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Monday, March 1st, 2004
5:11p - Journal 5 Session 6 -- Specials Are Special


Journal 5 Session 6
 


Please respond to the following. There are two parts to the response, so be sure to address both in order to receive full credit.

Describe the changes in your school district over the past 10 years.

What has the district done to respond to these changes?

J.Lawrence

Response:

I started in this school system in 1976, and without the school yearbooks, it is hard to place what events happened exactly ten years ago or less from some longer/shorter time span. . Six high school core teachers joined the staff, all in single person departments, which was a pretty strong house cleaning in a K-12 district of 35 people total. When I first came, I’d been at the State Juvenile Home (now the Iowa Juvenile Home) for nine years. Southern Iowa was definite cultural shock. The most popular boys were inevitably failing school, and nobody who was “cool” would be caught dead doing anything even remotely like studying

Over the years, this has changed to a culture where students may be apathetic, but not downright hostile. They feel that they SHOULD get an education, just not right now while… (insert topic of the day here.) They are very self-centered, free of the types of minorities people mean when they normally say minorities, and pretty well poverty stricken. Gossip is a creative writing/speaking outlet; indeed, a way of life.

Overall, the population of the town has shrunk from around 900 to 700, and many local farmers have also gone bankrupt. Stable, supportive families have cracked around the edges during the various farm crises. Driving through the countryside, many new homes set on a single acre of land dot the once fertile farmland. Fewer and fewer operators have bigger and bigger equipment while the family farmer went under or is close to it. No local industries are taking up the slack.

Seymour Community School, ten years ago, was in the middle of a “principal a year” policy. We started out fine, with a former teacher who’d gotten his credentials, moved up, did a great job, and moved on to bigger districts with more pay.. . Mr. Gilson knew the ropes, so although he was a new principal, school policies and procedures were not radically different under him. Things worked and ran smoothly. He studied under Leroy Powell, then moved into his shoes the next year.

Mr. Powell (I’m pretty sure he was before the 10 years) ran a tight ship. Things clicked. But students fell through the cracks. One girl was essentially the head of household (momma went to Des Moines with boyfriend, leaving perhaps enough money to buy groceries for the week, perhaps not.) The girl came late, scruffy-looking, and we patiently worked with her, finally getting her coming on time and clean. Mr. Powell did not share things, like his decisions on disciplinary issues, with his staff. He called Julie in and railed at her one week (after she’d been coming on time and clean for a while,) because she was not wearing make-up. She came in tears to the middle of my first period class. Since I also don’t wear make-up, she asked me to intercede. He faced the wall, ear to me, while I patiently explained that not all people believe in wearing make-up, some people are allergic to it, and some people CAN NOT AFFORD it, and by no means should we be tying the beauty and acceptance of a young girl to whether she did or did not do so superficial a thing. I told him about the family’s precarious situation, mentioned that whether she missed class because she came late, or he pulled her out to talk to her, the effect on her education was the same, suggested seeing if he could get to her during a study period, waited for his rebuttal, which never came, then left. Weirdest “meeting” I’ve ever had with a principal. The girl went on to graduate without needing more help from me, or else she was afraid to say anything else, I don’t know which. She worked well for me.

Mr. Gilson was followed by Mr. German, who was bound and determined to try block scheduling whether it suited the time frame we had for lunch and busses or not. Mid year, he was in an automobile accident and nearly killed (along with our president of the school board.) Afterward, what little discipline there’d been went by the way side, as well as any leadership from the top, to the point where a student threw a desk at me in class, and I grabbed his arm, got him out of the room, and the principal (visiting the classroom across the hall) said to take him right to the superintendent’s office. That’s the first and only time I’ve ever had to do that. (“I was aiming for someone else.” The fight had gone out of the student when I took his arm… he was bigger than I was, and had he wanted to object, I probably could not have removed him. Aiming for anyone is not acceptable to me!)

So, we studied block schedule, visited schools that used it, carefully noted how their routine and schedules differed from what we had to work with, their student body more plentiful, and filed the reports. Nobody in the school could figure out how to manage the lunches in a block with one cafeteria for k-12.

Mr. Ballow followed Mr. German, and he tried to get things ship shape. By then, we’d had four principals in four years, and the fraying around the edges was starting to show. The stability of the staff was basically all that was holding the high school and junior high together. Mr. Ballow had his own agenda, and got in trouble with tradition and parents. We do the homecoming/prom, etc. stuff this way because that’s the way it always has been. Occasionally, a brave staff member might mention that he would be running afoul of ____ tradition, but once he’d been warned, nobody put up a fuss. The parents were kicking enough up for everyone. We just plodded on, doing the best we could with whatever rulings came down.

Mr. Otten was hired to DISCIPLINE. He did. He’d been in a Texas school with SERIOUS discipline problems before he came back here. His wife was Mexican, and she and I had a Spanish conversation in his office one day when he asked me to speak with her. I’m still not sure if he was checking for my fluency and ability, or hers. She was very sweet.

Nobody felt they dare throw chairs on Mr. Otten’s watch. Once I had a junior high student in making up his reading. He was a student with the wrong last name, but he was on task, quietly reading. The other students in for detention were from other classes (my duty day), but all were quiet and on task. Mr. Otten went directly to the boy in the back corner and started yelling at him. He slammed his fist down on the desk beside him so hard that his watch band popped off and flew across the room. Later, he apologized, to me, not to the student who’d been jumped while on task. That, somehow, falls into the “bullying” category, to me, abuse of power, not discipline. Initiatives were nill, growth nill. If teachers felt like taking classes, they got them approved and did without any encouragement. When the year ended, we moved on again.

