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Updated: 2018-03-02T10:22:39.602-06:00


The Bully Project


I had this really detailed post written.  Yesterday, over on Twitter - Sara Goldrick-Rab suggested that maybe school choice was a good option in light of failing Madison schools.  Rebecca Kemble countered that schools aren't uniformly "failing" -  there *are* successful programs out there - we just need to provide sufficient resources to fund them.Somehow, in the midst of it all, Sherman Middle School was brought up as an example of what is working. So I started writing out a list of all the good things happening at Sherman - the successful programs that are raising achievement, etc.  But I just deleted it.  You see, tonight - my 13 year old daughter asked me to watch the movie "Bully" with her.I just spent 90 minutes crying.  Near-sobbing, actually. Because for the entire movie, all I could think was: "If those kids had been at Sherman, they'd still be alive."Of course, there is no guarantee of anything in this life. But the one thing that Sherman (under the leadership of Principal Hernandez and his amazing, dedicated, incredible staff) does better than any school I've ever seen is to create a culture of acceptance, community, and respect.Sometimes I get a bit sad because so many people choose to opt-out of attending Sherman. There's a report out there that lists the # of kids in the attendance area who don't go to their "assigned" school. Last I saw, Sherman has one of the highest numbers of families who opt-out. Who can blame them? Look at our demographics:  72% low income; 25% ELL and 70% non-white.  We are a very diverse group. That's scary. I get that.But, at the same time - at the *very same* time - Sherman also has one of the highest numbers of families who live outside the attendance area who *opt-in* to attend. Kids who don't fit in elsewhere find a welcome community at Sherman. When a student at Sherman has a difficult situation, everyone responds with support.As I tucked my daughter into bed tonight, I hugged her tight and told her how incredibly proud I was of her and her school. Not for the advanced math they offer.  Not for the great books programs. Not for the amazing WCATY programs.  Not because they cook with L'Etoile chefs. Or any of the other academic achievement programs we've enjoyed at Sherman....(and there are many.)No, I am most proud of the community they have created. From the leadership of Mike Hernandez, to the support of every single amazingly dedicated teacher/staff member, to the students themselves.Sure, there is still lots to be done. Problems exist. Big ones. The achievement gap has not disappeared.  Poverty persists. But at Sherman, they are operating from a base of strength, compassion, and community....and really - go see the movie. It's on Netflix and iTunes. Have your tissues handy.[...]

Girl Rising


(image) I'd received a few emails from various friends about going to see Girl Rising. They all had the same tone: "Let's take our daughters to this they can see how lucky we are, etc. etc"

It was a week already too-full-of-activities, so I politely declined all invitations.

Then daughter D came home from school yesterday and said that friend R wanted to see the movie.  Instantly, I bought tickets and rearranged the entire schedule to make it happen.  R recently moved from a small African country and is in D's class. She is simultaneously learning a new language, culture, climate, school system. I suspect it is difficult.

D was having a tough time a few months ago - truly nothing out of the ordinary - run of the mill teen friend issues combined with a medical scare combined with just turning 13. I ran through all my parenting techniques of attempting to be supportive, encouraging, upbeat.  To no avail.

...and then friend R gave D a handmade book for her birthday.  It was called "All the great things about D" - and each page was dedicated to a different nice thing about D.  some big. some small.  all illustrated.  The look on my daughter's face as she read the book will stay with me forever.

If our house burns down, the first thing I'm grabbing is that book.

And now R has given me an amazing gift - this movie was so incredibly powerful. Turns out, it was the very first movie she has ever seen.  Turns out, there might not be very many degrees of separation between her life and beautifully strong girls we watched tonight.

So, watch out world.

I do feel lucky after seeing that movie. But not because we live "here" instead of "there."  I feel lucky because my daughter is blessed with friends like R, who demonstrate strength, kindness, and perseverance. 

And I think it is NO coincidence that half the teachers at their middle school were there - each with groups of girls of their own.  Public education is the key to Girls Rising - all over the world!

Race in Class


A few weeks ago, MMSD School Board President James Howard came to our school to read to kids during "Read Your Heart Out" day. In my son's class, he read Freedom on the Menu and led the kids in an insightful discussion about race, class, and equality in the civil rights movement.At one point, an African-American boy turned to the Hmong girl sitting next to him and asked, “Do you ever feel like you don’t have equal rights in Madison?”  This started another conversation about immigration, language, and life in Madison. The kids respectfully discussed tough stuff with honestly and directness. Why do we adults not manage this?   This article on Huffington post on the equity and excellence commission report is interesting, stating: "Because the current system of distributing educational resources short-changes poor and minority "exacerbates the problem" of an unequal starting point on the road to being a productive member of the economy. "As a result, we take the extraordinary diversity -- including linguistic backgrounds and familial relationships -- that should be our strategic advantage in the international economy and squander it." I think the elephant in the room is our country's dismal failure to distribute educational resources. We can argue until the cows come home whether the achievement gap is because of race, income, or parenting. We can argue whether a charter school is a better structure or an unfair squandering of resources.  We can argue that teachers unions are good or bad. But under all that arguing, we are losing sight of the simple fact that we aren't funding our schools. That's what we need to fix.Full disclosure:  I'm a supporter of James Howard in this year's school board race. I'm also a supporter of TJ Mertz.  I support them because I think they both have the ability to look beyond the current conflicts, respectfully work with their differences, embrace the extraodinary diversity of Madison schools,  and take actions to close the achievement gap.(And yes, the kids did lobby the sitting school board president for a longer summer and shorter school day. Good luck, BOE, with that one.)[...]

The scary, silent P word


It sure was fun following the first  debate on TV and Twitter - Romney's inaccuracies; Obama's less-than-stellar performance.  The Big Bird jokes alone, made it worth the time.

