Friday, January 23, 2015

Remembering Genie Jett....

Well, it's 5:00am and here I am again.  Can't sleep and even worse, I can't turn off my brain. And hey look, it isn't even a holiday, maybe I can get these blogs off the virtual press more frequently from now on.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I have been advocating for my son's school in the redistricting planning that has been going on in Fayette County.  I had a meeting with my son's school principal yesterday.  She had been to another school for a meeting and came back with a water bottle branded with the name of the school across the front. So you are aware, some schools are branding their own drinking water and our school is asking the United Way for underwear and socks. Did I mention that these two schools are just 2 miles apart in my community? So yesterday these kids needed my tenacity and data junkie talents to politically navigate an attendance boundary debate, but today they need my willingness to wrangle coats.  

You see, our school has been having a coat drive since November because many of our kids don't have warm enough coats to endure Kentucky winters.  While we have had a pretty mild January, February and March may have different plans for us.  So anyway, we have been collecting coats from our kids whose families are financially faring better in this world and we will have those coats laundered and then bring them back to school and make sure that each of our less fortunate kids has a coat that they need to protect them against the elements as most of them walk to school. It's a pretty cool recycle, reuse effort if you ask me.  Fayette County does NOT provide bus service if you live within a mile of the school.  Most of our financially struggling families live within that one mile boundary, so to add insult to injury, these kids don't have sufficient protection against 10 degree windchills. And my job today is to wrangle the donated coats at school, call around to try and find a dry cleaner or laundry mat who might be willing to donate the laundering services.  If I don't find one, I will be blocking off a few hours in my schedule next week to wash them at a laundry mat myself.  Most likely some of of my phenomenal Lansdowne parent counterparts will join me to lend a hand at the Loads of Suds.

And when these coats are handed out to these very needy & very deserving kids, my Mom will be smiling.  I'm not unconvinced she wasn't responsible for my 5:00am wake up call this morning. My constant self-assessment of how much I am giving back to my community stems from my parents. Instead of being a nature vs. nurture consideration, I am convinced it is a nature & nurture argument.  I mentioned my Dad's school board service in my last blog post.  And that was merely one board of the dozens that he and my mother served on throughout my life.  

My entire childhood was spent watching my parents serve on various community boards, give of their time and talents to the less fortunate, serve as Scout leaders, and make a difference in the lives of those who needed it, while holding public officials accountable. 

While my Dad is highly intelligent, he is a relatively quiet analytic observer who uses his voice selectively. My mother was quite different in her approach.  She was a politically savvy, brilliant & witty, sharp tongued firecracker who never backed down from a fight. Did I mention she was raised by a US Army Colonel?  

Before she had children, and even a few times after that, she and one of her best friends would listen to the police scanners and show up in areas of town less fortunate than ours, and they would witness how the police handled the situation. Who does that?  Genie did. And this was soon after the civil rights era and if I am anything like her, I know what was going through her head.  The thought process was probably something like this: Well, just because they have achieved more rights under the law, it doesn't mean that anyone is policing the police to make sure these rights are being protected. So...she did something. 

 She was a huge advocate for public libraries and when garbage collection was not happening in the less fortunate part of town, well, she fixed that.  She was politically liberal and was a force in the League of Women Voter's.  Yet...she was also a member of the garden club, the homemaker's club, foreign foods group, and she was my brownie troop leader as long as she could physically manage it. And did I mention that she was self-employed & worked full time, along side my dad, managing Jett & Hall Shoes in downtown Richmond?

Unfortunately my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1981, when I was only 6 years old.  So I have had to rely on others to tell me about most of these civic heroics that she performed.  And to say that I miss her and grieve the tremendous impact she would have had on my life over the last 30 years, and the loss of the grandmother my children will never know, doesn't begin to explain it.  She passed away on December 28th 1984, at the age of 41, so this last holiday season marked 30 years that she has also been missing from her community, my hometown of Richmond, KY.  

Soon after my mother passed away, the President of the Richmond League of Women Voters wrote an editorial to the Richmond Register entitled "Remembering Genie Jett", recognizing the great sense of loss in the community that was felt after the death of my mother.  It is an amazing tribute to her.  I hope you will read it.  My favorite excerpt is "It is remarkable what "ordinary people" can do when they work with heart and commitment.  Then again, with such commitment, "ordinary people" are no longer ordinary, they become special.  Genie has left us with a challenge.  With her commitments as a mother, a wife and her business, she still had time to get involved. That's special."

Mom, I am answering your challenge as best I can. When I am not, I trust you will continue with the 5:00am wake up calls.  So as I quickly approach 40, I have to hope that my ordinary advocacy attempts honor someone so desperately missed and so special.

