For the past several years, students at Dulce Elementary School, on the Jicarilla Apache Nation reservation in New Mexico, faced the threat of school closure. The only elementary school in the district, if it closed students would have to rise before dawn for a long bus ride over bumpy, dusty roads to the closest schools, more than 30 or 40 miles away.
But rather than punishing the students and their tribal community by closing the only elementary school for miles, New Mexico’s new governor and secretary of education will amend the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), scrap the A-F school grading system and replace the policy of labeling schools as ‘failing’ in favor of actually supporting schools in need and celebrating successes of schools doing well or making progress.
“The proposed changes to New Mexico’s ESSA plan will ensure that the state and local school districts are measuring things that are important and highlight what is good about a school as well as what needs improvement,” Parr-Sanchez says. “Before, the state ESSA plan merely highlighted shortcomings of schools, with no offer of how to support.
All three schools in the Dulce Independent Public School District on the Jicarilla Apache Nation will finally receive the funding they so desperately need, have applied for, and have been denied under the punitive measures of the previous education secretary, which focused on test scores. Now the district will receive support on things like family engagement and attendance and the emphasis on test scores will be reduced.
Don’t Flunk Schools, Support Them
Beyond the Apache reservation, support will extend throughout the state to the many schools who need assistance. Last year, more than two thirds of the New Mexico’s schools received Ds or Fs; in Santa Fe, 56 percent of schools received the lowest grades.
NEA-New Mexico and other public education advocates called for legislators to recognize that slapping bad grades on a school and threatening them with closure or privatization was not the solution; students at these schools needed better supports.
The new governor, Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, ran on making big revisions to the ESSA plan put in place by her predecessor. Those included getting rid of teacher evaluation through test scores, the A through F system for grading schools, and PARCC tests.
NEA-New Mexico members overwhelmingly supported Grisham in the election and from “Day One,” says Parr-Sanchez, “Grisham has worked to change the bad and harmful practices of her predecessor. From Day One, she ended PARCC testing and the grading and labeling of schools in need,” Sanchez says. “This is why elections are so important for educators.”
Accountability to Come Through New Indicators
The shift does not mean that “there are no consequences for underperformance,” said Karen Trujillo, New Mexico’s new secretary of education. “With high levels of support must come high levels of accountability.”
The state is planning to launch a “New Mexico Spotlight Dashboard” in fall 2019, will celebrate the success of the highest performing schools, identify schools that the department will support with federal grant money, and provide families with an opportunity to learn more about their local schools.
“We believe that when schools struggle academically, the system is failing the school, not the other way around,” says education secretary Trujillo.
Based on indicators of academic performance and school climate rather than test score data alone, the New Mexico Education Department will collaborate with districts, schools, and communities to determine what resources are needed to support schools on their path to student success.
Trujillo says the dashboard will give more nuanced information about schools not offered with a simple A-F grade.
Recognizing that there is much more to a school’s story than test scores, the proposed amendments shift points for elementary and middle schools from test scores to educational climate. For high schools, the amendments increase the points for improvements in graduation rates to emphasize an improvement-oriented approach.
“This shift in philosophy will allow the education department to allocate federal resources where they can make the most impact and help every student succeed,” says Trujillo.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in the March For Our Lives rally against gun violence in Washington, D.C. Organized by the survivors of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it was a rally by students for students, but they were joined by thousands of educators who amplified their message — #neveragain. Hundreds of sister marches were held across the country and around the world.
Connecticut Educators March for Students
Busloads of educators came from all over the country to support the Florida students and students all over the country who demand to be heard. Taking part was a group of educators from Connecticut, where the shooting that killed 26 elementary school children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton is still raw.