But, two days later, I still can't shake my morning-after feeling of disappointment. How in the world were these two powerful men able to debate for a full 90 minutes about the US domestic economy without even uttering a word about poverty?

An excellent education blogger, Jersey Jazzman, refers to America's Invisible Poor Children.  We have the highest child poverty rate in the developed world.  Nearly 25% of our children are growing up in poverty. Are we really OK with that? 

In my experience, well, yes, most of us are.  Most people I know go out of their way to avoid any contact with poverty.  It's not that hard to do: choose wealthier schools, avoid certain streets at night, join country clubs instead of community centers, live in nice neighborhoods.

Poverty is being ignored in education too.  Wisconsin is about to give each school a comparison "grade" - without any consideration for widely diverse demographics. This has been done before in other states. Not surprisingly, the poor schools get low grades.  The wealthier schools get high grades.

Yesterday, I had the afternoon off.  My son's school (68% poverty rate) was going on a field trip to a local community garden. At the last minute, the President decided to stop in Madison for a campaign speech. I toyed with the thought of going to see the President instead of spending the day with the kids.  A Presidential visit is once-in-a-lifetime, right?

In the end, I chose the kids.  And had the best afternoon I've had in years.  Because behind the childhood poverty statistics are some amazing, incredible, curious, energetic and all-around awesome kids. (And let it be known that they are being taught by amazing, incredible, and all-around awesome teachers, too.)

The President and Gov. Romney may be able to ignore them, but I can't.

Low performing schools - or not?


I read the story in Mother Jones today (yes, we actually subscribe in print) and cried.  Really:  tears, streaming down my face.  THIS is my kid's school.  Except substitute "Wisconsin" for "California" and "middle school" or "elementary" for "high school."

Most people in my neighborhood flee to private schools.  Or "open enroll" to a whiter, richer public school in Madison.  

For a multitude of reasons, we have stuck with our diverse, low-income schools.  And we have loved them.  More than loved.  Seriously, some of the Teachers and Principals we have met along they way have been life-changing figures in our lives.  I keep a running list in my brain of the 10 most influential people in my life - the people who inspire me to be a better human.  The people who make me work harder for all that matters in the world.   Currently, 6 of them are from one of the kids' schools.  (And I'm related to the other four....)

Registration is tomorrow.  Yes, we have another round of neighbors fleeing our school.  But this year, I'm not going to feel sad about that.  This year, I'm going to post this Mother Jones article on my bulletin board and continue my inspired fight for education for ALL.

But pineapples don't have sleeves!


This started out as a comment on Ed Hughes' fabulous school board blog.  (And if you live in Madison, you absolutely need to be reading that blog - He does a wonderful job of keeping the rest of us up to date on local education issues.)

Disclaimer:  my children do very well on standardized tests.  They come by this honestly.  My entire family does very well on standardized tests.  We have never met a scan-tron sheet that we didn't love at first sight.

But guess what?  It doesn't really matter!  If standardized tests were an accurate prediction of life success, my sister and I would currently be President (her) and Vice President (me)....her tests were always a percentile higher than mine, you see.  Or we would have invented Google or Facebook or a cure for cancer or something.

But we're not.  She's living in Alaska, saving the environment.  And I'm living in Madison, working, raising kids and going to too many school board meetings.  We both have very average lives. Lovely lives, for sure.  (But truly not 99th percentile lives, if one is measuring value by career or economic success.)

I very much want to defend standardized tests.  Left to my own world experiences, I would argue passionately that standardized tests were quite obviously the one and only measurement of pure intelligence.

But.  It isn't true.  The more I experience life outside of my own sheltered view, the more I am quite sure that isn't the case.

I've been following the story of the sleeveless pineapple all week and it just gets better and better. 

I've come to the conclusion that most of these tests don't really measure anything beyond how one manages to manipulate the test.

The one area in which I have been most disappointed in Obama has been education and his insistence that more testing is the answer to all our ills.  (Looks like I'm not alone - Matt Damon seems to agree.)

Why the emphasis and focus on standardized testing? Seriously. We already grade our children.  Why can't the grades speak for themselves?  Do we have such little trust in our teachers that we need some testing company to swoop in and charge us a ton of money and tell us our kids are super smart?  (or super dumb, as the case may be?)

In the past, I've defended standardized testing.  Now, I'm not so sure.

And finding out the story was really about an eggplant?!  Now, that was the last straw.

The Jacket


I hosted a birthday party last night for my 'Little'.   I piled her friends into the minivan and headed to the local roller rink.

After a rough start (locating 14 year old girls who living in various apt. complexes turns out to be harder than it sounds,) we all arrived in the designated party room, ready to have a fabulous evening.

The excitement and laughter were brought quickly to a halt when a manager of the rink rushed over and proceeded to interrogate the birthday girl, claiming that someone who wore the "same color jacket" as she had on caused trouble the previous weekend.  Evidently someone with this same color jacket had started a fight.  Police were called.  She was banned from the rink for 6 months.

The rink management assumed that my little was this troublemaker.  As they accused her of being a criminal, I saw her fold a thousand times over inside herself to the place she goes when this happens.  (And yes, dear white liberal friends....this happens. a lot.)

I intervened, of course.  Explained that this must be a case of mistaken identity.  Explained that the girl they were accusing had never been in a fight in her life.  Explained that they were with me.  Explained that we were there under our BB/BS relationship.  Explained that this was a birthday party.

The rink management quickly backtracked and couldn't have been more gracious.  They explained that she looked a lot like this other girl.  (And again, they mentioned that both girls had the same color jacket.)  They were wonderful hosts for the remainder of the evening.

The jacket in question was light grey.  It was a very stylish jacket - cropped with short puffy sleeves.  My Little hopes for a career in the fashion industry and pays a lot of attention to her clothing.  She may have a very limited budget, but she always looks amazing.

We put it behind us and ended up having a fabulous time.  We rocked that roller rink.

