I Just Want to Teach, but My District Won’t Let Me Do it Safely

I love teaching.

But I can’t do it if I’m dead.

Therein lies the back to school nightmare I’ve been living through for most of the summer and fall.

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected people unequally.

Folks like me with pre-existing conditions are at greater risk from the virus than others.

I have heart disease and Crohn’s Disease.

My doctors tell me that I am more susceptible to contracting the virus because my medications suppress my immune system. And that also means that if I do contract the disease, I will be more likely to have severe, life-threatening complications from it.

So what am I to do?

The western Pennsylvania district where I work, Steel Valley, is reopening next week with a hybrid model.

The United States recorded more than 98,000 coronavirus cases yesterday – the highest single day count since the pandemic began. Two dozen states – including Pennsylvania – are reporting their worst weeks for new cases — and none are recording improvements.

This is not a good time to be reopening schools.

The district originally opened in September with virtual instruction for all students, and it was a huge success.

I taught my classes online, we’ve bonded and made academic gains I wouldn’t have believed possible with this model just a year ago.

However, starting Wednesday, about 60% of parents in my district have chosen to send their kids back to the buildings.

Of these, half the students will come in during the morning and half in the afternoon. Each will go through all their classes in 20 minute periods. On Fridays, the buildings will be closed and teachers will instruct virtually for half the day and plan during the other half.

The new reopening plan cuts instruction time by half and doesn’t meet parents need for childcare or certainly student safety. But it is better than being open 5-days a week and it provides the possibility of social distancing.

School directors said that this schedule was just a test to see if in-person instruction was feasible. They plan to reevaluate the measure in three weeks and decide whether to fully reopen in December or go back to virtual instruction for all students.

Nevertheless, this experiment presents problems for me.

Being in the school building, being in the classroom in close proximity with tens of middle school students – especially during a time when COVID cases are surging throughout the county – puts my life in danger.

So I went to my principal asking if I could continue to teach online.

I documented my conditions, gave him doctors’ notes, and had my doctors fill out pages and pages of questions from the district’s lawyers.

In the end, my principal told me the district could not meet my request.

Administrators could provide some protections like a plexiglass barrier and take me off hall duty, but they couldn’t let me continue to teach remotely.

Certain teachers in grades K-5 have been given this option, but not secondary teachers like me. Elementary students whose parents don’t want them to return to the building will get full synchronous virtual instruction with a teacher through a video conferencing site like Zoom. Secondary students who do not return to the buildings will only get asynchronous assignments most of the week posted by their classroom teachers.

He suggested I look into taking a leave of absence.

And I guess I can see where he’s coming from.

If administrators let me teach remotely, it’s possible enough students would return to the classroom that the teachers willing to return wouldn’t be enough to meet the load. My absence from the building might necessitate a substitute teacher to be in the physical classroom with students.

Why pay for two teachers when you only need one?

Except…

…I’LL STILL BE PAID WHEN I’M ON LEAVE.

It’s just that then I’d have to sit at home instead of teach my students.

So benching me doesn’t save the district any money.

In fact, it will cost the district MORE money for me to stay home, because I could still do everything they expect of me and more for the sizable number of students whose parents say they aren’t returning.

So I brought this up to my principal figuring he must have overlooked it.

But no. He said he knew all about it.

He said this is what the district’s lawyers were telling him to do so that’s what he was going to do.

I couldn’t believe it.

I went to school board directors I had developed a relationship with teaching their children, going on field trips with them, working with their spouses.

I got the same answer.

So here I am – being asked to choose between my life and my livelihood.

Go to work and risk everything – or sit at home burning my sick days and still collecting a paycheck.

This is not what I want.

It’s not good for anyone.

I teach 8th grade Language Arts. Last year I also taught 7th grade.

So many of my students this year were in my class in the spring. We already know each other.

I’ve already built a rapport with them. I know what their academic deficiencies are and what they missed as we went to remote learning in March when Coronavirus cases were much fewer than they are now.

But more than that, I know what they like and dislike. I know their hopes and fears. I know what motivates them and what supports their individual learning.

