First Person

Voices: If education is too expensive, continue to support

Project VOYCE Co-training director Shelby Gonzales-Parker argues that Amendment 66’s increased investment in education will pay off down the road.

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In just over 24 hours, we will know if Coloradans were able to make the bold move of implementing the newest education reform initiative, “Amendment 66,” which would change the entire formula for how Colorado finances education. There will be an increase in state taxes, creating almost one billion dollars that would go directly into education the first year. Reporters, legislators, business leaders, school-board members, parents, and educators have all taken sides on Amendment 66 and have provided their input on why they do or do not support it. By November 5th, their votes will be counted. However, we haven’t heard much from students and how they feel about this piece of legislation, which will impact them more directly than anyone else involved. That is where I come in.

My name is Shelby Gonzales-Parker. As the first member of my family to attend college, I am currently a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver, majoring in English, Secondary Education.  My goal is to become a teacher in the Denver Public Schools. In 2010, I graduated from Denver Justice High School as the first valedictorian the school ever had. I became an advocate for education reform as a sophomore in high school when I was hired with Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) in 2008.  Alternative charter schools and Project VOYCE are the two places that not only saw leadership potential in me, but also helped cultivate the leader would become.

In May of 2004, one of my older brothers, whom I looked up to all my life, Levi, was killed in a car accident when he was only 17 years old. My life and the view I had on life changed forever. After only a year of Levi passing, I was expelled from my middle school, put on probation for multiple offenses, and was told I was an “at-risk” student. Although I always excelled academically, my behavior and lack of resources labeled me as a student that was destined to fail. After being sent to an alternative school, two educators told me I could be the change I wished to see, if I took my education seriously and made a difference in my community. I was never suspended again.  Shortly thereafter, I decided to become a teacher and was hired by Project VOYCE. I also became a single mother, at the age of 17, to a beautiful baby boy who I named Levi after my brother.  In 2010, Governor Ritter appointed me as the first and only student on the Colorado State Council for Educator Effectiveness, leading the work and recommendations around SB-191. For the two years I served, I represented all 840,000 Colorado students.

So what does this have to do with Amendment 66? Well, I’d like to say, EVERYTHING.

If passed, Amendment 66 would increase taxes from 4.63 percent to 5 percent and 5.9 percent after the first year for anyone earning $75,000 or more a year. Although Colorado would still be one of the last states in the country for the amount we pay in state taxes (eighth lowest), people are still skeptical about putting additional money into education. Although education has one of the highest rates of return on investment, the fear remains, about putting additional money into something and not being guaranteed any change.

However, in a state with barely half of all students graduating on time, and a growing number of students entering juvenile systems every day, this investment is a risk we need to take. The success of our children and our future economy is well worth the additional amount each individual will have to pay annually.

With this amendment comes a new financing formula that will finally take steps to level the playing field for all children in Colorado. Cost of living will no longer be accounted for, and the amount of low income students and English Language Learners will be the main factor in determining how much money each district NEEDS. Therefore, districts with the highest amount of poverty and English language learners will benefit the most. The money will be directed specifically to education initiatives such as early childhood education, full-day kindergarten, charter schools, smaller class sizes, etc. Districts and principals will have more autonomy over the additional money they receive and a public website will be created to be transparent about how each school is allocating their dollars.

As a former Denver Public Schools student who experienced the struggle of attending multiple underserved schools, I believe this is something we desperately need to improve the quality of our education system.

The intention is not to take opportunity away from people, but instead to give it to those who have very little. If it were not for the alternative education I was able to receive or the outside resources my school introduced me to, I would not be where I am today. I know more people dead, in jail or in prison than I know who graduated or made it to college and I don’t want that future for my son.

It isn’t fair that I made it while so many others didn’t. Currently in Colorado there are more than 1,600 youth locked up in juvenile facilities which costs on average $161 each day, per youth. That equals about $260,000 per day we are spending to lock up our youth. Now let’s look at adults. According to a recent study done by the VERA Institute of Justice, in Colorado it costs an average of $30,000 per year to incarcerate one inmate. Colorado taxpayers are paying $606.2 million a year to support prisons and to keep people incarcerated. And yet, when it comes to education, we are among the last states for the amount we spend per student (about $6,600 compared to the national average of $10,700 per student.)

Is this what we want to be known for in Colorado? Is it the American thing to put more money into prisons than schools and to stand silent while children from low income families begin their lives and education way behind the starting line? Speaking for the students and my son, I say no. Under-funding education hurts all students and every taxpayer for decades to come. Providing children with a quality education and the resources they need, will prevent them from entering the juvenile system, and would therefore mean less money that would need to go into prisons.

If we want to teach our children to be caring, responsible, critical thinkers, successful at whatever they do, than we need to set the example and give them that opportunity. If we want schools and educators to be effective, they need the resources to make it happen. According to a recent report by A+ Denver, in Denver Public Schools, 50 percent of white students scored a 23 or higher on their ACT while only 6 percent of Latinos and 7 percent of African Americans scored a 23 or above (in 2012.) Clearly, there is an achievement gap that needs to be closed and without giving more resources to those truly in need, we will never see that happen. With that said I am voting YES on Amendment 66 and encourage you to do the same.

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