xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' Don't Forget South Central

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

To Be, or Not To Be a Lifer

What do you do for the third act of your career?

Will you keep the promise of service to a challenged community that you made in your early career? (to drunk colleagues at a Margarita Jones?) ”We’re Lifers,” we all agreed, after our third round of margaritas.

Do you give yourself one final challenge and give yourself to other kids who need you just as much but in different ways?

What will you do when you only have 10 years of teaching left? (ish)

These are the questions that have left the Sensei in an existential funk for the last year or so.

Never bright eyed and bushy tailed, work at my last school (a middle school) was every bit the challenge I knew it would be. Questionable leadership, racial politics, and the massive effects of poverty on students made the teaching conditions there…unique. Yet, still, there were incredibly talented teachers who were making a dent in the system. A system where the odds were against these students and teachers, and little was done at an institutional level to bring about real progress. 

There was the Iraq war vet who’s no nonsense persona filled the kids with terror—and love. They knew he cared. And if they ever blew off a district test, he’d have them marching in the rain promising never to score “below basic” again. He’d be in teacher jail today for doing that.

There was the Asian crew of teachers who gave the students a brutal talking to if they dared to call them “pinche Chinos;” it worked. Those hard-headed students learned to respect teachers of all races and treat the women with respect. But, they too would be in jail today (or sued) for having such frank conversations.

There was the funny teacher who would shoot down any and all attempts by ill-intentioned students who were trying to get the class off track. Now you must understand, he was born and raised in the same neighborhood as the students, near 69th and Broadway. He was from the community. He knew the way these kids’ minds worked and what was needed to maintain order in the classroom. When a poor student decided to humiliate the teacher, his speedy and unfiltered responses would elicit major props by students, who knew not to mess with him in a battle of wits. He too would be in teacher jail.

I mention these cases, and a few of my own, to indicate that times have changed. The tools we had to counter the misbehavior of students have been taken from teachers. The system that is L.A. Unified has reacted to their own mishandling of many issues by establishing policies that compensate for their own shortcomings.  

In the case of sexual abuse, one would think that structural changes would be made to how teachers are supervised. I don’t know, maybe additional visits to all teachers’ classrooms whether they are evaluated or not? Strolls through the hallways at lunch to ensure no students are alone with teachers?


Instead, entire faculties have been removed from schools, teachers are quickly thrown in teacher jail for the most insignificant allegations, and administrators have their pensions threatened if they don’t walk the straight and narrow path of district policy. You are 10 minutes tardy to my class? Give me 10 jumping jacks. “No, you can’t do that, Ms. Infante, it is corporal punishment.” You want to vandalize my desks with permanent markers? Pick up a bag full of trash from the campus at lunch. “No, Ms. Infante, you are hurting their self-esteem.”

And here’s the kicker. You can say “Fuck you,” “you’re a bitch”, and kick my door as if you are going to tear it down, and per district rules, you cannot be suspended. And all the while, those far removed from schools, those making policy, pat themselves on the back and boast about thelow suspension numbers. As if they are working. As if it is not taking years off of teachers’ lives with the stress of being unable to truly discipline kids in a manner which we know is best. As if the other 39 kids aren’t looking at you with fear of the disruptors, frustration at lack of teaching and learning due to the interruptions, or worse, a gleam in their eye when it strikes them that they too can “turn up” with no consequences.

No suspension is a gift from god to parents who cannot handle their own children; they tell us as much at parent conferences. Or they tell us not to bother them with so many phone calls. My favorite recent one was the parent who was a no show at a parent conference that I only went to work for while seriously ill.  When I called to ask where she was, and told her that I made an extra effort to be there for her, she yells “Well no one told you to do that! Why would you do that?” “I was honoring my commitment to your child, who is my student.” “Well you need to take care of yourself and stop asking me questions.” The student returned to class, wreaking more havoc, interrupting learning. Victorious and emboldened. Now I am experienced enough to know that a parent raising a child in poverty is at their wits end. I know they may not have the emotional and economic resources to help their child (and themselves) in the way they need. Which is why economics is such a pervasive factor in how students perform in school. Want to fix schools? Fix poverty. Or give us the right resources.

Sadly, all summer wasn’t enough to recover from my 19thyear of teaching. My friends at more stable schools were worried. Friends and family begged me to move. Job offers arrive in my inbox from friends and colleagues who sensed I would for once consider moving to their schools. Yoga, jogging, and clean eating wasn’t enough. My twitter PLC wasn’t enough.

Heroically, my school is doing what it can while its hands are tied by district policy. We are asked to do miracles by the sadly misinformed (or contemptuously indifferent).  It’s an existential crisis because you realize the whole system is stacked against success. Yours and your students. Money that can be spent on counselors, health access, and a robust curriculum is going to the billion dollar testing industry. And even well intentioned peers fighting for social justice still focus on helping that one lost kid but forget the 39 other ones impatient to learn.

