First Person

Editor's blog: National School Choice Week runs political gamut

In case you didn’t know, this week is National School Choice Week.  Today also happens to be National Reading Day, and National Handwriting Day. Last week was Penguin Awareness Day but you’ve now missed that.

It’s debatable whether all these designated events truly raise awareness or cause people to think differently. It seems there’s a “day” for everything. For me, it’s “I Need a Blog Post Idea Right Now” Day, and school choice is pretty darn important, regardless of how you feel about it.

So, if you want to jump on the choice bandwagon or if you are already a true believer and want to support the cause, then you might want to know about things happening around here.

Choice attracts interesting bedfellows

As part of National School Choice Week, Americans for Prosperity Foundation-Colorado and talk radio 710 KNUS are hosting a live telecast featuring political commentators Dick Morris (a Fox News political commentator who once worked for Bill Clinton but later became one of Hillary Clinton’s staunchest critics), Hugh Hewitt, an outspoken Republican, evangelical Christian talk radio host, and chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education (and former Republican Congressman) Bob Schaffer  “to do even more to support the teachers and the schools that are succeeding, and hold those that are failing firmly accountable.”

Cherry Creek science and technology buildingDespite calls for bipartisan support for choice, this particular event appears to have a specific agenda. Just look up the sponsor organization websites if you want bone up on the latest anti-Obama rhetoric. The groups are pushing a message that is clearly pro-market, anti-big government (or possibly any government) and definitely anti-union. For the record, Gov. Hickenlooper does not plan to attend, despite his endorsement of National School Choice Week.

“It’s time to put children first in the education policy debate, not the adults and not the unions,” Jeff Crank, AFP Foundation-Colorado state director, said in a statement.

Pitched as the week’s “kickoff event” in Colorado, the live telecast will be held at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 24, at the Douglas County Events Center, 500 Fairgrounds Dr., in Castle Rock. The program will be telecasted live on the Internet at www.PutKidsFirst.com.

The location, of course, is also strategic as Dougco finds itself in the midst of a vigorous debate about school choice and vouchers in particular.

You may recall that a judge declared the school district’s voucher pilot unconstitutional in August. So, the district’s much ballyhooed Choice Scholarship Pilot Program, which happens to be the state’s first district-run voucher plan, remains in legal limbo. A decision from the Colorado Court of Appeals is not expected before March.

School choice proponents add voices to chorus

Similar “pro-school choice” events are happening across the country. Last year, National School Choice Week hosted events in 40 states and the District of Columbia, with the governors of 10 states officially recognizing the week – including Gov. Hickenlooper. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also signed a proclamation recognizing the week.

On the national scale, organizers say National School Choice Week is planned by “a diverse and nonpartisan coalition of individuals and organizations with more than 180 partner organizations.” See for yourself by checking out this  complete list of partners http://www.schoolchoiceweek.com/who_s_in.

It will be interesting to see if the event in Castle Rock brings out a similarly diverse group of choice advocates. There are odd bedfellows indeed in the school choice movement.

National School Choice Week kicked off at a special event in New Orleans on Saturday. (See video above – and yes those are The Temptations). Bill Cosby got on board, saying, “I strongly support National School Choice Week because all children in America should be able to access the best schools possible. We have a moral and societal obligation to give our children the opportunity to succeed in school, at work, and in life. We cannot meet that obligation unless parents are empowered to select the best schools of their children.”

Don’t care about school choice? Bust out a pencil with your kid and write some cursive. (But wait, I don’t think that’s taught in schools anymore… ) Or read a book. Now that’s a safe bet.

Other National School Choice Week events

 

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.