talking over 12 years. So I’m not sure why this is a selling point of the new realignment.

Secondly, MNPS is a district plagued by high mobility. The odds are definitely stacked against the majority of our kids completing their K-12 education in the same cluster. Add the fact that MNPS is already a district that practices a school choice policy, which, in essence, condones high mobility, and the reasoning Joseph used to justify this realignment just doesn’t add up. It’s my opinion as an MNPS parent that having an expert at each tier would supersede the marginal potential of having one person oversee my kids’ K-12 education.

Furthermore, I’m not sure how equity and access will be increased by this new realignment. The current Executive Officers are very familiar with their schools and are quite accessible to parents. At Tusculum Elementary School, where my children attend, Executive Officer for Elementary Schools Vanessa Garcia, has assisted me quite competently a number of times over the years, and I’ve heard similar stories about Aimee Wyatt, Executive Officer of High Schools, and Antoinette Williams, the Executive Officer of Middle Schools. All three of these individuals have a wealth of knowledge in regards to the history of the district as well as their tier. It also stands to reason that since they are focused on their tier, forming relationships with principals becomes easier and more natural.

Under the new system, for example, if a community superintendent has extensive experience with high schools, then it only stands to reason that they will naturally align with high school principals. But will they be able to find common ground with elementary school principals as well? Middle school? This is important to consider since the ability to succeed is dependent on relationships. It’s unclear to me what great need is being addressed with this change that isn’t already being addressed with our current system.

What makes this move even more baffling is that back in November Joseph recognized the challenges our middle schools specifically face. He told NPR, “Now is the time to give middle schools the love and attention they need to help strengthen our high school programs,” Hmmm….exactly how is moving to a k-12 model going to strengthen our middle schools? Is  every one of the four community superintendents going to have extensive middle school backgrounds? I just can’t wrap my head around the reasoning.

What does stick out to me is the reference to this being a model similar to one that Denver Public Schools (DPS) utilizes. And that sets off the light bulbs and the alarms for me. You see, since this past summer and the arrival of Dr. Joseph, I’ve been saying that all this is starting to feel a whole lot like the Denver model. And that’s not a good thing.

Last June, when I attended the National Charter School Convention, I attended a workshop on Achievement School Districts. At the top of the list for supposed success stories was Denver Public Schools. DPS employs what is currently known as a portfolio model that was created through the Denver Plan.

Under a portfolio model, you have students who are zoned to what they call “boundary schools,” but everybody gets a choice of what school to attend. The “boundary school” is in essence your “zoned school,” and you are welcome to attend that school if you so desire, but you do have the opportunity to choose a different school. The good news here is that there is a unified school choice enrollment form. This means that everybody – charters, magnets, and traditional schools – all enroll at the same time, unlike here in Nashville where some charter schools have independent enrollment periods and forms. In fact, some charter schools here in Nashville are sending out marketing brochures all year long advertising space in their schools. The flip side of that is that since all schools in a portfolio district are competing against each other all the time, every school decision becomes part of the marketing plan.

Now here’s where things get tricky. As part of its push to increase school choice, because DPS loves some school choice, they have created “enrollment zones.” If you live with in an enrollment zone, you are guaranteed a seat at one of the schools within that zone but not necessarily the one closest to you. In theory, this should make parents more involved in the choice process and diversify the schools. The reason being that you are offering a narrow choice that is easier to navigate and allowing parents to discuss their choices with other parents within the enrollment zone.

Now here is where it gets even trickier. As part of its “Denver Plan,” DPS has set a goal of 80% of all students attending a high quality school by 2020. In order to do that within the next three years, they don’t have a lot of time to wait for schools to improve. So Denver employs an aggressive policy of closing schools and replacing them. Replacing means they keep the school buildings, but rehire all new staff and administrators, refocus the curriculum, and then open new schools. Since 2005, they have closed or replaced 48 schools and opened more than 70 new ones, the majority of them charter schools and right now, due to the Trump presidency and the new tone in Washington, charter chains are seeing an opportunity.

Think about some of Nashville’s chronically underachieving schools and then apply the Denver Plan to them. It’s important to remember as well that demographics play a role in performance. Attract the right kids and the school appears to perform better. With parents having a choice between schools in the enrollment zones or the community zones, competition will become even more heated than it is now. And it’s hard to predict who the “losers” will be.

For example, under the new groupings, you could have Croft Middle, JT Moore Middle, and Valor Collegiate Academy as potential competitors in the community zone. It’s entirely feasible, with apologies to JT Moore, that Croft and Valor could see an increase in high performing students while JT Moore’s share dwindles. (I know, all students with the right schools and right teachers perform at the same level. But stay with me for a moment.) What would happen to JT Moore in this scenario? After all, the other two schools should be grossly outperforming them. Will they get classified as failing? Will they potentially close the school to make room for a higher performing school? The same theory holds true if both JT Moore and Croft become the choice of parents of high performing students. The bottom line is, this is a win-lose situation and we have to be ready to accept that who the “losers” are might hinge more on a marketing plan then actual quality. (Remember that part of the recent task force recommendations?)

We also need to keep in mind what factors are being used to determine whether or not a school is “failing.” Test scores aren’t a reliable determining factor in judging school performance nor should they be the sole factor used, but we use them anyway under current state and federal law. Add to that the problems with our state assessments, and we’ve got potentially big problems. So if we’re going to be judging schools on test scores – which have been repeatedly shown to link more to family income level than true student achievement – we need to take a hard look at how we are doing the judging. Schools closures are really hard on a community, and we are already engaged in an effort to increase the number of community schools. So how would those schools be affected?

A few years ago MNPS saw a smaller scaled version of the Denver Plan when previous Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register attempted to implement the East Nashville plan without parent and community input. Register was looking to turn East Nashville into an all-choice district that involved creating more charter schools. He attempted to move his plan forward without community input. Once the community got wind, they organized and pushed back. They immediately recognized the potential for increased inequities.

If there are substantial differences between these two plans, I fail to see them. Sure, we are not openly discussing charter school expansion but it’s obviously a potential element. The restructuring of district supervision as Dr. Joseph has presented it would open the door to implementing the East Nashville plan wholesale. And just like it wasn’t good for East Nashville, this plan wouldn’t be good for the whole district.

Let’s look closer at the charter school element in all of this. During the battle over the East Nashville plan, it was revealed that there were behind the scenes conversations taking place about charter schools. Charter school supporters saw an opportunity within the East Nashville plan to increase the number of charters in the area. Who’s to say they wouldn’t see a similar opportunity under Joseph’s plan? Play this forward to the present, and, despite Dr. Joseph’s avowed lack of love for charter schools, what’s to prevent the same talks from taking place behind the same closed doors in the future?