You walk a fine line when you write a post like this; you might give ammo to those who will say,” I told you those black and brown kids can’t be educated.” Yet it is more obvious than ever that it’s not about black and brown; it’s about green. Those who can move to a better neighborhood can and will. Those who are mired in poverty and cannot escape its wide effects, stay in local schools where they are not expected to volunteer 40 hours and their students won’t be suspended for cursing the teacher. Black and brown kids of more green do just fine in other places. The greener, the finer.

Affluent schools don’t do annual standardized testing, but offer bountiful programs in the arts and sciences, have libraries full of books, and offer all kinds of sports. Our kids get “restorative justice”, but most classrooms are yet to experience the wonders of that program.

BTW where is the justice for the 39 other kids in the class who are playing by the rules?

I recently ran across an old friend who said he was “scared to tell me” he had moved on to an affluent private school. I looked him square in the eye and said “you gave these kids more than a decade of your life. You changed lives. Walk with your head held high.” Because the majority of teachers would never willingly work in schools like mine if they didn’t have to (some side eye there.)

I used to think I’d be a Lifer. But now I just don’t know. How can you look your charges in the eye when you see that no one really expects them to succeed, and slowly, but surely, all your secret weapons for countering the odds are being taken from you (thou shalt not lie?) Even the greatest of teachers can’t impart knowledge when the interrupter, the shouter, the ADHD, the willfully defiant, and the angry student have decided that no learning will take place today, and the district is on their side.

Is 26 years of service enough?

Any thoughts, comments, or questions would be welcome on this post.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Sensei Goes to Sacramento

Did you know that there is a blueprint for California schools? It's a road map that tells where schools are headed, and how they will get there. Check it out here.

Well now that document needs an update and the State Superintendent of Instruction, Tom Torlakson, has asked a classroom teacher to co-chair the update process of the blueprint. A teacher whose school is in South Central L.A...you guessed it. Me!

The Blueprint addresses important issues such as:
  • Educator Quality
  • Curriculum and Assessment
  • Higher Education and Secondary Alignment
  • Accountability and School Improvement
  • Early Childhood Education
  • Education Supports
  • Health, Nutrition and Physical Fitness
  • School Finance
  • Facilities and Construction Reform

Working with my co-chair Chris Steinhauser, the Superintendent of Long Beach Unified, will be a treat; I have much respect for someone who can manage a large district and avoid debacles like iPads and tech systems. His union-management agreement on teacher evaluations is a model for districts.

So why have a classroom teacher lead this initiative? Because our SSI values the opinions of those who are still in the classroom. And what will these strategies look like in the most challenging schools? 

It looks like this blog is achieving its purpose. Tom Torlakson did not forget South Central.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

We Got Noticed!

There's a write up about teacher bloggers in the latest CTA issue. This was one of the featured blogs! It's a bittersweet feeling. This blog was created in 2009 when our school was decimated by budget cuts and layoffs. Six years later the economy is finally recovering, but nothing is in place to make sure it never happens again.

Who tanked our economy? Why were the most vulnerable of our population the ones to bear the brunt of the recession? Why are the majority of public school students in poverty?

I'm really glad that CTA featured this blog and that the issues of students from poverty (and the teachers who teach them) are getting attention. This blog has led me to connect with some amazing educators and leaders from across the nation, especially those who tweet about #educolor on Twitter.

I hope that more teachers are encouraged to step outside of their classroom to blog or tweet and make their voices heard. Each school is its own ecosystem with particular and unique needs, and the public needs to know about them. This blogger will continue to do her best to bring attention to the strengths and needs of the students, parents, and teachers of South Central as well.

Yours Truly,


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

AvalonSensei's Best and Worst of 2014 #LAUSD

Thumbs Down in 2014

1. iPad Debacle
John Deasy ordered the spending of millions of dollars for the highest priced tablets that could have been spent on lowering class sizes for more individual attention of students. Some classes reached the 50's...that's not instruction. It's crowd control.

2. Misis Catastrophe
The district dragged its feet to become compliant with a consent decree, and then hurriedly rushed out a software program riddled with glitches. Worse, they refused to slow down when warned repeatedly by teachers that the program wasn't ready to go live.

3. Lack of a contract settlement (7 years without a cost of living adjustment)
It's disheartening to see our leaders lie and deceive about how much money is in the budget to afford teachers and others a raise. Not even a raise, because that would take back pay on the 7 years our COLA was absconded with by the district. Teachers have families too.

4. Local control formula that keeps focusing on the same 'ol, same 'ol
What's the point in shifting control to local schools when the folks in power keep emphasizing English, Math, and the Common Core? What about the arts, sports, and gifted education?

5. Breakfast in the Classroom continues to bring pests into the classroom
Seriously, this was just a publicity stunt. If you're going to do it, do it right. Double the number of custodial staff at each school and buy better food. That bird seed bar has got to go. 

