Supporting Schools is a Necessity Not a Desire

Thanksgiving came early in Burbank and Glendale courtesy of the majority of voters who said “yes” to increasing the sales tax from 9.5% to 10.25%, the maximum amount allowable in California.

In last week’s mid-term election, 60.71% of Burbank voters passed Measure P; 53.45% of Glendale voters passed Measure S.   Both initiatives concern spending on infrastructure and city services.

However, the most curious election result was Burbank Unified School District’s Measure QS which did not pass despite garnering more votes than Measure P, 61.68%.  So why did the measure with the most votes fail?

Because Measures S and P were sales tax increases needing a simple majority to pass whereas Measure QS was a parcel tax requiring two-thirds majority to go into effect.  The average annual property tax increase for homeowners would have been $170, or $14 a month or less than 50 cents a day.

It failed by 1,928 votes.  And so has the city in supporting its schools and students.

Pasadena solved the dilemma of raising revenue for schools by foregoing the parcel tax route, asking voters to support a similar sales tax boost but with a supporting advisory vote that one-third of the money go to schools.   The result?  Measure I, the sales tax increase, passed (67.685), and Measure J, the advisory vote, passed even higher (70.43%).

Mayor Terry Tornek told Pasadena Star-News reporter Chris Lindahl that he interprets the advisory vote “as a mandate by voters and would spearhead the transfer.”

Evidently Pasadena’s city council and school board believe in working together unlike those bodies in Burbank.

While the city of Burbank likes to boast about the quality of its schools, it isn’t willing to back them up when it counts.

Burbank Leader reporter Andrew J. Campa reported that in L.A. County, BUSD ranks “46th, or dead last, in spending, the smallest total gross dollars for raises for credentialed teachers over the past three years.”

How much longer will Burbank teachers leave the district for literally greener pastures?

Take a look at the starting salaries of Burbank Unified compared to Long Beach Unified.

In Long Beach, a new teacher can automatically earn 16% more than a teacher in Burbank doing the same job:  $58,271 compared to $50,647.  No wonder some teachers have departed.

News flash:  if excellent teachers leave Burbank, then the quality of its schools leaves as well.

Since the “yes” votes for both Measures P and QS were close in number, one could assume the same group of people who desire improved city services also desire improved city schools.

Why not ask the nearly 62% of Burbank citizens who voted for QS to donate $170 to BUSD?   It would serve as a tax deduction as well.

I shared this idea with Amy Kamm, Burbank Educational Foundation (BEF) Vice President of Communications, and that’s exactly the social media campaign already under way.  The public would be ensured that their donation would “impact as many programs as possible which will reach as many students as possible.”

If all 16,354 citizens who voted for QS donated $170, that would generate $2.78 million.  While not the $9 million they were counting on, a significant amount nonetheless.

Earlier this year a handful of potholes in Burbank were repaired by Domino’s Pizza via its “Paving for Pizza” national campaign.   Where is the corporation who can shore up the financial potholes in BUSD’s budget?   Nickelodeon, Warner Brothers, Disney—any takers?

 

And Now it’s Time for Teachers to Rise

As of this publishing, the Oklahoma teachers are in their fifth day of a statewide strike.  The starting salary for a teacher there is $31,600, third lowest in the country.

The teachers began their walkout after rejecting a 6 percent pay raise over three years, and $50 million in education funding. Why?  Because the last time teachers in the state received any raise was in 2008.  Several school districts in the state are only open four days a week because they don’t have the money to literally keep the lights on.  Their demands:  a $10,000 raise over three years and $200 million in funding.

It’s not just about more money in teachers’ pockets, but more textbooks in students’ hands.

Last month teachers from West Virginia went on strike for nine days to earn a 5 percent pay raise.  Last week there was a sickout in Kentucky to protest cuts in their pensions.  Now Arizona teachers are pondering action as well.

Whether inspired by the #MeToo movement or the student-led March for Our Lives, teachers now feel emboldened to speak out on the national stage about their working conditions, charging en masse to state capitals.

