Hope Happens When Opportunities for Hope are Created

I was honored to be asked to write a blog post for Education First’s blog site, which I am also sharing here.

As an educator for 18-21 year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There are days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrinks me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only when I’m alone at home much later into the day. It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17 year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort. My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class at work each day, and none of them are monsters.

My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. They are foreboding and cause my stomach to contort and form a lump, which rises into my esophagus and threatens to appear as a burst of emotional moisture in my eyes. Yet, it also motivates me to keep working, because there is much work to be done on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him. Thanks to a generous grant as a  NoVo SEL Innovation Award recipient, this work that is so necessary has support and endurance.

Recognizing three years ago when I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) that social and emotional learning (SEL) was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice, I immediately reached out to many of the community contacts I had previously collaborated with while teaching in other public high schools. I planned to continue to provide multifarious SEL learning moments in a variety of modalities for my students. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, incorporated into our daily classroom routine are the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, breathing exercises, growth mindset, short term and long term goal setting, and reflection.  A community partnership with SPACES, supported by the NoVo grant, offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national, and local artists, that are then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach. Written reflections from the young men overwhelmingly cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activity in class.

Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources that surround them in the community, but it is equally as important that those in the community change their proximity to the young men in my classroom. I strive to plant seeds of hope in the young men who arrive to me, but we must also vigorously attempt to change the narratives surrounding them in our community. As an educator, neutrality simply is not an option. I am pleased to share that two artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed their time with them so much, that they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense as a result of the NoVo grant. Thus, we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.

Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, required a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills. Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to their confidence and sense of self-efficacy. The empathy expressed and perspectives taken by the young men as they created place mats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic and pen cases for staff members, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies, are moments that burst the reality bubbles many people previously resided in.

During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies. Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks.  After reflecting on my students’ life stories, I used the cut out letters to create a message on a large poster that could be representative of the essential way my students may differ slightly from my own sons, or kids any of us might know: they haven’t been given opportunities or circumstances that instill in them a hope for their futures. The message I created from their letters for their gallery exhibit at SPACES read “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”

Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle, and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES, and the generous NoVo Foundation.  I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. I am profoundly grateful for all of those involved in supporting and accomplishing that goal.

May we all find more ways to create hope for others.

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, July 2017

 

 

 

Organize, educate, agitate, must be our war cry. (Susan B. Anthony)

The following is the speech I gave as a (very honored to be included) speaker at the International Women’s Day Rally & March in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 8th, 2017, on a very windy day at Willard Park. 

International Women’s Day March & Rally Cleveland, Ohio, 2017

Thank you so much to all of you for being here today.

My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing 100s of local education activists, 1000s of education advocates statewide, and hundreds of 1000s of education activists & advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and public schools, you better believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

We know that education is essential to human liberation.

In this spirit of liberation, we fight to dismantle oppressive practices in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practice be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking, and that these practices be based on research and the input of educators, not based on the whims of politicians or the profit margins of corporations.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on the school-to-prison pipeline.

We support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for who is on the district’s school board.

We demand an end to high stakes standardized testing, a system rooted in eugenics and racism that has done nothing to improve teaching and learning for our students, but has created a false narrative about “failing public schools” and “bad teachers.”

We want community schools that are provided with funding and resources to offer the wrap around services that families surrounding those schools need.

School reforms should meet the needs of children in classrooms, not corporations.

All children deserve prepared, experienced and fully licensed teachers.

And all children and all schools must have equitable access to resources and adequate funding.

I plead with all of you today to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools.

Until the government ends the test and punish system, tell your child’s school that your student will not be participating in the state’s punitive system of  high stakes standardized testing. Refuse the tests!

No more of our tax dollars to millionaires and billion dollar corporations, so that they can sell our kids developmentally inappropriate tests and then call our kids failures.

Hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration.

We must fight this battle not because education is called a civil rights issue, but because education is an inalienable human right.

Our children need us too much to get tired of being in this battle.

They may have demolished and neglected the buildings we use for education, but they cannot decimate our desire to educate & be educated.

They will continue to wage this political and corporate war on educators: the Liberators.

But they cannot  liquidate our aspirations for liberation.

Education is liberation. Education. Liberation. Education. Liberation.