Thumbs Up in 2014

1. Ramon Cortines-He's a benevolent dictator, and I'm ok with that (he was an educator)
Welcome back, Mr. Cortines! Just remember that the public trusts YOU to do right by the kids and not by Pearson, Apple, and Scholastic. Just sayin'.

2. Prop 30 funding
Thank you, Californians!

3. Tom Torlakson re-elected
This is a man who knows what's best for schools. I look forward to 4 more years of leadership.

4. John Deasy exits the district
Don't let the door hit ya on the way out.

5. New union leadership (Alex Caputo-Pearl is the Business!)
Finally, an intellectual.

6. The dedicated teachers of South Central L.A (and all around the world!)
You know you are making a true difference in the lives of children.

Thank you all who read this blog. I want the record to show how the real people: students, parents, and teachers dealt with the consequences of the decisions made by people far from schools, some with no educational background whatsoever. 

We want schools to improve, but treat teachers with contempt. Well, that's never going to work. So we write. We march. We join. We participate. And we document.

Looking forward to a productive year in 2015!

Martha Infante aka AvalonSensei

Monday, November 24, 2014

Top 10 Takeaways from NCSS Conference

The National Council for the Social Studies conference was everything I thought it would be and more. While the experience is fresh in my mind, I'll share my top 10 takeaways from the conference.

1. Twitter is great, but nothing beats person to person learning, networking, and inspiration!

2. The C3 Framework is coming. It's here. Lots of districts are moving on this. Is yours?

3. Michelle Herzog is the BUSINESS.

4. Just when you had your mind made up about the immigration policy you hear this guy speak: Jose Antonio Vargas.

5. Boston was a phenomenal place to hold a social studies conference.

6. LAUSD (cc: Ramon Cortines), teachers need to leave the classroom, the school, and sometimes the state to get top notch professional development. ITS FOR THE STUDENTS!

7. Charter school teachers want to get connected. Their people won't do it. Our people won't do it. WE'll DO IT.

8.We honor our own. Nobody else does. Honor an educator by being a part of our community.

9. Teachers shouldn't have to stay in hostels to afford top quality training.

10. Do you belong to a professional organization? If not, why? Numbers=power, respect for the profession.

CA Council for the Social Studies
National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
National Science Teachers Association

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Feds Take on Teacher Assignments

US to Focus on Equity in Assigning of Teachers

When I was a newer teacher, I used to think teachers should not get to pick their work location. I used to think that if there were superstar teachers, they should be assigned to teach the students who needed them the most, like the ones at the schools where I've taught.

Then I realized superstar teachers are few and far between.

The process to determine who is a great teacher is flawed, none exists yet.

Socioeconomics more greatly determine who is a great teacher than other measures in place today.

You could be a failing teacher at a failing school one year, and a superstar the next in another more affluent school or district.

How do you define a failing school anyway?

So the problem remains: who will best teach the students from poverty at schools such as mine?

First, I would abandon my naive idea of forcibly assigning teachers to work in places they don't choose. It would never work. The resentment and the stress alone would poison the precious relationship between student and teacher that is the foundation of learning. And I don't want to work with teachers who think their talents are being wasted in the "hood".

I would invest in our homegrown teachers by cultivating relationships with former students and following up on leads by local schools of education. While I enjoy the spirit of TFA teachers, I would employ them only sparingly, because for students in my neighborhood, stability is key.

A wide range of experience on staff would also matter.  We would have equal numbers of new, mid-career, and veteran teachers, all of which have something to offer to each other. Ideally, retired teachers would be replaced by new ones, keeping our staff in a sort of educational homeostasis.

Teachers on staff would routinely be sent on quality training, a lot of it off campus, and even out of state. It makes teachers feel like professionals and it helps them refine their craft. I know our new superintendent is against removing teachers from the classroom excessively, but sometimes you have to give something to get something.

I would follow the recommendations make by Tom Torlakson' s Greatness by Design report (full disclosure: I worked on this report) and make sure some of our teachers become teacher leaders, because sometimes you want to do more for your school than what you can accomplish in your classroom.

Finally, I would do what has been done at other great schools, charter and public. Offer health club memberships to teachers, day care, coffee trucks, and massages.

Pampered! Primped! But a teacher whose heart, body, and soul is cared for will have the fortitude and perseverance needed to teach the students sent to us with so many challenges. They will last in hard to staff schools. They will strengthen the social fabric of the school and community. And they will create their own solutions to each school's unique circumstances.

Friday, October 17, 2014

When It Comes to Students, It's Never a Celebration to Say "I Told You So"

from L.A. School Report
This week, teachers reacted to news of the Superintendent's departure with reactions spanning from joyful to sobering. As one of the many concerned teachers who wondered why on earth a non-educator would be selected to lead a school district, I felt John Deasy's decision to step down was the right one. But why was he ever hired in the first place?

