Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Guns and Ammo, Guns and Roses, Guns and More Guns

George Bernard Shaw wrote a little thing called "Arms and the Man." I read it in high school. I was just dumb enough to be surprised that the arms he was talking about were not the appendages attached to the upper part of one's torso, but arms, as in guns used for killing other human beings. Mr. Shaw wrote about war. I too am concerned about man's penchant for killing other men, using guns, knives, crossbows, or even blunt objects. War is awful. Yet it is ordinary life in urban America that I am concerned about.

Men are violent and stupid, for the most part. Men need to be protected from other men. Thank you Thomas Hobbes ("Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short...") Got news Mr. Hobbes. In the unnatural state of urban life in the 21st century life is equally nasty, brutish, and short for a great many Americans. (Not even talking about 3rd world countries here. Talking about America, "Home of the brave. Land of the free.") The reason is partially social and economic. America needs to address these social and economic ills that create disaffected youth who run the streets with guns. So let's recap. The reason is partially guns, easy access to guns, dumbass kids with guns, and hmmmmm, more guns.

I work in an urban high school in a neighborhood where very few of the persons who read this blog would choose to live. In almost every school year, one or more of the students from my school is shot by another teenager. Gang violence? Certainly. However, gangs alone do not create the mayhem that takes lives numbered in the hundreds per year. Remember West Side Story? The gangs of New York of 50-60 years ago. They were gangs. They did not take lives numbered in the hundreds per year. They carried knives and blunt objects and assaulted one another with the same. They did not shoot each other from a distance with automatic and semi-automatic weapons.

Yet the National Rifle Association lobbies ad infinitum and promotes easy access to weapons from .22 pistols to Uzis to AK-47s. They constantly bombard us with propaganda that tells us that the government is trying to disarm us and ordinary sports hunters would not be able to pursue their hobby and outdoorsy love. Get real! Nobody! Nobody is seriously advocating that we take away the guns from sport hunters. Gail Collins, in a recent New York Times Op-Ed piece noted that Chuck Schumer has appeared in pictures holding up a bunch of dead pheasants from a hunt. Hey, and he actually hit the pheasants, unlike Dick Cheney shooting a fellow hunter. Question! Who would you trust with a hunting rifle, a Republican who wants everyone on the planet to have unrestricted access to guns or a liberal Democrat who wants reasonable restrictions on gun ownership? Hmmmm. I think you get the point.

The thing is that there are gun rights extremists out there who advocate guns for everybody, everywhere, every time, and without any restrictions. Let me note right here and now that I have spent the last 30 years of my life in large urban environments and I have never owned a gun and I have never at any time needed a gun. Yet there are legislators in Georgia who advocate for gun owners carrying their weapons on them into airports. There are legislators in conservative states across this nation who are advocating that gun owners be allowed to carry guns into restaurants and bars. Gail Collins noted in her recent Op-Ed piece, "Even in the Old West, saloons made patrons check their guns at the door." Read any newspaper articles recently about people being shot in an argument? Was alcohol involved? Well duh! And not all of the shooters were NFL or NBA players or their body guards, for the record.

Bob Herbert, another New York Times columnist, pointed out that 150 Chicago Public School students were shot in the last school year. Not all of them died, but many of them did. Mr. Herbert noted that when he was at a meeting of about a dozen men and boys who were violence outreach workers, he asked how many had been shot? Of the dozen, five raised their hands. When he asked how many knew someone who had been shot and killed, all raised their hands. This is what makes the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times.

I asked those same questions the first year I went to work in a school on the Southside of Chicago. I received similar answers. I recall not being able to convince students to stay after school for a Drama Club because it gets dark in the winter and it's not safe to walk home after dark in those neighborhoods. I recall that when the sounds of fireworks went off in the neighborhood many of my students ducked under their desks out of reflex.

This is not Baghdad or Kabul. This is America. There are guns that are for hunting game. There are guns that are for killing other human beings. There is no rational reason on Earth that this country should make it so easy for a teenager in a gang to gain access to weapons of the latter category. 99% of the paranoid people in America who think they need a weapon to protect themselves never need that weapon. The drug gangs in Northern Mexico are armed to the teeth with easy access weapons purchased in the United States of America. Enough is enough. Get the guns off the streets. Save our children so they have time to grow up. Limit gun access. Some of them will still be violent individuals, but not nearly as many will die.