Midway through the party, I noticed her jacket crumpled up and stuffed in the corner of the box that held our shoes.  With every fiber of my being, I wanted to rescue the jacket and go to her and tell her to put it back on and wear it proudly because she is beautiful and young and stylish and awesome.

But I didn't.  I left the jacket crumpled in the shoe box.  I think it may still be there.

Because we both know that this incident wasn't about the color of her jacket.  It was about the color of her skin.

We have a long way to go.

Something to like: A big 5 year anniversary


A lot happened in 2007.In 2007, the iPhone was introduced (and immediately purchased chez Nelson, propagating an addiction to all things Apple.)In 2007, we were told our 13-year-old cat was about to die, so we went out and got two adorable kittens. (Needless to say, we lived in a three cat household for the next 5 years...)  His sister, not so much.In 2007, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.  (I still don't think he should have, but that's an argument for another day.)in 2007, Mitt Romney was running for President.  (Oh wait, that is still happening.)In 2007, Son D was obsessed with baseball.  (Oh, again, still happening)But hands down, the single most important thing that happened in 2007 was my match with my Little Sister through BB/BS. A. is my third match.  Honestly, I wasn't going to do another one.  I'd done two already - isn't that enough?  Like most people, I have an incredibly busy life with a job and kids and a home and plenty of other volunteer opportunities.But then I met A. You would have to be a stone not to fall madly in love with her. She was an amazing 9-year-old elementary school student - vivacious and curious about everything in life.  I was hooked.Over the last 5 years, we've had a lot of fun together. Lots of life lessons on both sides.Something remarkable happens at the 5-year mark. I think it must happen in every relationship, whether it is a marriage or a friendship or a BB/BS match.At 5 years, you become kindred spirits. By then, you know each so well: you know every one of each others flaws...and yet love each other hopelessly anyway. You've laughed. You've cried. Ups, downs, boredom, difficulties, thrills - you've had them all.  At 5 years, you are matched in your heart and soul.After 5 years, I could not be prouder of the 14-year-old young woman she has become.  I won't post a recent photo to respect her privacy, but just imagine the strongest, most beautiful, kindest girl you can imagine who sings like Whitney Houston and smiles like Mona Lisa.  Yep, that's her.It occurs to me that 5 years in the future, it will be 2017 and I will be sending her off to college. She'll be the first in her family to attend college.  Because of BB/BS and the scholarships/opportunities available to her through this program, she WILL attend college.Can I ask you a favor?  If you've read this far?  Please click on the link to BB/BS of Dane County's Facebook page  and "like" them.  A wonderful company (Capitol Insurance) has offered to donate $1 for every "like" they get. 1,000 likes will give them the ability to make another match! 1,000 likes will give some other lucky soul the life-changing amazing experience that I have had.What's not to like about that?[...]

In the Middle


My daughter and I were peeling potatoes for dinner the other night when we happened upon This American Life's Middle School podcast.  If you, or someone you love, is currently in Middle School, please stop reading this drivel and go listen to Ira Glass instead.  It was that brilliant.

I don't admit this much in public, but I am fascinated by this tween, middle-school, awkward stage we are finding ourselves in right now.  I know I'm supposed to hate it and complain about middle-school.  I suppose that when you start your parenting journey with 6 months of constant screaming, it takes a lot to rattle you. (Yes, we still compare every single developmental stage to colic.  "Terrible Twos? nah, not as bad as the colic.")

I'm actually enjoying this stage.  (I truly hesitate to write that - does this mean my lovely child will now come home with a Mohawk and tattoos and multiple body piercings to prove me wrong?)

For me, the most incredible part is seeing brief glimpses of the adult who is slowly emerging out of all of this childhood stuff. The shocking part is that this amazing person is *nothing* like me. 

I always knew, somewhere in my brain, that the critical developmental act of the teenage years would be the whole "independence" thing.  But I guess I always thought the kids would rebel against parents and authority, but eventually they'd settle in to be little carbon-copy miniatures of me. 

They'd like to shop at Banana Republic.  They'd want to be in the school musical.  They'd think George Eliot is the greatest author, ever.

So far - no, no and no.

I am quite sure that the slamming doors and the "I hate you's" and the sulking silent treatments are lurking just around the corner.  Hopefully I'll be able to step back and say, "Nope, still not as bad as the colic" and soldier on in the process of creating incredible & independent individuals.

(Preferably ones that don't scream incessantly.)

Occupy the Food Pantry


On Friday, I was helping out at the amazing River Food Pantry. The host a community meal every Friday night and open the food pantry up to anyone who needs extra food. When I walk into the country club in my neighborhood, I instantly feel uncomfortable and uninvited. When I walked into The River, I feel welcomed, respected and valued. It is a true gem in our community. Just being near passionate, committed, dedicated people like the founders (Andy and Jenny Czerkas) restores my faith in humanity.It was a busy Friday. I think close to 200 families came through for dinner and groceries. Off to the side, there was a table with two wonderful volunteers who were there to register people to vote. Wisconsin just recently passed some restrictive voter-ID laws and I suspect many of the population in attendance on Friday probably do not have adequate identification for the new voting process.But they didn't get a lot of action at their table. They basically sat for most of the night, just talking to each other. I think that maybe two or three people came to take their information. Meanwhile, the rest of us were working our tails off trying to manage the feeding/grocery procuring process.I respect the message that the political groups forming "Occupy Wall Street" and "Recall Walker" are promoting. I admire their tenacity in gaining signatures and staging protests. I'm glad they were there on Friday and I'm glad that more people are now educated on the voting requirements.But I think the message of the Occupy Wall Street and Recall Walker groups would be a lot stronger if they combined some action with their rhetoric. What if they came to the food pantry to register voters AND brought 20 volunteers with them to help? What if they collected signatures for recall AND collected canned goods to donate to those in need?At one point in the night, a lovely woman who could have been me - same age, same height, same race, same jeans - came through the line. She looked at me in confusion and said "I've never been here before, I'm not sure how it all works." I told her "I'm pretty new here too, but everyone is so nice and helpful, we'll figure it out together." We instantly connected and smiled at each other and I'm fairly sure we both had the slight hint of tears welling in our eyes. It didn't matter who was the volunteer or who needed the food or what anyone's religion or politics were. Andy and Jenny and all the other amazing employees/volunteers at the River have created a community where neighbors help neighbors and everyone wins.There is no "99%" there. We, all of us, are the 100% and everyone is treated with love and respect. As much as I love reading all the "I am the 99%" signs, I can't help but wonder if maybe we could *all* combine a little more action with our eloquently worded signs.Except for the hilarious one with the 2% milk. That sign can stay.[...]