The prevailing narrative is that public schools are failing and that infusing them with the business model of competition and reward and punish would push them to do better. This, in spite of no evidence that the schools are doing as poorly as those who have a vested interest in their failure say they are. I see nothing wrong in hiring someone that has risen through the ranks, knows the frustration of teaching in an overcrowded, under-resourced classroom. One that has been whacked in the head by a flying water bottle or a mushy burrito. One that has seen the gleam of understanding in a student's eye when they finally get the lesson that you crafted as an art.

Here's my wish list for the next superintendent of Los Angeles schools:

1. Select someone not beholden to corporate interests-There should be a law where if you serve in a public office, you are prohibited from departing to private industry to benefit from the decisions you made while in office. You shouldn't sit on corporate boards like Scholastic or make commercials for Apple while you are in office. Decisions should be researched based and sound.

2. Do for L.A. kids what you would do for your own-if small class sizes are a selling point for your child's private school, then they should be the same for the majority black and brown kids of our district.

3. Listen to teachers-maintain on open line with the troops on the ground. Sometimes the message gets filtered when you have to many people in between.

4. Require significant experience in schools-TFA teachers are great. But youth does not always equal greatness. In fact, there is no substitute for experience. The schools that survived the Misis crisis had veteran administrators on staff who knew how to program students without a computer. A superintendent has had to have risen through the ranks to know exactly how each level is supposed to function

5. Do something about unchecked charter growth-it's affecting regular schools by draining the most able of families. It causes destabilization. It drains resources. If the charter model is so great, allow schools the autonomy to do what charters do.

And finally,

6. Do something great! We are an amazing city with incredible students, dedicated teachers and staff, and parents who want to help schools. We should be a model for other districts.

While Deasy's departure could be a sign of better things to come, I am saddened at three years of lost progress. It is not a cause for celebration. It is a time of reflection for us as teachers for what we need to do to make sure our voices are heard and mistakes like these are not repeated.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

iPads Are Good For Students, Aren't They?

If you believe technology can replace teachers, then yes. I do not believe it.

Let me back up. Hi! My name is Martha Infante and I have been in education for 24 years. I love teaching. I would also love a class set of computers for my students to do research and projects, but our schools have been decimated in recent years with budget cuts and we are only now recovering. In fact, this is what got me started in blogging.

Why is the iPad issue so controversial? It might be because our Superintendent John Deasy, who sees himself as a champion of civil rights, believes iPads will equalize educational opportunities for students from poverty. Not more teachers, counselors, clean buildings, resources, training...but iPads.
The Los Angeles Unified School District, however, is paying $768 per device for its students, teachers and administrators, making it one of the nation's most expensive technology programs.
After we overpaid for these devices with bond money, they made their appearance in my school for one purpose only: to test children. No opportunity to Skype with schools around the world, no ability to make Prezis, no general internet access to look stuff up. Once testing was over, these devices were sent back to the district.

What did we give up when choosing these expensive devices? Well, the money that could have gone to infrastructure went to iPads. As a result, schools have ant, roach, and rodent issues, broken classrooms and buildings, and few devices to use for instructional purposes.

I have a real problem with not involving teachers in the conversation. My main concern was that students would get robbed (and possibly injured) while taking their iPads home. This happens regularly in the neighborhood where I teach, for much less valuable items.

With no policies and safeguards in place, these devices would "disappear" from schools and find themselves on the black market.
At Dymally Senior High, "current and former administrators refused to take responsibility for missing computer devices," the report said.-LA Times
Students will not want to use these devices with only Pearson software installed on them.

Was each school's wifi network enough to handle the usage by their entire student body?

No one asked us, the teachers, and every last prediction came true. When people started asking questions, they were silenced.

Now I start my school year with students sharing cell phones with each other to do research (contrary to popular belief, not all students from poverty have internet access). I research ways to write grants for a class set of kindles, because these are the most affordable and at least they can connect to the worldwide web.

But worse, I suffer the insult of a Bostonian man telling me that he is more interested and invested in improving the lives of our students than I and thousands of others of educators are and have been.

I am not content to let this ride out. My students don't have a voice (yet) and I do. Stay tuned for more blogging this year, and thank you for reading.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reign of Error Affirms That We Are Not Failures

As a career classroom teacher, it has been a surreal experience to live trough the transformation of my profession. Where once upon a time teachers were vaunted, valued and respected, we are now the primary culprits for society's ills such as poverty, unemployment, and crime.

In this blog, I have written about the folks who have let schools down long before education reform came along, the same folks who blame teachers for "failing schools" yet who never lifted a finger to intervene against budget cuts, layoffs, the siphoning of higher performing students and resources to charters, etc.

