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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Blurred Vision

In this weeks Folio:

One of the biggest problems the Duval County School District has is it lacks a realistic and achievable vision. We don’t have a comprehensive and realistic plan for our children. Now we do have a vision statement. It says: Every student will graduate from Duval County Public Schools with the knowledge and skills to be successful in post-secondary education and/or the workforce.

Unfortunately recent indicators say we’re not doing such a good job achieving that.

Florida State College at Jacksonville reports that seventy percent of recent grads have to take remedial courses before they start their studies. Then several employers have likewise said that finding competent workers among recent graduates is getting harder and harder to do. Which begs the question what are we doing wrong? Could it be possible that our vision is blurred?

Did you know that we are requiring every student to take and pass the same classes to graduate? That’s right folks, here in Jacksonville every child regardless of ability, aptitude, intelligence, interest or desire has to take the same classes to finish school. We in effect have a one-size fit’s all curriculum that isn’t leading to many children being successful in either a post secondary education setting or in the workforce.

The reality is even society doesn’t support our districts vision. We don’t want a city of just brain surgeons or engineers, which is what the school board will have you believe, is possible. We need laborers, artists, tradesmen, and dozens of other professions that won’t be outsourced to India or other emerging third world countries. We however do need them to be able to do their jobs well.

Shouldn’t our vision instead to be to help every child be as productive member of society as possible, regardless of what they do? That’s whether they work with their hands or with their brains or if they dig ditches or fix hearts? Shouldn’t the vision we have for our children be realistic and achievable?

The truth is, that if some or our students after they graduate high school get a job with a decent wage that has potential for advancement even if they never plan to go to college we should celebrate that. Not every child is going to be cut out for college and even more aren’t going to have the desire to attend. We as a society should not just accept that fact we should also embrace it. We should encourage children to be the best they can be whether they have a degree or not and public schools most importantly should help develop whatever skills they have, not what skills we wish they had.

Furthermore as society has evolved it’s even become debatable that college is required for one to be successful. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that seven of the 10 employment sectors that are growing the quickest, those that include occupations such as home healthcare aide, customer service representative, food prepares and servers not only will see the largest gains over the next decade but will also require little more than on the job training to do successfully. Those jobs don’t require four years of college and tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt to do. They also don’t require advance maths like algebra II or other courses that the DCPS system requires. A math teacher colleague of mine once asked, why am I teaching algebra II to a kid who wants to drive trucks for a living? (1)

In a recent Las Angeles Times article W. Norton Grubb, a professor at UC Berkeley's School of Education said that "People with bachelor's degrees will increasingly get not very highly satisfactory jobs. In that sense, people are getting more schooling than jobs are available." The article also noted that in 1970, 77% of workers with a bachelor's degree were employed in professional and managerial occupations but that by 2000, that number had fallen to 60% and went on to sight the National Assn. of Colleges and Employers, which said that only one out of four college seniors this year had a job waiting for them upon graduation. (2)

Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying college isn’t important, you will find legitimate study after study that indicates college degrees leads to higher salaries and more opportunities. I also personally greatly believe in education and encourage all the kids in my class to pursue as much as they can, even the ones I know because of desire or ability won’t get that far.

I am also not saying we shouldn’t have minimal standards. Kids should be able to read and write, do math to a realistic level and have the ability to critically think upon graduation. They should also be respectful and have some semblance of a work ethic too, things the school system destroys when it doesn’t give kids consequences for bad behavior or pushes then along without the skills they need to be successful or just teaches to one test.

What I am saying is we need to have graduation tracks that teach some kids, skills and trades. We need to serve the needs of all our students not those just destined to go to college upon graduation.

What I am saying is a bachelors degree is not the end all be all that it was a generation ago and since now we have fast food eating, video game playing, Ritalin popping kids roaming the halls of today’s schools we should be exploring other options. I am saying that instead of just unrealistically preparing all our students for college, instead we should be preparing them for life and to be successful at whatever they choose to do.

How’s that for vision?

Those who are in charge at 1700 Prudential Drive might disagree with me when I say we lack vision. They would probably point to the Magnet School programs that have seen two of our schools, Stanton and Paxon be ranked in the top eight of the whole country. They might also point out that for years students here have been required to take advanced maths and science classes to graduate. That these are requirements that the state is now just beginning to phase in over the next four years.

The thing is for every success like above that the district points to, critical thinkers can also find numerous blaring drawbacks. There’s our graduation, reading and drop out rates, which are some of the worse in the state that people can easily point to. That and the fact even that college isn’t for everyone and by forcing all students into the same track more and more are needlessly dropping through the cracks. Plus I never said we lacked vision, I said we lacked a realistic and achievable one.


Monday, August 30, 2010

The scientific method

When I first learned about the "scientific method", I was a student in the same building where I now teach. I learned about it in a very definite way. There was no room to wiggle, no gray area. Every time we did it, we started and finished in the same way; ask a question; do research; develop a hypothesis; experiment; analyze data and communicate results. That was it. (Now, sure, the terms might have been slightly different from teacher to teacher, but they always meant the same thing). Then, in college, 'collect and analyze data' may have been split apart, but even their gist was always the same: there was a definite start and a definite finish.

Fast-forward to 2010: Now, the scientific method is no longer a beast with a definitive beginning and ending. Instead, it’s now a free-flowing entity that jumps back and forth, or can skip steps altogether. That’s right, folks - for almost 2,500 years, the scientific method was fine and dandy...but, suddenly, the Florida Department of Education decided it needed tweaking. (Aristotle, long thought to be the father of the scientific method, probably wouldn’t be pleased).

I asked another science teacher what the deal was - why were they switching up the scientific method after following it had led to TIVO, air conditioning and the peanut butter cup - (the three greatest inventions known to man) along with all the other scientific breakthroughs we currently enjoy? "Where were the steps...the order..." I asked, "and how can we skip doing 'research' and go straight to 'experiment' "? He kind of shrugged his shoulders and scrunched up his face, and replied, "Chris, I learned it the same way as you did, and this is the first year I am teaching it the new way; but I do what I am told".

"It's science", I replied. "If people would have done what they were told, we would still think that the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth, and I shudder to think what peanut butter would taste like. Come on now", I continued, “ 'just because' is not what science is about".

"Well..." he began, "I think it's because it’s easier this new way. When kids have to put things in order, they can miss a step or mix the steps up". He scrunched up his face and shrugged his shoulders at the same time. I nodded that I got it, and what I got was that the 'everybody-gets-a-trophy' folks (who had somehow become in-charge of education's big picture) had decided to dumb-down the scientific method in order to make sure more kids could get that question right on the F-CAT. That’s what I got.

Folks, I know it’s ironic that I use a tool, the scientific method, (that tells us things can constantly evolve and change) to make my point - but my point is that there are some things we shouldn’t evolve or change. I get it, but at the same time, I really think there are some things that shouldn’t change unless it’s a manifest necessity. We shouldn’t change just for the sake of change and we definitely shouldn’t make changes that dumb education down. We should be moving forward, not back.

Education experts talk about the need for rigor, and also call for students to take advanced classes like Algebra II and Chemistry; but, then, at the same time, they dumb-down the Science portion of the F-CAT by getting rid of the short-answer questions. That makes it all multiple-choice, and it lowers the passing grade requirement on the Writing portion of the F-CAT from a 3.5 to a 3. An English teacher friend of mine said that a 3 on the F-CAT basically means being able to hold a pencil. I have another friend who told me only about 30% of his Algebra II students could pass a legitimate Algebra I class. Wouldn’t a better idea be to make sure students have mastered a skill and can do it well, rather than pushing them along and hoping they miraculously pick it up somewhere? In short, wouldn’t it be better to make sure students can do some things well rather than a lot of things half-assed? We shouldn’t be afraid of rigor, we shouldn’t be afraid to challenge students, and we shouldn’t be afraid to fail children, either, as long as, in the end, they have the skills they need. Education is not just a destination, but it is a journey, as well.

Education currently finds itself in a precarious position. We’re caught between what we say ("we want to prepare all children for a post-secondary education"), what we have done (created the reality of a nobody-can-fail environment), populated by who we have, (a significant portion of children who aren’t prepared for school; who should either be held back to get the skills they need or, sadly, will never get the skills society wants them to have). That doesn’t mean they can’t be successful; it just means we have to be realistic.

Education has reached a tipping point where something has got to give - and, because of the dichotomous nature of education, 'pass them at all costs - regardless if they are successful or not' - means, in the end, numerous children will be robbed of a proper sense of how society works and society itself will suffer.

The system has made it nearly impossible for teachers to fail children; "the kids aren't doing the work", or "the kids are doing substandard work" aren’t good enough reasons anymore. If a teacher fails a child now, the teacher's ability and credibility are questioned. Now, I am not saying that we shouldn’t have safeguards in place like tutoring after school and summer school opportunities. What I am saying is when we differentiate instruction to the point where three different levels of work from three different students can get the same credit and when we initiate learning recovery that any child can take (regardless of why they need it; unexcused absences, behavior or a lack of effort), we pervert the whole system.

