Teacher's Desk: Support Seawell for DPS

IEP meetings continue, and I may soon turn into a pumpkin. Meanwhile, Denver Public Schools are holding a school board election and I have an endorsement for the at-large seat: Mary Seawell. The reason I am endorsing Mary is simple. She supports doing whatever it takes to ensure student academic success. This includes programs and process in regular district schools, charter schools, magnets and innovation schools. That is the fair-minded philosophy that the Denver School Board needs. This is the attitude that is needed for someone who will be making the decision of our charter schools’ renewals and the charters of new charter schools.

Her opposition is clearly anti-charter school without results-based plans to improve student achievement. He regurgitates trite, worn-out arguments.

I like Mary for another reason. She was part of the team that built the Denver University’s new MBA in educational leadership. The program is a much needed resource and is a combination of traditional school leadership training coupled with marketing and entrepreneurship. Other states’ universities have “charter school principal programs,” and I am thrilled that Colorado now does too!

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator at Colorado High School Charter, a Denver alternative high school, and a former candidate for the State Board of Education.

Teacher's Desk: When parents cop out

Here I am, back to blogging. Why the hiatus? Partly because of how many special education students without current IEPs (Individual Education Plans) showed up on my school’s doorstep. Over 20% of our student population has an IEP and most of them are due now! Suffice to say, I’ve been too exhausted to even write when I get home, much less ponder on significant education reforms and policy. One of the two major issues I’ve seen is a lack of parental backbone. I have six special education students performing at the third grade level when they are sixteen or older who do not come to school and their parents don’t even try to get them here. Feeding them, and providing a place to sleep is not enough. Loving them into illiteracy won’t help either. Growing a parental backbone will help them.

Another issue I’ve noticed is again, one of poor parenting, and poor teacher judgment. I have students that are former gang members that are going straight and spent most of their high school careers incarcerated. They have an emotional disability due to anger issues. What they really have is a temper and was never taught strategies to calm down.

These young men both have mothers and fathers in prison. They come from neighborhoods where crime is the norm and your colors may keep you safe or cause you pain. The first teachers we all have are our parents and these parents didn’t have the skills to raise these young men to be the role models they both want to be now for their little cousins. So out-of-control, naughty, African-American little boys get penned emotionally (behaviorally) disabled and land in special education and even special programs for the mentally ill.

So how did these young men escape the cycle of poverty and crime? The usual way. They got caught and put in jail. One of the young men, I’ll call George, had a choice to either go to the Lookout Mountain juvenile facility or the Rites of Passage program at Ridge View Academy, a school and lock-up. In the beginning, he continued his behavior by not cooperating, but eventually, he saw himself at a fork in the road. He could continue the path he was on and end up in prison or make something of himself by getting a high school diploma, going to college, and making something of himself. He again, made the right choice.

Poor parenting has an enormous effect on our schools, our neighborhoods, our hospitals, our police and our selves. Children are not a toy that can be discarded when we become bored. It is hard work to raise nice, young men. I know. My husband and I raised two.

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator at Colorado High School Charter and is a former candidate for the State Board of Education.

Teacher's Desk: Rx Common Sense

Editor: Some think health policy is terribly complex. Some think all teachers lean left. Both notions are disproved by Kathy Kullback, who usually writes on education issues from her classroom vantage point, but demonstrates here how readily the health riddle yields to market logic. Don't Overthink the Health Issue

I wonder why all the people in Congress and all the White House people can’t figure the health care thing out.

Yes, health care is expensive. Yes, there is a pre-existing condition clause in most policies. Yes, most of us get our policies through our employers. And yes, our employers can only purchase from the companies allowed to do business in our state.

But do we need to revamp the entire thing? NO!

Make insurance companies compete for business by opening up markets. Allow companies and individuals to purchase from insurance companies doing business in the other 49 states. Take away the pre-existing condition clause, but in fairness, allow for a higher yet fair deductible when covering those conditions.

Cap malpractice settlements nationwide (Colorado does so already.) Pro-rate the working poor without insurance and let them buy into Medicaid.

Finally, build more medical schools opening up more seats for more prospective doctors. The field itself limits the amount of persons able to attend medical school. When the field becomes flooded, prices should fall.

If Obamacare’s public option becomes the law of the land, there will be rationing of services and doctors. Medical facilities will need to triage patient care---it could be you or a loved one that gets left out because they never planned for more doctors and licensed care-givers.

