Diverse Students United in Bowl Goal

For the 29th straight year, Glendale Unified will host the Scholastic Bowl at Glendale High School on Monday night.  Televised locally, this is the biggest academic competition among the district’s four high schools:  Clark Magnet, Crescenta Valley, Glendale, and Hoover.

Having a night that showcases the talents of bright students is welcoming.  Smart kids often get the short end of the education stick; gifted education receives the least funding of any ability-level group.  Yet these high-achieving students are the ones who make their schools shine.  Most aspects of a school that principals brag about have a large amount to do with the contributions of these fine young people.

The first part of the competition takes place a week before the main event when all five-member teams write a one-hour timed essay.  Points earned from this writing are added to each school’s score the following week when the teams converge on stage to answer 25 questions in a group round where collaboration is allowed, then another 50 questions in a buzzer round when only individuals answer.  Two points are awarded for correct answers; one point deduction for incorrect responses.

Each member of the winning team wins $500, second place $250, third place $150, and fourth place $100.  Knapp, Peterson & Clarke, Oakmont League, Kiwanis Club, Rotary Club, Dan Levin Trust, Parker Anderson Enrichment, and Sylvan Learning Center contribute to the awards.

Most years Channel 4 weathercaster Fritz Coleman has served as quizmaster.  This year the emcee will be Channel 7’s weekday anchor Phillip Palmer.

When I was asked by the principal to coach the Hoover’s team back in 2008, I had no idea that I would still be doing it 11 years later.

While I have had the good fortune of having two teams win the competition, for me the joy of being involved with this program is the opportunity to work with some of the brightest young people.  They enjoy each other’s company and have fun showing off their knowledge.

The lowest point occurred two years ago when one of my students forgot to save the essay on the computer which ended up costing us another championship.  This was especially bitter since I was the coach who championed transitioning from handwritten papers to using laptops.

As coach, my main job is selecting the team.  I hold tryouts where I seek five students who collectively are able to answer questions in the five main categories of art, literature, history, science, and math.

For months, we hold after-school practices twice a week where the team watches past Scholastic Bowls, answering the questions “live.”  One team member tracks correct and incorrect answers for each category so we can figure out which students will be stronger in the group round versus the buzzer round (only four students are allowed on stage at any one time).

We even practice using buzzers.  I also give them practice essays which we later evaluate according to the Bowl’s writing rubric.

This year’s team happens to be all-male, comprised of three seniors and two sophomores, each student a different ethnicity—a delightful coincidence.  Their collegiality proves that students from various backgrounds can work well together pursuing a common goal:  to win the Bowl.

It is an important reminder to those who only know Hoover from recent negative headlines that positive experiences also happen on campus.

If you want to see another side of Hoover, come to the Scholastic Bowl this Monday at Glendale High School at 7:00 p.m.  The future will be present on stage representing all 1,600 of their fellow students.

 

Reflecting on Joys of Teaching

Sometimes one has to admit that life’s glass is half-full not half-empty.

This week I was asked to participate in a promotional video for Hoover High School.  I reluctantly agreed to do it, reluctant because for years I have been an outspoken critic of my own profession.

Playing the cheerleader role is not typecasting for me.

However, the more I thought about being on camera to talk about the place where I have worked since 1989, the more I realized how proud I would be to talk about what makes my job meaningful.

When I first became a teacher, I never thought I would be in the classroom this long.  After doing computer work for 12 years, I figured I would teach for about 10 years, then go on to do something else.  I assumed that was going to be my life’s pattern—changing careers every decade.  Never did it cross my mind that I would devote the bulk of my adult life working with children.

In the blink of an eye, here I am, one of the oldest teachers on campus, not knowing what happened to the past 30 years.

I did not recognize it much back then, but as I approach the sunset of my career, I can see how blessed I have been to work with young people and have the opportunity to help them in their life’s journey.

To prepare for the video interview, I was given a couple of questions to think about.

“If you were a parent of a student, why would you be excited to send your child to Hoover?”

For the non-academic classes.

