First Person

Voices: A call for transparency in Dougco

Susan Meek, a Douglas County parent and former district spokeswoman, says Dougco board members are spending too much time behind closed doors and failing to listen to their community.

A key component for building trust and cohesiveness in a school district revolves around transparency and accountability. The Douglas County school board has violated that trust with its public.

As demonstrated on this chart, a growing dependence on private executive sessions during what should be public meetings has been a troubling trend. Previous Douglas County school boards spent on average 8 percent of their meeting time in executive sessions. The current school board now spends more than half its time behind closed doors.

A Castle Rock police officer and Dougco security talk to Brian Malone, right, a Dougco parent and journalist who was taping the Dougco school board’s Aug. 7 meeting. Castle Rock police escorted Malone out of the building moments later because he was outside a taped-off area for media. <a href="http://vimeo.com/m/47341999" target="_blank">See video</a> of the encounter.

When questioned, the response is that the current legal issues around vouchers and the teachers union requires this extra time. However, the current school board spends 30 minutes less per public meeting on average than the previous school board.

What happens to the regular school business that loses out because the Douglas County school board is prioritizing the voucher lawsuit and busting the union over discussing pertinent educational issues? Such issues include the reasons behind the district’s state accreditation dropping from Accredited with Distinction to Accredited, bullying prevention, special education services, 21st century skills to prepare all students for life, and the list goes on.

Any business owner understands that resources are limited and their allocation is critical to either having a successful or failed business. If the school board believes deeply in the need to allocate their resources toward issues that result in two-hour executive sessions each and every school board meeting, those public meetings should then last an extra two hours beyond the time needed to still achieve the important and significant work required of running a successful school district.

Recently, the legality and validity of what transpires during those closed-door meetings has been called into question. On July 26, the board held a special meeting to discuss education reform efforts under consideration for the November election. The board erroneously cited its reason for executive session as “legal advice regarding statutory notice requirements for coordinating elections.”

This policy discussion would not provide a valid reason for an executive session as delineated by Colorado law. Nearly the entire meeting was held behind closed doors and no public discussions between board members took place during the 72 minutes of that meeting (about four minutes of the meeting was open to the public and consisted of votes without any discussion).

After repeated requests have gone unanswered, a public petition is now underway requesting the board to change its practices to improve transparency and to schedule a special meeting to discuss the education reform efforts they are currently deliberating. Yet the secrecy continues, free speech is being limited and First Amendment rights are being stripped away.

The following actions of the school board demonstrate unacceptable behavior by these government officials:

  • Public comment at board meetings has been changed to make the public’s participation much more difficult for the average citizen. It is scheduled at the beginning of the meeting when most working adults are commuting home, is limited to 30 minutes regardless of the number of citizens who sign up to talk and is scheduled to proceed a two-hour executive session where the individuals would need to wait around to attend the public portion of the meeting to begin.
  • The community engagement meeting that was previously scheduled for Aug. 21 was canceled with no public discussion as to why.
  • Emails and Colorado Open Records Act requests go unanswered or delayed beyond the legal requirements.
  • A parent was removed from the Aug. 7 meeting due to disorderly conduct simply because he chose to videotape outside of the designated area (a new verbal policy of the district enacted that night). You can see video of the removal here.
  • Employees are working under a draft handbook.
  • Employees are asked to accept positions without knowing what their pay will be.
  • Employees are prohibited from sending mass emails regardless of the topic without prior approval.

It is a common practice for school boards to engage with their public in a positive, respectful and healthy dialogue. By honoring the diverse expertise and abilities of the community members, the board of education can craft plans that are far superior to ones developed without public input. By working to limit the voices of the students, parents, employees and citizens, the board is acting in a manner that is detrimental to all.

As a Douglas County taxpayer with children in district schools, I encourage the board of education to look for ways to connect with the community and to be transparent with its actions. Instead of canceling public engagement meetings, it should schedule extra meetings to speak to the public about its ideas and plans for moving the district forward. The public is eager to listen and ready to engage.

