September feels brand new when you have students at home. The school calendar stretches forth full of hope.
No mistakes have been made — yet. No calls home, no failed tests, no broken friendships, no overdue library books. On the first day of school, everything is still perfect.
Except it’s not. Some kids go off to “good” schools and some have the misfortune to endure “bad” ones.
Calling out a school for being bad is a trigger for a lot of people. “There are no bad schools,” some folks say. “Every school has good teachers and good kids in it.” There’s also parent-blaming. “If educators could focus on teaching instead of social work, then all schools would excel,” others say.
But the truth is, some schools in our country are so horrible that we should be ashamed. I know, because I’ve taught at one.
The first school I worked at was in East Palo Alto, California, the former murder capital of America. At my school, every child qualified for free meals and almost all of my students were English-language learners. When the bell rang at the end of the day, many of the kids remained in their seats. They weren’t eager to go home because it wasn’t safe. One family I knew had bullet holes in their wall from gang violence.
According to my principal, my No. 1 job was to prepare my students to pass the state’s Standardized Test for the Assessment of Reading (STAR), and this meant that I was only allowed to teach reading, writing and math. Social studies, science, art, heath and music were frowned upon. PE wasn’t an option because there was no PE teacher nor equipment.
The school library had burnt down and there was no librarian. There weren’t enough paraeducators at recess, so teachers took turns on the playground. Collaboration with my fellow third-grade teachers was difficult because we had no prep periods. There weren’t enough substitute teachers either, so if one of us got sick, it meant that our kids were dispersed to other classrooms for the day.
To top it all off, even though I only had 20 students at one time, my second year at the school I had 40 different students throughout the year because of poverty and the high cost of housing. It was not uncommon to get a brand new student who could barely read the alphabet, or speak English, a few days before the STAR test.
In case you’re wondering, no, the majority of my students didn’t pass the state test — but not from lack of effort from them and me. At the end of third grade, some of my kids still couldn’t read.
If I incorporated the first- and second-grade material they needed to catch up, I risked losing my job because the district mandated what page of the third-grade reading textbook we were supposed to be on every single day. Tenured teachers could ignore the rules and deliver targeted instruction on the sly, but I was an at-will employee.
After two years in East Palo Alto, I was chronically ill (six rounds of bronchitis in one year and three cracked ribs from coughing). I was also ready for a change.
I began work on my master’s degree in education administrative technology and took a higher paying job in San Carlos, an upscale community. My new employer was a charter school built upon a strong partnership between teachers and parents. Choice, thematic instruction and hands-on learning were core values, and teachers developed a unique curriculum to suit the interests of their learners.
Four years of teaching in San Carlos allowed me to become a better educator. I went on staff retreats, benefited from expert in-service and collaborated with my fellow teachers during an abundance of prep time.
My students were healthy, properly nourished and excited about field trips and science. Every family volunteered 40 hours or more each year, and I formed meaningful relationships with the parents who improved my classroom. When it came time for the STAR test, of course, my kids did well.
East Palo Alto and San Carlos are both in the Bay Area, a place known for out-of-control housing markets. Puget Sound real estate seems to be headed in a similar direction — and it terrifies me. My chief concern as a former educator is that schools will become polarized between the “haves” and “have nots.” Not only is that bad for children, but it exacerbates housing prices, too, because parents become desperate to buy into the “good” districts.
But how do you evaluate schools in the first place? What makes a school good or bad? Friends ask me this question all the time. I wish I had a simple answer instead of a complex explanation.
Good schools are places where teachers have the freedom to teach and parents are actively engaged in their children’s educations. Funding and test scores are secondary considerations.
The best way to judge a school is to talk to families that go there, but this isn’t always possible, especially when you are house hunting from afar. Another way to judge a prospective school is to look at its website and search for evidence of joy.
Is there a link for an active parent organization? Are there field trips on the calendar? Are there school spirit days, carnivals and math nights? Does it appear that science, art and music are valued? Is the playground equipment modern? Does the school ask parents to help with school supplies and fundraising? All of those things signal a school community that is healthy and engaged, as opposed to being under duress and focusing all resources on meeting basic needs.
In our state, an additional way to evaluate a school is to visit the Washington State Report Card website at http://reportcard.ospi.k12.wa.us/summary.aspx.
Yes, standardized testing is problematic, but it does provide data. Consider how the school district performs as a whole compared to the school in question.
Next, look at the section for special programs, which includes free and reduced price meals, special education, transitional bilingual, migrant, disability and more.
It makes me feel horrible to mention this — because my family ticks some of the boxes for special programs, too — but if you read between the lines, this section yields important information.
Does it appear that there are certain schools in the district where all the wealthy families congregate? If so, those schools might benefit from what educators call the “affluent parent index” and provide extra opportunities for students.
On the other hand, if it’s an affluent school with a lower-than-normal special education population, that might mean that kids who need help aren’t being served and that their parents are choosing private schools or homeschooling instead.
All parents deserve to know how to interpret school data — not just those of us who used to be teachers. Our public education system is broken. If it weren’t broken, every child would find success and graduate. Teachers, parents and administrators would work together in harmony. Our state legislators would fully fund education and there would never be any school with a leaking roof or broken windows.
Until that utopia becomes a reality, parents who have the luxury of choice will do what they have always done: Find a way to squeak into the best school district possible.This makes the schools those families flee even worse, which admittedly compounds the problem.
Some will argue that it’s better for engaged families to remain in poor-performing schools and fight to make them better.
Maybe that’s true, but all of us can help those schools by voting yes on bonds and levies, and becoming aware of the socioeconomic factors impacting them.
It’s been 16 years since I left East Palo Alto, and I still have nightmares about how my students suffered. Roving pitbulls on the playground, no smoke detector in my classroom, abysmal special education services — these memories hurt my heart.
My beloved East Palo Alto students, you deserved better.
Jennifer Bardsley is author of the books “Genesis Girl” and “Damaged Goods.” Find her online on Instagram @the_ya_gal, on Twitter @jennbardsley or on Facebook as The YA Gal.