How I would spend an extra $100 million for my school district…

In case you missed my last post, in which I briefly touched upon Mark Zuckerberg’s generous gift of $100 million to the Newark, New Jersey school district, you might want to go back and check it out. In addition, here’s an article from Fast Company that gives some more info on it. This got me to thinking, though – well, that’s not really true – a friend of mine asked me what I would do if this type of money was donated to my district and I had the power to make the decisions.

Amie asked me a great question, and it’s really been on my mind for most of the day. Let’s get real, the chances of a $100 million donation are pretty much slim to none – and the only thing less likely to happen would be me being the one to choose what would be done with it!

One thing that I want to make perfectly clear is that this is not an attempt to criticize my district in the least, we are certainly feeling the effects of the money crunch, just like everybody else – but we’re talking about a dream scenario and $100 million!. That being said, these are the things I would look to improve with this type of money, keeping in mind that this is used to improve the physical much more so than the philosophical changes/improvements that are necessary:

  • I would make the necessary improvements to our buildings first – there are roof problems that have enabled leaking to happen, there are rooms that need to be painted, there are carpets that need to be pulled up and replaced.
  • I would renovate our gym at the high school – this is the part of our school that is seen by the general public more than any other and it needs some updating. It needs to be brighter and more inviting.
  • I would build an auxiliary gym at the high school that included a swimming pool and learning how to swim would be mandatory (way too much of our world is water…) In addition, this auxiliary gym would have an indoor track as well as a fully stocked and supervised cardio room – we need to place a greater emphasis on the need to stay physically active and this needs to be a lifelong goal.
  • My friend Amie actually touched on this in her response, but it’s actually something that almost happened last year: I would dedicate space to create a big time garden. Beyond the obvious lessons being taught in how to build and maintain this garden, the “products” will be incorporated into school lunches, which brings me to…
  • I’m bringing Jamie Oliver in on a consulting basis and we’re going to make sure that our students — all of our students, K-12 — are eating better. Our current company does what it can, but they’re still looking to make a profit – I’m not trying to crush them here – but there’s so much more that can be done. Because of this money in pocket, the district will take over all aspects of food service with the idea of creating healthy, balanced breakfast and lunch options for all students each and every day. Making a profit will be a secondary goal.
  • I would bring in the following to provide additional motivation on in-service days: Sir Ken Robinson, Dan Pink, Taylor Mali, Steve Snider and Paul Murphy.
  • I would build a skate/roller blade/biking park on the school’s property much like the Peach Plaza Skatepark at Twin Lakes. Ryan Parker and a staff would man this area.
  • I would install a rock climbing wall.
  • I would bring in RSAnimate to work with teachers in order to get even more creative with their lessons. Seriously, how incredibly awesome is this company and what they do?
  • I would bring back the concept of In School Suspension and staff it full time. I spent time in In School Suspension and also served an Outside Suspension. Trust me, there’s no doubt as to which serves as more of a deterrent, in my opinion.
  • I would get even more technology into the hands of ALL of our students. I think our district has worked very hard to do this and they should be commended for this. But I would take this even further — whether it be an iPad or a NetBook — our students need and deserve to be 1:1 with technology.
  • I would hire Dave Vuick to be our full time Technology Integration Coach at the High School and I would make sure that there is a Technology Integration Coach assigned to each of our other buildings. I would make sure that each Coach is provided the time to work with teachers in small groups or 1:1 so that they become more comfortable with incorporating technology into their lessons.
  • I would increase the amount of afterschool programs and make them mandatory for those students who are having any type of difficulty in school – whatever that difficulty may be. Again, this is something I think my district works hard to do, but I know it can always be better if you could do the things you want when money isn’t an issue. These programs wouldn’t simply be remediation; our students can never have too much exposure to the Arts – this will be another opportunity to bring in guest artists and speakers.
  • I would make afterschool programs available to parents/grandparents/retirees/anyone interested in our district. The taxpayers, if they want, should be able to take advantage of the things we have to offer also.
  • I’m bringing in Ray LaMontagne for a special concert and songwriting “conference.” (Okay, I’ll freely admit, that one’s specifically just for me!)
  • I would hire two people whose sole job is to search and obtain grants for the district. We do have somebody who’s writing grants, but it’s one of many, many responsibilities. These two people will have no other responsibilities and will be awarded bonuses for reaching certain levels of success (and before anybody tries to call me out on this, I have no issues with doing this same thing with teachers, as long as this isn’t based upon the idiotic standardized tests that are currently in place).
  • I would strengthen the security in each and every one of our buildings. I do believe that it’s pretty good already, however, I would go to a swipe card system for all employees and I would also hire greeters whose job it is to handle the checking in of visitors. In our current system, it’s very difficult for the secretaries to handle this duty, especially when they’re away from the entrance to begin with, and they’re expected to do this on top of everything else that they’re already inundated with. The swipe cards would grant access to each teacher individually – in other words, if I’m a technology teacher, then I would have access to my room and the computer labs. If I’m a coach, I would have access to the fitness center, the gym, etc. (And, for the record, this technology certainly exists – we were using it at my past school district over 10 years ago.)
  • I would make sure that there are ample counselors in each building who are available both before school and after school – some of our buildings don’t even have one.
  • I would expand our current system of professional development to include national conferences. A teacher who wants to continue the learning process is a tremendous model to our students. Having this money would allow these trips to valuable conferences to happen.

I’m sure that more will come to me and that I’ll be adding to this list. Please feel free to chime in with your ideas – it’s perfectly fine to dream, isn’t it??

