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So You Want To Be A Student At An Online School?

11 Jul

I have finally finished my first year teaching for the largest charter school in Georgia, which also happens to be part of a larger company that is the largest online K-12 school in the U.S. And it has been quite an adventure on so many levels!

I am working on an article about being an online teacher but realized that I also needed to write something about being an online student since these go hand-in-hand. Since far more people will eventually be taking classes online than teaching them, I decided to lead off with this one.  All online teachers end up being online learners, so this is naturally a good place to start understanding what happens in an online school.

Our school is the largest in the state with over 12,000 k-12 students serving all 159 counties in the state. And we serve students in all grades with most disabilities including some with severe and multiple disabilities.

Families search us out for a variety of reasons, some of which I’ve covered in prior articles about charter schools. I have personally served students who have been shot, stabbed, beat up, ridiculed, harassed, bullied and otherwise traumatized within the more typical brick and mortar setting. Some students were themselves bullies or were kicked out of their regular schools for being disruptive. Some students are professional actors, athletes or have other interests that simply do not work well with a traditional schedule. Some students have extensive medical needs that can not be met in a traditional setting or it poses an undo hardship. Some parents chose this option because, for whatever reason, they found themselves being called into the school to come and get their child, conference with administrators, or deal with other problems in the school often totally unrelated to a child’s education. Some of these are young teen parents themselves who want to take care of and raise their children without having to drop out of school.

Whatever the reason, families are coming to us from all corners of the state from all backgrounds. Over 50% of our students were eligible for free and reduced lunches in their regular home districts. While these students don’t get the free or reduced lunches in our setting, they are eligible to receive free laptops, printers and equipment from our school including the means to access the internet if they don’t already have it. Our school is a free, public charter school which does not discriminate based on age, race, gender, gender orientation, income or academic ability. In general, we have similar admission criteria as any other public school except we also do not discriminate based on ones zip code as long as they live in the state of Georgia. If you live in my state, you or your child can attend my school.

However, SHOULD you or your child attend my school? And if so, what do you need to know?

The first thing any perspective student and their parent should realize is that online education is not easier, less rigorous or less work than a regular school. It is more flexible. In exchange for eliminating some of the problems of scheduling and social pitfalls, it poses some extra challenges that are not present in more traditional educational settings. The work still has to be done, the standards still have to be met and the standardized tests still have to be taken and passed. These are state mandates for all public schools that do not go away just because the bus is not coming to the door.

Parents and students attending us for the first time are often a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work that is expected, having had some misconception that this would somehow be easier and less work. This is probably the biggest misconception of online education and it is the downfall of most students and parents entering our setting for the first time.

The second thing parents need to know is that they are going to be more involved and doing more work themselves. In our school, they are called “learning coaches”. While a learning coach can be any adult, it is most often a parent or guardian. Students of all ages need a certain level of support in our environment, and the parent needs to be willing, or know someone who is willing to fulfill this role. In the younger grades, this means that the parent takes on the role of being the primary teacher. While this lessens with age and grade level, it is still a critical component even in high school. It is a rare student that can manage themselves alone even in high school, especially if is their first year with us.

The benefit of flexibility is also a pitfall that many students and parents fall into, becoming a crater that they find themselves struggling to escape from. Most students who go back to the regular setting are ones who fell into this early on and struggled to get out of simply because they could not adequately manage their time. Procrastination is the biggest enemy of all in this setting and the online environment makes it exasperatingly easy to find other, more interesting things to do.

This is a new system and environment for most students. There is a new language, new technology, new system and an entirely new way of doing things. The learning curse is VERY steep. Even though we might spend an entire month trying to orient new students and parents, there is a still a lot to learn and the volume of new information can be overwhelming. There is an entirely new language to learn in the ways of the OLS, LMS, class connect, blackboard collaborate, Kmail, and navigating the system.

So if you are considering this environment, both parents and students need to have their eyes open.

- Are you willing to devote MORE hours and time upfront to learn the new language and system?

- Are you willing to keep up with the constant and steady flow of new material and information?

- Are you willing and able to structure your time into a daily/weekly routine that will allow room for changes and disruptions?

- Is the student/learning coach relationship robust enough to endure stress, hardship and trials by fire?

- Are you able to persist through many challenges that extend beyond just the academic material, but also the challenges of technology?

Discouraged yet?

Online learning IS the wave of the future, and just the virtue of reading this blog shows that you are plugged in some how and investing a considerable amount of time in learning and researching. So I hope I can reward your efforts with some advice, if you are still considering this route.

1. Don’t get behind. In fact, get ahead if you can. Things come up and Murphy’s law will be there to frustrate you. One of the biggest benefits of this setting is that you CAN shoot out front and build your own buffer. Do it and you won’t regret it.

2. If things come up and you DO get behind, communicate with the teacher. We always have catch-up plans and can help prioritize to get you back on track. One thing about my fellow teachers and I is that we never give up. As long as you are willing to do the work, we’ll hang with you.

3. If you are new, give the system a chance until Thanksgiving break. Persist and hang with us through the tough learning curve. I found most new families DO feel overwhelmed at first, just like I did as a new teacher. But it DOES get better.

If there are additional concerns or questions, I’ll do my best to address them in the comments. But in just a few days, my summer will be over and I’ll be back working again! And I already have a stack of work waiting for me. But it is a subject near and dear to my heart, which I will address in the next article about being an online teacher.

You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!

27 Dec

I remember my oldest when he couldn’t talk.  He finally started to talk when he was about 3 years old, after a lot of intense therapy done be various SLP’s, including a few working through Georgia State’s “Toddler’s Project.”  It’s only been a few years since they stopped tracking him and his progress, but I’m sure he was one of their success stories, combining AAC with various behavioral techniques.