Dr. Joseph’s change in leadership structure definitely has the potential to open the doors for future charter school growth. Admittedly, charter schools would first have to be brought in under the greater MNPS umbrella, but once that happened, it would only make sense to have strategic conversations about the role they could play in the district under the new portfolio model. Since MNPS has a vision of being the fastest improving urban district in the country, it would stand to reason that we will have to close or replace some schools. And who better to fill the void than the charter consortium? Not to mention that the brand new Tennessee State Charter School District gives incentive to include charter schools in any strategic plan.

This is why I get so frustrated with the continual battles with the same old cast of characters. Our focus should be first and foremost on improving all schools and making them equitable. Secondly, we should be having conversations about the potential long-term ramifications of shifting policy and how do we truly implement best practices. These conversations need to take place in a transparent manner with all stakeholders, something that is not currently happening right now. If you need evidence, all you need to do is look at a recent Dad Gone Wild poll where 42% of repondents said that their biggest challenge this year was a lack of clear instruction on district iniatives. That’s the proverbial writing on the wall.

In Nashville, we talk a great deal about equity. Lets take a look again at Denver and how their organization has affected equity. In 2016, they had 24 schools that earned the lowest possible score on a district measure meant to gauge how well schools are educating traditionally under-served students. I would say that’s substantial. Furthermore, DPS has a color-coded rating system for schools, with blue being the highest, followed by green, yellow, orange, and red being the lowest. Of the 82 DPS schools that were blue or green overall this year, 33 were below green on equity, with the majority of the 33 being yellow. This is more than a little troubling in a system that is supposed to increase equity.

Denver has seen some improvements under their strategic plan, but it hasn’t been all rosy either. Parents and teachers often complain about not being included in decisions, and the achievement gap is also proving difficult to change. The Denver school board has been accused of  inviting “the community to look at plans already being put into place.”  Overall, the best that can be said is that the grades have been mixed.

I don’t want anybody to mistake my writing here as outright opposition to Dr. Joseph’s sort-of-revealed plan. It may be the direction we need to go in and admittedly the majority of what I’ve written here is hypothetical. I could be miles off base. But I would argue that there is enough evidence to warrant having a public conversation about it. What I am opposed to is the implementation of any large scale change without stakeholder engagement and input or without fully revealing the plan. This plan will have huge implications for years to come. If it fails, Dr. Joseph and his team will get to just head back north while our teachers, administrators, parents, and children are left to navigate the wreckage.

Want to know what that looks like? Just ask the residents of Seaford, Delaware. Seaford is where Dr. Joseph’s had his only other stint as Director of Schools. It’s a much smaller district than MNPS, but he implemented similar changes there. He introduced a brand new strategic plan with familiar elements. The plan came with a 1.5 million dollar tax increase. Voters rejected the increase, but it didn’t matter because Joseph had already moved on. Ironically, his last official day was the day after the vote. His replacement was left to clean up in the aftermath.

No offense to Dr. Joseph or his team, but they really have no track record on a policy implementation of this magnitude, and are we really in a position to potentially allow history to repeat itself? It’s like handing a stranger outside of a casino a million dollars and telling them to bet at will. There is an old saying that should hold true here: “He who pays, gets a say.” Despite the mayor announcing no new tax rate increases, Nashville residents will potentially see a large increase in what they pay. I would argue that it’s imperative that stakeholders get a say before we move forward.

This is where you national readers need to take note. Privatization forces have been looking to replicate New Orleans and it’s all charter district for years. (Now I know this isn’t all charter school folks and if its not you, just ignore and move on.) The Denver model represents the best opportunity for that goal. It’s a kinder, gentler, less obvious model and therefore provides unique challenges. We need to be ready to recognize and face those challenges. The privatization conversations of today aren’t going to look like the conversations of the past. If we cling to the old conversations and don’t recognize the new ones, then we’ll be playing catch up once again and those who will pay the price will be our schools, teachers, families and ultimately our communities.

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Friday Poll

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It’s Friday again, which means it’s time for a few questions in our new Dad Gone Wild Friday Poll. I must admit some of the answers in the previous polls surprised me. That’s a good thing. Overall, I found the results quite insightful. I really appreciate everybody’s participation. It’s important to ask questions, even if you don’t always get the answers you suspect or want.

This week’s questions are all MNPS-related. I want to clarify, because there seems to be some doubt, that I have not had a change of heart when it comes to charter schools. I don’t support the concept, but I do believe the best defense is a good offense, and we must commit to improving all our public schools. Take from that what you will. As always, comments are welcome, and polls are open until Sunday night. So without further ado…

An Education Activist’s Dirty Little Secret

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What I am most proud of is that this Blog has earned a sense of trust from educators. I am not a professional educator nor do I play one on TV. I’m just a parent that talks to a lot of educators and tries to convey their stories along with my observations as a parent. Every once in a while I get someone who asks if I would be willing to share something they wrote. I invariably say yes. The below was sent to me by an experienced teacher and it further explores the theme of not getting blinded by ideology.  The issues are seldom as simple as we like to paint them. Thank you Mary Jo Cramb.

 

I first got inspired to get involved in education advocacy and activism when I read Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error, then saw her speak here in Nashville. I stated attending meetings of the Badass Teachers, Coalition Advocating for Public Education, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment, and other groups, and I’ve made some good friends through these organizations. Since having my second kid, this work comprises a good portion of the adult socializing I get to do outside of my job and family. But there’s one thing I haven’t been very open about with my fellow advocates. I’ve been hiding a dirty little secret, and it’s time I came clean.

I got into teaching through the Nashville Teaching Fellows program (NTF), which is a local chapter of The New Teacher Project (TNTP). Education advocates and teacher activists don’t like this program, or its better-known, more insidious sister, Teach for America (TFA). I know their criticisms now, and agree with them. These programs devalue the teaching profession and throw newbies into the classroom with little training or hope of success. In exposing my past involvement with this organization, I hope to explain why I made the choices I did, and what these programs expose about larger problems in teacher education.