The requests made to the board, the public petition and a video of the July 26 special meeting are posted at www.StrongSchoolsCoalition.com. The public should not be taken out of public school board meetings. We have a right to know what our democratically-elected government officials are planning for our children.


First Person

Why the phrase ‘with fidelity’ is an affront to good teaching

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

“With fidelity” are some of the most damaging words in education.

Districts spend a ton of money paying people to pick out massively expensive, packaged curriculums, as if every one of a thousand classrooms needs the exact same things. Then officials say, over and over again, that they must be implemented “with fidelity.” What they mean is that teachers better not do anything that would serve their students’ specific needs.

When that curriculum does nothing to increase student achievement, it is not blamed. The district person who found it and purchased it is never blamed. Nope. They say, “Well, the teachers must not have been implementing it with fidelity.”

It keeps happening because admitting that schools are messy and students are human and teaching is both creative and artistic would also mean you have to trust teachers and let them have some power. Also, there are some really crappy teachers out there, and programs for everyone are often meant to push that worst-case-scenario line a little higher.

And if everyone’s doing just what they’re supposed to, we’ll get such good, clean numbers, and isn’t that worth a few thousand more dollars?

I was talking with a friend recently, a teacher at an urban school on the East Coast. He had been called to task by his principal for splitting his kids into groups to offer differentiated math instruction based on students’ needs. “But,” the principal said, “did the pacing guide say to differentiate? You need to trust the system.”

I understand the desire to find out if a curriculum “works.” But I don’t trust anyone who can say “trust the system” without vomiting. Not when the system is so much worse than anything teachers would put together.

Last year, my old district implemented Reading Plus, an online reading program that forces students to read at a pace determined by their scores. The trainers promised, literally promised us, that there wasn’t a single reading selection anywhere in the program that could be considered offensive to anyone. God knows I never learned anything from a book that made me feel uncomfortable!

Oh, and students were supposed to use this program — forced-paced reading of benign material followed by multiple-choice questions and more forced-pace reading — for 90 minutes a week. We heard a lot about fidelity when the program did almost nothing for students (and, I believe quite strongly, did far worse than encouraging independent reading of high-interest books for 90 minutes a week would have done).

At the end of that year, I was handed copies of next year’s great adventure in fidelity. I’m not in that district any longer, but the whole district was all switching over to SpringBoard, another curriculum, in language arts classes. On came the emails about implementing with fidelity and getting everyone on the same page. We were promised flexibility, you know, so long as we also stuck to the pacing guide of the workbook.

I gave it a look, I did, because only idiots turn down potential tools. But man, it seemed custom-built to keep thinking — especially any creative, critical thought from either students or teachers — to a bare minimum.

I just got an email from two students from last year. They said hi, told me they missed creative writing class, and said they hated SpringBoard, the “evil twin of Reading Plus.”

That district ran out of money and had to cut teachers (including me) at the end of the year. But if they hadn’t, I don’t think I would have lasted long if forced to teach from a pacing guide. I’m a good teacher. Good teachers love to be challenged and supported. They take feedback well, but man do we hate mandates for stuff we know isn’t best for the kids in our room.

Because, from inside a classroom full of dynamic, chaotic brilliance;

from a classroom where that kid just shared that thing that broke all of our hearts;

from a classroom where that other kid figured out that idea they’ve been working on for weeks;

from that classroom where that other kid, who doesn’t know enough of the language, hides how hard he works to keep up and still misses things;

and from that classroom where one kid isn’t sure if they trust you yet, and that other kid trusts you too much, too easily, because their bar had been set too low after years of teachers that didn’t care enough;

from inside that classroom, it’s impossible to trust that anyone else has a better idea than I do about what my students need to do for our next 50 minutes.

Tom Rademacher is a teacher living in Minneapolis who was named Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. His book, “It Won’t Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching,” was published in April. He can be found on Twitter @mrtomrad and writes on misterrad.tumblr.com, where this post first appeared.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.