Now we have a hard time keeping him quiet.  Back in the day, his meltdowns would be seriously long and loud crying jags that might even include him hitting himself.  The a couple of years ago, there was a lot of self-negativity as he felt awful about himself.  Some of it was actually amusing as he took responsibility for the sinking of the Titanic and the Cretaceous period extinction event.  During each stage, we always wondered what was next.  He’s almost 14 and has been going through full-blown puberty and teenage angst.  It can be a frightful thing for even the parents of the most typical children.  For those who have children with autism it is even ore perilous as so many things become magnified with adolescence.  The academic and social expectations go through the roof during middle school.

Just lately I have noticed a new trend with his meltdowns, which happen most often when we as parents put demands on him or reprimand him for doing something he should not be doing.  “OH!  You’re just discriminating against me because I have autism!” or “You hate me because I have autism!” or “You need to learn more about autism so you don’t judge me!”  He’s usually saying this while pulling at his own hair.

It’s kind of an astounding evolution in thinking and language.  But I do have to hand it to him: he is learning how to advocate for himself.  Back when he couldn’t talk, I would have never dreamed we would get to this place.  Even though the tantrums are not pleasant and even though when he gets to this point he doesn’t listen to anything anyone says, it is still movement forward.

We’re fortunate that he knew how to read before he could talk.  He always loved books and reading to him was actually something that was soothing and calming to him.  So when he was in 1st grade or so, we got him a book about someone who had a friend named Sam.  It kinda helped that he had someone close in the family named Sam.  We got it so maybe his own classmates might be able to relate to him better and it wasn’t long before he was reading it himself.  We never really tried to hide autism and what it was from him.  I do know parents that do that, in the name of trying to protect the kids from labeling themselves.  But kids do that anyway, even if they don’t know what exactly the label is.  Different.  Weird.  Dork. Nerd. Outcast. Freak. Geek. Retard.   Whatever you want to call it, kids will label themselves and each other.  I know parents who quit going on the annual autism walks because the kids were starting to ask questions about autism and why they were walking.

The latest book his mother got for him is Ellen Sabin’s Autism Acceptance Book.  He’s had that for a few years but now it seems to be sinking in that he is different.  The fact that he is using the label to kind of try to guilt us as parents seems to indicate that he is beginning to differentiate himself.  This is not a bad thing, even though it seems like he lashes out with it at the worst times.  He’s establishing an identity and autism is part of it.  It is part of who he is, and he isn’t trying to dodge this fact of his life.  In fact, he is kind of embracing it.  He can tell you that talking to yourself can be part of autism.  Being sensitive to sound can be part of autism.  He is getting to a point where he can articulate what is going on with him and is becoming more okay with it.  He’s not there yet.  EVERY teenager struggles with doubt and insecurity and finding a place to belong.  He’s trying to discover his own autonomy and identity and is gradually getting a handle on things.  Gradually.

I think the best way to help a child who has the ability to grasp the idea, is to be honest with them in all things.  And to accept them for being the individuals that they are.  We can all dream of there being some sort of cure, but that dream doesn’t help my son today.  It doesn’t help him with his schoolwork, his desire to fit in or to develop his own dreams for the future.  And by the time there is a cure, would he even want it?  He’s incorporating this into who he is and it looks to me like he is staking his claim on his own little piece of the universe.  It just happens to include autism.  I tried to search for “Autism Power” and all I saw were images, slogans and sights dedicated to “recovery”.  Unlike “Deaf Power” which returns all sorts of sites dedicated to the belief that deafness is only a disability because hearing people make it that way.  There’s a few images referring to Autism as a superpower, but I’m not sure I like that message either.

This (among other reasons)  is why I love the good folks on the Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism blog.  Autistics are beginning to take up their own cause for advocacy and are actually offering a lot of hope for people like my son.  The dialog is less on the horrible-ness of the disease and how hopeless it is, toward a more positive message of acceptance and that things ARE doable.  I see this as one of the major civil rights shifts of our day.  And if the numbers (1 in 88 births) are any indication, then we can expect a lot more voices demanding their right to exist.  Expect to see “Autistic and Proud” on a shirt or button near you.

The Truth About charter Schools: Teachers

30 Oct

 

It was awful tasting medicine, but I guess the patient needed it. Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers.

Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle.

 

Steve Jobs in a 2005 commencement address to Stanford students

 

One of the lost stories in the controversy around charter schools is the stories of teachers. We hear about parents and students who end up doing battle against some sort of administrative body trying to start a charter school or trying to get into one. Or there is the corporation trying to start a school for profit. Or a local district trying to stop them.

 

In the middle we have teachers. And I’m ashamed to say we are often at odds with one another on this subject. Many of my fellow teachers don’t hate me for what I do so much as where I do it. Perhaps they think I have sold my soul to the corporate devil. I do not fully understand why I and my school are disliked so much, but we are. Public school teachers seem to generally oppose charter schools because we are seen as robbing the public treasury of money that should rightly go to them.

 

Full public disclosure: I currently teach in the largest charter school in the state of Georgia which is affiliated with the largest virtual public charter school in the country. I DO have skin in the game when it comes to how charter schools fare in the upcoming election.

 

Prior to coming to this school, I have taught in a variety of settings, traditional and not so traditional. I taught at small public schools and large ones. I taught in a residential private boarding school and then later at a residential hospital. I also taught in the state psychoed network. But over half my career of nearly 20 years has been in a traditional brick and mortar setting. Most of this blog was written while in that setting, albeit teaching mostly nontraditional students.

 

But I did get to a point where I was no longer willing to settle and wanted something different. So I resigned out with the idea of reapplying and effecting a transfer that I was unable to get any other way. I asked for several years and the answer was always the same: “We’ll let you transfer when we can find someone to replace you.” But they never looked for anyone to replace me!

