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After teaching for twelve years in Title-I schools, my husband’s latest military duty station assignment has brought me to the Heartland, to my first ever non-Title-I public school. My new district complies with NCLB, utilizes common assessments, a universal screening tool, state assessments, and like every other state, has restructured its response to intervention. Professional learning communities provide the foundation, structure, and support beneficial to students and teachers, and the district excels at meeting the needs of the American military child. Technology is available, accessible, and its use is promoted. Classrooms are fully equipped with curriculum materials and hands-on manipulatives. Our school buildings are impressive, and the small size of our district (three elementary schools, one middle) allows for knowing grade level colleagues and partners in education district-wide on a first name basis. All students, grades K-9 have four lunch entrees from which to choose each and every school day. Four.

I met my students and their families prior to the first day of school. Our building was opened for a tour, and my classroom was set up. I was prepared to quietly meet and greet children, let them roam through their new surroundings, and then, if the parents wanted, to chat a bit. I’ve posted before about what I look for during these open house sessions. Calm, relaxed, and not playing center stage, my students’ comfort during this initial meeting is always my top priority.

Many Title-I teachers have to put extra effort into building relationships and creating multiple lines of communication with the families of their students. Home visits, introductory letters or postcards mailed prior to the start of school, meet-the-teacher picnics, or good ol’ “Open House” events are required activities of many Title-I teachers at the beginning of the school year. Open door policies are reiterated by the principal, teachers, P.T.A., central office, and support staff, and teachers utilize multiple methods of parent/school communication throughout the year. Homework folders, weekly e-mail messages, home/school journaling, phone calls, additional home visits, and conferences scheduled, rescheduled, and rescheduled again are used to engage parents and families, and communicate to them that their involvement is appreciated, valued, and crucial. Family diversity, socioeconomic backgrounds, and general feelings about school environments aren’t off-stage scene accessories that may or may not come into play depending on the director’s whim or the temporary addition of a new actor in Title-I schools. These dynamic factors ARE the stage itself. Not so in my new district.

In my new district, almost all of my students are from military families, but there are a few civilian families that the school also serves. Over 70% of our student population relocates annually as this post houses a majority of its military staff for only one year. Military officers from countries all over the world also attend international courses on post, but only a few travel here with their families, members often speaking only their native language. A seventy-plus-percent student turnover (including possibly fifteen students from foreign countries in the entire district) changes the students’ faces, but not the common background and lifestyle of the children in our classrooms from year to year.

When I asked colleagues about the kindergarten report card and our first parent teacher conference, I was surprised to learn that I wouldn’t be giving my students grades until the end of the second quarter. For my first meeting with parents, it was suggested that our conference time be spent with me “letting them (parents) do all the talking.” I had a year’s worth of self-created mid-quarter and quarter assessment forms pre-approved by my principal, and asked colleagues for suggestions on when I should share my initial screening information and subsequent assessments with families, so that we could successfully partner in their childrens’ education. As a response to that question, and many more regarding parent communication throughout the year, my colleagues did not object whenever I marched to the beat of my own drummer. I sent home mid-quarter assessments when they did not. I regularly invited parent volunteers into the classroom and communicated with families several times a week via email, after school chats or phone calls, all expected standards of practice in my previous schools, but apparently not required here.

This year, my communication with parents and families was an area of commendation on my teacher evaluation. Like any other teacher, I was relieved to receive proficient and distinguished marks for my teaching practices, but was also torn, as areas in which my principal felt I excelled were areas where those behaviors and practices were expected by my previous Title-I administrators.  Knowing that I was communicating with my students’ families much more frequently than my colleagues were with theirs caused me to ask myself: am I over-communicating? Am I sharing unnecessary information with parents and wasting their time? Are there things they don’t need to know? Should I continue to invite parents in as volunteers every month, send home monthly calendars,weekly newsletters, and daily e-mails when the inclination strikes me?