When it all comes down to it, think I'd rather listen to "Guns and Roses" than read Guns and Ammo, and when it comes to the final accounting I'll take my chances against a 6'6" thug with a knife or blunt object rather than a 5' 2" wuss with a Glock.

Monday, May 24, 2010

A Bad Case of Flummoxation, An Olio of Ideas

I often find myself flummoxed these days. Views From the 14th Floor has always been simply an outlet for myself. It was never intended to address any one issue or theme. At times I talk about education because I work in education. At other times I talk about political issues because they affect us all, and I care. At other times I talk about societal issues because things catch my attention, or more likely annoy me. Sometimes I reference the fact that I'm attempting to write a murder mystery, and the troubles that arise when one writes a full-blown novel. I believe this constitutes what some would call "being all over the board." How does one realistically fit all of this into one blog? There are people who read for one reason and others who read for quite another. Switching gears so often runs the risk of alienating potentially regular readers.

Because my ideas for blogging don't just come to me when I sit down, and I have a tendency to forget them if they come to me at times when I'm not blogging, I write notes to myself. I save newspaper clippings. The trouble is that when you go back and read the little notes, they often don't make a lot of sense, and that great idea about what to do about that germ of an idea seems to have just gone away. I'm seriously in the mode of deciding what to do about this "all over the board" stuff and have been cleaning up the notes and looking at the newspaper clippings. It is all quite varied. Let me just share some of this with you.

Sitting here looking at a page of notes that varies from notes on ideas for blogs to notes on real estate in Florida to stuff that needed at some point to be bought at the grocery store, I find this little note to self, "The lake is slush." It got into the low 90's today and that note obviously was written several months ago. What does it mean? I haven't a clue, although I do remember that slushy quality it had in January, and how it sloshed around and made you just a little disoriented from the movement.

Then there is the note "women at Victoria's Secret." I know what that is about but I'm not sure it's worthy of an entire post all by itself. Perhaps that is why it never got crossed off as used. All it's about really is the image that the Victoria's Secret commercials on TV project versus the reality of the women who come out of that store. Whoa! Quite a disconnect there. For the record Victoria's Secret isn't so very secret at this point. The store sells soft porn dreams to a public hooked on sex appeal.

This page of notes is a veritable plethora of ideas, I tell you. Next up is the note to self "What not to buy, CD's, land lines, brown sugar...." I believe this came in a moment of clear thinking as regards marketing in America. There are things that become obsolete. There are things that just aren't needed. As regards CD's, I found myself in the CD section of a large bookstore one day about a year ago and it occurred to me that only old farts buy CD's any more. They are going the way of 8 track tapes and 33 1/3 LPs. Why buy CD's when you can download the music online and ensconce the music on your IPod and it will hold your entire collection. Well for one thing I still don't have satisfactory IPod docking in my car. I need the CD's. Okay? As for land lines, I'm perfectly willing to give mine up and just use the cell, but I am told that sometimes you need a land line because those expensive smart phones drop calls despite having several thousand apps. The brown, unrefined sugar I've changed my mind about. I like it and will continue to buy it even if it doesn't make sense to you. So there.

I dispatched that last page of notes, having exhausted every possible word I could from it, and moving on to the next page I just have to cheer. Let's face it, I'm pretty far to the left politically. I'm an atheist. I have gay friends, African-American friends, Latino friends, and even some who are Muslim. I grew up in the South and didn't fit in with redneck culture, right-wing bigotry, and denial of basic science. My next page of notes begins thusly, "Morons on the Texas Board of Education." Seriously, I don't think I need to say another word about that. That note says it all.

The follow-up note reads "Christopher Hitchens: Opening a can of whup ass on religion." Oh yeah! Whoop! Whoop! Not quite sure which particular op-ed piece inspired that note, but I read Mr. Hitchens on a regular basis and he "opens a can of whup ass on religion" on a regular basis. Truly inspiring. One can get really tired of religion dictating what one can and cannot say, what one can and cannot do, based on social dictates of thousands of years ago, and total denial of the scientific and social progress that has occurred since. For the record, the Catholic Church has finally allowed Copernicus a church burial. The nerve of that guy, to say the Earth went around the sun and was not the center of God's universe. God? If you're out there, would you return my calls? What? You're a Luddite? No voice mail, no e-mail, no personal appearances?Hey, get a Facebook page.

