First Person

Much Ado

Our current education policy debates have me depressed.

“But there’s so much going on! Look at all the intersecting issues we’re juggling in New York:  school closings, small and charter schools opening or expanding, our Race to the Top application, the Regents proposal expand preparation options, eliminating the charter school cap, another DOE restructuring, teacher merit pay and tenure based on student performance! Isn’t this a great time for addressing the BIG ISSUES in education?!”

No.

Arguably, I feel this way because of deep flaws in most of the above proposals. But it’s not mere opposition that drives my ennui. I like an energized debate over real issues as much as — probably a lot more than — the next person. I was supercharged in my disagreements with the Gates-led small schools movement, cell phone prohibition, and repression of parent and community input under mayoral control. So it’s not that I am unhappy being contrary.

The problem is that current initiatives have almost nothing to do with kids. Today’s politically-driven agenda is concerned more with money and power than education. It bores the hell out of me.

Take the federal Race to the Top competition. Billions of dollars in one-shot stimulus funds are at stake. But the administration’s policy agenda tied to the money — bribes, really — is a litany of warmed-over, unproven or disproven Bush-era buzz words. Accountability, merit pay, data systems, higher teacher quality, charter schools. All sound fine, yet all have been widely tried and have failed to significantly improve student achievement, especially among our low-income, minority, ELL, and special needs students. This isn’t an educational prescription but, rather, an economic and political strategy to jump-start spending and to shore up Obama’s right flank while he fights for health care reform on the left. The “top” that politico-policymakers are racing toward is just too distant from the classroom.

State initiatives are similarly off-target. While talking the talk of higher standards, the Commissioner and Regents have signaled approval of a credit recovery system that is an open door to academic abuse. Not one step has been taken to actually tighten test standards or grading policies, let alone the primary State function of assuring a broad and rigorous curriculum.  Lacking legislative elimination of the charter cap, the centerpiece of New York’s RttT application appears to be an entirely speculative plan to permit organizations outside of higher education to prepare teachers and principals. Such training will no doubt be cheaper, faster, and narrower but will it improve teaching? Who knows? But it gives a politically attractive appearance of doing something and satisfies myriad non-college constituencies, from unions to business to philanthropy.

The City is no better. Every school that Bloomberg closes is his failure, since he has presided over the system for almost eight years. Did converting Robeson High School to small learning communities several years ago improve it? Apparently not, since it is now on the chopping block. Again and again, the Mayor’s strategy of churn and burn has proven of little help to kids yet the political noise it makes masks its substantive silence. Similarly, the shock and awe of his charter school advocacy, proposals for merit pay, and testing monomania cloud the reality that the guy has no idea how to run a school system; every restructuring exposes the vacuity of its predecessor. By his own measures of success, at least four in 10 ninth graders still fail to graduate on time and, if Regents diplomas are set as a low standard, even the grads are often ill-prepared for college and careers. These children are Bloomberg’s educational progeny; they were in elementary school when he took office.  Yet, for all the hoopla, achievement is — at best — only marginally better, following a trend line established before he took office and reflected in other districts besides our own.

There is so much BS in the current debate that I can hardly stand it. I long for the new semester so I can get back to preparing new leaders for real schools. The teacher-student relationship is where the important work takes place. But, as usual, the politicians’ focus is on the sizzle, not the steak.

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.