 

The result was that I was out, very much like Steve Jobs when he got fired from Apple. I spent the next 2 years trying to get back into a field where I had formerly occupied the top of my game. I had a 100% pass rate on my GAAs every year I ever did them. I proved myself over and over in long-term substitute positions and had administrators who were interested in me. But the board office was not. I was branded for trying to take control of my own destiny.

 

I was not proud of going on food stamps, and was plagued by self-doubt. I still loved teaching but no longer felt like this business had any use for me. Perhaps it was time to go back to the farm in Iowa and forget about teaching.

 

But I held out, hoping that the speech Steve Jobs gave might one day be something I could also say.

 

Yes, life hit me with a brick. But I can honestly say that through the loss, I managed to find life again. I’m passionate about reaching out to kids again. I’m passionate about helping the parents of kids again. Actually, it was always my passion, but I just needed to rediscover it. And the virtual academy has helped me do that. I love what I am doing, and think of it as great work. I have never been a traditional teacher of traditional students. I am an oddball, an out-lier, a nerd, a geek and a misfit in so many ways. But the kids I reach out to are also feeling those feelings and need a hand that will not judge or bully them. They need to relate to someone who is like them and for a lot of them that someone is me.

 

The traditional brick and mortar setting works for many ‘traditional typical kids.’ But it is very unyielding and even cruel to those who do not fit the traditional or typical mold. This is equally true of teachers. Those of us who are nontraditional often come up against stiff opposition from traditionalists. It has always been the case throughout educational history that the industry has to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into more modern methods and technology. Much of the opposition to me being rehired in my county was because of the fact that I had a blog. THIS blog. They hated the fact that a teacher could write and publish their own material free of their ability to control or censor it.

 

Any administrator or school board member can have their own blog if they want. But instead of joining the conversation, they want to shut down everyone, so that no one has a voice. And I am not a good fit for that sort of atmosphere. And I am not the only teacher who is not a good fit for stiff and inflexible working conditions.

 

Schools like my school become a haven for teachers like me who are otherwise nerdy misfits who will never coach a football, basketball or soccer team. I didn’t fully realize just how well fitted I was for this job until my mom asked me questions like “Don’t you get tired of being on the computer all day?” or “Don’t you start to feel closed in and get a little stir crazy?” No and no. I don’t mind it because I am, in fact, reaching out continuously and touching students and families where they live, no matter where in the state they reside. I had never heard of Grovetown, Georgia until I talked to a student and parent that lived there.

 

I am where I am meant to be, doing what I was meant to do. I’m helping students and their families get the best education that I possibly can give them. I am making a difference. I am passionate about what I do.

 

I’m not kicking dirt on my fellow teachers in traditional settings who are passionate about what THEY do. So I find it hard to understand why the opposite might be true. My former traditional school system turned their back on me for the sake of petty politics, and yet opponents of the Charter School Amendment are trying to scare people into voting against it with the claim that a charter school commission would be a purely political body. For 11 years such a commission approved charter schools in the state of Georgia including the one I work for now. It was not until a group of school districts, among them Gwinnett County, Dekalb County and Atlanta Public Schools filed their lawsuit, costing their districts in excess of $300, 000 did the State court overturn the constitutionality of the commission in a 4-3 decision. These 3 districts are the epitome of political hubris and nepotism that stifles the educational creativity and achievement that we need to get Georgia’s educational system out of the national gutter. But they claim the the commission is too political.

 

I’ve seen and personally experienced the hurt and damage inflicted by the nepotism of the local community school district. My fellow teachers know it exists and live in fear of it. Everyone knew what was happening but no one could do anything about it. They couldn’t even talk about it because some unelected person sitting in the board office had friends and relatives who were waiting to take their jobs irregardless of qualifications or merit.

 

In a charter school, parental and student satisfaction matter. They do not HAVE to be there. The local control exercised by the parents in their own homes with their own families can be exercised at any time. They do not have to appeal to a board member who gets elected once every 4 years to exercise the right to vote with their feet. I feel some obligation to honor those parents who choose to stick with me for the year and do the best that I can for them. I think all of my fellow teachers are committed to the kids they teach in the same way. We are born into it, and feel joy in doing what we feel is an important work.

 

All of the teachers I teach with are just as committed as our traditional counterparts. We are all certified and highly qualified, many with advanced degrees. We like what we do. We chose to be here. If you are a teacher, you don’t have to settle. There are other places and options where you can discover and exercise your passion for teaching. I highly recommend that you consider keeping as many of those options open as you can for yourselves as well as for other teachers like me.

The Truth About Charter Schools: Funding and Local Control

27 Oct

In the interest of disclosure, I do work for the largest charter school in the state of Georgia. My views do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer and should not be construed to reflect any other opinion other than my own. But I’m trying to present mostly facts here to educate those who might seek more knowledge before they make any decisions.

There is an election coming up, in case you might not have heard or have missed it. In the state of Georgia, neither of the presidential candidates have spent much time or money here, and neither state senator is up for re-election so it has been comparatively quiet here. Except for one issue: The State Charter School Amendment.

You can read the entirety of the legislation here. It’s barely over 2 pages long. In a week or so, the people of Georgia will cast their vote on this question:

“Shall the Constitution of Georgia be amended to allow state or local

approval of public charter schools upon the request of local communities?” YES NO

That’s it. That’s all there is.

The Georgia school districts and the state Superintendent of Education have campaigned relentlessly against this amendment. I was going to link to the Boards of Education who have come out against the amendment, but instead I’ll link you to the school boards that I know of who have supported it:

[….sounds of crickets…]

Well, that was nice. If anyone knows of any public county or city school system that has voiced approval for the amendment, please let me know!