Man Up


(image) This is my little sister. (I think it is the first photo I have published on the blog - but I have determined that it is enough from the back that no one can identify her...)

She is one of the most amazing people I have ever met. She is more generous than anyone I know. She is more polite than either of my own children. She is kind. She is responsible. She is damn smart. (although her WKCE scores may not reflect will have to trust me.)

When I offer to buy her "anything in the world - anything she wants" would you like to know what she asks for? A book. She doesn't want designer jeans. She doesn't want an electronic gadget. She doesn't want the latest Harry Potter lego set. (note - those are all things that MY kids might ask for.) She just wants a book. (Really, she is that incredible.)

And she is incredibly lucky. She's lucky because she's a girl. If she were a boy, she would *still* be on the waiting list at Big Brothers/Big Sisters. The last three years of amazing experiences that we have had would be nothing but dreams.

Did you know that boys in Dane County wait over 2 years for a mentor? TWO YEARS. I think that her little brother has been on the waiting list for 3 years.

I love that the new BB/BS campaign is entitled MAN UP.

I try to explain to people that yes, being a Big takes up a lot of time. And yes, being a Big can sometimes take a little bit of money. (We aren't supposed to buy our "littles" anything, but you show me the person who can let a child live in Wisconsin without a winter coat....) And yes, being a Big can be tough. You will face things you never thought you'd be dealing with.

But it is simply impossible to explain to people how being a Big makes your heart soar. Being a Big changes everything. Being a Big gives you hope, purpose, and faith in humanity.

I've never once in my life wished I were a man. But reading the statistics about the dire lack of Big Brothers, I just wish that I could be a Big Brother.

The difference a Big Brother would make in the world - wow. I can't even come close to that.

Man Up. You could change the world. Or at least one incredible young boy's world.

Summertime and the livin' is conflicted


Big controversy here in Wisconsin over New Berlin's affordable housing plans. Affordable housing and poverty are two big interests of mine, so I read all the articles carefully. I was fine until I got to the comments on the local paper's story. Now, I realize that people who comment on newpapers on-line are their own special kind of crazy. But blatant mean-spiritedness of the comments shocked me. Who writes that stuff????

I think there is a fundamental disconnect between the reality of poverty and the perception of poverty.

People aren't poor simply because they are lazy or stupid. But it must be awfully convenient to believe that, because then you can probably wash your hands of trying to *do* something to solve the problem.

My "little's" family is going through some unbloggable stuff right now. I can sum it up in two simple words: poverty sucks. Suffice it to say that most of us would have trouble walking a block in the shoes of a family struggling to find a place to live and put food on the table, never mind a mile.

I live in a neighborhood that is statistically both whiter and richer than New Berlin. Affordable housing will come to my neighborhood when pigs fly.

So I struggle internally in the summer, moving frequently between the housing projects and the country club. Note: I am not a member of the country club. I'll join when they offer subsidized memberships for low income families. I refuse to join any organization that won't accept my Little. (See any pigs flying, yet? No, me neither.)

For years, I kept my Little away from neighborhood events. It's just awkward and not that fun for her to be the one and only non-rich-white person in attendance. But maybe that's a mistake. Maybe if people got to know her, they'd learn that she is smart and beautiful and hard-working.

Maybe people are prejudiced against the poor only because they don't have any true friends who are poor?

But how will we ever change that if people (myself included here) segregate ourselves by where we live?

Northside Family Restaurant Values


To celebrate the last days of elementary school, my mother (visiting from MD) offered to take daughter D to any restaurant in Madison - cost was no object. Anywhere she wanted to go!

I started salivating. We have some pretty awesome restaurants in Madison. L'Etoile! Harvest! Fresco!

But my daughter had something else in mind. She named a strip-mall restaurant, down the street from us.

"Oh sweetie," I said, "We can go there any time. This is a special dinner! You only 'graduate' from elementary school once! Pick somewhere nice!"

But she held to her guns. See, last week her class received a nice surprise from this restaurant. The waitresses at the restaurant, together with the owner, pooled their money together to donate hundreds of dollars to the 4th/5th grade field trip to Green Bay. Then, the owner paid for a school bus to go to the school and bring the kids to his restaurant, where he offered them ANYTHING ON THE MENU. For free. The kids were beyond excited.

He explained to the kids that he came to the U.S. from Armenia and when he arrived, people were kind and helped him out. He wanted to give back to the country that gave him so much, and was reaching out to our school to do that.

In no uncertain terms, my 11-year-old daughter told me that he had something more important than a fancy menu with over-priced wines. He had character and values.

So we went. To the unpretentious strip-mall restaurant. Where we had a lovely dinner. (And bonus: turns out they serve Spotted Cow!)

As we left, my son turned to me and said, "You know, that restaurant doesn't look like much on the outside. But inside, where it counts, it is really nice."

I blinked back a few tears (mothers are allowed to be a bit overly emotional when their eldest is leaving elementary school behind, no?) and told him that was exactly right. And I was so very glad that my daughter didn't listen to my recommendation to go to the fancy restaurant instead.

