Saturday, August 29, 2015

In Conversation with our Legislators.

My wife and I had the pleasure of sitting down with our legislators after school on Friday in conversation on education. Senator Gayle Manning, Representative Nathan Manning, my wife and I had a lovely visit in the historic Washington Building at Elyria High School. We discussed many things, mostly education related, though my wife reminded me that at one point I seemed to suggest that my grandmother was capable of more yard work than I am when she was 100 years old. I will neither support nor refute that claim, except to admit that she is the hard working daughter of Polish immigrants, as well as a 1931 graduate of Elyria High.

I would love to say that we discussed all of Ohio's issues with public education, even better that we developed solutions. Simply based upon the scope of educational issues in our state, this is impossible. However, I believe that we found a lot of common ground and that the Mannings are supporters of public education. As we know, agreement in one place doesn't necessarily lead to legislative action or success in another. Democracy is a beautiful, but complex and often cumbersome process. Because of this I'll remain realistic regarding possible reform of the current system.

Anyway, as always, I believe that it is important to let our elected officials at all levels know how we might move forward and improve our communities, educational and otherwise. In the interest of promoting dialogue between educators and legislators, I have sent the following email to all of the teachers and administrators in my school.  Check it out...


After our Professional Development on Friday, I had the opportunity to welcome Senator Gayle Manning and Representative Nathan Manning to Elyria High School in order to meet with my wife and I for a discussion of education. We had initially scheduled this meeting to discuss the Youngstown Amendment to HB 70 which takes effect October 15, and seems to be a piece of the end game of turning discredited public schools into charters through the appointment of a CEO. While this doesn't present us with immediate concern here in Elyria, Lorain would be the next district after Youngstown slated for take-over.

Senator Manning indicated that she and others were working on a legislative solution that would seemingly set Youngstown up as a pilot program to be studied. Unfortunately, this does little for Youngstown, but would seem to create a situation that buys Lorain more time. My wife and I indicated that we were aware that Senator Joe Schiavoni is also crafting legislation as a remedy, and Senator Manning indicated that she would initiate contact with her fellow Senator. For what it's worth, there are also a few lawsuits, and a request for an injunction to prevent the introduction of the plan.

We also spent some time discussing HB2, the bill that would begin to regulate the state's charter schools. The bill has passed the Senate and stalled in the House just before their recess. Both the Mannings are supportive of the current bill, but indicated that it would likely undergo further changes in the House before another vote. We indicated our overall support for the bill as "a beginning" in the overall regulation of Ohio's charters.

I would have been remiss had I not mentioned standardized testing. I reiterated my thanks for eliminating PARCC, while indicating that AIR has had its own issues with misleading and ambiguous questions. I thanked them for the move to a single testing window, while assuring them that we still assess far too much in Ohio K-12, that the 3rd grade guarantee is atrocious, our testing of Special Education students abominable, and the use of the VAM or any standardized testing in the evaluation of teachers was essentially meaningless.

By and large, the Mannings were receptive to our input. They were also very complimentary about what we do here in Elyria. I got the idea that they see us as an example of how public education can work in urban areas with diverse populations. We have done what is right for our students, and done well to promote our achievements. Be proud of your efforts.

Also, do not discount the power of your own voice. When a bill comes around regarding the Youngstown Amendment, or HB2 comes to a vote in the House, let your (and all) legislators know how you feel.

Thanks to Mr. Brown for letting us meet here at E-High. It gave me an opportunity to talk up our facility, programs, and students. If anyone has any questions about the meeting or otherwise, please let me know.

Yours in education.
Matt Jablonski
Social Studies Dept.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

An Auspicious Beginning.

When I moved into my classroom on the third floor of the Washington Building a few years ago, a praying mantis watched me from outside on the window ledge. I saw it as a sign of good things to come.

It has been.

Entering the building this morning, a praying mantis was waiting for me on the door, another auspicious beginning.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Ready To Go.

It was a fairly short summer. Many districts have adjusted their calendars to afford, among other things, more time for instruction prior to standardized testing. It's a good thing, especially since we won't have a map of the new tests or sample questions until later in the fall. The degree to which this is problematic will vary from grade to grade and subject to subject, but it will be problematic, problematic for all of the reasons it has been in the past (too lengthy, cultural bias, no timely feedback, etcetera, etcetera), and problematic in new and exciting ways as well.

My apologies for using the word problematic four times in that run-on sentence. Have I illustrated that I believe there are problems with standardized tests? Good. I'm sure I'll have more on that as this school year progresses.

So, I went into my classroom this week to get some things ready. My first week and a half are planned, materials set. I had a look at class lists, and everything seems in order, five classes 26-28 kids each, sold out shows. I've been assigned a few hundred new friends on lists for cafeteria duty. I've put in some prep time this summer to adjust methods and materials. I'm ready to go.

I stood in the doorway of my classroom (see picture above), and all successes seemed possible. The thing is...every year I wonder whether I can do this again. Usually, I'm concerned that I won't remember how to teach, to interact, to build relationships, to put on the necessary show to hold the attention of 28 fifteen year olds at a time, and assure that they achieve the necessary level of mastery in American History according to Ohio's standards in relation to their own individual background knowledge, learning styles, strengths and weaknesses.

But now the issues have multiplied, with so many adults, in education, government and the community weighing in, and taking away, as well as adding to and coming down on what we do.

I ran into a few former students while I was in the building. They've become mentors to incoming freshmen, sharing information and support in a brilliant program designed to build connections. These kids are so enthusiastic, so terribly motivated, it is almost impossible not to be inspired to work for their benefit. Sure, they're not necessarily cheering on the end of summer, but they're ready to go. 

