Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bus Scheduling (Sigh)

A few weeks ago, wanting to get ahead of the curve and hoping to have some input, I called the AAPS transportation office to find out what bus options there would be in my neighborhood. I was hoping that as the number of kids at Skyline expands, the busing options would improve. I, at least, want to encourage the public school bussing option, but I don't like to have my kids walking nearly a mile in the morning dark in order to get on a bus--which meant, of course, that I drove my daughter to the bus stop last year.
So imagine my dismay when I was told on the phone that not only hadn't the options expanded, the bus that stopped last year 3/4 of a mile from my house was no longer operational.
The guy answering the phone suggested that maybe nobody had used that bus at the end of the year.
Not true--there were about 12 kids there on most days.
I was upset.
I left a message for the route supervisor. [Whom, it should be mentioned here, never called me back.]
I also emailed some of my friends in the neighborhood about this. One of them called Todd Robert's office (the superintendent), and spoke with his secretary. She was following my grandfather's adage, "Don't waste your time. I always go straight to the top."

[In case you need it, the Superintendent's Office number is in the phone book. And it is: 994-2230.]

A few hours later, my friend gets a call back--the person I had spoken to had, in fact, given me the "wrong" information--there was a bus that went to the old spots, and a few other spots too (which are, in fact, closer to my house). You might have thought that "all's well that ends well."

Except for a few things. (Of course there is more.)
When the Back-to-School Bus Schedules came, the promised route was...ABSENT. This prompted a whole 'nother round of phone calls among our friends. What did this mean???
At Skyline registration, the route in question was indeed posted. [Although I didn't go to registration--if my child hadn't asked the right question, would we know the answer?]
Obviously, they had to print the schedules earlier, so I still don't know: did they add this route under our questioning? Or was its omission an editing mistake that they couldn't rectify in time? And if the route was there all the time, then why was the person answering the phone using the (clearly incorrect) printed bus schedule--at least the AAPS transportation department should have access to the correct schedule.

One more thing: twice last year, for good reasons, my daughter's morning bus schedule had major changes in time and location. But did they give us more than a day's notice? NO! Did they change the posted information on the AAPS Web Site? NO! And really, there is no good reason for that. Families deserve at least a few days notice. The web site should be updated.

A few days after the first set of events, one of the other parents whose child rides the bus calls me to find out if there was an update. I told her what had happened. "Typical of the school district," she says (and she works for the district). "And the confusion is all so unnecessary."

Lessons learned about the bussing:
Call early about the schedule
Read the schedule. Re-read the schedule. If you don't see what you need, be persistent and ask for what you deserve.
If you don't like the answers, go up the chain of command. The squeaky wheel does get the grease--at least sometimes. I don't think most of us are asking for all that much.
Oh--and--give the bus drivers a break, especially the first couple of weeks of the year...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ted Kennedy, 1932-2009

"Every American should have the opportunity to receive a quality education, a job that respects their dignity and protects their safety, and health care that does not condemn those whose health is impaired to a lifetime of poverty and lost opportunity." -- Senator Edward Kennedy

Ted Kennedy's fingerprints were on nearly every piece of important education (and civil rights) legislation that came out of the Senate while he served there, and you can read about that legacy here or here.

In 1972, Senator Kennedy championed Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Title IX has had a profound, profound impact on my life, and sometime soon I'll hope to write about that.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sunday NY Times: Kids and Social Action

I really really enjoyed this article in Sunday's NY Times: A Georgia County Shares a Tale of One Man’s Life and Death.

Sure, it's a sentimental story about an elderly man who tells students who are interviewing him that he is worried about affording a funeral.
What caught my eye was the kids' social action and performance in the story.
Nice--that the project of raising the funds and material to give this man a proper burial was initiated by one of the students.
Nicer still--that the industrial arts teacher had his students build a coffin. And they became the pallbearers. Educators talk about the importance of performance-based learning. What a great example this is.
Even better--the person in question had one of his greatest fears quelled.

But--in my opinion--the real star of the story--the unsung hero--is the Foxfire Project.

Since its founding here in 1966, Foxfire has sent students out to interview aging relatives, vanishing craftsmen and all manner of homegrown characters. Subjects run the gamut: beekeeping, moonshining, witches.

