First Person

Voices: Boulder Valley schools on right track

Boulder Valley U.S. history teacher Leigh Campbell-Hale says other districts could learn a thing or two from Boulder Valley, where administrators, teachers and community members are working together in the best interest of students. 

In Stephen King’s post-apocalyptic science fiction novel The Stand Boulder represents a communitarian, democratic hope of all humanity while Las Vegas represents chaos, violence and evil. King briefly lived in Colorado and he must have loved Boulder enough to make it the noble setting of his novel.

Aerial photo of Boulder from BVSD website

Today, King’s vision of Boulder isn’t purely fictional. Boulder is the headquarters of the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), which includes 55 schools from Nederland to Broomfield. Some people say Boulder is 25 miles surrounded by reality. But today BVSD seems to be 500 square miles surrounded by reality. Unlike some nearby school districts to our east and the south things are going very in BVSD these days, fueled by a newfound sense of collaboration among our voters, parents, students, school board, district administrators, new Superintendent Bruce Messinger (hired in 2011) and the teachers, represented by the Boulder Valley Education Association, whose new president, Tina Mueh, was elected last May.

Don’t get me wrong. We have big problems. One of the biggest is the achievement gap between our rich and poor students, which is terrible. But we’re working to fix that, and other problems too – together.

In The Stand, the characters face a biological holocaust. In Colorado, schools districts face a dire educational funding crisis. The recession cut state revenues and TABOR only exacerbates those cuts. Instead of that funding crisis uniting communities, in some cases, it’s divided them. Some districts seem hell-bent on creating additional conflict for their already stressed communities and ideologically driven school boards have created even more instability for their schools.

As we know from our own not-so-recent BVSD past, discord doesn’t create strong schools.

Over the past few years, the school board – after seeking extensive community input – deserves praise for changing course and hiring Bruce Messinger, who’s in his second year as BVSD superintendent. The honeymoon is still going strong. Last year, when the district and BVEA negotiated a new contract, the collaborative process Messinger insisted upon produced a contract that everyone in the room could live with. One of the biggest benefits for teachers is a $40,000 starting salary, one of the highest in the state. In return, the new contract increases the teachers’ workday, accountability and teachers’ roles in improving schools and student learning.

Another reason BVSD isn’t suffering like much of the state is because BVSD voters have taxed themselves to pay for education. In our recent election, Denver and Jeffco voters, among others, did the same. However, in these tough economic times, many voters throughout the rest of the state either feel like they can’t afford to pass school tax measures, or worse, they’ve been swayed by the negative political rhetoric that argues “throwing” money at schools won’t improve them. It’s interesting that those who argue most strenuously against increased funding for schools base their reasoning on “free market” arguments.

Following that logic where would great teachers rather work right now, BVSD or an even richer district to our south, for example, whose school board severed its collective bargaining agreement with its teachers’ union in June? That district has since instituted a salary schedule so capricious that a teacher could never reasonably predict what her salary would be from year-to-year. Furthermore, given its very wealthy demographic that same school district should be one of the top performers in the state – but it’s not. Why? There could be many reasons but there’s no denying this central truth: Its teachers aren’t happy. Despite political rhetoric to the contrary, most teachers are conflict-averse. Currently, however, many teachers – and especially their unions (as if somehow the two are separate) – are being demonized. Those attacks lead to demoralized teachers who are distracted from doing their best in the classroom.

Great schools are a community effort. Everybody – the school board, administrators, voters, parents, the superintendent, teachers and students – has to respect each other to reach common goals. As our own district has shown, discordant school districts – when pressured by their communities – will stop their negative practices and make their districts, once again, positive places to work and positive places for students to learn.

King ends The Stand ambiguously. But in real life I hope our neighboring school districts will choose community over chaos.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk