Choose and Lose

‘Tis the season.

It always amazes me how quickly summer passes–I feel like I’ve barely stopped having one year’s worth of classroom dreams when it’s time for my subconscious to start in on the next year.  I reported back three weeks ago, first for some intense professional development on the common core and math instruction, and then to help a handful of new special education teachers get started during the district’s Induction Institute, but last week, my focus shifted back to the microcosm of my site and myself.

Ask any teacher what it’s like, to set up a classroom–how incredibly many little things need to happen before the school doors can open and the children come in.

Things we need to get and to organize.  Every summer, in every classroom, everything gets stacked on everything else, so that the floors can get buffed in July.  When we come back, I am always reminded of the overhead safety bins on aircraft: items have shifted, during the flight.  Textbooks and consumables (for learning, not food) may or may not show up before the students do.   First grade teachers who use our district’s adopted curriculum staple together 145 little paper readers for each of their 20 to 30 students. Our newest  colleague was given a room with exactly five chairs in it–she and the principal begged, borrowed, and stole their way into a situation where most if not all of the children could sit on Monday.

Things we need to get rid of. I once inherited a kindergarten classroom that had a set of 24 child-sized saws: my coteacher and I looked at the behavior plans of several of our charges and decided that these needed to live somewhere Else. The teacher down the hall from me trapped four mice last week.  I still have no idea who put a picnic basket full of plastic fruit in my office sometime between late June and today.

It is truly amazing, the amount of work that goes into getting things ready–multiples and multiples of the six allotted hours. Spilling over into evenings and weekends and I’ll-just-take-this-home-with-me, everyone doing what needs to get done.

Last Saturday, most of my colleagues spent much of the day on campus, putting finishing touches on their rooms.  And USA Today published an article on a new reality of public education. Now more than ever, it is necessary for schools and students to be largely funded and supported by private individuals, foundations, and businesses–everything from an NFL linebacker paying the sports participation fee for every child in the district that graduated him to community fundraising for two science labs in Texas.  As Stan Levenson, a fundraising consultant, observes, “The cost of a public education is going beyond tax dollars.”

One of the better known, wider scale manifestations of this model is the nonprofit DonorsChoose, initially founded in 2000 by a high school teacher in the Bronx.  It’s essentially a matching service: teachers make a proposal for how they would use items on their wish lists to help student achievement, donors scan through the projects and decide what to support.  Every now and again, a corporate fairy godmother swoops in and funds everything within x miles with a stroke of the pen.  The presents are delivered, shipping costs deducted from the pot of cash donations.  All that’s left is for teachers to have their students make the thank you cards, to which pictures get attached if everyone’s signed the right permission slips.

Donors Choose has done wonders for my school and many like it: enterprising teachers have secured everything from cameras for a photojournalism class to a fish tank to a full leveled library.  Given this, my principal is utterly correct in sending out, as she has several times in the past calendar year, a reminder to all of us that Donors Choose ought to happen.

And yet.

As I look, in the week before school starts, around my office and imagine what would improve things, I realize that Donors Choose isn’t, exactly, the magic bullet we want.  I realize that I’d, yes, really like a document camera, so that I can project the demonstration materials I learned how to use at the training I paid for with my own money and attended on my own time.  But my office doesn’t have a wall I can project on.  Because my office is actually the teacher work room–one side is windows, one side is a door, and the long sides are covered with shelves and my computer.  And my colleagues don’t have a work room, but I can’t write a project for that.

My school and my community are blessed by a wealth of print resources to build student achievement: one local nonprofit collects used books at dozens of locations throughout the area and redistributes them to any teacher who stops by.  What we really need are people to read with the kids, one-on-one or in small groups or simply in classes with adequate ratios.  But people can’t be shipped: Donors Choose can’t give us people.

Who doesn’t remember the field trips they took in school, the way extending their classroom into the community deepened their knowledge and exposed them to new ideas?  Oh wait–that’s a DIFFERENT set of fundraising websites.  With a different application.  Something else, I guess, for teachers to do on the evenings and weekends that already feel so full.

For many of our students with the most challenging special needs, what really makes a difference is the connections they have–developing a long-term relationship with an adult who understands their learning profile and can help them build confidence and skill over time.  But in our district, a week before school started, 30% of our resource specialists were abruptly reassigned to cut staffing costs.  I can’t even begin to make a project out of that.

I am grateful for every resource out there for public education.  Lord knows we need every tool at our disposal.  Yet at the same time, I worry about the ramifications of making a truly robust education contingent on the classroom teacher’s ability to secure every resource, when the reality is that just deploying those resources on an ongoing basis is a challenge whose complexity few truly understand.  I saw Jonathan Kozol speak last Friday, and some of his words resonated deeply.  He described the good fortune experienced by one child he knew, who was noticed by people of enough means to get her a scholarship to a boarding school far away from the South Bronx housing project she was raised in, and made the point that what she received–a quality education in a physically safe place–should be considered the due of all America’s children, not a blessing bestowed only on those lucky enough to have an advocate who knows where the good stuff is kept.  At a time when teachers write grants for everything from snacks to sports equipment to a class set of reading books, without anyone really batting an eye at this, or wondering what happens when the teacher doesn’t Donors Choose,  I find it necessary to repeat his words: “Charity will never be a substitute for justice.”

I was going to spend tonight making my own proposal to Donor’s Choose: I’ve been using my personal computer for several years now as a classroom instructional tool, and rumor has it that Chevron is feeling remarkably generous right now.  But I don’t think I can do that without at least suggesting that this isn’t all that can be done–and that I, and you, my would-be donor, aren’t the only ones who need to do more for all our children.

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