Digging the dirt on DPS

Besides nannying, mowing the occasional lawn and the seemingly full-time job that basketball and soccer demand, neither of us had really had a “real” job until this summer when we worked for a prominent Denver businessman and private investor. While the majority of college students were basking in the freedom that comes with summer vacations, we were inside an office doing research on the Denver Public School system. Although at first, the topic seemed dull and as arid as the Colorado weather, after digging in, we both started to become emotionally enticed by the subject. Did you know that almost half of DPS students do NOT graduate?

This figure came as shocking to us; we both attended private, religiously affiliated schools and graduating was the only viable option for us. While both of us had been exposed to the occasional troublemaker-type drop-out or the befuddled kid who didn’t take enough P.E. credits, neither of us had any idea that the chance of a kid graduating from is really a coin-toss. We were even more discouraged when we found that Denver has one of the best big-city public school systems in the United States. What has gone wrong in the public school system?

The passionately compassionate businessman we worked for believes that outdated and politically corrupt teachers unions are the culprits; they prevent individual schools from having effective control over their staff, abdicate the power of the principal to make informed decisions for their school, and protect the jobs of impassionate, ineffective, and just plain bad teachers. We both have been blessed to have many inspiring, zealous and talented teachers, who are probably one of the biggest contributors (next to our parents and the fear of being grounded) to our academic achievements. Teachers can motivate and encourage their students towards success- both in and out of the classroom.

So why the shortage in good teachers, we ask? The teachers’ unions are run by and for the benefit of the teachers that are late in their careers. Accordingly, they are motivated to pay the new teachers as little as possible, allowing the older teachers to get paid more and vest in larger retirement benefits at the end of their careers. It is also almost impossible to fire a teacher after they receive tenure, which happens after three years on the job. As a result, less than 1% of teachers in DPS receive unsatisfactory ratings each year, and only a handful of DPS teachers have been terminated over the last several years. See data here.

However, the blame cannot be thrown entirely in the teachers unions’ or even the bad teachers’ corner; parents and family life play a big role in a student’s success. John and Rama Pfannenstein never missed a single parent-teacher conference in either daughter’s entire academic career. When in high school, they recalled that one teacher even commented that they didn’t need to be there; “its usually the parents who should come that don’t show up.” Maybe they only liked to hear all the good things about their bright and charming daughter (says Kari Ann tongue in cheek), but we think the real reason they attended 14 years worth of conferences is because they genuinely care and take interest in their children’s academic pursuits.

Opening the car door or walking in the kitchen every day after school and being pummeled by questions like, “how was school today?” or, “did you learn anything interesting?” is really just an excited attention and the recognition of the importance of an education; even though they were usually answered with a curt, “fine” or, “no, not really.”

Roommates Rally is the byline of Kari Ann Pfannenstein of Denver and Corinne Smith of Virginia, sophomores at Washington & Lee.

Teacher's Desk: Tough Kids

First week back in the classroom. Our new math teacher is fresh out of college and trained by Teach America. Our returning students aren't what you'd find at most high schools. I saw two this year that I hadn’t seen for two years. One of the young men spent the last two years incarcerated. In fact, even though he is eighteen years old, he hasn’t been to school since middle school (except for two days here two years ago) because he spent his high school years locked up. I am almost in shock with the pleasantness of the students. The first week often is filled with fights and disagreements. This year: none. My kind aforementioned thug spent a good hour with me explaining his feelings of isolation as a “blood” amongst a lot of students affiliated with “crips.” We shared our experiences, and if not for the criminal involvement of the gang, sometimes they do some solid citizen stuff, believe it or not. He also shared the differences of the two types of gangs, which honestly was news to me.

His feelings of isolation reminded me of another student at our school. He never went to a high school before because he was home-schooled. He, too, had feelings of isolation because we only have a handful of white students and being in a new school, he didn’t know anyone.

“Hmmm…..” I thought.

While speaking to my friendly thug, I asked if he would watch the other young man’s back because he, too, felt isolated and didn’t have street smarts. He agreed, but told me not to let him know.

Another new student came to class this week and I knew he took meds for a bipolar condition (many of my students do). He looked like a fierce fighter of some sort with his hair in a sumo wrestler style on top of his head, some serious weight, and a piercing look emitting from his eyes. He has to be one of the sweetest kids I’ve ever met. Again, he is someone too familiar with the juvenile justice system.

That is why I love these students so much. In any other setting, I’d be like everyone else, probably pretty nervous around these guys, but here, I get to see their humanity and value.

Val, from a previous blog, visited my today. She decided to go ahead and go to college, so she was here getting help. She continues to be androgynous and just the smiliest person ever!

This is going to be a fun and successful school year for everyone. I can feel it in my bones!

Kathleen Kullback is a licensed special educator with an MA in educational leadership and a former candidate to the State Board of Education.