I’ve seen tremendous growth the first 9-weeks of school and could really help them overcome the gargantuan hurdles that will be inevitable the rest of the year.

And that’s what I’d really like to do.

I don’t want to sit home collecting the taxpayer’s money when I could be making a difference in these young people’s lives. I don’t want to have to wait for an outbreak to allow me to continue my work.

Being benched like this makes me feel so worthless, and I’m not.

I’m a heck of a teacher! I’m Nationally Board Certified. I was nominated for the Champions of Learning Award from the Consortium for Public Education in 2018. I won the Ken Goodman “In Defense of Good Teaching” Award last year. In fact, the University of Arizona was going to fly me out to Tucson to accept the award but had to cancel due to the pandemic.

I gave a TED talk on education at Central Connecticut University in 2018. I wrote a book called “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform” in 2017 and have written a nationally recognized blog since 2014.

Wouldn’t everyone be better served with me instructing my students rather than being thrown to the side?

That can’t happen without help.

I’m just a human being like anyone else.

I have people who care about me and whom I care about.

I have a wife and daughter.

I can’t roll the dice with my life or chance taking an infection home to my loved ones.

Is a safe work environment really too much to ask?

I don’t want to sit at home.

I want to teach.


 

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Now is Not the Time to Reopen Steel Valley Schools

On Friday, Johns Hopkins University reported the highest number of cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

That’s 83,757 new cases and 943 new deaths.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

This comes after 77,000 cases were reported the day before – which, itself, had been the record.

At this rate, the US will have 100,000 new cases and 1,000 new deaths a day very soon.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

Allegheny County has 14,818 cases and 421 deaths.

Cases have increased by 8% this week.

Now is not the time to reopen schools.

I don’t know how to say it any other way.

You just have to look at the facts.

The second wave of COVID-19 is sweeping across the nation, Pennsylvania, and our communities of Munhall, Homestead and West Homestead.

Nearby district McKeesport had an outbreak of at least 9 cases in a little over a week. Baldwin-Whitehall and Hempfield schools closed just last week because of outbreaks.

Steel Valley Schools haven’t had to deal with such problems because the district has been closed to in-person classes since March.

The school board wisely decided to continue virtual instruction for all students at the beginning of the school year. Its plan has been a model other districts should follow – especially those with 1:1 devices like ours.

But now district decision makers are putting forward a new plan to bring students back in the building on a half day basis starting the first week of November.

The school board will review the plan at its work session meeting on Monday in the high school auditorium at 7:30 pm. The meeting also will be live streamed on YouTube.

The board is expected to vote on the plan at its regularly scheduled meeting on Thursday, Oct. 29, at 7 pm.

It’s a terrible plan.

I hate having to say it.

I’m a Steel Valley teacher.

I don’t want to have to contradict the school board and my administrators.

I don’t want to have to insert myself into this debate.

But I feel like I have no other choice.

Since I don’t live in the district, I can’t go to the school board meeting and speak.

And when I have expressed my concerns to those in charge, they have been repeatedly brushed aside.

So I am putting them out there in the public space.

This is what a Steel Valley teacher really thinks about this proposed plan.

This is what I feel I must say even at the risk of my job and future in this district – the proposed plan should not be adopted. We should continue with virtual instruction until infection rates in the county are extremely low.

The proposed plan would have students dividing into two groups – one would attend in the mornings and the other in the afternoons.

Both groups would have all of their classes for 20 minutes each for four days a week – Monday – Thursday. Friday would be a half day virtual learning day.

Consider that students currently have their full classes on-line for four days a week. Wednesday is an asynchronous learning day.

So the new plan would cut instruction time by half.

And this is true even for double period classes. Two 20 minute in-person classes is better than one, but not as good as two 40 minute virtual classes.

Just imagine it.

If this plan is approved, students and staff would be rushing here-and-there for the tiniest fraction of possible instruction in-person, and then rush home to do the mountains of classwork that would be necessary to move forward at all.

And the price for all this breathless activity will be increased risk of infection and bringing it home to family and friends. Not to mention the cost on teachers like me who will be exposed to hundreds of children in enclosed spaces with few windows and poor ventilation on a daily basis.