What’s going to happen when these children join the workforce or go to college? Are their employers and professors going to dumb-down what they have to do, or have different requirements for the same class or for the same job? No, they are not - and after a lifetime of being pushed along or having things altered to fit not just what they can do but what they want to do, then cold reality is going to slap them in the face. They are going to get a wakeup call that they are not prepared for.

When education meets students where they are, it prevents education from getting students to where they should be. I would argue that when we dumb-down the scientific method, we’re not doing the kids any favors. Sure, it might be easier; sure, our test scores might go up, and a school grade might get better - but what’s the real benefit? Is there a real benefit? I doubt Aristotle would think so

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The pallets

A teacher friend told me there was something in the back of the school that I should go check out. When I asked what it was, they told me I would know it when I saw it. I went back and looked around and I quickly found what they were talking about.

I was saddened when I saw the dozen pallets stacked up five feet high with books under an awning barely protecting them from the elements. I later found out they were waiting to be picked up to be taken to bulls bay, the school districts book and surplused item depository and had been for quite some time.

I know what some people might say. Chris why do you find fault with everything the school district does? Editions change, old books become out of date and need to be replaced by new ones.

Believe me it wares on me constantly talking about the problems in the district when the truth is there are so many amazing things going on. I just happen to think the vast majority of them are the individual interactions between students and teachers and quite often they happen in despite of the school district and its policies and procedures.

All that above however doesn’t change what I saw. I saw pallets of books in boxes, the vast majority of which were unopened. Books that at most were just a few years old. I am no expert on book prices but I would estimate there were thousands if not tens of thousands of books on those pallets being exposed to the elements. This isn’t a situation, which is unique to my school either. I asked teachers at other schools and most reported a similar situation. An area or a room where books left in unopened boxes gather dust.

This is my problem with the pallets. I believe education is under funded; I believe there are so many needs that are going unfilled but how can I in good conscious fight for more money or try and convince others that we desperately need it when there is such waste going on? How do we not have a system in place where we just order what we need and what we are going to use? I am all for new books. I am not for new books replacing books that have never been used.

A dozen pallets stacked five feet high; with books in unopened boxes exposed to the elements is something nobody should ever see at a public school. It’s truly a sad site.

The Pallets

Saturday, August 28, 2010

270 Thousand

When people talk about education they often throw lots of numbers around. Some of the most discussed are the dropout and graduation rates and how different groups score on tests such as the f-cat. However there is one number that trumps them all and that number is 270 thousand.

270 Thousand is the salary of our school superintendent. He makes a hundred thousand more than our mayor and substantially more than the chief of police as well. He makes thirty thousand less than the superintendents of Clay and St. Johns counties combined. People who disagree with what they read next might do so by saying, his salary is fair, that to get top talent we must pay top dollar. Since most teachers I know are little more than paycheck-to-paycheck, that’s they are barely getting by on far less than top dollar I believe they might have a problem with at least the first part of that statement. I personally have a problem with the top talent part.

Let me ask you a question, what would you do if you could have a salary of 270 thousand dollars?

Would you sacrifice the future of some of the cities children by forcing elementary and middle school teachers to promote children that won’t be successful? The reason to do so is how many kids fail impacts a counties grade. The proof that it happens, a recent Times Union article pointed out that only about fifty percent of tenth graders read at grade level, yet strangely enough they somehow made it to tenth grade.

Would you allow children to progress through the school system with a false sense of how society works by ignoring discipline and withholding consequences for bad behavior? The reason to do so is because referrals and suspensions affect a districts grade. The proof that it happens, why else would how many children are suspended be tied to principal’s evaluations, unless the superintendent wanted to dramatically reduce the number.

Would you encourage kids who were ill prepared to take advanced placement courses to take them? The reason to do so is because the more students taking, not necessarily passing, advanced placement courses affect a districts grade. The proof that it happens, check out last years article in the Times Union to see how as the amount of children taking the tests has gone up the percentage of children passing them has gone way down. That and the fact that level 1 and level 2 children, kids who haven’t passed the f-cat are allowed to take A.P. classes, which are designed only for the most advanced children to take.

Would you pervert programs like grade recovery, that were originally designed to aid children who tried hard but just didn’t get it or children who had legitimate reasons for missing school like illnesses to make up classes, into programs that allowed any child to make up classes for any reasons regardless of effort, behavior or reasons for absences.

Would you put a positive spin on everything taking every opportunity to say that the state has given Duval County a B grade? If the counties graduation rate, 65 percent, was sole criteria for computing a counties grade we would have a grade of D. If we used tenth graders reading the district would have an F.

Would you do anything to protect your job? What wouldn’t you do?

There are lots of numbers in education that the city should be worried about but the biggest one is 270 thousand.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Are you F*$%ing kidding me: The Pratt-Dannals evaluation story

If my friends heard me cursing, their jaws would drop. That’s not what I do, and one of the reasons I don't is because I don’t want my kids to curse and I think it is important to practice what you preach. So, when I read that Jacksonville’s School Superintendent had received at most a minor hit to his evaluation yet he was still considered highly effective, it was out of character for me to yell "are you f*$%ing kidding me"! Though, I admit, I have often said the Superintendent must have pictures of various school board members with either a live boy or a dead girl.
Let’s take a moment to look at what garnered Superintendent Pratt-Dannals this exemplary rating:

In the last three years, the district will have lost over two thousand children; during the same period of time, the city has seen modest growth. When I teach biology, I teach 'if it’s not growing, it’s dying'.

Enrollment in home schools and private schools has declined all throughout the state except in Jacksonville, Florida.

Less than half of our tenth graders can read or do math at grade level despite the fact that we have so many "A" elementary and middle schools sending students to high school. Furthermore, 9 out of 13 neighborhood high schools that are either failing or in a turn-around status.

Seventy percent of recent graduates have to take remedial classes once they enroll at Florida State College at Jacksonville.

Pratt-Dannals recently (unnecessarily) instigated financial urgency against the teachers to show them who is boss only to ultimately give them more than they asked for so he could quickly sweep the mess under the rug.

Our graduation rate is low, our dropout rate is high and the city’s confidence in the school system is abyssmal.

While I could go on and on and on, I’ll finish by repeating what the Superintendent recently said (which should give everyone a true idea how he feels). He said "the school system is one good community away from having a good school system". If you are dumbfounded that all of the above garners an evaluation ranking him 'highly effective', then you are not the only one.

I don’t blame the Superintendent though; he’s a math teacher who worked his way up the ranks. If things were going better, he would probably be the subject of a lifetime movie of the week - "The Pratt-Dannals Story: From Equations to Destiny".

I don’t question his character; I don’t question his work ethic; I don’t question his desire, not at all. Instead, I simply question his depth, as he seems out of his.

Though, if I am being honest, I can admit it’s not his fault that he has a $275,000 salary to protect and a school board who is amazingly disconnected from the realities of what is happening in the city's schools. It’s the school board, Duval’s elected team of career politicians who have decided to use the school board and our children as as stepping-stone up or down and random people filled with hubris who only have a tenuous relationship to education, who treat the job as a part-time inconvenience that I really blame for the problems here in Jacksonville. Lets look at a snippet of the evaluations they gave the Superintendent:

(1)Board members praised Pratt-Dannals for fostering a multiple-pathway approach to graduation, creating strong community ties and rolling out accelerated academic programs to every high school. We could go with that, or we could translate that into everyday words that the citizens of Jacksonville use. He has helped create a "one-size fits all" curriculum that has gutted the district's teaching of trades, skills and the arts; he is, at a minimum, partly responsible for a community that is high in crime and unemployment and low in civility and he has reintroduced to the neighborhood schools the very programs that were taken out of them, that ruined or nearly ruined many of them.

(2)Now …there were a few rebukes sprinkled in the evaluations. Some board members expressed frustration at the slow pace of needed improvements, keying in on reading proficiency, the racial achievement gap and graduation rates. The Superintendent said he got the message.

(3)“There are some areas that we need to improve,” Pratt-Dannals said Friday night, “so I think [the evaluations were] as much as anything saying that 'we still have confidence in you, but we want to make more rapid progress'.”

He might believe that the school board has confidence in him, but many teachers and principals throughout the district, (nearly forty of whom were reassigned this past summer), have seen it severely eroded.

They also all know what it means when the Ssuperintendent says 'we need to make improvements'. You see, the Superintendent's strategies consist of forcing principals to crack the whip (because it must be the teacher's fault) and then to overburden the teachers with task after task and requirement after requirement that, at best, have only a peripheral relationship to education. Say 'hello' to complicated universal board configuration that most kids don’t even notice and 'goodbye' to teachers wearing jeans. That’s his part of his solution, stopping teachers from wearing jeans. As far as I can tell, he doesn’t plan to reinstill discipline and stop social promotions - the bare minimum of what he should be doing.