There is one national figure who has consistently pointed out the contradictions in the education reform movement and battled valiantly against the education reformers. That person is education historian Dr. Diane Ravitch and her latest book, Reign of Error, is a must read for anyone interested in knowing the truth about what is happening in public schools today.

It was with great anticipation that I received a copy of the book the week before its release so that I could do a review on my blog. It did not let me down and it won't let you down either if you are looking for the truth about schools in America today.

One by one, piece by piece, Dr. Ravitch deconstructs the myths surrounding education reform:

  • high school graduation rates are dismal (false)
  • poverty has no effect on achievement (false)
  • merit pay improves achievement (false)
  • value added methodology can improve teaching (false)
  • education is in a crisis as demonstrated by our ranking on international tests (false)
I want to address the issue that our schools our failing and that is why we must move toward privatization in order to save them. Over and over through surveys, conversations, studies, parents have indicated that they support the public schools their children attend. Do they want to see improvements, of course. So do teachers. We share the same learning/work conditions. We thrive together and we suffer together.

But the message parents are receiving, along with the broader public, is that parents are wrong. Schools are in the worst shape they have ever been in, students won't be employable in the future, and teachers are causing them a life of poverty. We as teachers instinctively know this is wrong, but Reign of Error devastates the myth firmly and completely.

Dr. Ravitch can't be fooled by numbers because she is a professor of education. Something as simple as different methodologies of calculating a statistic can lead to wildly different conclusions on issues such as high school graduation. Are schools dropout factories, or are we helping students earn high school degrees in greater numbers than ever before? The latter is closer to the truth.

As a teacher who has participated in teacher delegations to Asian countries I can attest to what Dr. Ravitch discusses in the analysis of international test scores. Yes, Confucius did a great job preparing his students and entire civilizations for The Test. But today, Chinese and Japanese schools look to us for guidance on creativity and innovation. Why do we want to give up one of our greatest assets: the ability to produce thinkers, artists, and creators? Can't we learn from each other?

Reign of Error concludes that disparaging schools makes it easier for the public to accept their destruction and re-creation as private entities. Schools are being closed in cities nationwide and its all based on a false premise, that schools are failing. We are not failing! We are working with children that come to school under the most difficult circumstances in recent memory. Has the Great Recession affected you? It has affected families from poverty even more so. Yet our graduation rates are up. More children can read and do math. We outscore students from other countries when you factor for poverty. Reign of Error rejects the labeling of schools as failures and rightly assigns responsibility to district administrators who fail to act when they become aware that a school is under-resourced and all they offer is labels and blame.

Just as the Chicano art mural above rejects the label of minority, we educators reject the label of failures. Hold us accountable for what we is within our reach and fix what isn't. How to start doing this? Read the book.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Willful Defiance...

It is the dream again. The one where you're standing at the front of a classroom and a roomful of defiant students is disobeying your every instruction, laughing at your every command for order. It's a nightmare actually, and many teachers have it on a recurring basis. I'm sure Freud or any other psychoanalyst would have something to say about the root causes, but I think it boils down to fear. Teachers have an enormous responsibility for the welfare and education of each and every one of their charges. But when it comes down to it, the vast majority of time, teachers are alone in the classroom, outnumbered 35 to 1.

In real life, most would not guess that I suffer from this nightmare as I am one of the stronger presences on my gritty, urban middle school campus. I am a veteran of the curse-outs, pushes, shoves, death threats and punches. Flying doors that smack you in the face? Not me, I keep a three foot distance from the range of doors. Water bottles thrown down the stairs and hitting you smack on the head? Not gonna happen, I always look up before climbing to the second or third stories. And as for suspending students for not bringing pencils or talking back? Well, lets just say the consequences I impose on my students are less desired than suspensions.

Yet I support respecting the discretion of teachers to issue a suspension for willful defiance.

The truth is that over my 20 years as an educator in an urban district I have seen student behavior get worse, not better. Teachers are being asked to take on the roles of counselors, therapists, disciplinarians, and now food servers, as we implement Breakfast In the Classroom next year. Which is fine. I'm up for the challenge.

But don't take away my tools for behavior modification.

Counselors disappeared years ago. Psychiatric social workers are a luxury most schools can't afford. Administrators are carrying the largest loads ever, and support staff is severely limited. Budget cuts have left schools with skeleton staffs and the students know it. No one is there to help me. It is my nightmare come to life.

I have many tools at my disposal as a seasoned educator. Even the most defiant of students tones it down when it comes to my classroom. But every now and then you have to show students you can and will remove them from the classroom and even the school if they are unwilling to maintain the integrity of the classroom. I'm not talking about defiance toward me exclusively. It could be a student that won't stop calling your daughter a female dog, or your son a homosexual. One boy could not stop making sexual remarks in spite of getting a primo counseling spot with our school's only therapist and the parents were not able to stop him either. So when he got into an argument with a girl and said she needed to be raped, he had to go!
The counseling didn't work. The parents were ineffective. It's me, the defiant student, and 34 other children. And now I'm supposed to keep him in the classroom? I do not agree.