NTF, and its national organization, TNTP, are less objectionable than TFA for several reasons. The goal of TNTP is to recruit and train people who will make teaching their career, while TFA aims at selecting people who will move on to “bigger and better things” after completing their two-year commitment. I’ve heard that expressing enthusiasm for teaching as a long-term career counts against candidates at TFA interviews. Teachers are understandably offended at the idea of their profession as a temp gig. TFA also has an alumni network full of people working to pass bad education laws, create new charter schools, advance the goals of the corporate education “reform” movement, and give each other jobs doing more of the same. TNTP does not have the same broad ideological objectives. However, TNTP certainly shares the obsession with data and accountability that characterizes TFA, as well as its reliance on “no excuses” classroom environments, and blind belief in total teacher control over student outcomes, which, of course, are narrowly understood to mean standardized test scores. Now that I understand all of this, I regret and am embarrassed by my association with NTF. But when I first entered the profession, I didn’t understand these issues to the extent that I do now, and most prospective teachers would say the same, especially back in 2009, when I joined up. Most critics of TFA, I’ve found, don’t personally dislike the individual teachers who began to teach with this program, finding them well-meaning pawns who genuinely care for their students and do their best despite little preparation and difficult classroom challenges. They save their criticisms for the program itself and its leaders. So maybe there was never any reason for my reticence about my background.

The existence of TFA and TNTP points to a larger problem in teacher training that I still do not see being addressed, not even by TFA’s critics. How was I supposed to get into teaching? Or, what is the way that opponents of TFA suggest that teachers begin their careers? By majoring in education in college, or getting a Masters degree, before taking charge of a classroom. However, this route to teaching was not feasible for me at the time. What’s more, I believe that if I had taken that path, my own education would have been poorer, and my students would have suffered for it.

When I was in college I wanted to be a writer and a college professor, not a high school teacher. So I majored in English, and picked up a second major, Spanish, because I had room in my schedule and wanted to study abroad. After college, I went to graduate school for English, then taught as an adjunct for a year. I was incredibly poor, and knew that lifestyle was unsustainable and I needed to get out of academia. At that point, I realized that moving to teach at the high school level was the best way I could think of to use the skills I had to get better-paying, more secure work. But I could not just pause my life and take two years to get a second Masters degree: I needed an income immediately. I applied directly with the school district at the same time that I put in applications with NTF and TFA, but those applications went nowhere. NTF and TFA had contracts with the district that stipulated that the district would not hire any new teachers until all the teachers trained with these programs had been placed in schools. So really, this program was the only way I could get a position teaching in a public school at the time when I needed a job. I guess you could say that I made a selfish decision and put my own financial needs above the educational needs of my students, and I’ll agree with that criticism. But I’d respond that the school system allowed me to do that because it also undervalued my students, by offering poor pay, benefits, and working conditions, so that they were unable to fill teaching positions without contracting with NTF and TFA to recruit underqualified, undertrained new teachers.

We were given five weeks training. Of course, it wasn’t enough. But I was coming from academia, where I’d been tossed in to teach first-year English composition classes to people only 4 years younger than me, with only one week of preparation. Teaching is a skill that must be learned on-the-job; I don’t think any kind of training is fully sufficient. My first year was a disaster, and I’m convinced it would have been a disaster regardless of any training I had or didn’t have. Maybe I’d feel differently if I’d had a whole semester to student-teach alongside a seasoned professional, who knows. While I am skeptical of the ideological aims of “teacher residency” programs I’ve heard about recently, that model might be closer to the kind of training teachers need to succeed early in their career.

I did take classes in the evenings for my first two years of teaching, earning a Masters of Arts in Teaching. I found these classes mostly a useless waste of time. The material was simple, boring, lacking in intellectual stimulation, and unconnected to the work we were doing in the classroom. If I had taken similar classes while I was an undergraduate, dropping one of my majors in favor of education, I would have had much less depth and breadth of the subject-specific content knowledge I need to be able to teach well, in addition to the impoverishment of my own inner life. Even if I had known at 18 or 20 that I would end up teaching in a high school classroom, majoring in education as an undergraduate would have cost me the opportunity to take other classes that truly opened my mind and contributed to my personal development, something that never happened to me in my MAT classes. I’m convinced that I’m a better teacher because of attending rigorous classes developing my skills and understanding of my disciplines, and that trading these classes for educational psychology and teaching methods would have given my students a weaker, less knowledgeable teacher. Telling me I should have picked a different major seems particularly wrong-headed and puzzling, because disparaging my broad liberal arts education and recommending narrow vocational training instead is the last thing progressive education advocates should do. Besides, in my teaching career I have taught both English and Spanish, and have taken jobs where I could not have been hired without the ability to teach both subjects. It would have been impossible for me to fit three majors into four years in college, especially since the education major requires a semester of student teaching, in which it’s impossible to take any other classes.

I have a friend who recently switched careers to teaching, after almost a decade in marketing. She took classes for her MAT in the evening while working her old job, then she had to quit and live without any income for a semester while she did her student teaching (and still paid tuition). I admire her dedication and I am sure she will be a wonderful teacher, though she is struggling in her first year, as all teachers do, mostly because she feels the school where she is teaching is a poor cultural fit for her, and she has an onerous commute. But I feel the expectation that she should be able to live with no income while training for a teaching job to be absurd. In most other professions, training is provided by companies when employees are hired, rather than bankrolled by employees themselves before they even have a job prospect. In professions that do require unpaid internships, the pool of candidates is limited to those who can afford to live without paid work for a time. Could this be one possible explanation for the scarcity of teachers of color and teachers from low-income communities? And it’s not like teaching is known for paying all that well either–the investment seems unlikely to pay off, except in warm fuzzies. No wonder teaching has a recruitment problem, and no wonder one of the most popular avenues to the profession is the one that eliminates a costly obstacle to employment.

One problem that I have with critics of TFA is that they have not yet sufficiently grappled with these problems with the way we currently prepare teachers. They don’t acknowledge that classes in education are not rigorous, or useful, or even interesting. They pretend that traditional teacher education programs prepare teachers completely for their first year of work in the classroom, when this is laughably false. They act like a semester of student-teaching with no income is a reasonable demand to make of students and career-changers, instead of the unfair barrier to entry that it is. TFA is a poor answer to these problems, but progressive education advocates have not yet proposed their own solution either. I wish I’d been able to join the teaching profession without associating with a group steeped in an ideology I now oppose, but I’ll always be grateful they gave me an opportunity that only they were able to provide.

 

Friday Poll

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img_2011I almost forgot that it’s Friday and time for a new poll! Thank you to everybody that responded last week. Your responses were truly eye opening. I’ll write a post about the results sometime in the near future. Meanwhile, here are a couple more questions for you and as always, comments are welcome.