 

 

 

  

 

Reciprocal Rescue Story About Our Dog, Gatsby, as it appeared on cleveland.com

http://www.cleveland.com/faces-of-the-suns/index.ssf/2016/12/gatsby_filling_void_for_family.html

 

‘Gatsby’ filling void for family, now will serve as therapy dog; send us your pet-rescue stories

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, of Berea, found the perfect furry companion when she rescued Gatsby, a Lab-pit-bull mix.

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By Special to cleveland.com

on December 15, 2016 at 9:12 AM

BEREA, Ohio — We got our dog, Gatsby, from the shelter on West 7th in Cleveland. He was nothing but a big head and bones with a really dull coat of fur whose color was indistinct when we got him. He’s now a healthy, shiny, chocolate-colored happy guy. He overcame a lot, including separation anxiety. I can’t imagine life without him.

We initially sought a lab-pit mixed dog because my son stayed with us in between college and his move to Nashville for about a year with his lab-pit mixed dog,  Ace, and I thought bringing in Gatsby would help ease the pain of the separation we would feel once my son and Ace moved. I tried to get my son to leave Ace with us, but he told me that getting Ace was a life-long commitment, not just an idea he had in college. I thought to myself, “darn it, why did I raise a responsible, caring kid?”

Even more… I work with young people as an educator at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center and Gatsby is about to pass the first part of his certification process towards being a therapy dog with the help of a trainer who specializes in working with dogs from shelters.

This amazing trainer also runs the program at Grafton, which offers dog training through the prison facility for dogs waiting to be adopted.

A colleague who works with autistic students gave me the idea to train Gatsby as a therapy dog. The majority of my students come to me at varying levels of crisis and trauma.  I believe Gatsby and my students will benefit from his intelligent, gentle, and loyal disposition once they begin to interact. Before my grandmother passed in September this year, we took him with us to visit her at a nursing home and the residents loved him there.

In the end, Gatsby may have been rescued, but he also  saved us from feeling completely devastated when my son and Ace moved, brought cheer to residents at Saybrook Landing, and he’ll ease the spirits of kids in detention in our county facility once we finish the therapy training process.

It makes me so sad to hear about breed bans because my pit-lab is the sweetest, most loyal, and fabulous dog anyone could ever ask for. Every time he wants to meet a new dog, he bows down and waits for the dog to approach. The only time I’ve ever witnessed aggression, is from little dogs yipping and lunging towards him.  He just walks away.

Those are the chapters of my dog-rescue life. I hope that others open their lives to the amazing potential of rescue love.

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith

Berea

Have you rescued a companion animal that is now part of your family? We’d like to hear from you. Tell us something about your pet – all species are welcome – and send along a photo of the two of you. Be sure to tell us which community you live in. Send everything to Linda Kinsey at lkinsey@cleveland.com.

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dgwlkr5 days ago

What a great story. Sounds like Gatsby is touching many lives.

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VP of Discontent6 days ago

Thank you for the beautiful story, Melissa, and thank you for saving Gatsby…although it sounds like he saved you as well 😉

 

Finding Educational Justice in the Justice System for Students with Disabilities

Post for Special Education Consultants Group     

In Cuyahoga County, Ohio, students can be adjudicated prior to age 18, or sent from the juvenile detention center once they reach age 18, to the adult county jail pending the outcome of their case. A couple years ago, I learned that access to education services are scarce to nonexistent at the adult county facility in Cuyahoga County. Appalled for all students, I began reaching out to local government officials at the county level. Outside of a meeting with a community liaison at the county executive’s office during the summer of 2015, I was largely ignored or dismissed. I then began reaching out to the Ohio Department of Education, Disability Rights Ohio, and to representatives and senators on a national level, lobbying my senators and representative in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2015. At the end of the summer, I realized that most folks in government don’t really give a rat’s tail about this practically invisible population of students. It was also then that it occurred to me that a significant number of the students sent to languish at the county facility for extended lengths of time without access to education, often still had active Individual Education Plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and that not offering services was a violation of their civil rights. I filed a complaint with the Department of Justice against the state of Ohio because students are assigned to the Buckeye United School District once they leave the county juvenile facility for the county adult facility. The Buckeye United School District includes schools under the Ohio Department of Youth Services.  