Most suspensions I've been involved with have to do with other teacher's students. I have no connection with them, cannot teach them the value system we create in the classroom. These are the students that say F you when you ask them to go to class, or blatantly tell you they are ditching when you ask them where they are supposed to be. Just yesterday I called for assistance on my radio in one such case, and the student laughed all the way to his next ditch spot. What can we do to help students understand how to respect authority? I do not have the answer to that. I think it lays with parenting. I think it has to do with the lack of follow through by burned out teachers who have had to deal with years, decades of troubled students with little support, and certainly no respect. Those kids know they can wear a teacher out and only the crazy ones will hunt you down to give you your consequence.

I believe that removing the right to suspend students for wililful defiance neglects the reality that the role of teachers has changed. I'd give anything to not have to discipline students, but no one else is taking care of that for me. And the truth is that the smartest of the defiant students (and many of them are very smart) will figure it out and take it as an approval of their sometimes horrid behavior. And as this policy is set to start next school year,I hope with my deepest of hopes to be wrong.

Monday, September 17, 2012

You Talkin' to Me?

I knew a little girl once who came from poverty and that odds predicted little chance of her ever escaping it, much less becoming a professional, middle-class teacher that would lead professional organizations and travel the world representing her country in the field of education.

The odds were exactly 7%.

That is how many students, then and now, are able to graduate from high school in East L.A., make it to college, graduate from college, and get a professional job that might land them in the middle class.

The little girls from poverty was me.

“Poverty is not destiny!” keep shouting these education reformers, many who tend to come from predominantly affluent and Caucasian backgrounds from the likes of Teach for America. I look around and wonder, “Are they talking to me? Seriously?”

I don’t recall them being around while poverty was kicking my ass, growing up in a community lacking in resources, safety, and investments.  I don’t recall them shouting “stop!” when school budgets kept getting slashed and slashed and slashed. I don’t recall them giving me grants or scholarships when I worked three jobs to finish paying my way through college at UCLA (Remember that other recession in the 90’s? Yeah, it almost did me in.)

Graduating from college came from sheer will and determination, while battling all the problems that my middle class friends could not understand, only sympathize with. I remember my college roommate in sophomore year who is now a doctor who felt so sorry for me for leaving the dorms at 7:00 a.m. not to return until midnight on the days all three of my jobs were scheduled. “It’s okay,” I would say. “It’s got to get done.”

The author, empowering students since 1995

Fast forward to becoming a teacher in South Central L.A. And lo and behold: thousands of little boys and girls, just like me. I could only pray that I could instill the same inspiration in them that my teachers did in me throughout my K-12 schooling.

But suffering excuses and cries of poverty was not bound to happen in my classroom. Yes, you got the luck of a bad draw. Yes, your father left your family and your mom has to struggle alone. Yes, you sleep on the floor of the living room with your other siblings. Yes, your mom is strung out on drugs and you haven’t seen her in years. But no, I will not accept your lack of work and your lack of effort. We will get your mind right because you must succeed in spite of your circumstances. You have to.

My students have rarely seen me shed a tear, because how is that going to help build their resolve? They need confidence, not pity. They need a cheerleader, not a sympathizer. But while driving home or sitting at the bar with other teachers, those tears flowed. The sheer unfairness of the lives these children were born to made me want to commit acts of violence. We vented. We raged. And then we composed ourselves and planned. Planned lessons that we called “weapons of mass instruction” and told these kids that no one could ever take away their intelligence, and it behooved them to pay attention in class. The kids knew we cared, the parents supported every minute of it. And they still do.

But as my teaching career developed, my eyes started to really see the truth around me. That being in poverty is a condition that is perpetuated by a multitude of policies. That it could be mitigated by infusing schools with enough money and best practices, like those practiced at the Chicago Lab School and at the Sidwell Friends School. Maybe if we had a lower teacher to student ratio, teachers wouldn’t have as large of a burden as we have now. Maybe if my high poverty school had more teachers, counselors, and social workers we could get the students the real help they need to overcome poverty. It’s too late for my family that suffered many a microwave dinner when Mommy got home at 8:00 pm from parent meetings where I was trying to empower parents in the school system. But maybe future teachers could fulfill their passion of helping students and still keep a healthy family structure at home.

How dare you tell me poverty is not destiny while stripping schools of the weapons necessary to combat it?

My eyes now see that what’s good enough for rich children is deemed unnecessary for poor ones. My eyes now see that there are less spaces in college than when I went, less money to pay for it, and less chance of admission. My eyes now see that education reform policies are stripping kids of the ability to be critical thinkers to see for themselves when they are being robbed and cheated of a well-rounded education and  a productive future.

