Come Visit Your Wasted Tax Dollars at Commonwealth Charter Academy’s Waterfront Luxury Office Space

There’s plenty of fun to be had if you go to the Waterfront in Homestead, Pennsylvania.

There’s a Dave and Busters, Primate Bros, and even an AMC Loews’s multiplex movie theater.

But right across from the Barnes and Noble is a building with a neon green sign advertising its tenant – Commonwealth Charter Academy (CCA).

This is the newest satellite office of the biggest cyber charter school network in the entire state! One of 51 locations statewide.

These are not your typical brick-and-mortar charter schools. They’re remote schools where students are taught at a distance via computer.

Like other charters, they’re still publicly financed, often privately run, and free from most safety precautions that ensure kids get a quality education at authentic public schools – things like being run by elected school boards, requiring entirely certified teachers, etc. But cyber charters don’t have to house children during the school day. They just need computers and Internet access.

Unfortunately, since Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991, they have spread through at least 45 states. However, only 27 states also allow CYBER charters like this – schools that teach mostly (or entirely) distance learning through the Internet.

Nationwide, Pennsylvania and Ohio have the largest cyber charter enrollment. In 2020-21, the Keystone State enrolled 61,000 students in 14 cyber charters – and roughly 21,000 attend CCA!

Who would have thunk it?

Sometime since the deal was signed in 2021, the mega giant headquartered in Harrisburg opened a luxury charter school office during the Covid pandemic right here south of Pittsburgh – by Starbucks and the Venetian Spa!

Oh, sure! There’s an authentic public school in this neighborhood, too, right up the hill. It’s not located in nearly as trendy a spot though. Moreover, its four buildings were constructed around the 1970s and are crumbling down in places. But the new cyber charter school building looks like a palace!

According to Shannon Construction, the 62,000 sqft. space converted from a former Macy’s Department Store has:

“administrative offices, conference rooms, seminar areas, production labs and live session rooms. Some features include state of the art exterior lighting and signage, high-quality audio/visual and security equipment and 52 new perimeter windows to allow for ample natural lighting. The interior is complete with custom wall graphics, acoustical panels, wood plank ceilings, a fireplace and a Techworks room that provides users with a full digital experience.”

Wow! We paid for that!

It’s hard to imagine why a glorified office building where students don’t attend school needs to be so fancy. Or why it needs to be located on such prime real estate. With such high rents. On the public dime.

I teach at Steel Valley Middle School nestled among residential homes on top of the hill. There’s no Panera nearby, but there is Munhall MiniMart just up the street.

We have no wood plank ceilings or Techworks rooms, but my classroom has fluorescent lights, a wipe board that doesn’t fully erase, wobbly tables and chairs, and no windows.

CCA doesn’t sound like a school. It sounds like a tech company. And I guess it kind of is.

The K-12 cyber network’s Homestead building isn’t designed for students – it’s designed for executives. The people who make the big bucks work here – though maybe there are a few teachers holed up here and there behind computers typing away to their students through screens across the state.

Much of the responsibility for these students doesn’t seem to rest with teachers. It belongs to their “learning coaches,” adults responsible for assisting kids at home – usually parents or guardians.

According to CCA’s Website, learning coaches are expected to spend five hours each school day helping elementary students with coursework and monitoring lessons, and between two and three hours a day with students in middle school.  

Why are we paying CCA again?

And how much are we paying them?

It turns out the so-called non-profit business, which in 2020 posted almost $39 million in net income, gets at least $10,000 per student. So given its enrollment figures, that’s at least $210 million a year – not counting additional money some districts have to provide. For each child from a district that enrolls in a cyber charter, the sending district pays the cyber a rate based on what the district spends on average per pupil – one rate for students in regular education and another for students with disabilities. This means that tuition rates paid to a particular cyber school can be vastly different.  

But since online charters have far lower operating costs than brick-and-mortar schools of any stripe, we end up overpaying them nearly every time.

I guess that’s why CCA has enough money to pay $19 million on marketing from 2019 – 2021, including getting a promotional TV spot in a Thanksgiving Parade, according to Education Voters of Pennsylvania.

CCA spends millions of dollars each school year on advertising. For example, in its 2018-19 IRS Form 990, a required disclosure for all nonprofits, CCA reported that it paid $8.5 million to Bravo Group, an advertising, marketing, and lobbying firm.  

CCA is sitting on so much extra money, it can afford to offer families cash reimbursements of $200 for monthly field trips.

But, of course, these trips aren’t always of much educational value. They’ve gone to petting zoos, laser tag, bowling and kayaking. A parent of a CCA student even bragged on Facebook about using these funds for Dave and Busters Arcade, a Motley Crue concert, Eagles tickets, and family vacations to Universal Studios and Disney, according to Education Voters of Pa.

Can you imagine taking your kids to an expensive theme park, or going to see an NFL game, or seeing Motley Crue play “Shout at the Devil” on the public dime?

Does that sound nice? Absolutely.

But is it fair to all the other schools in the state starving for enough money just to keep the lights on? Is it fair to kids in extra large classes, without new textbooks, and dealing with mold in the bathrooms?

Moreover, is it a good learning strategy to get kids to sit in front of a computer for 30 days with the promise of a field trip at the end of the month?

One thing’s for sure – it doesn’t seem to be getting academic results. CCA’s 4th and 8th grade reading scores in 2018-19, for example, were the worst in the state. 

Only 28.8% of CCA students achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and Math PSSA exams on a two-year, combined basis, according to state Department of Education data. The school’s growth score was negative – so they actually regressed academically. They would have done better not to have even gone to school! 

Moreover, the school’s graduation rate falls well below statewide averages and state goals. Its four-year cohort graduation rate is 53%; its five-year rate is 67%; and its six-year rate is 70%. For the 2018-19 school year, more than 10% of CCA students dropped out. That’s about twice as many as the average rate for charter schools and seven times as many as the average rate for authentic public school districts.

 

In short, the school’s performance ranks among the bottom 5% of schools statewide.

In the commonwealth, cyber charters were first allowed in 2002. They are authorized by the state Department of Education and operate statewide.

Which begs the question – has the state been doing its job to hold this cyber charter network accountable? According to the Times Tribune, CCA hasn’t been audited by the state in a decade, though the school disputes this fact and a press release claimed it has independent audits.

I don’t know about you, but as a teacher, parent and taxpayer in the Commonwealth, none of this makes me happy.

The best I can do is come down to the Waterfront and see the result of all this tax money – mine and yours – in a beautiful new building that isn’t doing anything to help students learn.

If you want an even closer look inside CCA, indeed.com has you covered. The site allowed employees or former employees of companies to review their places of work.

While there were a few reviews that were entirely positive of CCA schools across the state, the overwhelming majority were incredibly negative.

Take an unfiltered look at the inside of CCA:


Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

I’d pass on this one. 

High School Special Education Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 2, 2022 

CCA started out as a great place to work. Unfortunately, it quickly went down hill. Management had little spies that taught among us and reported back. I felt like I was in grade school all over again. The number of students on any given caseload is 60+ students. It was almost impossible to progress monitor, make phone calls, and complete all necessary paperwork on time. The expectation was to work 12 hour days as well as nights and weekends. No life for you. As time went on management became very top heavy. If you had a target on your back you might as well hang it up. They don’t really help you to improve even though they say they do. Burn out comes quickly and upper management could careless. Professionalism does not exist in this place especially from upper management. CCA does not support you as a teacher. You can easily be replaced and they will. 
Pros 
Flexible Schedule 
Cons 

Everything else….Management, Caseload numbers, Professionalism, etc. 

2 Stars

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – October 12, 2022 

What is the best part of working at the company?
Teaching students and coworkers. 

What is the most stressful part about working at the company?
Middle and upper management lack of communication, lack of flexibility, low pay.

What is the work environment and culture like at the company?
Not healthy. Upper management claims to listen but they don’t implement any suggestions. 

What is a typical day like for you at the company?
8-4 pm teaching, phone calls, grades, etc. 

Poor communication and lack of professionalism  

Administrative Assistant (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – August 9, 2022 

Upper management at CCA is unprofessional, some downright rude, and has extremely poor communication. No training or onboarding process, upper management doesn’t seem to know or care what most employees do on a day to day basis, and the environment is unhealthy both physically and mentally. Disappointing that when concerns were even expressed to the CEO, no response was even given at all. There seems to me a mindset that if given bonus money; $1,00 to $5,000 taxed money, periodically, that everything is great, which is not the case and it doesn’t reflect anything other than a means to disperse unused profits, especially since it’s been given to employees regardless of their length of employment or job performance. 
CCA is lacking integrity and are not what they claim to be in media advertising or to parents.  

Here is my view 

Administrative Assistant (Current Employee) – Allentown, PA – July 5, 2022 

“Equality” is not something that is known for the staff at this company. If you are not in the main office or a teacher you are treated like the “red headed step child”. They care more about money than making sure their staff is financially or mentally taken care of.  
Cons 
Pay, Flexibility 

 

A changing company/school that supports family. 

Family Mentor (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 5, 2022 

This position can be fun but also compromising . You can be promised one area then it be changed to an impossible location. Taking too much time to be worth the pay. When location is favorable then the job is great. 

No Work Life Balance 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 13, 2022 

Great benefits, but at the cost of your sanity and peace. No work life balance. A constant push for in office/ in person during a Pandemic. If you’re single with no kids and no life this is a great fit.  
Pros 
Benefits and shiny buildings 
Cons 

Literally no life. 

