Sunday, May 9, 2010

An Honest Conversation

As a member of my union's representative council, I have sat through many a meeting where the subject of budget cuts, their negative effects, and how to alleviate as many of these negative effects as possible, are discussed. One of the jobs of the teacher's union is to negotiate with the district in order to decide how these cuts can be made with the least possible damage to the students, school programs, teachers, and overall sustainability of the schools in the district.

In order to save positions, our district has offered a retirement incentive to encourage retirees, thereby saving positions of newer teachers while still reducing staff. They have changed the calendar in order to match with other districts thereby stream-lining the bus schedule, and saving money. Our classified staff has been gutted (classified staff covers such jobs as maintenance, tech support, attendance, office secretary, campus security, etc.). Teachers are negotiating a negative change in health coverage. Everyone has given up days of pay. Elective classes have been eliminated. Class size reduction has been eliminated. The school year will be shortened by five days.

Through all of this, the conversation never moves away from the question of how to make parents aware of what is going on so that they will begin to protest the budget cuts. After all, this is not the problem of my district, it's the problem of every district across the state of California. And yet, by and large, parents seem to remain complacent. However, teachers and administrators are continuing to entertain the naive belief that by shortening the school year by five days, or closing the school for a day here and there, parents will be moved to action. But I remain unconvinced.

Who cares if the school year is five days shorter? The school year is too long anyway. When I was a kid, we started school in September, now we start in mid-August. Summer seems to get shorter and shorter. School starts too early in the morning. The day in, and day out grind is exhausting for students and parents alike. Five days off? Closing the school for a Friday here and there? Good riddance! That's one less day I have to set my alarm for six, drag my kids out of bed, divvy up bathroom time, grill them over homework assignments, pack lunches, and make that panicked run to school in the morning, trying to avoid the dreaded and punishable tardy. Sorry, I may be a teacher, but I'm a parent too, and quite frankly, a five day shorter school year sounds great to me. In fact, let's make it ten. What the hell.

Sadly, what I continue to witness is the desire teachers and administrators have to let parents know of their plight, in constant conflict with their desire to continue to give the impression that their school is a fantastic, positive, creative, uncompromised place of learning. In other words, just because we are broke, doesn't mean that we aren't still a GREAT SCHOOL! Until schools can start having honest conversations with their parents regarding the real impacts of budget cuts on the quality of their child's education, parents will continue to be widely complacent in taking action because they aren't in the classroom, and they have no real way of knowing how things are changing.

Instead of entertaining the naive belief that parents are going to care about a shorter school year, schools should stop trying to pretend they are something they are not, and go for brutal honesty. Administrators are always talking about the importance of involving parents and the community in schools, well, here's our chance. Weekly notices should be posted publicly and sent home to all parents notifying them of each and every change, and speaking honestly about what these changes really mean for the health of the school. Here are some possible examples:

Dear Care Givers and Community Members:
Due to budget cuts, we have eliminated the majority of the campus security at your local high school. We are sorry for this inconvenience, however, we have no funds. Because of this, students will be exposed to an increased level of drug trafficking and drug use on campus. We know that much of the drugs being consumed on campus will be consumed in one of our many bathrooms, however, without campus security, we have no way of regularly patrolling these areas. Please do not be surprised if your student sees someone snorting, smoking, or selling illegal substances while at school. We will do our best to continue to provide a safe environment for all students, with a continued dedication to cut down on campus violence and bullying. However, we can only do so much, so there will be no gurantees.
Sincerely,
Your School

Dear Care Givers and Community Members:
Dues to budget cuts, we have been forced to lay off more teachers, and increase class size once again. We feel it is only fair for you to know that your student will be in a Freshman English class this year with at least 35 students. Your student may or may not have a desk, but we promise them floor space. Because many students struggle with Freshman English, and class sizes are so impacted, more students will be failing and falling behind. We apologize for this, but there really isn't anything we can do. Teachers will be modifying their curriculum in order to accommodate the increased student load, and will be focusing instead on classroom management. You can expect your students to have less writing assignments as the teachers will not have time to read papers if assigned. Sorry.
Sincerely,
Your School

Dear Care Givers and Community Members:
Due to budget cuts we have been forced to eliminated and/or severely gut the majority of our creative programs this year. Most students will be unable to get into the elective of their choice. The art program is being cut back. Wood shop is being eliminated completely. Jewelry and textiles fell by the wayside years ago. The music program will be gravely reduced. We apologize for these losses but we can't afford to hire the teachers needed to run the programs. May we suggest you look into creative programs elsewhere. Private music and art lessons, while expensive, should meet your student's needs. Good luck!
Sincerely,
Your School

Until schools start communicating honestly with parents, and stop pretending that they are giving the students everything they deserve, parents will continue to get up every morning -- bleary eyed, packing lunches, mediating bathroom scuffles between siblings, and praying for summer. The sooner the better.

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