LOST IN IDEOLOGY

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img_2036It’s a crazy world we are living in today. We all seem so divided. Part of the problem seems to be that we are inundated with so much information that instead of processing it, we just default to partisan categories. Anti-immigrant/pro-immigrant, racist/not racist, feminist/anti-feminist, pro-business/anti-business – all information gets shuffled into its tendentious category and all nuance is swept away. Positions become hardened as time goes on until eventually we filter all communication through these lenses. We find it hard to believe that someone may be pro-business and pro-immigration at the same time. Or pro-business and pro-environment. We also believe these positions are ever fixed without the possibility of ever evolving. We do this in education circles as well.

It’s actually local education issues that have me ruminating on this phenomenon more than the national landscape. Last year here in Nashville, we had two monumental events. Nashville hired a brand new superintendent, Dr. Shawn Joseph, who started work on July 1, and we had what we thought was a pivotal school board election. I say pivotal because the election was quickly framed as being the defenders of public education vs. the privateers. People quickly fell into one camp or the other with defenders making the argument that nothing worse could befall our school district than to be taken over by private interests, while the privateers made the argument that the status quo had to go. Much to my chagrin, I must admit that I quickly grabbed a uniform and joined a team. And for that, I owe an apology to Jane Grimes-Meneely, Miranda Christy, Jackson Miller, and Thom Druffel.

Now I’m not saying that I would have voted for them nor campaigned for them. I still have a lot of disagreements with them on issues and take exception to a lot of strategies they employed during the election. What I am saying is that I quickly grabbed onto a dogma and stopped listening. Charter schools are bad, and they supported charter schools; therefore, they are bad. I’ve since learned the hard way that the world is a much more complex and nuanced place than that, and while we are busy building the wall at the front door, the wolf can slip in the back door.

My argument with charter schools has always been their lack of transparency, their only serving select children, their lack of accountability to an elected school board, their overemphasis on test scores, and the well documented abuses of power by administrators. I believe that all schools should be held to the same level of accountability. I don’t support neighborhood schools just because they bear the name; I support them because they adhere to the principles of accountability, transparency, service to all children and families, and a belief in equity. So what happens when the public school district stops adhering to those principles? What happens when the public school district starts behaving in a manner that is just as potentially detrimental as any threat posed by private entities? Because I believe that’s where we now find ourselves in Nashville.

Prior to Dr. Joseph’s arrival in Nashville, the board of Metro Nashville Public Schools took a lot of heat from outside interests, who portrayed them as dysfunctional. Part of the criticism from the outside stemmed from board members’ public squabbles and disagreements, despite the board having adopting policy governance as a governing style in 2oo3. Policy goverance is often, and some who argue wrongly, interpreted as a division of responsibility were the board is focused on the ends and the director on the means. Unfortunately people forget that ultimately an elected board is responsible for all of it, so it’s important that they are knowledgable on the means as well as the ends. Nashville may have adopted the policy in 2003 but the level of adherence through the years has fluctuated, with directors pushing for greater adherence and board members pushing back.

In 2008, as school board chair, David Fox pushed for closer adherence to policy governance. “It’s just very important that this board be a policy board, and not an operations board,” Fox said at the time. Interestingly enough, one of the people pushing back against this move was then and now current president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, Erick Huth. He believed elected board members should do a better job of actively monitoring the administration. Huth believed some of the problems attributed to former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia could have been alleviated by a more active board. I can’t say I disagree with him.

Nashville is accustomed to more of a traditional governance style and expect a high degree of “customer service” from elected school board officials. Community members are used to having access to board members and having board members advocate for them when necessary. Board members recognize this and have often fought hard for the right to speak out on constituents issues. Current board member Will Pinkston responded thus when reprimanded in 2014 by then Board Chair Cheryl Mays for not following the policy governance model,

Our commitment to the voters, parents, students and taxpayers of Davidson County supersedes the antiquated board policy you’re referencing. The voters of my district did not put me on the board to kowtow to an imperial superintendent, and I imagine your voters feel the same way. I’ve publicly recognized the Central Office when things are going well, and will continue to do so. Likewise, when I believe things aren’t going so well, I will continue to make my views known. Let’s continue this conversation, as a group, at Tuesday’s Governance Committee meeting when we review GP-9.”

For whatever reason, when Dr. Joseph arrived, the policy wasn’t quite as antiquated and it was deemed neccesary for the board to adopt close adherence and he was granted complete autonomy to implement what he thought was necessary. Joseph added a clause in his contract that spelled out the relationship. He’s quoted in the Nashville Scene as saying, “I have specific work that I’m charged to do as director, and they have specific work that they’re charged to do as members of the board of education, and together we have to work as a team to fundamentally transform the educational experience for children.” There is no “I” in team but there is a “m”, “e”.

The picture painted for Joseph on entry by various board members was one of a district in shambles. A picture that does a disservice to both Joseph and to the people who had been diligently working to improve our district over the years. Again, history was ignored, because if you want to look at a district in shambles, all you had to do was revisit MNPS back in 2009.

In 2009, as a result of Pedro Garcia’s disastrous tenure, MNPS was under the direct supervision of the state. Our academic performance was so low that the state came in to oversee a complete overhaul. At that time, it was necessary. There were no Career Academies. No expansion of pre-K. No meeting and surpassing of state standards for English Language learners annually. In other words, the landscape then was a completely different picture than it is today. In 2009, we were in shambles. But in 2016, we were in need of alignment.

Like it or not, previous Director of Schools Jesse Register helped rebuild MNPS out of the shambles. Today we are no longer under state corrective action. While far from perfect, we are in a much better situation than we were in 2009. Apparently though that is not the image presented to Dr. Joseph. Despite the system’s improvements, we have clearly separated into two ideological camps: those who support charter schools and those who oppose. And few on either side are willing to listen to voices on the other.

I myself have been guilty of talking past charter supporters. Interesting enough, while I’m not an overly religious person, it’s been my experience that whenever I say I would never do something, the Lord puts me in a situation that helps me understand why I just might. This school year has been such an experience. The lack of transparency and the failure of the  district to provide equitable resources has led me consider alternatives. At this point, I can say I understand why parents consider charter schools.

I love my kids’ school Tusculum ES. I love my kids’ teachers. I love my kids’ school’s administration. I don’t love the school’s facilities. The fact that we take these children, the majority of them English Language learners and impoverished, and send them to a grossly inadequate facility should be unacceptable to everyone. However, for three years, every time I raised the issue, I got a shrug and a “Hey! A new school is coming.” The new school is scheduled to open in August, but do we really believe that makes everything else copacetic?