My manger changes 5 times in 6 months.  

Success coach (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – December 16, 2021 

The new managers don’t know anything but are supposed to be your supervisor. You don’t get paid when the kids aren’t there so the job is like part time pay.  
Pros 
Benefits are amazing! 
Cons 
No advancement, very little direction. 

 

Not a good company to work for  

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 20, 2021 

Management says one thing and does another thing. Too many managers that don’t communicate with employees very well. Not understanding when personal issues arise  
Pros 
Great technology 
Cons 
Too many chiefs not enough Indians 

Not worth it 

Accounting Clerk (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 4, 2021 

Never felt comfortable with coworkers from day one. Also management was very unpleasant and spent way more time than necessary watching employees at their desks. They had seriously ridiculous expectations on performance after only a few weeks on the job. It was expected that I would just know how to do something I had just been trained on and do that task perfectly. Not worth the stress and anxiety it caused. 
Pros 
Great benefits 
Cons 
Toxic work environment 

Collaboration but inconsistent management, disjointed and unqualified leadership, unprofessional behavior, no training, inappropriate expectations 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Pennsylvania – December 19, 2020 

Sounds and looks much better to work there than to actually work there. Stressful, lack of communication, no consistency, lack of professionalism, focus on avoiding legal issues is driving force, facade of supportive atmosphere and family like environment. Work life balance is zero.  
Pros 
Remote 
Cons 
Totally inconsistent and poor leadership 

Authentic Leadership Is Nonexistent at CCA 

Career Facilitation Coordinator (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 29, 2020 

CCA cannot be great under current leadership. During my time there, it became evident that students are not at the center of this organization, but instead, the selfish interests of senior leadership prevails (note: I use the term leadership loosely). Among many things, the culture of micromanagement is toxic, resulting in unbelievably high turnover in certain positions. In a functional organization, senior leadership would work to mitigate this issue. Here, matters such as this are swept under the rug. For whatever reason, certain “Directors” are protected and there is no accountability. Professionals are not treated as such and their expertise is grossly undervalued. HR is not objective and gossipy…especially at the senior level, which is extremely unprofessional to say the least. If you’re searching for an innovative and inclusive organization which promotes growth and cohesion, KEEP LOOKING. If you decide to interview, do your best to find out the history of your position. If offered a position, run far and fast. 
Pros 
Nice building 
Cons 
Zero accountability, culture of nepotism, inauthentic leaders 

Save yourself the agony 

Unlisted (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – April 19, 2020 

Horrible place to work, bad management, inadequate pay. There is no flexibility and employees are not valued at all. Every day of my time there was miserable. 
Pros 
None 
Cons 
Everything 

Teachers are micromanaged and required to complete tasks that do not improve students’ education. 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pennsylvania – February 22, 2020 

The school’s administration is very top-heavy. Teachers’ salaries are low compared to peers in brick and mortar schools. Workload among teachers is not fairly distributed. Teachers are required to award grades to students that do not reflect their learning. Students are awarded up to 35% of their grades for ‘participation’ that does not assure that actual learning took place. 

The hardest part of the job is not being able to engage the many students who use the cyber-school setting to avoid going to school. The administration does not put adequate resources to removing these students from the school. 

 

Poor organizational structure doesn’t support teachers 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2020 

Teachers aren’t valued much. Young and inexperienced administrators hand picked if they are yes-men to upper administrators push teachers to the limit. Upper administration has alternative agendas, and the ‘school’ is a company to them. Office cubes are loud and not conducive to work. 

Stressful, not flexible  

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – September 24, 2022 

CCA has changed for staff. They are no longer flexible and change requirements and hours with no notice. Staff need to read the administration’s mind to determine the new rules and regulations that changed continually. Work life balance is a struggle with this school.  

Little Guidance From School 

Instructional Assistant (Former Employee) – Ligonier, PA – July 7, 2019 

I worked as an in-home IA with a special needs student. There was almost no guidance from the school as far as coursework, deadlines, etc. All of my student’s goals came from the BCBA, and the school had very little to offer in terms of direction. The first paycheck came two months late, and there were no benefits involved , as it was an independent contractor position. On the plus side, though, with the relaxed approaches to education, it was quite easy to allow the student to work on subjects that interested him, and it was nice to have that kind of independence when it came to planning the school days. 
Pros 
Flexibility, relaxed environment, student home-based options, pay. 
Cons 
Little guidance, hard to contact the school, communication in general. 

Once Upon a Time, CCA was a Wonderful Company But Now…. 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – June 8, 2019 

When I started at CCA back in 2009, the CEO was Dennis Tulli. He was a wonderful leader who truly cared not only about the students & their families but also every employee who worked for him. He made sure his staff was compensated fairly and provided free health care benefits (no monthly premium) for teachers & their families. Providing CCA met their yearly goals, generous monetary bonuses were given to all employees in September. When Dr. Tulli left and Dr. Flurrie took over, the culture slowly began to change. More and more responsibilities were added to all employees but especially teachers w/o any duties being removed. Night & weekend hours became mandatory but again, there was no compensation. Many veteran teachers, who were making a decent yearly salary, were forced out so they could be replaced by younger less experienced teachers at half the salary. Raises became smaller, w/the exception of this CEO & his senior leadership team, and bonuses all but disappeared. Dr. Flurrie made it known that all employees were replaceable so the theme became “be grateful you’ve got a job here”. Over a 2 year time frame, the culture slowly changed from a democracy, where you could voice your concerns or ideas and know you would be heard, to a micromanaged dictatorship, run from the top down. If you are an older woman, do not expect any advancement opportunities. This CEO primarily gives advancement opportunities to men and young, attractive women. Under Dr. Tulli and for the first year under Dr. Flurrie, there was very little turnover. Once Dr. Flurrie’s “honeymoon” period was over as a CEO, true colors began to show. From his second year to now, the turnover rate has continued to consistently increase. Keeping special education teachers has become a real challenge. We used to be able to work from home but the majority of those positions have been removed so plan to report to an office everyday. Bottom line, if you think CCA is better a option than the traditional brick/mortar schools, you are mistaken. This CEO has eliminated any incentives to choose this company over the traditional public school. –  
Pros 
New state-of-the-art building, travel expenses reimbursed, coworkers are generally very friendly/helpful people 
Cons 
CEO’s ever increasing ego, smothered by micromanaging administrators, no more work from home/bonuses, low salaries/negligible raises 

Stressful environment 

Success Coach Coordinator (Former Employee) – Philadelphia, PA – December 27, 2018 

This was a stressful and uninviting environment. No room for advancement. Would not recommend others to a position with this community. Management upgrades are needed. 

Workplace drone 

Teacher (Current Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – October 24, 2018 

As the company continues to grow, so does the ego of the CEO and management. Little thought is considered for the professional teaching staff and all teachers are “replaceable.” Don’t even ask for a work from home day. I miss the old management style of Connections Academy. 

Productive and great team atmosphere 

Teacher (Former Employee) – Harrisburg, PA – March 13, 2018 

CCA is a growing school but be very careful as they grow what do they forget? The special education and general ed caseloads are so high but the school will not increase staff as they leave. 
Pros 
Health insurance, team atmosphere with team 
Cons 
Micro managed every step, no voice, top down management, non elected school board 

Sucks the life out of you

Teacher (Former Employee) – PA – February 3, 2018
Coworkers were wonderful, but the company is not run well and is frustrating and takes advantage of their workers. The highest levels of management are unaware of what the underlings are doing and don’t send a message that employees are valued.

Pros

Collaborrating with coworkers, supporting one another.

Cons

The worst most incompetent employees are the ones who get promoted.

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A Private Equity Firm, The Makers of the MAP Test, and an Ed Tech Publisher Join Forces

 
 
Prepare to watch more of your tax dollars spiral down the drain of standardized testing. 


 
A year after being gobbled up by private equity firm Veritas Capital, ed tech company Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) is acquiring K-12 assessment giant Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA). 

Let me put that in perspective – a scandal-ridden investment firm that made billions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan bought one of standardized testing’s big four and then added the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test to its arsenal.

This almost certainly means the cost of state testing is going to increase since the providers of the tests are shrinking. 

“It used to be if you put out a [Request for Proposal] RFP for state assessment, you get five, six, 10 bidders,” said Scott Marion, executive director of the Center for Assessment. “Now you’re lucky to get three. When you’re doing that, there’s maybe not as much expertise and certainly the cost will go up” (emphasis mine).

Under the proposed deal announced in January, the testing company’s assessments and the ed tech company’s test prep materials will become intimately entwined. 

NWEA, best known for its MAP assessment, will operate as a division of HMH. And NWEA’s tests will be aligned with HMH’s curriculum.

You can just imagine how this will affect the marketplace. 

NWEA serves about 10,000 school districts and HMH estimates it works with more than 50 million students and 4 million educators in 150 countries, according to a press release about the proposed acquisition. 

So we can expect districts and even entire states which rely heavily on the MAP test to be encouraged to buy as much HMH curriculum as possible. That way they can teach directly what is on their standardized tests.

That is assuming, of course, the acquisition agreement is approved after a 90-day regulatory review period. 

To be honest, I would be surprised if there are any objections. 


