CMS budget now in hands of a skeptical county commission

On Thursday, May 17th, there was a meeting of the Mecklenburg County Board of County Commissioners at which Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools formally presented its proposed 2018-19 budget.  The budget asks for a $40 million increase in county money for next year.  

If you’re interested in watching the meeting, you can find video of it here.  It’s not for the faint of heart.  

One of the requests in the CMS budget is for $6.9 million to increase the local supplement for the first time since 2012 and enable Mecklenburg County to do a better job of hiring and retaining teachers.  

Comparisons are often made between Wake County and Mecklenburg County as the two largest school districts in the state.  Wake County’s local salary supplement is roughly $1500 higher than what teachers in Mecklenburg County earn. According to the Department of Public Instruction’s 2016-2017 State of the Teaching Profession in North Carolina report, last year Charlotte Mecklenburg saw an attrition percentage of 10% while only 8.6% of teachers in Wake County chose to leave.

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is proposing an increase of 7% to the local supplement.  For a teacher with 10 years of experience, that comes out to less than $2 a day. It’s not too much to ask.

Another proposal in this year’s budget is for increasing the number of student support services personnel.  Our school counselors, psychologists, and social workers play a vital role in ensuring that our students are socially and emotionally healthy.  Unfortunately, they are so understaffed that they are constantly stuck in reactive mode, unable to utilize their training in the preventative services that our students need.  Take a look at our current staffing ratios compared with what is recommended:

The 2018-19 CMS budget calls for $4.4 million to hire 33 elementary school counselors, 17 school social workers, and 10 school psychologists.  It’s not nearly enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

When pressed by Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour to offer his top priorities for the entire budget, Superintendent Wilcox named our students’ social and emotional health and fair compensation for employees.  Commissioner Jim Puckett scoffed at prioritizing social and emotional health, asking “How does that relate to education?”

It’s actually a really important question.  Research says:

  • Interventions that improve students’ social, emotional, and decision-making skills also lead to stronger academic outcomes.
  • Interventions that nurture engagement in school reduce dropout rates.
  • Prevention and early intervention programs that serve at-risk students result in fewer special education referrals, suspensions, and grade retentions.

Of course the ability to implement those interventions effectively depends in large part on having a reasonable caseload.  Our Charlotte Meck support services caseloads are certainly not reasonable.

On Monday, June 4 there will be a public hearing on the budget, 6 pm at the Government Center building in Charlotte.  If you are a supporter of public education, please consider coming out and asking our county commissioners to fully fund Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ budget request.

If you don’t want to wait that long to let our commissioners know what your priorities are as a Mecklenburg County resident, you can find contact information here.

 

May 16 was unprecedented. Now what?

The May 16 Day of Advocacy in Raleigh was an amazing, historic event–the largest coordinated teacher action in state history.  The sea of red that turned out despite sometimes pouring rain showed North Carolina how many of its teachers are passionate about their work and deeply committed to improving education in our state.  

 

 

Senator Jeff Jackson endorsed my sign

 

Gallery in the House of Representatives chamber was packed with teachers

Teachers who were present among the more than 20,000 in Raleigh and those who supported us from home probably have the same question:  What’s next? Will it be back to business as usual, with our public education system continuing to suffer from the same neglect that has plagued it for the past several years?  Or will we find a way to harness the teacher power we saw in Raleigh and use it to bring about substantial change in North Carolina?

There is good news.  What happened May 16 in Raleigh was a movement, not a moment.

Under the umbrella of Red4EdNC, we will capitalize on the unprecedented momentum we’ve created together over the last few weeks.  We will build a stronger, statewide coalition of teacher advocates that has the power to secure real legislative gains for public education in North Carolina.  This coalition will be represented by a Teacher Congress composed of teacher leaders from both urban and rural districts across the state who will determine, collectively, a clear and specific policy agenda.

To help us take the next step, teachers and education allies should check in with Red4EdNC using this form, then share this information with others in your school and in your network.

NC has incredible teachers who have stuck it out, despite increasingly difficult conditions, over the past few years.  We’ve done that because we care about our students and we believe in what we do. On May 16 we caught a glimpse of how powerful those teachers can be when we speak with one voice.  Now it’s time to translate that collective power into action that will lead to substantive changes that public education in North Carolina desperately needs.

Together we are strong.

An amazing show of teacher resolve in Raleigh today

My favorite sign from today.  Simple, funny, profound, and so accurate.

I have never seen anything that comes close to the awesome display of teacher power that happened in Raleigh today.  Thousands upon thousands of teachers from every corner of our state converged on the state capital to send a clear message to our legislators that we’re putting our foot down and demanding that they give public education the funding it deserves.

