Standardized Testing Opt-Out Letter California, 2019

Well friends/co-conspirators, unfortunately, it is that time of the school year again when we must show our solidarity for visions of educational justice and the schools all of our children deserve. Refuse to allow your children to participate in the spirit-killing test industry machine – opt your child out. Many more resources can be found online, but here is the template for the letter I used in California this year (2019). Previous letters used in Ohio can be found in my blog archives.

Peace to you, if you’re willing to fight for it. ~Fred Hampton 

April 25, 2019

School Name District Name School address (four lines)

Dear (school) Staff and (district) Administrators,

Please accept this letter as my submission, under California Education Code section 60615, which allows a parent or guardian to submit a written request to school officials to exclude his or her child from any or all parts of state-mandated assessments, to opt out my child, (child name), from all Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests administered this year.

Reimagining schools through an abolitionist framework, I am unequivocally opposed to standardized testing and the role it plays in perpetuating destructive and punitive practices in schools. Prepackaged state tests with stakes attached (whether high or low) undermine teachers’ autonomy, de-professionalize educators and are a mechanism for reproducing structural inequality. A FairTest fact sheet, “Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing,” states that young people of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most as the explosion of high-stakes standardized testing in U.S. public education has undermined equity and school quality. These tests provide no social or educational benefit, inflict harm on our most vulnerable young people, and contribute to corporate superpredators making billions through the testing industry, charter industry, and textbook industry.

In refusing standardized tests, I stand in solidarity with others pursuing a dream of educational justice in which schools are based on collective dignity, community, creativity, intersectional justice, healing, joy, radical love, and are spaces where every child feels safe and celebrated, and knows they matter.

Test scores from SBAC will not reveal anything to (child)’s teachers or other school staff members that they do not already know about (him/her), nor will standardized tests illuminate the many acts of kindness, compassion, and patience bestowed upon (child) by the staff at (school name) School.

In solidarity with abolitionists for educational freedom,

(Your Name)

(your phone number and/or email)

 

St Paddy’s Day, Starvation & Public Education

In case you missed it last year…

Perhaps you’ll be recovering this weekend, along with many others, from the celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day which are full of parades, green clothing, Irish whiskey, green beer, and corned beef. Setting all of the green fun aside, the history of Irish immigrants is dark and rich, and should prompt all of us to question why we continue to allow those in power to starve the poor.
During the first winter of famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants starved, while landlords and the British exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of food that could have prevented the starvation. As those Irish who were able to migrated to other countries for survival, the British government and Anglican church did nothing on behalf of the poor in Ireland to stop the starvation.
In America, Trump’s recent budget proposal could cut programs that feed poor children and the elderly, and his Secretary of Education mocks our national free lunch program. Are we any better today than the capitalist and colonial forces that sacrificed Ireland’s peasants over 150 years ago? Looking at the deprivation, violence, trauma, and toxins that are allowed to surround the students I serve in Cleveland, Ohio, I’m uncertain that we’ve learned anything from history.
According to Feeding America, in 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. What does it mean to live in a country where over one-third of the adults are obese, and a country that exports $131 billion in foods, feeds, and beverages, yet fails to provide its most vulnerable citizens with access to adequate nutrition? Maybe it is time to examine what it means when food remains a commodity, instead of a human right.
What happens when the same destructive global system of profit that pervasively commodified food is applied to education? We’re left with segments of the population starved of adequate learning materials, resources, qualified instructors, enrichment activities, and the arts, and a citizenry devoid of the ability to think critically. We’re left with colonizers telling certain demographics that they aren’t worthy of democratically controlled school boards or neighborhood schools, but that they are still good enough to pay taxes. We allow for fallacious ideas like competition, charters, vouchers, and the generation of standardized products formerly known as children to invade our common schools and devour public funds. We become victims of profiteers and eduperialists who legally plunder millions (billions?) of public dollars to inflate their personal wealth at the expense of educating all children. We manifest a destiny that empathetic future historians will surely reflect upon with shock, dismay and horror.
As we recover and rejuvenate from St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we don’t have to let the dismal tragic details of Irish immigration get us down, but perhaps we can reflect upon our country’s obsession with capitalism and the commodification of things that everyone should have access to as human beings. Consider the words of Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times:
“We either wink at a racism that affords most of us the privilege of a white skin,” he wrote. “Or we honour the struggles of so many millions of Irish immigrants to be accepted as equal human beings.” … Will we stand “up for all of those who share the Irish experience of having to overcome poverty and prejudice in order to make decent lives for our children?

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. (Gaelic)

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

Not My Inmates

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes. “Yes. It really is,” I replied.