Having cleaned up my list of notes to myself, and run on for paragraph after paragraph after paragraph I suppose it's about time to give it a rest for the day. I've reduced my backlog to one note on education that will, in all likelihood make me a pariah, and a couple of newspaper clippings on guns. Tell you what, I'd seriously like to avoid pariah status for a couple more days so next up will be guns and the NRA. Like that won't make me a pariah in this country. Anyway, enjoy your day. Summer's a coming.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Education Omnibus Blog, Part IV, What Are We Preparing Them For?

In a world that for years has been obsessed with the idea that every child should go to college, a significant number of researchers have recently begun to note that maybe college is not right for every child. Some kids may need some preparation in a vocation instead. That is to say that some high school vocational training in lieu of a college prep track might be a good thing.

Instead of trying to send every child off to a 4 year college, community colleges and technical schools could be used to provide kids with vocational skills that will give them a solid foundation for their adult years. Apparently, some businesses are providing on the job apprenticeships for certain jobs like pharmacy technician. Let's face it, Associates degrees that aren't tied to certification in some specific vocation are absolutely useless. Babs Ray discusses this in depth in one of her recent blog entries.

On the other hand, Bob Herbert, in the New York Times, recently talked about a high school in New York City where highly motivated kids were being given the opportunity to earn an Associates Degree during their last two years of high school. Mr. Herbert argues that, with the high cost of college today the opportunity to get those first two years of college out of the way is a good idea that will save many thousands of dollars in tuition and prepare them to enter directly into their majors as soon as they grace the college campus, without having to waste those first two years in college with the general curriculum that is required of all students, regardless of major. Is this a good idea? I'd have to say yes, if that student is highly motivated and capable.

The problem is that with a great many students they are not highly motivated, and they are not sufficiently sophisticated in their academic and intellectual abilities. Great! Give those really bright kids the chance to move ahead at a pace they can handle and will embrace. That is what Gifted and Talented Education has been about all along. However, we also have to meet the needs of those kids who may need the first year or two of high school to do remedial work to bring them up to a level that is appropriate for high school work.

The reality of working in an inner city school in a neighborhood where 99% of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch (That's educode for "These kids come from families that are poverty-stricken.") is that less than 10% of the kids arrive in high school reading on grade level. Teachers often get to the point where they consider the kids who read on 6th grade level in 9th grade as the normal ones. Are these kids going to be successful in a college preparatory curriculum? Will they be prepared for a program that provides them with the basic courses required for an Associates Degree when they reach their Junior year in high school? What do you think?

In every such school there are a small number of kids who didn't make into the magnet schools and schools for the gifted and talented. These kids shine and even manage to successfully navigate Advanced Placement courses and go on to complete a 4 year degree. Every once in a while, one rare student from this mix shows up and astounds everyone by managing a 30 on their ACT and get into a major university instead of the usual state supported university. For the largest portion of the students from these schools, however, some sort of vocational training in high school and a 2 year program afterwards is what is called for. This allows them to make a decent living and become productive members of the community without condemning them to minimum wage only types of jobs.

What we have to ask ourselves is, "What is it we are preparing these kids for, realistically?" Some deserve that shot at college and the upward mobility that goes with it. Others deserve to have a shot at a good job that can be had without a 4 year degree. If we insist that all of them pursue that 4 year degree, large numbers of them fail, due to lack of desire, or lack of ability, or lack of preparation. Then they drop out with tuition bills owed and no marketable skills to see them through the rest of their lives. How about we do the right thing for all kids, not just for some of them.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Education Omnibus Blog, Part III, Send in the Clowns

Happy Monday. I thought momentarily about stopping the extended rant that is The Education Omnibus Blog. I honestly thought for a moment that I had just about hit all the major points and had ranted myself out. Then I realized that I had not even scratched the surface when it comes to addressing the ills that beset the public schools in America today. There are layoffs and firings looming all over America. There are budget cuts resulting in larger classrooms and fewer resources. Meanwhile administrations of large school districts still function in bloated states with copious numbers of people doing who knows what for salaries in the 6 figure range.