While I have reservations about teachers going out on strike, such action is rattling the status quo.

Upon hearing what the teachers want, Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin told a reporter that teachers wanting more money was “kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”   Such a condescending comment underscores how teachers are perceived by some.

Taxpayers who have no sympathy for higher salaries base it primarily on the amount of time teachers are at a school.

While hours from 7:45 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. may not seem overwhelming, the teacher is working nearly every minute of that timeframe, hosting club meetings at lunch, tutoring students after school.

Yes, teachers have many holidays and summers off.  It is the off the job hours, however, that justifies a higher teacher’s salary.

When do teachers develop lesson plans, create assignments, and grade work?  They do it at home, at their children’s practices, in doctors’ waiting rooms, stealing away minutes whenever they can.

Then there is the mental toll on teachers, always thinking about the next lesson, even while celebrating Thanksgiving, or lugging a bag of student papers while vacationing over Spring Break.  Rarely is a teacher’s mind not thinking about how to spark students’ curiosity.

Some teachers are paid decently, no question.  California teachers do enjoy the second highest average salary in the nation at $78,711, but the state has the second highest cost of living as well. The majority of teachers who work in Glendale can’t afford to live in Glendale.

The rent for a one bedroom apartment goes for $2,284 based on Rent Jungle averages; the median home is priced at $816,500 according to Zillow.

National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia told the New York Times that recent teacher uprisings is an “education spring.”

Time will tell if these events are the beginnings of a sustained movement or just a passing phase.   Still, it is refreshing to see educators get out of their soft shells and show how much they care about their work with America’s youth, and how much Americans should care about it as well.

 

 

 

High School Classes are not College Prep

Over the years that I have been an English teacher, there has been a steady decline in students’ writing skills.

Every time I assign a major piece of writing, one that is multiple pages in length, I brace myself for the avalanche of papers about to be turned in.   It’s not the sheer volume of 100 plus essays submitted in one day that blows me back; it’s the poor quality that is troubling.

It can be quite disheartening to read student writing from advanced students and realize that these young people, the best in their class, struggle to organize their thoughts, unable to form a clear argument.

Reasons for this decline does not require a Brookings Institute study.  Kids are reading less and teachers are assigning less writing.

In the most recent round of essays I graded, one-third of the papers did not mention the literature being written about in the introduction, and when they did, these 15-year-olds did not properly punctuate the book title.

Like turning a car engine on and off, their papers began, ended and began again in just two paragraphs, each paragraph reading as a new beginning, lacking transitions or threads to the thesis.

They often bounced back and forth between present and past tense, singular and plural pronoun forms in the same sentence.

And some students decided to analyze the film version, not the book itself, perhaps because they did not read it.

I teach my students that the best mistake prevention tool when writing is to read their paper out loud; few did it as evidenced by the scores of typos not caught by a spellchecker.  What else explains not capitalizing names of characters or misspelling the names altogether.

I asked my students how many of their teachers (other than me) require them to write an expository essay:  53 percent said one, 14 percent said none.

Of course, students don’t have to write full-fledged essays to practice writing.   Students can show their thinking by writing multiple sentence answers to test questions.  So, I queried my students on this.

While 40 percent replied that they have two or more teachers who administer these type of tests, 32 percent have just one teacher who does so, while 28 percent have none.   That means, for the majority of the time, students are taking multiple choice tests which require no writing beyond a fill in the blank.

Remember, these students are taking other advanced placement classes, the most rigorous courses the school has to offer.   Think about how little writing must be happening in the regular classes.

The teachers at the secondary level, especially those who don’t teach English, need to have students read critically and write analytically as often as they can.   With so little writing being practiced, students enter college with a huge handicap.

My freshman son volunteered that only a couple of his high school classes prepared him for the level of writing and the amount of reading required in college; this coming from someone who took several Advanced Placement classes.  Even though all the courses were labeled “college prep,” few deserved that distinction.

If one of the missions of high school is to prepare students for university-level work, we are doing a miserable job.