     I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving at our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically, however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and mass incarceration systems require abolition. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay.

     In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name.

     I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

Twas the First Night of Break

‘Twas the first night of break, when all through the school

Not a creature was stirring, except a privatizing ghoul

A public school teacher was sleeping all snug in her bed

While visions of happy students appeared in her head

As the papers she graded slid off of her lap

She had just settled down for a long winter’s nap

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter

The teacher dragged herself from bed to see what was the matter

And what to her tired eyes did appear?

But a bunch of self-righteous folks who were

billionaires

“O’ Waltons, O’ Broad, O’ DeVos , O’ Gates

What are you doing here on my lawn so late?

Do I even want to know your latest plans to deceive?

Seriously, winter break is supposed to be a reprieve!”

Unfortunately, to her front porch the billionaires did dash

Wearing their contempt for public schools like an itchy red rash

Down the stairs she went to meet them, as if in a trance

She thought maybe she could reason with them, if given the chance

A backpack full of cash was flung on their backs

And they looked smug and condescending in their tailored slacks

The teacher presented research about what kids need to learn

But their only care was the money they could earn

“Students are children; not products,” she tried to explain

“Your lack of knowledge and meddling are causing great pain”

She added that teaching is a mix of science and art

“It’s a humanity,” she said “Not a business with no heart!”

The vacant look in their eyes and tilt of their heads

Soon gave her to know she had much to dread

They spoke not a word, disregarding her work

She feared inequity would continue to lurk

Then away they all flew in their extravagant jets

Forgetting to thank her for cleaning up their mess

But they heard her exclaim, as they drove out of sight

“This isn’t over! We’ll continue to fight!”

 

Happy winter break to all and peace to those willing to fight for it.

 

Figure Out My Color

This poem was a result of the collaborative effort of three of my students.

This is from The Urban Youth Collaborative’s Facebook post:

**POWERFUL** Yesterday, our young people in UYC participated in a National Day of Action with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice calling for racial justice in our classrooms! Watch youth leader Estefany Valera, recite a poem written by 3 young men currently in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, in Cleveland. The poem was written to be read on Columbus Day, soon to be known as #IndigenousPeopleDay #NYC#Education4Liberation

The Video: The Urban Youth Collaborative Event

The poem:

Figure Out My Color

The police thought I had a gun one time and they asked me

“where’s the gun, where’s the gun?”

I didn’t have a shirt on

so it was obvious that I didn’t have a gun

in my waistband

and they checked my pockets

and they thought I had a gun

but I didn’t.

Now think for a minute…

What if it was you

Stopped for being brown

For being in a certain part of town

For being too poor

to afford

To be free?

Do we even know what we celebrate today for?

Is it just celebrating more

Of the punishing of the poor?

Enslavement, rape, disease, genocide

Are these sources of pride?

History lies

Mothers cry

For those who’ve died.

Living in a country

Where the flag waves

For the home of the brave

“Don’t flee!”

“Get on your knees!”

Police scream at me.

Does anyone hear my plea

To end painful legacies?

For people who will stand

For their fellow man?

~From students being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in Melissa Svigelj-Smith’s classroom. 

 

Cleveland Truth Commission on Poverty

I was honored to have my son represent us at this event while I was at #NPEOAK17.

His presentation:

Hello.  My name is Angelo Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing my mother, Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, who is in her 20th year as a high school teacher in Cleveland Public high schools. Currently, she is teaching at our county’s juvenile detention center. She is also a community activist and advocate. It is her students’ voices that will be heard today from recordings made at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. Before those statements are read, my mom had a few things to share about poverty and education in Cleveland.  

From my mother, Melissa:

As a long time advocate for social justice, I became dismayed and disillusioned a few years ago as I was told by those in higher administrative positions to do things that I did not feel were beneficial for my students and were sometimes even harmful;  all so that students could pass high stakes standardized tests.

And so that later those tests could be used to call students, schools, or teachers “failing.” Then, those with a profit motive could come in and get a slice of the $800-900 billion dollar education spending pie.  

Instead of quitting the teaching profession entirely four years ago, I decided to take a position at our county juvenile detention center, and to fight the system from within. In my new position I have been privy to and witness to an egregious exploitation of our city’s children all in the name of education privatization and profits.

Each week I document the educational atrocities committed against our children because of a culture of profit and competition. Treatment and conditions my students must experience, policy makers and others with privilege would never accept for their own children but because the great majority of my students are from low-income households and black and brown they are subject to these episodes of educational malpractice.

My students have had art, music, physical education, library time, foreign languages, and vocational classes taken from them. They are often in buildings with extreme heat or extreme cold. They walk to school, or stand at RTA bus stops in neighborhoods filled with violence, crime and abandoned houses because of decades of racist policies and practices.