 
Such cozy relationships already exist with other education companies. For example, Curriculum Associates provides the aforementioned curriculum for its own i-Ready assessment.

It’s ironic that an industry built on standardization – one size fits all – continues to take steps to create books, software and courses aligned with specific tests. It’s almost like individuating information to specific student’s needs is beneficial or something. Weird!

After all, if these sorts of assessments can be gamed by increased access to materials created by the same corporate entities that create and grade the tests, are we really assessing knowledge? Aren’t we just giving students a score based on how many books and software packages their districts bought from the parent company? Is that really education

I remember a time when curriculum was determined by classroom teachers – you know, experts in their fields, not experts in the corporate entity’s test du jour. 

But I guess no one was getting rich that way…

NWEA used to be focused more on formative assessments – tests that you took several times a year before and sometimes even after the big summative state assessment to determine if you were progressing toward passing the high stakes goal. However, in 2021, the company acquired assessment-related technology from Educational Testing Service (ETS) and took over several state contracts from Questar Assessments. This includes contracts for New York, Georgia, Mississippi, and Missouri.

This made NWEA attractive to HMH which had, itself, consolidated into mostly educational technologies and sold off most of its interests in book publishing and assessments. In fact, various versions of the company from Harcourt to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt used to be considered one of the big 4 standardized testing companies until only a decade ago. With revenues of $1.37 billion in fiscal year 2014, for example, the company held a 44% market share including Common Core instructional resources.


 
However, in 2018 it divested its Riverside clinical and standardized testing (Riverside) portfolio to Alpine Investors, a private equity firm based in San Francisco, for a purchase price of $140 million, and then sold its publishing assets in 2021 to HarperCollins.


 
Then in February of 2022, New York-based private-equity firm Veritas Capital acquired HMH at a price of $21 per share, or about $2.8 Billion. And under Veritas, HMH acquired NWEA and the two companies will work together to do many of the things that HMH used to do by itself – like a golden dragon perched atop the standardized testing treasure trove.

All for the benefit of Veritas Capital.

Make no mistake, the investment firm wouldn’t have become involved if it couldn’t make a profit off the situation. That’s what it does – through scandal after scandal.

Founded in 1992 by the late investment banker Robert McKeon (who died by suicide after mounting improprieties came to light), Veritas Capital began its life buying up government contractors and forming close ties with former senior government officials. Of the company’s many defense-related investments, the most infamous was its 2005 purchase of DynCorp International, a shady company involved in the US’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars.


 
Under Veritas ownership, DynCorp benefited from lax oversightfrequently billed the government for work that was never requested, and was embroiled in a sex-trafficking scheme, according to reports. 

Veritas also made headlines when a company it bought in 2008, Global Tel-Link, a telecommunications company that provides telephone services for prison systems, racked up exorbitant fees on calls to inmates

In 2006, the firm acquired MZM Inc., an intelligence contractor, which was investigated for providing bribes to Rep. Duke Cunningham, R-Calif., in exchange for help obtaining Pentagon contracts. 

Throughout its history, Veritas has fostered close ties to government officials. Campaign finance records show executives at the investment firm have given over $100,000 to various politicians, mostly Republicans. In 2014, Veritas paid Bill Clinton $250,000 for a speech.

The New York Times reported in 2001 that numerous retired generals were on Veritas’ payroll and the company used such ties to the Pentagon and frequent appearances in the media to boost Veritas-owned military contractors, including DynCorp.

And now the little investment firm that could has its sights on the standardized testing game.

Why?  

Because there’s gold in them thar tests!

Taxpayer money, that is.

Current Veritas’ CEO and Managing Partner Ramzi Musallam has taken the firm from $2 billion in investments in 2012 to $36 billion in 2021 doing things just like this.

Musallam focuses on technology companies like HMH that operate in sectors dominated by the US federal government such as standardized testing. After all, the only reason public schools throughout the country have to give these assessments is federal law. It’s a captive market paid for by tax dollars.  

We could just let teachers teach and then assess their students in whatever ways seem most accurate and fair. Or we could continue to rely on corporations to do it for us without any real proof that their products are better or even as good as what your local neighborhood educator could provide.

Veritas is banking on the latter.


 
America spends $6.8 trillion a year on defense, health care and education – markets dominated by the government. 


 
 
“These are government-influenced markets, no doubt about it, and being close to how the government thinks about those markets enables us to understand how we can best invest,” Musallam said. 


 
So this merger of two of the most influential education companies in the US is great news for investors – and terrible news for taxpayers who will be paying the bill. 


 
For students and teachers – it’s more of the same


Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

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Fact Checking Propel Charter Schools – Do They Live Up to Their Own Hype?

The Propel Charter School network has a history of making fabulous claims for its schools – claims not always backed up by reality.

The non-profit chain of 13 schools based in Pittsburgh, Pa, boasts high academics, safe campuses and certified teachers.

At least, that’s what its advertising blitz proclaims from every grocery store cart, newspaper page, radio announcement and billboard. Which just goes to show that anyone will tout your virtues if you pay them enough money – taxpayer money, that is.

Take Propel McKeesport – the franchise located in my own neighborhood.

The other day I saw a bus advertisement bragging:

“Catch Your Star!

#1 Elementary Charter School in the Nation – Just Blocks Away!

Propel McKeesport”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any support for this claim anywhere.

When I went to Propel’s own Website, in fact, there was nothing about it. Instead, it claimed Propel McKeesport was:

“…ranked as ONE OF THE BEST charter schools in the nation by U.S. News World Report” (Emphasis mine).

One of the best is not THE best. But it’s still good. Let’s call it embellishing the school’s resume.

According to Propel’s Website, in 2021, the McKeesport location was #11 in the state’s charter elementary schools and #7 in the state’s charter middle schools.


I suppose that is impressive, too, though being one of the best CHARTER SCHOOLS isn’t the same as being one of the best SCHOOLS.

In fact, when compared with all schools in the state, Propel McKeesport is in the bottom half for standardized test scores in both math and reading – one of the main metrics used to calculate its rank by US News and World Report.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency in math was 7% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 38%) for the 2020-21 school year. The percentage of students achieving proficiency in reading was 34% (which is lower than the Pennsylvania state average of 55%) for the 2020-21 school year.

Moreover, test scores in both subjects were higher at the McKeesport Area School District, the local authentic public school – 17% higher in math and 3.5% higher in reading at the elementary level and 6% higher in math and 2% higher in reading at the middle school level. Propel McKeesport does not teach beyond 8th grade.

So what exactly is Propel celebrating?

Maybe it’s the fact that its McKeesport location achieved these standardized test scores while teaching an intensely racially segregated student body – 86% minority (mostly Black). By comparison, the authentic public schools range from 52-71% minority students (mostly Black).

I’m not sure that’s much of a victory. Wasn’t one of the major tenants of the civil rights movement having racially integrated schools – that doing so would help students of color achieve academically because resources couldn’t be horded away from them?

That still sounds like a worthy goal – and one that is being actively worked against by Propel’s business model.

Moreover, Propel McKeesport is the only school in the charter chain where students of color outscore white students. Across the Propel system, white kids do anywhere from 17.6% better in math at Propel Pitcairn to 32.6% better in science at Propel Braddock Hills.

Not exactly a civil rights victory.

So what about the rest of Propel’s claims?

Since charter schools are paid for with tax dollars but can be privately operated (like Propel), they are free from many of the safety regulations that make authentic public schools great – like elected school boards, and transparent curriculum and finances.

The corporation runs the following schools in Allegheny County: Propel Andrew Street High School, Propel Hazelwood K-8, Propel Montour Middle School, Propel Braddock Hills Elementary School, Propel Homestead K-8, Propel Northside K-8, Propel McKeesport K-8, Propel Pitcairn K-8, Propel Braddock Hills High School, Propel Montour Elementary School, Propel Braddock Hills Middle School, Propel Montour High School, and Propel East K-8.

According to an advertisement in mass circulation, each of the schools in the charter chain provides:

“Safe Learning Environment

Individual Attention


Small Class Size

100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Award Winning Arts Programs

Leaders in Technology Integration

Uniforms

Tuition Free”

Let’s take a look at each claim in turn.

-Safe Learning Environment

What exactly does that mean?

Propel schools are no more safe than other schools in the area. There certainly isn’t any evidence they are somehow MORE safe.

There have been numerous incidents of arrest, criminality and danger in and around Propel Schools.

In 2021, a security guard at Turtle Creek, Pitcairn and McKeesport Propel Schools was fired after being charged with open lewdness and indecent exposure, according to court documents. North Versailles Police said the suspect was captured on video exposing and fondling himself inside a Walmart. When confronted by police, he allegedly showed officers his Propel School ID badge.

In 2015, two teenagers at Propel Braddock Hills High School were arrested after one allegedly tried to sell guns to another in a bathroom during the school day. Two guns were recovered by police and the students were taken into custody on campus. The rest of the students were placed on lockdown until police cleared the area.

In 2015, a visiting dance instructor at the Propel Middle School in Braddock was fired and arrested after allegedly sexting a 13-year-old female student. He allegedly told the girl not to tell anyone about it. In a statement from Propel, school officials say it happened “after school hours and off of Propel property.”

In 2019, Pitcairn Propel was evacuated when fumes made three teachers and four students nauseous. Roughly 280 teachers and students were evacuated from the school and the affected people were taken to nearby hospitals. Monroeville Borough was doing work on a sewer when fumes got into the school.