I began to look for signs that might put me onto a more efficient track upon which my colleagues seemed to operate. Their newsletters and class updates were posted to their school web page. Parents asked teachers if they could come and volunteer, and to my amazement, some teachers responded with a firm but polite “no.” Parents arrived early for their parent teacher conferences, and were eager to see results from MAP assessments. Parents of my students would apologize for interrupting me or for asking me questions after school, implying that while it was my job to teach their children, it was not expected that I spend additional time as a parents’ guide.

After a year’s worth of rude awakenings and reflection, I have my answers. My teaching philosophy works for me. My teaching practices benefit those I feel should be involved in education: my students and their families.  Hopefully they will also be of benefit to my colleagues.  I will continue to communicate with parents, families, and administrators professionally and thoroughly, risking being perceived as having “gone overboard.”  While I appreciate finally having the materials, resources, and support needed to properly provide a wonderful kindergarten experience for my students, I will always have to temper my anger and frustration at the inequality that I know exists regarding this country’s public education. Many of my current colleagues may never walk in Title-I shoes, and I’ll have to pick and choose battles over teaching practices and philosophies carefully.

After my first year in La-la Land*, I have developed a new understanding of the now painful description that fits best when it comes to comparing Title-I and non-Title-I schools:

Apples and Oranges

No school district is perfect, but if this one, in this state, in our country, can provide so many resources and experiences that benefit students, why can’t they all?

*****

* “La-la Land” is the nickname to which this district is referred by many of my colleagues.

As a teacher new to the district, I was required to attend orientation prior to the normal professional development days scheduled for teachers. I was given my own teacher laptop computer. Along with the other new hires, I toured the four schools that make up my district, three elementary, one middle.

In-building ponds (stocked with fish, turtles and aquatic plants), “21st Century Science” rooms, multiple computer labs (in addition to the student laptops and teacher’s computer in each room), and SMARTBoards in nearly every classroom can be found in each building.

Glass walled libraries, art rooms that resemble studios, music rooms planned perfectly for acoustic expression, gyms with climbing walls, artful installments in hallways, and dining facilities that are not cafeteria/gym/multi-purpose room combinations also catch your eye.

My school has its own planetarium. Read it again: my school has its own planetarium. No, not the inflatable kind. Not the kind you have to assemble and be trained on to operate, disassemble, and then pass on to another school for sharing either. Certainly not a little tabletop jobbie that runs on two AA batteries in a room with all of its window shades pulled.  The bright white area in the photo above is actually the dome of the planetarium.

I’d never experienced a week-long migraine prior to that orientation. While our guides were informative and helpful, they seemed blissfully unaware of the murmured communication that was beginning to take place between some of the new hires, those of us with prior teaching experience…those of us who had taught outside of this new La-La Land.

“All this school needs is a Starbucks” whispered one. Another said she had been disoriented when touring her school for the first time because the upper level resembled a high-dollar mall in its architecture and décor (second photo). Yet another said she was getting tired of being looked at like she had three heads when she’d ask a grade level partner, custodian or secretary questions about risk management, classroom décor, protocols for testing, intervention resources, child and youth services, bi-lingual aides or staff, and drills (stranger danger, fire, earthquake, disaster, drop). Questions about acceptable photocopying, allowed videos, possible MANDT training, or visits from the testing police, those school visitors who walk into classrooms to check for proper (or improper) poster placement for state testing, were answered politely but with a palpable air of “wow-is-this-one-a-nut-job” by many of our new colleagues. I was asked why any classroom teacher would need MANDT training.

Those of us with Title-I experience not only wanted but needed to know our restrictions within and the liabilities and lawsuit history of our new employer. We needed to know all of the secret nooks and crannies that might house resources necessary to meet the needs of all of our students. As Title-I teachers, we were used to sewing purses out of pigs’ ears, and were ready to wheel and deal, beg, borrow and steal materials for our students. Title-I teachers know there is a battle to be won, that the battle must be won. Our students, schools, and our jobs depend upon our skill. Teacher “burn out” is our battle fatigue.