I stood in line outside the legislative building with a bunch of new friends for more than two hours.  We finally got in and up to the chambers at about 12:30.  Outside the chambers, teachers were pressed up against the glass with their signs, giving lawmakers on the floor their best “you’ve been naughty” teacher looks.  The galleries were completely packed with teachers, so full that nobody was allowed to enter until someone else came out.

I was fortunate enough to get inside and spend about 15 minutes watching the House of Representatives in action.  Outside the teachers got louder and louder, clapping and chanting, “Remember!  Remember!  We vote in November!!” over and over.  At times the Speaker of the House had to stop talking because he could not be heard.  Absurdly, the House carried on inane business as usual, with members giving shoutouts to their fraternities and one taking the time to remind her colleagues how important it was to regularly check their blood pressure (actually pretty good advice for today).

While I was watching all this unfold, I got a message from someone at WBT Radio in Charlotte, asking if I’d be willing to speak by phone on a radio program.  WBT is a conservative talk radio show which airs the Pat McCrory Show, Rush Limbaugh, etc.  I wondered at first if it might be some sort of ambush, but I agreed to do it.

You can listen to the segment below if you’re interested–it was not an ambush and actually turned out to be a good platform to air some of the concerns we all brought to Raleigh today.  But I was struck by the question that I heard from the host and also heard from so many other members of the media today:  What now?

I think they’re asking the wrong people.  I think that North Carolina’s teachers delivered a very clear message to state lawmakers today.  Now it’s time for them to decide whether they want to do their jobs.

 

NC teacher thugs are coming to Raleigh

 

A Union County legislator is making headlines for a Facebook diatribe against North Carolina teachers who have shut down school districts across the state next Wednesday to call attention to the underfunding of public education.

Rep. Mark Brody’s rambling, semi-coherent statement came after Union County closed schools for the May 16 rally.  It reads, in part:

Union County teachers choose to inconvenience near 30,000 parents in order to pressure the General Assembly to increase their pay!

The hypocrisy is that they say they are supporting the students. One less day of instruction does not help students. Teaching our children that it is OK to not show up for work does not set a good example. And, if you can make the assumption that teachers have achieved a level of education where they can make well thought out decisions, why is it that they cannot figure out that in about 3 weeks the school year will be over and the legislature will still be in session? Strange but, unfortunately, they cannot make a simple connection – protest without inconveniencing anyone. (Inconveniencing people is a main tactic of the Labor Union movement)

Let’s call this what it is, Teacher Union thugs want to control the education process! I am speaking up because I don’t want Union County schools, and for that matter all NC school systems, to turn into Chicago. Let the Union thugs get their way now and we are halfway there.

I will end this by saying I strongly support those teachers who do the right thing, in the right way and at the right time. Your biggest legislative support comes from the Republican State legislature. Your greatest enemy for the causes you strive for is the Teacher Union, your incompetent and/or spineless local administrations and, the biggest problem of them all, the NC Department of Public Instruction.

 

Brody is right to be concerned about the more than 13,500 thugs who will be storming Raleigh on Wednesday.  After all, these thugs bring a very special skill set that make us extraordinarily effective advocates:

We are black belts in sarcasm and penmanship.  Just wait til you see our signs.

We can hold our pee all day long.

We reserve a special teacher voice that demands attention.

We are very good at waiting in line (no cutting).

We can go 8 hours without sitting down once.  The secret is in the shoes.

Most importantly, these thugs are experts in fact-based arguments.

Brody claims that teachers’ “biggest legislative support” comes from the Republican legislature.  Let’s review what that support looks like:

  • Funding for Textbooks is down 45% from peak levels (09-10)
  • Funding for Supplies & Materials is down 55% from peak levels (09-10)
  • Funding for Technology is down 59% from peak levels (09-10)
  • 5.3% fewer teachers per student compared to pre-Recession levels
  • Per-pupil state funding down 7% from pre-recession levels (2008-09) when adjusted for inflation
  • Per-pupil spending is 25% lower than the national average
  • Teachers no longer enjoy a 10% raise for earning a Master’s degree
  • Teachers who stay in NC long term no longer earn longevity pay
  • New hires have no career status (protection from arbitrary firing)
  • New hires after 1/2021 will not have retiree health benefits

 

The teachers that are descending on Raleigh next week are completely fed up with our state legislature prioritizing tax cuts over investments in quality public education for North Carolina’s children.  Representative Brody, we’re coming to have a very serious heart-to-heart talk with you and your colleagues. And we’ve been saving our jeans pass for this day for a very long time.