To do that would jeopardize the smoke -and- mirror "B" rating that the State (perhaps the biggest group of incompetents in the bunch) has given the district. I say "smoke-and-mirrors" because the powers-that-be here in Jacksonville seem way more interested in saying the right thing than doing the right thing, and before you get upset with that statement, think about the numbers: "sixty-five" and "less than fifty" as in our graduation rate and the number of tenth graders that read at grade level.

Ladies and Gentlemen, friends and neighbors, I get how reasonable people can look at a problem and disagree. I get how we can have different ideas and solutions. The thing is I can’t get is imagining any reasonable person looking at the district and thinking it’s going in the right direction. I can’t imagine any person looking at the state of our schools and thinking the superintendent is doing a great job - nobody, that is, but the seven individuals who make up the city's school board.

We have serious problems and we need to tackle them quickly. How many more children are we going to sacrifice to the altar of patience because we have chosen to have a Superintendent who is more concerned with appearances, and be represented by a school board who is blind to the district's problem? How many more children are going to pay the price. How long can they and our city afford more of his highly effective leadership?

(1-3)I used part of a Times Union article above:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

School Board offers more money to teachers than they asked for (unedited)

Flabbergasted was the look I tried to conceal when school board Chief Negotiator Vicki Reynolds came back into the conference room where negotiations were taking place. She came back with an offer of more money than DTU had asked for just a few minutes before - and, for the record, the union only asked for what they had been promised in the contract. That’s the middle of the story.

The beginning of the story was on August 9, 2010, when the school board voted 4-3 to break the contract it had with Duval Teachers United and declare a financial emergency. They pointed to a projected $5 million shortfall in the budget, despite the fact that in the last year they had been spending like drunken sailors: $1 million on new cars; an increased travel budget approaching a half million dollars; multi -million dollar renovations at Ed White high school and Lee high school(which, you might remember , was just rebuilt a few years ago, after a fire). The list goes on and on. Also, keep in mind that President Obama was scheduled to sign the Federal Jobs Bill on August 11, 2010.

Since then, it wasn’t just the teachers who were fired up and shocked by what the school board had done, but a large segment of the public, as well. They knew that local educators weren’t the most well- paid bunch, but, even in these troubling financial times figured they should get at least what they had been promised. The school board had taken a public relations hit that may have even led to at least one upset in the local school board races. People are slowly beginning to grasp that maybe having politicians using the school board as a stepping-stone on the way up (or the way down) as well as people who only have a tenuous relationship to education might not be the wisest move - especially seeing the dire straits our shrinking school system has been facing.

When the board declared financial urgency, it set in motion a timetable that would send the contract to mediation if the parties didn’t either agree on a new financial model or, at least, agree to extend the deadline. That led to one negotiating session preceded by a rally which saw several hundred teachers and their supporters in attendance. At that initial meeting, the school board offered to eliminate steps for the county’s paraprofessionals, universally recognized as the most underpaid, overworked and disrespected employees the school system has. The teachers, however, could receive their step - though there would be no money for those teachers at the top of the pay ladder. The district also proposed setting up a committee to look at future pay scales. Something which you won’t read in the Florida Times- Union is that DTU was very amiable to the suggestion - so much so that on the info sheet sent to DTU members, that part was in bolder and bigger letters than the rest. Perhaps this is rightfully so because after that first meeting, that was the only thing upon which the two parties had agreed.

When the union contract negotiating team came back together, the first thing they agreed upon was that the paraprofessionals would not be left out in the cold. While it wasn’t said out loud, there seemed to be a feeling in the room that they would be taken care of first. It was decided by all that they would counter with each group, teachers and paraprofessionals, asking for $250 for the paras at the top and $400 for teachers at the top (both in lieu of steps). The team was also still very amiable to forming a committee to talk about future pay scales. They were going to let the school board know they would be willing to extend the deadline so the negotiator could take the proposal back to the board. The DTU did not ask for raises (something teachers have not received since the ‘07-‘08 school year); instead, they basically just asked for what they were told they would receive.

Negotiations are like a dance; at first, one side leads and then, the other. There are also a lot of subtle niceties that, if you read between the lines, really don’t always come off as all that nice.

Vicki Reynolds asked to confer with her team. Once they left, the DTU team looked at each other and someone suggested maybe they were going to try and finish this tonight, which is kind of amazing if you think about it: the school board had gone from eliminating everything to offering teachers their steps, to now considering both teachers and paras receive their steps, and then kicking in some money for those members on the top ends of their prospective pay scales.

The school board negotiating team came back in. First, they agreed to the paraprofessionals’ step increases and then the $250 for the paras at the top end of the pay scale. Then, something amazing happened - something I imagine is very rare in the negotiating world: the negotiating team offered teachers not only their steps, but also $500 for those members at the top end of the pay scale. Yes, folks - they were offering teachers $100 more than what the DTU was asking.

Now, it’s true that I am very new to the process, and what I don’t know could fill volumes. I may have missed something in the language that, on occasions, seems purposefully wordy and confusing – but, regardless, there they were; offering more than what was asked. It seemed all they wanted in return was for the DTU to sign off right then and there and agree to look at reworking future pay scales. Both were things the union was more than willing to do.

Flabbergasted was the look I tried to conceal when school board Chief Negotiator Vicki Reynolds came back into the conference room and offered more money than the union had asked for – and now they were willing to pay more than they would have had the board not called a financial urgency.

The negotiating team asked for a few minutes to discuss the offer, and, as the board negotiating team left, the first thing we wondered was what we were missing. Why had the district first shown so little respect to their staff just so, in the end, they could pay more money that they would have, originally? The best we could come up with was that they wanted to move on and do so quickly. They realized that the financial urgency was nothing but a failed ploy which they thought they could use to get the public outraged against teachers in the same way so many seem to be against firemen, policemen and other civic employees. We imagined they realized it had failed and that they felt they needed to get it out of the headlines and off the minds of the citizens of Jacksonville as quickly as possible.

During the team’s talk, several teachers even discussed settling for our original offer. These are tough times, and teachers know that; they also know what public perception can be. Unfortunately, there is a certain segment of the population, which is all too willing to blame teachers for the state of things while giving the school board and superintendent a pass. Even though it was ultimately passed upon, mostly due to the huge increases of out–of-pocket benefit costs that teachers are paying this year, it was literally touching to hear teachers (many of whom already sacrifice and give so much, and many of whom had felt so disrespected when this process began) even discussing it.

When the district team came back into the conference room, the union bargaining team accepted their offer - an offer that was more than what the DTU had asked for. This isn’t even the end of the story; no this is just another chapter showing the capricious matter in which things are run. The end of the story is still far off, and it won’t be a happy one for the districts teachers and its children nor their parents the stakeholders or the city of Jacksonville itself unless we make changes, big changes.

A mischaracterization

It’s a mischaracterization by the Times Union to say teachers received seven million dollars in raises. Teachers don’t get paid the same and haven’t for quite some time. First year teachers get paid so much; second a different amount and so on. The district, who gave teachers more than they asked for by the way, to quickly end their financial urgency debacle just agreed a seventh year teacher would be paid like a seventh year teacher and that’s all.

Teachers by the way also routinely and annually spend hundreds if not thousand of dollars on other people's children while working hundred if not thousands of hours of unpaid over time. They have seen their cost of benefits rise dramatically and haven’t seen an actual raise to the pay scale since the 07-08 school year.

Finally it isn’t just the district who thinks there are inequalities in the teacher pay scale and DTU made that abundantly clear during the negotiations.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

InSIGnificant Others

Several “low achieving” schools accepted school improvement grants (SIG) to help them turn things around this past summer and to be honest this is as close as anything I have seen to throwing money at a problem. Now there were other things but the gist was teachers would work and extra forty-five minutes a day for which they would be paid and an enrichment/review (re: F-CAT prep) class would be inserted into the schedule for all students to take.

A month ago there were varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Fast-forward to this past Tuesday, after pre-planning and after school had been in session for two days. The district in all its infinite wisdom came and told a third of the teachers (elective teachers and a few others) that they would no longer be involved in the SIG grant. They wouldn’t have to teach the prep-class and they could leave at 2:25, all teachers up to this point had been required to stay till 3:10. This means the prep classes, the classes designed to give students the extra instruction they need to do well, will now have forty kids each in them and yes this will happen even with the class size amendment. You see they are coded as electives despite the fact no kid in his right mind would elect to take it. That’s forty kids in a class they don’t want to be in, studying something they don’t care about.

Tuesday there were varying degrees of enthusiasm, though many teachers felt just a tad bit insignificant.

The powers-that-be often talk about schools being communities and families but if the truth be known teachers are just pawns to be moved around whenever a new education trend or fashion blows into town. Then the powers-that-be scream be organized and be prepared and then it turns out they don’t know what they are doing. Though it’s not just teachers that pay the price, students suffer just as much if not more.