And I now wonder if my weapons of mass instruction will be enough to give my students at least the 7% chance that I myself had.

So I say this to the education reformers who cry “poverty is not destiny”: why don’t you give away your excess prosperity to my school? I know of a student who needs intensive counseling. One who needs to get out a of a homeless shelter. And one who needs a dentist and a bed.

You can write a check C/O

Los Angeles Academy Middle School
644 E. 56th St.
Los Angeles, CA 90011

I’m waiting.

-Martha Infante
aka AvalonSensei

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Save Our Schools March

Parents, teachers, bloggers, and activists united in Washington over the weekend to rally for public education.  This speaker, John Kuhn, was the most electrifying of all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What's happening to our school (massive layoffs over 3 years, drastic funding cuts) is now the norm district-wide.  Below is a telling video by the students and staff at Roy Romer Middle School in North Hollywood that pretty much sums up what's happening at schools throughout South Central.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

If you had a chance to speak to the government about educational equity, what would you say?

Here's what I said today:

Good afternoon, everyone, my name is Martha Infante, and I thank you all for inviting me to speak on the issue of Educational Equity as it relates to schools in California and the nation.  I, like David Cohen, am a member of the Accomplished CA Teachers Network, am Nationally Board Certified, and am currently a middle school history teacher in an urban, industrial area of Los Angeles.

My educational background began in the public schools of East Los Angeles in the 1970’s.  I was fortunate to partake in a strong Gifted and Talented Education program and received a robust and fulfilling arts education as well.  As a graduate of UCLA, I continued benefitting from the investment made by the state in public schools and chose to return the favor by becoming a public school teacher in the hardest to staff area of the Los Angeles Unified School District:  South Central Los Angeles  where I have dedicated my service for 20 years.  In this time, I believe I have gained an insight that may serve the purposes of this committee and I will share the experiences of my students, as well as observations I have made of the various programs that have been created to reverse the educational inequities that have existed in schools for many, many years.

The state of education funding today has hit schools like mine in a way few have come to know.  Increases in class size are common, and limited classroom resources are the immediate, obvious results.  However, it is the precipitous state of the whole child that is affected in urban schools, when cuts hit hard and often.  Students with special needs such as autism and dyslexia appear in overcrowded classrooms but their needs go unnoticed by the predominantly novice teachers which tend to be employed in hard to staff schools.  Training to recognize the warning signs of emotionally disturbed students has virtually ceased due to the marked decrease in professional development funds, and even if funding were available, it is usually geared toward training in reading and math as this has been the focus of No Child Left Behind.  In the past year, our school counselors loads have doubled from 350 students per counselor to 700.    With further cuts looming, the number will surely rise.  Parents in my community are workers and do not often have the time to interact with the school as often as necessary, or the knowledge of warning signs they must look for to tell them that their child is at risk.  As such, the school becomes the last, best hope to help students before they become a danger to themselves.  In the past 12 months, I have identified two students with Aspergers, a suicidal student, and a student being physically abused at home.  These students had gone unidentified by other novice teachers on campus and missed by their counselor due to the tremendous strain of reduction in support services in the last several years.  I shudder to think what would have happened to these students if the teacher in front of them had been a new teacher, and at the same time realize that many such students have already slipped through the cracks.

My initial comments have focused on support services by counselors and mental health professionals because all teachers know that if a student’s basic needs of safety and security are not met, then learning is not happening in the classroom.  However, even in the best of times when schools have been fully staffed in this area, the issue of equity continues to be prevalent.  Staffing has been a constant issue in schools like mine because of difficult working conditions, and the depth of social, emotional, and economic problems that my students face.  These conditions have been known to defeat even the most valiant of educators because all workers like to believe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Working at urban schools sometimes means surviving, not knowing if your colleagues will return to work the next day, whether your principal is there to make a difference or just passing through, and learning to fend for yourself when it comes to acquiring the necessary resources to teach students.  As a result, teacher turnover is extremely high in urban schools, and the learning curve is very steep for the rookie teachers who are relegated to teach in these communities.  Burn out is even higher at charter schools, and I wonder whose children suffer because of this.

To me, equity is not just a funding issue.  We have received generous Title 1 funds in the past, yet disparities continue.  Equity means acknowledging that every school, every community, every setting, has its own unique needs that call for individual solutions.  Take the problem of staffing at my school.  Many studies show that teacher quality is the most important in-school factor that can help improve education (socio-economic factors have the most overall impact) for underserved students, yet few programs have been successful in helping retain the most knowledgeable and capable teachers in the schools that need them the most.  Yes, there have been grants offered periodically, but systemic changes have not been made to the way teachers are assigned to schools, and how schools can work to retain key staff.