Apparently the entire country is in financial distress just now, and the answer, as always, seems to be to get rid of teachers. As has been noted before in this space, the feds have cut funding that is going to the states. The states have cut funding that goes to the local school districts. The local school districts are cutting funds to individual schools. The schools are cutting back on the numbers of teachers. This results in fewer teachers teaching the same numbers of kids, and subsequently increased class sizes. The Chicago Public Schools is proposing a classroom size of 35 for next fall.

I don't even have 35 desks in my classroom. How about we do away with desks altogether and sit them all on the floor. I already have a shortage of textbooks. What will happen in the fall? How about we do away with textbooks and have the teachers create all lessons from scratch, except for those that will involve students using computers to do research on topics. Oh wait! There aren't enough computers for all students, and certainly not computers that would be accessible to students who are sittting on the floor.

Better yet, we could just do away with school buildings and teachers and have all students get their learning online. Oh wait! We don't have enough computers for all kids to take home with them. This is not to mention the fact that without teachers to monitor most kids all they'd do with the computers, even if they had them, would be to constantly e-mail each other, play video games, and check their Facebook or My Space pages.

And then when you think it cannot get any more absurd, there are the central office administrators who seem to be hiring more administrators every day. Apparently, in the minds of those who oversee the schools, the need for actual teachers, books, computers, and assorted accessories of education are not nearly as important as overseeing the operation of the schools and their mission. Just this last week I saw advertised online, among others, job openings for College and Career Preparation Officer. The salary range is from $118,700-$169,000. Got news for these people, I am a college and career preparation officer. I am a high school teacher. What exactly is it that people think I do? Hey I could stand to double my salary. Maybe I'll apply. Of course, not being politically connected and a loud-mouthed blogger might be disadvantageous to attaining such a position.

Okay, just one more of these administrative postings, for your perusal. They also advertised for a Management Support Director (MSD), salary range $78,700-$111,000. The MSD's "duties allow for the successful development, coordination, implementation, and maintenance of educational programs designed to improve student academic achievement." Anyone got a clue what this sucker does? Want to coordinate, implement, and maintain some educational programs? How about you hire some teachers to teach.

Meanwhile the state and local governments are claiming that they can't possibly meet the required payments for teacher pension systems. This is despite the fact that, in many cases, the payments are mandated by law. Let's see, someone passed a law that said if I served the community for X number of years I could pay into a pension system and the government would pay a certain matching amount into said system and I would be rewarded with a decent living wage when I retire. Now the government wants to renege. Let's see, this was put into law. I break laws and I get fined or imprisoned. The government breaks laws and teachers lose their pensions. That sounds fair, doesn't it?

Let's face facts boys and girls. Despite all the tea party grumblings, all the griping and moaning, we are going to have to raise taxes to meet our obligations. And we're not talking about property taxes. We are talking about the federal and state governments following through on what they promised. We are talking about meeting fiscal obligations so that America's children can have an education that is not on a par with some backwater 3rd world country. America still has the largest GNP in the world. We can afford to pay for education, and the sad thing is that if we do not fund our public education we will pay. We will pay through the nose by having unprepared citizens trying to compete with the citizens of nations who do invest in education.

And yet, when I think about the deplorable state of education in America today, I hear one little voice in the back of my mind. When I listen very carefully, I can just make out what the little voice is saying. It is singing, "Send in the clowns......."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The Education Omnibus Blog, Part II, Vouchers

As promised, I intend to cover all the varied issues in education that keep popping up in the newspapers, at least the ones that really tick me off. Did the charter schools thing last and I have to pat myself on the back for being fairly civil overall. Mind you that becomes difficult when the very point of charter schools is that America believes teachers are lazy do-nothing assholes, busy milking the system for their hard-earned taxpayer dollars. Somehow they convince themselves that privatizing the public schools and turning the system over to people who will do the same job I do, only for less money and fewer benefits is going to turn the system around. If only Mr. Spock were here now to inform them how grossly illogical they are being. But I digress. I did that argument already. It's time to take on the voucher nuts.