    Meanwhile, the State Deputy Director from Senator Sherrod Brown’s office responded to my outreach and agreed to visit my students at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, and to listen to my stories and theirs. When I did not get a timely response from the DOJ, Senator Sherrod Brown’s office followed up for me, and I received an update within a week. I also traveled to Boston in December of 2015 to meet and ask a question of Bryan Stevenson about the students I serve, and the situation of youth in adult detention facilities.

    The case initiated by my complaint was eventually transferred to the United States Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office in Cleveland, Ohio. An investigation is currently open and pending as of the summer of 2016. I do not believe that I need to explain to this educated group of people how damaging and negatively life-changing a lack of education, or the deprivation of education, can be on our young people caught in the juvenile or adult justice system. When students fight back (with the help of advocates), they receive compensatory school time, thus I have a former student in Mansfield now on an active IEP until he is 22 because he spent a year without access to education waiting at the adult county facility. For students already struggling academically, a year away from education cannot ever really be compensated. Due to the large number of people incarcerated who have disabilities and are between the ages of 18-21, I am creating awareness about this issue so that other people who care about the rights of students with disabilities can also advocate for those entangled in the very complicated maze of juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. There are many entrances into this maze, but the exits are few and infrequently include a high school diploma for those who experience it. Our communities would all be better places if that changed.

With hope for a means to justice and education for all,

Melissa

It Takes a Community: Social & Emotional Learning at a Juvenile Detention Center

The following are links to the Google slides prepared for a 5-7 minute Ed Talk at SEL in Action, a conference in Phoenix, Arizona, made possible through the generosity of the NoVo Foundation, and planned and hosted by Education First. I am very grateful that I was given this opportunity, and more importantly, that my students were given a chance to shine.

It Takes a Community  

it-takes-a-community-2

Thanks to Jillian A. for the photo. 🙂

What’s Tough about Teaching in a Juvenile Detention Center?

What’s Really Tough about Teaching at a County Juvenile Detention Center…

     Work obligations plus the generosity of family and friends gave me the opportunity to travel to various regions of America this summer. Frequently, the kind and interesting folks that I meet ask me what I “do.” When I respond that I’m an educator at a county juvenile detention facility, the response is either verbatim, “that must be tough,” or something equivalent. When I worked at other high schools in our urban district over a span of sixteen years, I would get a similar response. Then, I used to reply that kids are just kids everywhere. I would elaborate in an attempt to expand the person’s viewpoint with stories of my students’ brilliance and accomplishments against unimaginable obstacles. The past two years I have had a different reply:

Actually, no. It isn’t tough being a teacher there. I love it. I love the boys I work with. They’re just kids.

I feel compelled to explain that these young men, the majority of whom are black and brown and from environments designed by society to perpetuate poverty and oppression, are not the monsters that the corporate mainstream media and those dominant in our society would like us all to believe. They are kids. When I look at them, I see my own sons.

But let me tell you what really keeps me up at night…

  • A country that has promoted and allowed for mass incarceration; a modern Jim Crow
  • Prosecutors who care more about putting people in jail than keeping them out
  • A system of injustice that treats a guilty, old, wealthy, white male much better than an innocent brown and poor young man
  • A city that spends $50 million on the security of visitors for the RNC, but can’t find the money to protect our city’s children from violence in their neighborhoods or a policeman’s bullet
  • A city that spends $50 million to renovate a public space downtown, but can’t find money to prevent 2,000 children from being poisoned by lead each year in their homes, or money to provide children with nutritious meals free from processed foods and full of fresh ingredients 
  • The criminalization of addiction or other health issues & the lack of services available to assist people in need
  • Tertiary prison-for-profit businesses like “Jpay” who exploit the already desperate and disadvantaged families and their loved ones who are incarcerated
  • Schools, districts and politicians who care more about scores and data than the humanity and potential that every child deserves to have recognized and valued
  • Policies from politicians and public attitudes that have encouraged schools to be part of a pipeline to prison nexus, rather than conduits of knowledge and discovery
  • A system that magically transforms juveniles into adults in order to bind them out of the juvenile system, and into an adult county system that doesn’t even provide students with special needs access to their federally mandated civil rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

It isn’t tough being an educator at a county juvenile detention center. It is tough to regain the trust of kids who have been hurt by dumb adults too many times. It is tough to plop spoonfuls of self-esteem on boys who are used to having it scooped away, and to hope that they embrace their own worth. It is tough knowing their stories of tragedy and childhood trauma or to read how they can’t stop seeing the violence they’ve witnessed replaying in their minds. It is tough when they tell me they’re afraid because I know they need more than what they’ll get from me. It is tough when I push them to graduate, and they tell me that they never thought they would.