Could this partially explain why only 21 percent of Cal State University freshmen finish college in four years?

Finding a student paper that isn’t riddled with errors is as rare as finding a parking space at the Glendale Galleria on Black Friday.   And when there is a crisply written paper with an eye-catching opening, a strong argument, and quotes which support astute observations, a teacher wants to shout “hallelujah,” with hope in America’s youth restored.

Until the next paper on the pile.

 

Life Lessons: How to say “goodbye” to students

At the end of the school year, I often struggle finding an appropriate way to sum up all the work with the students.

Thanks to my son’s seventh grade English teacher at Muir Middle School in Burbank, Lynn Rothacher, the proverbial light bulb went off above my head.

At the end of the course, Ms. Rothacher passed out a handout entitled “life lessons from the literature we’ve read this year,” a brilliant idea that crystalizes all the important literary works students studied on a single page.

The lesson to “open your heart (and your pocketbook) to others” derives from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

This inspired me to create a similar document as a way to say “goodbye” to my tenth grade students.  In addition to listing the life lessons and the works, I added a quote from each piece of literature that supported the lesson.

First, I modeled an example. For Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, one lesson is to be tolerant of those different from you:  “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

Next, I had my students come up with their own lessons and quotes for the other works including Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Lincoln’s “The Gettysburg Address.”

After they shared and presented these, I had them write reflections.  What they had to say made the previous 179 days of school with its ups and downs all worthwhile.

“This is my favorite thing we’ve done the whole school year.  I feel like at school, the place we’re supposed to be preparing for the real world, we’re never really taught life lessons.”

“I love these quotes so much I plan on keeping them with me because I feel that they can be seen at any point in life and give hope, or inspire you to do certain things. Reading them really made me reflect on life.”

“With these lessons and morals in mind, we can make ourselves better people and influence others to become better also.”

“This creates more of a long-lasting positive impact than anything else we could have done.  This activity reminds us of all that can be taken from literature.”

“School is not great on covering how to apply our knowledge in the real world.  This class had a purpose.  Now I know the importance of literature and I am more aware of life.”

“This is something that will stick with us throughout the rest of our lives.  We probably won’t remember the technical aspects of literature as well as the life lessons they provide.”

“I have gained an immense understanding of human nature as a result of these pieces of literature and I know for a fact that I will never forget any of the life lessons.  I feel like I know how to be a better person and hope others do as well.”

“This shows us why we spent countless hours reading and understanding these books.  It puts all our work into perspective and makes it worthwhile.  In this class I’ve learned the most about myself and what kind of person I am.”

“Talking about this definitely has an emotional element to it.  You don’t realize in the midst of reading, annotating, analyzing, and taking tests on these works that they’ve actually been specially chosen to teach you things that aren’t required by the school.”

“I loved doing this.  It made me explode with happiness and excitement.  No one really notices the meaning of why we read the books we read and why our teachers assign these books.  This lesson really opened my eyes.”

Even after nearly 30 years in the classroom, I am still learning new ideas.   Thank you, Ms. Rothacher.

 

 

DeVos: The Anti-Education Secretary

There I was, using 20 minutes out of my 56-minute period on Jan. 20 showing my mostly non-native English speaking students democracy in action, the inauguration of a new president, when I felt slapped in the face from Donald Trump who said, “An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

As he seems to do with so many issues, Trump took the low road with a clichéd type of sentence that connects extremes—lots of money with nothing to show for it—that reflects his deprivation of knowledge about education.

It’s one thing when the public makes comments about schools without researching the facts.  It is quite another when the man holding the highest office in the nation makes such a remark, then appoints a person to head the department of education who may actually know a little less than he does about schools.

Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has never attended a public school, never taught school, and it is doubtful that her children attended one either.

DeVos is a billionaire, Forbes estimating her family’s wealth at $5 billion.  And she and her husband, son of Amway’s co-founder, aren’t interested in making schools better, but in promoting school vouchers which takes money away from public schools and gives it to parents to spend on charter, private or religious schools.

