First Person

Commentary: At graduation, a parent reflects

Elisa Cohen, a North Denver parent, looks back on the long, winding path through a variety of schools and home-schooling to her daughter’s high school graduation.

My baby graduates from high school tonight. What a long strange trip it’s been. From magnet to home-schooling to charter school to online high school to one neighborhood school and finally to this last one – South High – my kid has experienced all the educational opportunities the first decade of the century has to offer.

In 1996 the magnet movement was in full swing. As I understand it, magnets were designed to lure children of all races into integrated programs that would then prove to the federal government that we did not need mandatory and costly busing. My white babies were lured into Denison Montessori by test scores, word of mouth, free ECE tuition and free buses that would take them to and from this school located at Sheridan and Jewell.

Free soon turned into $500 a month for tuition and at one point the school board debated ending the free buses to the magnets. This is the first time I stood up in a public meeting and squawked. Things change, I discovered, and not always in our favor.

After several bad years for my kid (my other kid had a marvelous time in different classrooms in the same school) I pulled my daughter out of school and began homeschooling. We turned to the children’s librarians in the downtown central library. They loaded my daughter up with a new stack of books each week, and she began her years of reading.

We practiced shaking hands while looking into someone’s eyes and offering a respectful and cheerful salutation. I found a remarkable math teacher on Craigslist, a man with a Ph.D. in engineering and a delightful way with children. We discovered a home-school acting cooperative run by Christians. “We’re not the wild-eyed Christians,” said the founder when I asked if our being hippy Jews might be a problem.

For gym my daughter insisted on belly-dancing, and I found a woman from Uzbekistan who taught my daughter how to dance well enough to open a show at the Oriental Theatre where over 300 paying guests hooted and hollered. My sister-in-law disapproved. I bargained with a French professor at Metro: if I signed up and paid for French 101, my daughter could attend as well. Another professor at Metro allowed my daughter to attend his Revolution and Reform class as long as she did the work. The entire family studied Revolution and Reform that semester.

Throughout the homeschooling journey, we tested. Although the state only requires testing every other year for homeschooling, I, and the four superintendents of our homeschooling endeavor – her grandparents – wanted some verification that what we were doing was working. We used the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, and each year it confirmed she could read, write, calculate and find a city on a map. We used the Accuplacer to determine her post-secondary readiness in reading and writing and math. Finally her ACT scores showed colleges that she had not been just eating bonbons during her high school years.

As her academic needs outpaced my content knowledge, we enrolled in a part-time home-school charter school in Jefferson County. We became skeptical when they didn’t discuss the age of the planet in geology because it conflicted with the good book. We tried the online approach via a public online school. While this meets the needs of some, sitting in front of a computer all day did not work for my very social kid.

Many homeschoolers just skip high school and go directly to college, but my daughter wanted the high school experience. Part education activist, part Northside loyalist, I enrolled my daughter at North High School knowing that if she got in with the go-getter crowd and attended the classes with the teachers I had met who held high standards, she could get herself a decent education.

Part of that worked out well. She became friends with kids who had their eyes set on postsecondary success. She had some great teachers who helped her succeed. The 4 on her AP History exam is my proof, for you naysayers out there who might question if I know what academic rigor looks like.

But I could see that she was not reading or writing enough in the 10th grade to be ready for college. At her fall parent teacher conference, I asked the English teacher if she was ever going to put a book into my daughter’s hand that year or if she would ever be asked to write an extended essay. “If you want your daughter to read books, you could have her read them at home,” she suggested.

“So you are asking me to home-school after she has been in school all day long?”

This led to an honors literature syllabus being approved for that year. But how in the world did a school with 33 percent of its students at or above in reading not have an honors literature course in the first place?

This exhausting exchange led me to review the Concurrent Enrollment laws. While DPS has created a system to allow 11th and 12th graders the opportunity to attend college classes if they proved academically ready, the law was written to allow 9th through 12th graders if the schools they attended did not have classes that met their academic need.

I walked this rule exception up the chain of command at DPS, and the district allowed her to begin taking college classes in the 10th grade. This patchwork quilt of opportunities seemed to be working, but then my daughter suggested South High School in her junior year as an easier way to the same end result.

For those who only look at data points from CSAP, you might once again think I was a reckless mother for choosing a school that does not hold students to a high level. To these “one-test” data-pointers, I say come to see the next play produced by Jennifer Rinaldi. Attend the International Day when the new immigrants from around the world who attend South High show off their cultures. Visit Mr. Nichols chemistry class and see how he builds up academic discipline. South is not perfect, but it was close to perfect for my kid.

My baby is graduating tonight. Thank you to all of her teachers – the district teachers, counselors, administrators, DPL librarians, the Craigslist tutors, the home school cooperatives, my family and friends. Testing, parental involvement, rigor and relevance, choice – it all mattered on this twisted journey to tonight’s diploma.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.