First Person

Voices: CORAgate needs no investigation

Dougco schools parent Beth Kerr says CORAgate needs no further investigation based upon what she’s uncovered about the email flap. 

CORAgate.

Such an interesting word, it’s so small and yet has captured the attention of many.  On July 3, Parent Led Reform submitted a Colorado Open Records Act request to the Douglas County School District, as follows:

A standing-room-only crowd attends a Dougco board meeting in this <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

All documents in your possession since October 1, 2010 regarding communication by the following: (prefer delivery electronically or on disc or drive):  (Names removed, my name was listed).  As used by me in this request, the term “documents” specifically includes all materials, notes, correspondence, calendar entries, telephone logs, electronic mail documents (including electronic mail located in a program “in folder”, “sent” folder, “draft” folder, “out” folder, and “deleted” folder), and any public record (as defined by C.R.S. 24-72-202(6)) in your possession or under your control. 

It is my understanding that the district fulfilled the paperless request after three weeks of pulling data and redacting data from 25,000-plus emails.

Parent Led Reform Executive Director Karin Piper requested at the Sept. 5 school board meeting that the board investigate those listed in the records. She also posted a press release stating, “PLR is now calling for DCSD (the district) to investigate which unauthorized parties are currently abusing the district email system and hold such individuals and groups accountable for their actions.”

During my meeting on Sept. 25 with district legal counsel Rob Ross, IT Director Dwight Humphrey and board member Kevin Larsen, I asked if I was in fact being investigated. I was told, “No.”

Board member Justin Williams made the following statement in a Voices commentary on Oct. 5:

“I can assure the readers that our school district is investigating the matter.”

Due to his statement, I emailed the Douglas County board members on Oct. 11 asking if I was being investigated. Though I did not receive a response from any board member, I did receive the following via email from Ross:

“As we discussed in our meeting a few weeks ago with Director Larsen and Dwight Humphrey and in subsequent emails, the district did not “investigate” any individual outside the district, including you, regarding the allegation made by PLR.” 

Therefore, I must ask how can board member Williams assure readers that the district is investigating the matter?

I would like to present a few items that may be of interest to readers about CORAgate. In the PLR press release, “groups” are mentioned but PLR only listed one group in their CORA request. The group in the request, which I am not a member of, formed in April 2012; therefore, it could not have sent any political propaganda during the November 2011 election as claimed by PLR.

Upon reviewing my emails from CORAgate, I quickly realized that the emails included in the results were but a small subset of the emails that should have been included. To confirm my suspicion, I printed all January 2012 emails sent from my email to anyone with a district email address. Imagine stack A on your left, half an inch thick, representing the email results from the CORA request.  Then imagine stack B on your right, the same height, representing only my January 2012 emails which are not included in stack A.

Strange, how could the CORA request have been deemed fulfilled, when it should have provided all emails for 22 months, yet does not contain the emails that I had sent in January? This raises the question of the usefulness of these requests if results cannot be guaranteed accurate.

At the Dougco school board meeting Sept. 18, I asked if PLR was charged for the CORA request which cost the district three weeks of personnel hours to fulfill. “No” was the answer but the response was then tied, by board President John Carson, to the fact that the district had not charged the ACLU for a CORA request that cost the district $20,000.

Stop right there.

The board of education and district decided not to charge $20,000 when they could have. Dare I say “shame on them”?  What a waste of district resources and mismanagement of district funds for not charging that amount. I would say that does not show sound fiduciary responsibility on the part of the board of education or the district.

As always, how is this benefiting the students?

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.