But parents will be given a choice whether to subject their children to this schedule or not.

Parents will have to decide whether they want their children to attend in-person or receive virtual instruction.

However, the virtual instruction being offered under this new model is not in many cases the same as what children receive now.

Remote students in K-5 would still meet with a classroom teacher on video platforms.

However, remote students in 6-12 would have to enroll in the district cyber program. This is a canned ed tech initiative modeled on credit recovery. They will have minimal to no interactions with classroom teachers or lessons taught by district educators.

This would replace an exemplary district-designed curriculum with a subpar service to parents and students in the hope that they will opt for in-person instruction instead.

No matter which option you choose for your child, from an academic standpoint, this new proposal is a step backward.

Most students would receive less instruction from classroom teachers – either half of what they’re receiving now (but in-person) or next to nothing on-line in grades 6-12.

This plan does not solve any academic problems. It only partially solves the problem of child care.

Let’s be honest. That’s what the priority is here.

With many parents having to leave the home to work, they need babysitting options for their kids.

With school buildings closed, this incurs an additional cost for parents.

Moreover, local business owners find it more difficult to justify keeping their own establishments open to the public – bars, restaurants, etc. – while schools are closed.

But we already know what the result of such a plan will be.

District buildings were open exactly two days to students since the pandemic began – Sept 8 and Oct 6.

These were transition days where only 5th and 9th grade students were in the buildings. Both instances resulted in a teacher testing positive for COVID-19.

Imagine this large scale.

I’m sorry, but there are things more important than childcare right now.

The reason we are experiencing a second wave of COVID is because of plans like this one.

You can’t have some schools and businesses doing the right thing and others doing whatever they want.

That’s not how you stem the spread of a deadly virus.

Sensible districts like ours put safety first. Others reopened their classrooms with hybrid or other models.

The result is an increase in infections.

And that will continue to happen until we work together to provide a coordinated defense against the pandemic.

You can’t have half of the schools close their doors and the other half keep them open and expect the virus to just stop. You can’t have some people wear facial masks in public and others go without and expect the virus to disappear.

We need to work together or else prepare ourselves to hunker down for a very long COVID season. Or – even worse – a very short one.

If you are a resident of Munhall, Homestead or West Homestead and you feel the same way I do, I am begging you to go to the school board meetings.

Please tell the board not to proceed with this plan.

It will result in many, many people getting sick.

Some may die. Others may have life-long debilitating complications as a result of the virus.

That’s just not worth it.

That’s just not worth a little more in-person instruction and a little less out-of-pocket childcare costs.

Healthcare, hospital stays and funeral preparations are much more expensive.

Thank you for hearing me out.


 

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I Can’t Shield My Daughter From Both Coronavirus AND Edmentum – Our District’s Crappy On-line Learning Platform

Being a parent during a global pandemic means having to make difficult decisions.

The most pressing of which seems to be: from which Coronavirus spawned horror should I shield my child?

As schools slowly reopened in my neck of the woods, it was basically a choice between in-person instruction or remote learning.

Do I allow my child the benefits of a living, breathing teacher but risk the COVID-19 incubator of a physical classroom environment – or do I keep her safe at home but parked in front of a computer all day?

It’s not an easy call.

On the one hand, in-person learning is nearly always more effective than distance learning.

On the other hand, I don’t want her to get sick or become a Typhoid Mary bringing the disease into our house and infecting the rest of the family.

In any sane country, I wouldn’t have to make such a choice. Where infection rates are moderate to high, schools should be closed and all instruction virtual.

But American governance in 2020 is not nearly so rational.

In the absence of strong, sane leadership, each school district is its own fiefdom marching to the beat of its own discordant drum.

Even in Western Pennsylvania, my neighborhood school is leaving it up to parents whether to potentially endanger their children or not.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We could refuse to take chances. We could keep all students online and that would increase our academic options.

After all, there is more than one way to do remote learning.

We could ask the district’s classroom teachers to design instruction tailor made to their students but merely delivered online.

Or we could use a prepackaged platform to deliver that instruction.

To me, it’s obvious which is better.

