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.

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2 responses to “Getting everyone to the table?”

  1. Erica M says :

    I’m surprised you didn’t receive an invitation, since I saw several of your fellow AmeriCorps members there. The event was packed. They changed the room because so many more people RSVP’d than anticipated. As you reported, both the superintendent, the president of the University of Rochester and the Dean of the Warner School and the mayor gave presentations. The superintendent has a background as a school guidance counselor; the president of the University of Rochester regularly teaches college courses, has experiences at many other Higher Ed institutions and is engaged with the Rochester community in other ways; the Dean of the Warner School has a background as a mathematics educator and currently teaches graduate level courses. Now Lovely Warren has never, to my knowledge, been a classroom teacher, but she did actually go to Wilson High School and is, of course, the mayor. On the panel we were also able to hear from the C.O.O of Uncommon Schools, a principal of another charter school, the central office administrator that you named, as well as a principal of an RCSD elementary school (and a few others). The principal we heard from was a graduate of RCSD and has a background as an elementary school teacher. The administrator you named also has a background in teaching and as a principal. So while they’re not teachers currently, they do have massive amounts of combined expertise. While we might not agree with all of their actions or opinions, we should not discount their experiences, intelligence, or commitment to our community, especially considering how much time we ourselves have spent in urban school systems.

    No symposium will include everyone. There are consequences to holding an event outside of the normal workday, just as there are consequences of holding it during school hours. No one with any knowledge of public education would discount the importance of the opinions and expertise of current classroom teachers, and maybe a teacher’s union rep would have been a good addition to the panel. This event was focused on explaining overarching challenges in education in Rochester and describing potential and current solutions. From what I could tell, invitations were targeted towards affiliates of the University of Rochester and community/business leaders. As Rochester’s largest employer and an institution of higher education that strives to be socially responsible, the University does and should have a stake in this conversation. A follow-up event is planned for next winter, to focus on scaling working models, allocating assets, and measuring success.

    I’d be happy to share my (extensive) notes if you’re interested in what was said at the event. I think there is a valid critique to be had, but it would be one that acknowledges both the intended audience/goals and the actual subject matter discussed.

    Thanks for your post!

    • wahlchelsea says :

      Hey Erica,

      Thanks so much for your response. It adds a lot of necessary context to my necessarily-limited post — as you suggest, I wasn’t there. I don’t doubt that the expertise in the room was anything to scoff at, and I should probably have tried to direct my criticism toward “symposiums,” as such, in general. It is my opinion that these events tend to be bureaucratic, and concentrate important insight and resources at the top levels of education stakeholders (based not on the recent Warner School event, but on other summits/conferences. You’ll have to forgive me for feeling like they are all the same).

      My goal was not to complain that I wasn’t invited, nor that the subject matter was poor (something I have no credibility to comment on), but to point out the disconnect between an event titled “Revitalizing K-12 Education in Rochester” and an event that was impossible for most Rochester K-12 educators to attend. The healthy classroom background of all those administrators, board members, and city officials doesn’t do much good if it isn’t being compared and collaborated with the experience of current teachers. If we’re going to ask teachers to carry out administrative policy, I think we should get their opinion, too.

      Thank you for reading.

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