The magazine’s articles have been anthologized into a popular series of books. With about nine million in print, they have been adapted into a Broadway play and TV movie.
What is Foxfire? It is a lot of things, but here's the one I will highlight:
• "Foxfire" is a method of classroom instruction—not a step-by-step checklist, but an over-arching approach that incorporates the original Foxfire classroom's building blocks of giving students the opportunity to make decisions about how they learn required material, using the community around them as a resource to aid that learning, and giving the students an audience for their work beyond the classroom.
Read more about Foxfire in general here. Read about their educational approach here.

Sunday NY Times: And Ain't I A Woman?

The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.
- Aung San Suu Kyi

After reading the Sunday magazine of the New York Times this week, I found Aung San Suu Kyi's quote extremely relevant. The entire magazine is dedicated to the status of women--in many cases, women we would call teens here. The circumstances of hardship were almost unbearable to read about, but also very motivating. It is not a coincidence that infant and maternal mortality is highest in countries where women's literacy is lowest.

Was it just a coincidence that, this Sunday, I also drove past Seneca Falls in New York? While driving past the exit, we discussed the suffrage movement, and Sojourner Truth. I was sorry to hear that my son didn't know who Sojourner Truth was, and had not read her speech, And Ain't I A Woman? If you haven't read it either, you can read it here.

And maybe by the time we reach 200 years after the first major American suffrage conference (2048), women around the world will get some rights--including, but not only, education.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Exciting New Web Site

The Ann Arbor Area Government Documents Repository has launched! Thanks to the Ann Arbor Chronicle for pointing it out. Thanks to the ArborWiki Project (and Matt Hampel) for thinking of it.
This project is a way to publicly share government documents that you might have gotten, when you want other people to have access to them.

As of yet, there are no school-related documents up--but you can add them yourself--please do! This is a project with great potential, but even greater potential with your help.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Roberto Clemente

Many people in Ann Arbor think that there is only one alternative high school--Community High School. But that's not true. Let's not forget Roberto Clemente and Stone School.

If Community High School offers warmth and a lot of freedom, Clemente offers warmth and a lot of structure. Given that the founder, and principal for many years, of Clemente is retiring, it seems time to say a little something about the school.

First of all, do you know who Roberto Clemente was? Great baseball player, great person, killed in an airplane accident on his way to help with earthquake recovery efforts in Nicaragua. Roberto Clemente was a whole person--by which I mean he was well-rounded, smart and athletic and caring. A good model.

Even though he is retiring, Joe Dulin is not a retiring (as in shy) man; but for many years Roberto Clemente High School has been somewhat shy and retiring. In fact, the first time I visited there (in its old building), I wasn't sure we were actually still in the Ann Arbor school district boundaries, it was so far east.

Roberto Clemente Student Development Center is the school that you get referred to (or refer yourself to), if you don't do well at the other schools. You can't graduate from it (you graduate from your home school), and most kids only stay a year. But if you have been wondering how Ann Arbor keeps its graduation rates up, Clemente is definitely a contributing factor.

Want a school that provides a lot of structure, but also warmth? That is Clemente. The school became well-known for having its staff go roust kids out of bed, if necessary, to get them learning. Parent involvement is required.

The target has really been those kids described in Gwendolyn Brooks' poem:

We real cool.
We skip school.
We lurk late.
We strike straight.

From their web site:

Roberto Clemente is an alternative educational program that was established by the Ann Arbor Board of Education in 1974, for 8th through 12th graders, who reside in the Ann Arbor Public School District. The “Clemente Family” serves students who require a smaller, more structured and nurturing environment. Students may be self-referred or referred by their counselor or administrator. Please contact the liaison at your child’s school if you are interested in attending Clemente. Students may enroll at any time during the school year. Once accepted into the program, the student, accompanied by his or her parents, must be interviewed by the principal.

I feel pretty sure that Joe Dulin will continue to do interesting things. Not only has he been the principal at Clemente for many many years, he is also the founder. I imagine that having a new principal there will make things...interesting. Sometimes when founders leave there are big shake-ups. I haven't always agreed with Joe Dulin--and I am guessing that I'm not the only one. But--he has made a difference in a lot of kids' lives, and I appreciate that.