One maximizes academic outcomes by making the virtual experience as much like the in-person experience as possible with multiple daily interactions between teachers and students. The other delegates the responsibility of educating to a corporation with minimal social interaction between students and educators.

The teacher led option is the way to go, but it only works at most districts if they give up the myth that they can make in-person instruction feasible during a pandemic that has already infected more than 7 million people in this country and killed 200,000 and counting.

In districts like mine where community leaders and even some school directors are committed to keeping the buildings open so that they can justify keeping open restaurants, bars and other establishments, there is a disincentive to even allow this third option. If the public chooses it, the local economy might suffer.

So they’re committed to giving people a choice – just not THAT choice.

If they can only choose between canned cyber curriculum or fresh but dangerous in-person models, they’re betting parents will choose the latter.

And in many cases they are. But a significant number are not.

In the McKeesport Area School District (MASD), where I’ve lived most of my life, nearly a third of the parents have chosen distance learning for their children instead of a half day hybrid model. One would think that would free up enough classroom teachers to offer synchronous, authentic instruction. Students could have lessons from a certified district employee with years of experience instructing children of that age, grade and subject matter. Kids and teachers could develop trusting and caring relationships and work together to create the best possible learning environment.

Some local districts are actually doing that.

But not McKeesport.

Instead the district is using its existent on-line credit recovery program for all virtual students.

The platform is Calvert Learning, a product of the ed tech giant Edmentum.

This multi-million dollar global company (it was sold for $143 million in 2010) is best known for creating Study Island and other standardized test prep based learning platforms.

The problem is it was never meant to be used as the sole provider of coursework for thousands of students in a single district.

In fact, the specific Edmentum product being used by MASD – Calvert Learning – was originally intended for home school students.

It was created for K-8th grade, but when added to Edmentum’s Coursework platform, the company claims to be able to offer credit recovery – I mean academic classes – for K-12 and beyond.

As a parent who has spent countless hours helping his daughter navigate it, let me tell you – it’s a mess.

The instruction and assignments it provides are developmentally inappropriate, assesses things it hasn’t taught, and are filled with grammatical and spelling errors. Moreover, the pace it prescribes violates the guidelines Edmentum gives to parents about how much time students should spend on-line.

According to “A Parent Guide: Supporting Your Child During Virtual Learning,” provided by Edmentum, cyber students should limit their time online. Elementary students should spend not more than 1-2 hours a day, middle school students 2-3 hours, and high school students 3-4 hours.

My 6th grade daughter typically spends 7-8 hours a day just to barely get things done – and that’s not counting 2-3 hours on the weekends.

I’ve seen her struggle through passages that are written far above her reading level.

For example, she completed a unit on characterization where she was required to read O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief.”

I know the story well, because as a middle school teacher, I’ve taught it to my 7th grade students from time-to-time. However, the version I’ve used is not the original that O. Henry wrote. It is brought down to the level of a middle schooler and unnecessary attitudes of the time are downplayed.

In the original, one of the characters, Sam, uses big words to show how smart he is. The version I use still has him do that but reduces its frequency so that middle schoolers can understand him. After all, 6th graders shouldn’t have to wrestle with “philoprogenitiveness,” “chawbacon” and “whiskerando” just to grasp a pretty basic plot.

Moreover, the story was published in 1907. The original text throws out numerous instances of casual racism against Native Americans that serve no point in the story. Does my daughter really need to be subjected to dehumanizing native peoples as mere “red skins” just to get a lesson on characterization?

Clearly this unit was not developed with child psychologists, practicing middle school Language Arts teachers or even people of color in the room.

If that weren’t bad enough, the questions are full of grammatical errors and typos.

One question about homophones asks students to consider this sentence:

“Select the correct answer.

Is the boxed word used correctly?

I’d like a PEACE of pie for desert?”

Students were asked if “PEACE” is correct – Yes or No. They should know that PIECE is actually the right word.

However, the question made no mention of the misuse of “desert” when the authors clearly meant “dessert.”

That’s the kind of thing that really confuses a student trying to make her way through a program all by herself.

On many assessments, she is asked things that were never taught in the section that was meant to be assessed. I know this is status quo on standardized tests, but is it fair to ask this of a child navigating an online program without even a living teacher to offer support and guidance?

