Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Speaking With The School Board

I went to my town's school board meeting to discuss the situation with our school's teachers being removed based on allegations that teachers provided improper coaching to a small number of students. It was the first time I had ever attended such a meeting and apparently it was unusually crowded. Many people showed up to demonstrate or speak out to support their teachers. The meeting started with tenure and congratulatory announcements to various faculty, including the retirement of our district's wonderful Youth Advocate, Mrs. Low.

Immediately afterwards the floor was opened for guests to speak at the podium, at which point most of the faculty, along with our school's principal left the premises. Right away some fellow parents asked me to speak, and fortunately I had gathered my thoughts earlier in the evening: (You can watch the video from the meeting below.)

When my son first started fourth grade I was not impressed. I'm not easily impressed.

But as the days and weeks passed I realized how creative and dedicated his teacher was. I grew more and more impressed by her ability to engage her class with fun, new ways to learn. She kept introducing different ways to teach her class in incredibly imaginative ways that surpassed anything I've seen before from a teacher. Throughout the year she kept us informed of every day's events.

Eventually I felt like we were her biggest fans. We felt that she loved our son and that we, as parents, had a very special relationship with her.

When she was reassigned we realized that we were not alone. Apparently she had cultivated this relationship with practically her entire class. I heard stories from all over - from her current class and classes prior - about how much she helped children strive, overcome obstacles and thoroughly enjoy learning. As the state tests approached I was amazed when I read how stressed everyone seemed to be. All the media was a buzz about how stressed students, parents, teachers, principals, superintendents, etc. were.

Meanwhile her class seemed to take it all in stride. They seemed prepared and just glad to get a break from homework for the week. She had managed to guide them without inducing the stress that seemed to proliferate everywhere else.

I was even more impressed.

The allegations against her are that she improperly coached a small number of students. It makes me wonder "why would she do such a thing?" If she did - and that's a big if - were her intentions benign, or selfish?

If she made an innocent mistake, born out of a desire to help a child she had been helping for 8 months, is removing such a talented teacher the correct response? Does that best serve the community? What message does it send to the children of Rye?

On the other hand, does anyone really think she coached a child out of some selfish motivation? We all know that state test results have a significant impact on teacher evaluations. They also have a significant impact on school evaluations. They also have a significant impact on district evaluations.

Does anyone think that a teacher would help a student for some personal gain? After all, how much does a teacher have to gain from one child's test results? Not as much as a principal has to gain. Not as much as a district has to gain.

And whose decision was it to have the teachers' proctor their own tests? Who made this decision in spite of all the news of corruption surrounding state tests? Does it really matter that the state does not mandate that teachers don't proctor their own tests? A simple teacher swap could have potentially mitigated this entire fiasco.

But the decision was made to have teachers proctor their tests. And if there was any wrong doing, then whoever made that decision is also culpable, and will eventually have to be investigated.

But I don't believe there was any wrong doing. Certainly nothing worth reassigning such rare, talented teachers.

The state exams have obviously presented a lot of bumps in the road and a lot learning opportunities.

Rather than exacerbate this awful situation and pursue *everyone* who may have been at fault, I hope we can learn from our mistakes and move on in a way that is best for everyone, especially next year's students.

In a few years, when my daughter is old enough, I want her to be in Mrs. Mehler's class.
It was very emotional for me, but not nearly as emotional as what some of the other parent's brought to the meeting. Many parents spoke in depth about the quality of the teacher's in question. Many parents expressed their frustration with the way the situation was communicated to them and their children. Many parents were upset with the manner in which their children were questioned as part of the investigation - parents were misled as to the reason for the questioning and their presence was left optional. Parents talked about how their teacher had helped them overcome a variety of challenges, both academic and personal. Parents talked about how the way the situation was handled left their children in a much worse state, with many left feeling responsible for their teacher being fired. Some people without children in the schools felt compelled to step up to the podium and reprimand the board for their handling of the situation.

Personally I'm not that concerned with the children being questioned, even though I do think there was problems with the way the questioning was handled. I understand that parents and principals question students all the time, and the school was not able to disclose the reason for the questions, and waiting for parents to make themselves available could prevent the school from getting answers as quickly as possible while the tests were still fresh in the children's minds.

But during the discussions someone shouted out a question that got me thinking. Someone asked "what did they [the principal] ask them [the students]?" After everyone else had their say at the podium to point out some apparent disparities:

All along the superintendent insisted that they adhering to mandated processes and were following best practices. However, when Mrs. Garcia, the principal, questioned the children she did not record the conversations. She only took hand written notes. The only witness she brought with her was a board member who is retiring from the position at the end of this term. So we will never have any evidence of how, exactly the questions were asked, and what exactly were the answers.For instance, did the principal ask "did your teacher help you with the state exams?" Did the children answer "yes" meaning that their teacher had been helping them all year? We'll never know.

The superintendent, Dr. Alvarez, responding to accusations that the children were told for days that their teacher was sick, stated that his understanding is that when the principal came to the classes she read a prepared statement that explained that the teacher had been reassigned. However, all these parent's children claimed that she said their teacher was sick.

The superintendent was under the impression that the classes were provided with a single substitute teacher on the first day their teacher was reassigned who maintained a steady curriculum. However, my son's class had a total of six substitute teachers and it was weeks before anything resembling regular schoolwork resumed.

I hope the board took note of these disparities and strongly consider the accuracy of their information. Unfortunately the principal was not there to address them.

Here's the video from the meeting:

Update: On June 25, 2013 we returned to the school board to advocate for our teachers again and try to reach some conclusion.

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