In 2019, police arrested four people in connection with a scheme to steal nearly $23,000 from Propel Schools by forging checks in the charter school operator’s name. The Propel Schools Foundation filed a report with police after discovering nearly two dozen fraudulent checks in Propel’s name had been cashed at various places, a Pittsburgh Public Safety spokeswoman said. At least 28 checks drawn against the school’s bank account were counterfeit, the complaint said. The fake checks were cashed using the forged signature of the school’s co-founder, Jeremy Resnick.

So does Propel provide a safe learning environment? Maybe. But not more so than any other district.

Individual Attention and Small Class Size


The problem here is verification.

Charter schools are not nearly as transparent as authentic public schools. They are not required by law to provide as much information about their operations as neighborhood public schools. For instance, nearly every authentic public school district is run by an elected school board which has open meetings and open records.

For Propel it is unclear exactly how members are chosen for its corporate board, but it is difficult for parents and community members to be appointed.

According to an article in Public Source, individuals can only become board members if they are already members of the “Friends of Propel,” but the charter chain did not provide information on this group or how its members are selected.

So for most details we’re really left with just taking Propel’s word without any method of verifying it.

When it comes to class size, most Propel schools report having student-to-teacher ratios slightly smaller or the same as at neighborhood authentic public schools. But who knows? There’s no way to tell whether classes may actually be larger.

However, individual attention is even harder to verify.

Most schools focus on more individual attention these days.

Unfortunately, the network provides very little detailed information about its curriculum.

Even in 2018 when Propel had submitted applications to the state to consolidate its network into a Multiple Charter School Organization, it did not submit its entire curriculum which had been requested to see if it was aligned to state academic standards. The state ultimately denied this request due to insufficient information.

So does Propel provide individual attention? Your guess is as good as mine.

-100% Certified and Qualified Teachers

Authentic public schools need to have certified and qualified teachers by law. To teach math, for example, you usually need someone with at least a 4-year teaching degree or more. Only in the case of shortages can positions by temporarily filled by individuals with emergency certifications. Not so with charter schools. They only have to have certified and qualified teachers in core content areas – English, Math, Science and Social Studies.

So this claim by Propel is a way of bragging that the network doesn’t have to have certified and qualified teachers, but it does so anyway.

Unfortunately, it is definitively false.

According to those US News and World Report spotlights that the charter school network likes to highlight, several Propel schools do not have all certified teachers. For instance, Propel McKeesport only has 92% full-time certified teachers, Propel Homestead only has 94%, Propel Pitcairn only has 96%, etc.

Moreover, a state audit of the Propel network conducted in 2016, found that even in core content areas, Propel charter schools did not have “highly qualified” teachers in accordance with state law.

So does Propel have 100% Certified and Qualified Teachers? Absolutely not.

Award Winning Arts Programs

Kudos to Propel for recognizing that arts are an important part of the curriculum. Or at least using it as a selling point on its advertisements. However, without details of its curriculum submitted to the state and verifiable by audit, there is nothing to back this claim up factually.

In fact, on Propel’s own Website, the only reference I see to awards for art is a brief mention in its after-school program which they label as “award-winning.”

What award did it win? The ‘Propel Presents Itself with an Award’ Award? Is there anything more substantial to this claim?

-Leaders in Technology Integration

Some Propel charter schools do claim to provide laptops to students. However, details are pretty sketchy beyond this point.

Moreover, technology in school is a terrible end in itself. It really matters how it’s being used. There are very few details on this that I can find.

-Uniforms

Yes! Propel does require students to wear blue, black or khaki clothing of a particular type. And you can even buy clothing on the network’s Website.

But is this really such a positive? Standardized testing is bad enough? Do we have to standardized dress, too?

Certainly every school should have a dress code, but can’t students express themselves freely anymore? I just don’t see why emulating the worst qualities of private schools is a great thing – especially when it adds an unnecessary cost for parents.

-Tuition Free

Charter schools are funded with public tax dollars. So, yes, you don’t have to pay a tuition to attend. However, you do have to pay for extras like school uniforms.

Also having multiple schools that provide duplicate services is instrumental in raising your local taxes.

Think about it. You already have an authentic public school you pay to operate. Now here comes Propel, a charter school network, demanding to open up shop. That means an additional tax burden on all residents and a reduction in resources for the neighborhood schools already in service.

In fact, overcoming the unpopularity of charter schools because of the increased expense for taxpayers is cited by Droz Marketing – the company that made all those glossy Propel advertisements – on its Website portfolio as an obstacle the company had to overcome to sell Propel to the masses.

Which brings us back to the beginning.

Does Propel go beyond the facts in its claims for itself?

Certainly.

Many businesses do that these days. And make no mistake – Propel IS a business. If it can cut a corner or find a loophole to put more money in operators’ pockets, it will.

Don’t let its non-profit status fool you.

For instance, in 2016 the state caught Propel stealing $376,922 of your tax dollars to pay for rental fees on properties it already owns. It was literally charging itself an unnecessary fee and paying itself with your money.

Technically, this is not illegal. But it certainly doesn’t help educate children. It just goes to enrich the charter school operators.

Non-profit? Yeah, in name only.

However, let me end with what may be the most telling indicator of what it is like at Propel’s charter schools.

indeed.com is a Website workers use to decide if they should apply at a given job site. Employees anonymously review their current place of employment to let prospective job applicants know what it is like there and if they should consider seeking a job there.

The site has many entries on schools in the Propel network. Some are positive. Some are glowing. But most are incredibly negative.

Here in their own words is what it’s like inside the Propel network from the people who work (or worked) there.

Propel Schools – Insiders’ Accounts:

 

 

Students rule.

Para Educator (Former Employee) – Propel East, Turtle Creek – July 19, 2020

Pandering to the cultural climate and using all the right talking points still doesn’t provide a quality education because of the many behavior problems.

 

 

 

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – August 4, 2022

Management verbalizes a desire, but does not actively seek to improve diversity within the ranks of educators. The lack of diversity directly impacts how the student body is educated.

 

Stressful, consuming place to work with little support from administration.

First Grade Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – April 15, 2022
I worked at Propel McKeesport for 9 days before I realized it would negatively affect my mental health greatly if I stayed. Everything about the school was chaotic and unorganized. There is so much asked of the teachers, and they are given little to no support in the process. The people that are put in place to act as supports are spread so thin, that you aren’t able to receive the support necessary. I would have to get to work early and stay late in order to get all of my tasks done. I had no time for my personal life, and I was constantly overwhelmed. Leaving was the best decision I could’ve made for myself and my well being.
Pros
Higher than average starting pay for new teachers, healthcare benefits
Cons
Unorganized, consuming, little support/structure

 

 

Hope you have a good therapist if you get hired at the Hazelwood location.

Elementary School Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – February 3, 2022
My time at Propel Hazelwood was the worst experience I have ever had in a professional setting. The principal, at the time, had all sorts of big ideas, and no clue how to make them actionable. Behavior was managed through a failed token economy… so I’m sure you can imagine what behavior looked like. But good news, they’ll just fire you before you qualify for benefits, and trick the next poor sap. For reference, I was the 3rd of 5 teachers to go through that position in 2 years.

In summary, I hope you line up a therapist before you sign your soul away to Propel. I know I needed one.
Pros
There were no pros. I can’t even make one up.
Cons
Pitiful everything. People, leadership, attitudes, slogans, curriculum (or lack there of). Run away… fast.

 

 

Teacher (Former Employee) – McKeesport, PA – September 3, 2021
Propel McKeesport cannot keep their staff members. They have so many open positions because their lesson plan template is 6 pages long, and the work pile-up is more than loving your scholars. The wonderful scholars don’t get a chance to love who you are because you (if you are not a favorite) are swamped with work. The job is a nightmare.
Pros
There is not one pro I can think of.
Cons
Flooded with work. Lies and says it is “Propel-Wide”

 

Don’t work for them

Janitor (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 3, 2022

Hr treats you bad
Teachers treat you bad
You are less then nothing to everyone even your bosses
Never work for Braddock propel worst school I’ve seen
Pros
Nothing
Cons
You will be treated like you are worthless

 

Pure and total chaos

Teacher (Former Employee) – Braddock Hills, PA – September 27, 2021
Wow. It sounds good from the outside but is terrible in the inside. High school students were out of control. Administration offered little help. The parents were just as aggressive as their children. The teachers will throw anyone under the bus as soon as possible.
Pros
Great pay. Amazing benefits. Stellar retirement and health insurance.
Cons
Terribly behaved students, aggressive parents, woke and offended staff

 

Long school day, longer school year, longest time spent working outside of contractual hours

Educator (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – May 21, 2021
Even though I went in knowing the hours would be long and the school year would be longer, I was not prepared for the lack of work life balance. I have worked with Propel for 3 years and I will say that it is all consuming. I have been expected to not only do my job during building hours, but outside of work as well. This would be fine if it was occasional, but especially during COVID, it has become constant. Not only is the work never ending, but in my buildng we are not given adequate time to eat (25 minutes) or plan (50 minutes, but this time is often taken up by meetings almost daily). On top of limited planning time and expectations that never seem to stop coming, many of us have been forced into taking on additional, unpaid roles that we did not ask or agree to, and “no thank you” is not accepted as an answer. The district struggles to employee substitutes, so teachers are often expected to split classes when other grade level members are out. This has resulted in 30+ students in classrooms during non-COVID times, with one educator.
Pros
Good benefits, reasonable pay for the area, great curriculum
Cons
Short breaks, underqualified building administration, limited support

 

Schools care for kids but profit can get in the way

Teacher (Current Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 13, 2021
Propel staff does care a lot about the students, but it doesn’t feel like those who are higher up care as much about them. Having a CEO/Superintendent may be the reason for this.
Pros
Dedicated cohorts
Cons
Work-life balance off

 

Administration had a lack of trust for teachers and lack of discipline for students.

teacher (Former Employee) – Montour, PA – July 24, 2020
There was always a feeling of being watched in a critical way throughout the day. Administration was constantly evaluating teacher performance in the classroom which created a negative work environment.
When a student became disruptive in the classroom administrators were difficult to locate. If an administrator did come to the classroom he/she would coddle the student with candy or a fun activity before returning him/her to the classroom. Needless to say the disruptive behavior would continue within an hour. Positive effective leadership was nonexistent.

