One of the first things we are taught in teacher education classes is that when giving feedback, we should sandwich positive feedback around the constructive criticism. You are going to read many letters telling you about problems that stakeholders are seeing, but to hopefully help you to be a bit more open minded to the criticism, I would like to start by giving you a bun for your “feedback sandwich”.
I am a teacher here in the district, and I love my job. I feel that I am one of the “lucky ones”, because I don’t face a lot of the struggles that many of my colleagues face at other schools. As much as I would like to remain truly anonymous, I cannot accurately share my thoughts without identifying where I work. You see, I am proud to teach at the only public all-girls middle school in the state, Olmsted Academy South. Amazing things are happening there, but I’m not sure how much of the public—and how many of you, for that matter, realize that we are no longer the troubled former school that was located in our building. So this is also my moment to brag, because anyone who takes the time to walk through our doors—including our own Dr. Hargens—realizes almost instantly that the atmosphere is so different from a typical Title I school.
What makes our school amazing to me? I could go on and on, but I will try to remain concise to honor your time.
1) Our girls are separated from middle school boys. I have taught in a co-ed school prior to OAS, and many of my colleagues worked in our building before the “experiment” that created the Olmsteds. The population at my school is around 90% free and reduced lunch. Many of these young ladies do not have sufficient guidance, attention, and love at home—not because their parent(s)/guardian(s) don’t love them or don’t try, but because so many of these girls live in single parent homes with absent fathers, where mothers are forced to work multiple jobs or late shifts. A substantial percentage of them live with foster parents or extended family members, or are even adopted. I’ve lost track of how many have lost at least one parent to drug overdoses or jail. Yet the girls of OAS have the amazing opportunity to focus on their education without being distracted by which boy thinks they are pretty, or whether their best friend is flirting with their boyfriend, or most importantly whether a boy won’t like them if they take a risk in the classroom. At OAS, we get to inspire young women and empower them to see their potential. When I tell people I work in an all-girls middle school, their eyes open wide and they say, “Oh, there must be a lot of drama.” Actually, we have much less than a typical middle school. When you remove boys from the equation, middle school girls are pretty awesome.
I want you to know how wonderful the all-girl environment is for our girls because many of us are concerned that our time is limited because politics and budget issues will someday take away our little slice of heaven. It is my sincere hope that OAS will remain an all-girls school. I believe it is necessary for these girls to receive an education that focused on them and their specific needs, and shows them their potential to be leaders in the community.
2) We have small(er) class sizes. If you want to, you can find research to support just about anything, whether the research is sound or not. But it is not logical to think that a typical (read: non-superhero) teacher with five classes of 32 students (160 total) can be as effective as a teacher with five classes of 20 students (100 students total). Consider the amount of time a teacher with 160 student spends grading and giving feedback: at 3 minutes per assignment, that is 8 hours total—compared to 5 hours for 100 students. Do you know what we do at OAS with those extra three hours? Planning innovative lessons, attending professional development, developing intervention plans for struggling students, tracking data…I could go on, but I think you get the picture. Yes, occasionally a teacher may come along who is able to be just as effective with 160 students versus 100, if she devotes nearly every waking minute to her job. But you need a solution that works for the Accomplished teacher, not just the few Exemplary ones. At OAS, our class sizes allow us to build relationships; be more effective at keeping students on task; and give valuable, immediate feedback.
3) Time is built in to our schedule for teams and departments to collaborate in PLCs every day and to participate in EPD weekly. I cannot imagine how I would do my job as well if I did not have these opportunities to work closely with my colleagues to plan, analyze data, calibrate grading, and strategize on interventions for struggling students—and also have time to create lessons, grade, and make copies during my planning. It is mind blowing to imagine having to spend my planning or after school time collaborating, and to have 60-80 more students, yet this is the situation at other schools.
4) We have support from our administrators. I know from experience that this is not the case everywhere, but at OAS, teachers are empowered to handle Level 1 behaviors on team. Through PBIS, which our administration has bought in to, we have been provided with strategies for not escalating Level 1 behaviors. Whenever possible, we are given support to prevent small things from becoming big things, like students not bringing pencils to class, which is no longer an issue. When we do have those students who are more challenging, we work together to come up with interventions, solutions for progressive discipline, and counseling as needed. If there comes a point that we do feel we need to notify an administrator or counselor of an issue or concern with a student, it is addressed in a reasonable timeframe with fair and appropriate consequences.