I will link to one BOE’s resolution here.

I actually agree with over half of of the preambular clauses of this resolution. I agree that education is important and that public education is critical to the future of our community, nation and state. I linked in an earlier article to Condolezza Rice talking about education as a national security issue and the civil rights issue of our times. I also know the reality of education funding, and the squeeze it has put on districts. Districts in the state are repeatedly being asked to do more with less.

And so, the districts across the state opine that state funded charter schools will divert money away from the local school districts thereby impoverishing them even more. But is this true?

Most of the funding for traditional public schools come from the local property taxes. There have been many efforts to reform how money is raised to pay for education but no one has succeeded in changing it and so property owners foot most of the bill for their local district expenses in education. The meltdown of the real estate market during the current recession put most districts in Georgia in a state of crisis as property values plummeted and tax revenues followed. But everyone who owns property still pays taxes on the assessed value whether they have children that go to the school or not. The only way I can escape paying my property taxes is to sell my property.

In the state of Georgia, the average district spends about $9,000 per student. And roughly $4,000 of those dollars come from the state. The other $5,000 comes from taxpayers of that district. If a student moves from one district to another, the state money follows that student while the local money stays. But when a school district is so bad that families begin moving out in en mass, then property values suffer and the district’s revenues suffer as well. Wherever the student moves, the state still recognizes its obligation to educate him or her.

So what affect does the charter school amendment have on this funding dynamic? If it is a charter school established and supported by the local school board, things don’t change much at all. The board still does the oversight of funds, same as usual according to the school’s charter.

However if it is a state charter school, then it is written in the bill that the state would fund it and not the local district.

So if Thomas is attending a regular school and withdraws to attend the school I work for, then the school district does indeed lose about 4,000 state dollars that go to my state funded charter school. However the remaining 5,000 local dollars are distributed among the remaining students to be used as the local board sees fit. In addition, since my school does not require students to leave their home towns or counties, the family continues to reside there and pay their taxes as normal. Thomas does not have to move to find a school that better works for him, and the district actually gains $5,000 as it no longer has to educate a student that was probably unhappy there anyway.

So the district’s argument that they lose money because of public charter schools is simply not true. Local school superintendents would have you believe that public charter schools are gigantic leeches on the backs of already beleaguered traditional schools. But this is untrue, and the only thing the Charter School Amendment does in regards to funding is to guarantee that local districts get to keep their local money. This amendment actually protects them and the majority of their funds!

The other club that districts are using against this amendment is that of taking away local control from local school boards. This is probably closer to the truth behind the popular opposition to this initiative. And when I first heard about this amendment, I was thinking much the same way. It was the state, taking money away from me, and establishing schools that my local school board did not want over their objections. It certainly smells like Atlanta butting in where it isn’t wanted, doesn’t it?

But the fact of the matter is much different. Charter schools are not initiated by the state. They are initiated by concerned parents of children who want to be served in a different way than the traditional schools are able or willing to do. So the first step is to petition the local board to establish a charter school. In the current climate, you can see that there is not going to be much sympathy toward such parents in these districts. So then they petition on the state level to the state Board of Education. Again, our beloved State Superintendent of Education has stated his mind in regards to charter schools. So where can families go now? Some of them are pulling up the stakes and leaving. Some of them are homeschooling. And some try private schooling. But remember the preambular statements in the above resolution? Public education is important, and parents ARE willing to make enormous sacrifices for their children to obtain a decent chance.

Local school boards are NOT the lowest level of local control. The most local control of all is in our own houses at our own kitchen tables. Families all over the state exercise their most fundamental right to local control and self governance when they decide how their children should be educated. What this amendment does is help to give parents an option; an avenue of control that is apart and distinct from that of the local board of education.

The 180 schools systems in Georgia are not ALL bad, but several of them seem to have distinguished themselves as being sub par. Many of the school boards seem to have proven out Mark Twain when he said “God made the idiot for practice and then He made school boards.” Just what is a parent supposed to do in such circumstance? Surely they can vote, but in the meantime their children still need to get educated.

Charter schools would not exist at all if no one wanted them. These same school officials speaking out against this amendment are the very ones who have helped create the demand for them, and yet want to cut off that option from parents.

The fact is that this amendment recognizes the right of charter schools to exist and the right of the state to fund them while protecting the local funds from being used to fund them. If parents don’t like a charter school, they do not have to send their kids there. Parents can and will vote with their feet. And this is precisely what local districts are afraid of. They are of afraid of the state taking control away from them, they are afraid of parents taking control way from them by opting out of their own systems. If the status quo is allowed to continue, districts will continue to deny opportunities for parents and students, and keep them bound to the same system.

In my previous article I pointed out why many of the students that I teach are ill-served by the present system. Public charter schools provide them the opportunity to continue their education while remaining in their home communities.

Voters who are concerned about this topic should vote their conscious, and make a decision based on the facts, not on the series of fictions and fears currently being publicized. Do not be swayed by Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: FUD. Be informed and be proactive. People need facts, not FUD. Read the bill as it is written, and make your decision based on whether it is something you agree with or not, not because of what I say or because of what your district superintendent says. Sure, I definitely have an interest in keeping my job, but I also have an interest in the students that I teach and their families. Shutting down state charter schools may make life easier for 180 superintendents who no longer have to compete with us, but it will not help the students that I teach who DO have to compete with the rest of the world.

Note:I saw this AFTER I had already written my piece. If you would like to see a debate on the issue, you can watch it here. My favorite quote is by Supt. Wilbanks “Parental choice is an issue that is overplayed.”