And as for Roberto Clemente Student Development Center? May it live long and prosper.

Monday, August 10, 2009

More Notes on Schools of Choice

Last week, I posted some information about schools of choice. I got the following comment, which I have to admit, I didn't understand at the time.

"If a student is trying to transfer into a school outside of the school of choice system (i.e. from Ypsi to Saline), that student would need a release to avoid paying tuition in Saline. Ypsi doesn't give such releases anymore."

I set out to find out some more--and one thing which you might already know is that school regulations can be a MAZE! Even highly-literate adults can find them confusing. And let me also say that I am thankful that James Hawkins and Scot Graden (Ypsilanti and Saline superintendents, respectively) answered my questions and clarified this information.

A Michigan school district has three options:
1. Don't admit any school of choice students
2. Become a limited school of choice district
3. Become a completely open school of choice district.

Districts can make their decisions year-to-year, based on enrollment projections and other reasoning. Ypsilanti and Willow Run, for example, are completely open schools of choice districts. Saline is a limited school of choice district. Schools of choice can be limited by grade or by school, and generally there is an opt-in period. In the case of Saline, for instance, there were 10 kindergarten openings this year, and selection was by lottery.

IF you apply to, and get into a school of choice, then the school district you leave has no say in the matter--there is no "releasing" of students (although, of course there is a request to transfer records).

However, in a limited school of choice district the options are a little more confusing.

Writes Mr. Graden, "As an example, if a student in 9th grade wanted to attend Saline - School of Choice policies do not apply as we have not declared any openings. This is where a release would be needed. I will also say that getting a release does not mean they will be accepted - in Saline this situation is reviewed on a case by case basis. Based on explanations I have gotten from the State, releases are intended to be used for special cases where a specific program in a district would be the best placement for a student and in some relocation cases (to stay and complete a senior year, etc.)." (emphases mine).

Mr. Hawkins explains Ypsilanti's policy,
"We will release any family to a School of Choice district when a request is made. We will not release Ypsilanti families (those residing in Ypsilanti which is their home district) to attend a school district outside of their home district unless there are compelling circumstances. We have had several requests from families to release their child/children to Saline in those grade levels that are exempt or non school of choice and we have rejected the parents requests." (emphases mine)

So--Lolita (my commentator) was correct, insofar as what happens if the student is not applying through the school of choice avenue. So I asked Mr. Graden and Mr. Hawkins,
Is it correct to say that, "If a family applies for a grade that is not part of school of choice (or if they didn't get in through the lottery), then in order for the student to transfer into Saline they a) need to be accepted by Saline based on special exceptions--for instance, relocation or special needs and b) the other district needs to agree to it? And if that is correct, why is it that the other district has a say in it--" (emphases mine)

Mr. Graden answered,
"In your second example it is important to understand that in Michigan the "home" or "resident" district is designed to serve all the families residing within the district. That is the policy/law set from the state - and is why they have a say it the matter. Many districts have policies that prevent them from releasing students except is very specific cases. Yes, we there is the tuition option and we have a handful of families that have gone this route over the years. They would still apply and would be enrolled on a case by case basis." (emphases mine)

[Some other time I will hope to write about the idea that the school district is the "home." But not today.]

So, there you have the answer. Lolita (my commenter) was correct. Michigan education law is very confusing. You don't need a release if you are going to a school of choice, or a charter school, or a private school--but you need one if you want a special exception to attend a non-school of choice school. Lolita explained in her comments, "If Ypsilanti does not execute a release for a student to attend Saline, the student won't bring their per pupil monies with them, and Saline will charge the equivalent of what it gets from the State for each pupil."

This whole situation strikes me as pretty anachronistic, and paternalistic. Obviously the district that decides not to release a student is doing it because they want to hold onto those tuition dollars. But they could lose them anyway, with the student going to a charter school, or private school, or paying tuition to the public school--AND in the process they build up ill will. Who are you, school district, to tell me that my child can't switch schools and I don't have options? It seems very short-sighted to me. It would make me very cranky. And even if I don't leave the school district, if I tell 100 people that the school district wouldn't "release" my child, that can only reflect badly on the school district. Bad news spreads quickly.