Caring about the boys I teach isn’t tough.

Greedy corporations and plundering profiteers that value money more than people, and capitalism more than children, in addition to our corrupt political system, are a burden ON ALL OF US, which makes things tougher for ALL OF US.

Kids belong in school, not jails. More funding should go to liberation and education, not incarceration. The liberty of people’s bodies, minds, and souls should never be exploited for profit.

 

How Can I Make My Students Republicans?

    “I know a lot of guys here hold anger against their fathers. I don’t blame my dad for not being around,” the articulate and thoughtful young man asserted, “he wasn’t given the opportunities that other people have had.”

It is not always easy to smolder the swell of tears, that initiates in my gut and rises with a heat quickly to just below my nostrils, when I hear the compassion and maturity my students express. Working as an educator in our city’s juvenile detention center, the 16-17 year old young men in my classroom in Cleveland, Ohio, bring me on emotional roller coaster rides unintentionally and unknowingly almost daily. I smile and laugh when they reveal glimpses of the childhoods they could have, and should have had, as they earnestly work to earn a treat or certificate in class. I send silent screams of rage out into an unresponsive universe, proclaiming unfairness and injustice as the culprits that are too often the cause of my students’ circumstances. Although I never let my students see a tear fall from my usually sleep-deprived eyes, a persistent heavy sorrow weighs on my shoulders.

    Another student chimed in, explaining that an elder provided him with his gun because he thought it would help keep him safe in his neighborhood. “It’s either shoot or get shot,” he stated as a matter-of-fact. An uncertainty about their health and safety is a reality that our CHILDREN, who are often not even given a chance to grow up in our city, confront every day. Over two-thousand children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in Cleveland; a completely preventable toxic attack on their health and lives that we keep allowing to happen. The website Neighborhood Scout rates Cleveland as safer than only 2% of other cities in the United States. Would my students approach the police to protect them, or their rights in our city? Can my students rely on our city leaders to protect and serve them?  A 2015 Department of Justice report about the Cleveland Police Department and the Tamir Rice story are enough to understand why my kids feel like they are in occupied territory. They often feel contained and neglected, not protected.      

    As Cleveland celebrates its historic championship basketball team, Calder Cup winning hockey team, and currently winning baseball team, officials are also preparing to showcase the city to the 50,000 visitors expected for the Republican National Convention, which is less than a few weeks away. The fruits of successful collaborative efforts between government, business and nonprofit entities are evident as long-time residents travel throughout Cleveland’s neighborhoods. Colorful art murals have appeared on the sides of buildings, walls, highway bridge supports, and utility boxes. New hotels have opened in time for the convention. Additional gardens and greenery-filled planters have been placed around the city for added beauty, and extra lighting has been strategically placed to keep visitors safe and so that the city can shine. Sidewalks and roads have been repaired and paved, and new trees have been planted. A redesigned public square was recently revealed for a $50 million dollar price tag. Outside of the aesthetic appeal of the multiple improvements around the city, $50 million dollars of an NSSE grant was allocated for security in a 2015 fiscal appropriations bill “to ensure the safety of convention goers,” according to Senator Portman (R) from Ohio.

    Recently, Cleveland has been given accolades by media sources throughout the country as a “revitalized city” ready for the national stage when the potentially boisterous Republican National Convention arrives July 18th. While Cleveland is putting its best foot forward for the worldwide media attention it is likely to receive, there are questions that should be asked about the amount being spent on the downtown area to impress and keep the RNC visitors safe.

     Where is the money to keep Cleveland’s children safe? Where is the money to revitalize neighborhood centers with mentors for Cleveland’s children? Where is the money to create jobs and job training for our young people and their families? Where is the money to turn our city schools into community resource centers for students and their families? Where is the money to eradicate lead poisoning and to keep testing children for lead? Where is the money to get guns off of the city’s streets? Why aren’t our city’s children as valuable as the 50,000 visitors who will descend upon our city, then leave? Where are the children’s $50 million dollar grants and allocations?

