Archive | February 2014

Getting everyone to the table?

Well, hello! Allow me to explain (again): I am not a great blogger. I write one post, pat myself on the back, and move on to other projects (I’m finally getting around to The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander — less a few style choices, it is a staggering read). I don’t see this behavior improving, especially now that graduate admissions season is well underway. I’m overjoyed to report that I have offers of admission from a few sociology PhD programs, including the University of Pennsylvania, which was my top choice. I am proud of the work I’ve done to arrive at this point, and feeling grateful to have been supported in this endeavor by my loving family, my steadfast friends, and an unusually devoted group of undergraduate professors. All that said, I hope you will continue to endure my tortoise-like blogging pace.

High Falls,  warming up at a balmy 30 degrees!

High Falls, warming up at a balmy 30 degrees!

Last week, I met with Laura Delehanty to discuss a financial aid literacy workshop that I’m putting together for the city schools. While we were chatting, she told me that the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester had just held a presidential symposium entitled, “Revitalizing K-12 Education in Rochester.” I wasn’t there, since our organization wasn’t invited, but I have thoughts. Or, rather, I have Thoughts.

Based on the press release, the symposium was well-attended. The plenary speaker for the event was our newly-elected mayor, Lovely A. Warren, and opening remarks were given by the president of the University and the dean of the Warner School. The RCSD superintendent, Bolgen Vargas, gave a presentation. Featured speakers included the principal of a local charter school, the chief operating officer of Uncommon Schools, the inspiring Caterina Leone-Mannino, director of extended learning and intervention at RCSD, and the president of Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection. Notably absent from the presidential symposium on K-12 education in Rochester? Teachers.

The closed nature of supposedly-collaborative events is a frustrating obstacle to progress in Rochester. At any given symposium, summit, or panel discussion, the same organizations and the same agendas are present. Very rarely are teachers or school administrators involved; the only representation from the district comes from the Kafkaesque Central Office, a massive support staff whose roles range from data analysis to extended-day coordination. The result, to which I’ve alluded in earlier posts, is a repetitive and unproductive conversation about education among people who spend little time in schools.

I would venture to guess that, if the floor was opened up to exemplary teachers, and perhaps students, we may get a clearer picture of what is needed on the ground. It is one thing to know and understand the absymal graduation rate, and quite another to learn that, at some RCSD schools, students may spend weeks in “in-school suspension,” thanks to punitive zero-tolerance policies. That type of information is hugely important in making practical policy changes, and we can only learn it by listening to teachers, substitutes, and support staff who work with students on a day-to-day basis.

So, let’s say RCSD teachers had been invited to the Warner School symposium (for the record, Laura was invited, but only as an alumna of the school); would they have attended? Considering that the event was scheduled at 8 AM on a Tuesday, it seems unlikely. While it is very easy for a program assistant at a nonprofit CBO (like me) to take off the morning for an event, teachers cannot leave school because — stay with me — they have to teach. Simply put, teachers are too busy doing their jobs to take part in the circular, self-aggrandizing calls to action that characterize events like the Warner School’s.

I think this problem is endemic to education systems. Fundamentally, due to the different requirements of their “day jobs,” teachers and the organizations that work to support schools have a hard time coordinating. My organization oversees the Rochester College Access Network, and it was a considerable effort to arrange it so that high school counselors could attend the group’s meetings, to say nothing of trying to get a free hour out of a teacher. Further, these conversations so often take place on the timetable and turf of institutions like the University of Rochester. The only people who can attend those events are those that are already embedded in that style of life, limiting cross-occupational discussion and further stratifying opinions on how to move our schools forward. It may be possible to have genuine community-wide participation in education reform, but someone is going to have to oversee a really massive Doodle poll, and I’m not about to volunteer for that job.