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 spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

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I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.