    Some people may respond with lines about generating business, marketing Cleveland to the world, and income generated for the city. The promises of capitalist investment abound for the already affluent, in a city that has no qualms about leaving its most vulnerable citizens in segregated, impoverished, isolated neighborhoods. Others may assert that the convention hosting is about business and not about messy human issues embedded in systematic and historical racism. To both assertions I reply “Correct!” Capitalist principles should not be applied when we are discussing human beings. Capitalism shouldn’t be integrated into healthcare, education, unions, or the judicial system. Profits or marketing shouldn’t be considered when leaders are aware of children being poisoned by lead, or when children need saved from violence. If it helps though, consider what a significant investment in our city’s children right now would do for the future of Cleveland. There is a tremendous waste of human potential created by the purposeful neglect of other people’s children.

   Clearly, the safety of visitors during the RNC is important to city, state, and national leaders. How can we make the children of Cleveland as valuable as these 50,000 temporary residents to those same leaders? How can I make my students, who have tremendous insight, resilience, and brilliance, as important as the republicans?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Visit My Classroom at CCJDC & See How Hope Happens

Dear Senator Portman, Senator Brown, and Congresswoman Fudge,

I spent this past school year teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. I’m sure that you have preconceived notions about what the school and students are like. I can guarantee that your predictions and expectations would evolve after a visit to my classroom.

I work with 15-17 year old male students. Many of them have had childhoods filled with tragedy and have faced obstacles that have left them feeling as if there are no options for them except a life on the street. Most complain about school because it is not designed for students who like to learn with their hands, who can’t sit still for extended lengths of time and be quiet, who are intellectually gifted, or who don’t want to go to college. Instead of changing the system to meet the needs of these most vulnerable students, or providing resources and instituting funded policies that would assist these young men, they are faced with a system often endorsed by politicians that feeds a school-to-prison pipeline.

With all of the research we have about brain development throughout every stage of life, it is inexcusable that we treat these young men as if they have the capacity to make sound adult decisions, particularly when the majority haven’t been given strong social guidance during their crucial developmental years. Instead of endorsing a system of high stakes standardized testing that pushes these students out of schools and bores them into behavior problems that can result in criminal charges, our students need wrap around services such as access to mental health care, addiction treatment, social workers, mentors, nutrition and full healthcare access, and an opportunity to learn in an environment that doesn’t further punish them for poverty or instability in their homes. Families need this support from conception to graduation, not just K-12.

I have had students flourish in my class under the direction of our administrator. They have gone from being chronologically behind grade levels, to being caught up on their high school credits during the time they are incarcerated. These successes give them something that they are lacking in the segregated, impoverished neighborhoods from which most of them begin their academic careers: hope. These achievements can only occur because I have the freedom to design curriculum on an individual basis for my students, the opportunity to design instruction based on student interests and the most recent educational research, and because I am trusted by my administrator to try strategies that I believe may assist my students. Being confined by strict curriculum scripts, a narrow focus on passing high stakes standardized tests, and zero tolerance discipline policies that exist in traditional high schools would only cause further detriment to these students who need the best instruction the most. I am also trusted to adapt my instruction as needed, to collaborate with my partner who teaches the same age group, and to not only learn from successes, but from attempts that were not necessarily as successful as I had hoped.

One student I had this year began his time in my class unwilling to do a lot of work in school. After a little time with us, he began to realize that he was surrounded by people who care, people who have his best interest in mind and heart, and is in a facility that will support him, his education, and his teacher. Through his hard work and some incentives negotiated between myself and the detention officers, the student is now a senior instead of a sophomore, has passed 4/5 state tests, and will not leave our administrator alone about how many credits he has and still needs to graduate. Even in his challenging situation, he now has hope. He has experienced academic success and can now envision possibilities. What if our entire education system was structured to provide this same feeling for all of its stakeholders? What if not only students, but teachers, parents, and the communities that some of these most vulnerable, pushed-out students come from were in a culture of hope instead of one that seeks to marginalize, punish, and contain?