“We have to do something with our gun laws, and we have to be vigilant. Talking and talking about it doesn’t change anything and we need to act. Our kids don’t feel safe,” said Mia Dimbo, a middle school math teacher from Bridgeport as she prepared to march to the site of the rally in Washington. “We need support for mental health. We don’t have enough resources for psychologists and counselors, and there’s so much trauma our kids are dealing with. They should not be afraid when coming to school. Today I march for our kids and our teachers…”
In the summer of 2017, Charleena Lyles, a pregnant 30-year-old black mother was fatally shot by two white Seattle police officers in her home as her three young children looked on. Lyles, who had called the police to report a burglary, reportedly suffered from mental illness. She pulled a knife out of her pocket when the police entered her home, but rather than tasing or subduing her with pepper spray, they shot her seven times.
Days after the shooting, seven black Seattle high school students formed “New Generation,” a school activist group that led a walkout at Garfield High School to raise awareness about the young mother’s death and to organize in their school and community for racial justice. Uniting students with Charleena Lyles’ family on the one-year anniversary of her death, New Generation held a powerful assembly that launched the hashtag #RememberHerName to make sure that people don’t forget Charleena Lyles and the police violence that led to her death.
The death of Lyles is a symbol of the injustices the group of students has experienced and witnessed in their communities and even within their school. They wanted to take action not just for Charleena Lyles but for all people of color, especially their fellow students.
“We’re students of color and we share similar struggles, experience the same disadvantages, and strive to become more than what society has labeled us,” says Chardonnay Beaver, who founded New Generation along with classmates Janelle Gary, Myles Gillespie, Kevon Avery, Israel Presley, and Umoya McKinney.
“We’ve discovered that action is the first step in turning ideas of equality into reality. Because we’re students we have the opportunity to reach our peers directly.”
New Generation was a recipient of the 2018 Black Education Matters Student Activist Awards (BEMSAA), which gives recognition, support, and a $1,000 award to student leaders in the Seattle Public Schools who demonstrate exceptional leadership in struggles against racism—especially with an understanding of the intersections with sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamaphobia, class exploitation and other forms of oppression—within their school or community.
Over the past three years, nine Seattle Public Schools students and one youth organization – New Generation — have been honored with the award.
The program was founded by Jesse Hagopian, an Ethnic Studies teacher and co-adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School in Seattle. Just like New Generation was spurred by violence, the award program was a positive outcome of a clash with police.
NEA Today spoke with Feldman to talk about what she learned from her interviews with the more than 50 young people who dropped out of high school.
What surprised you most about your findings in your interviews with the students?
Deborah Feldman: What really surprised us was that the overwhelming majority of the youth we interviewed really liked elementary school. Another surprise was how many were willing to blame themselves and how much they deeply regretted their actions that led to dropping out. Finally, what surprised me personally was the lack of interventions. We never know the full story, only the kids’ perspective, but very few recalled having any official interventions for truancy, or interventions from parents or the school.
They seemed to be forgotten by the schools or consciously ignored. We don’t know, but we suspect that in some districts, if a kid isn’t doing well and is a problem, it’s easier to let them slip away. Around the country, districts are cash-strapped and don’t have the resources to follow up on kids with numerous absences.
What was a common reason for dropping out?
DF: There were very distinct patterns we see with kids starting to pull away usually in middle school. The through line in many of their stories was some kind of academic challenge that undermined their faith in themselves as learners, that then led to helplessness and hopelessness about their ability to be a student, which was their primary job in life. Math, in particular, seemed to be the academic trip wire where they stumbled on and never recovered from. Algebra was often the culprit. They developed an “I’m no good at math” sensibility and when they started believing they weren’t able to succeed, they started skipping.
When did the decision to drop out normally occur?
DF: There’s often a tipping point that brings them to the edge — a bullying incident, feeling hopeless academically, like in math. A suspension or expulsion. Some kind of social problem that gets out of hand. Or multiple moves to multiple schools when they finally decide it’s not worth trying to adjust.
Although there’s a tipping point, dropping out can be a long process. About a third of the youth we interviewed were what we called “slow faders.” They started having problems in late elementary and early middle school, started skipping in middle school, and by high school moved into full blown truancy, no longer skipping a period here and there but missing substantial portions of school. They didn’t finally drop out until they were in 11th or 12th grade, or even in their 13th year of high school.