For quite some time now there has been a movement afoot in America to provide taxpayer dollars to parents so that they can send their kids to private schools. Are you with me here? Taxpayer dollars to send kids to private schools, any private school, schools for rich kids, schools for Catholic kids, schools for Baptist kids, schools for any old thing you could imagine. The proponents are pushing this issue in the name of "school choice" ostensibly to give ghetto kids the option of getting out of ghetto schools, get them into better schools so as to give them a better chance at success in America.

There are a couple of major flaws in this thinking. First of all, those rich kid college preparatory schools only have so many openings and I'm here to tell you that the boards of those schools are not taking boatloads of kids from the ghettos into their schools that are preparing rich kids for a life in the board rooms of America. Got that? They don't want their polished little princes and princesses hanging out with kids for whom "mother fucker" is a major word of choice. Those vouchers are not going to get very many kids an option in these schools. Furthermore, most of these schools have academic standards that a lot of the kids in question will not meet. Those who do will eschew "mother fucker" and will probably dress a little better and will be a bit more aware than many. They will be accepted. These are the elite, 1 in 100 or maybe 1 in 1000. So what happens to the other 99 or 999?

Now the other option for the many who will not get into the elite "rich kid schools" are the Catholic schools. This is just wrong in many ways. First of all I have to oppose this on Constitutional grounds. The U.S. Constitution guarantees us "separation of church and state" and paying for a kid's tuition to a Catholic school out of taxpayer dollars is a violation of that separation of church and state. It is using tax dollars to promote a particular religion. I use this example because the Catholic school system is the second largest school system in America behind the public schools. I know there are other church schools out there representing any number of Christian denominations and any number of other religions, monotheistic and otherwise. I do not favor supporting any of those religions with my taxes. I am one of those who is willing to take this to the Supreme Court. I am a card carrying ACLU member and this is just a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Furthermore, studies show that large Catholic school systems in the major cities do not do a whit better at educating kids than do the public schools. How is this judged? Why by the same criteria that public schools are judged, by standardized tests. And the Catholic schools have the option of kicking out the students who become a behavioral problem. The option? They regularly expel their problem students, who consequently become a part of the public school system.

And where do the problem students at public schools go? Duh! They go to public schools. There is nowhere else for them to go. And when our tax dollars go to pay tuition to Catholic schools, or Baptist schools, or Islamic schools, or Hindu schools, or rich kid schools, these are tax dollars that are not being put to use in the public schools to deal with those problem kids that kicked out of the other schools. They are also dollars that are not being put to use for good kids in the public schools who deserve all the resources they can get.

For the record, the Illinois General Assembly recently considered a bill to legalize school vouchers in the State of Illinois, a bill sponsored by State Senator James Meeks, an African-American activist from the Southside of Chicago. Senator Meeks's efforts were misguided. He is one of the people in Springfield who routinely deny the Chicago Public Schools the money they desperately need from the state while trying to find further ways to cut into the funding that they already receive. He seems convinced that the public schools are somehow cheating minority children of a decent education.

Having worked in schools on the Southside of Chicago for the last 15 years, I am here to tell you that the educators employed in those schools are hard-working, dedicated people and the communities they serve are dysfunctional. The children who attend the schools in many of the communities of the Southside are in serious need of more than the schools can offer. The issue is much larger than the schools. It is a social issue, not an educational one. Reverend, excuse me, Senator Meeks is either seriously misguided or is schilling for religious schools. And Steve Huntley, the resident right-wing voice of the Chicago Sun-Times, should really give it a rest. Mr. Huntley routinely argues for anything that could lead to the eventual dissolution of the public schools, to the dissolution of government in general, and for policies that might be called anywhere from right-wing Republican to Libertarian, to downright anarchic.

That, dear friends is my vouchers rant. The Education Omnibus Blog goes on yet. I still have to address teacher pension shortages, firings, budget shortfalls, and any number of ill-conceived plans thrust upon the public schools by numbskulls in government at the beck and call of an ill-informed public. Oh my gosh, I have just called government officials numbskulls and the American public as a whole a bunch of ill-informed persons who do things because they believe b.s. that somebody just made up. Woopsy. Gotta say it anyway. Have a nice day.

