Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Jun 15 2011

Balancing Act

We must find a new balance; this balancing act is getting old and hard to manage.

Today, I had another pleasant day of professional development. Normally, this would be heard in a sarcastic tone, but I sincerely mean it. Day 2: my team is still great, we had fabulous discussions and working sessions about race, the achievement gap, and Common Core School Standards. In each session, I found fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking — along with a willingness to work for solutions. For the first time in the district, I felt like the right people were in the right place working for the right things.

What a feeling! To know that change is possible and probable, and that you have more on board with the movement. To adequately cover all of the good from today, I’ll need another blog.

Because, the good from the day is awkwardly balanced with this news from The Tulsa World:TPS makes cuts to special education.”

As if the headline weren’t enough, the third paragraph really made this story disturbing (emphasis added):

“We used stimulus money to fill in holes left by state budget cuts. Then we had more state budget cuts. This is the result,” [TPS Superintendent] Ballard said. “These are very necessary services for kids, but the Oklahoma Legislature is determined to have smaller government. This is what smaller government looks like.
BLERGHof frustration, disappointment, angst, anger…that’s my gut reaction.

Digging deeper, I know three things:
1) it is sad that how we serve children has to be determined by dollar amounts
2) that those dollar amounts are decided upon in places far removed from our children
3) that if some other dollar amounts were tinkered with (salaries, other state programs, other district programs, etc), that maybe our children wouldn’t have to be shafted as severely, if at all.

Instead of delving into these three points in detail, I’d rather tell a story.

Disclaimer: It is about a student on an IEP in TPS whom we will call X. X is a real student really in TPS, but his name isn’t as important as what his story represents. Know that even though I don’t know X personally (although I will be meeting him soon), I know students like X from my experience so far as a teacher, and I know more X’s exist. In fact, we spent a lot of time talking about students like X in all of my sessions today. This may get uncomfortable, but as we know, in courageous conversations, sometimes we need to breach the uncomfortable.

Background: One of my friends in the district is doing a small mentoring program with five young men for a few weeks this summer. It is to help these young men face the transition into middle school while also catching up some basic skills, learning teamwork, and building their leadership qualities. One of my other friends has been enlisted to help the boys with reading, and did their diagnostic assessments today.

X is an overaged 5th grader, meaning he is actually older than he should be in 5th, going into 6th grade. His reading level tested, on a basic scale, to be equal to a kindergartners. X follows along with other students and finds ways to participate without having to be put on the spot or have to do much work. In writing an introductory letter to one of my friends today, he copied a sentence from from the board, “Dear Ms. (Friend)” and then wrote, “pool.” This is all he managed.

X is not stupid. He is on a special education IEP, which suggests he is differently abled, but the purpose of an IEP is to help him and his teachers find the best way to get  him learning in a way that fits his needs. Although, like every child, X has potential – he is behind. So behind that “behind” is perhaps an understatement. From this information, you can probably predict with some accuracy, X’s race, socioeconomic status, and maybe even infer something about his home life. You may or may not be wrong. But what’s sad is that the research shows strong correlations between these factors, and that we can make strong predictions about a kid and their past, present, and future with this information. It’s not right, comfortable, or easy to think or talk about…and folks, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Although my friend’s program is rather grassroots, the district provides lunch for the students every day they are there. Lunch today was a bologna and cheese sandwich and an apple.

The information above are facts. Now let me speak my mind.
X deserves better. He needs better. I have no idea (well some, but I don’t know the facts) why X has been allowed to get this far into his education without actually receiving one. What I do know is that the  budget reality of our state has made it so what little services he might have, or could receive in TPS, are dramatically lessened. He’s already been left behind, and this doesn’t catch him up.

This is the reality of “small government” (in quotes, because…really?). It’s completely political. It was political that the state legislature and the Oklahoma governor’s office (Henry, not Fallin – although, she probably would have done the same), encouraged state voters to VOTE DOWN a bill on the ballot that mandated an increase in state funding for education (read my thoughts on SQ744 here). The same people that did so make more than teachers in TPS (especially with our pay freeze) in addition to receiving $150 per diem for lodging and expenses in OKC — that’s $150 per day for “expenses” while in session (Ballotpedia).

I don’t doubt this money is useful for people traveling from the panhandle or from deep southeast. What I do know is that we have to raise revenue so that we can figure out how to get more of the money to cover education’s expenses. That could mean a slight tax hike, but it could also mean the Oklahoma legislature cutting other programs (like, cable TV for prisoners…there have to be a lot of little things like this that add up to big $$, right?). Whatever we have to do, let’s do it! Whatever it takes — our kids deserve it.

On Thursday, I am planning to spend some time with my friends and their five young men. I have some time and I know they want some additional help on  the tutoring front. So, I will meet X.

I’m half tempted to drive him to Oklahoma City, have him save his sandwich sack lunch and buy him food on the way, hopefully while practicing some vocabulary. When we are satiated and parked, we’ll walk up the steps of the state capitol to a passing by legislator. We’ll gift him the sack lunch (save him some of that per diem!). Then, I will show him X’s letter to my friend, and let X introduce himself. Then, in my calmest voice possible, I will remind said legislator that X’s education is at stake. That X is willing and ready, but somehow we forgot about him. And those like him. And that we’re going to return to Tulsa and continue the work to get X caught up. While we’re working so hard, can the legislature put its discussion about Planned Parenthood, gun rights, state’s rights, prayer in schools and the countless other non-issues on the table and maybe, instead, put at the forefront, X’s right to a quality education? And adjust accordingly? Maybe do some hard work — roll up some sleeves, crunch some numbers, and figure out how we won’t have to leave X behind?

This is where I’m thrown off balance. This negative end of it is so, so disheartening. And no amount of good talk will fix it. We need action. X needs action. And we can’t use excuses like “small government” and “we have to make six figures” (cough cough, district admin). We can’t balk at the “one more thing” we have to do to adapt common core, or how much catching up our kids will have to do when it’s fully adapted. We can’t haphazardly cut programs at the district level because the state can’t get its act together. We all need to get on the same team here, and that team has to work, no — FIGHT — for X. And all of the children alongside, below, and above him.

I loved so much about today, but I am so ready for a better tomorrow.

We need to strike a new balance. And it needs to focus on kids — not on adult politics or economics. This is so much more than a gap in achievement; it’s a gap in opportunities, in possibilities, in humanity. And some of those who can fix it are talking at a professional development, mentoring on their summer vacation, teaching summer school, and sitting in the fancy chairs at the state capitol. In reality, we all have a role.

Let’s go already. I’m getting tired of this juggle – I need something better to balance.


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