In previous writings, I have told the story of the univited snakes that inhabited a kindergarten classroom at my school for two years before an effort was made to remove them. I was "introduced" to the snakes during a visit to Brighton when I was state teacher of the year, and my dismay helped prompt their removal. When I asked to be assigned to Brighton after my year as national TOY, I was given that very same classroom, now snake-free.
My principal has told me to stop telling the snake story, but I can't, because the snakes have become my symbol of the inequity that exists in so many of our high-poverty schools. Today at Brighton, the snakes are back both symbolically and physically.
The first snake appeared this summer on the front page of the Birmingham News. The story revealed that one of the snakes found three years ago had survived. An instructional aide in our school had taken the snake home to her son who raised the snake as a pet. The story went on to say how the snake had thrived under his nurturing care. I stared at the picture and news article for the longest time; I could not understand why this story created such turmoil inside me. I certainly did not begrudge this creature a healthy life. Then it dawned on me—the snake had survived, but would the children who were kindergarteners in that room that year?
This is what happened to those five year-olds after the snakes were found in their classroom. They were moved to the music room where they remained for three weeks, sitting on the floor as very little instruction took place. They returned to their classroom, but several other incidents limited instruction throughout the year. First grade was a productive year, but it was hard to move the students up to grade level. According to our state assessment, many of the students entered second grade at risk. In second grade some of the children had three different teachers due to various factors; the others had teachers who were struggling with the new programs that were put into place. Today these children are in third grade with 82% at risk.
These are the children who haunt me because I know our school failed them, and they are facing a closing window of opportunity. This breaks my heart and as educators we should all be heartbroken for all the children that we lose along the way.
Other "snakes" appeared in the first weeks of school this year. School started on such a positive note with the news of our significant improvement. After three weeks of daily crises, my principal and I looked at each other and finally admitted we were drowning. The horrible feeling of frustration was beginning to overwhelm us.
I guess we thought the improved test scores would change everything. We we wrong. The snakes are still around, at least symbolically.
Many of our frustrations stem from the aging physical plant of the school, which continually interferes with our attempts to maintain a safe, secure, uninterrupted environment for learning. Many academic concerns also remain to be addressed. Some teachers still refuse to adapt to the changes that are taking place, despite the evidence that when the changes are made, students begin to achieve at much higher levels.
I am so proud of the work last year that improved scores, but scores alone can not create a school that is a functional, positive, professional learning community. We still face issues of trust, faith and commitment, both within our buildings and outside in the larger world, where decisions are made — or not made — that greatly impact our chances of success.