I'd like to think that I'm the one teaching my kids that what is on the inside matters more than what is on the outside. But I suspect that perhaps, they are the ones teaching me.

Solidarity Forever


It is rare for me to concur with David Brooks. But in this column, directed at college graduates, I found something we agree on. He says that graduates are being told:

"Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture."

He continues:

"The graduates are also told to pursue happiness and joy. But, of course, when you read a biography of someone you admire, it’s rarely the things that made them happy that compel your admiration. It’s the things they did to court unhappiness — the things they did that were arduous and miserable, which sometimes cost them friends and aroused hatred. It’s excellence, not happiness, that we admire most."

We all want the best for our children. But what if it turns out that providing them with the best of everything isn't the answer? What if allowing them to experience some of the struggles that life invariably contains, actually helps them?

Last night, we went to the school picnic of the middle school that daughter D will attend next year. The school has a 71% poverty rate, so most of our neighbors choose to attend a private school, or open-enroll to another public middle school.

But while we were there, we met a group of 7th graders who went down to New Orleans to do an incredible service learning project. We also met a really neat young man who demonstrated his complicated science fair project in both English and Spanish. (Something I certainly could not do....either the science or the Spanish!)
Finally, we headed downtown to the interfaith coalition solidarity singalong.

I know there will be enormous obstacles in the upcoming year. There will continue to be unique challenges at a high-poverty school.

But standing with my fellow Madisonians at the Capitol last night, singing "We shall not be moved" and "Solidarity Forever," it felt, for a few minutes, like we were part of a community that valued the rights of all citizens over the individual happiness of a select few. I felt hope.

David Brooks should come a sing a few verses with us.

Best School Board Meeting. Ever.


I go to a lot of school board meetings. That either makes me certifiably insane, or a concerned citizen who is very interested in education policy. (please let it be the later. please.)There are only a handful of us average-joe-citizen-parents who are regulars at the local BOE meetings. Sometimes I get really annoyed that no one else seems to care about this critical business of educating our children.But then, there is a meeting like tonight's - and I am so very grateful that I have whatever recessive mutant gene I possess that attracts me to attend local education meetings.Tonight, the teachers were out in full force. There was standing-room-only at the meeting. I saw almost every teacher from our elementary school. The teachers spoke so eloquently that I was moved to tears. More than once.You would think, perhaps, that they were complaining about the millions of dollars of lost benefits and salaries they will not get in the next budget cycle. No, you'd be wrong. Perhaps they were complaining about the $900 million decrease in WI education funding. No, not that either. Or maybe they were upset about the people who continue to write to the local paper decrying the "union thugs" and the "fat-cat overpaid teachers" No, that wasn't it.They came out because the district is contemplating a change in their planning time. The district wants to provide more time for professional development. They thought they could take a few hours away from teacher planning time to make way for classes/workshops/seminars. When I first read this, it sounded like a pretty good plan, to me. Really, who doesn't like learning new skills?But then I spoke with some teachers. And I learned about the incredibly important work that they do in their planning time. I learned about the field trips they planned. And the science experiments. And the art projects. And the reports they write. And the amazingly creative work they do to keep students engaged. (I could go on and on...)I am hoping that our board heard what I heard. We have amazing kick-ass teachers in Madison who care more for the students they serve than just about anything else. The passion for the kids came through loud and clear.And reason #101 why I could never be an actual Board Member and why I respect them more than they will ever know: After listening patiently for over 2 hours of teacher testimony, they began their very-full regularly scheduled meeting. At 9 pm. When normal people should be headed to bed. That is when they *started.*TJ Mertz, of AMPS, outlined the agenda items here. I went home and watched on TV and have two comments:1) TAG ("talented and gifted") - I may be the only parent in the entire district who thinks TAG is doing a great job. We've had no problems at all getting our kids identified and getting amazing services from our classroom teachers and our instructional resource teachers. But I'm a parent who is in the school every week....and goes to board meetings....and is on district committees.So, that makes me think that one of the big problems is perhaps *communication* to parents on the services available and how to make use of them. That is why I really like the new plan. I think it goes a long way to improve services and communication.I was on the TAG parent committee, until I got kicked off. (Long story - but I don't recommend ever asking a group of TAG parents the following question: "Don't you think that the kids who are learning all of this stuff in their second language are just as smart, if not smarter, than our kids? What about kids who grow up in poverty and overcome obstacles our kids can't even imagine, but still perform well? Don't you think we [...]

It's the poverty, stupid.


Oh, the intentions I had to keep this blog regularly updated again....sadly, life gets in the way.

But I have finally carved out some time to pen my thoughts on next year's MMSD Budget. You know, the one in which we ask the Madison teachers to collectively take a $15 million dollar pay cut.

Last year, the Board did not have the flexibility to ask the teachers to make such a sacrifice. Instead, they were forced to propose budget cuts that directly affected student programming. You name it, it was on the chopping block: sports programs, English-Language-Learner services, school closings. After months of difficult negotiations and community-listening sessions, they came up with a budget that worked for most people (within the realm of our very screwed-up school funding formula.) The community came out in droves to state their objection to the cuts. Most of the listening-sessions were standing-room-only. In the end, I felt like we avoided the most damaging cuts. Barely.

But in comes Governor Walker and his budget repair bill, and the tables are turned. Wave the magic wand and we can balance the budget on the backs of our teachers! You know - those overpaid fat-cat teachers.

John Matthews (Teachers Union leader) is calling "uncle" and Ed Hughes (school board member) responds.

I have much more to write on the interplay between management and the union in our school district. Surprisingly, I agree with the school board more often than with Mr. Matthews.

But, I think we are losing sight of the true key issue: childhood poverty. We live in a country in which nearly 20% of our children live in poverty (or "near-poverty.") In our district, 50% of the children qualify for free/reduced lunch. At our school, it is close to 70%.