Nineteen out of twenty-three of those portables currently at Tusculum Elementary School are moving down the street to McMurray Middle School as it starts renovation in a few months. Once again with no covered walkways. That means kids who have been in portables for third and fourth grade will get that pleasure again as they enter middle school. School board members respond by saying they don’t know what else they can do and then move on to fight against the renewal of the charter for LEAD Academy.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m philosophically opposed to LEAD Academy, but they are an established school supported by families who have invested in them. Their results are comparable to the district. So imagine for a moment what would happen if, for some reason, LEAD Academy had to close its doors. How are you going to look those parents in the eye and tell them their school is no longer available and their kids will continue their education in one of these fine portables? You can’t, unless you put district needs before kids’ needs. If you are going to shutter one school it is essential that you have a superior option imediately available and because our overemphasis on the charter school wars, we don’t.

We criticize charter schools for their lack of transparency. Well, in our public schools here in Nashville, transparency has been nearly non-existent since Dr. Joseph arrived. Currently, changes are being made behind the scenes to academic coaching programs, gifted student services, the academic focus at individual schools i.e converting them to STEAM Magnets, and even the alignment of the management of district schools. How many parents are aware of these changes and the potential impact on their child’s education? One of the provision in adopting policy governance in 2003 was a monthly meeting with district parents. That is the forgotten provision this year.

Up until this year, there was a Director’s Parent Advisory Committee that met quarterly. At these meetings, parents were briefed on upcoming policy changes and given an opportunity to ask hard questions. These weren’t always enjoyable affairs for Register and Henson when they were in charge, but they never failed to show up and empower parents. Joseph has failed to conduct a single one of these meetings. Why?

I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that in the 2015-2016 school year, one of our core values was transparency, but in 2016-2017, that is no longer the case.

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Recently, the MNPS School Board conducted its first director of schools review in over two years. (How that’s considered even remotely acceptable is beyond me. Current board chair Anna Shepherd deserves compliments, while former chair Sharon Gentry deserves rebuke for failure to follow board policy.) The result of this review was a perfect score for Dr. Joseph. A perfect score despite a snow day fiasco and the district paying the head of priority schools $155K a year despite him being unable to perform his duties because he didn’t get properly licensed. Neither one of those issues was brought up during Joseph’s public review.

When I asked Shepherd about this, she told me that the hard questions were being asked behind closed doors. “You and your wife don’t fight in front of the kids, do you? You recognize the importance of a unified front,” she said. “Actually,” I responded, “we do. We feel that it is important to model disagreement in a positive light. We want our kids to understand that people sometimes disagree and that healthy discourse is important. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them or each other.”

I believe while Shepherd may be asking the hard questions behind closed doors, the board used this evaluation as a means to deliver a message to the public and MNPS staff. The message being that the board is not going to publicly hold the director accountable for mistakes and missteps or challenge him where he may be wrong. In doing this, the board also implicitly sent the message to the public and staff that the director is infallible and therefore has carte blanche to act as he pleases.

To understand the potential here for disaster we only need to go back to 2008 when board member David Fox made the observation that he believed the previous MNPS administration(Dr. Pedro Garcia) presented a picture of district performance that was overly rosy, and that school board members did an inadequate job of “seeking reality.” He wasn’t alone in this observation. Then board members, including Karen Johnson and Ed Kindall indicated similar beliefs.  If you don’t know history then you are doomed to repeat it.

The danger in evaluating a director in a less then transparent manner is that failed policy only becomes visible in the rearview mirror, when it is too late. Parents, teachers, and administrators tend to recognize things much earlier and often leave the district because of it.  Once they decide to leave the district due to bad policy, they won’t be returning for many years, if ever.

When parents leave, demographics shift. That will force the district to craft new policy dictated by the demographics served and will potentially result in more families leaving. Since the families that leave are invariably the ones that have the means to make choices, eventually you are left with a district that is only serving families who have no other choices. At this point, I beg the question, what is the difference between a district that gives full, unfettered control to a director of schools and one that is overrun by a proliferation of charter schools? To me the outcome is identical, a school system that gives little power to stakeholders and places all the power in the hands of a non-elected entity. Once you go down this route, reversal is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

That is how ideology blinds us and hurts us. Instead of making decisions based on the merits of individual arguments, we make them based on an alignment with ideology. How many board members voted for Dr. Joseph because he wasn’t a charter person? How many failed to question his actions because they were afraid of it opening the door for charter proponents? How many would publicly protest if his actions this year were committed by the head of a charter school?

Board members have offered up the defense that they can’t get involved in individual programs. That the director must be allowed to pick his own programs and own people. The problem with that argument is that it is inconsistent with the actions of the last four years. Board members have publicly fought for individual agendas and individual programs they believe in. In this light it gives the appearance that those arguments were more about ideology than what’s best for kids.

If we really want to stop charter school proliferation shouldn’t we follow the leads of Dr. Mike Looney and former Maplewood principal and current director of pupil services for Maury County Ron Woodard, both who say you don’t have to worry about charter schools if you make your school the most attractive option. The only ideology they subscribe to is to make better schools and the same should be true for all of us.. Yet we still fight the same arguments over and over and MNPS becomes less and less responsive to stakeholders.

If the system is unresponsive to stakeholder desires and needs, what does it matter if its controlled by private or non-private entities? If we loathe the traits in others we shouldn’t accept them in ourselves. I believe Nashville sits today, poised on a precipice that will change the fundamental nature of our public education system. We are incorporating the worst traits of the reform movement and by doing so run the risk of becoming much like the district where current leadership comes from, Prince George County School District, where middle class parents don’t send their children. Montgomery County where we also recruited leadership, suffers from similar challenges.

It’s long been recognized that the key to successful classroom management is the student/teacher relationship. A teacher can incorporate all the rigor in the world but if a relationship of trust isn’t built it won’t make any difference. Why would that not hold true for district/stakeholder leadership as well? Somebody needs to finally recognize that if we want to truly become the fastest rising urban school district in America we are going to need exceptionally strong relationships that lead to buy in by everybody.

What I am saying is nothing new. Back in 2005, veteran educator Brent Hurst was forced to resign from MNPS after e-mails surfaced in which he disparaged school administrators, including director Dr. Pedro Garcia and chief instructional officer Sandy Johnson. Before he left, he sat down with the Nashville Scene and offered the following insight:

Let’s go back to that day when we were all a family of professional educators, and it wasn’t one person who had all the answers. Because that is not possible. If we can get that back, I think things are going to start clicking. Things are going to perk up. People are going to feel good about going to schools every day and working, and that’s going to translate to the kids, and when you translate it to the kids you translate it to the parents.

And let’s not run people out of the school system. Because there are a lot of people that are getting really frustrated—and I’m talking good people that are getting frustrated and are beginning to feel that they just can’t take it anymore. And that’s a terrible feeling.