While there’s nothing wrong with our English, math or science classes, taking marching band, culinary arts or journalism enriches the day for students where instead of sitting in a chair passively, they have the opportunity to do, to get involved, to make learning come alive through playing an alto saxophone, baking a bundt cake or posting a video to Instagram called Humans of Hoover

In my journalism class, I give students the responsibility of running a business.  They create the work, manage the work, publish the work.  They teach each other desktop publishing and editing programs that enable them to do their jobs.  Such independence reveals what matters most to them and their peers.

Being self-reliant is something all parents desire, and being self-learning is something all teachers desire—both happen at Hoover.

“What do you love most about coming to school every day to teach these students?”

In short, not knowing what questions or comments students will have.  Some may view such unknown variables as nerve-wracking; I find them stimulating.

There is a duality to teaching:  spending hours developing lesson plans timed to the minute, but being prepared for the spontaneous reaction of students.

You never know what provocative question or profound connection a student may formulate.

Then there is the student work—the writing, the speech, the video—that reveals their thinking and learning.

Yes, some students fall short demonstrating their knowledge, but many succeed.  Especially gratifying are the non-A students who hit a home run once in a while.

Just the other day, a boy who has struggled most of the year gave a moving speech, better than everyone else in the class.  I was so proud of him knowing that he was the same young man who had tears in his eyes last semester when he botched his first oral.

Doing this interview gave me pause to reflect.  When you work day after day, year after year, you lose track of the big picture.  Stepping back to look at the large mosaic built over time is quite illuminating.

Once in a while it is okay to view life’s glass as half-full; in fact, right now, the cup runneth over.

GUSD Supers Not So Super

Ask any student to name the most influential person in their education experience and most likely the student would name a teacher.   Rarely a principal.  Never a superintendent.

Which is why when GUSD announced that Dr. Winfred B. Roberson, Jr. would no longer be in charge of the district, the news generated more of a ripple than a tsunami.

Roberson now joins the ranks of recent GUSD supers who seem intent on not staying very long.

Since I began my career in GUSD, there have been 9 superintendents including 4 interim appointees.  That averages out to a new one every 3 years.

Looking at the past three decades, each successive superintendent leaves Glendale earlier than his predecessor.

Robert A. Sanchis’s term ran 14 years, James R. Brown lasted 8, Michael F. Escalante 6, Richard M. Sheehan 5, and Roberson 3.  It is getting to the point where whoever becomes the next superintendent might as well hold the title of “interim.”

The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution found that the average tenure of a superintendent is between three and four years, concluding that “hiring a new superintendent is not associated with higher student achievement.”

With changes in superintendents comes shake-ups in other upper management positions.  The instability is alarming.  If a school had as many teachers coming and going, the education of children would be negatively impacted.

This begs the question:  how important is a superintendent, the highest paid employee in the district at a quarter of a million dollars?

New superintendents tend to establish their authority via some new cockamamie education program that is mandated for implementation in all classrooms without teacher input.  Veteran teachers know to ride such fads out and don’t get too riled up about it because it will last as long as the superintendent remains in office.

When Sheehan was here, he persuaded GUSD to sign a five-year contract worth $3.4 million with Massachusetts-based Curriculum Associates to use their i-Ready diagnostic testing program.  The edict:  evaluate each kindergartner through 12th grader three times a year. One year later, Sheehan left.  Not soon thereafter, the massive endeavor was quickly downsized.

In its hunt for the next super, GUSD has a list of seven employee search firms expected to submit proposals.  Often the cost is around $25,000.  One of those is McPherson & Jacobson, hired by GUSD in 2016 who found Roberson.  Since he did not work out, why is this firm even in the running?

And with the high turnover rate, one wonders if it might dissuade a quality candidate from coming here.

I understand the importance of hiring an experienced superintendent, but since the recent ones came outside of the district and didn’t have a prior stake in the community, the school board should consider hiring a fresh face from those who currently work at district headquarters, especially those who taught in Glendale schools.  They would be less likely to leave thus offering stability, something this district desperately needs.