The Truth About Charter Schools: The Students

14 Sep

I knew not everyone would agree with my take in my last article on Charter schools and the charter school amendment.  I will admit that the issue is a bit complex, muddied by some emotional rhetoric on both sides.  And I freely admit that I can be as shameless of a purveyor of rhetoric as anyone.  Writing without hyperbole is just kinda boring.

Lost in all of the debate, accusations and political gamesmanship is the main focus and subject: students.  They are the ones who will ultimately gain or suffer by what we do or don’t do in November.

The anti-choice folks state very passionately that the students in traditional schools will ultimately suffer due to the funding that will be taken away from their schools, causing more overcrowding and more deplorable conditions.  And I can sympathize as I have witnessed first-hand what has happened to the education system in my beloved district.  Paras were the first to be let go, and then the furloughs and then loss of benefits and finally the overcrowding of almost every class in every school.  Teacher morale was at an all-time low when I left that setting.  Conditions have not improved by any degree or measure in the 2 years since then.  So in some sense, it appears that by taking money away, I advocate making things even worse!

I do not advocate taking money away as much as I advocate taking children away.  And many parents are doing just that, at great cost and sacrifice.  The giant brick and mortar factory schools are crumbling.

So who are the students in my school?  I am now teaching in the largest charter school in the state, and one of the largest in the nation.  We don’t have buses, we don’t have lunchrooms and we don’t have sports teams.  What we do have are students.  Over 12,000 of them in Georgia, with a long waiting list of more who want to get in.

Over 50% of our kids qualified for free and reduced lunches when they went to a brick and mortar school.  Over 1000 receive special education services at every level.They come from towns that I have never heard of, all over the state, from every ethnic background.  Some are urban and some are rural.  But one thing they all have in common is hope.  A hope for a better future, a new start and some way of attaining their goals.  Intimately linked to these students are their parents who aspire for better and greater things for their children.  Most have chosen to stay home to be their children’s learning coach and to invest personally in their child’s education.  They make the sacrifice of career in order to offer something better for their children, giving up much economically, which is especially poignant in today’s economy.  A few of them were already homeschooling while for many this is their first foray into taking charge of their children’s education, becoming true partners with the educational system, interfacing with the teachers, the curriculum and the classes.  Every single day, there are parents who attend classes with their children, sitting right beside them, helping and guiding them.

K12 has a Facebook page which often asks parents this question: Why did you choose K12?

There are scores of replies that can generally be categorized as follows:

“My child was bullied”, “My child was too distracted,” “My child was repeatedly bullied and there was nothing the school could do”, “The classes were too overcrowded for my child to learn” “My child was bullied and did not want to go to school anymore” “My child was not making progress” “My child was bullied and harassed daily and the school would not do anything” “My child needed a more stable learning environment and I did not have enough knowledge to home school” “My child was attacked and stabbed” “I was fed up with what was going on in my home school” “There were too many fights at my child’s neighborhood schools” “My child needed to learn at her own pace” “My child was afraid to go to school because of the bullying and fights””My child became afraid to go to go to school after she was attacked” “My child has a medical condition and she was missing too many assignments” “The only social skills my child was exposed to was fighting, bullying, cursing and swearing””We could not afford a private school and our neighborhood school in south Fulton was too violent and my child was not learning anything” “My child had a disability and his needs were not being met” “My child has aspergers and was teased relentlessly” “My child needs 1:1 support to be successful” “My child became so depressed and withdrawn, they did want to leave the house after starting middle school.  I later found out she was being teased and bullied daily”

You get the picture?  Your school may not have any of these problems and you may have the best and most dedicated teachers in the world.  But these children are refugees from the world of traditional schooling.  Their entire school experience, for many of them, was dictated by their zip code.  If you live in a nice, suburban wealthy neighborhood, you might not have many problems in your school of overcrowding, gangs, bullying, distractions or other things that make daily life for many students a living hell.  All of the families might be well-adjusted and involved in the local PTA.  Every classroom might be staffed by a highly qualified, enthusiastic teacher who incorporates technology and engagement into every lesson.

But for too many of the children I and my fellow teachers serve, this was not their experience.  Their experiences were so bad, that many single parents sacrificed many opportunities in order to provide the safe, nurturing and distraction-free environment that only a parent can provide in their own home so that their children can attend school without the fear and anxiety that comes with being a victim of harassment, bullying and abuse.  They were looking for a new start where they could again become confident learners without being persecuted for being “different.”

I hope to eventually blog my own transformational experience since joining this incredible team.  But suffice it to say that I adore my students as well as their parents who have sacrificed so much to offer their children what they perceive to be their best chance at success.  I owe it to them to do the best that I can for them, and I am a tenacious advocate for their cause.  They inspire me to be a better teacher.

I know that those who oppose the charter school amendment, in their own way, are advocating for children too.  They fear that the traditional schools demise will be hastened by the advent and rise of charter schools like these.  But the genie is out of the bottle.  While you might be able to slow the process, the changes are coming.  I’m not sure what you expect to happen within the next 10 years with traditional schools, but I can tell you what we saw in the last 10 years does not bode well.  Schools, schooling and learning are going to be transformed.  They MUST be transformed.  Putting these kids back into traditional schools after what they suffered through and after having tasted the sweetness of success, would be devastating.  Why would you do this?  Why would you send a child who has found success and confidence in this new environment back into the old environment where fear and failure ruled their lives?