As always, the students have made all the difference.

It was a fairly short summer, but we're ready to go.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Remarks for the School Board

Tonight I had the pleasure of addressing the Elyria School Board and our new Superintendent, Dr. Tom Jama. My purpose was to encourage them to become more vocal regarding the many issues facing public education in Ohio. I was excited at the news this week regarding the Cincinnati School Advocacy Network, a coalition of 41 school districts engaging their communities and pressuring legislators on the premise that unfunded mandates and constant testing have become a burden to teachers, taxpayers, and children. My hope is that the leadership here in Elyria takes similar steps in order to continue facilitating change in the interest of public schools.

All in all, the response was positive. I received words of encouragement and/or agreement from many members of the community, administrators, teachers, and former students in attendance. The board president conveyed the concern of the school board over the issues that I presented, and suggested that they were in the process of considering a resolution.

Here is the transcript of my statement to the board this evening...

Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

Many of you know me as a history teacher from Elyria High, and while in many ways a teacher is always a teacher, I am here today speaking as a parent of a student entering Eastern Heights, an educational activist, a proud resident of the city of Elyria, and an advocate for children.

There is a crisis in public education. Contrary to what some would have us believe, it has nothing to do with failing public schools. It has everything to do with those who would, for their own private gain, discredit the incredible work being accomplished by public schools. As has been proven here in Elyria, if an educational community focuses on its function as a team, and celebrates its victories while pragmatically addressing its obstacles, that community can find success.

However, continued attacks on public education are making our efforts terribly difficult.

Over the last several years an increasingly vocal contingent of administrators, teachers, parents, and students have criticized our system of standardized testing. In the state of Ohio, this activism has forced the hand of politicians. Recently they decided to eliminate PARCC, and cut one of the testing windows. It is not enough. The assessments created by AIR are not any better. Three hours per test is still inappropriate. We are testing beyond the federal minimum of hours and content areas. While we squander instruction time for the sake of assessments, the tests will continue to measure what they measure best, which is the relative economic well being of the students taking them.

Parents are becoming more aware of the problem. Last year hundreds of families here in Elyria refused testing. Regardless of our opinions or guidance on the matter, they will again this year. Last week the ODE released its ramshackle system of “Safe Harbor.” Designed to protect students, teachers, and districts from punishment as we roll out yet another unfamiliar testing system, it fails to formally protect public schools from loss of funding due to refusals. Last year Senator Gayle Manning created an amendment that did just that. It needs to happen again.

With regard to the loss of funding, state legislators tout millions in funding increases to public education without factoring in the billions cut in past budgets, without mentioning the increases taken from local districts for charter schools that are very often less successful, and are as yet completely unregulated.

State Superintendent Richard Ross and the Ohio Department of Education have proven that their interest is not public education, but promoting charters. Ross and his staff manipulated the test scores of online charters to increase the overall ratings of charter sponsors. Despite having broken the law, Ross has refused to resign and no investigation has been undertaken.

Dr. Ross has also admitted to purposefully misleading the State School Board by hiding his involvement in the development of the Youngstown Amendment to HB70. In secret, Ross and others revised and championed a piece of legislation that dismantles the democratic process, dissolves the locally elected school board, and gives a frightening degree of power to an appointed CEO, who, within a year, can begin to turn over local public schools to charter school sponsors.

While this situation is currently catastrophic for Youngstown, it is dire for our neighbors in Lorain. They are next on the list of likely districts to be subject to this new plan unless they can raise their test scores in the next two years. Keep in mind that they are directed to do this despite being led by a state appointed Academic Distress Commission that has been criticized as dysfunctional, under a set of assessments that have yet to be created, in a district with high rates of poverty which, as I mentioned before, almost always correlates to exceedingly low scores on these assessments.

Those of us in districts like Lorain and Elyria have tried for years to illustrate the fact that socio-economic conditions have an adverse effect on our performance on these measures of school success. We've been criticized for making excuses, labelled as failures, then had our districts opened to charter schools. In something like the definition of hypocrisy, the charter sponsors who thrived under this system have now decided that it is not fair to rate them without considering socioeconomic factors. Responding to this request, the legislature has announced that they will study this issue through ratings created by the California “Similar Students” measure, which takes things like poverty into account when rating schools.

There is a crisis in public education, and these are but a few of the major issues. In order to begin to remedy this situation, we need to work as a community. We need to function as a team as we have done to find success in our schools. You are the leaders of this team.

Over the last year, local school boards and district superintendents have become more outspoken regarding education policy. School Boards have adopted resolutions to formally denounce issues as they have arisen. Superintendents from across the state have publicly condemned the assessment system. Dr. Jama, you are one of the greatest champions of public education that I have ever met, and one of the few people that I believe are as loyal to the city of Elyria as I am. I hope you will consider expanding on this outspoken tradition for the sake of our schools and our city. I also hope that members of the school board will consider the same.

I realize that resolutions, statements, and admonishments do not change the law. They do, however, send a message to legislators. Also, for those of us working tirelessly to change our public education system for the better, they arrive with a sense of vindication for our cause. They have a way of galvanizing the movement, of inspiring individuals who feel small in the face of this adversity.

I don't expect a response to these things today. I am simply asking that you consider the issues I have mentioned, others as they arise, and to consider taking a public stand. I believe that this is a natural extension of the work our community is already doing to assure success in Elyria’s schools. I look forward to hearing from, and working with all of you in the interest of doing what's right for Elyria’s kids.