Who do you think is the one key person who can actually help a kid escape poverty? In my experience, that person is their teacher. The teachers at our school do more than teach - they provide food, clothing, love, guidance, and support.

Every year, I put together a book through iPhoto for our teacher. I ask the kids to tell me their favorite thing about the teacher and we throw together some photos and their quotes. It's really nothing fancy, but it looks nice after Apple gets done with it.

The kids like my son, the ones who grow up with 2 parents and a bed to sleep in and enough food to eat, - they give boring answers: "I have a nice teacher. We do fun things." You know, generic, stock 8-year-old answers.

But the other 2/3rds of the class....they make me cry. They could fill the entire book with the incredibly meaningful things they say about the teacher. It is immediately apparent that for many of the Hmong kids in the class, their beloved teacher is the only person who is able to regularly read to them aloud. They remember she has read all year long. They describe her voice when she reads, the plot of the story, the twist at the end.

Teachers matter.

I am not willing to accept a society in which 1 in 5 children doesn't get enough to eat. And the people I see leading the charge to eliminate childhood poverty are the teachers.

So I'm just not sure how drastically cutting their pay helps anyone.



Why does everything have to be so complex? Why couldn't we have some more black vs. white or right vs. wrong?I just returned from testifying at the school board meeting. I'm not known for my estimating abilities, but I'd say there were over 110 people there who spoke. At least 100 people spoke in favor of a particular charter school. I think there were only 5 or 6 of us who spoke against it.That was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Don't get me wrong, I speak at school board meetings regularly. I think the school board members see me and think "oh no, not her again." But tonight was different. I was shaking in my shoes.The charter school in question was a charter school for disadvantaged African American boys. Anyone who knows me well knows that this is a cause near and dear to my heart. I've been a "Big Sister" to some amazing African American young ladies for over 20 years. I've lobbied the board over and over and over again to provide MORE resources to our minority and low-income students. I enthusiastically send my kids to an amazing public school in which minorities are the majority and 70% of the kids receive free/reduced lunch.But - the way they wanted to structure this charter school was troublesome. In Madison we have "instrumentality" and "non-instrumentality" charter schools. "Instrumentality" means that the Board of Education has some jurisdiction over the school. They get some authority over the administration of the school. "Non-instrumentality" is essentially a private school. (But one that gets public money.)So, I had a decision to make. Here is a charter school that serves a population that I have devoted a great portion of my time/energy to help. Every single speaker tonight struck a chord within my core. They spoke the truth. There *is* a huge achievement gap within our school district. I know, I see it on a daily basis.But....this particular school is a procedural example of everything I feel is wrong in the education reform movement. I firmly believe that the proposals in front of Wisconsin for expanded vouchers and charters (SB22 and the other bills) will completely destroy our public education system.So, I stood up.I asked them to keep their ideas and innovation and enthusiasm and to channel it into an "instrumentality" charter school. Yes, that would require more bureaucracy and it will certainly take longer. But it would be available to every single student - not just the ones who won the charter-school-lottery. You see, the kids I have fallen madly in love with don't even have the resources to apply to the charter school. Some of their parents don't speak English. Others don't have parents who are involved. Still others are homeless. A charter school lottery will certainly help a small population. But it won't help everyone.The board voted 6-1 in favor of the charter school. Marj Passman was the one board member who seemed to share my concerns.I spent most of yesterday at a marathon school budget meeting. I can honestly say this was the first budget meeting in which I witnessed grown men cry. Yes, the budget situation in WI under Walker is that dire. The superintendent at one of the districts was describing some of the budget cuts his staff would be taking (20% pay cuts, layoff, etc.) and he started to cry.So, of course, I started to cry too. I'm still crying tonight. But tomorrow morning, I will get up again, and start the fight again. Our country NEEDS public education and I refuse to give up.[...]



I am generally an optimistic, glass-half-full kind of person. It takes me a long time to distrust or dislike someone or something, in general. I don't subscribe to conspiracy theories. I am often mocked for being gullible or naive. (And I am. Both gullible and naive. I admit it.)

So, I'm having a really hard time with this one:

On Monday, Bill Cronon published an amazing Op-Ed in the New York Times. My favorite part is this paragraph:

"Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy. Their political convictions and the two moments in history are quite different. But there is something about the style of the two men — their aggressiveness, their self-certainty, their seeming indifference to contrary views — that may help explain the extreme partisan reactions they triggered. McCarthy helped create the modern Democratic Party in Wisconsin by infuriating progressive Republicans, imagining that he could build a national platform by cultivating an image as a sternly uncompromising leader willing to attack anyone who stood in his way. Mr. Walker appears to be provoking some of the same ire from adversaries and from advocates of good government by acting with a similar contempt for those who disagree with him."

Note that he says that Walker is NOT McCarthy.

So what does Walker do? He files an open records request to get access to Cronon's emails.

What???? Here we have a very intelligent UW professor who disagrees with our current government in a well-written Op-Ed but has done NOTHING WRONG. Our state is now allowed to read our emails for the simple reason that we disagree with the Gov.? Really? Can they do that?

Cronon's blog is worth a read for the full story.
Jay Bullock has more on his blog, Folkbum.

Scott Walker may be the one who succeeds in turning me into a cynical pessimist. Please tell me that this stuff isn't happening all over the country. Please tell me that Walker is an anomaly.

Charters and Vouchers and Testing, oh my.