If you didn’t know it, we’re in trouble with our education system and if you can’t quite put your finger on it let me help. Far off in their ivory towers are people who know very little about education, there they mettle and pass laws and edicts to be carried out by the local school districts. Then the leaders of the local districts force teachers to carry out these orders, the administrations do this lockstep without a thought or a care if they will work or not. Next teachers are overwhelmed with task after task many of which have very little to do with actual teaching and are forced to teach kids subjects they are not only not interested in but will never use again. Finally it’s the kids, the ones at the bottom who pay the ultimate price. They are at the mercy of those above them, their desires, dreams, and abilities ignored. Sadly in education they have become the true insignificant others.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Visited by the classroom police

The classroom police visited me the other day. They said my board configuration was off. They said my classroom agenda was missing. The said my rules policies and routines weren’t posted and they said my word wall was non-existent. Then they said Guerrieri get with it! The last part they didn’t say very nicely.

I had several problems with this.

First, the kids don’t need those things above to learn and where is the proof it helps. In this era where data is king, where is the data that tells us having a complicated and time consuming agenda helps with the transfer of knowledge? Where is the evidence that shows that students in a class with a word wall do better on standardized tests than those that don’t? How do we know that massive data notebooks lead to kids going to college? Show me a paper, a book, an article, show me something, show me anything! Sure it might sound good on paper not that one exists but when teachers are just creating these massive volumes to get their principals and A.P.s off their backs it hurts the whole process. Just show me some proof, some evidence that any of this leads to success and I’ll do it. Like most teachers will I’ll go the extra mile for my students if it proves beneficial.

Now you might be saying, suck it up Guerrieri, when you are on the company dime you need to do what they say. The problem with that is that I am not doing it on the company dime; I’m doing it on my own. When I am arranging my room, updating my agenda and spending hours on cramming stuff I’ll never see again into data notebooks, it’s preventing me from doing other things like interacting with my parents, planning and grading papers, you know teacher stuff. What people are failing to understand is that teaching more and more has little to do with actual teaching and more and more with throwing time consuming and half thought out ideas against a wall like it was paint and seeing what sticks.

My second problem with the classroom police visiting my room and telling me to make extensive changes is I don’t have a room. Go ahead and read that again. Yes, that’s right I don’t have a room. I am either teaching or co-teach seven of the eight periods and in doing so I find myself in six different rooms. I am in one room twice, a room that other teachers use as well, well if they would show up that is.

I’ll cram stuff into a data notebook. I’ll also use the lesson plan format even though I only understand about half of it. Then as usual teach my ass off but configure a room, which I am in twice every other day? Really?


Teacher Raises

Times being tough is one of the few things most people can agree upon. As a result I certainly understand why some people become upset at the notion of teachers getting raises. However actualy teachers aren’t getting raises they are getting step increases.

A step says a first year teacher will get paid this much, a second year teacher will get paid a different amount and a third year teacher something different and so on. It’s the equivalent of a company paying a wielder a certain amount, a mason another and a carpenter yet a third sum. The steps themselves unless you are at the top end of the pay scale are very small and teachers haven’t seen an actual raise in several years. Okay if some of you are thinking maybe a step increase and a raise is actually a distinction without a difference, fair enough but here is where some real differences come into play.

Many teachers annually spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their students and their rooms’, money that is not reimbursed by the district. Then this year teachers saw their out of cost payment for health benefits rise substantially. As a single person my payment went from nothing to forty-seven dollars a paycheck or nearly a hundred dollars a month (my step increase as a tenth year teacher would be 22 dollars a paycheck). Single mothers and teachers with families saw their costs increase even more dramatically. The last time teachers actualy got a raise was during the 07-08 school year and they won't get one this year either.Finally and this is just my opinion, I think people complaining about teachers step increases during tough times is a bit disingenuous unless they called for teacher to get raises during good times.

I doubt above is going to change anyone’s mind. I just thought some accurate information might be beneficial.

If you would like to see teacher pay steps check out the link below.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Little Fanfare

With little fanfare the once much publicized plan to require high school students to pick majors went away today; this year it will no longer be required. This also goes to show once again that education in Florida is a little bit like the weather, if you wait long enough it will change. Unfortunately to often the people dictating the changes are far away from the classrooms and have a very limited idea of what schools, children and education needs and even more unfortunate is schools, children and education suffer for it.

The high school major idea didn’t cause much damage but many of the ideas that come down the pipeline from the state often have dramatic and unimagined consequences. The F-CAT introduced an era of high stakes testing which has seen schools exchange creating well rounded students for students who can take just one test. Increasing the graduation requirements has led to the dumbing down of many classes. The list could go on and on.

Picking majors sounds good right? It could give kids a bit of direction, though at fourteen most of them only want directions to the mall. If only the powers-that-be would take some direction and stop meddling in education. They often do so to it’s detriment.

Teacher Raises

Times being tough is one of the few things most people can agree upon. As a result I certainly understand why some people can become upset at the notion of teachers getting raises. However acutaly teachers aren’t getting raises they are getting steps.

A step says a first year teacher will get paid this much, a second year teacher will get paid a different amount and a third year teacher something different and so on. It’s the equivalent of a company paying a wielder a certain amount, a mason another and a carpenter yet a third sum. The steps themselves unless you are at the top end of the pay scale are very small and teachers haven’t seen an actual raise in several years. Okay if some of you are thinking maybe a step increase and a raise is actually a distinction without a difference, fair enough but here is where some real differences come into play.

Many teachers annually spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars on their students and their rooms’, money that is not reimbursed by the district. Then this year teachers saw their out of cost payment for health benefits rise substantially. As a single person my payment went from nothing to forty-seven dollars a paycheck or nearly a hundred dollars a month (my step increase as a tenth year teacher would be 22 dollars a paycheck). Single mothers and teachers with families saw their costs increase even more dramatically. Finally and this is just my opinion, I think people complaining about teachers step increases during tough times is a bit disingenuous unless they called for teacher to get raises during good times.

I doubt above is going to change anyone’s mind. I just thought some accurate information might be beneficial.

To see the teacher pay scale, click on the link below.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Hello, my name is Al Brennan, I am the principal of Forrest high school and I hate teachers (revised)

Principal Brennan didn't actually say that, and I doubt he feels that way, too. Sadly, that's what numerous teachers heard when he told them at the welcome back staff meeting that if they didn't park in their designated spots he would have their cars towed; if they didn't turn in a classroom key, he would say they stole it (and words to the effect that he would prosecute them) and that if they were one minute late they would be disciplined. “ I wouldn't dream of talking to my students that way, and if I did I would rightfully get in trouble”, a teacher friend of mine said.

Principal Brennan has also taken to monitoring (or having monitored) his teacher’s social networking sites, telling teachers that they can’t have students on their pages and taking umbrage to some of his staff’s status updates. I have better things to do than look at my student’s pages, and I would hope people entrusted to run schools would, as well.

It's common practice for teachers to start the year strict with their students; that way, they have room to lighten up as the year progresses. It is also not uncommon for a principal, reappointed to an unfamiliar school, (and Mr. Brennan will be Forrest’s third principal in three years), to lay ground rules and expectations - but, like teachers shouldn’t, principals shouldn’t come off like bullies, either. Teachers try and protect their students from bullies, and should they expect any less?

I am not saying bosses can’t be bosses. I am saying the teachers that are most successful are the ones that get the kids to buy into what they are teaching; the ones that get the kids to want to work for them. The teachers that bully and browbeat their kids are usually the ones that are least successful, and so to will be those principals and administrators that act in the same fashion. In education, the message is important, but how you convey the message determines if people are going to hear it or not.

Sadly, this is where we find ourselves in 2010. Principals are told to shake things up, as teachers and principals have both become the scapegoats for the district. On one hand, teachers have gone from valued colleagues to someone who can be browbeaten, intimidated, marginalized and, worse of all, disrespected, while being put in positions where success is hard to achieve. Then, on the other hand, principals (thirty seven of which were reassigned last year), are also put in almost unattainable positions as they are told they can’t discipline, and to move as many kids along as possible. This, whether they are prepared for the next level or not, and the less than forty percent of students who read at grade level at the neighborhood high school, would seem to indicate that many are not. So much about doing both jobs successfully is about fostering positive relationships, and when both groups are put under such impossible pressure and in opposite positions, it’s really a tribute to the fine professionals we have that things aren’t worse.

The chasm between the administration and teachers is widening everyday, and that can't be healthy for the Duval County school system. If you want more proof , look at how the superintendent declared a financial emergency just days before the school year began in order to stop teachers from getting their step increases. Many teachers took it as the district flexing their muscles as if to say, ‘look who the boss is’. Mr. Superintendent, our bosses, both yours and the teacher’s, are ultimately the children of the district and we should be doing whatever we can to make sure they are successful, and putting both principals and teachers in impossible positions is doing the opposite of that.

Andrew Carnegie once stated “you can take my buildings and resources, leave my workers, my greatest asset, and I'll be back on top”. The school district, in contrast, treats many of its teachers and principals as if they are disposable, while at the same time playing them against each other. The sense of comraderie and teamwork between the two groups is quickly dissipating and the esprit de corps that had both groups believing they were in this together has been replaced by ‘it’s the teacher’s fault’ and ‘if this principal doesn’t crack the whip, we’ll find another one that will’, by the county’s administration and school board.

