First Person

Week of 1/24/11: Teaching & learning tidbits

Cursive handwriting not taught at some schools

At the beginning of the current school year, Pam Bates learned that her daughter, Kaylin, would not learn how to read or write in cursive. This is the first year Stober Elementary, in Jefferson County, has not taught the flowing penmanship. Watch the 7 News report. The debate over the demise of cursive in Colorado public schools first heated up on EdNews Parent. Share your thoughts.

Special education resource fair Saturday

Aurora Public Schools will host a resource fair for people with disabilities and their parents, caregivers and educators beginning at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Professional Learning & Conference Center, 15771 East 1st Ave. in Aurora. The event features workshops for teachers and caretakers, a special education student art show, door prizes and a raffle fundraiser. Topics include:

  • How children learn and why they struggle
  • Reducing unwanted behaviors through structure and routine
  • Understanding special education: Key things that parents need to know (Taught in Spanish with English interpretation available).

D-49 paying ‘hundreds of thousands’ to trim its ranks

The Falcon School District 49 board said in an “open letter” Thursday it was paying “several hundred thousand dollars” to end obligations to employees whose positions were being eliminated, but declined to give details. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette. This comes at the same time Falcon district officials want to see higher test scores and graduates well prepared for college and the workplace. That’s why the growing school district on Colorado Springs’ eastern edge is moving to  become an “innovation district,” which would allow it to seek exemption from some state and local rules to try new things. Read this Gazette story.

‘Obsessed’ teacher uses space to enthuse students

Fifth-grade teacher Jami Seabolt on Thursday showed her Space Club at Skyway Park Elementary School how to make paper space shuttles. Seabolt also is flying high because she recently learned that she is one of 38 teachers nationwide – including 12 from the Pikes Peak region – named to the Colorado Springs-based Space Foundation’s prestigious teacher liaison program. Read more in the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Colorado students outperform peers in science

Students in fourth grade and eighth grade took science tests administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and Colorado students scored better than most of the country. Watch this 9News report.

Boulder Valley plans preschool additions

More preschool spots for low-income students soon will be available at Boulder Valley elementary schools, but adding spots at Boulder schools is proving tricky because of space issues. Read more in the Daily Camera.

CU-Boulder answering Obama’s call for more math, science teachers

In his life sciences class Wednesday, teacher William Leary devised a mock disease, and middle-school students worked to diagnose it and imagined ways to prevent an epidemic. The exercise at Boulder’s Casey Middle School fit into the unit that Leary is teaching on epidemiology. Read more in the Daily Camera.

Adams 12 Five Star Schools board to discuss “21st century learning”

The Board of Education is hosting a community meeting to discuss 21st century learning and provide input regarding values and priorities for developing successful students and graduates in the district. The event will be held from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 2, at Thornton High School, 9351 Washington St., Thornton. For more information contact Frances Mullins at 720-972-4007.

Beattie Elementary spared by one vote

The Poudre School District Board of Education voted no Tuesday night on a motion to close Beattie Elementary School in Fort Collins after a drawn out fight by parents and community members to save the school. Watch the 9News report.

Improving the odds of turnaround success

As efforts to turn around some of Colorado’s lowest-performing schools intensify, a report issued this week urges state leaders to focus on three key areas to better the chances of success. Read more in Education News Colorado.

President Obama cites Denver school

President Obama highlighted a Denver school, Bruce Randolph 6-12, as an example of  “what’s possible fromBarack Obama with thumbs up our children when reform isn’t just a top-down mandate” in his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Randolph was on the brink of state closure in 2004-05 when Kristin Waters, then the principal of one of Denver’s highest-performing middle schools, and her teacher Chrisanne LaHue created a reform plan. Read more in Education News Colorado.

Aurora schools chief goes door-to-door for truants

Schools chief John Barry joined staff members going door-to-door on Tuesday to reach students who are chronically truant. The school district says the aim is to invite those students back to school. Watch this 9News report.

Colorado House to mull tax credits for private, home-school parents

If a Centennial lawmaker has his way, some parents who send their children to private school or home-school them could benefit from tax credits beginning next year in a plan opponents say is simply school vouchers by another name. Read more in the Greeley Tribune.

Boulder Valley schools boost dropout-prevention efforts

Johnny Fernandez hated seeing teens, year after year, give up on school and slip away to an uncertain future. “I feel responsible for every single kid,” said the assistant principal at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School. “You get tired of seeing kids disengage.” Read more in the Daily Camera.

Jeffco board balks at school-closure plan

The Jefferson County school board has announced  that it has decided to delay action on a five-year plan that would close several elementary schools. The plan, first proposed to the school board Jan. 6, would phase out as many as 10 elementary schools and replace or consolidate several others. Read more in the Denver Post.

Teachers catch up on technology

Crystal Courts is one of 200 people giving up their Saturday to improve their Monday through Friday. She’s attending the Jefferson County School District’s first ever Tech Share Fair. “I think kids have access to so much more. There’s so much information out there,” Courts, a third grade teacher, said. “So, I was kind of hoping to get a better idea how I could use it with my kids.” The Tech Share Fair is designed to help Courts and her colleagues learn more about cloud computing, new programs and internet applications to find the smartest ways to use their Smart Boards. Watch the report on 9News.

Students’ ingenuity changes lives

Here’s a scenario that may sound like a school teacher’s dream; a group of students are given an assignment that captivates them so much, they choose to come to school an hour before the bell rings to work on it, for four months. Lynette Havens doesn’t need to pinch herself because this is no dream, it is reality. Lynette is a teacher at Bollman Technical Education Center in Thornton. This school is part of Adams 12 Five Star School District. As part of a pre-engineering class, students are taking part in a national project which requires them to create a device for someone with a disability. Watch this 9News report.

State’s smallest district ponders future

The Agate School District boasts a top-notch facility. A $1.8 million capital construction grant from the state in 2003 paid for a sparkling new cafeteria and kitchen in the district’s one school. The gym has been updated, and spacious new locker rooms were added. There’s even a new fitness room housing state-of-the-art equipment. Read more in Education News Colorado.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.