Thursday, October 29, 2015

South Carolina high school student fires back about ‘too short’ skirt

South Carolina high school student fires back about ‘too short’ skirt

How one impoverished public school district is making strides

How one impoverished public school district is making strides

Bertis Downs is a parent and an education activist who lives in Athens, Georgia. He was legal counselor and manager of the now disbanded band R.E.M., and he spends a great deal of time advocating for public education in Clarke County, where he lives, as well as around the country. In this post, Downs writes about the innovative leadership in Clarke schools by Phil Lanoue, who has run the district for six years and who was named 2015 National Superintendent of the Year.  Though Clarke County is the most impoverished district in the state, Lanoue has been credited with making more gains to close the achievement between economically disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students than any other Georgia district.  Last year, Downs wrote an open letter to President Obama, inviting him to visit the Clarke school district to see how his education policies are  “actually hurting– not helping– schools like ours.” It
By Bertis Downs
 “There are a lot of entrenched interests that are standing in the way of some the best possibilities for innovation.  We want to challenge and scrutinize the powers that be.”  — Campbell Brown,  prime mover in a $4 million education website, “The 74.”
“Innovative” might be the new “literally.” I hear it so often it has all but lost its meaning, literally.  A word that used to be reserved for truly inventive, creative solutions to major problems has become an empty buzzword for education policy reformers to slap on old, ineffective ideas.  When it comes to education policy, anything new better be labeled “innovative” if it’s going to have any chance of catching on.  Of course improving things in new ways is positive — who could argue with that?  Innovation is the way society advances. But for many education policy proposals, the term “innovative” can often be marketing talk, without much substance.
Labeling something “innovative” or “disruptive” (or both) doesn’t necessarily translate into good policy. Once you strip away the marketing and promotional froth, much of what is branded as “innovative” is often the same old inefficacy. “Value-added” teacher evaluation systems, the re-segregation (through “choice”) of our schools, “teacher quality programs,” state takeover “districts” for the lowest __% of schools (which are invariably the poorest schools in terms of demographics) and other flavor-of-the-month, standardized-test-based prescriptions are often just a cover for the constant over-testing of our children to produce data and metrics, and more all the time.
Are those policies really helping us improve and strengthen our schools?  I don’t think so. I don’t think many teachers or principals do either. And since they are the ones doing the work of educating our children, it’s a shame they so rarely are given a voice when it comes to making education policy in our state.
Political elites often go for the “sounds good” reform ideas pretty easily, which is why, in state after state (including Georgia), such measures are passed despite the logical objections of educators, parents, and students, all of whom want good schools for all kids, including their own. Perhaps you’ve noticed lately that many of these people – people who are actually involved in the schools – are taking to the streets with the “opt-out movement,” pushing back against the “reforms” that these politicians and consultants would never impose on the schools that educate their own kids.
I mean, really, if this over-testing, high-stakes culture is really such a great idea, wouldn’t reformers want this environment for their own children? Wouldn’t they push the elite private schools their children attend to adopt those “innovative reforms” too? The fact that they don’t is telling. These are not educationally sound ideas, and reformers know it, even as they call these policies “innovative” as they push them to the public. Do they think we don’t know better? Of course the schools exempt from the public mandates don’t nurture this absurd over-testing culture, especially the ones labeled “innovative” by those passing the laws.  Balderdash, by any other name…
Our family lives in Athens, Georgia, a community that – like most communities – values public education, and our kids go to our local public schools. Our school district has been innovating, really innovating in some pretty creative ways, some of which might even sound old-fashioned or simple. I actually prefer the word “intuitive.” Especially for the past six years, we are grateful for the leadership of Phil Lanoue, who was named 2015 National Superintendent of the Year.
He deserves the honor, and here’s why: he works to build up all Athens community schools by focusing on teaching and learning, using technology where it enhances the overall mission of educating students, working with community partners to try new techniques, enhancing efficacy, and emphasizing our  community’s capacity to support the work of our neighborhood schools. Dr. Lanoue is the first to state that he isn’t the only one putting in the work.  He sets a tone, supports his team members and advances good ideas that foster high-quality teaching and learning. Many of these ideas are proving themselves effective over the years.
Some examples are instructive:
* Local high school students can work on associate degrees and basic college courses at the Career Academy while enrolled in a regular high school. The Classic City High School, a non-traditional school setting that accommodates students who need a flexible schedule and a smaller learning environment, recently graduated its largest class yet – 44 students. This school, which opened its doors less than 10 years ago, is providing an avenue for its students to succeed and get a great education. As we’ve seen from the accomplishments of innovators like Einstein, Steve Jobs, and countless others, some of our best and most brilliant minds did not succeed in or enjoy traditional schools. Education should not be one-size-fits-all, and sometimes, true innovators need non-traditional approaches to flourish.
* Our school district has multiple creative partnerships with nonprofit groups. These groups are addressing issues ranging from  closing the Opportunity Gap (the Family Connection neighborhood leaders program) to  preventing summer learning loss (Books for Keeps) and food insecurity (Food2Kids) to providing after-school enrichment programs (Chess and Community, Young Designers Program). By working with these organizations, we are creating a collaborative system to help students reach their potential and see beyond their immediate circumstances.
* Recent collaborative efforts with the University of Georgia have resulted in a nationally recognized professional development program in which hundreds of university students and professors work in our local schools, with benefits for teaching and learning at all levels specify what this includes?. This partnership has also resulted in “Experience UGA,” a one-of-a-kind program in which every grade level takes a different field trip to some area of the university every year.  This program allows all Athens kids – from Pre-K students to seniors in high school – to gain exposure to the college experience and see college as a realistic goal if they pursue a post-secondary education. From a young age, many potential first-generation college students see post-secondary education as out of their reach, and this program works to correct that self-imposed feeling of limitation (which our society reinforces in many ways). Exposure can make students excited about the possibility of going to college, and visiting a school in their hometown can make them feel as if college is an option for them if they want to pursue that path. No six-year-old child – or sixteen-year-old, for that matter – should feel that his or her future is predetermined by his or her background.
* The district’s core belief is that all its students can learn and all its schools can be exemplary schools, and its commitment to equity is paramount. For instance, when a decision was made to pursue an International Baccalaureate Middle Years program a few years ago, the application was made for all four middle schools – not just one or two – and for all students. When a successful school gardening/sustainability program was piloted at Clarke Middle School, plans were put in place (and grant funding sought) to implement such a program at all the other local middle schools.
* Working with the nonprofit Athens Land Trust and the University of Georgia, the district has instituted the Young Urban Farmers Program. Through this program, students from both high schools work part-time jobs at the land trust developing entrepreneurship projects, receive credits, and then sell their wares at the weekly farmers market. This program successfully develops work and prudent risk-taking skills and habits not normally taught in a traditional classroom setting.
* The district is a statewide Model Technology District but maintains the core principle that the most important element in the educational equation is the relationship between teacher and student. Technology, used wisely, can enhance the educational experience, but a machine or piece of software is no substitute for a great, engaged teacher.
* One of our high schools works with the University of Georgia and theNational College Advising Corps to employ an additional counselor whose primary focus is helping  interested students apply to and attend college.  This program is a “near-peer” model, where recent college graduates help many of our students do what they just did – become the first in their family to go to college. This program seeks to provide college access for students from less advantaged backgrounds, and this initiative  starts in our schools well before the final year of high school.  The community and university are making efforts to expand this program to our other major high school so that all interested students will have this extra help in making post-secondary plans to reach their individual potential;
* With  acclaimed Athens chef and public school parent Hugh Acheson leading the way, the Clarke Count district’s Seed Life Skills program is revamping “home economics” in middle schools, helping Athens young people develop skills that lead to  healthier, more independent and fulfilling lives. Core concepts run the gamut –  from cooking an egg to reading a cell phone contract, sewing a button to signing up for a health plan. The program is another way of equipping kids with pragmatic, contemporary life skills that foster independence;
* A group of high school and university teachers works with un(der)-documented immigrant students on their college aspirations.  Under current Georgia Board of Regents’ policy, many good students,  known as DREAMers,  are forbidden from even applying to our most selective state universities and have to pay international student tuition (up to 4 times what other in-state peers pay) to the other Georgia state schools.