In a social studies assessment on Neolithic peoples, many of the questions had nothing to do with the subject matter. They asked students to infer something based on a passage and none of the multiple choices were entirely correct. You had to pick the option that was least incorrect.

This is some crappy academics being pawned off on parents and students.

And it’s not cheap.

MASD paid $146,302.25 for 40 licenses to Calvert, Exact Path K-5, Courseware for 6-12 and other online services. When hundreds of additional parents asked for their students to be put on the cyber program, the district purchased 500 more licenses from Calvert for a bundled rate of $112,500. That’s $225 per license. Normally they are $450 per license.

Imagine if we put our tax dollars and our teachers to educating these students instead of seeding our responsibility to a corporation for hire.

And we could do it, too.

I work at Steel Valley School District.

Unlike MASD, we began the year with a 100% virtual program for all students. We conduct fully synchronous classes online designed entirely by the classroom teachers. And we post materials on Google Classroom so that students who miss the live Zoom meetings can watch videos of the lesson and do the work.

I’m not saying it hasn’t been difficult or that it’s without problems. Nor is such an endeavor better than in-person learning in a safe environment.

But the teacher-led remote model is the best that can be provided under the circumstances.

Districts that throw students to the whims of corporate educators for hire are shirking their duties.

They should face the realities of the world we live in.

If Coronavirus infections are significant in your county, you should not be offering in-person schooling. You should be offering the best remote option available – and that’s the teacher-led cyber option.

If only my home district knew it.

Meanwhile, my daughter has to struggle through with the cold comfort that at least she won’t get sick jumping through the hoops her school board is too partisan to eliminate for her.

I’m right next to her at the dining room table feeling guilty for putting her through this.

But what else could I do?


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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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!

Steel Valley Schools Will Reopen Fully Remote Rather Than Compromise on Safety

Thursday would have been the first day of in-person classes for hundreds of students at Steel Valley Schools.

But instead, district buildings will be closed and classes will be 100% virtual for all students.

The Western Pennsylvania district just south of Pittsburgh had planned to reopen with a hybrid model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, as the start date rapidly approached, it became clear that the district would not have the safety supplies necessary to protect students and staff. So administrators and school directors agreed to start the year with fully remote classes for at least the first month.

According to a letter sent home to parents written by Substitute Superintendent Bryan Macuga:

“…due to factors beyond the district’s control, efforts to upgrade systems at our buildings are not yet complete. In an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff, the administration – in consultation with the district’s board of directors – has decided to begin the school year with four full weeks of remote synchronous instruction. Students will still begin on schedule, but all classes for students will be held virtually for the first four weeks of the school year until October 5th.”

The original plan had students attending classes in one of three ways: enrolled in the district’s existent cyber program, doing 100% virtual assignments from the regular classroom teacher or a mixture of both virtual and in-person instruction.

Those who would have attended in-person were further divided into two groups – one of which would have attended in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and the other on Thursdays and Fridays. Students would have done virtual lessons when not in the classroom and on Wednesdays while buildings were being deep cleaned.

And this is the plan administrators hope to return to in October if they can install plexiglass barriers, fine tune a new HVAC system to better circulate airflow and other safety measures.

“The choice to move all classes fully online was a very difficult decision to make, and we sincerely apologize for any inconvenience this change may cause,” Macuga wrote in his letter to parents.

“The safety of our students and staff is our highest priority, and we make this decision out of an abundance of caution.”

As a district teacher, I – for one – am thankful for this sound, rational decision.

COVID-19 is no joke, especially in a community with relatively few cases but a higher than average rate of infection.

Of the three municipalities that make up the district, West Homestead has a case rate of 150.5 per 10K, Homestead has a case rate of 123.2 per 10K and Munhall has a case rate of 84.2 per 10K.

Moreover, an outbreak of COVID-19 was reported at St. Therese Plaza, a senior living apartment in very close proximity to the Steel Valley High School-Middle School complex.

WTAE News reported in August at least three confirmed cases at the facility including a caregiver and two patients.

