During these last few weeks of the school year, I find myself frustrated. Four years ago, I came to Brighton with such high hopes. Being a glass-half-full personality, I saw no barriers to creating a great school. But as I have written in this blog, it did not take me long to realize what a challenge this would be.
Since then, there have been many celebrations of our success — most notably, making AYP after many years of being in School Improvement. Brighton no longer wears this shameful label, the ultimate symbol of school failure in our state. It’s an accomplishment many in Alabama thought was impossible.
As my fourth year draws to a close, however, I believe Brighton will not have the “happily ever after” fairy tale ending I and many others have hoped for. I say this even as I watch the new construction on our school campus. In anticipation of tearing down our old middle school building to make way for a new $10 million facility, contractors are building temporary portable classrooms outside my window. These trailers are necessary to house our special subject teachers next year. Grades grades K-5 will be in our current elementary building, which will also accommodate the core content area teachers from grades 6-8 during the construction.
You may wonder why I'm depressed about a construction project that we've longed for and begged for over many years. It's because these trailers represent the fact that we have failed in our efforts to convince our school system to convert Brighton into a K-5 school, and to send our rising sixth graders to one of two larger, more suitable middle schools nearby. It's not an issue of crowding -- the schools have room for them. And if the decision had been made to send them there, we could have built a brand-new K-5 school for $5 million, instead of the $10 million it will cost to meet standards for a building with middle grades. Our middle school population -- 111 students -- is so small that we can only offer one sport, boys' basketball. We did not even have enough girls sign up to have a team last year.
So in my mind, these trailers materializing outside my window represent the destiny of the 111 middle school students who will not have the same opportunities children in other neighboring middle schools in our system enjoy. These 111 children could be the "before" picture on a No Child Left Behind campaign poster.
Check-box indicators of adequacy
I have learned so much during the past four years about what it takes to have a highly functional school. Making AYP is merely the minimum of requirements. It has little or nothing to do with the quality of instruction. Just as a “Highly Qualified Teacher” has nothing to do with teacher effectiveness. Brighton (thanks to our performance in the elementary grades) has made AYP, and all but one teacher is highly qualified by the federal government’s definition. Yet the unvarnished facts about our middle grades reveal how unreliable these check-box indicators of adequacy are.
As they moved up through our elementary grades, our current seventh grade students proved to be the highest performing class in Brighton’s history. They are a smart group of students and most of them have attended Brighton since they were very young children. In fifth grade they scored 78% proficiency in Math on our state test. Two years ago they moved to the middle school building. Back then, I wrote about my fears for their future. Now, on our last two benchmark tests prior to this year’s state assessment, these same students scored at a 24% proficiency in Math.
I was stunned as I reviewed the test data. Some of our most promising students scored below 20%. Of course I am concerned about our school making AYP again. But more important, I am deeply depressed about the lost opportunities for these students to build on the content knowledge and skills they brought when they entered sixth grade. Will they ever be able to regain this ground? How many will graduate from high school?
The cold hard truth is that we are transforming our most promising students into dropouts. Making AYP or having so-called highly qualified teachers has not changed the future for these children of poverty.
Stories about hate and pain
Now, I look at today’s fifth grade students. These are the children who won my heart six years ago when they were in the “snake room.” I have written and spoken about this group often. They actually had the highest scores in our school on our final benchmark test last month. It took an extreme, long-term effort by our entire K-5 faculty to bring them to this point — a story that was documented in an issue of Scholastic Instructor magazine last year.
Now they have to move on, but not to a school that has many varied opportunities. They will be among the 111 middle schoolers whom the powers-that-be apparently believe will be best served by staying on this campus . Interestingly, Brighton will continue to be the exception (one of only two K-8 schools in this large school system). Horace Mann said that public education is the great equalizer. But there is nothing equal in this situation.
Recently, our current fifth graders were invited to attend a Young Author’s Conference at Samford University. I watched with great pride as the teachers and students worked on their stories, and we delighted in the wonderful book covers our art teacher worked diligently with the students to create. The trip was a huge success and our students receiving many compliments for their good behavior. They were wide-eyed as they took part in this college-campus experience.
When they returned to school, their books were displayed outside the classrooms. One morning, I stopped by to read several I had missed. These stories were autobiographical and did not have elaborate covers. I gasped as I read their words.
One 10-year old girl titled her story, I Hate the Life that I Had. Her story chronicled the night DHR took her from her mother. She told how her younger brother jumped out of the car because he had to leave his real dad. She went on to say this was her mother’s boyfriend and how she could not stand him because her mother could have gotten them back if he had left. She wrote, “One time I bit him because he slapped my mama.”
Another student entitled his story, Pain. His first paragraph describes his life view: “My generation has passed along death and mistakes. It starts from cancer or suicide or just getting shot. All of my life my family dies from these damn reasons.” He goes on to write about his grandfather’s death, which included a suicide attempt. He states, “The night my grandfather died, my dad tried to drink all the pain away but it didn’t work we will all be stuck with the pain until we die.”
The final story was entitled Life. This was a lengthy chapter book about a girl’s father in prison and growing up watching her mother try to support three children. She wrote, “In my world mothers have to be the man and the woman. Most men are in the streets or dead. All my life I have watched my mother run after my older sister’s dad and trying to get them to do their part. But after a while, you have to give up that dream and stop hoping these men will do the right thing by their kids.”
The words of these 10- and 11-year-old students will haunt me forever. Life has robbed them of a carefree childhood.
We are failing these children
Many years ago, I realized as a teacher in a Title I school that as much as you have the desire to, you cannot change the world the students live in. What you can do is provide the best education for them in a haven of safety. I wish I could say our fifth graders will receive this type of education for the next three years, but our data does not insure or even suggest this will happen.
I wish I could guarantee they will have many opportunities to participate in athletics, band, choral groups, and clubs. This will not be possible with such a small middle school student population. I work in the second largest school system in our state, with about 38,000 students in our district. I realize that in the large scheme of things, these 111 students are not a critical issue. But how many other powerless children do they represent? How can we knowingly deny these students when our district motto proclaims to be, Committed to excellence in teaching and learning for all.
It is one thing to unintentionally to leave a child behind; it is another to knowingly allow a situation to exist that will leave a whole community of children behind. I thought I could change the destiny of these Brighton children. But I have failed them, as others have failed them. Even so, I cannot leave them. I plan on staying to see them enter the 8th grade.
This is what I can pledge to do next year. I will push and prod to try to improve classroom instruction, which will not make me popular with some of my colleagues. I am pleased, however, that all but three of our teachers have committed to attempt Take One!, a new program from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards that makes it possible for teachers not officially seeking NB Certification to complete one of the Board's assessment entries. The idea is to expose teachers to the standards and propositions that NBPTS believes define accomplished teaching. This will be our schoolwide professional learning for 2008-09, and this could be a critical turning point for improving instruction.
I will also seek special opportunities for our students — opportunities that will not replace what they are missing, but hopefully will bring something fresh and inspiring into their lives. I am thrilled that our young music teacher, who is highly trained, will stay for another year (even though the band will have less than a dozen members). I will continue to work closely with our art teacher, who remains a bright spot for all the students. And I will call on Vulcan Materials, the company who adopted our school four years ago, to fund field trips.
I will also try my best to understand the decisions that have been made for Brighton’s children. This will be the hardest task. I have had faith in the decision makers in the past. I have long admired them, and I mean no disrespect as I tell this story. Nevertheless, I am committed to be a voice for the children of Brighton.
Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to this issue of conscience much better than I can. He said: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
Brighton children, like all children, matter.