Twelve years later and we are still listening to the same song. By now we should know the words by heart, but are we ever going to grasp their meaning? Are we ever going to put aside ideology and just do what’s best for kids? Or will people be reading our quotes in 15 years and wondering why we couldn’t see the forest for the trees?

DAD GONE WILD LAUNCHES FIRST EVER POLL

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img_2011I was sitting around this week reflecting on all the wonderful people that share info about Metro Nashville Schools with me and how blessed I am to have so many readers. It suddenly dawned on me, I should do a poll.

I think it is extremely important to always self evaluate and to evaluate the information you are receiving. It doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily change what I write, but I do want to give credit where it is due and if my opinions are in the minority I need to acknowledge that.

In that light, every Friday I’ll ask three questions and we’ll see what kind of responses I get. Please no dead people voting and if you can, only vote only once and share with as many people as possible.

TALKING ADVOCACY AND DYSLEXIA WITH ANNA THORSEN

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img_1808I first heard of Anna Thorsen a couple years ago. Some friends who had children at Eakin Elementary School  in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) were singing her praises as president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). After finishing up her tenure as PTO president, Thorsen transitioned into being an advocate for children with dyslexia, which is only natural because she is the mother of a child with dyslexia. As a former attorney, Thorsen conducts her advocacy work much as I imagine she did her law career: with lots of research. If you are going to engage her on issues, you better have done your homework.

We sat down to talk about her experience and research over biscuits last week at the newly opened Holler and Dash in Brentwood. What follows is a wide-ranging, free flowing, passionate conversation.

Dad Gone Wild: Good morning. Thanks for meeting me over biscuits.

Anna Thorsen: (smiling) I love biscuits.

DGW: Let’s start with your experiences with being president of the Eakin PTO. What made you decide to run? I know you have kids in school and you’re an advocate for public education, but what made you decide to take on this huge commitment?

AT: Honestly? (chuckles)

DGW: (laughs) Honestly. What made you say this is something that I want to do?

AT: I think it was a little bit daunting to consider. I think PTO leaders are the untagged heroes of the public education system because in essence you are undertaking a full time job. I had been the head of fundraising, which is also very hard job, because nobody wants to give you money – it’s really about like pulling teeth. But then you step back and you analyze. You realize just how important it is. And I think it becomes one of those practice what you preach moments.

There were so many things I wanted our school to do, and I saw so much possibility. The biggest thing I wanted to do was to share the good stories about everything that was happening in public education, and in particular, in our school. And I thought that this was a great way to be able to do that. In the end, it ended up being a great learning experience for me. I learned so much through being a PTO president. I learned about how the school really works, all the different stakeholders, and how complex it all is.

DGW: I experience that on a regular basis. Every time I think I have an understanding of how it all works, and I think I have a great grasp of it, something else is revealed. And I find myself saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Without really getting in there, we constantly make these judgments on things that we don’t fully understand, and in some cases, just don’t know.

AT: Very true. As PTO president, and as a PTO member in general, you have such a unique opportunity to support the school, support the principal, and support parents in the community. There is always going to be the jokes about bake sales and the carnivals – which I never had a carnival on my watch because it’s not my thing – but there is so much more to it, and it really is a powerful way to get all families involved.

Say you have a family who are intimidated because they’re not English speakers, so they are hesitant to participate in academic conferences. But if you’re having an international potluck, and they can bring their family recipes, that’s where they’re going to come in the door. And then they’ll begin to become part of the active school community. I think you just need people to come in. I think we want to do a better job of educating children, and we get so focused on that we lose sight of the importance of families feeling welcome in our schools. And I think we tried to really make Eakin a welcoming environment for all so they could be a part of the amazing things that were going on.

DGW: One of the things that impresses me with Eakin is their use of clubs, and the fact that they utilize clubs to get kids engaged. I’ve never understood that in some of our poorer and more challenged schools, we extend the school day, but we do it with more direct instruction instead of utilizing a stamp club, the kite club, a chess club, in order to improve literacy. Kids are going to read about what they’re interested in, and we should use those interests to make them better readers.

AT: I think making learning exciting is essential. I think there has to be some self-direction of what we learn because that’s how we learn as adults. We choose books we want to read, shows we want to watch, we seek out more knowledge on the things we are interested in. Why shouldn’t the same apply to children? But it goes back again to parent involvement. The reason Eakin has amazing clubs is because the parents said we need amazing clubs. We had one or two parents – especially one mom – who came in and she just dedicated her time to this. Why did she do it? To benefit all of our children, which is why we should do it. It’s why we take these positions. Like we don’t do it for just our kids or our ego; we do it for everyone’s kids, and that’s what public education is about.

Eakin has benefited from this parent’s amazing, passionate hard work, but her child graduates this year. Her kid is in 4th grade. She’s moving on hopefully to West End Middle School, where her older daughter is. There has to be a next generation of stepping up, which is why I really feel like for the benefit of all the public schools, we have to really start investing in parent engagement, family engagement, and teaching parents that you can make a difference. You may not want to be a PTO president, because that’s a full-time job and it’s really stressful, but if you love clubs, if you have a passion for whatever, get involved. There is going to be some way that a school can use your talent. We have to do better about valuing parent’s abilities.

DGW: I was at a community schools coalition meeting yesterday, and the talk of PTO came up. And as we often do, we talked about educating parents and getting parents involved to increase their awareness, but then we never turned the lens backwards and asked what do administrators know about PTO and the value of it? What do teachers know about it? To many people, a PTO is nothing, but as you mentioned, it’s a fundraiser, a way to help get things funded that the official budget doesn’t cover.

AT: Absolutely. I noticed that when we came in, during my first year in PTO, teachers were standoffish towards PTO. And I was really confused until I went back and looked at some of the PTO’s history. I think a PTO has to be careful. They have to be supportive of the teachers and the administrators. They can’t have their own agenda. I think the PTO at Eakin historically, looking back to 2006, had taken sort of a “we know better” kind of approach, which is not the place for a PTO. If you want to be an advocate against your school and be overly critical, you need to do it a different way. I feel that a PTO really needs to be supporting parents and teachers. You can get some pushback from teachers, but if you can keep communication open and demonstrate support, you can overcome that pushback.

DGW: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your work in regards to dyslexia. Your daughter was diagnosed when?