The last few years, Mr. Lockridge has reigned. His style is “document, document, document” and he spent great amounts of time reworking the student hand book so the policies were lawyer tight. He quotes them with infractions and follows them hard all the way down the line. He pushes sports, and tries to keep the athletes out of trouble so they are eligible.

He failed to back several long standing female teachers, who resigned with great dignity and moved on. One position is now being filled, three years later, with a long term sub, still shaky. I feel sorry for students with talent in Math and nobody to nurture them for that length of time. (Math teachers who can teach it all are hard to come by.) Our computer science department went from a highly sought after course to one few take, filled by someone I showed how to do email when she first came. The music teacher’s replacement is the only one who is really GOOD at what she does. Each year, nobody replaces those who retire/move on, a few more are laid off, and more combinations are made for those remaining, so that the staff can live inside the money decreases.

The last two years, we have had to hire home ec and history teachers, but the history teacher is already moving on. Our math position will again be open this year.

In the past ten years, our English position has been held by a woman who resigned at the last minute when she found out she was pregnant, a college professor trying to get his hand back into high school for research purposes (he got the students writing like Beowulf – a total treat!, joined us two weeks of subs into the year, but one year only), a new graduate who was pretty clueless and not kept, a dramatics major who moved on quickly, a super Puerto Rican who was a top basketball coach, bilingual, and a fantastic teacher as well (Oh, is THAT rare!) but again, one year only, and the man holding that position now, who was first in his class in Iowa State, and maybe in for a longer term than the others, as he is a Minnesota farm boy at heart. He’s gotten restless, but not left. Now, he’s also coaching track, and that may keep him here a bit, too.

When I went to sign up for this class, the principal tried to discourage me. But, with eight years to go before retirement, I know I’ll need to recertify at least once more. I also am a self-starter and in love with learning.

We were reducing class size and trying innovative things, but now it seems as if everyone is just trying to keep their heads above water, meeting the next deadline for more paperwork, the next special plan for yet another needy student with something else odd. The AEA people who work with our school praise the way our staff adjusts to the unexpected and tries to make the individual differences for those staffed, or not.

My seventh grade reading class was half of the group last year, but all of them this year. The teacher who taught the other half now is doing a science class (with his reading certificate…, or is it the one for shop…)? I went off for training in Accelerated Reading last summer, and caught him right after the first meeting in August to share, coming to consensus, then later in the day, found out that we weren’t working together this year. To me, they had to know he would be picking up science all summer, and it seems really poor planning not to do him the courtesy of telling him. (One wag suggested that had we as a staff been told what our loads would look like, more would have resigned. I don’t know. I guess I still come down on the side of honesty and full disclosure.)

If I get turned down by the principal, I don’t think a thing about going to the superintendent, who still TRIES to get things happening for more than just athletes in the school.

We try as a district to keep parents informed and active in their children’s education. Band and athletics are well-supported, but in academics, sometimes parents feel surprised when the children succeed. Over 75% of our children now come from broken homes of some type, a complete reversal during the time I’ve been on staff. Our Spanish movies that they create, film, edit and act in have been award winners in the overall category and in cinematography. (edited by the student the superintendent okayed for going to a Des Moines AEA area training in using Final Cut Pro, which has been used to edit Hollywood movies, after the principal rejected the idea as an insurance risk, and implying I was wasting my time.)

Talented students need opportunities to shine, even if they come from a small school in a poverty-stricken area. Over the years I’ve been here, many
“Close Seymour” scares have occurred, but not lately. We are proud of the special services we give to needy students and have a very responsive staff in spite of all the obstacles put in place to slow us down.

Our latest challenge is the Russian students moving into the district. We have four that were adopted, and three more that are immigrant children, in the US for the past three years. We have a new ESL teacher, and are supportive of one another. Today, our librarian, who has broken her ankle, was gone in the morning, so the elementary library was closed. When the seventh grade Russian speaker needed a new low level, high interest book, I sent him to her. He read contentedly the rest of the hour in the book of her choice. (Still no word on his glasses, but we haven’t forgotten about it.)

We’ve also kept girls with young children in school, giving them the help necessary to get their education finished while doing a very difficult job in life. I have one girl twice a day now, and she’s quite bright. She’s a junior (had her child as a freshman), and looking as if she’s in for the long haul. No matter how good sex ed is, there are always some who get caught. We have one now, and one that recently dropped out in the same position. Last year, another couple, already with a youngster of their own, graduated. In years past, staying in school and finishing would not have been an option. We’ve had a lot in earlier years who dropped out rather than tough it out.

The monthly newsletter always lists those on the various honor rolls by the grade, running a list several pages long, that is mailed to all the households in the district. This is one way of giving recognition to the academic. Some of the elementary people list “most improved,” etc. when report cards come out.

Many of our graduates set off for college, but some have come back, defeated elsewhere. Alcohol has played a part in a few cases, sad to say. I’m hoping we can turn that tide around, even though I know only one in five graduate. Just getting accepted does not keep them in for the long term. Even bright children are done a disservice if they are not challenged in high school and taught how to study at the top end of their abilities. Those I’ve gone to bat for, offering upper level Spanish classes that were officially NOT sanctioned, did make it. One boy went from being the one and only Spanish III student in Seymour to being the only freshman EVER to enter his four year school as a Spanish III in college after taking the placement test -- he was told Spanish III in high school = Spanish I 1/2 in college. Upon graduation, did he stay in Iowa? No, of course not! We continue to be a jumping off place, whether for young, talented teachers, principals, or students.

And one former graduate, picked on during his time here, came back this fall to tell us he’s in a New York TV soap opera… has done cabaret singing on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, and is, all in all, a success, and NOT hiding the fact that he came from a rinky dink southern Iowa town with a $100 budget for putting on the musical. Specials in school, now TV specials.

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