This, of course, effectively forecloses the possibility of further education for many top Athens students (despite high test scores, outstanding high school records, unlimited human potential and plenty of desire to better themselves and their families by going to college). The leaders of ULead Athens counsel and advise these students, conduct mentoring sessions, assist with SAT and ACT prep, and help with financial aid and scholarship application advice. All of these services are geared toward making college a reality for these students from our area.  And thanks to these programs, we have seen some real successes; in recent years, DREAMers from Athens have attended schools all over the state of Georgia and others have received admission and significant financial aid to schools like Emory, Agnes Scott, Berea, Hampshire, Furman, Smith, and Syracuse, among others.
With its driving focus on educating all our people, initiatives like these,  from sustainability programs, to career pathways to community partnerships, Athens public schools continually look for and provide opportunities for all students to thrive. And please bear in mind that all of this is being accomplished in a town with plenty of its own challenges — Athens is believed to have the highest poverty rate among counties in metropolitan areas in the United States. Over 37 percent of children in Clarke County live in poverty, and 49 percent live in single-parent homes. Ethnically, 51 percent of the students are African-American, 23 percent are  Hispanic, 20 percent are white and 2 percent Asian. Over 82 percent of students receive free/reduced lunches, 12 percent of students have English as their second language and 11 percent of students have special needs.
Under Phil Lanoue’s leadership, our schools have shown what a Georgia public school district can accomplish when it is committed to equity and to making new educational opportunities available to all children.    And with such diversity in our schools,  they are the place for shared experiences, which help us all better understand one another, value each other, like each other and be able to work and live in civil society.  Our schools today offer different paths for different students but at the same time they foster that commonality too— better preparing our children for the public world that awaits them on the other side of their formal schooling.
The 2014-15 final issue of The Odyssey, Clarke Central’s student produced news magazine, included a little blurb on a “Star Player” who happened to be my senior daughter, who, among other things, plays tennis.  It was a pleasure to read, and, of course, it made me proud as a parent.  But a few pages away was an extensive article on a junior, also a tennis player, with a very different background and more difficult challenges. He is also thriving in school and planning his college experience with the help of his teachers and counselors at Clarke Central.  Reading his story made me just as happy as reading the story about my own daughter, and it highlighted the promise of public education done right.
People can (and will) interpret our district’s challenges and our responses to those challenges however they want.  Plenty of people look at various shifting numbers and our mostly disadvantaged demographics and might want to label our schools as “failing.” But kids from the Class of 2015 are heading to, among other places, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Columbia, Harvard, University of Chicago, Morehouse, UNC-CH (Morehead Scholarship), Vanderbilt, Washington U, Florida, Cal-Berkeley, Muhlenberg, Wisconsin, Carnegie-Mellon, Dickinson, Smith, Georgia College,  Georgia State, Kenyon, Emory and Clemson (and yes, some of those students are first generation college attendees).  I call that a high-achieving school district in addition to (and in spite of) being high-needs. Clarke Central also won a Breakthrough Award recently for most progress in closing the achievement gap and Clarke Central High School Principal Robbie Hooker was Principal of the Year for Georgia in 2013.
There’s a reason our superintendent is the National Superintendent of the Year – he believes in equity and doing the work to make all our schools thrive,despite the challenges we face. And this approach is working.  Admittedly, it does not work perfectly for 100 percent of the students who enroll in Athens public schools. There is still much work to do – no question. But Dr. Lanoue believes and our district’s core principle is that schools have to do all they can to help close the gaps in opportunity, even when these gaps result from the many structural factors over which he and his schools have no control.
In a perfect world, all Athens kids would come to school each day prepared to learn and go home each day to loving families with healthy stimulation, nourishment and care.  But in reality, many of our students’ best hours of the day are when they are at school.
I am grateful for our local district’s attempts, under the direction of a truly committed and innovative educator, to help meet these students’ needs both within and beyond the schoolhouse. Together, they are working to unlock a lifelong passion for learning.  Is it worth the investment? Yes.  Is it innovative? On many levels, I certainly think so.   I think corporate school reformers ought to come to Athens to see how public education done well can change children’s life trajectories.
I know if won’t fit the “failing schools” narrative  they insist upon,  so I doubt it will happen— but it is real and it is happening right now, not only here but all over the country.  When people walk into a classroom in Athens, they see an all-hands-on-deck effort to educate children from all backgrounds. Our kids are learning together – from their teachers and from each other.  To me, that is true innovation.  It’s not a just a marketing label, an empty description, a headline, or a passing fad.  And surely it will lead to a better Athens years for years to come.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Letters to the Editor