With all the events going on around the world this month, my dad has been calling and singing Kingston Trio lyrics to me:They're rioting in Africa, there's strife in Iran. What nature doesn't do to us, will be done by our fellow man.If anyone knows the extent of what nature can do to us, it is my master-of-disaster father. (He also knows more obscure song-lyrics from the 1950s than anyone else I know...)The news about what nature can do has been absolutely horrifying this week.I didn't think the "fellow-man" news could get worse for education in Wisconsin after seeing the nearly $900 million cut to K-12 education in Walker's budget. But boy was I wrong. Welcome to SB-22.SB-22: Creates a 9-person authorizing board for charter schools: 3 appointed by the governor, 3 by the senate majority leader, and 3 by the speaker of the assembly. Changes current law that limits organizations to opening only one charter school. SB 22 permits one organization or company to open multiple charter schools which allows non- and for-profit franchised Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) to enter Wisconsin.Modifies teacher licensure requirements so that teachers in charters do not need certification.Lifts cap on and promotes virtual (online) charter schoolsLining up right behind SB-22 is an upcoming bill on vouchers, to divert education money from public schools to private schools.At first glance, this looks great, right? More charter schools! More innovation! What's not to like? There's a lot not to like:The charter School authorizing board circumnavigates the local school districts, limits legislative oversight and allows Walker’s cronies, who have no experience in education, to make influential decisions about schools.There simply isn't data to support that charter schools, in and of themselves, are better than public schools. There are good charter schools. And bad charter schools. Stanford has lots of research worth reading here.I'm still reading all the info, but I have yet to find any good information on how the charter school/voucher plan will serve special education or English language learners. It is really expensive to serve these populations and they don't always have high scores on standardized tests. If we move to a system that is run solely by efficiency and measurable results, it could have devastating consequences for many of our students.The one up-side to all of this horrid budget news is that I have met some of the most incredible people as we organize to oppose the destruction of public education in Wisconsin. Last night, I met an amazing group of young women who started Public Schools for the Public Good - a great website for the latest news on education, both locally and nationally. Stay tuned. This isn't over. Across the political spectrum, the citizens of Wisconsin value public education and we will not let Scott Walker destroy it.[...]

On Wisconsin


It is really hard to find the right words to describe today. Lots and lots of people came together to stand up for the rights of Wisconsin's working people. It was the largest rally yet. The day started with a tractor parade around the Capitol. Farm families came from all over the state and brought their tractors with them.I have had the pleasure of working with many members of the Wisconsin Farmers Union. They are good, good people. Many (most?) are conservative. But they will be badly hurt by the proposed budget. Under the proposed budget, rural Wisconsin communities will see their school districts destroyed, as the cuts to Badgercare and the earned income credit further decimate their standard of living.This afternoon, there was another huge rally as the 14 Democratic Senators returned to Madison. I understand there were some celebrities around, as well, but the people of Wisconsin only wanted to hear from the Fab 14. My kids were spellbound as they spoke. (well, until we got cold and ducked into Capitol Kids for a warm-up break. It is still very much winter here in WI!)It's also hard to describe the absolute diversity of the people out today. People in wheelchairs. The elderly. Small babies. Students. Trash collectors. Teachers. Firefighters. People with signs in Spanish. Union members. Private sector. People with dreadlocks. A woman in a fur coat and high heels. Teenagers on stilts. Truck drivers in leather. All races, all ages, both genders.We've been here for 15 years now and up until today, I have continued to refer to DC as "home." Just yesterday I said, "Oh, at home, we start to get nice weather in March."But I think it is safe to say that from this moment on, the only place that will ever be home for me again is Madison, Wisconsin. I have never been more proud to consider myself a Wisconsinite. I even bought Davis a cheesehead hat today. Thank you Wisconsin.[...]

We're not crazy left-wing liberals, really, we're not.


Now that we've made national news (I think we were above the Charlie Sheen stories this morning!) - I've seen a few news stories categorizing the protesters in Madison as being extreme liberals.

I'm the first to admit that we've got plenty of lefties here in Madison. Many of them are my best friends. But there are a bunch of us who are just left-of-center out there protesting too. I can hardly be described as fringe - we live around the corner from the Governor's mansion. (My daughter worried what we would do if his sons joined the neighborhood swim team this summer and I assured her we would be polite and civil.)

I'm more upset about the process and political tactics than I am about some parts of the bill. I expected Walker would try to cut both taxes and spending - he gets to do that. We did elect him. (I even agree with some of the provisions of his bill.)

You have to understand that the Governor in Wisconsin is a very powerful man. We have the "Vanna White" veto - otherwise know as the partial-item veto. Both Thompson and Doyle were notorious for their use of this power. With it, they can take out individual words or letters to change any sentence to their liking. They can pretty much do whatever the hell they want.

So, Walker simply did not have to act in the power-grabbing way he did. He did not have to attempt to ram this through the legislature in 5 days. He did not have to have the Fitzgerald brothers hold middle-of-the night votes in the Assembly or 2-hour-notice votes with the Senators.

Our next biennial budget doesn't start until July. He had plenty of time to let the Assembly and the Senate debate this bill. He had plenty of time to allow journalists to write about it and citizens to protest. (or not.)

The thing is - here in Wisconsin, government works pretty well. Not perfect, but well.

Our schools are good. Our roads are plowed to a standard unlike anything I saw on the east coast. Our buses are on time. Our DMV is actually run by competent, friendly people. Our University system is excellent. Our parks are numerous and well kept. Our police and firefighters are respected. Our children all have healthcare, regardless of income. We even plow our ice-skating rinks on a daily basis during the month of January. There is a lot right with the public sector in Wisconsin. (Again, not perfect...but good enough.)

That is why I think he rushed this through with the political tricks. I think he realized that if he gave people enough time to think, they'd say, "It may not be perfect - but I like our highly functioning public sector here in Wisconsin."