 

Not very friendly

Accounting Manager (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – March 4, 2020
Did not get the job I was hired to do. Turnover was high. Cannot speak to majority of the the issues that I had due to a clause in my severance package.

 

Ehhh.

Educator (Former Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – February 3, 2020
Challenging work environment, burn out is high, little support from administration. Propel varies from building to building, but overall its sounds great in theory and in their “plans”, but they’re not able to carry out what they promise to students or staff.

 

This is a good ole boys system

Principal (Former Employee) – Pittsburgh, PA – January 26, 2020
Pros: Let me start by saying, the students are amazing! The parents can be challenging but they truly want what’s best for their children. Cons: If you aren’t LIKED by the superintendent and assistant superintendent your days with Propel are numbered. From the onset, I was deceived by this organization. I spent 4-months interviewing for a High School principal position. I was offered the position of high school principal only to find out I would be a K-8 principal. This was the first red flag of many. Unfortunately, I wasn’t well liked therefore I received very little of what I needed to effectively lead the school. Instead, I got the unhelpful support they thought I needed and none of which I requested. By Feb. I had lost both my APs – one by choice and the other by force. In March I was given a replacement AP that wasn’t a good fit. Work-life balance does NOT exist at Propel Charter Schools. On average, I worked 12 -14-hour days. Sadly, this is the norm for principals in this network. If you are considering Propel for a position as a school administrator, I would not recommend it.
 
 
Teacher (Former Employee) – Hazelwood, PA – September 18, 2019
The staff is wonderful and very supportive. However, the students there are very disrespectful, rude, and have major problems with authority. As a teacher walking into the classroom, they refuse to listen, talk over you, cuss you, and not a lot is done about it.

Cons

Being cussed at and put down by students daily
 
 
 

Poor working place

Teacher (Former Employee) – Homestead, PA – August 10, 2019
Propel is not ran like a school, it is ran like a business. They do not give the students a fighting chance for a bright future. They are more worried about the name ‘propel’ than anything. The work-life balance is awful. They expect way too much of your own time and when they don’t get it, you are looked down on for it. They create cliques and if you are not in the clique, consider yourself gone. They place you wherever they want, certified or not, and will watch you fail. There is lack of help and support from the administration. The only decent people around are your co-workers. I would never recommend this as a work environment nor for parents to send their kids there. No learning takes place. You constantly deal with behavior problems while the children who want to learn are put on the back burner. They change rules half way into the school year and fudge their data. At the rate they are going, they will never compare to peers across the state for PSSAs due to behavior issues and poor management. Not to mention, your lunch is 20 minutes so I hope you can eat fast and 9X out of 10, your planning time to taken away from you for meetings! Be prepared for meetings!!!

Pros

Good benefits

Cons

Everything
 
 
Teacher (Current Employee) – Pitcairn, PA – May 6, 2017
There was little time to be able to practice individualized teaching practices and spend time working with students. Leaders were only focused on enrollment and test scores, and did not focus on the important needs of the child. Work/Home life balance did not exist, as emails and texts were sent at 9:00 PM at night. Money is the number one focus, and for a school system, it was not what was expected.

Pros

Teaching children, benefits and compensation

Cons

Bad work/home life balance

 


 

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Reading for Pleasure – One of The Most Important Lessons in School

“Children should learn that reading is pleasure, not just something that teachers make you do in school.”

― Beverly Cleary

If you ask most middle school children whether they like to read, the answer is usually no.

However, for the last few weeks, my 7th graders have been coming into my class and remarking about the 8th grade books they find left on their desks.

“Oh! The Outsiders! I hear that’s a really good book!”

“When are we going to read this, Mr. Singer?”

“Can I take this home?”

That’s what you get when you pique a student’s interest – even a reluctant reader.

The problem is one of speed and instant gratification.

Today’s children have a multitude competing for their attention.

Video games, social media, TikTok videos – they haven’t the time to sit down with a book.

Doing so seems like something an old person would do or at least something too hard for them to enjoy.

I remember when I was growing up, my father always read Stephen King paperbacks. I still remember the covers of some of those books. The snarling Saint Bernard of “Cujo.” The empty boy’s face of “The Shining.” And “Night Shift” with its creepy bandaged hand slowly coming unraveled to reveal eyes growing under a knuckle…

I wanted nothing more than to read these books and understand what it was that lurked inside the covers.

But today a lot of novels are eBooks. If they have covers, they aren’t visible in the hands of those reading them. They aren’t left on display on a shelf. They’re nearly invisible.

The very idea of books seems like something beyond the reach of many adolescents.

That’s where teachers come in.

We need to dispel these myths, to help our students overcome them.

That means (1) reading books together in class, and (2) allowing kids self-selected reading.

First, we have to actively show kids that reading can be fun.

This means picking the right books to read as a class and trying to make the experience pleasurable.

Luckily there are some classics of young adult literature that rarely disappoint – S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”, Lois Lowery’s “The Giver”, Ellen Raskin’s “The Westing Game”, Louis Sachar’s “Holes”, etc.

If you can catch a child’s imagination and place it in a community of learners, the result is both an individual and a social phenomenon.

Each child has his or her own experience, but it is enhanced by the thoughts and comments of others. Trying to solve the secrets of the society in “The Giver” isn’t just something you do alone – it’s a shared endeavor with your peers. Trying to decide what you’d do in the place of Ponyboy from “The Outsiders” isn’t just an academic thought experiment – it’s a way of expressing your thoughts and values and seeing them reflected, absorbed or enhanced by those around you.

However, this can’t always be done in a group setting. And the teacher can’t be the only person guiding the experience.

You have to give students the respect to make their own choices about what they read, too.

Let them choose books from the library and read them silently in class. There can be a culminating assignment like a book report or a book circle at the end of the month, but it has to be driven by individual curiosity.

This is all easier said than done.

Some years the books I pick for my students are a hit. Some years they aren’t.

Things are especially difficult now as we’re just healing from the Covid-19 pandemic. Students are just starting to get back on track and relearn all the social and academic skills they lost in years of quarantine and uncertainty.

I’m finding “The Giver” to be a harder sell this year than in most previous years. Many students want a more immediate and personal story. But some are entranced by the mystery and way the society deals with budding adolescence.

“The Outsiders”, though, is a raging success. My students don’t want to put it down or stop discussing the story. In fact, their enthusiasm is turning into rumors that have spread from grade-to-grade. However, they also aren’t as interested in racing through it toward the end as students from others years have been.

The biggest challenge is always silent reading.

The very idea of sitting down with a book and quietly reading it is entirely alien to some kids. They look around the room or try to sneak their cell phones out of their pockets – anything but turn their eyes to the pages in front of them.

It comes down to (1) finding a book that will interest the individual, and (2) one that they can easily read.

Unless you’re a librarian, it can be really hard to match students and books. As a classroom teacher I know some books that other students have enjoyed in the past and even have a few handy. For example, “Tears of a Tiger” by Sharon Draper is a story a lot of my more mature readers have gotten into – especially children of color. It tells the story of a boy who is dealing with the death of a friend who was riding in the boy’s car while he was driving drunk.

However, I don’t know the entire spectrum of children’s literature as well as a dedicated middle school librarian would. My school used to have one of those and she was brilliant at accomplishing the goal of suggesting books to students. These days, though, we have one librarian for the middle school and high school. That’s just too much ground to cover for any individual. Moreover, when you don’t dedicate your library to reading or research, you lose an incredible resource. There is far too much time when the library is closed for standardized testing or the librarian is asked to teach a class or proctor a study hall.

When it comes to matching a student to a book with a proper reading level, there are tools like Accelerated Reader which gives each book a level and tests students to find out their ability. However, the last thing we need is more standardized testing and computer software. An actual living, breathing librarian who has the time to know students and the literature is better than any technology in the world.

The point, though, is that no matter the challenges, we, as teachers, have to try.

It isn’t our job to simply teach children HOW to read. We have to encourage them TO read. We have to SHOW them that reading can be one of the most enjoyable pastimes in the world.

It may be out of touch with our modern society, but that is why it is so valuable.

Through books we can access any place – even places that never existed. Through books, we can talk with anyone in the entire history of time – even people who were never born.

And in doing so we gain access to that secret part of our own mind – our imagination – and build it into something strong and vibrant.

Few things are more important.

Creating lifelong readers – not a bad way to spend a teaching career.