What you should know about Letters to the Editor

Some things to keep in mind when submitting a Letter to the Editor and 9 tips for getting published.

Some things to keep in mind regarding Letters to the Editor

We read every letter we receive.

Every letter gets equal consideration.

Letters picked for publication are acknowledged within several working days. You most likely will be contacted by phone and will be asked to verify that you sent the letter and intended it for publication.
If it's published, your letter probably will appear in the daily or Sunday Greenville News within two weeks after we receive it.

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To maintain civility and to prevent disagreements between letter writers from becoming personal, we do not allow letter writers to refer to each other by name. Exceptions are made for writers who are public officials or public figures.

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Tips for Getting Published:
  • Write a brief letter (maximum of 250 words) on a timely public issue, preferably one that has been covered by this newspaper. 
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Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why Do Rich Kids Do Better Than Poor Kids in School? It's Not the "Word Gap," Molly McManus

Why Do Rich Kids Do Better Than Poor Kids in School? It's Not the "Word Gap," Molly McManus

Scoppe: We can’t throw these kids away

Scoppe: We can’t throw these kids away

Cindi Scoppe, Associate Editor, The State

Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Edison. Ben Franklin. Bill Gates. The voice on the message followed each man’s name with the meager amount of schooling he completed. The Harvard dropout who turned us into cyborgs looks like a scholastic overachiever alongside his predecessors. Of course they are separated by centuries that have, for better and worse, exponentially increased the need for formal education, and of course that’s beside the caller’s point.
His point was that while it was “statistically” accurate to say that a better education leads to a better outcome, the many notable exceptions negated my suggestion that South Carolina needs to provide a decent education to all children.
Then his bottom line: When children don’t get a good education, it’s not the schools’ fault — and by extension, it’s not the state’s fault; it’s the children’s fault. Children who want an education will get one no matter how bad the school; children who do not want a good education will not get one, no matter how good the school.
Truth be told, there’s a lot of truth to that last part; much less, but still a tiny bit, to the first part. But even if we imagine that there are no shortcomings in our poorest schools, and that the problem is the children instead of the schools, we are left with this reality: We can’t wash our hands of the problem.
The “liberal” reason is fairness: When children don’t value education, it’s often because their parents don’t value it. Are we really willing to doom a child to a life of failure because she has bad parents? For how many generations will we visit the sins of the parents upon the children?
The “conservative” reason is this practical fact: We can’t throw those children away. Can’t ship them off to another state. The children who don’t get a decent education in our state are the ones who will stay here, and they will continue to drag us down.
They will end up with lousy jobs, held afloat by government safety-net programs. Some will become criminals, and we will have to spend more on police and courts and jails to defend ourselves against them. They will raise children who are just like them.
And this takes us back to that argument about Messieurs Lincoln, Edison, Franklin and Gates, which seems so reasonable … until you take about 10 seconds to think about it.
Then you recall that “statistically” speaking is the only way we can speak of whole populations, particularly when the statistics are so lopsided.
You remember that exceptions are … exceptions — and that the overwhelming majority of us are not so extraordinary as our Renaissance men. Our society could not have built the technological foundation from which Mr. Gates built so much more if we had relied solely on the few geniuses among us. A good education allows the mediocre — which, statistically speaking, is most of us — to become productive and creative. It allows those who are below-average to become contributing members of our communities.
You realize that Gov. Nikki Haley and the Legislature would not be under court order to provide a decent education to the children in South Carolina’s Corridor of Shame if those children had access to the exclusive preparatory school Mr. Gates attended, much less his two years at Harvard.
If I were placing blame for the children who don’t work hard enough to overcome the obstacles our state puts in their paths, I’d place it on the parents. It is the parents’ responsibility to make sure children get the best education they can. But when parents can’t or won’t instill in their children the value of education, can’t or won’t insist that they do their homework every night, can’t or won’t make sure they read books over summer vacation, we as a society have to do that. If not out of altruism, then out of pure self-interest.
We have to teach children to value education. Then we have to make education take, whatever their learning style. And the place we do that is in the public schools.
It is difficult to know how to do that — although it would be much less difficult if we stopped worrying about turf protection and job protections and making sure the right people get lucrative contracts and pursuing our ideological goals.
It is difficult to get our legislators and our governor to ignore those distractions. But it is their job to do that.
Once we figure out how we need to change the structure and governance and curricula and funding of our schools so that they will deliver a decent education even to the kids who don’t want it, the jobs of teachers will become much more difficult. The jobs of everyone who touches education will become more difficult.
But when have Americans said we won’t do something just because it’s difficult?
Doesn’t American exceptionalism flow from our willingness to do the difficult work in order to achieve success?
Aren’t we the nation that was inspired to rocket to the moon and defeat the Soviet Union and become the most prosperous people on the planet after a president reminded us that “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”?
The sad thing is that as difficult as it will be for our leaders to develop a plan and our teachers to implement it, the hardest part could be convincing ourselves that it’s worth doing.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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Sunday, October 18, 2015