AT: My daughter was diagnosed in 2nd grade. At our Fall teacher conference, as the teacher told us how Clara was struggling and I knew instantly in that moment that she has dyslexia. I saw it because I, too, have dyslexia. I’ll never forget that first conversation with our school. I love our sweet school, but when I sat down and said “Well, I think my daughter has dyslexia, I would like her tested” the school said “Well, we don’t use that word. We don’t say dyslexia in Tennessee and we can’t test for it.” I was like, “Yes, you can say it because the federal government says it.” To say I was shocked by the schools’ response is an understatement. This is all a very long and complicated story, which I was actually interviewed about for an NPR Mindshift story, so you can ready the whole thing there, but what it boils down to is that our school and our district clearly wanted to do what was right for Clara, but they were not allowed to by the Tennessee Department of Education. Once I realized that all our issues were coming from the state, I ended up having to up to the federal government and have them intervene. After a stressful several months, Clara ended up getting an IEP for giftedness and a Specific Learning Disability, but they still would not allow us to use the word dyslexia anywhere in her IEP. Over and over our principal said “we can’t use that word.” It was not until October, 2015 when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” telling schools that they can and should use the word dyslexia that we were allowed to write the word “dyslexia” into Clara’s IEP. Amazing, right?

Since that time, I really feel that with the new Say Dyslexia law that our state passed effective July 1, 2016, schools are becoming more supportive. With the new law, the state has created this advisory council, and we’re starting to say dyslexia more in our state. Now, are we doing it perfectly? Absolutely not, but I think we’re finally on the right path to start getting our school to say dyslexia and therefore provide real service for our kids.

DGW: What was the reception from lawmakers when you first started working on the bill? Were they receptive? I know that when I started working on education issues a couple of years ago, nobody wanted to talk; nobody wanted to hear what we had to say. We could sit down in the offices and talk and then get a smile, a handshake, and a thank you. “Make sure that you call us again soon.” And we were forgotten as soon as we walked out the door.

AT: For me, it was a bit different because I wasn’t as involved in the day to day. There was a mom in Clarksville, Lori Smith, who was really involved in actually going out and advocating. By the time I came on to the scene, State Representative Joe Pitts and JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee were already very much on board. Once you’ve sit and listen to the facts, it’s very difficult to say, “We don’t need to do anything to help dyslexia” because it’s so compelling. The statistics are so overwhelming about the consequences of not dealing with dyslexia.

So while legislators were very open to taking action, it’s the districts and the schools that still have a lot of work to do. “DYSLEXIA is hard to understand.” and new teachers are not being educated on dyslexia when they’re getting their teaching degree. I think we have to figure out as a state and as a nation where we’re going to focus our priorities.

DGW: In our last conversation, one of the eye-opening moments for me is when we talked about English learners and how many of them go undiagnosed because the assumption is made that their problems extend from language acquisition.

AT: It’s a very real challenge.

DGW: After our talk, I spoke with Kevin Stacey in the ELL Department at MNPS, and he confirmed the challenge but also informed me that they are very on top of this. They have a number of strategies in place to catch kids quickly.

AT: Great! Here’s something else: So dyslexia is neurobiological. It’s just a regularly occurring brain difference, and 20% of us are affected. Those numbers come from studies done at MIT and Yale, so there is no question that this is a truism. We know that 20% of our kids – all kids, kids around the world – are going to struggle with reading and language. Dyslexia is manipulating language being able to read words, being able to spell words. And so, if you’re coming to the U.S. as a foreign language speaker, some languages are much more transparent than English. Spanish is a transparent language. So if you have dyslexia, Spanish is easier to spell and read, making dyslexia harder to identify. When you’re coming in to English, it’s much more of a dense, less transparent language. So you’re going to have a huge problem. So you have these kids who are EL learners and are struggling with language acquisition because they also have dyslexia. The rule says 20% of them, right?

DGW: And that becomes a challenge not just for the students, but the individual schools as well. We’re not painting an accurate picture of a school’s performance if so many kids are going undiagnosed. Even if it’s just 7 or 8 kids, I don’t think most people realize how much 7 or 8 kids can change the outcome of a standardized test, therefore leading to an inaccurate narrative about the school.

AT: Timed stressful situations are the worst-case scenario for people with dyslexia. So they’re typically not going to test well at all. If that’s how you’re measuring success, it’s really dangerous. It’s a dangerous thing to look at because we really need to look at the why, the deeper why.

DGW: And in your research you’ve discovered certain strategies that you feel really work?

AT: “Absolutely. I hear frequently that we need to get kids reading Kindergarten through 3rd grade and there are a lot of programs to get kids reading at home. We send kids home with books and tell parents to read with them each night. So, we are suggesting that struggling readers will improve if they read more at home, right? Well, that totally misses the mark and seems silly to me. Dyslexia, which is why 20% of kids struggle to read, is hereditary. Forty percent of people with dyslexia have a parent, child or sibling with dyslexia. So, if our strategy to improve literacy is to have parents read to their kids and we give them books, there are pretty good odds that the parent also is a struggle reader. Many parents couldn’t read the book to their child even if they wanted to! And one of the strategies I think that’s the most important is getting kids and families access to audio books. You can get them at the library. You can get them online. There are so many sources.”

Audio books let the kids explore books. They let them explore complex sentence structure. They let them explore rich vocabulary higher than they can read. You may have a 4th grader with dyslexia who really struggles to read The Cat In The Hat, but if you let them put on those ear phones they can explore Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and they get into all these amazing words. Studies show that your brain doesn’t care how you get the words and some of the structure into your brain. It’s not cheating to ear read, okay? And some of these kids have to rely on it.

If we’re really concerned about comprehension and literacy, then we have to make this resource more available to all of our students. Michelle Obama was trying to get more audio books into lower income neighborhoods, which would be huge. We can’t read the book together, but let’s listen to it because most of us have a phone or something that we can listen to books on.

DGW: What’s next legislative-wise? Do you have anything on the radar? Anything on the agenda?

AT: Well, the state Dyslexia council is up and running. All schools will be required to screen kids with the universal screener and add a dyslexia-specific component to it, and that will hopefully catch more students.

We are trying to identify kids in K-12. Once they’re identified as having characteristics of dyslexia, what the law says is that we’re going to give them appropriate interventions – because again, with these students, putting them in some other random intervention is never going to work. Science is absolutely clear on what these kids need. We know how to get these kids to read. The problem is that it’s intensive and it’s intentional and it’s systematic and it needs to be done one-on-one or two-on-one, which is really hard in a RTI setting.

But, Despite the challenges, this really does belong in those hours of RTI2 within general education. We can’t just keep only doing this in special education because we’re missing a huge percentage of the population and a huge opportunity to get our kids reading. So, I think that the first step is just to get the state and districts – all districts across Tennessee – to start doing the screener with all students.

