Monday, June 30, 2008

New Principals

An interesting article in the Baltimore Sun here says there will be about 45 new principals by the start of the new year. This is up from the approximately 30 new principals last year. I guess this could just be normal blip in attrition, but I'll bet that the new structure is a big factor.

I wonder how the new funding structure is causing this turnover increase. Since the metrics for success haven't been finalized, I can't imagine these principals are failing to adjust and being asked to leave. Is this an indication that these principals aren't interested in trying their hands at increased autonomy? I know that in general people are resistant to change and this kind of massive change might encourage principals to quit or retire early, but I would think, that people who have decided they want to be in charge of a school, would want the power to make their school better. The idea of these changes is to give the principals more power. Is that something that these principals don't believe?

The idealistic part of me is saddened that so many people would quit before giving the new structure a good try. Certainly it's chaotic and scary, but challenges are what makes us grow. In reality, I'm sure the politics that I'm not aware of make it a much more complicated decision. All I know is, that as a parent, quitting or retiring is not really an option. So, I choose to be optimistic that these changes will improve BCPSS overall, and I'll keep working with the schools that we're involved with to try to make it work.

Monday, June 16, 2008


There's been some talk on Inside Ed that the budget reforms aren't respectful of the principals, or that the staffing cuts at North Avenue aren't respectful of the people who work there. I'm not sure respect is the issue here. It seems though, that respect means different things to different people.

Respect is one of the buzzwords of the moment. At work we have training in how to be respectful of co-workers. I listened to a fascinating interview with some BCPSS students on violence at the CEM website here. I was struck that they saw a major source of friction as being acts of disrespect. In this context respect is more about fearing someone than holding them in high regard.

From my point of view, and I know this sounds trite, respect (the high regard kind) is earned, not instituted. Rules for actions that are related to saving your neck or your job don't equal respect. Rules from above about politeness (no name calling, no interrupting or yelling, etc) can make the environment less hostile, but that politeness doesn't mean there's respect involved.

In that light here's my reaction to the idea that we should be respectful of those who's jobs are being shook up by changes in the BCPSS. The implication is that the changes should be slower and more careful so that feelings aren't hurt. In nine years I have never once heard a respectful statement from a teacher about "North Ave." I've heard polite statements, less polite statements and lots of silence, but never a comment about how much North Ave. helps in the classroom or in any other way. Since my interaction with North Ave. is limited I have no reason to argue with them about how they should feel towards North Ave. I have also gotten the impression from these same teachers that North Ave. doesn't respect them. This usually has something to do with training that they don't find beneficial or paperwork that they don't think is necessary. From my position of outside looking in, I don't think that there's currently much respect between North Ave. and the teachers, so it's doubtful that systemic changes are going to make it worse.

If Dr. Alonso can change things in North Ave. and schools enough, maybe the two parties can start with a clean slate and develop respect. I'm afraid careful, evolutionary changes that seem safer will never have enough momentum to changes these entrenched feelings.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

2007 - 2008 closes out

Well, we made it to the end of the school year. For the record the middle one was there for all 5 of the half days. The teachers and school did a good job of motivating them to come, with parties, award ceremonies, report cards and the threat of tests (seemed unlikely to me, but I guess 'tweens who worry about grades bought it). I was a little surprised at the motivation of both the teachers and the kids up to the bitter end. Something changed since last year, but I'm not sure what...

In the end we juggled the logistics to make it happen, not because there was any learning going on, but because who has the heart to say "No" when a kid say "Please, can I go to school today?"

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Another Magnet School Mystery

So, I've been trying to understand how the magnet high schools work in Baltimore these days. With the controversy about student retention and some of the heated discussion on Inside Ed I'm thinking it's not the same as it was 20-odd years ago when I was last involved. High schools don't have MSA's but they do have prestige, based on awards and college acceptances, which are prominently displayed on these schools' websites (Poly, City, Western ). That seems reasonable. Then on the Poly news section I read about a teacher, Dennis Jutras, being recognized for his work and for helping Poly do well in history competitions. Seems like just the type of teacher you need at a magnet school to lead these students to more awards. But then I read on the Center for Emerging Media's blog that this same teacher is being forced out through some sort of re-organization. I'm confused. As with the discussion with making it harder to remove students I've got to ask why. What am I missing here? We have something that's working very well. Reward and recognition is deeply needed in a school system that's dogged by violence, poor graduation rates and the like. Poly and BCPSS should be killing themselves to keep award winning teachers, but instead we seem to be giving them reasons to move on.

Update - 6/14/08
I still don't get it, but I've heard the department merger has been undone and Dennis Jutras will be at Poly in the fall. The alumni were involved, and it's good that the administration can be flexible and listen to people outside the school. On the other hand, I don't think that what really happened and all the issues involved will be public knowledge, so the pluses and minuses of this outcome will remain a mystery.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Are we there yet?