Meanwhile, the portraits of GUSD’s superintendents keep decorating the wall in the Board Room.  Roberson, Sheehan, Escalante and company (including the 10-month legacy of 1937’s Norman B. Whytock) will forever remain memorialized, while the faces of teachers who have devoted 25, 35, 45 years of service are nowhere around.

But here’s the thing—despite the maneuvers of the school board and the high turnover rate of upper management, Glendale students still receive a quality free education.  Unfortunately, the people responsible for it remain invisible in the halls of district headquarters.

Old Grades, New Parades

One benefit of having winter break in the middle of the school year is that it provides an opportunity for fresh starts.   And those of us who work at Hoover High School sure could use a cleansing of last semester’s turmoil that slammed our campus like a tornado:  the student brawl, the walkout, the negative press.  A feeling of unfinished business hung over us like a fog for a good part of the fall.

With this in mind, I began the first day back by passing out neon red squares of paper to my students and having them write last semester’s grades along with a short reflection.  I told them this would not be shared with anyone including me.

Once students finished, I had them fold the paper in half twice into tiny squares.

“We are locking away the past forever and . . .” I said, as trash cans were distributed down each row, “. . . throwing the grades and any negative feelings out.  Not the lessons learned just the grade itself.  It’s a new year and a new semester, time for a new beginning.”

I dimmed the lights.

“First, let’s get reacquainted with Room 11202.  Did you miss this room during the break?  It’s been a while, so in your new seat, place your hands in front of you on the table to have a physical connection to the environment, close your eyes, and think positive thoughts.  In order to give you ideas on what to think about, I will share mine.”

“Dear Room 11202.  Thank you for being here for my students and I.  For being a sanctuary of learning.  We look forward to wonderful memories the rest of the way.”

“Now I’m going to ask you to close your eyes for at least one minute.  You may begin.”

I played meditative music at low volume.

Once most students’ eyes had opened, I passed out pastel blue squares of paper.

“Write down a favorite memory you have from winter break that brought you joy.  It could be a gift, a song, a text, a sunset.  Write down what the memory is and why it brought joy to you.”

“Fold it once and put it inside a safe place in your binder.  Now you have something that makes you feel good each and every day.  Some of the approaching days will be pleasant ones, but some will not.  For that darkest day that may surface, when it seems everything has gone wrong, open up your binder and look at this piece of paper and be reminded of what gives you joy.”

By happenstance, principal Jennifer Earl walked into my classroom right at the time I was beginning this lesson.  Usually she stays for a few minutes then continues on to other rooms in making her rounds.

This time I asked her to stay for the entire lesson because I wanted her to experience this for herself.  She even threw away her own red piece of paper with great enthusiasm.

Well, she was so inspired by what she saw, she asked me to do the lesson with the entire staff at that afternoon’s faculty meeting.

When I demonstrated the activity with my peers, I sensed a calmness in the room.  Reconnecting with our workplace felt like the right thing to do coming back after the break.  We all needed closure. How serendipitous that Dr. Earl walked into my room when she did as if it was meant to be.

And all of this happened in just the first day.  I can’t wait to see what will unfold the rest of the year.

 

 

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?

 

Power of the Students

Through the Great Depression, World War Two, Korean and Vietnam wars, and 9/11, one thing was for certain:  that in the fall each year Glendale and Hoover High Schools would meet for the final football game of the season.

That tradition ended last week.

Hours before game time, “out of an abundance of caution” Glendale Unified School District cancelled it “due to increased rumors of possible disruptions . . . that put student, employee, and spectator safety at risk” as stated in a prepared statement.

Fallout from the Oct. 3 fight at Hoover ultimately led to GUSD’s decision.

The 88-straight game streak was broken as were the hearts of students and alumni and anyone else who has a link to the city’s storied history.  Even the homecoming dances were postponed.

It wasn’t just a football game that never happened.  For the Hoover senior football players, it meant a chance at history by beating Glendale all four years of their high school career, a feat never before accomplished.

Much preparation goes into this one event each year whose purpose is to instill school spirit, the major sporting event no matter the football team’s season record, with an early morning ceremonial poster drop from three floors up and a school-wide assembly of skits performed by each grade level.  All of this work done by a small group of dedicated students, all leading up to the game, the game that was not to be.