Bottom line: parents want choice. Sometimes there is good reason for that; sometimes not, but it's up to me as a parent to decide the best placement for my child. And if the school I want my child to go to accepts him or her, then who is the other district to tell me that is wrong?

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Annie Get Your...Gun?!

High school theater is a special kind of theater. On the one hand, at times the productions seem professional. On the other hand, those who choose the shows are constrained by "community standards" (whatever that means), as well as by the fact that the whole cast is generally between 14 and 18, typically there are more girls in the shows than boys, and (if a musical) the music needs to be catchy and singable. In addition, at the bigger schools, directors generally need to choose shows which have a capacity for a large chorus or to otherwise accommodate large numbers of kids.

What we mean by "community standards" varies from place to place, but there are all kinds of issues raised by the very idea. What about a show that is racist? What if the storyline would be called racist today, but it depicts historical truths? (Think, for instance, of Huckleberry Finn.) What if it is sexist? What if the storyline would be called sexist today, but it depicts historical truths? (Think, for instance, of The Taming of the Shrew.) What about stereotyping? (Think of Fagin, in Oliver.) What if it discusses prostitution? (Miss Saigon, Runaways). What if there is swearing? Partial nudity? What if I think that something is...sexist, racist, otherwise unwholesome in some way...and you disagree? What if there is something scary or troubling? (Othello kills his wife. And intimate partner violence is a national problem, as we saw this last school year.)

When we start applying a lens like this, it would be easy to conclude that we can't perform almost anything historical (likely way too sexist and racist) and we can't perform almost anything modern (likely way too edgy). Should we abandon Shakespeare entirely?

So the first question is: Who gets to choose the shows? Is it one person, or a committee? Does the district have a standard? It turns out, that that depends very much on the school.

Second: What is the bottom line? And what if a show brings up some of these issues--does that mean we rule it out? Are there other options? For instance, last year, Pioneer High School's Theater Guild showed Miss Saigon, and during rehearsals, the students involved in the production had a chance to learn about the setting, the era, Vietnam, etcetera. I think that is a partial solution, but it doesn't address the education of the audience. What does the audience take away from the performance? Should we take that into account?

Personally, I find it much less troubling to show a modern production like Miss Saigon, and much more troubling to show some older shows which have very stereotyped gender roles (Taming of the Shrew). It turns out that things haven't changed too much from when I was in high school--the same productions are being staged. During my high school years, I remember the theater group staging Guys and Dolls, the Taming of the Shrew, and Annie Get Your Gun.

Annie Get Your Gun is an interesting case. It purports to tell the story of Annie Oakley (I have no idea how well it sticks to her real story--it is a musical after all). In any case, years after it was originally written, the play was revised to make it less racist (treatment of Native Americans) and sexist. (Note that I said "less.") The last I heard, it was on tap for the fall show at Skyline High School. The music is excellent, and it meets a lot of criteria for high school theater--it is singable, has a nice size cast, and a "happy ending."

Now I have to say that--although I find racism and sexism in plays to often be a problem--it's also often hard to avoid completely. [Skyline Theater performed Cinderella in the spring. Sexist? Yes--but also a fairy tale, right? Is that then different?]

But there's one thing about Annie Get Your Gun that makes it a little different, I think, and that's the G-U-N part. Never mind all the research that suggests that exposure to guns incites violence. Forget Columbine.

It has more to do with school policies, and what happens if you actually bring a gun to school. I once taught in a school where a teacher (not me) and class were reading a book that had guns in the story line. The teacher had the kids make clay objects of artifacts in the book. One of the kids made a gun. Yes, he was a smart aleck. So then what happened? The teacher, and the student, got in big trouble--even though there is no way that a clay gun looks like a real gun.

Starting in 1994, the law became extremely strict around penalties for bringing weapons to school. According to the Michigan Department of Education,

Pursuant to federal legislation enacted in 1994, local educational agencies cannot receive federal funds unless they have a policy requiring expulsion for at least one year if a student brings a firearm to school.