Amongst the Title-I new hires, the inherent inclination to not only quickly learn whatever choreography was in place, but to act with urgency motored us through our first quarter of school, and affected not only our attempts to bond with new colleagues, but made us stand out like sore thumbs in regard to our open communication and persistent relationship building activities with students’ families.

Many of our new colleagues gave us a wide berth.

I’ve been away from In Practice for a very long time, and it’s my take on the experiences that occurred within the past year that will be the subject of this emotions-based blog reflection, broken into several parts.

To reintroduce myself, I’m a kindergarten teacher, wife of an active duty soldier, mother of three, and bi-racial (Inupiaq Eskimo and Caucasian). Thanks to Uncle Sam, my husband and our family have been restationed four times in the past six years, Alaska to New Mexico, New Mexico to Kansas, Kansas to Texas, and now Texas back to the Heartland. I’ve taught in Title-I schools for twelve years in three states. I appreciate and enjoy diversity and I believe in a common fairness for all.

My thirteenth year as a kindergarten teacher began last August, in my first-ever non-Title-I school. Once I finally received my teaching assignment, I was eager to sneak a peek into my new school, examine my classroom, and like all teachers with Title-I experience, start my “need-to-buy” list. What was it to be this year, new math manipulatives? Additional book sets? Dress up clothes, glue sticks, construction paper, or used computers so that students could have a technology center?

I found the school on post (it is not a D.O.D school) and was amazed at the beauty of the grounds, the condition of the building, and the newness of the kindergarten playground equipment. Upon entering the building, I couldn’t help but notice the ample light, not new but nearly pristine bulletin boards, perfect carpet, and eye-pleasing yet completely efficient architecture. I was given my key and was walked to my room by the school secretary, who immediately located the summer custodial staff to have them give me an estimated date for when my classroom, which already appeared spic and span, would be cleaned and ready for me.

I spoke with two custodians and asked if there was any place in particular they’d like me to store my belongings so that they wouldn’t be inconvenienced as they worked in my room. One asked how much I was bringing and was surprised when I told her that I traveled with all of my own classroom materials: a full library, math and science manipulatives, centers, computers, etc. “Why do you need those things?” was her incredulous response, as she directed me to where the previous teacher had stored the classroom inventory.

For the first time ever as a teacher, I had a fully equipped classroom. Every math, science, and reading manipulative necessary, and many “extras” as well, were neatly stored not only in my classroom, but in a workroom/storage closet that I share with only one of my three other grade level colleagues. When I asked how much of the materials were to be divided between me and my neighbor, the custodian, wearing yet another look of confusion, replied “None. These are all for your students. She has her own set.” She told me that my student computers would be delivered to the classroom the week before school started, but that my room would be clean and ready for me two weeks before then.

The custodians excused themselves, and left me standing in the middle of my classroom, my jaw on the floor. Out of what I thought was nowhere, I started to cry. I cried in appreciation, in awe, and finally in defeat, because I realized that no matter the national rhetoric, no matter the latest educational “movement” or “revolution,” true equality between schools, between states, between students within a single city, isn’t really happening.

My NECC Schedule

Below is my calendar for NECC 2009 | National Educational Computing Conference put on by ISTE which will be starting next week. I will begin my travels to Washington, D.C. on Thursday afternoon with a train ride down to the San Francisco Bay area to spend the night there  before leaving by plane for the Capitol.

I will be live blogging many of the events I attend with Jennifer Orr. The blog will appear at http://inpractice.edublogs.org, but I will likely mirror it at http://mizmercer.edublogs.org and http://mercertraining.edublogs.org.

I will be spending most of Tuesday on Capitol Hill as part of a lobbying effort by ISTE. I will be communicating solely by cell phone that day, so you can follow me at http://twitter.com/alicemercer or http://www.plurk.com/mizmercer.

Other places to find me and my media:

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