Much thanks to Bill Sanders and The Milwaukee Journal for the cartoon that I used for the illustration of my point, at the top of this blog entry.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Education Omnibus Blog, Part I, Charter Schools.

I've been collecting articles from the newspaper that piss me off as regards opinions about the state of public education. I've been writing notes to myself about things I should comment on regarding the state of public education and the opinions of others about it. I have been doing this for about the last three weeks and somehow there has always been something more important to write about and all of this stuff has just piled up on my desk, creating a good bit of clutter. In an effort to clean up the mess and at least make my desk look a bit neater, if the inside of my head looks not one whit neater, I have chosen to attack every single issue that is pissing me off in one fell swoop. Thus, the Education Omnibus Blog cometh!

First thing on the omnibus agenda is charter schools. Those who would gut the public schools routinely push for charter schools, in the mistaken belief that charter schools do a better job of educating kids than do traditional public schools. There has been a push for many years now to open more and more charter schools and give kids a choice, so they don't have to attend those "failing neighborhood schools." Finally some realistic research has come to light that shows this simply not to be true. In an article in the New York Times on May 1, it was noted that 83% of all charter schools in the U.S. are no better than regular public schools.

I might suggest that if you were to separate public schools into categories, you would find a significant segment that does better than the normal public schools. A lot depends on the neighborhood and socio-economic status of the students who attend said public schools. A lot depends on the selective nature of the public school. Same with charter schools. The New York Times article noted that in charter schools, 55% of students are Hispanic or African-American (They actually said black, not African-American, but I changed this because my African-American students no longer wish to be called "black.") They noted that 1/3 of all charter school students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Guess what? In a great many of the schools that are considered "failing" 99-100% of all students are African-American or Hispanic. In a great many of these "failing" schools 99-100% of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Yet the charter schools don't do a damned bit better at educating kids than do the public schools.

More recently, on May 5, none other than Charles Murray weighed in on charter schools on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times. Mr. Murray argues that kids are better off in charter schools, but the fact that all the judging is being done on the basis of standardized test scores is what's wrong. Mr. Murray argues that going traditional is better, and charter schools give a more traditional form of education in smaller classrooms, and that in and of itself is better. Mr. Murray argues that choice is good and test scores are something that doesn't matter. So how are we to measure the good that these schools are doing kids who otherwise would be attending public schools?

There are a number of people out there who also argue that kids in charter schools are simply safer, and thus better able to focus on learning. There are smaller classes. There is more focus on discipline. Their kids are better off. Guess what? That's true. However, the truth is also that those kids who cause trouble can be thrown out of these charter schools and end up back in the old neighborhood schools. The neighborhood public schools have no choice. They cannot just throw kids out into the streets. There is often no choice of where to send the worst and most disruptive kids. That is the public schools. Want to improve public schools? Don't fund charter schools. Fund alternative schools for disruptive, criminal, and seriously challenged public school students. The other students would benefit greatly, I guarantee, and we wouldn't need those charter schools for the good kids.

The bottom line here is that research shows that charter schools do no better than public schools, on the whole. Most of those that do, do so on the same basis as the better public schools. They have selective enrollments. Even within schools that have 99% minority and free and reduced lunch students there are a select group who are motivated and willing to do what is necessary to succeed. Teachers love these kids. Take all of those kids and put them in charter schools and of course the charter schools succeed.

What we are talking about is taking needed resources from the public schools and giving them to private concerns who do it cheaper by requiring longer hours and lower pay of employees. What we are talking about is giving employees lesser benefits. What we are talking about is taking the better students out of the neighborhood schools and leaving the worst students in the neighborhood schools. I'm sorry, but this is just the wrong approach to improving our public schools. First of all, we have to improve our society. There are huge stretches of every major city in this country where poverty is run amuck. Gangs and anti-social biases are the norm. If we truly want to fix the schools, we need to fix what's wrong with society that creates this urban blight and the blighted culture that occupies it.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Advanced Placement. Oh How You've Changed.

AP testing in Back of the Yards is not what your suburban upbringing may have led you to think of when you think of AP tests. We're talking about a whole different experience here. That other thing that people think of still exists in places like New Trier High School on the North Shore, but we're talking about a school in one of the ghettos of Chicago. It's a miracle that an Advanced Placement program exists at all, and that any of the students are successful in such an endeavor. Yet they are.