The times, they are a-changin’

Part of the issue when it comes to bashing teachers is that those who are doing the bashing aren’t actually in the industry. Yes, I know, this isn’t a real “a-ha” type of statement, but it’s really what it boils down to. Those who are making the claims, and in some cases who are also driving decisions that affect education, haven’t stepped inside a school or a classroom for quite some time. I’m here to tell you that today’s school environment is very, very different than the often romanticized view that many still maintain.

Think back to your elementary school years. Typically, we have fond memories of these years. Learning was fun, we loved to go. We didn’t wake up dreading the experience, we looked forward to it. We didn’t question why we were doing what we were doing, we did it and learned in the process.

Now think back to your junior high/middle school years. This is where things started to change. Typically, we had more freedoms (elective classes) and moved around to a new subject every 45 minutes or so. Our bodies were changing and so were our attitudes about school. It became much more social. Seeing members of the opposite sex (and for some, the same sex) became our top priority, not learning about x’s and y’s and gerunds and participles. We discovered love, but really didn’t know what it was. We began questioning things, but typically these questions were unspoken.

Moving on, let’s get to our high school years. Changes continued. We suddenly knew everything and nobody could tell us anything contrary to this. We pushed the limits. We got our driver’s license, got a job and thought even more about love and that girlfriend or boyfriend. We experimented with all of these things, did things we shouldn’t have done and all along thought we were right. All the while our teachers worked to wrangle us in and actually teach. We sat and we got. (My dad had this theory: the job of the junior high was to pump our heads full of hot air; the job of the high school was to get it back out of there). And then we moved on.

I’d actually be willing to say that those descriptions are pretty similar for most of us. In fact, on a small scale, they also apply to today’s students. But there is one big, HUGE, exception. The lack of respect that students have today for anything beyond themselves is absolutely, positively dumbfounding. These students have been told from the very beginning that they can do no wrong. (Enter Natalie Munroe-like comments here at your own risk). And this is where the problem ultimately lies, in my opinion.

If you haven’t been in an elementary, middle or high school in the past 10 years, then you truly have absolutely no clue of the current conditions. I can’t even begin to put into words just how much this lack of respect has increased over the life of my career. You would be shocked to see how some of our students speak and act on a daily basis. And while the vast majority are absolutely awesome to work with, it’s this vocal minority that ends up taking up the time and attention of those in control.

I’ve often said that there are few students who had more fun while in school than I did. And I was certainly no angel. At the same time, I would have acted much worse if it weren’t for one thing and one thing only: a healthy fear of what my dad would do to me at home. This fear, for the most part, no longer exists amongst our students. As just a short aside, in 9th grade I faced a choice from my Assistant Principal – a paddling or a detention. After finding out that taking the detention brought with it a call home while the paddling did not, the decision was easy. Avoiding that call home made those smacks worth it.

Keep in mind that I work in a pretty darn good school district, and, for the most part, some absolutely incredible students. This being said, we all must take responsibility and be held accountable – and this includes the parents who don’t want to parent, but rather be friends. We live in a feel good society and we need to toughen up. As teachers and as a district – heck as a system in general nationwide, we need to toughen up. We need to become realists, not everyone is great. Not everyone is going to end up on Jeopardy! competing against Watson (or creating Watson! for that matter). Some of us are going to fail; some of us are going to succeed. Such is life.

Effort creates ability is a tag phrase that’s been used in my district for the past 10 years at least. I couldn’t agree with this statement more, but there’s something inherent in this statement that gets lost on many of our parents and students today, the idea that effort is necessary. It takes a strong effort to learn. It takes a strong effort to get better every day. It takes a strong effort to say, you know what, I’m not that good at chemistry, but I’ve been working at it and I’m getting better at it, so maybe if I work even harder, I’ll do even better. It takes a strong parent to demand excellence and instill in our students a desire to get better in everything we do.

On our end, we need to raise the bar. We need to stand up and demand more of our parents, our students, and, most importantly, ourselves. WE need to get past this adversarial relationship that so many have these days, come together and then figure out a way to get our students back to the top, where they need to be. Make no mistake about it, though, there’s no shortcut to achieving this. No KIPP school or TfA teacher or charter school is going to achieve this without an extremely diligent group of concerned people working their butts off to make it happen. We need to move past the idea that we can teach the same way we did in the 50’s, 80’s, 90’s or whatever we’re referring to the first 10 years of this century as. We need to realize that the landscape of our environment is very different, we need to adapt and we need to do everything we can to accept it and excel in this environment. It’s an exciting time, make no mistake about it.

As teachers, we need to value the input of both our students and their parents in this process; reciprocally, this must also be true. Our society must learn to value those who are going out of their way to try to make our society’s children better on a daily basis. Teachers in foreign countries are treated with respect; we deserve this as well in our own country.  Our priorities are all out of whack.

On a different note, dropping $100 million into the Newark school system so that you can hand pick a system that you THINK will work is not only against the state’s laws, but just doesn’t make a lot of sense, either. But because Mark Zuckerberg owns a gazillion dollar company, we take that money and give him a voice – even when that voice doesn’t make much sense. Keep in mind that Newark is currently spending $22,000 per student per year. Think about that number – it’s just absurd. And, just in case you were wondering, they are graduating a whopping (roughly) 50% of its students. You read that correctly. Obviously, throwing a ton of money at them is not the answer.

Turning our schools around is more of a philosophical problem than it is a monetary problem. Don’t get me wrong, well-spent money can certainly help the problems, but we need to get on the same page philosophically before any improvement will ever truly occur.