“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”

-Malala Yousafzai


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

No, Public School Teachers are Not Turning Their Students into Communists

Have you heard the latest Republican lie?

There are so many it’s hard to keep track, but here’s the newest one.

Public school teachers are turning their students into communists.

I’m not kidding.

That’s what they’re saying on far right blogs, podcasts and TV shows.

Everyone from Betsy DeVos to Ron DeSantis and the sober fellows of the Heritage Foundation are up in arms.

All because Mr. Singer wore a red sweater vest one day to class.

Not really, but that might have been a better provocation than the reality – which is all in far right pundits’ heads.

So for the GOP, it’s all about fear – what can you scare voters to believe that will shepherd them to support your agenda?

So to start with, Republicans want you to be terrified of public schools.

The reason?

They want you to have to pay to get your kids educated – but public schools give learning away for free to everyone – just for paying taxes.

Right-wingers would much rather make it all a business where the more you pay, the better the education your kids get. There’d be poor quality charter schools for those who can’t afford the entry fee, but the best of everything would be reserved for the kids of the rich and powerful whose parents would use school vouchers to offset some of their tuition at private institutions.

Public schools would undo all that – especially if they were adequately funded.

Can you imagine a country where EVERYONE was fully educated!?

People might become informed voters and demand freedom and justice for all!

Lawmakers might have to create real policies, a platform, solutions – to actually govern!

So GOP operatives spread hysterical lies about public schools. They call them “government schools” as if that meant some imposed bureaucracy of outsiders and not what it actually does – schools governed by elected members of the community.

The lies and innuendo are never ending. Public school educators teach fake history where the civil rights movement was a good thing. They refuse to instill the truth of Creationism over fake Evolution. Teachers are pedophile groomers – never mind the actual Republican lawmakers charged with pedophilia and rape. And on and on and on.

Which brings us to the latest one – the new red scare that public school teachers are raising the next generation to hate Adam Smith and love Karl Marx.

The whole idea seems to have started with DeVos, the billionaire heiress and former Secretary of Education under President Donald Trump.

Robert Bluey, vice president of publishing for the Heritage Foundation, asked her a question on The Daily Signal Podcast (a Heritage Foundation mouthpiece) about the growing popularity of socialism among young people.

And it’s true, according to a 2018 Gallup poll, Americans aged 18 to 29 are almost as positive about socialism (51%) as they are about capitalism (45%).

So on behalf of the right-wing think tank behind the critical race theory brouhaha, transphobic legislation, climate change denial and a host of other regressive causes, Bluey asked DeVos why young people aren’t as firmly championing capitalism as previous generations.

DeVos, of course, blamed teachers. She responded:

“I recall visiting a classroom not too long ago where one of the teachers was wearing a shirt that said “Find Your Truth,” suggesting that, of course, truth is a very fungible and mutable thing instead of focusing on the fact that there is objective truth and part of learning is actually pursuing that truth.”

This is a rather strange answer. It may be the case that there are absolute truths in the world, but economic theories certainly don’t qualify. In matters of opinion, isn’t it better to tell students the facts and let them think for themselves about their relative virtues?

Not for DeVos. Indoctrination apparently is just fine so long as you’re indoctrinating kids into the right things.

Tell them capitalism is great. Tell them socialism is terrible. Screw critical thinking.

The Heritage Foundation, at least, liked her answer, using it as a template to fund a plethora of stories about public schools – not just leaving the matter up to students to decide – but actually bullying kids into championing communism.

Douglas Blair, a Daily Signal producer, codified the idea in his article “I’m a Former Teacher. Here’s How Your Children Are Getting Indoctrinated in Leftist Ideology.”

In the text of article, Blair admits he was only “in education” for 4 years, but it seems he was not a full-time classroom teacher for most of that time. According to his Linked-In account, he was a French teacher for 9 months in a school in Portland, Oregon. Before that he was an Extracurricular Aide, an English Language Assistant and Language Immersion Counselor at various schools in the US and France.

His evidence of indoctrination reads like “Kids Say the Darndest Things – Republican Edition.”

For example, he says he asked an elementary school girl if she liked Winston Churchill, and she frowned calling Churchill racist.

I’m not sure why that’s so upsetting. Churchill led Great Britain through WWII, but he undeniably WAS a racist, too. Churchill said that he hated people with “slit eyes and pig tails.” To him, people from India were “the beastliest people in the world next to the Germans.” He admitted that he “did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people.”

So Blair’s examples of indoctrination come out to complaining that kids learned accurate history.

If only the GOP could use history and education to change minds instead of decrying them.

Florida Gov. DeSantis is giving it a try. In 2022, he signed a law requiring schools in the sunshine state to actively teach about the horrors of communism.

That’s right. Whether teachers need to or not, they have to spend at least 45 minutes on it every November.

“We want to make sure that every year folks in Florida, but particularly our students, will learn about the evils of communism. The dictators that have led communist regimes and the hundreds of millions of individuals who suffered and continue to suffer under the weight of this discredited ideology,” DeSantis said, adding that “a lot of young people don’t really know that much” about the political ideology.

At first blush, this may sound like a good idea. More historical knowledge is a good thing, but it’s the context that makes this troubling.

Florida Republicans already have passed a battalion of laws telling educators what they CANNOT teach.

So you can’t teach about racial issues including the history of slavery if it makes any student “feel uncomfortable.” Math books are censored from depicting “prohibited topics.” You can’t talk about a wide range of human sexuality including LGBTQ people because of the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill.

But you’d better teach about how bad communism is! Or else!

First, this is the very definition of a GOVERNMENT SCHOOL the legislature dictating what teachers teach on a given day and not trusting them to do their own jobs.

Second, why single out communism? Certainly it has lead to horrors and misery, but so has capitalism. Are we to teach about the terrors of rampant greed, sweatshops, wars for oil, runaway inequality? After all, students in impoverished neighborhoods going to underfunded schools are actual victims of free enterprise, not collectivism. The free hand of the market is soaked in blood, too.

Third, there’s the subtext. This sounds to me like an invitation to conflate communism with socialism (which are two different ideas with different histories) and to champion one ideology over another.

Finally, let’s not forget this all comes from state law. It’s politics, not pedagogy, and in politics it’s only indoctrination when someone else does it.

So are public school teachers really molding their students into young Bolsheviks?

I seriously doubt it.

Economic theory rarely comes up in math, reading or science. Maybe it comes up occasionally in social studies.

In my middle school language arts classes, we discuss all kinds of things that come out of the books we’re reading.

Sometimes economic inequality comes out of S. E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders” or Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” When we read Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” the concept of distribution of resources is broached.

In each case, I encourage my students to think about the problems from the stories, the solutions offered in the narratives and to discuss the matter with classmates. We hold Socratic Seminars and write critical essays. For “The Giver,” students work in groups to create their own utopias – you’d be surprised how many are socialist, though there are also a number of capitalist republics, dictatorships and anarchies. Kids love anarchy.

And I admit it – I encourage my students to think for themselves. I try not to give them my answers – my truths.

Facts are facts and opinions are opinions.

I would be a bad teacher if I forced my conclusions on my students.

So why ARE young people increasingly more critical of capitalism these days and more friendly toward socialism?

I’d say it’s because of the income inequality they see in the world around them.

Despite Republican’s claims, capitalism is not a perfect system. To be fair, no system is. But criticizing capitalism is not a bad thing, and finding value in aspects of socialism is no crime.

To achieve a better world, we have to do more than simply recreate the one in which we live.

That’s why education is so important. It is one of the chief engines of change, and nothing can truly stop that.

If Republicans think they can, they’re in for a shock.

Perhaps they should have paid more attention in school.

Or exposed their opinions to more rigorous critical thinking…

Nah!

I wonder what lie about public school they’ll try next.


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Congress May Raise Educators’ Minimum Salaries to Combat the Teacher Exodus

When it comes to teachers, America doesn’t mind getting away cheap.

The minimum salary for a teacher in Pennsylvania is $18,500 a year.

That’s not a lot of money – roughly $9.63 an hour.

It’s barely more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour ($15,080 annually).

But in many states there is no minimum teacher salary – so the minimum wage IS a teacher’s minimum salary!

You could probably make more as a dishwasher, cashier or parking lot attendant. So why take on a four-year education degree, mountains of student loan debt, and the added challenge of a (likely unpaid) internship?

Just pick up a broom and start sweeping.

Perhaps that’s why a group of Congressional Democrats have proposed a national minimum salary for teachers.

Rep. Frederica Wilson and Rep. Jamaal Bowman, (both former teachers) and six other members of the House have introduced The American Teacher Act establishing a minimum salary of $60,000 for all public school teachers working in the U.S. – the first legislation of its kind.

Though state minimums are less (assuming your state has one at all), the average starting salary of teachers nationwide was $41,770 in the 2020-21 school year, according to the National Education Association (which supports the bill).

However, even that number shows how poorly we reimburse teachers for their labor.

It means on average teachers make about 77 cents on the dollar compared to their peers in similar professions, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank.

So a potentially $20,000 base increase would help.

If passed, the bill wouldn’t simply force all states to comply. It would offer funding through federal grants encouraging states and school districts to raise their minimum starting salary to $60,000 by the 2024-25 academic year.

In the short term, the funding would pay to implement the new salary minimum but states would be responsible for sustaining the cost in the long run.