DGW: That’s a lot of work, but I do think the Tennessee Department of Education is trending in that direction. Not just with dyslexia, but as a whole. I think I’m becoming guardedly optimistic about our state education policy. They seem to be at least trying to listen and improve right now. In the past, it didn’t always feel that way.

AT: Right. And I think they are trying. There’s a Decoding Dyslexia movement nationwide. Parents are starting to say, “Hey, why aren’t we doing this?” And I think there is such power in parents rising up and saying we need these services. Because if you’re a parent of a child with a disability, it’s like you are in a silo. You just feel so isolated, and that there’s no one else like you. But then when you start realizing that a lot of us are having kids who are struggling with reading, and if we can kind of have this collective voice, it makes all the difference in the world.

I’m sure you feel the same way about EL families. There’s are real challenges, not only a language challenge, but I’m sure cultural challenges as well. We have all these kids in our district facing challenges but we don’t have a collective voice because we’re all so isolated in our little silos of dyslexia, of autism, of physical disability, and even of English Learners. And so I really want to try to work to get those voices together, not just for kids with disabilities, but for all of our kids. Kids benefit from being around diverse populations, and disability is very diverse. So, I think we’re on the right track, but we need to keep getting better. And one thing I want to say about why we should care about dyslexia–

DGW: Okay.

AT: Do you know about why we should care about dyslexia as a society?

DGW: Why?

AT: There are many reasons. So, one of the reasons is 85% of juvenile offenders have dyslexia. There is a study in Texas: 80% of the Texas inmates were functioning and literate, and 48% of them have dyslexia that was not identified at schools. So we have 48% of our prisoners who have dyslexia. A lot of them probably went to prison because of trouble resulting out of their inability to read. That’s a huge issue. So, if we help with dyslexia we’re going to help with our prison population. We spend about $32,000 on inmates every year, where how much do we spend on education in Tennessee?

DGW: About $9,000 a kid or something.

AT: Exactly, about $9,000 a kid. Now, also to do direct instruction – We talk about how direct instruction for kids with dyslexia can be expensive, right? It will cost about $8,000 per kid to do one-on-one direct instruction. I got this number from one of the Decoding Dyslexia Maryland branches because they researched it. And so if you take our $9,000 we already spend in Tennessee, plus $8,000, that’s about half of what it costs to put someone in prison. I feel like we need to start realizing that.

The other thing is this: there’s a study on teen suicide. They found that 89% of suicide notes were left by teens that showed signs of having dyslexia. Another study said that teens with learning disabilities like dyslexia are three times more likely to commit suicide. Additionally, the statistics on teen pregnancy, on welfare, are influenced by whether or not you have a learning disability. Only 67% of students with a learning disability graduate from high school. So that’s a huge issue. As a society, if we really care about the school-to-prison pipeline, addressing social problems is important. Just think how much progress we could make by teaching people to read.

I get so frustrated as an advocate for people with dyslexia. We will do anything to fix literacy except the one thing that 70 years of research shows works, which is structured literacy. So I really hope that we start as a district and as a state investing in teaching teachers and figuring out how to accommodate these kids. Not only do we want them to be alive and out of prison, but they have so much to offer. For example, 50% of the people at NASA have dyslexia  and if you look at the list of famous people with dyslexia – Richard Branson, Jennifer Aniston, Lewis Carroll, Cher, Anderson Cooper, Charles Schwab, and the list goes on – it’s amazing.

We have these kids sitting in their room, who may or may not be our future business leaders, our future biologists, unsure they can read and write, so we treat them like they’re stupid. We teach them like they’re second-class citizens. We treat them like they’re never going to amount to anything. And the fact is they’re probably the brightest kid in the room, but they just can’t read or write or spell. So, we have to get better at seeing all kids.

DGW: Well thank you very much Anna. I appreciate you taking time. And these bisquits are great.

AT: I really appreciate it. And the bisquits were good. Thanks for picking this place.

 

Talking with Anna will certainly give you a lot to think about. I certainly learned a lot from her and very grateful that she took the time to sit down with me. If you’d like more information about how to get your child tested for dyslexia, please contact your child’s teacher or school psychologist. For outside testing in Nashville, contact Learning Matters, which is a non-profit who works frequently with Metro Nashville Public Schools and provides independent testing on a sliding scale.

For more information about dyslexia, here are some of Anna’s favorite resources:

1. Understanding Dyslexia: A Guide for Tennessee Parents and Educators. Tennessee Department of Education, January 2016.
2. Tennessee Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council Page. https://www.tn.gov/education/article/dyslexia-advisory-council
3. United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services “Dear Colleague” letter dated October 23, 2105.
4. TED Ed video “What is Dyslexia” by Kelli Sandman-Hurley on YouTube. (4 minutes.)
5. The HBO Documentary “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” on You Tube.
6. The book “The Streets Lied to Me” by Actor, Advocate and Activist Ameer Baraka about how the pain and shame of dyslexia led him to prison. Also see his website for news clips about his powerful story: http://www.kingbaraka.com.
7. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity website at dyslexia.yale.edu especially the “Dyslexia Bill of Rights” and “How Parents Can Build a Word-Rich Life for Dyslexics” by Kyle Redford.
8. The MTSU Dyslexia Center website at http://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/. Especially the flyers featured on the “Publications” page.
9. The six part series by NPR called “Unlocking Dyslexia” by NPR from November 2016.
10. The six part series by MindShift by Holly Korbey. Especially the final installment entitled “The Dialogue Surrounding Dyslexia: Five Important Take aways” dated February 26, 2016.
11. Time Magazine’s “Dyslexia is More than a Reading Disorder” by Alice Park dated December 21, 2016 about the newest research by MIT published in the journal Neuron.
12. Washington Post’s “Is listening to a book ‘cheating’?” by Valerie Strauss July 31, 2016.
13. Decoding Dyslexia -Tennessee branch. https://www.facebook.com/decodingdyslexiatn/
14. Twitter resources: @ddtn13, @understood, @dyslexiaMTSU, @LearnNashvlle, @DyslexiaToday.
PRESENTATION INFORMATION:

If you are interested in a presentation for your organization, please contact Anna Thorsen at athorsen16@yahoo.com or via Twitter @athorsen16. Presentations can be tailored from 20 minutes to 2 hours and can cover one or more of the following topics:
1. What is Dyslexia? A look at what dyslexia, what it looks like and why its hard.
2. Dyslexia and Classroom Hacks: how to create a dyslexia-friendly classroom.
3. Dyslexia and Assistive Technology: what dyslexia is and how technology can help.
4. Advocacy and IEPs: tips for parents navigating the special education process.
5. Dyslexia and Literacy: why should we care?