Social Construction of "Race," Warren Blumenfeld

Social Construction of "Race," Warren Blumenfeld, Instructor at University of Massachusetts Amherst

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Greenville News: Let all students write education success story, Ellen Weaver

The Greenville News: Let all students write education success story

Ellen Weaver

Every child deserves a high-quality education that allows them to reach their full potential.
South Carolina students are blessed with a growing number of personalized education options, but many families aren’t aware of their full range of current choices. That is why we’ve launched “Empower Opportunity,” an online catalog to educate parents and showcase the learning journey of Palmetto State families just like them.
For example, the Lisinskis found the perfect fit for their young twin boys at Carolina Voyager Charter School, a public charter school in Charleston. The open, diverse and parent-friendly school is providing their sons with the flexible, personalized attention they need to thrive.
The Williams family in Chapin found that their son excels at Spring Hill High School, a public magnet school program where students develop business plans, market, staff and manage school “stores” as a hands-on part of their education experience. This has taught him how to be an entrepreneur and inspired him to see that college is possible.
The Hollingsworths were nearly at their wits’ end trying to meet the unique challenge of educating their grandson, who struggles with severe autism. Thankfully, South Carolina’s Exceptional Needs Tax Credit Scholarship has allowed them to enroll him at Greenville’s Hidden Treasure Christian School, where he has blossomed, giving them incredible peace of mind.
Virtual schools, private schools, home schools, and many traditional public schools are also creating a thriving environment for South Carolina children. Unfortunately, too many students still don’t have access to these high-quality options. This simply cannot stand.
We don’t have to look far to find other states that are innovating in bipartisan ways to empower every student with a customized, world-class education.
Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee have created Achievement School Districts (ASDs), designed to oversee the turnaround of their state’s lowest performing schools. By placing high-caliber, accountable leadership over these schools and removing bureaucratic red-tape, ASDs are providing the autonomy and flexibility necessary to create truly transformational, student-focused environments.
In 2013, Louisiana established the Supplemental Course Academy, which gives public school students access to high-quality online courses offered by a variety of providers that they otherwise wouldn’t have. This has proven to be a huge boon to families living in rural communities. The program is growing by leaps and bounds, with students enrolling in 19,000 classes in 2014-15, a 700 percent increase over the prior school year!
Modeled on the popular idea of Health Savings Accounts, Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are now available in Arizona, Florida, Tennessee, Nevada and Mississippi. ESAs are the “iPhone” of education options, giving parents direct access to their child’s funding from the state student funding formula to create the ultimate customized education. The state deposits the money into a dedicated personal account and parents may then spend that money on a wide variety of approved service — including tuition, therapy and tutoring — whatever their child needs. Unused funds can even be rolled over from year-to-year to save for college! It’s a bold idea that South Carolina’s lawmakers would do well to explore.
And we can’t forget to support and grow our existing options: South Carolina’s charter schools — public schools in every way except for their form of governance — currently receive no transportation money and very limited access to facilities funds to develop new schools.
Demand for South Carolina’s exceptional needs scholarships — and a similar parent tax credit enacted this year — far exceeds what’s currently available. Lawmakers should raise the caps on these popular programs and make them permanent law … and even consider other students like foster children and military families who could benefit from this same type of opportunity.
What are the results where innovative choice is expanding? Rising graduation rates, higher college enrollment in minority communities, increasing academic achievement among the students that need it most, taxpayer savings … and students, parents and teachers who enjoy being treated as unique individuals, not just part of a system.
There is no silver bullet to fix education inequities in our state. But that’s the point: only a wide and growing array of options can provide the best chance for every child to find the education that’s right for them. Let’s give every South Carolina student the opportunity to write their own education success story.
Ellen Weaver is president of Palmetto Promise Institute. The “Empower Opportunity” catalog can be found at

Thursday, October 1, 2015