I have been meaning to delve more into education issues since writing about Rick Scott’s attacks on higher ed in Florida last fall, but have been following different avenues lately. Fortunately, my friend and colleague Terry Thaxton has provided this terrific guest post, a tapestry of thoughts about childhood school days, her time in the public school trenches, and concerns about today.
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“Why Don’t He Come in Here?”–Crying for Public Education
by Terry Thaxton
Just mention public education, and I’m likely to walk away. Or cry. I cannot fathom where to begin with what needs fixing. I don’t know how to articulate the enormous inadequacies of our education system. I’m a product of public education, and at one point I attempted to teach in our public school system.
I lasted two years as a teacher. The first year, almost every day, on the way to school, I had to pull my car off the road, open the car door, and vomit, worried about what lay ahead that day. On the drive home, I cried because of the conditions of the building, the poverty many of the children were living in, the lack of support for teachers to do their jobs, the expectations that created Catch-22s for students, teachers, and administrators. I cried because of the media which usually reported what some politician in power had to say, that all society’s ills lay at the feet of public school teachers. For my own sanity and health, I left high school to teach part time at the university, taking a huge pay cut, but I was no longer sick every morning or crying all night.
I still live in Seminole County, Florida, the county where I taught for those two years (1997-99). Last year, the School Board closed one elementary school despite community protests. The closing, the Board claimed, was a necessary measure because of state budget cuts by Governor Rick Scott which he began touting at a Tea Party meeting in February 2011, suggesting cutting the State’s education budget by $4.8 billion. By March—due in part to public outrage—he’d reduced the cut down to $1.75 billion. That money would not be lost, he assured us all. No, it would provide tax breaks to corporations. By December 2011, he declared an “increase” for this upcoming year’s education budget of $1 billion. Perhaps because of his low approval ratings, Scott changed his tune, but this still in reality represents a net loss to schools of $.75 billion over 2 years.
Just a month ago, January (2012), the Seminole County School Board announced the impending closing of at least two more elementary schools with several others on the chopping block. Thanks to the parents, students, and teachers of these schools, the Board has agreed to not close the schools (at least for now), and to look for other options for saving money. Teachers, however, haven’t had a raise in three years, and I’m betting most are still purchasing their own classroom supplies (as I did during the two years I braved the classroom). I know of at least two teachers who, in the past three days, have said after this semester, they’re leaving.
When I was in fourth grade, the Florida Education Association staged and successfully carried out a teacher’s strike. Teachers did not show up in their classrooms–in some schools for a couple of months. Before the strike began, the teachers at my elementary school told us they would not be in class during this time period because they were concerned, like all teachers, about budget cuts and lack of support from the State (I can’t recall how long our teachers were on strike, but I do remember it), and I remember all of the parents supporting them. I’m not sure why teachers aren’t uniting in a strike now, but perhaps it has something to do with the state of the economy.
In May 1970, Sarasota County School Board threatened to close Osprey School, the six-classroom schoolhouse where I attended elementary school. Parents, led by my father, protested. My father, already Vice Chairman of Osprey Chamber of Commerce, formed “Osprey Citizens Committee” and attended every School Board meeting from the moment the Board announced this possibility until the Board backed down. My father rallied parents and teachers, presented the school board with “petitions signed by about 450 Osprey residents.” His petition argued that “closing of the school would halt growth of the area and virtually assure that no school would ever be built or reopened in the community.” It was a valiant, and successful, effort to keep our small neighborhood school open.
At the time, I was in sixth grade and I had siblings in fifth, third, and first grades. The school had been built in 1927, and though there had been updates on the building, each grade level had one room. I still remember the hard-wood floors, the scoop of honey-peanut butter Mrs. Reardon gave us for dessert if we cleaned off our lunch plates, the parent and teacher organized Halloween party that included games like bean-bag tossing and (my favorite) the cake walk, which was held in Mrs. Draggoo’s classroom.
I should point out that there are of course, many factors that enter into a school board’s decision to close schools. In 1970, there was of course, the issue of desegregation. Osprey was an all-white school. This complicated things, but the “Osprey delegation indicated…they would have no objection to Negro children being bussed in”; however, they did not want their children bussed out.
