Sunday, November 20, 2005

Education Battlegrounds

We have been hearing a lot about how government must become more “transparent”. It is time to include schools in that category. Principals and teachers should welcome visitors to their classrooms so these visitors can see first hand the difficulties and joys of teaching and administrating. I suspect, like bad government, bad or weak teachers do not want visitors. Schools must be run more like a business with the school as the retail store and the students, parents and community as their customers.

All stores that sell products (schools) must be open for the customer; (parents and community) to come in and see the product they are going to buy or are buying (what is being taught and how). These customers want to see a clean store (school), lots of products openly displayed so they can make the best choices (the curriculum), knowledge people (teachers, ect.) to assist them in meeting their needs. They want to know about your reputation in the community, how sound your ownership is (the school board) and your financial stability to guarantee your product.

There is a book recently on the market which I plan to read titled “Our School”, a vivid account of the creation and first years of a charter school in San Jose, CA. “Our School” states that most charter schools take a while to succeed. They stress the basic verities of any school; discipline, hard work, an atmosphere of community, the involvement of parents, homework loads, required classes, teaching techniques—everything was a moving target, subject to change. “Our School-Downtown College Prep was able to adapt more quickly and the biggest reason was “attitude”. Admitting mistakes is part of the culture. What is more, the teachers that work there are usually young and open to new ideas, and usually hostile to unions or anything else that gets in the way of a fresh approach to teaching. (That doesn’t mean they are all good teachers; choice schools are subject to the normal variations of human ability).

Public schools have trouble learning from their mistakes and no one wants to admit to making any—the inertia of the status quo is paralyzing. The book details how this choice school takes many of the most difficult, under performing students. They are the least likely to attend school regularly or to graduate. By taking this type of student, the financial burden to the public schools is minimal.

Many teachers in #150 are embarrassed to have visitors in their classrooms. How sad. Yet we have many good schools, principals and teachers in Peoria. Take Columbia Middle School which may be the best kept secret in Peoria. Semi-retired ex-principal Stu Regnier ran a good ship and now Ms. Cindy Lochbaum-Janovetz as Principal, is doing an outstanding job of educating these 75% low income school students. A visit a short time ago found Cindy in the hallway and students passing quietly and respectfully down the hallways. Columbia made the AYP for the first time last year. The classroom or study area where I watched through an indoor window showed every kid involved quietly. Mrs. Janovetz keeps her office door open so she can hear and see what occurs in the hallways near her office. Cindy makes sure to visit classrooms on a regular basis. She welcomes visitors and asked me if I would like to visit a class. She is the type of person this community should be proud to have working with our youth in the public school system.

Richwood High School is under the capable hands of John Meisinger who replaced Jeanne Williamson who is now area leader Dunlap’s gain and District 150 loss. In a recent visit to Richwoods, I got a number of “you can’ts” from a person behind the front office counter; not a good way to greet a customer, but John showed up with “Hi, Mr. Widmer, can I take your coat. What would you like to do”? I said “I would like to have lunch; I’ll pay for it, and then visit a math or English class”. Principal Meisinger said “sign in and I’ll take you to cafeteria, then after lunch, you’ll find me in the hallways and I’ll take you to a classroom”. After a nourishing lunch (for $2.15) and friendly service from the lady behind the lunch bar, and eating in a well monitored cafeteria, I found Mr. Meisinger in the hallways and he took me to an algebra class being taught by Ms. Julie Robinson. What an engaging and energetic teacher! She involved everyone in her classroom, capturing their attention and creating an ideal learning environment.

As I’ve said in other blogs, I sometimes visit District #150 schools, going first to the office and signing in or as at Manual where I signed in at a security desk. At Manual, I was treated with courtesy by the people in the front office, the monitors and especially the janitor who was very much interested in the success of Manual.

People who live in School District #150 have the right (and obligation) to visit any school, follow proper procedure, sit where the teacher tells them to, do not look at the students who are sometimes trying to “cut up” in class and say nothing unless the teacher asks the visitor to make a comment to the students. On my visits most teachers do ask me to make a short comment at the end of the period as did Ms. Robinson. My statements are always positive and short and I appreciate this short time spent encouraging students to succeed and recognize their achievements.

District 150 will have a great deal of difficulty in winning the battle with the community. Even with some new board members with good ideas, I do not see an overall blending. When under attack, you can not “hunker down or strike back”. Instead admit your mistakes, open up your doors; hire principals who are like “sales managers” who know how to develop good attitudes of their salespeople (teachers and staff). Under present conditions I as a customer would only do business with about half of their stores (schools). I would be very concerned about the major move they are probably going to make Monday night. As a lender, I would look for more information as to how this plan is going to help make 150 succeed. At this time, based on the limited amount of information made public, I would not lend the money (taxpayer’s dollars). I would keep my money available for a better investment which might be in more schools of choice.

I know that this blog will irritate some and they will strike back with how great Washington Gifted School is. Of course it is and so is Whittier, Columbia, Richwoods, Hines, Northmoor and other schools. That’s why I paid $3000.00 of my property taxes to support #150’s $140 million dollar budget last year. Sorry. Peoria County Jail and Juvenile system passed 18,000 arrestees thru their doors last year, mainly very young, many members of the Vice Lords, No Loves, and Disciples. Most of those arrested come from Peoria. A Manual “lead teacher” told me that “there are no gang members attending Manual High School; that they all come from the area surrounding Woodruff and Peoria High”. When I told a leading security officer what she said, he laughed. But it was a sad laugh.

Why do kids join gangs? Gang members are disciplined and made to feel part of something. Too many kids in classrooms do not feel like they are engaged or fit in. Fewer schools and larger classes are not a solution for kids that are headed for the penal system. Why does the School District that needs it most still give lip service to Vo-Tech.? At least these kids might learn how to “flush a stool” or raise a kid or even learn how to get and hold a job.

The community knows the problem but as long as we have a goodly number of successful schools (stores), some community leaders can spend their time planning enhancements and eventually building more security buildings (warehouses).

Those coming out of “warehouses” with little education, no work ethics, disrespectful and undisciplined (no, the discipline they get in incarceration will not teach them respect) and with bad attitudes; many of these newly released are and will be a rising menace to the community.

“Pay me now or pay me later” as the saying goes. $30,000 to $40,000 to incarcerate yearly. Compare that with preventative and rehabilitation costs. No comparison.

And no, we can't prevent and rehabe all who are heading toward being a liability to society. But any additional successes are an improvement over what we are accomplishing now.

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