First Person

Voices: Goodbye, Wasson High School

 Jason Gaulden, a member of  Roy J. Wasson High School’s class of 1996, pays tribute to his alma mater days after the District 11 school board voted to close it.

From the moment the board of education in Colorado Springs District 11 voted 6-1 to close an historic high school, Facebook lit up with activity paying respect and tribute to a place that significantly shaped the lives of many.

Roy J. Wasson High School, home of the mighty Thunderbirds, will be closed, leaving many former students in a state of mourning.

“Gone but not forgotten. We will always be the T-Birds.” –  Toni Matlasz.

“Sad to see Wasson is closed. So many great memories.” – Jason Davis

“T-Birds for life.”  – Cristina Portillos

This is the resounding sentiment of those who feel the closing of Wasson is a great loss. And in many ways, it is. The nostalgia is strong for good reason – the character and culture of the school makes for a very special, universal bond among T-Birds. In my biased opinion, the mid-90s was the golden age for Wasson. What an incredible era, and what good fortune my peers and I had to live through it.

Some of the most profound moments and memories of my life occurred during my years as a student at Wasson, many in that building. Some of my best friends to this day are a result of crossing paths there. So many priceless lessons that govern my life were molded by my high school experience.

I am the seventh Gaulden, after my six older siblings, to go through Wasson while transitioning from teen to adult. So I understand and share the grief of my fellow T-Birds:

“Goodbye Wasson, what a sad day.” – Ever Hopper

“Closing of another great school. Sad day in Colorado Springs. The silver lining is that we will always have each other, and Facebook!” – Freeman Thompson

“Woke up thinking about the demise of my beloved high school. Sad that a new generation won’t live the Thunderbird experience, but proud to be able to call myself a T-BIRD!”  – Marisa Murphy

Like all those expressing discontent, I too have deep and unwavering passion in my heart for Wasson. It definitely feels like something bad has happened here.

However, there is another side to this issue that must also be acknowledged. In fairness, as much as so many of us benefitted from our experience at Wasson, we also have to remember the school’s primary charge –  to provide an excellent education to all its students. Every student deserves that, and it is up to our schools to deliver it.

On its core mission and top priority, Wasson has struggled for many years. Today, its graduation rate is 65 percent. And of those who do graduate and go on to college, 56 percent of them require remedial classes to prepare them for the rigor of college-level work. That means they are paying college tuition for courses that do not count toward graduation in order to learn basic things that should have been mastered by the time they received their high school diploma.

Adding to the pressure is the unfortunate fact that the building is terribly underutilized. Families have exercised their right and responsibility of school choice, and have migrated to other schools. Not by force, but by choice.

When I graduated in 1996, the building bustled with 1,500 students. Enrollment today is 900, and, according to the district, the building is only utilized to 49 percent of its capacity. It is expected of those who manage our precious tax dollars be prudent, so it is reasonable to change course rather than continue the upside down financially situation.

These facts do little to ease the angst we feel about the closing of our beloved alma mater, but it does speak to a very important factor. Every child has a right to a high quality public education, and in honoring that commitment, sometimes we have to make tough decisions. Sometimes that means closing poor-performing schools and replacing them with better options.

That is what remains to be seen. What will District 11 do to create something even better – either in that building or elsewhere? Let’s all keep an eye on that.

I always try to find the silver lining in sad situations, and I think there is one here. The closure of Wasson doesn’t diminish any of our experiences or memories. Despite this end of an era, we should be filled with hope and determination to ensure this closure ultimately brings about something positive. Let’s direct our passion and engagement toward making sure the current and future generations get to create their own lasting memories of a great experience, both socially and academically.

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.