Many detractors point out that charter schools do not do any better than the traditional schools when it comes to test scores, the current rubric of measured success in American education today.  And this is true in my school, where the gains are often modest at best.  But read the comment excerpts above.  The case could be made that many of these students suffer from PTSD, and many of them came to us 1, 2 and even 3 years behind.  These are not kids who were achieving well in their old schools, and often sought escape, refuge and asylum after a long string of failure.  I know of no parent who makes the decision to withdraw their child from their neighborhood school lightly as the decision carries with it some serious economic, social and lifestyle consequences.  Change is never easy, and this sort of change for young people is pretty drastic.  But given the comments above, I have to ask you: What would YOU do?  Should your zip code be the sole arbiter of your child’s educational success?  Should the quality of your child’s education and life be dictated solely by the economy of your neighborhood?

Jane and I are in the midst of the very same discussion as so many parents today.  We look at the declining state of our neighborhood schools and we are fearful of what will happen in the future.  My oldest son’s middle school does try very hard and they have done their best to address the instances of bullying that have occurred.  They really have put a lot of effort into trying to provide a safe environment that enables him to succeed as best they can.  But the high school up the street is a nightmare engaged in a seeming race to the bottom.  We are looking at our options, and they are few.  But there ARE options, thank goodness.

And this is one thing that I think detractors of charter schools overlook.  Simply having viable options in place that are close by can actually help your neighborhood school.  When those options are not in place, the more dramatic sacrifice is to pull up the stakes and move.  When your option is dictated solely by your zip code and there are no other options many, many families choose to change zip codes.  At least a neighborhood charter school keeps involved families in play to be won back if the schools can turn things around.  But once families leave their neighborhoods, you begin to see businesses close their doors and board up their windows.

Is K12 or any other charter school perfect?  Absolutely not, and I do intend to blog an open letter to the good folks in Herndon, VA at some point.  But in the meantime, it provides a place for at least 12,000 of Georgia’s children who, for whatever reason, did not fit in at their traditional brick and mortar schools.  Our beloved State School Superintendent has voiced his willingness to send those 12,000 students and their families back to the schools they fled from, and bar the door to keep them there.  Georgia’s families will be once again tied to their schools based on their zip codes and their income.

In a world where knowledge and information are ubiquitous, it is time to put an end to the educational apartheid that exists in the state of Georgia and around the country.  The quality of a child’s education should not be dictated by their township anymore than it was in South Africa in 1980.  It was wrong then and there, and it is wrong here and now.  Today I can shop in a neighboring town’s store (or online) for better goods, go to a neighboring town for better health care or attend a church anywhere that I care to drive.  But my child can not attend a school outside of the district or zoning lines.

We owe it to our children to offer opportunity and choice.  We need to decide the type of world we are going to live in.  The amendment, like it or not, IS a referendum on choice and opportunity for Georgia’s families.  Are we going to follow the same path that we have been on for the last 10-12 years?  Or are we going to risk something different?

The traditional public schools have a problem that has become a ubiquitous epidemic.  It is persistent and rampant.  It is also a problem that completely disappears once students enter our school.

John Barge, the teacher’s unions, the school boards and so many others who hate our charter school are not addressing or talking about it.  Their failure to effectively deal with it has created a demand that would simply not otherwise exist.   Now these same people are are trying to take my kids; the ones I teach; the ones who have escaped to a safe and secure place where they can actually learn and return them to the same conditions they fled from.  Where is the outrage?  Where is the shame?

 

Goals and Objectives Part 2:The Tyranny of 80 Percent

11 Aug

 

I need to write this to get it out of my system, despite the fact that I have a mountain of tasks that need to be accomplished before Monday. A major portion of my task list revolves around IEP goals and objectives.

 

One of the amazing things I discovered when I wrote my blog post back in 2006* about IEP goals and objectives (which later became published as part of a collection of articles in book form) was the level of concern parents have about this topic. As teachers, we have to write them and are supposed to be tracking them, because it is the law and best practice. However it always seemed parents were more anxious to talk about placement rather than spend much time on goals and objectives. However that article continues to be the most read post I have ever published, getting almost 28,000 hits out of 350,000 all-time views, plus it is read at the TPGTA website as well as many liking and reading it in the book. The message is clear: parents are intensely interested in this topic. Therefore, we owe it to them as well as to ourselves as teachers to get it right.

 

To their credit, the folks I am currently working with have revised their goals and objectives to be much better and pretty much follow the guidelines that I set up in that article. They are actually the best goals I have ever seen written as a an entire school. They get it…sort of.

 

As I started looking at my caseload and preparing to track the goals, the shortcomings of the 80% criteria mastery became more and more glaring and disturbed me more and more. While the goals were better written and more measurable, it was going to be an absolutely oppressive task to decipher, measure and track all of these goals for literally hundreds of students. We need to do better.

 

Somewhere along the line, 80% became this mysteriously magical number. To be sure, it is better than 60, 70 or even 75%. But in real life, our tolerance for 80% is low to negligible.

 

What if your employer offered to pay you 80% of your agreed salary 80% of the time? Would you accept that?

What if your car only started 80% of the time? Would that be acceptable?

What if 1 out of every 5 planes crashed while taking off?

Do you feed your children 80% of the time?

Do you think the government is going to accept you paying your taxes 80% of the time?

Which appliances do you want to perform on demand 80% of the time?

In which store would you shop at where you have an 80% chance that the merchandise you bought will be what is inside the box?

 

The 80% criteria is the criterion of mediocrity. There ARE times when it may be appropriate but they are few and far between for most busy special education teachers. Even moreso for parents who might be responsible for tracking some of these things.

 

Here is a goal I saw today (Name changed, but I think it might have actually been an example for how to write a goal):

 

“ Given instruction Wilma will increase her words per minute (WPM) to 100 by the end of the school year” The criteria was 80%

 

That was the objective, and it is pretty straight forward. It fits the SMART definition: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time limited. But there are still niggling problems.