There were very distinct patterns we see with kids starting to pull away usually in middle school. The through line in many of their stories was some kind of academic challenge that undermined their faith in themselves as learners, that then led to helplessness and hopelessness about their ability to be a student”
Another group started skipping in late middle school and dropped out by about the end of tenth grade. Finally, there were the accelerated leavers — kids who tended to come from damaging backgrounds, had mental health problems, problems at home, drug and alcohol problems. This group of students had so many things going on it’s easy to see why they’d be really challenging for schools to work with. Trying to at least stabilize these kid at school should be priority number one…
We asked educators on NEA Today Facebook about the best thing that happened in their classrooms and schools last week. Some raised money with their students for disaster relief, others attended fun school-community events, and a whole lot had break-through moments with their students that sometimes brought tears to their eyes. We can all use a little positivity, so here’s a roundup of the good news they shared:
A discouraged dyslexic third grader has realized he can read the books I have set in a bin for him… and asked for permission to take some of the books to his after school program! This is the boy who normally says thing are too hard and puts his head down!Theresa Early, Fairfax, Virginia
Through the generous donations of my friends, I took my low-income, urban, Boston-area students on a field trip to New York City – the Empire State Building, Times Square, Ellen’s Stardust Diner, Liberty Cruise, Pizza Suprema – because they got the highest growth percentile on our state exam, because they worked their butts off every day in class, reading six more books than were in the curriculum, and because they are AWESOME.Nancy Petriello Barile, Boston, Massachusetts
My two newcomers with very little English yet, and who are both still pretty reluctant to attempt to speak in front of the whole class, enthusiastically volunteered to share their mathematical thinking and strategies during a math session this week. They were beaming from ear to ear with pride… Not only proud of them for putting themselves out there, but also for how supportive and encouraging the rest of the class always is of them. Made my week! Jennifer Gage Moke, Portland, Oregon
My seniors and AP juniors hosted a college and career fair for younger students (5th-10th graders). Each of my students became an “expert” on a college, military branch, or career field he or she hopes to pursue, created a table display and one-page informational handout, then they shared their research knowledge with their visitors. Barb Brown Andres, New Lothrop, Michigan
My first grade students performed All You Need is Love at our monthly assembly. We had picked the song long ago but it was so timely. Children remind all of us how beautiful the world is. They inspire me and drive me to be the best I can be every single day. Marianne Vasquez, Bakersfield, California
We presented a check for $5,100 to fund childhood cancer research at a local charity, the N8 Foundation. I work at the same school as Marianne Vasquez. Our school had a good week. Karen Nguyen, Bakersfield, California
I was subbing this week and when I introduced myself to the teacher she screamed and started crying because I had been her 2nd grade teacher!! I was so touched but felt old! Linda Morgan, Highland, California
During a math review quiz, one group worked together and only missed one question. But better than that was the collaboration. I heard things like, “We both got the same answer, do you agree with us” and “yes, I agree because…”. I was so happy I could cry! Megan Rene, McMinn, Lewiston, Idaho
We had a kindergarten potluck at a local park. It was so fun for the kids, parents and grandparents to have a chance to meet each other. I loved spending time with my students’ families and meeting families from the other K classrooms with my K team. Carol Harris, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
I have a student that is passing a high school math class for the first time… the joy on the student’s face makes all the daily struggles so worth it! Nell Dearing, Carlsbad, New Mexico
Thursday I returned as a volunteer at our highest poverty school to help some of the most dedicated teachers and work with kiddos that fill my heart! Phyllis Schneider Winkley, Vernon, Connecticut
New student came into our classroom and did not have a “rest buddy” of his own for rest time. The next day, a concerned child brought a gently used and carefully chosen stuffed animal of his own for his new friend. Heartwarming! Shelly Hess, Vincent, Ohio
Our association members attended events in the 3 communities that make up our district, raffling off 12 baskets of books, three Kindle fires and three family memberships to the Philadelphia zoo. Raffle tickets were free as prizes were donated by the teachers. Nicole May Armbruster, Aston, Pennsylvania