But it’s not just the elderly who are at risk.

According to a new forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, the death toll from COVID-19 is likely to more than double to 410,000 by the end of the year.

The institute, whose previous forecasts have been cited by the White House and state officials, estimates the best case death toll with universal masking and tight safety precautions at more than 288,000, and a worst case death toll throwing care to the wind at more than 620,000.

People of color are most at risk of becoming part of that statistic.

According to the Center for Disease Control, minorities are much more likely to get sick and experience complications from the disease.

This is especially relevant in a district like ours where minority enrollment is 47% of the student body (majority Black). This is more than the state public school average of 34% (majority Black and Hispanic).

At a meeting of the Allegheny County Health Department on Wednesday, board member Joylette Portlock noted this susceptibility gap between Black and White residents throughout the Pittsburgh region. During the last two major spikes in COVID-19 cases, Black residents were much more susceptible than White residents. In April, local Black residents tested positive for the virus twice as often as White residents. But the July outbreak was even worse. Black residents tested positive three times more for the disease than White residents.

It should not be surprising then that Homestead – the district municipality with the highest population of people of color (more than 70%) – has such a high percentage of cases.

West Homestead is populated by mostly white people, but the neighborhood has a high incidence of poverty – another factor linked to susceptibility. Munhall has the highest socioeconomic status and lowest minority population, thus the lowest infection rate.

Opening schools when safety measures are not adequate to protect students and staff would be a recipe for disaster.

County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen cautioned how quickly the virus can be spread – especially by children. The health department had been tracking an infection from a teenager who spread COVID-19 to family members, who subsequently spread it to coworkers, who spread it to other teens, etc.

“It spread to over 40 people from this one outbreak in just two weeks,” Dr. Bogen said.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

Some try to downplay the danger, likening it to the flu.

But there have been 22 times as many COVID-19 deaths this year in Allegheny County, compared to the flu.

Dr. Bogen broke it down like this: There were 330 deaths in Allegheny County from COVID-19 compared to about 15 typically experienced because of influenza. Statewide, there were 7,673 deaths from COVID compared to 102 typical from the flu. Nationwide, there were 183,563 COVID deaths, and between 24,000 – 62,000 from the flu.

Source: Allegheny County Health Department

We have to take this virus seriously.

And unfortunately many of us are not doing so.

The health department inspected more than 2,000 restaurants for suspected health infractions. Inspectors found more than 200 restaurants weren’t in compliance with the county’s mask and occupancy guidelines.

And it’s not just restaurants. Several board members complained that they had seen mask infractions at healthcare organizations, salons and other retail establishments.

Schools may be more susceptible than most places.

I am so thankful the community leaders where I work have refused to go ahead with a safety plan that could not be completed in time to reopen.

I’m sure it was difficult to decide at the last minute to pull the plug on the plan, but it shows real concern for students and staff.

Frankly, I don’t think we should open to in-person classes even if we can achieve the level of safety the district has proposed.

The county still has a moderate level of infection according to Gov. Tom Wolf’s guidelines.

Though Wolf does not exclude a hybrid model as possible with this level of infection, it seems to me that “an effort to ensure we are proving the safest possible learning environment for students and staff” would be to go with the more cautious approach prescribed by Wolf – to remain in fully remote instruction until county infections decrease to a low level for at least two consecutive weeks.

However, I am thankful that district administrators and school directors have remained consistent in their plans and seem to be doing what they believe is in the best interests of everyone involved.

Hopefully when safety measures are ready to be implemented district wide, the level of infection throughout the county will have decreased as well.

I’m not a fan of virtual instruction. I’d rather teach students in-person.

But I’d rather none of us get sick or die even more.

Macuga will be conducting a community Zoom meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 9, at 6 pm to answer questions about the change from hybrid to full remote learning.


 

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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Just CLICK HERE.

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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!

 

The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

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I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

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Charter Schools Are Quietly Gobbling Up My Public School District


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I work in a little suburban school district just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that is slowly being destroyed by privatization.

 

Steel Valley Schools have a proud history.

 

We’re located (in part) in Homestead – the home of the historic steel strike of 1892.