For the record, I'm that teacher with an administrative certificate who somehow can't seem to get hired for a full-time administrative job. I have my opinions on why this is so, but I shall remain mum on that point. Nevertheless, I serve as a boon to the full-time administrators in my school. I can be counted on to teach a full load and then when there is a need for someone with administrative expertise for special projects, I can be counted on to follow through. When they needed an evening school program, I started it and ran it until the funding ran out. When they needed an AP program I built it from the ground up and have administered it ever since.

As it happens, in the first year of my newly minted AP program, I taught AP U.S. History and took care of the administration of said program and ran the testing, a one man band. I talked an English teacher into the preparation necessary to teach AP English Lit and voila we had a second course. I talked a math teacher into the prep necessary and next thing you know we had an AP Statistics course. Been working on the science department for going on 4 or 5 years and we still don't have a commitment to an AP course from that corner of the building. Did I mention that the ACT scores in science in our building are dismal? Anyway, I eventually talked another history teacher into taking over the AP teaching load in U.S. History and I became simply the Coordinator for the program.

I've been trying to get an AP Spanish Language or Literature program at our school for the last three years. One teacher who did the prep got mad at the Principal and took a job at another school. One teacher who said she'd do the prep didn't. One teacher who is the head of the ESL and Language Department has done the necessary preparation, but administration can't commit to giving him the A.P. class because they don't know if he'll be needed to teach nothing but ESL when downtown cuts teaching positions next year, due to budgetary concerns. Two-thirds of our student population is Spanish speaking. This is a "Duh Factor" class and yet school administration and downtown administration can't seem to get on board to make it happen.

And that's just administrative woes. Let's talk about the actual testing. First of all, 98-99% of all students in this high school in Back of the Yards qualify for "Free or Reduced Lunch." What that means is that these kids come from families who qualify for Federal Poverty Guidelines. The College Board gives a fee reduction for kids from families who meet poverty guidelines. The State of Illinois picks up another chunk of the cost of AP testing for these kids. They're usually late with their payments and in one year we were denied the right to give tests because the College Board hadn't been paid from the previous year. Okay it wasn't all on the State of Illinois. The Chicago Public Schools arcane payment system was partly to blame as well.

At any rate, after the fee reductions from the College Board and the supplements from the State of Illinois, the school itself picks up the rest of the cost of the exams for the kids. They pay zero. Rich suburban kids are paying the full fee themselves, but then most of them can afford it and an awful lot of them have parents with college degrees. We have parents who are high school dropouts and a number of new immigrants from Latin America who speak little or no English.

Meanwhile a small cadre of students who navigate the gang infested streets and communities of the Southside of Chicago manage to survive and thrive despite all odds. They work hard. They get good grades. They manage to position themselves to take AP classes and get scholarships and move up and out. So let the testing begin.

Well, we do run into some problems. I had to order late testing for one student because it turns out she was 9+ months pregnant and had labor induced last weekend. The new mother was not able to make her AP exams, but hopes to be primed and ready during the late testing period week after next. Because we had ordered an exam for her, the school pays a $12 fee for the returned test and a $40 fee for the late test that will be given. Five other students who suddenly realized they don't know squat about statistics neglected to show for the AP Statistics exam. 5 X $12=$60 in additional fees for those tests not taken. Many of us shrug at the prospect of say an additional $100-150 dollars tacked on to the school's bill for exams not taken. I often spend that much in a single night at dinner with my wife, but when it comes out of a school budget in a system in economic crisis every penny counts. Do we have the extra money to pick up the tab?

Meanwhile, the school rented a bunch of folding tables to be placed in the gym for PSAE testing last week and I was able to use some of those for the first day of AP testing this week. The Principal decided we couldn't afford to keep the necessary tables for the rest of the week for the AP tests. We're the poor stepchild of the school, apparently. With an hour and a half left in the test in AP Statistics on Tuesday the school engineer suddenly appeared in the gym. He told me that the guys "were here to pick up the tables." After some stern looks and much consternation, he understood that I damned well wasn't turning over any tables until these kids were finished testing, and the "guys" could come back tomorrow to pick up said tables. The engineer left and calculator button pushing, pencil twirling, and the odd nose picking continued.