 

For NC teachers it’s about more than the paycheck

Note:  This article appeared in the Washington Post

Classes with so many children that some have to sit on the floor.  Other classes taking place in closets. Blind students who can’t get books in Braille.  History textbooks that have George Bush as president. Kindergarten classes with 30 students and no assistant.  Teachers forced to stop class to attend to special medical needs because there’s no nurse on duty.

Welcome to public school in North Carolina.

Thousands of teachers from all over the state who are fed up with these conditions have begun to connect with each other via social media.  The connections have helped mitigate our feeling of isolation, develop a crucial sense of community and build collective strength. Just as importantly, they have allowed us to share information about the common challenges we face.  

As the number of teachers taking personal days to come to Raleigh for the 5/16 Rally for Respect passes 10,000, efforts by some to discredit the uprising by characterizing teachers as money grubbers have intensified.  Detractors point to pay increases of the past few years, ignoring the fact that average pay for NC teachers is still 16% below the national average, just as it was in FY 10-11 before Republicans took control of the General Assembly.  They say teachers should be grateful for what they have and not abandon their students.  However, the fact is, it’s not really about the paychecks.

Granted, North Carolina’s teachers would love to be able to quit their second and third jobs and spend more time with our families.  We’d love to see our principals compensated fairly instead of facing $20,000 pay cuts because of standardized test scores.  But it’s important for the public to remember that we didn’t get into education for the money.  We teach because we love North Carolina’s children, and we want to see them succeed. Unfortunately, our General Assembly’s misplaced priorities not only create difficult working conditions for our teachers, they create unacceptable learning conditions for students that have lasting impacts on student behavior and achievement.  Those misplaced priorities include lowering NC’s corporate tax rate to the lowest in the country and giving up $3.5 billion in potential revenue each year.

In case the ‘teachers are just in it for the money’ argument isn’t ludicrous enough on its face, allow me to explain some of the non-paycheck-related reasons teachers are coming to Raleigh on May 16.

Class sizes:

Since school year 2008-09, North Carolina’s population has increased more than 10%.  Over the same period, we’ve lost nearly 7,500 teacher assistants due to state budget cuts, and we now have fewer teachers per student.  The enormous class sizes teachers face are crippling their ability to differentiate, manage behavior, and provide quality instruction to children.  Take a look at these shocking numbers from around the state:

  • 30 kindergarten students in a library class with no assistant (Mecklenburg)
  • 31 high school students in Honors Chemistry.  The teacher reports that ‘labs are terrifying.’ (Cabarrus)  
  • 37 fifth graders in a trailer (Winston-Salem/Forsyth)
  • 37 8th grade math students in an Exceptional Children/Inclusion class (Cabarrus)
  • 38 10th-12th graders in AP German class, no planning period (Guilford)
  • 39 freshmen through seniors, Math 4 (Union)
  • 40 high school students in a trailer for Math 3, Title 1 (Mecklenburg)
  • 42 students in Math 2 (New Hanover)
  • 43, 8th graders in healthful living. Only have 40 desks, when all are present, one sits at teacher’s desk, the other two sit on the floor (Wake)
  • 44 students American History I (Onslow)
  • 45 kids in physical science.  The majority of them have taken the class before, class includes many students with learning disabilities and students classified as seriously emotionally disabled.  (Mecklenburg)

In order for effective teaching and learning to take place, teachers must be able to build meaningful relationships with their students.  Apart from the obvious stress on teachers and risks to student safety, our current class sizes make it extremely difficult for teachers to give students the individual attention they deserve.  Reducing teacher/student ratios would improve our educational outcomes but would also require a major increase in education funding by state lawmakers. That’s one thing teachers will be demanding on May 16.

Student support services:

After the Parkland, FL massacre, NC legislators convened the House Select Committee on Safer Schools.  The committee investigated support services’ role in student health. Unsurprisingly, they found that current staffing ratios did not adequately provide for students’ social and emotional needs.  Industry standards recommend ratios of 1:250 for school counselors. This school year, North Carolina’s students are supported by counselors at a ratio of 1:350.  It’s recommended that social workers be provided at a ratio of 1:400. Our ratio is 1:1427. The suggested ratio of psychologists per student is 1:700. This year our ratio is 1:1857.  Nurses should be available at a ratio of 1:750, but we are currently at 1:2315–with many schools forced to have parent volunteers staff the nurse’s office rather than leave it empty.