In other words, taxpayer dollars end up funding private companies and religious organizations.   That runs counter to the separation of church and state edict of this country.

Yet Trump is entrusting her with the highest position in education to do what’s best for America’s public schools.   Does that make sense?

At her confirmation hearing, she exhibited, to borrow Trump’s language, a “deprivation of knowledge” about the federal law that funds special education which has been on the books for nearly three decades.   She also could not explain the difference between the terms “proficiency” and “growth assessment,” a distinction even an average-skilled teacher can clarify.

DeVos also argued against gun-free school zones saying that some schools like those near Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming should be able to arm themselves especially “to protect from potential grizzlies.”   Thus far, there have never been reports of grizzly bears attacking school children.  Besides, most experts agree that bear repellent is more effective than firearms.

I have long felt it inherently wrong for people who lack teaching experience to hold powerful positions in education, telling teachers how to teach.  Unfortunately, DeVos has company.

Since the Department of Education was created in 1979, there have been 10 secretaries.

Only Terrel Bell, Rod Paige and John King, Jr. were public school teachers before serving their post.  That means 70 percent of the U.S. Secretaries of Education had no first-hand experience of public schools, the institution for which they were setting policy and implementing mandates.

Since Trump thrives on having the biggest, the best, the largest, he has succeeded with DeVos in appointing the most unqualified individual as education secretary.

In fact, she is the anti-education secretary.

As Stephen Henderson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “She’s not an expert in pedagogy or curriculum or school governance.”

Until her nomination, she was chairman of the American Federation for Children, a pro-school choice advocacy group whose website refers to DeVos as a “national education reform pioneer.”

In a speech given at the South by Southwest education conference in 2015, DeVos listed “government really sucks” as an “inconvenient truth” about public education.  Nice language coming from the soon-to-be top “educator” in the land.

Some senators requested a second hearing on DeVos, but the request was turned down.

Her confirmation is expected to happen this Tuesday.  If only that were fake news.

 

 

Remembering an Educator

Don Duncan who passed away on Dec. 15 at age 82 is someone whose work in Glendale schools should be remembered.

Mr. Duncan (I can’t let go of the formal title) graduated from Hoover High School in 1952, then taught in Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) in 1957.  He became principal of his alma mater in 1974 and remained in that position until he left in Feb. 1995 to recruit students for California’s first full-time evening high school in order to ease overcrowding in Glendale schools.

By May when it became clear that was not materializing, Mr. Duncan expressed regret in a News Press interview that “if I had any feeling that it was not going to work, then I would have preferred to stay at Hoover.”

His tenure in Glendale ended without much fanfare even though he and his brother Charles combined for nearly 80 years of service to Glendale’s schools, and their father owned Duncan’s Variety Store in Kenneth Village.

I interviewed with Mr. Duncan for a teaching job when I earned my credential.   While there weren’t any openings, he kept me in mind, and when the 1989-1990 school year began (in Sept., by the way), and a position opened up, Duncan called me and asked if I was still interested.

The problem was that I had just started my first teaching job for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles.

It was two weeks into the school year and Don’s brother, who was in charge of Human Resources for GUSD, was able to get me out of my LAUSD contract, and in Sept., 1989, I made my debut at Hoover.

Mr. Duncan came across as paternal, always in the main office in the morning greeting teachers as they arrived, his height and gray hair adding to an “in-charge” presence without an air of intimidation.  He was even-tempered, “cool as a cucumber” according to granddaughter Nicole, never tipping off if things were going well or not.

Often not going lockstep with the district, he used to joke that we were the Hoover Unified School District.   One example of this was back in 1987 when the school newspaper wanted to publish an ad for condoms right before the prom.   And Mr. Duncan supported the publication of it.  Unfortunately, district officials heard about this and put a stop to the ad before it was published.

In my 24 years of doing the school newspaper, I have had my share of run-ins with principals about stories.  I only had one with Mr. Duncan and he supported my decision.  In fact, he loved the school newspaper.  He often would come to the journalism class and tell the students “nice job” which meant so much to the kids.