They have the latest education fads or trends tried out in their classrooms, even though there is no research to support these latest trends but someone is always making a profit off of them. They are more likely to have temporary teachers instead of career professionals. Their neighborhood’s public schools are too often demolished or sold to private real estate holders so that they can be used for profit-making charter schools.

I have students who were enrolled in ECOT, Regent, Bridgescape, and Lake Erie International (just to name a few) who arrive to me without making any progress towards graduation after months and years at these charter schools. Yet, those charter schools have been paid with state tax dollars just because my students’ names were on their rosters and no one is holding the charter schools accountable.

I have students who have never been in trouble before, but after one fight or encounter which was triggered by a traumatic event in their life due to the poverty and violence this city allows to surround them, they are expelled from school and given no other treatment or consideration for their true issues or the sources of their pain.

In the most extreme and sorrowful cases, I have attended wakes and vigils for my students and I’ve visited students in prisons across the state who are sometimes the cause of those wakes and vigils. It is a sick and vicious cycle that we would do everything in our power to stop if these kids had different zip codes, or if they were visitors at a republican convention, or associated with a local sports franchise.

For these reasons, I am part of the #WeChoose campaign. “It is a declaration from hundreds of thousands of parents and students in cities across the United States with a clear, yet profound message – we refute and resist corporate education policies that are inflicted upon our children without our voice.

The failure of previous administrations to respect the lives of all has set the tone for this perilous moment that we are in now.

We reject appointed school boards. We reject zero tolerance policies that criminalize our children. We reject mediocre corporate education interventions that are only accepted because of the race and socio-economic status of the children served.

We choose equity.”

I hope that you will consider joining us. You can find more information at https://www.j4jalliance.com/wechoose/ – the Journey for Justice website.

If you would like to read more about my work as an educator and advocate please read some of my blogs on msvigeljsmith.blog.

Thank you for this opportunity to have a voice for educators and students confronting the impact of poverty every day in their classrooms across America.

 

Address to Cleveland Mayoral Candidate Forum August 22nd, 2017

I meant to publish this in August, but didn’t get to it, and I had one for September also, which has turned into two for October and quite possibly even three or four for October. I’ll catch up! 

From Facebook: Thank you to Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith of OH BATs for this Badass speech at a Cleveland Mayoral Forum: https://www.facebook.com/meryl.johnson.3/videos/10207704256283174/?fref=gc&hc_location=ufi

The words: Thank you to all of you for taking the time to be here today and for listening to our questions and concerns, and thank you to Kathy and the other organizers for planning and preparing for the event today.

My name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I just began my 20th year of teaching in Cleveland Public High Schools, and my fourth year of teaching young men at our county’s juvenile detention center. Like most folks in this room, I stand here today as an activist; fighting for the education equity all our children deserve.  

There are so many issues surrounding education in our city, state and country that it is difficult to narrow the scope of the topic. For our purposes this evening, I have narrowed it down to three issues.

The first issue is poverty in our city. Over half of our city’s children are living in poverty. In February I published a blog titled “My Students Pay Every Day for Their Free Lunch.” In it, I shared the effects of poverty on students according to the  American Psychological Association. I listed things like inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care, being at greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, behavioral and socio-emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. Additionally, chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn. Poverty also perpetrates a violence upon our young people that leaves educators like me spending weekends or breaks visiting students in state prisons and attending wakes. This pattern of violence should not be replicated in our schools with zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, excessive testing, a dulling down of the curriculum, and the elimination of classes and activities that make schools a place kids want to be.   

Furthermore, our schools should not be blamed for the poverty that our society allows to continue to exist, nor should they be expected to treat society’s ills without the necessary resources and services needed.

The second issue is charter schools, whether they’re labeled “for profit” or “nonprofit.” The unregulated charter industry in this state is costing our most impoverished districts the most financially and academically. I deal with charter schools across our county as I search for student records and piece together student transcripts. As the charter schools siphon millions of dollars from taxpayers throughout the state, the great majority of the time they are NOT outperforming our public schools. In fact, they offer less academically, place profit over what is best for children, and are chronically negligent, unreliable and inconsistent with regard to my record requests. During our first week of school, Invictus School sent me a transcript for a bright and curious student who has been enrolled with them for over a year. He has only earned half a high school credit. This is just one example of the educational malfeasance that I document every week. Children deserve equity in education, not the illusion of choice.

Finally, I question takeovers and mayoral control of schools in largely urban and economically disadvantaged areas where there are concentrated areas of people of color. When democracy is stripped away from any citizen, all of us are more susceptible to tyranny and despotism. Soliciting citizens to vote for tax levies to support the schools they aren’t able to democratically participate in governing is just a supplementary insult.