5) We have intervention supports that help us to prevent student behavior from escalating. I have worked at OAS for 4 years, and every year overall student behavior has gotten progressively better. I truly believe a huge factor in that has been our calm, assertive SRT Lead/Behavior Coach who is a great fit for our school. If we do have a student who is having a bad day and their behavior in the classroom escalates into a way that disrupts the learning, and the student is refusing to take a break in a Buddy Room, we can call the front desk and ask to radio the Behavior Coach, who will take the student for a walk and a cool-down, then bring her back to class. If there is conflict between two or more students that is disrupting the learning, our Behavior Coach will take the girls to the PAC room, settle the conflict, and send the student back to class. This has prevented so many small situations from turning into big ones, and the learning continues.
6) Teachers are respected as leaders and experts, and our input on decisions is welcome. If I have an idea, I feel comfortable suggesting it and that my idea will at least be considered. Many decisions at OAS over the past four years have been made based on our ideas, which has built a culture of ownership and investment among the staff. Staff members are recognized for their hard work on a regular basis and we feel appreciated for all that we do. As a staff, we genuinely like and respect each other as well as our administrators. Our relationships with our colleagues influence our students and how they treat each other; they see our collegial relationships and our rapport, and it sets an example for our girls.
I could probably go on, but I know you have many more letters to read. The moral of my OAS story is this: OAS is not perfect; we have our share of struggles and challenges every day. Our girls have backgrounds and lives outside of school that are horrific for some of us to imagine, yet they come to school and smile, and do their best to be successful. We are proud of our progress and what we have been able to do for our girls; we want to keep building a school with a reputation these young ladies can be proud of, and most of all one that they deserve. We know that our KPREP scores could be better, but we are doing so much more for these girls than helping them do better on a standardized state test.
Speak of the devil, the current state accountability system that puts schools in priority status based on percentile is ludicrous. It fosters competition among schools rather than collaboration. Ms. Hackbarth wants to talk about breeding mistrust? Perhaps we should talk about how much trust is lost when schools look at each other as an enemy to be defeated rather than as fellow soldiers on the same side of the front line. The system also guarantees that there will always be schools in priority status; there will always be schools that aren’t good enough, no matter how great they are. There will always be schools that are better or worse—which is an insane concept to me. The Supreme Court determined back in the 1960s that equitable education is a Constitutional right, yet this system is determined to ensure that our schools are not equal.
Now for the meat of my sandwich. I know that the JCPS Board of Education does not have control over the state’s accountability system. Maybe someday it will change, but in the meantime, JCPS does have the power to be transparent with the public. The media tries to interpret test scores, without fully understanding what they mean or how the rating system works, and schools get labeled as good or bad. Add the test results to the stories about JCPS that seem to be appearing in the media daily, and the list of “bad” schools in JCPS is getting longer. Unfortunately, the opinions of the subjective, public jury affects the morale at those schools and makes the situation worse. But if you aren’t out there in the schools, seeing the cultures that lead to the incidents described in the media, how can you really understand? This is why you need to listen to those of us who are out there on the front lines. The time for denial has passed. The time for feigning ignorance is past. When you know better, you do better.
Perhaps it is time for JCPS to change the narrative—and I don’t mean by lying or twisting the truth. Stop limiting what you’re willing to say to the public and what the public is allowed to say to you. When my kids get irritated that we are on them to improve, we tell them, “If I wasn’t on you, it would mean I didn’t care any more.” We are taking the time to write these letters because we care. The world would be a scary place if nobody who saw a problem was willing to do something about it. You have a chance, right now, to decide to partner with the stakeholders of your community and do something innovative and amazing. Instead of letting charter schools come in and take funding because parents are fed up, get ahead of them and start partnering with the people who are ready to work with you to come up with real solutions that benefit the entire community. Be grateful that you have parents who want to help! Don’t assume that they are clueless about what’s best for their kids; parents are the ones entrusting us with their children. It is your job to make sure we are doing right by these kids, and not just when it comes to bubbles in a booklet.
Part of being a teacher means being willing to have colleagues, administrators, and even district personnel come into your classroom and give you feedback on how you can improve. As a new teacher, it is daunting to know someone is going to tell you what’s wrong with you, but if you can develop a growth mindset, it actually becomes exciting to have a fresh pair of eyes who can see the things you might miss and to give you suggestions on new things to try. JCPS needs a growth mindset! Can you imagine what the state, or even the entire country, might say about JCPS if it became a district that is excited that there are people who care enough to want to help, where parents are partners, welcomed to give feedback and be part of the solution?
A Willing Partner from OAS*
* Identifying information has been removed from these letters. However, their source is not anonymous to Dear JCPS. JCPS Board members have been provided with a Dear JCPS liaison and are encouraged to contact us to validate, verify, and follow-up on any of the concerns or suggestions in these letters.