No cost projection for the program has yet been conducted.

The new minimum salary would be adjusted for inflation each year, beginning with the 2025-26 school year, and any grant funding would have to be used toward salaries and not to supplant any existing funding that goes toward schools.

Sponsors hope the bill would affect more than just minimum salaries.

The idea is that states would adjust their entire teacher salary schedules with $60,000 as the floor and all other salary steps increasing incrementally based on education levels and years of experience. So even veteran teachers should see their wages increase.

However, the bill doesn’t stop there. The authors of the legislation know that respect for the teaching profession is important to ensure salaries remain adequate.

In addition to wages, 4 percent of the grant funding would be used to launch a national campaign about the teaching profession, highlighting its importance and value as well as encouraging high school and college students to pursue a career in education.

It’s high time something were done because the US is losing teachers at an alarming rate.


After decades of neglect only made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, we’re missing almost a million teachers.

Nationwide, we only have about 3.2 million teachers left!

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And that’s on top of already losing 250,000 school employees during the recession of 2008-09 most of whom were never replaced. All while enrollment increased by 800,000 students.

Meanwhile, finding replacements has been difficult. Across the country, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.

Not only are teachers paid 20% less than other college-educated workers with similar experience, but a 2020 survey found that 67% of teachers have or had a second job to make ends meet.

It’s no wonder then that few college students want to enter the profession.

Over the past decade, there’s been a major decline in enrollment in bachelor’s degree programs in education.

Beginning in 2011, enrollment in such programs and new education certifications in Pennsylvania — my home state— started to decline. Today, only about a third as many students are enrolled in teacher prep programs in the Commonwealth as there were 10 years ago. And state records show new certifications are down by two-thirds over that period.

Legislation like The American Teachers Act is absolutely necessary to stop the teacher exodus and ensure our children receive a quality education.

However, at present not a single Republican lawmaker has expressed support for legislation of this type, only support in individual states when it becomes obvious the whole system will collapse without help.

Moreover, even neoliberal Democrats want to use such measures to sneak in unnecessary and destructive policies like more standardized testing, evaluating teachers on student test scores and increased funding for charter schools and school voucher programs.

At present it seems unlikely that this legislation would pass in any manner that would be helpful if at all.

It may take further crumbling of the public school system and/or a change in political leadership and power for anything to be done.

On the bright side, it is encouraging that for the first time (ever?) lawmakers actually seem to recognize there is a real problem here.

It has finally come down to a simple matter of dollars and cents.


 

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Who is Education For?

Everyday we send our children to school.

Why?

In whose interest are we sending our kids to school?

Is it for businesses so that they’ll have the kinds of workers they need?

Is it so that our students’ educations will align with the demands of industry?

Or is it for the children? So they’ll become mature, intelligent adults capable of independent thought and making rational decisions?

Who, after all, is this education for?

I mean our society has jobs that need doing and people need to do those jobs or we won’t survive – but is that really the overriding, predominant impetus behind school? Survival?

Are we primarily helping the economy by subjecting our kids to the classroom? Or are we doing something to benefit THEM?

Is there a value in being educated? A value to the person who has become educated?

Does it provide any advantage to a person to know things? To be able to think about things? To be able to express oneself in writing? To be able to make calculations? To use logic and reason? To know history? To be able to read and comprehend what one’s read? To form an educated opinion on what one’s read? To know and practice the scientific method? To express one’s creativity? To do any of a hundred other things kids learn in school?

Or are we just filling the factories with button pushers to keep smoke spilling out of the chimneys?

It’s more than two decades past the millennium, and I can’t believe I still have to ask such questions.

But I do. Because nearly every day some policymaker, pundit, billionaire or other over-privileged talking head feels free to answer these questions wrong.

Five minutes alone in the dark and the answers are inescapable. But these guys (and it’s usually men) don’t have that kind of time or integrity.

It could be the CEO of the world’s largest petroleum company. Or the President of the United States. Or the Secretary of Education.

In what they say, what they do, what they promise, what they ponder in earshot of the press, they show a persistent ignorance of what education is and who it is for.

They think it’s something that can be adequately measured by standardized tests. Something that can be improved by competition. Something that is supposed to earn them money.

So they get the answer wrong. Every time.

I’m tired of telling them the truth. I’m tired of correcting them. Because they don’t care to be corrected. They have a fixed conception of the world, and understanding the truth about education might make that all come tumbling down.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Socrates is purported to have said that 2,400 years ago.

It’s not exactly news.

What’s the purpose of life if you don’t think about things?

But no matter how much money they have, the plutocrats can’t afford to think about things. And they certainly can’t afford for YOU or your children to think about things.

What would happen if we all went around examining our lives? Would we still submit to being cogs in an economy designed to benefit them and not us?

Would we still show up everyday to jobs we hate for salaries incapable of paying the bills?

Would we still shop constantly to fill the aching void in our hearts, not thinking but just re-enacting the American mantra of consume, Consume, CONSUME!?

Would we still worship the rich like gods regardless of the reality – their immature actions, their crude posturing, their obvious amoral banality?

Would we still pretend that skin color determines character, that nationality determines morality, that sex determines temperament, that biology determines gender, that rationality determines politics?

Would we still vote for one of two prepackaged, preconceived, preprocessed options neither of which will actually do what we know needs done but one of which will hurt us and the other of which will hurt others more or not hurt us worse than we already are?

The answers are obvious. We all know. You don’t need me to tell you.

Just like the purpose of education.

It is the most dangerous thing in the world to the status quo.

Education, learning, thought is a cocoon. And no one knows what will come crawling out after the metamorphosis.

No one controls education. Not even the educator.

So how can we let anyone truly be educated? They might end up different – different from their parents, different from their congregations, their friends, neighbors, society.

Who is education for?

For whom would we risk all this?

Who is worth such danger, such terror, such uncertainty?

You know who.


 

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Artificially Intelligent Chatbots Will Not Replace Teachers

Education pundits are a lot like the guy in the “Distracted Boyfriend”meme.

They’re walking with teachers but looking around at the first thing possible to replace them.

This weekend it’s AI chatbots.

If you’ve ever had a conversation with Siri from Apple or Alexa from Amazon, you’ve interacted with a chatbot.

Bill Gates already invested more than $240 million in personalized learning and called it the future of education.

And many on social media were ready to second his claim when ChatGPT, a chatbot developed by artificial intelligence company OpenAI, responded in seemingly creative ways to users on-line.

It answered users requests to rewrite the 90s hit song, “Baby Got Back,” in the style of “The Canterbury Tales.” It wrote a letter to remove a bad account from a credit report (rather than using a credit repair lawyer). It explained nuclear fusion in a limerick.

It even wrote a 5-paragraph essay on the novel “Wuthering Heights” for the AP English exam.

Josh Ong, the Twitter user who asked for the Emily Bronte essay, wrote, “Teachers are in so much trouble with AI.”

But are they? Really?

Teachers do a lot more than provide right answers. They ask the right questions.

They get students to think and find the answers on their own.

They get to know students on a personal level and develop lessons individually suited to each child’s learning style.

That MIGHT involve explaining a math concept as a limerick or rewriting a 90’s rap song in Middle English, but only if that’s what students need to help them learn.

It’s interpersonal relationships that guide the journey and even the most sophisticated chatbot can’t do that yet and probably never will have that capacity.

ChatGPT’s responses are entertaining because we know we’re not communicating with a human being. But that’s exactly what you need to encourage the most complex learning.

Human interaction is an essential part of good teaching. You can’t do that with something that is not, in itself, human – something that cannot form relationships but can only mimic what it thinks good communication and good relationships sound like.

Even when it comes to providing right answers, chatbots have an extremely high error rate. People extolling these AI’s virtues are overlooking how often they get things wrong.

Anyone who has used Siri or Alexa knows that – sometimes they reply to your questions with non sequiturs or a bunch of random words that don’t even make sense.

ChatGPT is no different.

As more people used it, ChatGPT’s answers became so erratic that Stack Overflow – a Q&A platform for coders and programmers – temporarily banned users from sharing information from ChatGPT, noting that it’s “substantially harmful to the site and to users who are asking or looking for correct answers.”

The answers it provides are not thought out responses. They are approximations – good approximations – of what it calculates would be a correct answer if asked of a human being.

The chatbot is operating “without a contextual understanding of the language,” said Lian Jye Su, a research director at market research firm ABI Research.

“It is very easy for the model to give plausible-sounding but incorrect or nonsensical answers,” she said. “It guessed when it was supposed to clarify and sometimes responded to harmful instructions or exhibited biased behavior. It also lacks regional and country-specific understanding.”

Which brings up another major problem with chatbots. They learn to mimic users, including racist and prejudicial assumptions, language and biases.

For example, Microsoft Corp.’s AI bot ‘Tay’ was taken down in 2016 after Twitter users taught it to say racist, sexist and offensive remarks. Another developed by Meta Platforms Inc. had similar problems just this year. 

Great! Just what we need! Racist Chatbots!

This kind of technology is not new, and has historically been used with mixed success at best.

ChatGPT may have received increased media coverage because its parent company, OpenAI, was co-founded by Tesla Inc. CEO Elon Musk, one of the richest men in the world.

Eager for any headline that didn’t center on his disastrous takeover of Twitter, Musk endorsed the new AI even though he left the company in 2018 after disagreements over its direction.

However, AI and even chatbots have been used in some classrooms successfully.