The recent ACLU lawsuit against the Los Angeles Unified School District attempted to address this situation.  This lawsuit exempted high needs schools from seniority-based layoffs.  However, as is the case with many education policies, no attempt was made to dialogue with teacher leaders who would have told the ACLU that exempting these schools from layoffs was only a stop-gap measure.  The ACLU won the lawsuit and 45 schools in LAUSD are now protected from layoffs, but no programs are in place to retain the most necessary and effective staff members who can help counteract educational inequities.  In other words, when conditions get to be too much to bear, teachers at these schools will transfer to schools like David Cohen’s in Palo Alto where they will likely serve out their career.

My school was successful in creating a New Teacher Support program and through very simple strategies we reduced teacher turnover from 40% yearly, to zero percent in 2009.  These simple strategies included mentorships, pizza welcome parties, new teacher photos bios placed in all the staff members’ mailboxes, bowling nights to build community, and even a new teacher welcome brunch at the Principal’s house.  Our staff was celebrating the solving of the quest to reduce turnover when the budgetary layoffs hit schools.  We lost 23 teachers that year, the year we should have lost zero.  The following year we lost 12, and this year we are slated to lose 28.  The number is higher this year because of the ACLU settlement which did not take into account the individual, unique needs of each school community.  Because of our lower turnover numbers, our school did not qualify for layoff protection, therefore we are forced to absorb even larger numbers of layoffs than other schools in the area with that had no teacher retention programs in place.  Again, an idea that seems great in theory, but poor in practice.

The last issue I would like to call attention to in terms of equity is the issue of challenging students.  Students with special needs, English learners, or those from disadvantaged homes not only require talented, experienced teachers, but they require the knowledge that their school will provide a safe haven from the tumult that may mark the lives they lead.  When I drive to school I get a smile on my face seeing John walk to school with his lopsided gait, or Jerome riding to school on the back of his friend’s bike.  They are rushing to school at the ungodly hour of 7:00 am because they know we offer breakfast and shelter, which may be more than they have available when they are not in school.  It takes every ounce of ability and resources to serve students such as these, and yet in the last several years, the concentration of such students seems to be rising at public schools like mine.  Our school does not have an admissions policy.  We do not require a 30-40 hour commitment from parents as a condition for their child’s enrollment.  We do not expel a student if he misses the opening week of school or refuses to stay for after school classes.  But other schools do.  And when these students are removed, they are accepted at the only place left for them, the traditional public school.  It seems to me that if we are really going to make an effort to increase equity for students like John and Jerome, we would require that all schools receiving public funds are required and held accountable for serving all students, challenging or not, and that if this is not the case, then increased efforts should be made to understand just what are the needs of each school community, be it funding, dialogue, partnerships, or support.  My recommendation to this commission is to talk to teachers, listen to teachers, and together we can help equity be achieved in all schools.  Thank you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Case of Parent vs. Student Intersts

 L.A. Academy is rapidly approaching the end of its year-round calendar era.  For 12 years, our overcrowded school has operated on a three-track system, with two tracks of students on at any given time, and one on vacation.  Thanks to a massive school-building effort, all LAUSD schools will be placed on a traditional school calendar, with 180 days of instruction, like the majority of the district.

Recently there was a meeting of stakeholders, the Shared Decision Making Council, to get feedback on next year's bell schedule, with the issue of school start time as the main topic.  Two bell schedules were proposed:  one with school starting at 7:30 am, another with an 8:00 am start.

All the educational research shows that later school start times are much more productive for students due to teenage sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, etc., and our current 7:30 am start is particularly brutal for our middle school students.  Even if teachers had not read the research, classroom experience shows us that students are markedly less alert at this time than after 9:00 am, or after lunch.

In an era of education reform, teachers are often accused of putting adult interests first.  For many teachers, an earlier start time means an earlier quitting time and less traffic to battle on the way home.  Yet many are willing to set aside this personal convenience because they recognize the benefit to students.  (It is unclear whether the district will allow stakeholders to decide start times, but in case we are, allowed the feedback process has begun.)

So imagine our surprise when parents were adamant about their preferences for an earlier start time citing child care, work schedules, and school-drop off schedules for their other children as their reasons.  In other words, adult-centered reasons.  Attempts were made to convey the results of the research, but even after two hours, many still stuck to their guns.

A democratic process in schools is an important and pivotal part of their vitality.  But with democracy comes the responsibility to do what is better for the whole, not just for the few.  Our predominantly working class families are right to express concern about work schedules.  Many are hanging on to their jobs by a thread.  Yet given the opportunity, some are willing to sacrifice 30 daily minutes of alert time (multiplied by 180 days= 90 hours of instruction) in order to have a more convenient schedule for themselves.

This is a tough one for me.  I believe in parent empowerment, and parent education.  But with the swift rate of change being imposed on schools like ours, we do not have the massive amount of time needed to meet with all parents, explain the research carefully in two languages, and check for thorough understanding.

What should our Shared Decision Making Council do about this situation?  I welcome any feedback.