If we want to have a truly successful school system, it's going to require a partnership between teachers and their administrators. I think teachers are the district’s number one resource and should be treated with dignity and respect. I believe the better teachers are, the better they will be for their students, as well, and I also believe if they are supported - put in positions where success is attainable, and not overwhelmed with task after task - then the district will prosper. Ater all, if the teachers didn't show up one day, then school would slam to a halt; but if a principal didn't show up, school would merrily chug along.

I also think schools need leaders - people that teachers can come to when they need help and someone students can look up. A principal is like a quarterback of a football team, or like the rudder of a ship. Quarterbacks probably get too much credit and too much blame when a team flounders, but they are still the ones who keep the ball moving. A ship may still be able to float without a rudder, but at the same time its sense of direction will be seriously impaired.

I wrote above that Mr. Brennan hates teachers, but let me make emphatically clear he did NOT say that in so many words, that’s just what several members of his staff felt after their welcome back staff meeting, and how they once again felt when he monitored their social network sites. He did not say that and I sincerely hope he does not feel that way, because if he did, then the faculty, staff and students at Forrest High School are all in store for a very long year.

In actuality, however, this piece has very little to do with him and the problems at Forrest High School, which are being repeated at numerous schools throughout the district. It is more about the deteriorating relationship between teachers and administrators because of the impossible expectations put upon them and the impossible positions they are put in. It’s about how the district is fostering a contentious relationship that, unless changes are made, will inevitably collapse upon itself.

John King, school board district 2

I wouldn’t go to a Doctor to take care of my legal needs and I wouldn’t go to a lawyer to take care of my medical ones either. Yet the city, election after election, chooses to go to politicians or people only with a tenuous connection to education for it’s educational needs. This Tuesday however we can say enough is enough and put educators on our school board.

Will teachers automatically be better than businessmen or politicians? I think yes. They have been working with the counties children, next to it’s teachers, in its schools and this more than running a business or being a career politician makes them better qualified. John King has been teaching for the last seven-teen years, dedicating himself to the cities children and this makes him better qualified than his opponents. Though it doesn’t stop there.

I’ll let his own words speak for himself.

John’s desire to become a School Board member is not an intentional launch of a political career. He would rather refer to it as a detour. He wants to expand the reach and services of education to all students of Duval County. He believes losing students to home schooling and private schools is unacceptable. Failing Schools can be improved. Failing students can be motivated. But this will take patience, compromise, courage, and money.
John exercises the first three, as for money, the state must be forced to re-allocate funds by active parents/voters. High reaching educational goals cannot be sacrificed nor can they be obtained on a skeleton budget. John will fight all budget cut plans.

The simply stated mission or role of the Duval County schools should be to provide each and every student with a good start in becoming a productive citizen. The school systems failure to provide differentiated pathways of graduation excludes many students whose objectives in life do not include an immediate four-year university degree. His motive is to be a VOICE for those who feel unheard, a LISTENER for those who feel ignored. By being actively involved with the student body he has continued to hear the student’s concerns about graduation requirements and the instructional path forced upon them. He wants to foster a Duval County School System that graduates more students prepared to be productive citizens in our community. (Taken with permission from,

Friends Tuesday you have a choice. You can say you are okay with the status quo and how things have been running or you are not. You can say lets continue to allow career politicians to use the school board as a stepping stone on the way up or on the way down or not. You can say the school board should be made up of people who have never been in classrooms but despite this think they can fix our schools problems or not. You can do those things or not. To not do so, and to instead vote for our cities children is to vote for John King, school board district two.

Chris Guerrieri

The Times Union doesn't get it

The Florida Times- Union

My mother worked for the Florida Times- Union for thirty years. I learned to read by reading the paper. When I was little, I would sit at the kitchen table reading the paper with my mother. I still sit at the kitchen table to read the paper. The Florida Times- Union has been a big and important part of my life, and believe me - it gives me no pleasure in saying the Florida Times -Union “just doesn’t get it”. This is hurting both Jacksonville and its children.

Jacksonville intersects two major highways. It’s on both a major river and the ocean. It has a seaport and an international airport. Our city has lots of room to grow and much of the infrastructure in place to do so. We have a professional football team, are close to entertainment hubs and have one of the best park systems in the entire country. We are a pro-business city in a pro-business state that doesn’t have an income tax, and I haven’t even mentioned how great our weather is, yet. On paper, Jacksonville should be one of the fastest- growing and most prosperous cities in the nation - but we’re not. High-wage businesses should be fighting to come here, but they are not. We should be picking and choosing, and thriving, even in these very difficult times; but, again, we’re not. And the biggest reason why we’re not is our school system.

Half of our kids can’t read at grade level. Seventy percent of our kids have to take remedial classes when they get to Florida State College. Our graduation rate and drop- out rates are some of the worst in the state. Employers report a hard time finding a capable workforce. Crime is up, employment is down and civility (or , rather, the lack thereof) is rampant. All of these have their roots in our local public school system.

When the Florida Times- Union, (who would greatly benefit, by the way, from Jacksonville reaching its potential), gives the School Board and the district administration a pass, it’s saying we don’t understand how important a good public school system is. It must be saying that, because if they understood and acted in the same manner, they would be saying they didn’t care.

The Florida Times- Union often acts as a shill for the school board as it merrily reports whatever they say and applies little critical thinking or analysis. In the past year, they have run articles on suspensions being down; grade recovery making an impact; reading programs that are making a difference and an increase in the number of students enrolled in advanced placement classes as all being positives. Unfortunately, discipline is being eroded and grade recovery has become a mockery in that students can attempt it for whatever reason. When I asked the reading teacher of the student profiled in the piece on reading programs, she had never heard of grade recovery. And, kids who have no business being put into AP classes are being put into them. These are just a few examples.

Furthermore, the school board and the Florida Times-Union often like to point out that the Department of Education has ranked us a B district. Both also like to mention all the A and B schools we have. Yet, where is the article on what makes up a B district? Where is the story about how most of these schools funnel into F and D high schools? Where is the story about how private school enrollment is declining everywhere in the state except in Jacksonville where it is growing? Where is the story about how the school system is contracting as the city slowly grows? The Florida Times- Union has also printed several articles about the library’s travel budget, which is meager when compared to the school district’s $450,000 travel budget. Why is the library system vilified at the same time the school system gets a pass?

I recently read an editorial in the Florida Times- Union which called for patience, and reiterated that change takes time. My question is, how many kids do we have to sacrifice on the altar of patience before we say enough is enough? Our problems did not miraculously appear overnight and, if anything, many people in the schools think they are getting worse. I read another editorial that in one paragraph talked about the problems with this year’s F-CAT and in another paragraph pointed out the schools that did very well. Well, which is it - do we like the F-CAT when it tells us what we want to hear and don’t like it when it doesn’t?

Our Superintendent, Ed Pratt Dannals, said something almost verbatim in a letter to the district published on the district’s website. He has also, in the last few months, blamed Florida State College’s entrance exam as a reason why so many of our graduates have had to take remedial classes. He mentioned how parents and teachers need to improve and said, ‘the school system is one good community away from having a good school system’. These are paraphrased quotes taken from the Florida Times –Union, and you can go back and look if you think I have taken them out of context. In short, it’s everybody’s fault but his that the school district is struggling. School Superintendent Ed Pratt Dannals gets a pass from the Florida Times- Union. Could you imagine Mayor Peyton getting a pass if he said some similar things?

Then, when the Florida Times- Union endorses status- quo politicians for the school board, it’s saying that they are okay with business as usual. When it supports state politicians that are obviously anti-education, then the Florida Times-Union is saying that they are anti-education as well. If education is the motor that drives our city, it’s sputtering and badly in need of an overhaul, yet the Florida Times- Union wants to go another hundred thousand miles or so before it looks under the hood. I get how reasonable people can disagree on solutions, but to think the status- quo is allright or that people who are anti-education should be representing us is unreasonable. A common definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different out come”. I don’t know if the Florida Times- Union is crazy or if they are just okay with the same outcome.

What the Florida Times- Union doesn’t get is that if there are going to be real changes, people are going to have to be made aware of the problems. They can’t be glossed over, ignored or made to sound like successes. It’s only in the Florida Times- Union that the public can get thoughtful analysis and detailed pieces; there is no other local media where that can occur. If the Florida Times- Union isn’t going to do it, who will? And, if nobody is going to do it, then the city is going to continue down the same path we are on. If nobody is going to do it, then at best, we’ll continue with the status-quo and never reach our potential – or, we’ll become the Detroit of the south, a dying city.

I read the Florida Times- Union every day, and it breaks my heart that they seem okay with how things are and that they have abdicated their responsibility as steward of the city. It breaks my heart that they just don’t get it (I hope that’s the case). To think that they do get it but don’t care is almost too terrible to contemplate. But, what’s worse is if they never get it, then the children of Jacksonville may never get it, either; what they need and what the city needs is a first- class school system.