My father’s motives to halt the closing of Osprey School were not pure, and were even tinged with racism. But 1970 wasn’t the first time the Board had threatened to close the school, nor would it be the last. In 1975, the Board again announced the closing of the school, and this time they succeeded, closing at the end of the 1975-1976 school year. In addition to desegregation, Osprey School served only about 145 students with another small school, Laurel School, two miles away serving another 100, and another larger school, Nokomis, about five miles away that could absorb the students from Osprey and Laurel. Fiscally, it was a wise decision.
And the school has continued to serve the community in other ways. For a couple of years, the building was used as a continuing education center for public school teachers, and then leased to the Spanish Point Historical Society, then eventually sold to the Historical Society. The building is still there, serving as the Visitor and Welcome Center for Spanish Point. Last time I visited, I walked through each of the old classrooms, each now serving some type of educational purpose—though no teachers standing in front of their group of students—now updated into gift shops, historical information about the Palmers and Webbs (wealthy land owners), displays of old ships, explanations of burial mounds, and meeting rooms.
I loved Osprey School. I loved knowing all of the other kids’ parents, knowing each teacher.
With less funding coming from the state, local parents here in Seminole County have realized the only way to keep their neighborhood schools open is by increasing property taxes. Last year, Seminole County residents voted down a property tax increase. This coming fall, I’m expecting it will pass because the parents are eager to do whatever they can to be able to walk their children to school where they know all the teachers.
While there are a few teachers who do less than others, and there are teachers who abuse their students, most teachers deserve much more than the even modest pay raises they’ve been denied in recent years. Every morning I am aware of the teachers who make an attempt at teaching our children. They do this in spite of their pay not keeping up with the cost of living, in spite of larger class sizes, in spite of inadequate supplies and buildings, and some do it in spite of the lack of parental or administrative support, mostly in spite of the lack of State and Federal support rather than with it.
I remember the day in 1997 when Governor Jeb Bush came to “tour” our school. I was teaching tenth grade English. I had forty students in a room with thirty desks. I’d gotten my own desk from “the shed” at the beginning of the school semester. I had no idea what color the carpet was originally because now it was stained with urine, gum, dirt, sweat, and who knows what else. The only markers for the marker board were ones I’d purchased at the office supply store. My students were referred to as “general” students, meaning they were not “honors,” a designation primarily for students whose parents had insisted they be in those types of classes; honors had very little to do with intellectual ability.
Anyway, as I was teaching in that classroom, Bush’s entourage of security, media, and school administration came down the exterior hallway. I knew this because all of the students in my class stopped whatever they were doing and ran to the side windows. They asked me what was going on. “Oh, Governor Bush is touring the school. He wants to see how well the school is doing,” I said.
“Why don’t he come in here?” several of them asked.
“He’s going to the Magnet Program classrooms and the IB classrooms.”
In the IB classrooms there were a maximum of fifteen students; in the Magnet Program classes, twenty. And though all of my classes had at least forty, the ratio of teacher/student at our school was well within the State’s requirements.
“He need to come in here,” my students argued. “We should be the ones showing him what be real.”
When politicians use education as platforms, I can only roll my eyes. They have no idea what happens in most classrooms every day. Like former Governor Bush, they see only the “pretty” parts of the schools. He saw the delightful art in the hallway of the IB building, the eager students, the caring administrators, and the bountiful supplies in the Magnet Program building. I’m sure this confirmed for him the need for the FCAT which began that following spring in 1998. Created to hold schools and particularly teachers accountable for their students’ learning, FCAT hassles have been the reason for many teachers, good teachers, leaving the school system.
For the most part those two hundred forty students I “taught” that year graduated. I watched them walk across the stage. I knew which of them still could not write, could not spell, and could not read a paragraph and comprehend it.
Despite what some politicians think, teachers do know what they’re doing and parents do care a great deal. Sadly, many politicians can’t comprehend what teachers and schools really need—an end to posturing and slashing and a start to genuine and consistent financial and practical support.