 

But today it isn’t private security agents and industrial business magnates against whom we’re struggling.

 

It’s charter schools, voucher schools and the pro-corporate policies that enable them to pocket tax dollars meant to educate kids and then blame us for the shortfall.

 

Our middle school-high school complex is located at the top of a hill. At the bottom of the hill in our most impoverished neighborhood sits one of the Propel network of charter schools.

 

Our district is so poor we can’t even afford to bus our kids to school. So Propel tempts kids who don’t feel like making the long walk to our door.

 

Institutions like Propel are publicly funded but privately operated. That means they take our tax dollars but don’t have to be as accountable, transparent or sensible in how they spend them.

 

And like McDonalds, KFC or Walmart, they take in a lot of money.

 

Just three years ago, the Propel franchise siphoned away $3.5 million from our district annually. This year, they took $5 million, and next year they’re projected to get away with $6 million. That’s about 16% of our entire $37 million yearly budget.

 

Do we have a mass exodus of children from Steel Valley to the neighboring charter schools?

 

No.

 

Enrollment at Propel has stayed constant at about 260-270 students a year since 2015-16. It’s only the amount of money that we have to pay them that has increased.

 


The state funding formula is a mess. It gives charter schools almost the same amount per regular education student that my district spends but doesn’t require that all of that money actually be used to educate these children.

 

If you’re a charter school operator and you want to increase your salary, you can do that. Just make sure to cut student services an equal amount.

 

Want to buy a piece of property and pay yourself to lease it? Fine. Just take another slice of student funding.

 

Want to grab a handful of cash and put it in your briefcase, stuff it down your pants, hide it in your shoes? Go right ahead! It’s not like anyone’s actually looking over your shoulder. It’s not like your documents are routinely audited or you have to explain yourself at monthly school board meetings – all of which authentic public schools like mine have to do or else.

 

Furthermore, for every student we lose to charters, we do not lose any of the costs of overhead. The costs of running our buildings, electricity, water, maintenance, etc. are the same. We just have less money with which to pay them.

 

But that’s not all. The state funding formula also requires we give exponentially more money to charters for students labeled special needs – orders of magnitude more than we spend on these kids at my district.

 

Here’s how the state school code mandates we determine special education funding for charter school kids:

 

“For special education students, the charter school shall receive for each student enrolled the same funding as for each non-special education student as provided in clause (2), plus an additional amount determined by dividing the district of residence’s total special education expenditure by the product of multiplying the combined percentage of section 2509.5(k) times the district of residence’s total average daily membership for the prior school year. This amount shall be paid by the district of residence of each student.”

 

So authentic public schools spend a different amount per each special education student depending on their needs. But we have to pay our charter schools an average. If they only accept students without severe disabilities, this amounts to a net profit for the charter schools – and they can spend that profit however they want.

 

Moreover, if they reclassify students without disabilities or with slight disabilities as special needs, that means more money for them, too. Is anyone checking up on them to make sure they aren’t gaming the system? Heck no! That’s what being a charter school is all about – little transparency, little accountability and a promise of academic results (which don’t have to pan out either).

 

In the 2015-16 school year, Steel Valley paid the 19th highest amount of its budget to charter schools in the state (9%) and that number is growing.

 

According to the state Department of Education, here’s how our charter school spending has increased:

 

Steel Valley Per Student Charter School Tuition:

 

2000-01 – 2012-13

Non-Special Ed: $9,321

Special Ed: $16,903

 

2013-14

Non-Special Ed: $9,731

Special Ed: $16,803

 

2014-15

Non-special Ed: $10,340

Special Ed $20,112

 

2015-16

Non-Special Ed: $12,326

Special Ed: $25,634

 

2016-17

Non-Special Ed: $13,879

Special Ed: $29,441

 

2017-18

Non-Special Ed: $13,484

Special Ed: $25,601

 

2018-19

Non-special ed: $14,965

Special ed: $32,809

 

All of this has real world consequences in the classroom. It means fewer teachers and larger class sizes. It means narrowed curriculum and fewer extracurricular activities. It means reduced options and opportunities for all children – just so a new business can duplicate the services already being offered but skim tax dollars off the top.