I had to find enough tables within the building to replace the rented tables. This involved coaxing, cajoling, and pleading with the engineering and janitorial staff at the school to get a bunch of rickety old junk tables moved into the gym. As I understand it the janitorial staff got a few boys from a class with a substitute to actually move the tables, with a promise of "Service Learning Hours." Today we tested on tables covered with gang graffiti while sitting on chairs that I pray will last the duration of the test. The fans in the gym blew at gale force for the entire duration. Then during Division (Homeroom for non-Chicagoans) the P.A. system blared the day's announcements. Meanwhile 26 kids tried desperately to concentrate on analysis of fiction and poetry in the AP English Lit exam.

Yes boys and girls, this is not your mother's and father's AP exams. This is not your mother's and father's school. This is not your mother's and father's neighborhood. This is not your mother's and father's world. This is Back of the Yards in 2010, and some of our kids survive and turn out pretty damned well despite it all. Just another example of overpaid, lazy-ass teachers wasting the taxpayers money, right?

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Fine Art of Blundering Into the Future

I was well armed and prepared to write about the lack of success of charter schools today, but then I read Babsray's Blog, and my head went off in an entirely new direction. So much today depends on how focused a kid is and what planning and action goes into their lives from early on. So much of their ultimate success depends on how their parents help them into their futures. Perhaps this has always been so to an extent, just more so today.

Then there are people like Babs and myself. Our parents raised free-range children. We were given some basics in human behavior and a work ethic at home. We were given some overarching basics at school on the American way and its ideals. Then we were cut loose to figure the rest out for ourselves. We were given very little direction. We were allowed to choose whatever we wanted as long as it made us happy and it was considered socially acceptable. We often hid those things that weren't socially acceptable from our parents and did them anyway.

Babs grew up in rural Northern Iowa and I in central Arkansas. We both had a degree of innate intelligence and were both reasonably attractive so we were both popular in school. Neither of us had a clue who we really were, nor who we really wanted to be. We both left high school with high hopes and a burning desire to get out of Dodge. We both ended up, kerplunk, at a university about 2 hours drive from where we grew up. Then life got complicated. Didn't have a clue what we really wanted from life and had to muck about for a while to discover what it was that was eating us up from inside.

I didn't know if I wanted to be a rock n roll star or a nuclear physicist so I got a degree in political science, went off to Illinois to graduate school, and somehow ended up doing improv comedy shows in bars. Paid the bills doing everything from loading trucks to clerking in bookstores to being a pharmacy technician. Did some acting, writing, directing, sang with garage bands, and hustled pool on the side. Moved around a lot and never got rich and famous. Somehow managed to get an education degree, an advanced education degree, and a certificate saying I could be an educational administrator. How'd that happen? Still not sure to this day.

As for Babs, she definitely muddled about a bit as well. She got lost in the immensity of the University of Minnesota, did a two year program in commercial art, sold car stereos, clerked in bookstores, eventually got a 4 year degree, and set off on a pattern that included proofreading, editing, writing for newspapers and magazines, writing for academics, and writing and writing and more writing. Guess what? She became a professional writer.

Along the way Babs and I have seen the world, the Arctic Circle, the Sahara Desert, and the remotest parts of the Pacific Ocean. We have transformed our lives from one of total lack of direction, just this side of poverty, to one that apppears to have substance and direction and has taken us to the Gold Coast in Chicago. Now we appear poised to move ahead one more time and find a comfy retirement in a warm climate, with swimming pools, tennis courts, and beaches. Sounds like we've done pretty well. It's just not the way anyone would advise you to do it. It has been a meandering path with lots of very interesting twists and turns and that is what makes us who we are.

My hope is that America will remain flexible for our children and our children's children's children. May it always be so that a person can meander and muddle and take every odd turning that presents itself and become a better person for it and have lots of wonderful stories to tell. May it always be possible for the unique individual to come through all of that unharmed and able to die in comfort, if not wealthy. Otherwise, what will become of our writers and musicians and artists of all ilks? Our society is enriched and better for it for allowing at least some of us to blunder into the future, rather than planning it all from the time we are in diapers.