With this information in mind, I humbly submit the following questions for your pondering and response:

  1. How can we use our funds and resources to protect and nurture the most vulnerable children and families in our city just as well as we protect and provide for visitors to our downtown? Or our sports teams?
  2. How can we protect our tax dollars and citizens from predatory charter schools and vulture education profiteers?
  3. How can we halt corporate control that deletes democracy and treats our kids like products and numbers instead of the resilient and brilliant human beings that come to my class every day?

Thank you again for your time and attention.  

 

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

 

 

 

March for Impeachment July 2017

(2 minute limit) (video clip)

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 hundreds of thousands of education activists and advocates across this nation who are fighting for the schools ALL our children deserve.

We are here today to march for impeachment, and it is a patriotic cause. However, this isn’t just about impeaching Donald Trump. An impeachment would just land Mike Pence in the Oval Office and no one here wants that either.

No. This is also about the impeachment of a system that manifested the successful election of Donald Trump.

There is no doubt that our country is in a state of what I like to refer to as “electile dysfunction.” And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They de-fund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

They demonize teachers and allow for conditions in our public schools that they would never accept for their own children.

We know that education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we fight for the impeachment of anyone who promotes oppressive practices in schools; practices forced upon us by Trump and his cabinet, and by legislators and corporations, without any regard for what is best for our children or for our country.

We demand that curriculum and classroom practices be culturally relevant, comprehensive, engaging, challenging, and promote critical thinking,

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 call for the impeachment of any public official who does not support bills or amendments that equitably and fully fund education –  NOT mass incarceration or deportation.

Yes, we are gathered here today to demand impeachment, but I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. They are the keys to liberty and justice for all, and we cannot salvage our democracy without them.

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

Are our children being taught what democracy looks like?

THIS is what democracy looks like!

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.

 

 

 

  

 

My Students Pay Every Day for Their “Free” Lunch

     When billionaire Betsy Devos, the woman who bought the Secretary of Education position in Donald Trump’s administration, addressed attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday, she received a lot of criticism from people who actually care about children for a remark she made in which she claimed to be the first person to tell Bernie Sanders “to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Although her comment was meant to be humorous, those of us who possess an ounce of humanity know that there is nothing funny about children living in poverty. However, this may be the one and only time that I can actually agree with the literal words of Betsy Devos. There is no such thing as a free lunch. In fact, my kids pay every day.

      According to a 2016 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 1 in 4 kids in Ohio, about 600,000 children, are living in poverty.  In the city that I teach in, Cleveland, 53.2% of children are living in poverty. Our children absolutely pay every single day of their lives for the meager opportunity to have a “free lunch.” They may not be paying with the currency that Betsy DeVos and her wealthy cronies value, but they are paying in many other ways that matter so much more. Below are just a few examples from the American Psychological Association:

Effects of child poverty

  • Poverty is linked with negative conditions such as substandard housing, homelessness, inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, inadequate child care, lack of access to health care, unsafe neighborhoods, and under-resourced schools which adversely impact our nation’s children.
  • Poorer children and teens are also at greater risk for several negative outcomes such as poor academic achievement, school dropout, abuse and neglect, behavioral and socioemotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays.
  • Economists estimate that child poverty costs an estimated $500 billion a year to the U.S. economy; reduces productivity and economic output by 1.3 percent of GDP; raises crime and increases health expenditure (Holzer et al., 2008).
Poverty and academic achievement
  • Chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn.
  • The academic achievement gap for poorer youth is particularly pronounced for low-income African American and Hispanic children compared with their more affluent White peers.
Poverty and psychosocial outcomes
  • Children living in poverty are at greater risk of behavioral and emotional problems.
  • Unsafe neighborhoods may expose low-income children to violence which can cause a number of psychosocial difficulties. Violence exposure can also predict future violent behavior in youth which places them at greater risk of injury and mortality and entry into the juvenile justice system.
Poverty and physical health

Children and teens living in poorer communities are at increased risk for a wide range of physical health problems:

  • Low birth weight
  • Poor nutrition which is manifested in the following ways:
    1. Inadequate food which can lead to food insecurity/hunger
    2. Lack of access to healthy foods and areas for play or sports which can lead to childhood overweight or obesity
  • Chronic conditions such as asthma, anemia and pneumonia
  • Risky behaviors such as smoking or engaging in early sexual activity
  • Exposure to environmental contaminants, e.g., lead paint and toxic waste dumps
  • Exposure to violence in their communities which can lead to trauma, injury, disability and mortality

    As I was leaving a wake this morning for a teen I knew who was killed while at a playground in Cleveland, the price that my students pay because of poverty weighs heavily on me. There are no free lunches. My kids might get some free food at the schools they attend, but no one can tell me that they aren’t paying.