Well...almost. One more day this week, then we've got that lovely week of half days for the middle one while the big one "graduates" from middle school and the little one keeps going to a 12 month a year school. I've been to two award ceremonies so far and have two to go. I need to get end-of-year presents for about 16 teachers. A week of chaos and then a quick out of town visit to a grandparent. And as always, the craziest times of the school year lines up with some sort of crisis at work, so I feel guilty for not being able to put in extra hours.

Next year we're back to the insanity of three kids at three schools. There are two new schools to try to figure out, both of which stress me out. Am I ready to parent a high schooler? Will inclusion be the right path for the little one?

But now I just want to make it to the end of the school year and start in on the summer break. Only one lunch to make every morning - yipee!!!

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How to deal with pity

I've been trying to figure out what to say to people when they express pity on learning that I have an autistic child. Being stumped with that question I tried to figure out what I would like them to say and I drew a blank there as well. Autism is complicated and reactions to it are complicated as well.

It took me a long time to accept the diagnosis. There are so many stereotypes I held about autism that didn't match. After a while I realized that it was my understanding of autism that was wrong, not the diagnosis. Then it took a while to feel OK with telling people about the diagnosis. I don't feel like explaining to everybody who stares. It might make people quit judging us, but I'm not comfortable with starting up conversations with strangers. I especially don't want to start up conversations with people who are looking disapprovingly at things they don't understand.

On the other hand when I'm talking to acquaintances and it comes up I don't hide the fact. When the discussion turns to where we're going to school or why we don't go out as much as some people do, it seems like the right time to bring up autism.

Then come the reactions, most of which bug me.
  • "That must be tough for you." Generally having kids seems pretty tough to me. Maybe this is more challenging, but the rewards seem higher as well. The only response I can think of without sharing more than I feel is appropriate is "I guess, I don't usually think of it that way."
  • "Oh no, he/she's not autistic." Doubting the diagnosis bugs me too. Look, I spend a lot more time with it than you do. If I've come to terms with autism don't second guess me. My response - "No, it's a good diagnosis. Autism is just a spectrum."
  • "Those damn vaccines are the cause of autism." Just because I've got an autistic kid don't assume I agree with your conspiracy theories. Besides, my goal is to focus on my kid, not doing research to solve a puzzle that won't help us anyway. My response is "Yeah...maybe, I don't know."
  • "I've got a (friend, 2nd cousin, neighbor...) who's autistic. I know exactly what you're going through." Probably not. If it's not your kid you don't really know. Plus it's a spectrum - different autistics have different traits. My reaction - "Ummm..."

All these reactions that bug me - seems like maybe I've got a problem. But there are reactions that I don't find objectionable. Questions about what autism is like for us are good. Discussions about school selection or inclusion can break the tension. Even silence and moving on to another topic is better than saying something annoying. I'm sure as time goes on I'll do better, but it's a journey.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Autism and Inclusion

Yet another discussion at Inside Ed that I felt I had to comment on. Seems like the same issue is a Hot Document at Slate.

A quick synopsis - A kindergarten teacher in Florida felt overwhelmed by an autistic student in her class. After having him sent to the office she decided that she (and the class) weren't ready for him to return. When the vice-principal sent him back to his class the teacher made him stand at the center of the class and listen to his classmates tell him why they didn't want him there. She then lead a vote and by 14 to 2 he was voted out. He spent the day in the nurse's office. That day he didn't eat and since has been unwilling to go back to school.

I tried to re-tell this dispassionately with just the facts in the police report on Slate. I am anything but dispassionate about this story. This makes me angry beyond words. Perhaps the teacher was overwhelmed and untrained, but this is mental abuse. As a parent of a special needs child I want my child to succeed in society, and I know the best way to do this is to move him back into general education as soon as I can. But will I be subjecting my child to this kind of abuse?

Clearly some teachers think of special needs kids as a burden to them and their "normal" students. There are so many ways that they are wrong. My child taught his classmates that just because you don't talk doesn't mean you can't think. My child gave a youngest child in a big family the opportunity to be a big sister, which gave her great joy. My child's pictures and music have amazed many. When we pulled him/her out of general education my first thought was - "Your loss!"

So what's the answer? Well, we'll try general education again, but this time I know that the teacher and school really believe in inclusion. Since we can't get verbal responses to "What happened at school?" we'll be there observing and asking questions. We'll help and support in any way we can. And we'll keep our fingers crossed. And if it doesn't work, we'll try something else.

Seems like working, trying and hoping - no other choice as far as I can see.