I got to see a second-grader who is struggling with behavior be a great role model to a first-grader who is struggling with behavior. ^_^Seeing them interact in such a sweet, friendly manner made my heart happy! Sarah Wood, Keizer, Oregon
An email from a parent informed me that her child loves my class and is excited about learning to love reading and writing, a subject she’s struggled with in the past. Joel Elrod Melsha, Orlando, Florida
A student who had done poorly in his first test put forth great effort at home studying, coming for extra help and really focusing during the test. ( that is hard for him). He finished early so I graded his test and it was a perfect test –100%. It was his birthday too. Right from the classroom, we called mom in front of the whole class and celebrate him. His mom was happy and the class applauded him. His smile lit up the whole room. Debra Calle, Bergenfield, New Jersey
A student who is homeless was going to have to transfer schools and be uprooted from all that is stable in his life. Our transportation department figured it out and will be busing him! Autumn Schultz, Toledo, Washington
Dante Little, a former public middle school teacher in Boston, Massachusetts, was one of only a few black males teaching in the city. But then he reached his breaking point. While he was administering a state test, the assistant principal came in to ask if all the students had handed in their cell phones. Even though they told him they had, he wasn’t satisfied and began to search and frisk each of them to be sure. According to Little, the students were treated that way regularly. “This isn’t a prison,” he said before he decided to quit. “I’m just done.”
There’s a national shortage of teachers of color, and as Dante Little’s experience highlights, it has as much or more to do with retention than recruitment. Teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than white teachers, with most reporting dissatisfaction with working conditions, like the criminalization of students, as the main reason.
The vast majority of initiatives focus on recruiting teachers of color, which has been relatively successful, particularly in hard to staff low-income schools. But those schools are hard to staff for a reason – conditions are difficult when resources are scarce. Without focusing on improving the school conditions that will keep teachers from leaving, investment on recruitment will be lost.
He said the problem is like a leaky bucket.
“We need to take some mud and fix some of the working conditions to repair the holes in the bottom of the bucket…”
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García discussing the Every Student Succeeds Act at a townhall in Manassas, Virginia.
Morgan Dennis, a high school student at Forest Park High School in Prince William County, Virginia, said she gets migraines from the enormous amount of test stress she’s under at school. Classmate Caili Downs agreed.
“It’s actually affecting my eyesight, all the testing,” Downs said. “It takes the fun out of school. The work and testing level in AP classes is just way too high.”
The students were seated around a cafeteria table at Stonewall Jackson High School in Manassas, Virginia, with educators, parents and community leaders at a townhall meeting hosted by the Prince William County Education Association (PWEA). The goal of the meeting was to get input from everyone in the school community about how the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) could reduce testing and improve public education overall.
Community members now have the chance to weigh in on both the Virginia state plan, which will be rolled out in September, as well their district plans. The National Education Association (NEA), Virginia Education Association (VEA) and affiliates like PWEA are now asking that fill out an “opportunity checklist” for schools that will improve learning conditions. Reducing testing, increasing enrichment programs, improving school climate, updating technology – anything and everything that makes a school great should be on the list.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García calls for an “opportunity dashboard” composed of key indicators of school quality that is largely data already captured by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. They include access to advanced coursework (AP/IB, dual enrollment, college gateway math and science) fully-qualified teachers, specialized instructional support personnel (school counselors, nurses and psychologists), high-quality early education, arts and athletic programs, and community health care and wellness programs.
We want to find what the best schools with the most successful students are providing and give that to all of our schools. Did you know that 80 percent of the richest families send their kids to their neighborhood public schools? Why? Because they are fabulous schools” – NEA President Lily Eskelsen García.