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

Opt Out/Refusal for Ohio 2016-2017

     It seems that the high stakes testing season begins as soon as the school year starts. For high school students adhering to the new Ohio graduation pathways and requirements, state high school exams will be administered beginning in December (next week). I don’t need to review all of the reasons that high stakes standardized tests are bogus, invalid, and do nothing to improve teaching or learning. However, if you need some inspiration for your student’s Opt Out or Refusal letter this year, feel free to read on and borrow any parts you find useful from mine. 

Greetings BMHS Staff,

Just as in the past 2 years, (my son) will NOT be participating in any Ohio State Tests, or in any tests created by AIR, NWEA, ProCore, PARCC, etc. I only want him to participate in assessments created by his classroom teachers whom we value and respect.
If you would like a more thorough understanding of my objections to the racist and oppressive practice of standardizing testing in schools, please refer to the following websites:
http://fairtest.org/racism-eugenics-and-testing-again
http://www.fairtest.org/sites/default/files/racial_justice_and_testing_12-10.pdf
http://ideas.time.com/2012/10/11/why-its-time-to-get-rid-of-standardized-tests/
http://parentsacrossamerica.org/civil-rights-discrimination-standardized-testing/
http://www.schoolsmatter.info/2015/12/the-racist-origins-of-standardized.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ronnie-reese/test-bias-minorities_b_2734149.html
Standardized Testing is Racist
https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2010/06/21/sat
Once again, I realize that (my son) may do well on the state tests. That is irrelevant to the fact that he would be participating in a systemically racist institution, which serves to perpetuate oppression and a discriminatory narrative in society. I will not allow him to passively participate in a system designed to sustain a legacy of inequality in our country.
He will be taking the ACT this spring at BMHS, and should meet graduation requirements at that time through the ACT pathway. His high school graduation and his future are the only reasons I concede to the ACT testing.
I am copying everyone on this email so that there is NO misunderstanding or miscommunication that ultimately puts (my son) in an uncomfortable or compromising position; during which the principles I have raised him to espouse become in conflict with his desire to comply with school officials.
I appreciate your understanding.
Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith

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?

 

    

 

    

      

 

     

Hope & the Means for Justice

Speaking Points for May 12th GCC Listen. Act. Win. at FDR School in Cleveland, Ohio

Good evening. My name is Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith. Thank you to everyone for the opportunity to speak this evening.

I’ve been a high school teacher in Cleveland Public Schools for 18 years. The past two years I have been working in a classroom with young men being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC).

Yes. CMSD has a school at the juvenile county jail. It is called the Downtown Education Center, or “the DEC.”

I could stand here today and share the stories of tragedy, despair, and trauma that I am frequently privy to, but those stories are not mine to tell. I could also speak to the many ways that we, as a community and society, miserably fail our city’s children, which often results in their placement at CCJDC. However, tonight I am here to present some of our academic challenges, which I believe can be eradicated.

Think for a brief moment… what is the difference between a young person that has plans to attend college soon, and a young person who decides to rob a store or steal a car? (pause)

I contend, that at the most basic levels of our understanding, one young person has hope and believes they have access to a means for justice. The other young person does not see a means for justice and lacks that hope.

Working in classrooms with groups of less than 20 students, the teachers at the DEC work hard to rebuild, or create, a sense of hope in our young people.

In March, a young man who started in my classroom last school year, graduated from our school. Over the course of one year, this young man was in and out of our juvenile facility, at 2 residential facilities in 2 different counties, and he attended one of our traditional CMSD High Schools. I knew in order for him to graduate, I needed to follow him through all of his placements. Without that follow up, he would not have had an accurate transcript, would not have been placed in the correct classes, and would not have been able to earn that diploma. However, this student is only one of over 1000 children each year at the DEC that need this exhaustive follow through.

There is a disconnect between our school, residential facilities, and CMSD.

Just this week I had a student return to me who had worked hard and earned credits while he was with me the first time. He was even  promoted to his proper grade level. He told me that the CMSD school that he was enrolled at, in between his times with me at the DEC, placed him back in 9th grade classes that he had already passed and earned credits for. When he protested, he was told that “it was hard to get transcripts from the jail.” It isn’t difficult at all. We use the SAME data system. His credits and grades are in that system. Plus, we issue exit reports within a week of a student leaving us to return to their last known high school of record. He also had Fs on his report card in addition to the grades we gave him, because teachers are told that they cannot leave any blanks when report card grades are due. Can you imagine how difficult and frustrating it is for this young man? How are we, in CMSD, securing hope and justice for our young people?

