Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Miracle School? Ha!

During my time as a special education teacher in an inner-city Chicago Public School, I desperately sought out ways to improve the shamefully ineffective special education program I inherited.  My AP eventually allowed me to observe in a nearby school using the same curriculum program in order to see how they incorporated students with special needs.  (But mostly, I think he just wanted to finally shut me up.)

The school he sent me to was a charter school.  Many hailed it as a “school miracle” serving “the same population as the neighborhood school”.  What I found was a quiet, calm, and pleasant place where children peacefully walked down the halls or sat patiently on carpets eager to answer their teacher’s next question. (Quite a change from my school’s principal yelling down the hallways at students or even sometimes at teachers and the daily fights that broke out.) The teachers seemed relaxed and happy as I chatted with them while they enjoyed an hour lunch break together in the staff lounge.  (Not at all like my 20 minute lunch period where I had given up even trying to shove food down my throat during the school day. That was probably why every teacher joked about the "freshman fifteen".  Fifteen pounds lost, that is! )

As I observed class after class, more stark differences between my neighborhood public school and this school came to light.  Only twenty children in each class?  (What a change from the 32 or more students in my school’s classrooms!)  And each classroom had a FULL TIME AIDE!?!   Um, that’s a 10:1 adult to student ratio!  (We had only one aide for the entire K-8 school and she was used for paper work in the office most days.)  My jaw was already dropping.   To add to that, every teacher there had at least three years experience and most had at least five to ten years of work under their teacher belts.  (What I would have given to have more experienced teachers around me, especially in the special education department where we were all either first or second year teachers with one not even certified yet.)  And wait, are those full libraries in every classroom?!?  (What a joke the two garbage bags of old used readers seemed which constituted my classroom's full supply of books.  If only we had a school library, eh?)

And what a wonderful curriculum!  They had obviously had time to fashion a truly exciting and fun curriculum for the students unlike my school where for most subjects we had NO CURRICULUM at all.  And where there was curriculum we never seemed to have time to collaborate or differentiate materials.  It was a constant game of last-minute meetings and morning melt-downs. The stress of desperately trying to fill up six hours a day from scratch was an overwhelming task, let me tell you!

Hold on, I thought with disbelief, your kids get recess and all kinds of music, art and gym EVERY DAY?  And your school hires other professionals so teachers can use the time to prep and collaborate?  (My school’s poor kids didn’t even get recess.  And music sure would’ve been nice…)

Hey Ms. Katie, aren’t you forgetting about the special education program you were sent there to observe?  Well, it’s kinda easy to forget.  Because there were SO FEW KIDS with IEPs!!!  In most of the classrooms I saw, there were only one or two kids with IEPs in the whole class.  And none of them appeared to have significant behavior problems.  (In my school, there were classes with more than the law’s 30% special education maximum.  Twelve kids with IEPs in a room with thirty-three adolescents and only one young teacher?  Yikes.   Recipe for disaster, you might say.  And disaster struck often.)  The special education teacher who was giving me the tour explained that she pulled kids out for extra reading or math practice individually or at most in groups of two or three for only twenty or thirty minutes at a time.  (Not at all like the dumping grounds my school had turned the resource room into where up to fifteen kids with significant learning and behavior problems were warehoused for most of the day.)
The teacher went on to explain that the school had begun with only a kindergarten and they had built the school culture year by year.  Even with all the advantages the school had, she admitted they struggled the few times a student transferred in from the neighborhood school. 

I left that day feeling dejected and hopeless.  While I loved the visit, I just did not see any way to recreate their successes in my classroom or in my school.  Isn’t that what charter schools were originally for, after all?  They innovate and the rest of us replicate, right?  (Oops, did I forget we’re all in competition now…)  I’d had the sinking feeling all year that what my students with special needs required was so much more than what I could do in my classroom and seeing this school confirmed it. 

That was a good charter school.  I applaud them for what they have accomplished.  (Unlike many charter school chains, this particular school was founded by a group of Golden Apple recipient veteran teachers.  They had the educational expertise to build a great school.)  But their success was built partially on having more control over the student body (the noted lack of students with significant special needs) and partially on having access to funds for better services for an overall better teaching environment.  (Money doesn’t matter, my #%!)

I wish my students could have had a school experience like that charter school.  (Oh wait, they have IEPs, that’s not going to happen, is it.)   But despite that, my school is being compared to that charter school as if we were on equal footing.  Apples and oranges, I say!  And am I a worse teacher simply based on where I work and because of an environment I have no control over?  How can anyone ever fairly compare teachers in such profoundly different circumstances?
Was that school a miracle?  Surprisingly, not according to their test scores.  (Of course, we know better than to rely solely on test scores.  There was definitely learning happening in those classrooms.  And if nothing else, there was JOY!)  But finding a neighborhood school that was funded and functioned like that charter school?  Now that would be a miracle…

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