Differentiated Disaster

The latest cure-all for education is “Differentiated Instruction”. It means ‘meet the students where they are and teach them to their ability’. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately it’s not - it’s actually very harmful, and this is why:

Imagine you are watching a football game. The running back takes a toss from the quarterback and rushes around end. It’s the defense’s job to stop him, except, in this case, all the defensive players have their hands and feet tied together. There is no way the running back can’t score unless he doesn’t try at all or just fails to show up. This is what the powers-that-be want to turn education into and they want the teachers to do it.

Let me give you another example. Three kids are in a tenth-grade biology class. They finish a unit and a test is given. Kid One is required to answer fifty questions and to write a short essay. Kid Two is required to answer twenty-five questions and write a paragraph and Kid Three is required to answer ten questions and draw a picture. If you don’t think that’s fair you, are not the only one – unfortunately, teachers are being told “what’s fair isn’t always what’s equal.” In this example, the teacher is meeting the kids where they are and teaching them to their ability. In the end, all three can get the exact same grade and earn the exact same credit and they can do so because they are in the exact same class.

People from the district and state say to teachers all the time “differentiate your instruction”, and they say it like it’s as easy as breathing, but it’s not. In high school and middle school teachers often have 125-150 children. Teachers can’t possibly come up with 150 variations of the same lesson each day to teach. However, what is possible is for teachers to group their lessons in a couple of different ways, but all options leave something to be desired.

I would say the most prevalent way for teachers to do this is by teaching to the lowest common denominator - planning their lessons for the kids on the lowest end of the spectrum. Unfortunately, this means the kids at the top end of the spectrum often become bored and go unchallenged. They are getting the material but not much more.

If a teacher taught to the highest group, the lowest group would more than likely fall behind and not get the extra intensive help they might require. If the teacher tried to teach to the middle of the road, then those in the high and low groups still lose out. No matter what teachers do, some kids are not going to get what they need or they will fall through the cracks. This is because in many classes, the school system does not want to break kids up according to their ability because they believe it will cause a stigma to be attached to the low ability groups. Unfortunately, this dogged determination to not group kids is going to hurt more than their self-esteem - it’s going to handicap them for life.

When students get to college, do you think their professors are going to change their curriculum to meet them where they are? No, kids are going to sink or swim, and more are going to sink because in public school everything is being modified to fit them. What about when a kid gets a job? Do you think their boss is going to say ‘you stock fifty shelves, but you only have to stock twenty because that plays more to your ability’. If you think for a second that’s going to happen I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Schools are setting up a lot of kids to fail once they get into the real world because schools are no longer teaching them how the real world works.

I am not saying if a kid doesn’t need extra help they shouldn’t receive it, and I am not saying that if a kid has a legitimate disability, accommodations and modifications shouldn’t be provided. What I am saying is there should be a minimum standard for every kid and if, for whatever reason, a kid can’t reach it, well that’s too bad - and if you think that’s cruel of me to say, that’s the exact same thing their professors in college will say, and it’s the exact same thing their bosses at their jobs will say, too. In real life, not everybody gets a trophy just for showing up.

One of the biggest problems we have in education is that the people who make the rules don’t teach the children. They come up with ideas like “Differentiated Instruction” that admittedly sound good but, in practice, are impractical and often create not only more problems, but often also fail to correct the problem they were created for. Grouping kids according to their ability may damage their self-esteem, though kids are resilient and usually bounce back, but it may also provide them with what they need, as well - and that’s tailored instruction and a snapshot of how the real world works.

Fair should be equal and the only place it’s not is at your local public school.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Shame on the Times Union for not supporting the city's children

It's disappointing to see the Times Union pick career politicians over teachers for two of the school board races. In effect they are saying the way we have been doing things (putting career politicians using the board as a stepping stone, undoubtedly up for Mr. Lee, and down for Mr. Smith) is working and nothing could be further from the truth.

The board desperately needs people who are working with the cities children next to its teachers in its schools. They better than people filled with hubris how have a tenuous relationship to education are what we need. Becki Couch and John King where not as experienced politically are better qualified.

Doing the same thing over and over yet expecting a different out come is a common definition of insanity. To follow the times unions picks where perhaps not insanity is certainly folly. I am not questioning the character of their picks, I am questioning their qualifications and unless they have been in the schools day after day then they are undoubtedly out of their depths.

Shame on you Times Union for supporting the status quo, when it's the status quo that has contributed to running our city into the ground. How about next time instead of extoling experience you instead look out for the best needs of the cities children.

Very disapointing

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Reverse Psychology: Collaboration

Reverse psychology is one of the oldest and lamest tricks in the book. It’s where you tell somebody they are scared of something with the expectation that they will try and prove you wrong by doing it. Several times this week, when talking about collaboration, it’s been implied that teachers are scared of it. ‘It’s new, so teachers don’t like it’, and ‘teachers think it’s safer to rely on themselves’ have both been thrown out there.

I think collaboration is great. Teachers can often learn strategies and techniques from each other. Then, in the upper grades, students usually have multiple teachers and there we can learn from each other what is and what isn’t working with a particular student. These are strategies (and I am not sure the powers-that-be know it) that teachers have been employing for as long as there has been education; I am sure Plato ran some ideas past Socrates in his time.

For some reason, however, collaboration has recently become all the rage; it’s as if the powers-that-be in their far-off ivory towers discovered fire or peanut butter or something equally amazing - and this is part of the problem. Education will always needs tweaking and smoothing; unfortunately, the district has decided to hit education with a sledge hammer and then hit it again and again and they call the sledge hammer “Collaboration”.

In their effort to make sure I get enough time with my fellow teachers, I have been required to join a small learning community (SLC), a professional learning community (PLC), and a teaching team. Also, as an ESE teacher, I still have to meet with the ESE staff. That’s right, I am now part of four groups that will have four sets of meetings. It may be a while, but at some point down the road I am sure I will have to go to a meeting about meetings. Some teachers have it even worse, as they are in even more learning communities and in between all this collaboration we are supposed to do our planning and actually teach our classes - you know, the things that teachers are supposed to do.

They got it wrong; teachers aren’t afraid of collaboration, they just want to be able to get home while it's still light outside and they don't want to have to take a break from writing lesson plans or grading papers to be able to tuck their own children into bed.

I am going to try a little reverse psychology of my own: “Hey, powers-that-be; keep overwhelming teachers and putting them in positions where success is hard to achieve”. Yeah, that will lead to success. (I wonder if that will work)?

A Lack of honesty

There is something comforting about honesty, even if you don’t like what you are hearing. Immediately, you know what’s going on and/or you know where you stand. Sadly, our educational leaders here in Jacksonville traditionally haven’t been that honest. Remember these? “Kids can get the same education at neighborhood schools as they can at magnet schools”… “Tying Principal’s evaluations to suspensions does not affect discipline”… and, finally, among other whoppers: “The district respects its teachers and thinks they are our most valuable resource”. However, where the district has a long way to go on the honesty road, at least in the last few days they did make some strides.

For years, teachers have dedicated a disproportionate amount of time teaching just to the F-CAT test. All other facets of education sadly became secondary. Well, this year at several schools throughout the district, they have gone ahead and created an F-CAT prep class that every student will take every day. Now, since the district has not completely committed to honesty, they are instead calling it an “enrichment/remediation class”. Don’t worry though; kids will receive credit for the class. It’s what’s called an academic elective; unfortunately, I am not sure if many kids would have elected to take it had they been given the option.

Next, the district made some honest changes to the Grade Recovery program. In theory, grade recovery was for students who missed a lot of days for an illness or another legitimate reason, or for kids that came to school, worked hard and tried hard but just didn’t “get it”. They could make up work, and, if they did well improve their grade. In reality, however, any kid could do it regardless of the reason they failed a class. The district renamed “grade recovery” - it’s now called “learning recovery” . Just like the county; if they think something has a negative connotation they change the name - say goodbye, “autistic”, say hello, “communication and sensory deficit”. They also officially changed the requirements – now, any kid can legitimately take it regardless of the reasons (behavior, absences, lack of effort) they failed. Now, that’s honesty in full effect!

There’s something comforting about honesty even if you don’t like what you are hearing. If only our school district was a little more honest more often, maybe people would understand the damage they are doing to the cities children.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Steve Berrey

I received the following letter from district six candidate, Steve Berrey.

Mr. Guerrieri,

My name is Steve Berrey and yes, I am the husband of a teacher, the father of five children - four of which have graduated or are attending DCPS. No professional development is NOT what I stood for. I don't know if you got that from somewhere else but it didn't come from me

I want to massively downsize the bureaucracy that is 1701 prudential drive... I want to restore teacher control of the classroom and end social promotion - for the students and the administrators that have often failed as principals so we move them up. I want to give teachers more accessibility to successful training - not the one-size-fits-all Shultz Center.

My business background is secondary to my concerns for our economy. We cannot continue to lose residents to Clay, St. Johns and Nassau counties due to our poor schools.

But when a teacher is told to "stop writing referrals" that makes no sense to me. When a principal is told to "not suspend so many students" you handcuff both the teacher and the principal from doing their jobs ... Then we blame them when the test scores go down.