There is no clear policy or explanation in place that is being communicated to regional superintendents, principals, teachers, guidance counselors, or administrative assistants, as to how to make sure that grades and credits are following students and being properly shared with the appropriate personnel.

The success that a great majority of our students experience while with us, often all seems like a lie to the families and students when CMSD issues report cards, and they see a bunch of Fs incorrectly listed on them, or they are missing credits that students have earned. This lack of communication consumes a tremendous amount of time and produces an unnecessary amount of frustration.

Mr. Gordon, you have an opportunity to set a local, state, and even national precedent for how education within the juvenile justice system can be done correctly.

Through a collaborative process that includes our staff, we ask for 3 things on behalf of students at the DEC:

  1. Ensure that a clear policy and explanation are in place with regard to record keeping for students at the DEC and other residential facilities. Make this policy available and all CMSD staff, faculty, and administrators aware of it.  
  2. Designate a CMSD key liaison responsible for receiving, requesting, sharing, and following up on academic records for kids being detained or placed in residential facilities to ensure accountability.
  3. Finally, we ask that you allow us to welcome you to the DEC for a conversation with our young people and GCC during the 2016-2017 school year, and become one of the champions of education for the young people in the juvenile justice system who need opportunity, hope, and justice just as much, if not more, than anyone else.

I believe that a conversation with the boys in my classroom will reveal that our young people do not want charity, or pity, or sympathy, but that the most important thing to them during these crucially important developmental years, is hope. They hope that if they do the right thing, the adults responsible for cultivating their future will be pushing doors open for them, so that they can enter into a realm of what is possible, and a means to true justice for all.

 

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Now is Not the Time to do What is Convenient

     Cleveland Public Schools have been under mayoral control with an unelected, mayor-appointed school board since 1998. Under the Cleveland Plan three years ago, test scores became the driving factor for all decisions, and a tedious, subjective, punitive teacher evaluation system, as well as merit pay for teachers, was implemented. The Cleveland Teachers’ Union and the District began negotiations for a new contract this school year. Recently, representatives of  the District announced that they were walking away from the negotiating table, and instead began preparing for a fact finding.

My speaking points for the Cleveland, Ohio, Board of Education Meeting 2-23-2016

Good evening, my name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I am an educator in Cleveland, CTU member, and an advocate for children.

Rather than leave the profession entirely two years ago, I switched positions in the District for a 20% pay cut, because I feel that the current data-obsessed system (even when the data produced is not valid) is harmful to students. Of course, all of us working in schools deserve to be paid fairly for our education, work, and experience, but being a teacher has never been about money.  

As others have already alluded to this evening – members of multiple unions work in this district because we care about students. We want the children of Cleveland to have a quality, sustainable, public education system.

Those of us who serve students in a variety of capacities in our district, experience firsthand every day the challenges that confront many of our young people in the city. I would like to use my time (3 minutes) to bring awareness to some of these issues, and I hope you consider the multiple factors that influence a child’s educational experience as we move forward this school year and for school years to come.

For example:

We know that the Plain Dealer reported this past October that 2000 children are poisoned with elevated lead levels every year in our city, and that this exposure causes learning disabilities and behavior issues in children that could have been prevented, but now require special interventions; interventions that more “rigor” in school classrooms will not address.

We know that venture capitalists and for-profit firms are salivating over the exploding $788.7 billion market in K-12 education, and are already enjoying making money off of our city’s children. Breaking up unions is not going to stop them, even though Governor Kasich has tried his best to destroy them.

We know that invalid and made-up test scores are repeatedly used to shame and harm students, teachers, and schools so that those with their eyes on dollar signs can run in with the next latest and greatest scam-of-a-solution to save us all; when really it is politicians and society who have repeatedly failed to address or profited from the social injustices that perpetuate around us.

We know that students may show up to school traumatized at varying degrees, and schools do not have an adequate amount of access to mental health professionals or social workers, and that piling more paperwork on teachers is not going to solve that.

We know that structural inequalities, an unequal distribution of resources, and institutional racism still exist in our city and schools, and that hiring more expensive outside consultants will not eliminate that reality.

We know that highly trained, experienced, and committed teachers are what research shows us will benefit our most vulnerable and needy students, and that punishing educators for wanting to work with those students with a subjective and invalid evaluation system is not a solid retainment strategy.

We know that research shows us that children need time for free play and movement, and access to art, music, physical education, and fully-staffed libraries to maximize their learning and development, and that the excessive amount of tests that our young people endure is making those important opportunities less accessible or non-existent.