At the PWEA townhall, more than 150 people crowded around tables throughout the cafeteria to share what they thought schools needed to improve and how ESSA might help. The one issue that kept popping up at every table – testing and test stress.
One educator said she tries to find ways to give students brain breaks and creative outlets to break up the grueling testing sessions. A central office staff member said schools should offer instructional support with more mental health specialists like counselors, social workers and nurses to help boost positive school climate and reduce test stress. A parent said her daughter must take AP tests even if she doesn’t want to and that parents should be informed about how to opt their kids out.
“A townhall like this is so critical because we have an opportunity for change and improvement and we need to listen to all voices,” says Prince William County School Board vice chair Lillie Jessie. “We’re hearing a lot about testing, and though we need ongoing assessments, there is a lot of standardized testing that doesn’t guide instruction. Any test that doesn’t guide instruction is the wrong kind of test. Right now, ESSA offers an opportunity to improve assessments, and as we continue with implementation we’ll continue to get input from the community.”
When Jim Livingston, a middle school math teacher and VEA president, addressed the townhall he said that “nobody in this room has ever learned a thing by filling in a bubble on a standardized test. With ESSA we are talking now about how to improve performance assessments and reduce testing. For teachers, that’s exciting because that’s where the joy gets back into learning. It’s coming!”
He said that the heart and soul of ESSA is about continuous improvement. “As union leaders, educators, parents, community members and students we should always be asking how could I have done that better?” he said. “And what ESSA recognizes and the No Child Left Behind Law failed to see is that improvement doesn’t come from the top down but from the bottom up. ESSA requires policy makers to listen to us and that’s the piece that’s been left out for far too long.”
ESSA allows for educator and community voices to be heard and Livingston encouraged everyone gathered to make their voices heard. “It’s an opportunity we haven’t had in two decades.”
Northern Virginia high school students at the ESSA townhall on April 20.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, the keynote speaker at the townhall, said her proudest moment was sitting in the White House with President Obama when he signed ESSA into law and signed out of existence No Child Left Behind, or what she called “No Child Left Untested.”
But she said that ESSA isn’t only about getting rid of the era of toxic testing, it’s about finding ways to improve all aspects of education and doing so with the expertise of those who know it best – our educators.
“On every state and school level they are asking us to provide a dashboard of indicators of what makes a school successful, things that measure student success beyond standardized tests like access to classes offer college credit in high school, access to rigorous classes, or gifted and talented programs in elementary schools,” she said. “And a librarian! That’s like a unicorn in some places, having a librarian in some areas is like a fable, but we know a staff librarian is a measure of school success.”
For years, Eskelsen García said, the government tried to find the school failures by looking at test scores, and when they were low, they blamed the teachers and administrators. They fired people and shut schools down.
“We want to do the opposite. We want to find what the best schools with the most successful students are providing and give that to all of our schools,” she said. “Did you know that 80 percent of the richest families send their kids to their neighborhood public schools? Why? Because they are fabulous schools.”
She encouraged everyone to visit the best schools they can find and take inventory. Do they have an orchestra? A school nurse, librarian and counselors? How about updated technology? Are there AP classes, baccalaureates, after school programs, enrichment classes, and nutrition programs? She said that educators should make a list of all the things that make a school great and demand that they be offered at their own schools. ESSA offers that opportunity.
The focus on charters and vouchers are a deflection that evade the real questions, she said, like why some schools are allowed to have roofs that are leaking or why some schools have no counselors to reach out to kids at risk of dropping out.
“Every public school should look like our best public schools,” she said.
While policymakers focus on the letter of the law, educators, parents and community members can focus on the spirit of the law, Eskelsen García said.
“It’s all about voice, your voice,” she said. “Talk to each other. Partner with each other. Together we can design the schools of our dreams. What would the school or your dreams look like? Kids would smile. Parents would show up. Well, who wants to work on why the parents aren’t coming and how we can change that? Why aren’t kids smiling and what can we do to change that? Once you’re working on your dreams, you won’t let anyone stop you.”