Now, it is true that the law specifies some exceptions.
School boards are not required to expel a student if the student can establish in a clear and convincing manner at least one of the following:

(1) The object or instrument possessed by the student was not possessed for use as a weapon, or for direct or indirect delivery to another person for use as a weapon.
(2) The weapon was not knowingly possessed by the student.
(3) The student did not know or have reason to know that the object or instrument possessed by the student constituted a dangerous weapon.
(4) The weapon was possessed by the student at the suggestion, request or direction of, or with the express permission of school or police authorities.

On the other hand, the Student Advocacy Center says:

Basically, you don't want to be caught on school premises with anything that can even be remotely thought of as a weapon. This includes hunting knives, toy guns, penknives, nail files, water pistols, etc. Items that once seemed like goofy kid toys are now seen as dangerous weapons. And schools are expelling young kids in huge numbers for bringing them to school.
We have seen schools expel students for such violent 'weapons' as paper clips and water balloons. Be aware of this trend and make sure your children know this too. Kids expelled under mandatory expulsion laws for bringing weapons to school have a very hard time getting alternative schooling placements and often are not readmitted after the year is up. With expulsions in particular, schools have the tendency to fall back on Michigan's highly punitive weapons legislation as format to follow for other offenses. (Emphases mine.)

So, obviously, the theater production, sanctioned by the school, fits right into exception #4. Unless. What happens if a kid, thinking she or he is funny, brings a gun up to the fourth floor, far from the theater? What if a kid holds the fake gun up to another kid's head and goes "bang, bang" just to be funny? Aren't we borrowing trouble here?

So, um, maybe Annie Get Your Gun is not the best show for high school anymore. I don't want any kids in Ann Arbor getting expelled because of a theater production. Oh, and by the way, if you are interested--the ACLU of Michigan is working on a project to get the state law to be a little less strict--right now it is more strict than the federal law. Here's the link for information about the school-to-prison pipeline.

So how about it, Skyline? Choose a different play?

It could be worse

At least in this county, you are likely to get into one of your
top seven school choices.
Seriously. In San Francisco, that might not be the case.
(By the way, that report makes getting into Community High School, where your chances are about 1 in 3, look like a piece of cake.)

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Note to Counselors

A friend of mine with a child who is entering high school recently spoke with the counselor at her child's (new) school. [Which high school? I've heard similar tales from the other Ann Arbor schools, so I think it doesn't really matter which high school it is.]

She was very disappointed.
Remember that in high school, counselors are frequently
a) the gatekeepers and
b) the most frequent person with whom a parent has contact.
She was slightly unhappy with the information she got about her son's schedule, but what really upset her was the patronizing tone that the counselor used.

"Well, Mom, let me explain."

Mom? Excuse me, but that is what our kids call us.
Only our kids.
Note to counselors: We have names. First names, last names--take your pick.
(I personally prefer first names, but that's my preference.)
My suggestion: Ask the person you are speaking to, "What name would you like me to use when addressing you?"

Think it doesn't really matter? Yes, it does. This was my friend's first impression of the way the school works, and quite frankly, she was disappointed.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Ypsilanti Superintendent Search

Details about the Ypsilanti superintendent search, including interview times (which start today), are posted here.

Want to go to a school of choice?

Google Search that led someone to my blog:
Can a student be released from [local school district X] and go to a school of choice?

I don't think I've fully answered this question, so here is the short answer: You don't need to be "released," so to speak--there is no requirement that you go to public school in your school district. You could choose a private/parochial school, or a school of choice in a different school district--the requirement is that your child gets an education (and that includes the possibility of home schooling).

Depending on the school district you would like to opt into, you follow their enrollment/application guidelines. They can generally be found on the school district's web site. For instance, Lincoln Schools and Ypsilanti Schools have "schools of choice" buttons on their web site. (Although Ypsilanti's form and information is outdated, I think the procedure hasn't changed). I believe that they will notify your "last school" that you now have a new school. One other thing--typically, if your child has been suspended or expelled in the last two years it will not be so easy to switch them.

Note added 8/6/09: Here are the details from the state's web site.