 

Is she already reading 80 WPM? Is she going to read 100 words and miss 20% of them? Increasing reading rate is certainly a worthwhile goal. And if reading 100 WPM is worthwhile, why are we satisfied with 80% ? Why not 100%?

 

And this is where I have gotten LOT of resistance from colleagues, present and past. “100 PERCENT! OMG! **I** don’t do anything 100% of the time or with 100 percent accuracy! I would hate for anyone to expect me to be perfect 100% of the time!”

 

It is true that we are flawed human beings and prone to error. But when we take a plane, we expect to arrive at the correct terminal 100% of the time and have our luggage arrive at the same place 100% of the time. If it does not happen the way it is supposed to, we get mighty cranky and demand that things be fixed and made right.

 

While our students are as flawed as any of us, the assumption is that they are somehow more badly broken. Only a broken toaster would perform at 80%. Only a broken car would start 80% of the time. Only if we think a thing is broken and we have no intention of fixing it do we accept 80% as a criteria for performance. We need to change our thinking.

 

If the child is reading 80 WPM, and our goal is to get them reading at 100 WPM, then that needs to be the goal. And the criteria needs to be 100%. They either read 100 words correctly in a minute or they don’t. However, when we write the goals, we need to set proper conditions:

 

“Given one trial per day, Wilma will read 100 WPM for 3 consecutive days.” Criteria = 100%

 

Is Wilma expected to be perfect all the time? No. But given the deliberate and planned nature of a trial, I am pretty confident of her mastery if she can be perfect 3 times in a row. THAT, my friends, is a much better picture of true mastery. Yes, there will be the occasional plane crash, but most of the time, thankfully, things go exactly as planned. Sure, there are delays but the main goal is arriving at the destination. And even with how common delays are, we are not necessarily happy when they occur. So should it be with our goals and objectives.

 

While my thinking on goals is evolving, let’s try another goal:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work over 4 of 5 opportunities”

 

This goal is way better than most goals on the subject of handing in homework. Again, it is SMART. At least it does not have the onerous 80%, right?

 

Welll…it is actually not-so-cleverly couched within that criteria. It is a major improvement over “Handing in his homework on time with 80% accuracy” but it still has some brokenness and failure built into it. Why did we say 4 of 5? Why not just 5? Will Fred be capable of handing in 5 assignments over 5 opportunities this year or not? If he is, then why do we settle for 4? If he is not, then why are we making ourselves track 5 data points that he will never hit? Again, we need to strive for consistency in performance that indicates mastery. If we want him to turn in 4 assignments in a row over 4 days, then that should be the goal. And the expectation is that he will be able to hit 4 days in a row without a miss. “4 of 5” is actually like saying “3 in a row” because there is no possible way to hit 4 of 5 with being able to hit at least 3 consecutive times. It’s mathematically impossible. If you miss once, you are out after the second miss. This is why I often will truncate my objectives and do 3 consecutive trials with 100%.

 

So: Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work, on time, 3 consecutive times” Criteria = 100%

 

Now this is a behavoral issue. Fred is a smart guy, and he will master this objective in the very first week as it is written, You grade his first 3 worksheets and they are turned in on time but they are all blank! Or he rushes through them and scores a 50. THIS is where the 80% can come into play:

“Given a weekly homework schedule, Fred will complete and hand in his work on time 3 times in a row scoring 80% or better. Criteria = 100%” If Fred has academic problems we might say 70%, but we are making sure he actually passes the work he turns in. He does not have to be perfect in the academics, but he DOES have to demonstrate mastery on the behavioral part. If he misses just once, we reset the clock, give some additional support, and try again. We can track academics in a separate goal.

 

“Trials” v “Opportunities”

Our students have many, many opportunities to read, write and complete tasks, but we are not going to track and measure each one. We are going to set specific conditions when we measure progress. This deliberate and planned setting of an antecedent gives rise to a trial, which demands a response or behavior. This is the most fundamental component of instruction. We give a cue, they respond and we give feedback in the form of comments, a grade or even a reward. We certainly want our kids to generalize across settings, and this should happen once the task is mastered. We plan to test and teach Wilma to read 100 WPM, and we want this to carry over to when she reads social studies or science. But she has to master the target under the best of conditions before we go into other areas. A trial optimizes those conditions. An “opportunity” simply looks more haphazard. Most teachers use “opportunities” when they mean “trials”. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. With the huge number of goals a teacher has to manage with a caseload of 26 students, we can not afford to be haphazard. And since someone else might end up tracking the objective or goal you are writing, it is simply more humane to make the goals as easily trackable as possible. We need to stop abusing our colleagues with poorly written goals that require a math degree and several hours to track.

 

Let me give one more reason to make our goals easier. They need to be understood by parents and the students. Unless you are prepared to make a graph, you need to shy away from partial and broken goals. Almost 90% of my students struggle with math, and parents and and special educators do not vary substantially from that. Otherwise we would all be math teachers! Everyone understands 100% mastery and know it when they see it. This is especially true for behavioral goals but is just as true for many academic goals. Stick with making the goals more simple and achievable. Almost any goal can be manipulated into a 100% mastery criteria. Any parent will be able to understand and know when it is achieved and so will most students. Many of my students are gamers and they have a better understanding of striving for mastery than many adults. They understand the concept of questing and mastering a series of objectives is a sort of quest. We set our kids on it and when they complete one quest, we give them a new, more challenging one. But if they don’t understand the quest or know when it is completed, they quickly lose interest in the game.