Mr. Duncan gave all teachers a generous present of a one-hour coupon for him to cover a class period anytime someone wanted to run an errand or take a walk.

He enjoyed dressing up as Santa Claus on the last school day before Christmas vacation, and would host staff Christmas parties at his house.  He also enjoyed speaking on the P.A. about historical days on the calendars so that students understood why school was closed.

City Halls memorialize councilmembers.  Schools should have a way to honor teachers, administrators, clerks, and custodians who dedicate their careers to education.

Here is a man who devoted his adult life to Hoover, the longest tenured principal in the school’s history (almost 21 years), yet his name is nowhere to be found on campus.

Before another street is named for real estate developer Rick Caruso, consideration should be given to the Duncan family in ensuring their legacy does not disappear from Glendale’s history.

School Calendar Deja Vu

This year school began on Aug. 8.

Back in August of 2015, thousands of parents signed an online petition pleading with the Glendale Unified School District to begin the school year later.  For many, the early creep of the first day of school infringed on summer plans and enrichment programs.   Besides, it wasn’t that many moons ago when school began after Labor Day in September.

After months of meetings at school sites and the formation of a calendar committee comprised of teachers and parents, the new school year will start on Aug. 16 – a mere six weekdays later than the current start of school.

The new calendar, revealed before the Thanksgiving break, was approved by the school board with a 3-2 vote.  The end of the school year will be three days later meaning that the complete school year calendar remains at 43 weeks.

Summer vacation stays at 9 weeks, 4 weeks for those children enrolled in summer school.

So, what was the point of all the machinations of seeking input from all stakeholders and then coming up with basically the same plan that has been in place for the past few years?

That’s what parent Sarah Rush would like to know.  She and many others are dismayed that despite the protestation of starting school later, nothing changed.

“It was an overwhelming consensus that our 18,000 families wanted a longer summer and a start date after the third week of August,” Rush said.  “If public outcry is unheeded, then all of the meetings were a waste of our time and taxpayer funds.”

Board Member Greg Krikorian who along with President Armina Gharpetian voted against the new calendar sympathizes with those parents who are upset that the start of school wasn’t delayed later.

“We need to put students and parents first,” Krikorian said.  “Family time is crucial.”

Rush encourages parents who feel likewise to let their opinions be heard by emailing school board members and attending the Dec. 13 meeting.

Curiously, school districts neighboring Glendale have easily figured out how to plan 180 instructional days that accommodates the wishes of families.

While Burbank schools have pushed the start of school up to mid-August, they have kept the year to 41 weeks due to fewer days off, leaving 11 weeks of summer vacation.  Next year Burbank children return Aug. 14 but end May 24 before Memorial Day.

And La Canada schools while providing two additional days of instruction still contain the school year within 42 weeks.

Yet somehow Glendale can’t seem to keep schools open long enough between August and June so that school can start later and end earlier.

While the curious Friday day off before the Labor Day weekend has finally disappeared, the full week off during Thanksgiving does not help to shorten the overall calendar.   And as many educators can attest to, ever since GUSD has been closed for a full week, a teacher never quite gets the kids’ attention back since in a few weeks they will be off for nearly three weeks.

Think about this:  From Nov. 11 through Jan. 8, amounting to 55 calendar days, students are in school for 21 days, or 38 percent of the time.

Here is how the calendar can quickly be fixed.  By eliminating the three days off before Thanksgiving, school could start on Monday, Aug. 21, or end on June 1, cutting the calendar to 42 weeks, providing an additional week of summer vacation.

There.  Problem fixed.  No meetings needed.   A year’s time not required.  Less than ten minutes really.

In this space, I have proposed a joint meeting of GUSD and BUSD school board members to see if a common calendar could be agreed upon.   That never occurred.

For those parents who feel that their voices are not being considered should keep in mind another calendar, an election one that ends on April 4, 2017.  That’s 110 days away—without days off.