Professor Ashok Goel secretly used a chatbot called Jill Watson as an assistant teacher of online courses at the Georgia Institute of Technology. The AI answered routine questions from students, while professors concentrated on more complicated issues. At the end of the course, when Goel revealed that Jill Watson was a chatbot, many students expressed surprise and said they had thought she was a real person.

This appears to be the primary use of a chatbot in education.

“Students have a lot of the same questions over and over again. They’re looking for the answers to easy administrative questions, and they have similar questions regarding their subjects each year. Chatbots help to get rid of some of the noise. Students are able to get to answers as quickly as possible and move on,” said Erik Bøylestad Nilsen from BI Norwegian Business School.

However, even in such instances, chatbots are expensive as yet to install, run and maintain, and (as with most EdTech) they almost always collect student data that is often sold to businesses.

Much better to rely on teachers.

You remember us? Warm blooded, fallible, human teachers.

The best innovation is still people.


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I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

Workers Rights are Human Rights – Even If Our Government is Too Cowardly to Support Them

In today’s America, the more essential your job, the fewer rights you are allowed to exercise.

Teachers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the kids.

Nurses aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the patients.

And – as we discovered just this week – railway workers aren’t allowed to strike. It’s bad for the economy.

None of these are actually true, however. It’s just union busting hidden under government sponsored propaganda.

Teachers strikes are inconvenient for students, families AND teachers. But having burned out, underpaid educators in the classroom does not help kids learn.

Nurses don’t want to strike. But going to the hospital and being cared for by an overworked, underpaid, unsupported nurse is not going to improve your health.

Railway workers would certainly rather get on with their jobs than contend with the bosses or Congress. But having no paid sick leave and a lack of adequate pay will not help move goods across the country any better, either.

Don’t believe the hype.

This isn’t about what’s good for society or the economy. It’s about protecting the upper class from having to respect people who do the most indispensable work. It’s about making sure workers will continue to labor in dangerous conditions.

That is all. It’s about who gets the power – the bosses or the people who do the actual work.

That’s why the Senate forced national freight rail roads and their unions to avert a strike and accept a contract which failed to provide workers with a component they aggressively sought: paid sick leave.

Congress passed the motion and President Joe Biden signed it. So both political parties are to blame.

Neither Republicans or Democrats have the backs of working people.

It’s no wonder that the U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t guarantee paid sick and family leave to workers.

Instead, we are at the mercy of employers to step up and do so. And when it comes to the poorest but most important workers – the ones without which our country would grind to a stop – employers are often extremely reluctant to do so.

Roughly a quarter of the private workforce — more than 33 million people — have no paid sick days so they can take care of themselves if they get ill. Even worse, more than 80 percent of private sector workers have no access to paid leave so they can care for a family member. 

And it’s indisputably a racial and class phenomenon.

Higher-paid, professional workers almost universally have paid sick and family leave. But, of course, most of these workers don’t just lack pigment on their collars, they lack it on their faces, too. Among the lowest-paid quarter of the workforce, the majority of whom are Black and Latinx workers, only half of them have any paid sick days, and just 7 percent have paid family leave.

So workers of color, the poor, and disproportionately women are much more likely to lack sick and family leave than those who are paid more, have white skin and are male.

And before you explode with indignation, let it be known that this could be rectified any day our government sees fit.

Our representatives could stop holding water for groups like the railway companies that pulled in $20 billion in profits last year alone. Our government could represent us, the people, instead of businesses that could afford to do better but don’t because we aren’t holding them accountable and our Congress and the President refuse to stop them or even let us force them to do right by subjecting them to a strike.

It is past time for the U.S. to pass a national law enshrining the right to paid sick and family leave.

It is past time for our government to begin respecting the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for better treatment.

We just suffered through a pandemic where these so-called essential workers had to put themselves in the most danger just to keep society running while the rest of us stayed home and were unequally protected.

If these workers are truly essential, they at least deserve sick and family leave. Otherwise, it is all too obvious how bogus the term is.

The U.S. can no longer run on the unrespected work of an underclass of the poor and people of color.

This must change if our nation is to continue. And it must change today.

I stand with American workers. Do you?


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Will We Even Try to Keep Students and Teachers Safe from Gun Violence? Or Just Keep Preparing for the Worst?

“Teachers, we are operating on a lockdown. Please keep your doors locked until we tell you it has been lifted.”

Before me a sea of wide eyes and scared faces.

I slowly walked toward the door continuing the lesson I had been giving before the announcement. The door was already shut and secured but I nonchalantly turned the extra deadbolt.

“Click!” it sounded like a gunshot across the suddenly silent room.

I continued talking while making my way back to the blackboard pretending that nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

That’s just life in the classroom these days.

According to Eduction Week, there have been 38 school shootings in the US this year resulting in injuries or deaths. That’s up from 34 last year and the highest it’s been since the media source began tracking such things in 2018.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, there were only 10 such shootings in 2020, and 24 each in 2019 and 2018.

That comes to a total of 130 school shootings in the last five years.

“Mr. Singer, can I go to the bathroom?” DeVon asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “We’re still under lockdown. I’ll write you a pass as soon as it’s lifted.”

It seems like nowhere is safe.

Three of this year’s shootings were in my home state of Pennsylvania.

The first was on January 19 at Pittsburgh’s Oliver Citywide Academy, a special education school.

A 15-year-old boy waiting in a van to go home was shot and killed after at least one person opened fire outside the school.


The second was on April 5 at Erie High School. A 16-year-old student was shot and injured at the school.

The third was on Sept 27 at Roxborough High School in Philadelphia.

A 14-year-old student was killed and four others wounded (ages 17, 15, 14, and 14) in a shooting near the high school athletic field after a football scrimmage.

“Mr. Singer, what’s happening?” Olivia asked.

I turned to her confused at first then I realized what she meant.

“The lockdown? Let me check my laptop. No…. Nothing. I really don’t know, Honey. But I’m sure whatever it is, it will be over soon. Why don’t you get back to the assignment?”

“Okay.”

Such violence isn’t limited to schools.

On Sept 24 three people were shot in Kennywood Park, a popular amusement park in West Mifflin.


Two years ago in September a 15-year-old boy was killed and another was wounded in a shooting at the Haunted Hills Hayride in North Versailles.

In 2020 a man was shot and killed at Monroeville Mall. In 2015, a 17-year-old entered the men’s department on the lower level of Macy’s department store in the evening and shot his intended target and two bystanders, leaving two with critical injuries.

Is there anywhere safe anymore?

You can’t go to the mall. You can’t go on a haunted hayride. You can’t go to an amusement park.

I had students who were hiding in the mall during the 2015 shooting. My daughter wasn’t involved in any shootings but she went to Kennywood this summer.

Where does it stop?

Why are we doing so little?

A few weeks ago my school had another active shooter training for teachers while the students, thankfully, had a day off.

Every few years we do this. Teachers huddle in classrooms and try to react to a shooting scenario. We either barricade ourselves in our classrooms or try to find an escape route. We help train police and local medical personnel.

At this years training, teachers were given a talk by a law enforcement “expert” who regaled us with his time working as a Blackwater mercenary in Afghanistan. He told us how difficult it was to make decisions under fire but that sometimes you had to make the hard decisions.

“Some of you teachers have kids in wheelchairs in your classrooms. You think you’re going to get your whole class out of the building and to safety!? You have to ask yourself, how are you going to get that kid in the wheelchair out? What are you going to do if a child flips out or is too scared to move? I know it’s not nice to think about, but sometimes you have to make decisions that will save the most people – not necessarily everyone.”

It made me want to vomit. But he wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.

I like to believe I’d pick the child up out of his wheelchair, throw him over my shoulder and carry him to safety. I hope I could calm down a child having a panic attack and whisk her out of the building.

But could I really? Alone?

We do everything we can to prepare ourselves in case something like this happens – but as a society we do nothing – NOTHING – to prevent shootings from happening in the first place.

Where’s increased gun regulations to make sure these weapons aren’t getting into the hands of criminals or the mentally unstable?

Where are bans on assault weapons and other weapons of mass destruction and war?

Where is increased liability for those recklessly selling firearms?

Where is anything we could be doing to make our schools, malls and places of entertainment safer?

“Mr. Singer, I really have to go to the bathroom.”

“You can’t hold it just a little longer, DeVon?”

“No,” he said hoping from foot to foot.

“Number 1 or number 2?”

He giggled and held up one finger.

I reluctantly pointed to the trash can.

“Take it over there to the corner. I’ll stand in front of you so…”

“Attention teachers! The lockdown has now been lifted. You may continue as normal.”

I sighed, unlocked the door and wrote DeVon a bathroom pass.

We never did find out what triggered the lockdown. One time it was a gunshot in the surrounding neighborhood. Another time it was an unauthorized adult seeking access to the building.

It could be much worse. And it will happen again.

The chances of it being a school shooter are low.

The chances of myself or my students being hurt or killed is even lower.

But it’s still too high.

Living under the constant shadow of this threat is creating a trauma that we’ve given up trying to solve and just call normal.

It is unacceptable.

We need to do more.

Not just on the days when one of these tragedies strike – but every day.

It is not safe for students and teachers – it will NEVER be completely safe, but it can be safer.

That’s the point – how safe can we make it?

And why aren’t we doing anything to reach that goal other than preparing for the worst?


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