I miss you Mom.

Now, I need to go wrangle those coats.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dear Fayette County Schools Redistricting Committee....When the going gets tough, I stick around

Holidays seems to trigger blogs in my brain. Can't say why, they just do.  I am sure that for those who enjoy my rants and musings, the wait between holidays is longer than you would like but I am raising small humans, selling real estate to feed my family, nurturing my marriage of 18 years and trying to live the life that I believe I was meant to live.  In other words, my dance card is full but for reasons that I don't fully understand it seems to be holidays that force me to reconcile where I am in my life and whether the ways I choose to spend the limited time I have on this planet is being spent judiciously.

As such, for those that are friends of mine on facebook, you may have noticed that I have been "checking in" at the Fayette County Public School Headquarters,  attending redistricting meetings, sometimes twice a week, since early December.  Please make no mistake, I am not a member of this committee, merely an innocent bystander seated in the public seating area, closest to the TV monitor displaying the raw data.  

Beyond being an Economist by training with a strange hankering for data analysis, for reasons I can't completely explain, I continue to make myself endure this torture.  Attending these meetings is pushing my sanity to its brink while I witness my son's elementary school's diversity and socio-economic balance become decimated for no good reason. So evidently I must be a glutton for repeated punishment.  I have this obviously misguided sense that by being there, I am somehow impacting their decision making. But since the videos of these meetings are posted on a very, very delayed basis, that I am not unconvinced happens intentionally, the only way you can keep up with the madness (in real time to affect change) is by being there. And being there is something that I am really good at.  When the going gets tough, I stick around, even to my own detriment.

I often leave these meetings wishing that the Men In Black will jump out of the corner office and zap my memory to put me out of my misery.  But if you follow me on facebook you also know how often I am at my son's school, trying my best to make a difference in the lives of children (from over 30 different countries) many of whom come from homes and families that look nothing like my own but deserve everything in this life that a good education, in a democratic country, has to offer.  And it is for these kids, that I am fighting the good fight, but most days it doesn't feel like a good fight at all.

This is me in my fabulous Academic Challenge Coaching T-Shirt

Below you will find my submission to the Fayette County Redistricting Committee that I submitted on Monday morning (yes, the morning I was supposed to be just laying around in pajamas with my kids, eating waffles, before we left for a play date with a wonderful friend who is also giving of her time and talents for this wonderful school.)  If I were a mystic, I would swear that Martin Luther King Jr. woke me at 5am with my Let's Talk response on the tip of my brain. (For my Lansdowne Elementary friends, you may follow this link to voice your own concerns about the changes in Lansdowne Elementary school boundaries:

These new boundaries are very, very bad for Lansdowne Elementary!

I can't say that I am winning in this particular battle, as Lansdowne Elementary's new 76% free/reduced lunch metric was not mentioned even once this evening, although many of the questions that I raised about what they are not considering in this whole process were vaguely voiced this evening.  So maybe I am winning just a little, but not for my own kids or their school specifically.   But it makes me feel better that I am using my God given talents to try and affect change for all of these kids.  Public schools are worth fighting for and I am beginning to see that my path may one day include serving Fayette County on the school board, as my father served for many years in Madison County, Kentucky back in the early 80s.  Evidently he had a hard time sitting back and watching others make these decisions like I am now.  

He won in 1982 and served many years! 

This is my Dad in 1982

So here it is...consider yourself warned, it's a pretty long. And at the end, I'll be honest, I lied.  I don't really look forward to seeing them at the next meeting on Thursday.  But when the going gets tough, I stick around.

Dear Fayette County Redistricting Committee,

I have been in attendance at all elementary redistricting meetings, with the exception of the meeting on 1/8.  What I have witnessed is startling and I truly believe that while your hearts are in the right place and your intentions are great, you are missing some key considerations in the elementary redistricting process.

We shouldn't approach elementary redistricting in the same fashion as middle and high schools.  As the first 6 years of education investment, elementary schooling is critical to either establishing habits of success and high expectations for achievement or losing the trust and excitement for learning in children and families.  This is where it starts.  Why are Kindergarten readiness percentages not being considered? Some schools are seeing less than 50% Kindergarten readiness for in-bound students. We have data that could tell us historical transient rates in particular schools, or in other words we should be looking at metrics which tell us if particular schools see higher or lower rates of student "churning" which is disruptive to all parties involved but when concentrated in certain schools is devastating.  You might be surprised what you find.   If we are not paying attention to these metrics, which Lisa and Bob could provide for you, and current achievement levels (i.e. are some schools somehow overcoming these disparities over time?), you could be unknowingly and unfairly placing a burden on some schools that become insurmountable. Perpetuating that is not only detrimental to achievement but it lacks compassion for not only these children and families but our dedicated teachers and administrators.  

It seems that while building capacities, free lunch percentages, walkability, and neighborhood cohesiveness is rightfully being considered, current achievement levels seem to be IGNORED?!  Is this simply an exercise in logistics with no consideration of the end goal, which should be a quality education for all children.  We have 35 existing schools which can provide value achievement and demographic metrics that can give us clues about what is working and what is not working and how we can better serve ALL kids in this county. We have UK College of Education Professors that I am sure would be happy to attend a meeting and answer questions the committee may have. 

 It seems that understandably loud voices of some neighborhoods are protecting high achieving/low free lunch schools and that understandably loud voices of those advocates for poorly performing schools are being considered but the schools where we are doing a good job of balancing relatively high achievement with diverse populations are being ignored and even harmed by this focus on the opposite ends of the achievement spectrum.  

Why is the committee not first looking at the schools and talking to the administrators of these schools that are expertly striking the balance with more socio- economic diverse populations and achievement to see what percentages they feel work in their schools instead of throwing around arbitrary numbers such as 80/20?  Why not send an anonymous survey to the teachers and administrators of these schools to find out their true thoughts and opinions on transient rates (or level of student churning), Kindergarten readiness percentages, English as Second Language Percentages, free/reduced lunch percentages, and what they think is working in their school?  Some of these educators bring their own children to work with them and some leave them in the schools where they are district-ed, creating its own burden that they are willing at accept for their own kids.  What could we learn from this? These are the educators that can be so helpful in giving guidance on what is working and what doesn't work!  Schools like Lansdowne, Picadome, Julius Marks, Glendover, Sandersville, Dixie, & Harrison should be studied to see if they can be demographically re-created in other areas but they should also be protected so that the positive momentum and quality educations they are providing to all of those kids is protected!  

For example, at the 1/8 meeting, the attendance boundaries of Southern and Lansdowne were completely redrawn.  Years ago, these attendance boundaries were crafted the way they are for a reason.  Instead of redrawing these boundaries, what should be evaluated is why there is currently such a disparity in achievement between these two schools with very similar demographics, not just moving people to just appear to be fixing something that is perceived to be broken but IS NOT.  The latest re-alignment of the Lansdowne/Southern attendance boundaries is unnecessary, disruptive, and makes no sense as neither schools are walkable nor neighborhood schools to any neighborhood south of Wilson Downing.  Contiguous areas are not a magic bullet and in this case they will cause more disparity.  This is a unique area of town where we can actually try and keep a balance!   And although under the latest proposal you are reducing the free lunch population at Southern, you are increasing it at Lansdowne.  But because you have not truly investigated why Lansdowne is performing as they are, you are willing to roll the dice and put their achievement momentum at risk without any guarantee that Southern's achievement will rise in any statistically significant way.  And sadly, given the seemingly unavoidable higher free lunch percentages in other parts of the county, the new free/reduced lunch percentage of 76% at Lansdowne will most likely be well within the "tolerance" levels of most vocal committee members.  This is a very, very bad change that is unfair to educators, families, and students that have been working so hard at this school to become a proficient/progressing school under challenging circumstances.

Making the same assumptions that affluent neighborhoods with very low concentrations of free lunch and high performing schools, or conversely the preferences of the extremely poor have about neighborhood schools, is a very dangerous and unfair slippery slope when applied to more socio-economically balanced areas of town with good performing schools that require unavoidable busing. 

Home ownership is powerful. Having  "skin in the game", over the long run is critical to parent engagement.  Parent engagement is critical to success.  Similarly, one key metric that needs to be considered in Scott's GIS overlays is the concentration of multi-family housing in any one school. The populations in multi-family housing units is understandably transient in nature.  To ignore the concentration of multi-family housing and Section 8 housing, as a percentage of households, in any given school is unwise and shortsighted.  Similarly there are typically large numbers of children in many of these developments, some have more children located in them than entire neighborhoods send to public school.  You should be treating large multi-family housing developments as neighborhoods, within themselves.  What you are looking for is a student density metric to be added as an overlay.

Sadly, the elementary changes that have been made so far will simply cause more "educational poverty" concentration, as opposed to solving it.  Elementary redistricting done incorrectly will yield greater achievement gaps and inequity of opportunity in the future. However, when done correctly will pay dividends that will enhance and enrich the lives of children and families and improve Lexington for a lifetime.  Take the time to do this with great consideration and care.  Dedicate the energy and attention it deserves.  You are changing our corner of the world!

Thank you for your service to the committee and your consideration.  I look forward to seeing you at the next meeting!