It's time we ENFORCED our dress code; our truancy policy; and our attendance policy. It's time we let the teacher TEACH ... Not instruct or baby-sit

Thank you for this forum. I only wish I had found it earlier.

Steve Berrey

I completely agree with all of Mr. Berreys points and if he wins I hope he can follow through with them and doesn’t get bogged down in the massive bureaucracy that inhabits 1701 Prudential Drive, like some ghoul might inhabit a crypt. If somebody else wins I hope they enact Mr. Berreys ideas and we need lot’s of ideas. A colleague earlier today when talking about the district said, we have more issues than Time magazine. I didn't disagree.

Finally I believe I read in the Folio that Mr. Berrey was for increased professional development, and I admit profession development does have it’s place though the way the district does it leaves much to be desired. If I misconstrued that or even plain out got it wrong (it’s been known to happen) I apologize.

Duval County School District, not running near student cpacity

The school districts closest to Jacksonville are all running near student capacity. St. Johns is at 92%, Clay County, 97%, Nassau, 94% and Baker County is even running over capacity (5,600 students from a population of 4700 children), which makes me wonder if a few families on the far Westside of town aren’t tweaking the rules just a bit.

The Duval County Public School System on the other hand is running at 85 percent. This means that nearly one in seven children who could get a free public education are not. Their families have decided to home school them, send them to private school or the children have decided that school just isn’t for them. Can you imagine one in seven of your friends turning down free electricity or phone service, what about free food? Because that’s about the equivalent of what families are doing when they turn away from Jacksonville’s public schools.

The worse part I believe is the Duval County Public School system seems okay with this. Despite the fact they take every opportunity to mention that we are a “B” school district something that you would think would attract families back. There was been no, return to your public schools, campaign. Perhaps it’s because they realize that the families that got their children out, probably know better than to look at the districts grade.

Furthermore all throughout the state private school enrollment is declining, except here in Jacksonville. Families are making the sacrifice to move their kids out of our public schools. Who can blame them? We should all want what’s best for our children.

Our school district is missing almost 22,000 children. Our administration and the city should both be concerned and make every effort to get them to return.

County Projected students Children between 6-18 AT capacity
St. Johns 29,334 31,676 92%
Clay County 35,918 37,164 97%
Duval County 123,040 144,839 85%
Nassau County 11,000* 11,654 94%
Baker County 5,600* 4,714 119%
* estimated

I took the amount of residents in each county between ages 6 and 18 and figured out how many there were by using 2009 censes data. I then compared the amount of students attending public schools as printed in the Times Union and the amount of students that could be attending public schools. Are the numbers completely accurate? No, but I believe they give a fairly realistic snap shot. I lost all the five year olds, kindergartners who are required to go to school but I was forced to factor in some 18 year olds that had undoubtedly graduated. Since I lost some and gained others I figured it was a wash. I then divided the number of students the districts had with the number they could have to figure out the capacity that area school districts are running at.



She lifted up the computer and slammed it down on the cart. It was quite an impressive feat for somebody so small in stature. “Whoa, what’s going on Sunshine?” I asked, seeing she was obviously upset. “Oh, I don’t know…” she started, (I think holding back a tear); “it’s either being lied to straight to my face or being treated like a child”. I sighed and put my hand on her shoulder. The teacher in front of me wasn’t just one of my best friends at my school but one of the best teachers the school had to offer, as well, and it hurt me to see her so upset. “Okay, okay - take a deep breath and tell me what happened”, I asked. As she started to tell the story I realized she was just the latest domino to fall from a line that started two years ago.

A week before the ‘08-‘09 school year began, I got a call telling me I would be moved from my Trainable Mentally Handicapped (TMH) classroom to a Varying Exceptionality (VE) classroom to teach Science. I wasn’t happy about the move, because (and to be frankly honest) I am not a Science teacher and it’s a subject I don’t particularly enjoy. However, partly since I am a team player but mostly because I wasn’t given a choice, I said “okay”; though, as the conversation came to an end, I did ask to be moved back to TMH if an opening became available.

A few months into the school year, a TMH teacher left and they hired somebody that had been the V.E. Science teacher at a high school just seven miles away. I was frustrated but I reasoned maybe they didn’t want to move me during the school year. Last summer, hearing about another opening in TMH, I lobbied hard to be moved back but instead they went with a woman whose only previous experience had been in a VE classroom. I felt resigned to my fate.

Another year goes by and another opening becomes available, and once again I make it known that I want that position – but, once again they hire somebody else, going with a recent college graduate with no teaching experience. When I complained to a colleague, she pointed out that the whole VE program was transitioning to Inclusion, and, since I had been the VE Science teacher, a colleague proposed, and not unreasonably - so that who else would they have do that, but me.

That, however, is when the dominoes started to fall.

The VE History teacher balked at becoming an Inclusion teacher, and even though he had no TMH experience, requested he be moved there; and for some reason, they said “yes”. Then, just like that, to make room for him they moved the recently-hired TMH teacher to a VE English/Math/Learning Strategies position, even though she has no training in those areas, and she must now get dual certifications along with taking the Teacher in Training program. It’s worse because her being moved there sealed the fate of the person who had held the position for many years and who was universally recognized to have done a good job. She had been forced to transfer by mistake and was actively trying to return. (Numerous teachers throughout the county have “mistakenly” been forced to transfer in the last few weeks).

My friend, who was highly qualified for the History inclusion position and who couldn’t decide whether she hated being lied to or being treated like a child worse, immediately let Administration know, again (as she had done the year before) that she would like the History inclusion position - but, instead, they hired somebody who doesn’t have any experience working with the school’s VE children. Now - he may come in and be a Wunderkind, (God’s Gift to Teaching), but that is beside the point - of which there are several:

First - you take care of your own. Experienced teachers shouldn’t be uprooted and moved around and they should be given first opportunity of what to teach. They know their strengths, weaknesses, and desires. Sure, there are always going to be times when the needs of the school supercedes these things, but every effort to find middle ground should be made.

Second - a school’s paramount job should be to put both teachers and students in positions to succeed. In this line of dominoes, we have several teachers who are now “out of field” - teaching subjects they never did before – while, at the same time, we have teachers who would be better suited being forced into teaching subjects they either don’t know nor have an aptitude or desire to teach.

Third - you follow your own rules. If you need to be highly qualified to work at a school, you don’t fire somebody for not being so and then hire somebody else who is not. You also can’t preach about the importance of certification and then hire people without it.

Finally - schools should practice what they preach. If I want my kids to be polite and respectful, I am polite and respectful. If I want my kids to be organized, I have to be organized. If I want my kids to act fair and care about school, I can’t act in a capricious, rash or random manner. It’s the third day of pre-planning and many teachers still don’t know what they are teaching, nor have they seen class lists. One colleague walks the halls constantly on the brink of tears because after years of dedicated service, they switched the classes she was supposed to teach and banished her to a portable. Another teacher said to me, “Chris, I really think they are trying to make me quit”.

When the dominoes fell and my umpteenth request to return to a TMH classroom was again ignored, I resigned myself to make the best of things, as I am sure my colleagues will. I believe we will all roll up our sleeves and do our best for our children, and I likewise believe we will all have a measure of success - but, at the same time, like they probably do, I can’t but help feeling a little scr*wed.

I know it sounds like I am airing dirty laundry, but people should be excited and enthused about returning to school - but those two feelings seem replaced with confusion and despair. Maybe I am speaking out of turn, but doesn’t somebody have to say “if you put teachers and students in positions where they can be successful, you will have better results than if you don’t” and doesn’t somebody have to mention that teachers aren’t just pawns on a chess board to be moved around and sacrificed? Instead, teachers are the most important resource a school has and they should be made to feel important and valued instead of left wondering if Administration is trying to make them quit…or what they hated more, being lied to or being treated like a child.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Times Union, doesn't get it

The Times Union just doesn’t get it. One of the biggest problems we have here in Jacksonville is that our school system is run by politicians on their way up or way down and casual observers filled with hubris who have at best a tenuous relationship to education. I am not saying they are of bad character or lack compassion and passion. I am saying they are out of their depth and the school system, our children and the entire city suffers for it.

So what does the Times Union do? It endorses a politician on his way down, Eric Smith and a politician on his way up, Fred “Fel” Lee. Admittedly, they do so while giving a nod to two teachers who have been in the classrooms and roaming the halls of schools in the county for a combined 29 years, Becki Couch and John King, saying they wouldn’t be bad choices. However a nod is not good enough.

Just like I wouldn’t turn to a Lawyer to take care of my health needs or a plumber to fly me across country no matter how good they were at their respective jobs, I don’t think Jacksonville should rely on professional politicians to run our schools. Judge for yourself the track record they have had.

Our children can no longer afford for “school board member” to be a line on a resume. Instead we need people who have been passionate about and dedicated to education. People who have been with our children and who have worked side by side with the cities teachers in the cities schools. They, not casual observers will have the best ideas of what works or what doesn’t. They, better than career politicians, will have a better idea of what the district needs to be successful. There is not one current board member who has been in a classroom in over a decade. The board is made up of lawyers, life long politicians and consultants and has been for quite some time. We don’t just need some teachers on the board; we desperately need some teachers on the board.

