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 covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.