Things got interesting in Madison tonight


For the last few weeks, my son and I have spent Wednesday nights up at the Capitol. My daughter has tap class, so we drop her off and head down to join the protesters for a bit.Tonight, we decided not to go. Tap class was canceled due to a scheduling conflict, so we all changed into our PJs early, and curled up with our books in front of the fire for a relaxing night.As I was making dinner, my Twitter account was going nuts. "Come to the Capitol IMMEDIATELY" messages at every turn. I ignored them - how urgent could it be? The news yesterday led me to believe that a compromise was coming. The Fab 14 had been communicating with the Governor's office. Although the media made it sound divisive - certainly that means that some progress was being made. Right?But then Facebook started taking off, so I turned on the WisconsinEye cable channel to watch the Senate proceedings. It wasn't like anything interesting could possibly happen, but I figured I should have it on while I made dinner.All of a sudden - holy shit - I was brought back to the evening of the Assembly Vote, when I watched the Assembly Republicans railroad the budget repair bill through at 1:30 a.m. on a ambush vote. (Yes, I stayed up to watch it.) The Republican Senators did the same thing tonight - they separated the Collective Bargaining provisions from the financial part of the bill and rammed it through.Basically, they took the part that NO ONE likes (union busting) and approved it. The part that most people will accept (financial concessions from public sector workers) is still out there. It really makes no sense.By now, dinner was burnt to a crisp, but I managed to scoop it out and tell my children that "this is what democracy tastes like" and we wolfed down the food and piled in the car to head downtown.It was really amazing down there. The inner ring of the Capitol was full of a slow parade of cars, honking their horns in a chanting rhythm. People were in the building and circling around the outside.We know that the atmosphere was a bit more angry tonight than in days past when we saw a few people walking clockwise. Anyone who has spent any time in Madison knows the drill: whether it is the farmer's market or an art fair or a 100K person protest: We walk counter-clockwise around the Capitol. We just do.Things could start to get very interesting...[...]

Bad, bad teacher


The problem with education, according to most of the education-reform articles I'm reading, is the following:

1) bad teachers
2) strong unions who protect those bad teachers

The solution most often proposed seems to be charter schools that don't need to answer to the teachers union. Megan McArdle (via 11d) wants to be able to fire all the teachers. (Rhode Island, evidently, is a big fan of hers.)

Am I missing something? In my entire experience in the Madison public school system, we have yet to run into a bad teacher. Most of the time, we have amazing rock-star teachers. The kind of teachers who change your life. Is Madison an anomaly? Is the rest of the country dealing with bad teachers?

Seriously, I can't talk about our teachers without getting rather emotional. They go above-and-beyond their job description on a daily basis. Last weekend, one of our amazing teachers spent her entire Saturday taking our school's spelling bee champion to the district competition because our school winner couldn't get there on her own. Almost all of our teachers do this stuff ALL THE TIME.

Our school serves a low income population, (67% of students qualify for free/reduced lunch) so perhaps we attract a more dedicated professional. (Although conventional wisdom in the media often spouts that poor schools like ours get dumped with the so-called bad-teachers.)

I don't see the bad-teacher problem. Am I missing something?

My favorite school-board blogger, Ed Hughes had a great post about teachers today. And the NYTimes had a scary article about how we measure a good teacher.

I'm worried that the conservative education "reform" movement (and I include our President in that group) is creating a problem that doesn't exist in order to promote the solution they'd like to see: the privatization of education.

Am I living in a bubble? Is Madison that far from the norm? Do you all really have bad teachers? (And if you do, may I recommend that you move to Madison - our teachers are pretty damn amazing.)

Anyone still out there?


Wow, haven't posted anything for two years. I blame Facebook and Twitter and an increased desire to keep my kids' lives more private.

Recent events in my hometown of Madison have prompted me to start up again, at least for the short term. I think my Facebook friends are probably getting a bit annoyed by all my political posts. And there is truly only so much one can put in 140 characters on Twitter.(image)

But I honestly probably would have kept my thoughts to Twitter if it weren't for the dinner conversation tonight. We took our "little" out to dinner. I missed the last two weeks with her due to my knee surgery, so it was our first time to catch-up on recent events.

She didn't know.

She didn't know that the Governor and the President both have bills on their desks that will take away:
1) her health insurance
2) her housing
3) her chance at a scholarship to a local university

My friends and I have been out protesting on a daily basis. We don't like this bill. But to tell the truth - we don't personally lose out on all that much if it is passed. Yes, I have many public sector friends who will take a 10% pay cut and yes, that is very hard. But most won't lose their house. They will still have health care and enough to eat.

She won't.

I did my best at explaining the various provisions of the bill and telling her about the 14 Wisconsin Senators who fled town to make sure that it didn't get passed until we could all learn everything we could about the bill. I told her that I didn't like the bill and that I'd been spending a lot of time up at the Capitol to protest the bill.

As I walked her up to her door to drop her off after dinner, she turned to me and said in a very quiet voice, "Kristen, do you think you could take me with you the next time you go protest? I'd like to do that too."

So on Saturday, I will proudly march in Madison again. This time, with the reason I'm marching right beside me.

I feel like Walker and his colleagues think that poverty is something that only happens to lazy, stupid, inept people. It is probably very easy to cut programs when you think they are going to support slackers and deadbeats. But I'm here to tell him that some of the most intelligent, kind, amazing people I know live below the poverty level. And we aren't going to stop marching!

Presidential visit!


Obama is coming to Madison! As much as I wanted him to visit our school, I couldn't be happier with his choice of schools at which to speak. My previous "little sister" went to Wright, and I'm so glad he chose to go there.

I'm interested in what he has to say. I haven't decided yet what I think of Arne Duncan and the Obama approach to education. My first impression is that their policies will work great in a vacuum (charter schools, "race to the top" funding criteria, national standards etc.) but I'd like to hear how such things will work in a school like Wright, with its 86% poverty level. (or my school, with its 66% level.)

Mostly, I want to hear the President not only *say* that education is important, but put some federal dollars behind his words. States and counties are struggling to get tax dollars to support education. There has got to be a better way.