Fixing What’s Broken in our Schools

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The other day I watched an excellent documentary called “180 Days: Hartsville”. It was about a school district in a small South Carolina town that, despite high poverty rates and low employment has turned into a success with a 92% graduation rate.

Adversities

In the community of Hartsville you have to work 100 hours each week at a minimum wage paying job to meet the median income of $38,000. Parents are stuck in an endless cycle of struggle as they try to keep their heads above water, working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Family time is compromised and the result is a lack of structure in the home for many. In Hartsville, these societal adversities were directly impacting performance in the schools. They knew they were in need of major reform in order to rescue their students and community from a system that was failing them.

Focus Lost  

images-8What Hartsville points out they were doing wrong was multi faceted and could apply to many school districts. Simply put they had lost focus on the whole child and they had failed to recognize all of the factors that influence behaviors in schools.

Hartsville educators felt like they had been forced into an “unhealthy relationship with an overreaching federal government that rewarded states for adopting common core”. While they understood that we live in a data driven society and that a certain level of importance would always be placed on these metrics, they realized that their students needed to be worked with as human beings, not pieces of data.

The educators in Hartsville also realized that many of their students were burdened with issues from their home lives that directly affected their behavior in the classroom. Overworked parents with little to no involvement in their kids’ lives resulted in a lack of structure surrounding time out of school for many. Additionally, because of the hardships that many in the community faced, the level of parent engagement within the schools was virtually non-existent.

As educators they were tackling  these issues alone and they were getting nowhere. They realized that there were many contributors to their failures and there needed to be many contributors to their successes. They knew that they had to grow their foundation of stakeholders for successful reform. Business leaders, community members, parents, educators and students all had to be a part of the solution and the drive to success. The idea of school as a reflection of community needed to be a focus and a goal.

Embracing Changeimages-7

The Hartsville schools set out to establish a framework of positivity. They embraced the notion that “the ultimate measure of success was in the holistic well being of the child.” They began to celebrate student achievement and successes in the classroom. They validated students by emphasizing their ability to be positive contributors to their schools and their communities. They were consistent with the affirmation that all students, no matter what their background, were capable of success. One school Principal started her entire student body off on the Honor Roll at the beginning of the school year to show that they were all fully capable. They used their testing data not to show deficits but to find solutions, encourage and showcase successes.

They also looked at the role of leadership differently. There was still a hierarchy of teacher, principal and superintendent, but the emphasis shifted from being in power to that of empowering.  This approach enabled them to establish a foundation of healthy challenge, encouragement, and reward.

The Hartsville schools also changed their approach to parent engagement. They began to view parents as part of the solution not part of the problem. They sought out open communication and asked parents what was working, what wasn’t working, and what could be improved.  They also went directly into the neighborhoods of the families they served instead of asking the parents to come to them. They broke down the barrier of “us against them” and allowed the parents to feel like they had a voice and a stake in the success of their children and the schools as a whole.

In implementing and embracing these changes the Hartsville schools moved from a district that had been ranked below average in 2010 to a district of excellence in 2013.

What’s Happening in Buffalo

images-9Although Buffalo is a much larger urban district, there are many parallels with that of Hartsville’s district prior to reform.  The Buffalo Public School District has a graduation rate of 53%. More than half our kids live in poverty, unemployment rates are high, and many kids deal with absentee parenting because family members work long hours at multiple jobs.

Like the Hartsville of 2010, our district is also failing because we have lost focus on the students.  Very rarely will you read an article that casts our schools or students in a positive light. As a district and a community we could be doing a lot better at celebrating  successes. We could also do a better job of treating our students as individuals with issues that can directly influence their behavior and their performance in school. Just last week there was an article in The Buffalo News about a student who had behavioral issues and struggled in class. He is now 15 and repeating 6th grade for the 3rd time. Our district’s response to this student was  to write him off. It wasn’t until the student’s mother reached out to a parent organization and the article appeared in the paper, that the student was removed  and placed into a different school with the appropriate resources to help him succeed.

We also have a school board that is in dire need of reform. They are so insistent on name calling and divisiveness that they simply don’t have the time to focus on real issues like the reality of why our schools are failing. Our Board needs to be a part of the solution not a part of the problem, and they should be working collectively to set a standard of excellence for our students and our community.

Any community that is dealing with a failing district  really needs to take a step back and  look to examples like Hartsville. We have to change our focus and start to embrace the model of whole child, whole school, whole community. We are fortunate to have a small but growing group within our school district and community that is committed to this idea of reform, but we need more stake holders and more buy in to realize the full potential that this paradigm shift has to offer.

http://video.pbs.org/video/2365401829/

About Leelah

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Yesterday was the most glorious sunny Sunday in Buffalo NY. The temp hit 30 after about 2 months of bone chilling weather and I walked outside with my daughter feeling happy to be alive. I had just written a blog entry about cyber bullying and my daughter and I were discussing the topic when I told her I wanted to share a story. It was about a girl named Leelah.

Leelah died recently after throwing herself in front of a truck on a lonely, dark stretch of road not far from her house. She did not feel happy to be alive. Leelah had been born, Josh Acorn, a boy, and since the age of 4 she had constantly struggled with gender identity issues.  Her biggest wish in life was to transition to a girl and be accepted as Leelah, a kind, artistic, and intelligent young woman.

Sadly, Leelah’s parents did not support her wish to transition. “We don’t support that, religiously,” is what her mother stated after her daughter was already dead. In an interview she continuously referred to Leelah as her son. No acceptance.

Initially it appears that Leelah found  support amongst her peers. In a school environment where often times it seems  kids are ridiculed for being different as opposed to celebrated for their uniqueness, this is to be commended. But the support waned as her parents cut her off from school, social media, and her friends, and Leelah became more and more isolated.

Had Leelah’s parents not cut her off from everything, would she have had access to a supportive LGBT group at her school, in her community? What resources were available to her? If you go to the school’s web site: (http://www.kingslocal.net/Schools/KHS/Pages/default.aspx), it appears they have a lot of different clubs: everything from ski, yearbook, and philanthropy clubs to film, anime, and self defense clubs. Do they have an LGBT club? Does your child’s school have one? I’d like to think that in the face of this tragedy they’ve begun an LGBT club at Leelah’s school. My daughter’s school has a gay straight alliance and they offer resources for transgender students as well. There is a high level of student involvement within this group.

We need to be doing a better job in our schools and our communities to support these kids. When they come out and live as the person they want to be they need to be fully supported and their commitment to diversity needs to be applauded.

http://www.glyswny.org

http://www.lgbtcenters.org

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Justice-for-Leelah-Alcorn/752262548182134

Girls Will Be Girls

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I was going to do my next article about healthy vending until I had a disturbing conversation with a friend at a party last night.

I was made aware of a twitter account that appears to no longer be in use but is still floating around in cyber space. The account was created by a few girls who wanted to peg classmates as whores and the expletive language holds nothing back. It is raw and does a good job of competing with the choicest language from any XXX web site or publication. It’s shocking and depressing content and what’s worse is that I recognized some of the names of the followers and tweeters. Good kids with engaged parents living in my own neighborhood. Some are even educators.

I don’t know why I’m so shocked. With 2 years under my belt working on student wellness issues you would think that I would have developed a thick skin. I’m aware of the pregnancies! I’m aware of the affluent suburban school district where 5th graders are engaging in oral sex under the staircase or in the janitor’s office.  I know these things! I guess what’s troubling to me is this other dimension that attaches these behaviors to social media. A place where shocking allegations and gossip will go on living forever and ever in cyberspace.

Do you know anything about Snapchat? It’s an app that’s widely used by kids where they can snap a photo or a video, send it to anyone they want, and then choose how many seconds they want it to exist in cyberspace. Ingenious! After just one second the damage is done!

Because of social media abuse I have heard of kids who have developed “reputations” in their communities, had suicidal tendencies, and have even committed suicide. As parents it is our responsibility to educate ourselves about social media and the deep impact it can have on our kids. Below is the list of the sites that your kid might be accessing. Take the time to check them out. Ask your kid if you can “follow” them on Instagram or “friend” them on Facebook (although I’ve been told that FB is for old people like me). If they say no you might want to ask why. Which leads me to another point about privacy. I’m  not the kind of parent who condones sneaking into their kid’s room to read their diary. I’m not the parent who wants to police their every move. I’m the kind of parent who, as uncomfortable as it might be, wants to be able to openly discuss with my children the perils they might face if they engage in abusive behaviors on social media.

http://www.twitter.com

http://www.snapchat.com

http://www.instagram.com

http://www.facebook.com