 

Our State Senator Jim Brewster understands the problem.

 

“Charters are strangling school districts, eventually will put them out of business. When you lose your school district, you lose your city,” he said in an article published by Public Source.

 

Brewster is a Democrat from McKeesport with four school districts being likewise “cannibalized” by charter schools.

 

Steel Valley School Board President Jim Bulger also characterized the situation as dire.

 

“ Charter Schools have become a twisted profit-making machine and not what they were originally intended for,” he said.

 

 “Originally charter schools were meant to serve a demographic that the public schools could not. For example being heavy in the performing arts or items like that. It’s unfortunate that several people have decided to twist this decent idea into a profit-making scheme that bleeds public education and its very soul.”

 

Much of the problem is in Harrisburg where legislators refuse to see or address the issue. And that’s often the best situation. Others actively make things worse.

 

For instance, the state used to reimburse each district for 30% of its costs to charter schools. Then in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett cut that while slashing the education budget by an additional $1 billion a year.

 

Though some of that money has been restored in subsequent budgets, the charter reimbursement has not. Putting it back in the budget would go far to alleviating the bleeding.

 

But legislators need to get serious about charter school reform.

 

We can no longer afford a system that requires authentic public schools to fund their own competition. In fact, schools should never be in competition in the first place. Every school should be excellent – and the only way to get there is to start with adequate, equitable, sustainable funding in the first place.

 

There are seven charter schools within 5 miles of my district: Propel Homestead, Propel Braddock Hills, Environmental Charter School at Frick PA, Propel Hazelwood, Academy Charter School (in Pittsburgh), Propel Mckeesport, and Propel East (in Monroeville).

 

In addition, there are 55 private schools in the same area. Though the Commonwealth doesn’t have school vouchers, per se, it does have a backdoor version supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Many of these private and parochial schools gobble up $210 million of state tax dollars through these tax credit programs – the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) programs. And there’s a bill currently being considered in Harrisburg to increase that amount by $100 million this year and even more in subsequent years!

 

It seems our legislature has no problem spending on the school system so long as it isn’t the PUBLIC school system.

 

And the reason usually given for such support is the results privatized schools get. They claim to be better alternatives to the public system, but this is rarely if ever true.

 

Test scores are a terrible way compare schools, but charter and voucher schools rarely – if ever – outpace their authentic public school competitors. They either get similar scores or in many cases do much, MUCH worse.

 

For instance, take Propel Homestead.

 

In 2015-16, it served 573 students in grades K-12. Only 22% of students were proficient in math and 40% in Reading on state tests. Both scores are below state average.

 

Meanwhile, at Steel Valley High School during the same time period, we served 486 students in grades 9-12. In math, 50-54% of our students were proficient and 65-69% were proficient in Reading. That’s above state average in both cases. And we had similar results at our middle and elementary schools.

 

However, test scores are poor indicators of success.

 

Steel Valley Schools also had lower class sizes. We averaged 12 students per teacher. Propel Homestead averaged 15 students per teacher.

 

And then we come to segregation. Though both schools had significant minority populations, Steel Valley Schools had 42% minority enrollment, most of whom are black. Propel Homestead had 96% minority enrollment, most of whom are black.

 

So the authentic public school option is demonstrably of better quality, but our inability to bus students to-and-from school opens us up to predatory school charlatans who take advantage of our poverty.

 

And the situation is similar in surrounding communities. Poor districts serving impoverished minority students become targets for privatizers looking to make a fast buck off of our kids and families. They offer them a lower quality education and a slick sales pitch.

 

They increase segregation, lower academic quality, and get away with much needed funds that could help kids get a better education.

 

This nonsense has to stop.

 

The only schools that should be receiving public tax dollars are the authentically public ones.

 

They should have to abide by the same regulation, the same accountability standards, the same democratic governance, the same enrollment standards as authentic public schools. Otherwise, they should not qualify for public tax dollars.

 

We’re boring holes in the ship to make rickety life boats.

 

It’s time to stop the madness.

 

It’s time to stop letting our best chance to help all kids get eaten alive by the sharks of privatization.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve 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!

 

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