We know that students who end up in our justice system, foster care system, residential programs, or homeless are often neglected or poorly tracked because of systemic neglect and failures.

We know that access to healthcare can be a challenge for some of our students. We need full time school nurses all day, every day and access to other physical therapy and medical professionals. More unfunded mandates from Columbus, Washington, or City Hall are not going to make access to that healthcare a reality either.  

We know that if our parents and community stakeholders are qualified enough to pass a school levy through the democratic process of voting, then they are qualified enough to participate in the process of voting for a democratically elected school board.

We know that every child has the ability to learn and excel, and we want the best schools for all of our students. We want money to be spent on classrooms and kids. We want our students to be ready for our diverse 21st century world, and not forced into the role of testing robots or drones.

None of us have a problem with being accountable for the things that we can and should control, but the system better be fair and hold every stakeholder accountable, including all of us here this evening.

Now is not the time to do what is convenient. Now is ALWAYS the time to do what is right.

Thank you for your time this evening.

PS – As an RIP to Jeb’s campaign… Please Clap

Suggestions and a Request of the Ohio Department of Education

Emailed to statetests@education.ohio.gov

Dear Ohio Department of Education (ODE),

Please stop misleading and lying to parents about state tests.

In addition to the corruption surrounding charter schools that forced Governor Kasich’s buddy, Dave Hansen, to resign from his position as school choice director at the ODE, and the sinister and deceitful attack on urban school districts in the state (in partnership with business leaders and many in Ohio’s legislature), the unscrupulous and blatant disregard for honesty or truth also permeates the department’s testing “informational” literature.

In opposition to multiple misleading or blatantly false claims in the ODE’s Information on Student Participation in State Tests, I prepared some truth to share.

  1. States are required under the recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to maintain annual testing in grades 3-8 in reading and math and once in high school, and three science tests are to be given between grades 3 and 12. Any additional testing is completely at the discretion of state lawmakers and the ODE. Furthermore, state lawmakers decide how much test scores count within state-created accountability frameworks. Thus, elected representatives, who are supposed to represent the people – not test-makers profiting off of the system, or charter school operators looking to use children as cash cows – can decide to continue the climate of test and punish, or they can approach education as a right that all children should have equitable access to, under the guidance of credible research-based instructional approaches. This would be a fresh approach not guided by corporate and unethical profiteers and instead focuses on children’s best interests.
  2. Although thus far Ohio is continuing the pattern of harmful high stakes testing, under ESSA, lawmakers have the discretion to determine how to address schools or districts with parent opt-out or refusal rates which result in less than 95% of the student population being tested. In a democracy, when the government secretly plans then implements policies that are in opposition to the people’s wants or needs, then the people should revolt. The more people that join the revolution or resistance, the sooner the Ohio Department of Education, Governor, and Legislature will get the message.
  3. Testing is not educating. Stop saying that teachers need the results of these tests to inform instruction. It is absolutely FALSE. By the time teachers in Ohio get results back (if they ever get the results), their students are already in another grade, in another classroom, and the scores are meaningless. If teachers were waiting for scores to be returned from last year’s tests to inform their instruction, they wouldn’t have been able to teach anything up until last month. There are still teachers and students in our state who have not received any results from last year’s tests. Have they been teaching students since August, or have they just been sitting around waiting for test score results to inform their instruction? Added to this absurdity is the fact that Ohio is an embarrassing national example, once again, of the manipulation and inflation of scores, which renders those scores to a level of indescribable uselessness.
  4. High stakes standardized test scores are completely INVALID when held to psychometric or statistical standards for validity. The ONLY reliable result of the tests has been a correlation between test scores and socioeconomic status. The exact same teachers can teach the exact same way in two different school districts in Ohio and have very different results based on factors that influence the children and families in their schools that are beyond the teacher’s control. In fact, 70-90% of how students perform on tests is a result of influences outside of school. Results from state tests do not result in an accurate accountability system for schools, teachers, students, or communities.
  5. State report cards that use results from state tests, like Ohio has chosen to implement, do NOT provide an “apples to apples” comparison between schools or districts. Instead, report cards for districts create a hierarchical system of labels and harsh consequences in order to continue the mission of unending plunder of public education at the expense of taxpayers, while contributing to the already wealthy friends of Kasich and some Ohio legislators.  
  6. State tests have nothing to do with providing every child a high-quality education in Ohio, or anywhere else. There is not a single high-performing nation in the world that tests all of their children annually. Furthermore, studies show that the emphasis on testing in our country has actually harmed education, and it has been especially punitive for traditionally underrepresented groups, and for groups protected under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act(IDEA).
  7. The tests are not “checkpoints” that ensure readiness. In fact, decades of credible research suggests that laws like the “Third Grade Reading Guarantee” only serve to increase the chances of deleterious long-term effects on children subjected to mandated retention.