When the Times Union endorses politicians over teachers to run our schools it says to its readers, things are fine and things aren’t fine. It says to the people of Jacksonville lets continue to do business as usual, when the city can no longer afford to do it that way and it says, we just don’t get it.

Chris Guerrieri
School Teacher

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Empty Chair

The empty chair

Every year after summer break the first thing that happens when the teachers’ return is a welcome back breakfast and this year was no exception. As I looked for a seat I passed a colleague who was sitting next to an empty chair. I asked her if I could sit there and she politely said, no, I am saving this seat. I nodded and found another place to sit nearby.

As more people filtered in a few others asked her about the empty chair and she repeated the same thing, no, I am saving this seat. Eventually the entire staff showed up and the seat remained empty. Eventually we had breakfast and the seat remained empty. Eventually the principal introduced the new staff members and the seat remained empty. Eventually we were dismissed for lunch and all the time the seat remained empty.

I thought that was strange so I asked her, so who were you saving the seat for, did somebody miss the first day? She looked at me and said; I was saving it for Jessica.

Jessica was a teacher who was let go just a few days before; her f-cat scores weren’t high enough. I am sorry, make that her student’s f-cat scores weren’t high enough. This despite the fact she had earned the MAP bonus two years before as one of the counties outstanding teachers. This despite the fact that we were told when the school accepted a school improvement grant or SIG statistics were to be counted from that time forward.

I nodded to my colleague and forced a weak smile of understanding as I thought to myself there were probably a few empty seats saved for Jessica that morning.

In a lot of ways after ten years at Ed White Jessica was one of the most indispensable members of our community. Not only was she was in charge of Ms. Ed. White Pageant, Mr. Ugly contest and was one of the sponsors of student government but she was always volunteering for this, that or the other. Even more important is Jessica is one of those teachers that students will still be talking about years after they graduate and one of those teachers that many other teachers aspire to be like and sadly none of that mattered.

Despite her dedication, enthusiasm and years of service Jessica had become a line on a spreadsheet to be discarded because some of her students didn’t meet some arbitrary measurement. That’s why she was let go. What the powers-that-be don’t get, is that teachers and students aren’t just statistics or lines on a spreadsheet and education should be about more than just one test. What they also don’t get is my school and education is poorer for not having her walk the halls of the school she both loved and called home.

I wish my words could adequately describe the loss that my school will feel without her but they don’t. Maybe hers will, as the echo the grief that my school has experienced with her departure.

Hi Commander Family

This letter comes from me to you with great sadness. Unfortunately due to the reconstitution process the Dept of Education has decided that I am to be one of the family who has to leave. I am no Chris **** or Jordan **** with great words of wisdom, but I just want each of you to know that this is certainly not my choice nor do I really want to leave. The old saying you never know what you had till it was gone sums up my feelings toward each of you.

I went to work each day looking forward to seeing my family. Think about it, we are with the people we work with more than our children or spouses. I began teaching at Ed White when I was 23 years old and have grown up with many of you as my "parents." This family has seen me grow not only professionally but also personally - with the addition of a spouse and a child. This is my home and I always thought that I would be one of those teachers who would be there year after year.

As this is not the case, please know that I will miss each of you so deeply - (if you know me you know that I am crying at this point in the letter) It is hard to believe with all of the people transferring to other schools for one reason or another, there are people who truly want to stay yet cannot!

I will also deeply miss the kids! I think that this has to be the greatest part of my grief. These kids truly become your children and we the teachers their surrogate parents. I am saddened that on Monday I will not be there to greet them.

Just remember that I do love each of you and that I am only an email or phone call away. With any hope, I will find myself back at Ed White next school year.

Not everyone is lucky enough to say that they have worked with the best and brightest...I am one of those who can!

Love and hugs - Jessica

Not only will she will be missed but she will also be impossible to replace. Welcome to education 2010 where teachers and students no longer matter, just statistics do.

Hello, my name is Al Brennan, I am the principal of Forrest high school and I hate teachers

Principal Brennan didn't actually say that and I doubt he feels that way too. Sadly however that's what numerous teachers heard when he told them at the welcome back staff meeting, if they don't park in their designated spots he will have their cars towed. If they don't turn a room key in, he will say they stole it and words to the effect that he will prosecute them and if they are one minute late they will be disciplined. I wouldn't dream of talking to my students that way, and if I did I would rightfully get in trouble, a teacher friend of mine said.

You know it's a common practice for teachers to start the year strict with their students, that way they have room to lighten up as the year progresses but I have never heard of a principal doing it to his staff. Sadly however this is where we find ourselves in 2010. Principals are told to shake things up as teachers have become the scapegoats for the district. Teachers have gone from valued colleague to someone who can be brow beaten, intimidated, marginalized and worse of all disrespected. So much of teaching is about forming positive relationships, I would hope our principals would remember and realize how important that is when dealing with their staffs.

The chasm between the administration and teachers is widening everyday and that can't be healthy for the Duval County school system and if you want more proof look at how the superintendent declared a financial emergency just days before the school year began in order to stop teachers from getting their raises. Many took it as the district flexing their muscles as if to say, look who the boss is.

The sense of comerade and teamwork are quickly dissipating and cover your ass is fast becoming the mantra of many schools administrations and some think it has been the districts for a while. If we want to have a truly successful school system it's going to require a partnership between teachers and their administrators. I think teachers are the districts number one resource and should be treated with dignity and respect. I believe the better teachers are the better they will be for their students as well and I also believe if they are supported, put in positions were success is attainable and not overwhelmed with task after task then the district will prosper, after all, if the teachers didn't show up one day, then school would slam to a halt but if a principal didn't show up, school would merrily chug along.

If things don't change teachers won't be the only ones that suffer, so to will our children.

I wrote above, I don't think Mr. Brennan hates teachers, I sincerely hope he doesn't too.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Bare Minimum

I spoke to the Northeast Florida rotary club the other day. If you don’t know what the Rotary club is, it’s a business/civic group. They like me are concerned about the direction education in Jacksonville is heading. They like me believe that economy, crime and civility or lack thereof all has their roots in education and they like me are nervous.

Even though I was invited into talk about education issues, I started by talking about the city. I talked about how two interstate highways intersect here and how we are on the ocean and have a major river, a port, an international airport and one of the best park systems in the country. I talked about the Jags and how we are close to entertainment hubs. I talked about how we have lots of room for growth and how much of the infrastructure is already in place to do so and I finished by talking about how we are a pro business city, in a pro business state and we don’t have an income tax. I then asked them why we aren’t turning businesses away and why aren’t we picking and choosing top businesses to come here. I told them I believed it was because of our education system and the work force they are putting out.

I then gave them a few stats, like half the kids in high school can’t read or do math on grade level. That seventy percent of graduates that go to Florida State College at Jacksonville have to take remedial classes. How as the cities population continues to grow it’s school system continues to contract because families are turning to private schools and home schooling something that is only happening here in Jacksonville and nowhere else in the state. Then I mentioned how nobody on the current school board had taught in a Duval County classroom in over a decade and asked if they could see a relationship between all of this.

I then talked about teachers, what I think more so than buildings and technology are the districts number one resource and how I believe the better they are, the better they will do for our children. I wasn’t talking about education and training either because as a group they are extremely well trained and capable. I was talking about not over loading them with task after task many of which only had a peripheral relationship with education. I talked about supporting them and removing kids that were maladaptive and not putting them in unattainable positions and then blaming them when they came up short. I talked about not disrespecting them which is how many felt when the superintendent surprised them just days before they were to report with him breaking the contract. There’s nothing wrong with having lofty goals, teachers are all about accountability, and teachers know they are tough economic times. They just want to be treated like the professionals they are and to be put in a position where they and their children have a chance for success, something sadly to many teachers and students throughout the district are not.

I then took some questions and one of the questions was, what could we do to make things better? I took a deep breath and sighed before I responded. Well there are a lot of things that we can do but aren’t but why don’t we start with something that doesn’t call for reinventing the wheel or breaking the bank, why don’t we start with insisting the school board does the bare minimum, which we aren’t even close to doing now. They seemed a little puzzled as I paused.

We need to give students a snap shot how the real world works. If they come to school behave and work hard they will be rewarded. If they come to school and act up or don’t try then there will be consequences. Now children don’t receive true consequences for their behavior and often it worsens and we also push so many along without the skills they need to be successful. While doing so we teach other kids lessons like their behavior doesn’t matter and it’s okay not to try, lessons they shouldn’t learn anywhere let alone in schools. Then every year we graduate a significant amount of children who aren’t prepared for anything. If we did the bare minimum we could save some of those kids, maybe a lot of those kids. Lets start with the bare minimum and then go from there. That’s what I told them they could do to help.

I then asked them, don’t our city, its teachers and our children at least deserve the bare minimum? They thought so and so do I. In reality we need so much more to be truly successful but hey we got to start somewhere.