The resources, small classes, and wrap-around services provided to our young men should not be exclusive to a detention center. These supports must be provided to all schools that need them, so that some day my school does not have a detained juvenile population to serve any more. Politicians, policy makers, and wealthy elitists need to stop trying to further deform our education system with mandated testing and pseudo accountability, and instead focus on research based strategies in existence for decades that will adapt schools to fit students’ needs. The damage to students and failure of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top is evident when you walk into our school, or around the community in which we are located. I implore you to come visit my classroom, hear our stories, and meet the citizens that your legislative reforms, and needed reforms, impact every day.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

Refuse of Cuyahoga County

High Stakes Standardized Testing Sent Me to Jail & Saved My Teaching Soul

High Stakes Standardized Testing Sent Me to Jail & Saved My Teaching Soul

    Last April (2014) I poured myself into a narrative that I titled, “My High Stakes Testing Story.”  Within it I described the struggles that I encountered with testing and my 3rd grader at home. Then, I related events from the high school I taught at, which had morphed from a beacon of learning to a den of despair because of the burdensome emphasis on tests attached to unknown chimerical numbers that students were supposed to ascend to. I explained how I chose to return to the reason why I entered the profession almost 18 years ago: students. When I learned last spring of yet another standardized test that the district bought in order to gather student scores to represent 35% of my composite educator rating, I told my students to choose their favorite lettered bubbles, color them, and take a nap. My students complied. I was on the brink of leaving the profession entirely, and began applying for non teaching jobs all over the country.  In June 2014, the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) published my teacher rating on their website as “skilled” for seekers to view.  Apparently, my students had met “average” expectations on their test in April.  I have no idea how. I never saw the results. Students never saw the results. I have no idea what the expectation was. At that point,  I was already committed, with a laser-like focus, on fleeing the asylum that had disguised itself as education and accountability.

Meanwhile, around the end of the school year, a rare opening occurred at the juvenile county detention facility school. Ohio has not figured out how to tie test scores to teachers who work at detention facilities (although they are trying to), and the curriculum is not driven by tests because county facilities serve multiple school districts, and the student population changes daily. Instead, there is a general curriculum based on state and district scope and sequences. After an application process, I was offered a position. For twenty percent less money per school year, I accepted an instructional placement at the county juvenile detention center in order to stay in a profession that I cherish. Now, each school day, I walk through sheriff security scan number one, swipe my ID card for the first door, go through sheriff security scan two, get “buzzed” through two more locked doors, and finally swipe my ID card one more time for access to the school part of the facility.

Concrete white block, by concrete white block, working with detained young men has rebuilt and renewed my vehemence for teaching. However, a persistent weight remains on my heart because the utopian conditions for my teaching are partially the result of the scarcity of research based, intelligently designed, properly funded, fully accessible schools in our nation. It is unfortunate for our country’s children that the most consistent place for an education, replete with all of the services and educational opportunities that students need, is in a detention facility.

What makes working at this juvenile detention facility so idealistic?

  • On site medical and mental health services for students every day
  • Physical Education class for an hour each school day
  • Every student is fed
  • Every student is clothed and warm
  • Every student gets plenty of sleep
  • Every student is escorted to school on time each day
  • Students are free from non prescribed chemical influences
  • Role models that they can relate to surround students
  • A full time volunteer coordinator is on site
  • Full time social workers are on site
  • Full time activity coordinators are on site
  • Full time 24 hour housekeeping staff (it is the cleanest place I have ever worked)
  • Staff and students feel safe because of the high security and 24 hour detention officers present
  • Class size does not rise above 18 students
  • Campus administration not only trusts the teachers to navigate their instruction along the most beneficial course for the students, but they support any endeavors the staff presents that may help children
  • Educators are trusted (This has been foreign to me for a while, so I have to reiterate.)
  • A state of the art classroom with a smartboard, whiteboard, laptop, chromebooks, projector, WiFi, desk phone, and always-available supplies for students and teachers

What if this was how all schools were in underprivileged urban areas? Would there even need to be a juvenile detention center? Would states need to continue to spend four times more on incarceration versus education? Could that spending trend actually be reversed?

Many people give me an odd glance of sorts when I tell them where I teach. They have no idea how much these young men inspire me with their potential and the positive possibilities. They are, scientifically and legally speaking, still children, and their adolescent brains are malleable. If they are with me long enough to chip away at their walls built upon blocks of self doubt, tragedy, fear, addiction, and systems that usually fail them, then their curiosity, creativity, social skills, and confidence can be rebuilt. THAT is what school should be about! (Notice there is nothing about high stakes standardized tests in “My Ultimate School.”) If all urban schools were like mine,  educators all over could be gathering blocks mistakenly labeled as “poorly performing,” “academic emergency,” and “failure,” and begin building steps, instead of walls, to a better future for these students, and for all of us.

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Humans of New York Jan. 20, 2015

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”

“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”