 

So when is 80% or its fractional equivalent (4 of 5 or 8 of 10) appropriate? When we are doing something where we are willing to make a graph and when we can track larger arrays during our trials. Math achievement is a good example, where there is an array of 10 or more problems. The larger the array of measured trials, the more a percentage is appropriate. In the case of math, each problem represents a trial. Some behavioral goals where you are using time sampling or event recording and have over 10 data points lend themselves to using a percentage or fraction of a large total. The larger the sample, the more appropriate it is to use a percentage. But in that case, you still need to think about your marriage to 80% mastery. Percentages lend themselves nicely to automated collection systems, like computer-graded tests. If a computer is not doing the collecting and scoring, you are making your life miserable by living within a percentage,

 

One more thing about goals: Less is more. I have some students with over 20 objectives. If I have a caseload of 25 students (it’s actually 26), that means I am trying to track over 500 separate pieces of data! I can be either complete or accurate, but it is inhumane to expect both. It is simply impractical to devote the attention that each goal requires if I have to manually enter, manage and track individual trials and then decide if we are at 80%. It’s far easier to look for “3 in a row” or however many and mark that quest as complete as we go. Especially if I can keep it down to 100 or less.

 

When potty training our children, our goal is 100% . Accidents can and do happen, but that is the exception not the rule. We start out wanting Freddy to be dry an entire day, then 2 days in a row. Not for 2 days at 80%. Two days. Period. Then 3 days and so on until his diaper is dry for an entire week. Every parent nows that at that point, he is “getting it.” Then we move up to pull-ups and eventually his “big boy underwear”. We support him at every stage, striving for more and better consistency. Are we demanding that little Freddy be perfect 100% of the time? No! But we are striving for consistency. I won’t buy from any eBay retailer with less than 97% positive ratings. Why do we settle for so much less for our kids?

 

For most goals, 80% is simply not consistent enough. When we disengage from mediocrity, it makes life easier and better for all of us. I’m not programming for mediocrity or failure, I want to program for success! And true success in most meaningful things requires a higher level of consistency than 80%.

 

*Note: Back in 2006, I was blogging pseudonymously under the name “Dick Dalton,” hence how I was addressed in many of the comments at that time.

Preventable IEP Anxiety

7 May

I don’t have any IEP’s to write this year, which might be the best and only good thing about being underemployed.  Well…actually I do have one IEP to write; my son’s.

And this year it has been enough of a headache to make up for not having 10 others to write and schedule.  This one has been rescheduled at least 3 times.  Right before the original IEP date, I submitted a letter of parent concern that sort of threw his case manager into a mild panic.  I admit, that this sort of violated about half of my own rules for avoiding the long and ugly IEP meetings.  So I was not too concerned about delaying the meeting a week to enable people to get their legs back under them, and to address my concerns in a thoughtful manner.  But then another delay ensued and finally she wanted to delay until after the CRCT results.  The CRCT, for those who don’t know, is Georgia’s Criterion Referenced Competency Test, which is the state-wide high stakes test.  I decided to go along with this, but each and every time and during each and every communication I asked for exactly the same thing: a draft of the IEP.

And now I am absolutely convinced that failing to receive such a draft in a timely manner is the single greatest cause of preventable stress during IEP season.  This is why it is such a critical part of my aforementioned rules.  Procrastination and surprises do not serve anyone well.  It does not serve teachers well, because they are deciding and writing in a hurry.  It does not serve parents well, because their anxiety mostly comes from not knowing and the fear of the district ambushing them.  It does not serve the system well, because when parents feel ambushed, they tend to become contentious and litigious.  And yet, I witness this time after time after time, year after year after year, the same exact thing.  The worst was when I was the high school representative at a middle school IEP meeting and we were already an hour behind.  We were all in the meeting room, waiting for the case manager. When I asked the SLP where she was, I got an eye roll “She’s upstairs, writing the IEP draft.”

If you are a teacher with an IEP tomorrow morning and have not completed the draft yet, you should consider another career.  You are probably already on some sort of blood pressure medication.  Being a special education teacher is stressful. But this is one source of stress in your life that you can minimize by simply moving your own deadlines up a week.  I used to be like you.  I would wait and then scramble to get my drafts done, and then worried and ended up with all sorts of mistakes as I hurried and rushed.  I finally had enough and began writing my drafts further ahead of the actual meeting dates and got them to parents over a week in advance.  And guess what happened to that stress?  It disappeared.  And here is why:

Being a parent of a child in special education also consists of a stress, only this is one that rarely ever sleeps.  Although I knew this first-hand, it took me time to translate that into a practice that actually minimized worry for the parents as well as myself.  Having a draft in their hands a week in advance allowed the parents to think and consider what we were doing.  And it instilled a sense of trust. You have no idea how precious that is, until you realize that you have attained it universally and fully.  And it shortened my meetings by almost hour.  Parents could talk about what THEY wanted, because we had agreed on most things ahead of time.  Most of the heat fell on the itinerant providers who failed to submit their reports and recommendations in advance.  They were also procrastinators.

Having a draft written also diminished the effects of having to reschedule meetings.  I HATED rescheduling, but on the few occasions where it was absolutely necessary, it did not impact me significantly because I already had the draft written and distributed to the parent.  I used any extra time to talk to the parent some more, making sure everything was okay and it was just the way they wanted it.

It took some SERIOUS arm twisting to get an advanced draft this year, even though it should have been completed 2 months ago.  And what I got was something that was barely written at all, with no mastery or goals and objectives.  This means that this is going to be a very long and drawn-out meeting because we have to hammer out goals and objectives.  Fortunately I had already done some work on a few that I wanted, but I’m seeing some other concerns that have come up that will have to be addressed.

I’m going to challenge all special education teachers to set a goal to get their IEP drafts completed 5 days in advance of the meeting and get them in the hands of the parents at least 3 days ahead of time.  Of course it is a little late for most of you this year, but if you take the 5 day challenge I guarantee you will lower your own stress as well as the stress level of the parents.

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