If there was a serious threat of violence, then cancelling the game was the right move.  However, if the cancellation was based on rumors, something the district admonished everyone after the fight at Hoover not to fall prey to, then questions should be asked.

After all, when a rumor on social media spread following the fight caused a huge amount of absences, school was not cancelled “out of an abundance of caution” so why would the game not happen?

If you are trying to make things go back to normal, the last thing you want to do is to end a positive, long-standing tradition between the two oldest high schools in the city.   Not having the football game is abnormal.

Then, guess what happened?   Just when the TV news minivans stopped parking in front of Hoover, they returned on Monday.

Students organized a walkout to protest the district’s cancellation.  Well over 100 students walked two miles to district headquarters wanting their voices to be heard.

“What really happened on Oct. 3?  Why was the game cancelled?” were questions never fully addressed.

Three days later, GUSD attempted to answer these questions in their first press conference on the matter four weeks after the initial incident.

The district is moving forward to facilitate communication with all members of the school community.  Let’s hope such efforts succeed.

Give credit to the district for doing this.  However, even more credit goes to the persistence of students who felt that questions remained unanswered and issues unresolved.

Would there have been a press conference if there was no walkout?

The motto at Hoover is “be responsible, respectful, and engaged.”  The students who organized the peaceful demonstration embodied that standard, and adults should embrace these young people for speaking their mind and reminding all that this is their school.

 

 

Meet tomorrow’s inspirational young people

With so much ugly human nature saturating our senses these days, I wanted to give my students a different life experience.

At the start of spring semester in January, I created an assignment allowing them to explore the goodness that is within themselves.

Called the Decency Project, the months-long endeavor gave them an opportunity to pursue charitable work in any area of their choosing.  Students could decide to work alone or with up to two other people from any of my four English classes.

During the semester, students turned in progress reports.  Their projects covered a wide spectrum, from working with disabled children and the elderly to feeding the homeless and caring for cancer patients.

Since I have never done this before, I was not sure how I was going to evaluate their work in terms of a grade.  That is why I asked them to answer this question at the end:  How would you feel if I told you that after all your work on this, I decided not to award any points for it?

I was so impressed with their responses that I shared several of them with all my classes so that the students could see how the decency project impacted their peers.  And I listened to them—no grades were given.

It was one of the most powerful moments in my 29 years as a teacher.

While a few students wrote that they would be very disappointed if they did not receive points for this project, over 95 percent of the 135 students said they would be fine without.  Here’s what they said:

“If this project was graded, it would defeat the whole purpose of being a decent person.”

“Soon after beginning my work, I began to not really think of this so much as a school assignment, but an incredible opportunity for me to give back to my community and grow as a responsible, hard-working citizen.”

“Rewarding someone for doing something diminishes the values behind volunteering, turning what should be a selfless act into a selfish one.”

“I would feel very proud and glad if you decided not to reward any points.  Kindness should not be rewarded.”

“It was more of a life lesson than a project.”

The last question students answered in their final report was this:  Looking back over your efforts, was it worth it?

Here are their responses:

“It was absolutely worth it, and I am willing to do it again.”

“This project was an eye-opener as we wouldn’t have normally aided others in such an impactful way.”

“It helped me to become focused on others rather than self-focused, which is a thing we all need to do.”

“We have seen how those that are less fortunate than us live, and we are able to see the world through their eyes now.”

“I felt like I actually put my time, dedication, and hard work on something that became useful at the end.”

“Since the people we were helping were cancer patients, it was quite sobering and it made our complaints of homework seem irrelevant.”

“I am thankful that this project was assigned because of how much freedom was granted.  Students do not get many opportunities to be so creative and self-dependent in projects.”

“Nowadays, there isn’t a lot of kindness going around in the world.  I hope this project motivates other students to do this.”

“This project has shaped me into a humanitarian.”

“I feel more humbled as a person.”

“I have become a better person.”

What a breath of fresh air in today’s times.  I learned how lucky a teacher I am to work with such inspirational students who will be leaders in our society one day.  I am proud of their accomplishments, and I hope the public is, too.