It is my hope that by bringing to light these discrepancies between the truth and the false claims in your literature, that a more candid and sincere informational message could be shared with parents and stakeholders in Ohio.

Here is a sample. Feel free to borrow any parts for future publications.

Information on Student Participation in State Testing in Ohio (Adapted for the Ohio Department of Education by Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith)

    All schools in our state should be equipped with the resources and funding necessary to ensure that every child has equal access to a quality educational experience. It is important to acknowledge that historic and systemic racism and oppression, as well as economic inequities, have negatively impacted obtaining this goal. Furthermore, the majority of factors that influence a child’s experience in school begin long before a child enters kindergarten or even preschool. For example, the first 2000 days of a child’s life has the potential to negatively or positively impact that child’s future academic attainment. Additionally, twenty-two percent of children in the United States are living in poverty. Poverty can have long-term negative effects on a child’s learning.

    Utilizing the credible and valid research at our disposal, the Ohio Department of Education will fully comply with federal mandates under the Every Student Succeeds Act, yet will not pretend that the annual testing of students has in any way improved education in our state or country. Some schools, districts, organizations, and private entities have been given sums of money to promote testing or hope to profit from testing children, even when it is detrimental to students. However, with the best interest of students and a healthy democracy in mind, we will limit testing to federal mandates, and advocate for policies that do not emphasize high stakes testing. Results of tests should not be used to label or shame districts, schools, teachers, or students. Misusing test data could result in harm to students and education in general.

   POSSIBLE CONSEQUENCES OF HIGH STAKES TESTING

  1. A nine-year study by the National Research Council (2011) concluded that the emphasis on testing yielded little learning progress but caused significant harm.
  2. High stakes testing drives teachers away, especially from schools that need them the most. They also eliminate or reduce time for other subjects that are not tested like music, art, and physical education. Research shows that access to those classes improves academics.
  3. According to statisticians, standardized testing does not meet the criteria for validity. Even score gains do not mean improved learning. It could just mean more teaching to the test. They also fail to accurately assess developmentally advanced students or the progress of students with special needs.
  4. High stakes standardized tests do not measure non-content skills children develop at school, or take into account the individuality of students’ learning needs. There is no teamwork, creativity, or work ethic being learned while sitting in silence and taking a test.
  5. High stakes standardized testing does not help students who arrive at school with disadvantages. Instead, students from low-income households, traditionally underserved students, students with disabilities, and English Language Learners are more likely to not earn a diploma and are more likely to be pushed out of school into the school-to-prison pipeline.

    WHY STUDENTS ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN STATE TESTS

  1. Children should not have to attend a school labeled “failing,” or labeled anything at all. Schools should be resources for children, families, and the community.
  2. The word FAILURE should never hover over a school building, and make children afraid of how they will do on a test.
  3. Children should not have to be afraid of how their teacher will be hurt by their performance on a test, or how their school, community, or city will be labeled because of how they do on a test.
  4. Children’s privacy should not be violated, and test companies should not profit from harming children or data mining in schools.
  5. Subjects like art, music, gym, and recess have been shown by research to increase academic success, and shouldn’t be reduced or eliminated because kids need to take or prepare for more standardized tests
  6. The emotional and social growth of children in school is not measured on a standardized test.
  7. The teacher who delivers groceries to a family in need, advocates for a student, or becomes a student’s confidant, counselor, or role model will never have that data show up in test results, and children’s teachers should be trusted to assess their progress.
  8. The long term consequences of the labeling and retention of children are profound.
  9. There are more effective and research-proven methods to educate our children and to evaluate teachers and schools.

I will continue refusing to allow my children to be subjected to a system designed to attack and destroy public schools. It isn’t because I am afraid of how they will perform on standardized tests, but because I am afraid that children who do not have the advantages and opportunities that they have will be unfairly labeled and punished. I will never be convinced that children in other schools, in other cities or neighborhoods, are getting a better or worse education because of mandated high stakes standardized tests.

I hope my sons grow up to be happy, healthy, empathetic human beings who never forget that their humanity is bound up in others. I will never look back on their childhoods and regret that they did not get to take more standardized tests. I will never wonder if I need standardized test scores to tell me what my children are worth. It will not occur to me that by not taking standardized tests, my children somehow missed out on obtaining the best education that they could.

However, I may wonder how and why so many adults who were supposed to advocate for children failed, and chose deception and harm instead of protection and resistance.

Thank you for your attention to my concerns.

Sincerely,

Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith