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You know I’m still here and I’m gonna keep posting on the Patch too. The naysayers (and that’s an awfully benign term to describe some of these people) are hurtful and nasty and not very smart-sounding and I’m trying hard to ignore them. Not that I’m unwilling to engage in conversation with people who have valid questions or concerns about the issue, but I certainly won’t engage with people like “Michael Schwartz” (who I’ve heard doesn’t even exist, but is simply some cold-hearted coward hiding behind an alias hurling insults). I actually haven’t read any of his comments since the first night, as I know it’ll only enrage me and I would much rather save my energy for this campaign than waste it on him.

So, to you, “my dears,” I say thank you for your support, thanks to those of you who’ve been brave enough to venture onto the barren editor-less wasteland that is the Patch and post your own pro-81 comments (although I strongly advise against addressing the usual suspects in any direct dialogue), and thank you for encouraging me to carry on. Carry on, I will. The opposition is loud, but they are few. We have right on our side and I do indeed believe that we will win this thing.

That being said, here is installment number 4 in my why-we-need-to-pass-Issue-81 series:

Section 8. Yup, that’s what we’re gonna talk about today, the latest in a long line of sub-groups blamed for all society’s ills. If poverty is the third rail of school conversations in this community, as Sam Bell said so beautifully in his piece, then Section 8 is the third rail of poverty conversations. Throughout this campaign, I have heard and seen comments time and again like, “If only our city would stop letting in those Section 8 people,” or “The schools’ problems would go away if we got rid of Section 8 housing.”

And it makes me wonder: Is that who we are? Is that who we want to be? Are we really the type of community that says, “We don’t want you here. Go away and take your problems with you”?  Should we build a wall up to keep the poor people out?

It happens to be illegal for a municipality such as Cleveland Heights to limit or prevent those people using Section 8 housing vouchers to move here or to prevent landlords from accepting them. We are required to allow their residence in our city.  Not only legally, but, in my opinion, morally.

We happen to be an inner-ring suburb, first stop on the way up the ladder out of the urban centers. Families move out of East Cleveland and Cleveland into Cleveland Heights precisely because they know our schools are good. Because we are seen as a land of opportunity, a safer place, a chance for them and their kids to have a better life.

I think this is a good thing. It’s not easy, I know that. We all know there’s a higher rate of crime committed by those living in Section 8 housing than by the rest of the general population; the city’s statistics prove it. But this is our role today. This is, I think, our job. And it may be a burden, as our social service agencies have more and more people in need of the help they provide, and as our schools become the receiving ground for hundreds of children with few of the skills they need to succeed. It means we have to work harder. Not to keep them out, but to bring them up. Our schools have to work harder, designing programs and hiring extra intervention specialists, socials workers, special education teachers, and psychologists to meet the many and varied needs of these children. And we all have to work harder, to adjust our expectations and find ways to learn from and with each other.

Now I realize this sounds very noblesse oblige, let-me-in-my-infinite-middle-class-wisdom-teach-you-how-to-be-a-better-member-of-our-so-called-shared-society, but so be it. I believe that Cleveland Heights and University Heights have a unique opportunity to actually make a difference in people’s lives, to provide their kids with an enriching educational experience and open up the world of opportunities that all children deserve. That is what we do. That is who we are.

Of course, this should have very little to do with the facilities discussion at all. The buildings and their needs should be evaluated separately from the children inside them. But some seem to think that because most of those kids are poor, they somehow deserve less.

And I think that’s bullshit.

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This is part three of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here and Part 2 here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.

The most upsetting argument I’ve seen against Issue 81 is the claim that our schools are failing. This is frustrating because it ignores the obvious physical needs of our buildings, but also because it simply is not true. The schools are, in my opinion, thriving. Our teachers are teaching and our students are learning.

Here is the reality: Our district serves poor children. This is not an excuse, nor a shift of blame. I happen to be proud that we serve poor children and I think we should all celebrate that fact. But, as research shows, children raised in poverty come to school less ready to learn, already significantly behind their peers on the first day of kindergarten. They often have smaller vocabularies, shorter attention spans and few of the pre-literacy or pre-numeracy skills required for learning to read, write and compute. These problems continue throughout their educational careers, which are often disrupted due to frequent moves in and out of schools and districts.

I am not saying that these children are unable to learn. Absolutely not. But they are expensive to teach. And our district is teaching them. As part of an innovative and transformational educational plan enacted by the administration several years ago, our 1st through 5th graders are now ability-grouped for two-and-a-half hour language arts blocks.  Class sizes range from five to eighteen and include instruction by ELA specialists, who are experts in their field.  This is expensive as it requires additional teachers on staff. But it is effective.

We are only now beginning to see the difference this plan is making, as this year’s third graders are the first to have had this experience since first grade. But even on the elementary test score data from this past year, improvements are noteworthy. Proficiency ratings on reading scores improved from the prior year among 3rd graders. Our district earned four A’s in the Value Added category with reading improvements seen among all sub-groups of students.

Touting that achievement is not an exercise in positive spin. Value Added is about student growth, the most important measurement of successful teaching and learning. Our schools added value to the academic performance of every subgroup of students on which districts are measured except Hispanic Students. This is significant and is the greatest endorsement the district could possibly wish for.

Consider this scenario, some version of which our schools face every single day: Imagine a 4th grader who moves into a CH-UH school from another district, reading at a first grade level. That child will be placed in a small class with a reading specialist and will learn the necessary skills to become a reader. Imagine he works extra hard, as does his teacher, and demonstrates one-and-a-half years of growth in that one school year. That’s awesome! That is better than expected and means he succeeded, with the help of his teachers, in moving from reading at a first grade level to reading at halfway through a second grade level. It also means, unfortunately, that when he takes the 4th grade Ohio Achievement Test in reading, he will fail. And that’s the result that people will point to in the newspaper to say that our district is failing. And yet, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.  The kind of growth that student demonstrated, as evidenced by CH-UH’s four A’s in Value Added, means one thing: the trajectory of student performance is positive.

I would also like to add that the bar by which we are judging our students is constantly being raised. The material I taught my students as a 4th grade teacher at Coventry School a decade ago is the same material my son recently learned in 2nd grade at Fairfax. We are continually asking our teachers to teach more and our students to learn more. And they are doing it.

Is there room for improvement? Of course! And the necessary renovation of Cleveland Heights High, Roxboro Middle and Monticello Middle Schools will not magically make our students perform better on tests, nor will it reduce the number of students we serve who live in poverty.  But it will give all the district’s students the opportunity to perform to the best of their ability, in environments that are healthy, comfortable, inspiring and conducive to the best 21st century models of teaching and learning.

I showed my 4th grader a picture of the proposed high school and he said, “Wow, Mom, that looks like a college!” I do not doubt that our district’s children will hold their heads a little higher walking into a physical space that shows they are valued. I value every one of the students in this district, no matter their background or socio-economic class, no matter the actions of their parents, and no matter their test scores. I value them and I will prove that by voting FOR Issue 81 on November 5. I hope you’ll join me.

This is part two of a multi-part series addressing resident concerns about the upcoming bond issue (Issue 81) to fund facilities renovations in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District. Part 1 can be read here. Please feel free to share any and all of these posts with any undecided friends, family, colleagues or neighbors.

Another concern that has been voiced by a few people is, “Does this plan ignore the needs of the district’s 2,600 elementary students?”

Short answer: No, not at all. Long answer: Phase 1 of this plan, which is what we’re voting on in November, only funds renovations to the high school and Roxboro and Monticello Middle Schools. The elementary schools will be addressed in Phase 2, which won’t take place until another bond is approved in about seven years. The district would love to wake up tomorrow morning and have all of its buildings fully renovated. But it is completely unrealistic to do them all at once. Not only would it be even more expensive, it would be a logistical nightmare to oversee eight to eleven construction sites, not to mention figuring out what to do with all those simultaneously displaced children. As the plan stands, only one age group is affected at a time, allowing Wiley to consecutively serve as swing space for the next ten to twelve years.

If we were to flip the current plan and start with the elementaries first, we would disrupt the education of students multiple times. Take, for instance, a current second grader. If this bond passes in November and next year is used for planning and design, that child would spend 4th and 5th grade in swing space while elementary schools were renovated. Then, construction would begin on middle schools, thus displacing the same child during 6th and 7th grade. There would likely then be a one to two-year break for additional planning and another bond. Lo and behold, that child would enter high school right as construction was set to begin and they would again spend two years in swing space, meaning they would be displaced from their home schools for half their educational career. That is unacceptable.

The board and administration have promised to do their best to provide as smooth a transition as possible during the construction years, maintaining current academic, athletic and extra-curricular offerings no matter where students are housed. But those years will no doubt be difficult ones, as hundreds of students converge on a single site with varying expectations, routines and loyalties. It is one thing to ask our current students to spend one or two years making that sacrifice; it is another thing altogether to ask them for five or six years. The current plan ensures that no single students is affected by building construction more than once, for at most two years. This is a shared sacrifice for the common good that seems reasonable and that most of us can swallow.

Furthermore, and this is important, the elementary buildings won’t simply be ignored in the years between now and Phase 2. They should, in fact, get extra attention. The district currently uses funds from a 2002 permanent improvement levy for facility maintenance and repairs. That dollar amount is not large and is spread across all eleven buildings, with the majority of it focused on the high school, which, as one of the oldest buildings, represents 40% of the total square footage in the district. If the bond passes and the new funds it generates are designated for the high school and eventually the middle schools, the permanent improvement funds are freed up to be used solely by the elementary schools. This is a good thing, and will not only provide those buildings with more money but also the time and focus of the district’s maintenance crew, who will be separate from those firms newly hired to do the construction.

One last thing, of considerable import: It is the current elementary students who will benefit from this plan. Our investment is in them and their futures. My 4th grader will spend his last year of middle school in swing space before moving into a newly renovated, state-of-the-art high school. And my 1st grader will spend his first year of middle school in swing space before moving into a newly renovated Roxboro, followed by the newly renovated high school. It is today’s kindergarten class, the smallest among us, who will be the first cohort of children to squeak by with no disruption to their educations and get to enjoy their full middle and high school careers in newly renovated spaces.

This plan does not ignore the elementary students. It is, in fact, for them.

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I know I have readers spread out over the country and even (a few) over the world, so I apologize for the hyper-local nature of the upcoming blog posts, but home is what’s most important to me and this stuff needs to be said.  If you care about public education in your own community, keep reading and always feel free to take my insights and use them as you see fit in your own education-equity battles.

Our school district has a bond issue on the November ballot to fund much-needed renovation and repairs of the high school and two of the three current middle schools. This is Phase 1 of what will be a two-phase ten to twelve year project that will impact all eleven buildings and all 5,500 students in the district. I have worked on this issue for two years and believe it is deeply necessary.

As with all contentious political issues, confusion, misconceptions and misinformation abound.  I’ve been busily crafting a counter-argument to the most common concerns and have finally decided, in the interest of time and space and in order to get things published by our local media outlets, (most of whom have 200-word limits) to break this down and address them one by one. I will post every other day for the next week or so until I feel all angles have been addressed. And I ask you to please SHARE every one of these updates: Repost them on your Facebook page, tweet a link, email them to your undecided friends, colleagues and neighbors. Even if you don’t live within the CH-UH boundaries, if you know a single person who does, share share share. Information is our best weapon.

I do not claim to be the repository of all knowledge and facts regarding this issue, but as a member of the Lay Facilities Committee that recommended the plan that the school board ultimately approved and as an active member of the steering committee for Issue 81, I do know what I’m talking about. And I obviously care deeply about the future of our communities and especially our public schools.

So, with that long intro behind us, I present the first common complaint about this bond issue: Why are the buildings in such bad shape and whose fault is it? Has the administration ignored the needed upkeep, thus creating an ever-growing backlog of work?

The buildings are in bad shape because they are nearly one hundred years old, plain and simple. If anyone is to blame, we can only point the finger at Mother Nature and Father Time. Maintenance and upkeep is done every single day on every building by a team of dedicated custodians and laborers, whether they’re repairing a leaky roof or ensuring that classrooms are heated. The “backlog” list which is often referenced is not a static document, sitting untouched on a shelf. It is constantly changing and every single time an item is completed and moved off the list, another new item is added. The piece-meal, patch-work quilt of maintenance we’ve relied on for the past four decades simply isn’t enough anymore. It wastes tax-payer dollars on expensive and inefficient systems and doesn’t give us anything better for our efforts. We need a massive overhaul of our buildings and Issue 81 will give us that.

Most of us live in old homes and know that maintaining them is an unending process.  I am a good homeowner, but my house just turned 93 and we feel its age every day. We recently had a pipe burst in our second floor bathroom. Naturally, it leaked, causing damage to the wall and ceiling in the entryway below it. To replace the pipe, the original plaster and lathe walls and ceiling had to be broken into and then majorly repaired. This was both expensive and time-consuming. Did it happen because we were somehow irresponsible? Were we mismanaging our money, turning a blind eye to obvious needs?  No. It happened because my house is old. Period.

Our schools are old as well. The eroding and corroding electrical, HVAC, and plumbing systems at the high school can no longer be subjected to band-aid repairs. The district has some funds, from a 2002 improvement levy, designated for the constant upkeep of its buildings. Any other discretionary funds the district has had over the past few years have been diverted away from maintenance to use for innovative and necessary academic programming.  That is why the so-called backlog never seems to shorten. Our crews are like gerbils on a treadmill, constantly running but never reaching their destination. The time is now to do one, big, bold renovation to fix these problems for the next fifty years.

Come to the high school this Wednesday, October 16 at 6:30pm for a tour and see the need with your own eyes. You’ll have the distinct pleasure of visiting the boiler room, which reaches 110 degrees in the winter, viewing the Pit of Death from which we pay someone to remove the pigeon carcasses twice each year, and braving the moldy, mildewy locker rooms below the pool. The buildings are old and they are falling apart, with no one to blame but time.

The need, my friends, is real.

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