One teacher in an unnamed county has a student with special medical needs.  Because the school’s nurse is only on campus three days a week, the teacher has been trained to attend to those needs.  She is concerned about liability and having to stop instruction on a regular basis, but she has no other alternative–the child needs help he can’t get elsewhere.

Teachers in Raleigh on May 16 will be demanding the General Assembly act on the House committee’s recommendation to increase the number of support services personnel.  Our students’ academic success hinges on their social and emotional health, as does their safety. It’s time for us to stop cutting corners and do the right thing.

School supplies/textbooks:

Since 2008-09, the General Assembly has cut allotments for textbooks by 38%, technology by 45%, and school supplies by 54% (numbers are per student and adjusted for inflation).  Teachers are stuck teaching classes with outdated textbooks (or no textbooks), spending their own money on books, paper, and other supplies for their students, and begging parents and community members to make up the difference for what state lawmakers don’t provide.  The number of projects funded by Donors Choose has skyrocketed in the past few years.

Consider these examples of how cutbacks have affected our students’ educational experience:

  • A history teacher in Guilford County has a textbook with Bush as president.  Obama appears in the book once–as a senator. Her school rebinds books regularly because it is cheaper than purchasing new ones.  The same outdated textbook is in use in many other districts as well.
  • A biology teacher in Iredell-Statesville has no biology textbooks and has to create all of her own materials to teach the class.  Her earth science textbooks are the same edition from when she was a high school student 14 years ago. They are moldy and falling apart.
  • A teacher in Union County has 39 students in her 8th grade AIG English 1 class.  She has 10 copies of one of the required textbooks. This forces the students to do all work in that book either in shifts or as a group. She has just one copy of another required textbook. The only way to meet county requirements would be to make photocopies, which is illegal.
  • A district literacy specialist in Durham has had zero dollars for the past seven years to purchase books.  She and her colleagues are reduced to asking for donations so their students will be able to read.
  • A teacher in an unnamed county has a student who is blind.  Braille books cost $50 each, and the school receives a maximum of $300 per year to support this student.  Since they don’t have the money to buy the books this student wants to read, they have been forced to purchase a Brailler so they can make their own books.

The difficulties noted are shocking, but they are not unusual.  They represent the reality of what thousands of North Carolina students and teachers face every single day in our schools.

Our students are the future of North Carolina.  They deserve to be provided with textbooks and novels.  They deserve access to support services to ensure they are socially and emotionally healthy.  They deserve class sizes that will enable them to get the attention they need to be successful.  In order to provide those conditions, our General Assembly must make education priority number one in our state.  On May 16, thousands of teachers from all over North Carolina will be descending upon Raleigh to demand that state lawmakers do just that.  We won’t be abandoning our students that day, we’ll be making a collective sacrifice to stand up for them.

Photo gallery:

Overcrowded, 600 square foot 11th and 12th grade classroom in New Hanover County.  35 students squeeze into it.

 

 

Termite and ant infestation in media centers, Mecklenburg County

 

 

Door to music room in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school, work in progress during the school year

 

 

The teacher in this Mecklenburg County trailer reports that last year it was infested with ants living inside its walls. She suffered regular ant bites while teaching, and her students had to kill them with their hands while trying to learn. Student lunch boxes could not be kept inside because they would be filled with ants by lunchtime.  The teacher left the district due to these working conditions. The trailer is still in use and still infested with ants.

 

 

Outdated civics and economics textbooks in use in Wake County

 

Textbooks so old that children have to draw in the missing presidents

In Wake County there are no textbooks for math grades K-8.  Teachers are paid to create online lessons. The lessons are filled with mistakes, lack answer keys, and don’t always align with standards.  

 

 

5 IPads for 27 fifth grade students, New Hanover County Schools.  Teacher is supposed to ensure the students are technologically proficient 21st century learners.

 

 

Extreme classroom temperatures make for terrible learning conditions.  Durham, January 2 at left, Alamance-Burlington, May 3 at right

 

Never fear, teachers! NC Professional Teaching Standards support your presence in Raleigh on May 16

As thousands of North Carolina public school teachers put in for personal leave in order to attend the May 16 Advocacy Day event in Raleigh, some school districts have resorted to scare tactics in an attempt to keep teachers in the classroom.  Teachers in various counties report receiving emails from district leadership reminding them about policies governing employee political activities, implying that travelling to Raleigh on May 16 would violate those policies.

Every district has policies governing political activity by school employees, and they’re important.  Such guidelines ensure that teachers will not use their position as a platform to convince students of their political views.  Beaufort County’s Policy 7720, for example, states that employee political activity must not

 

1. take place during school time or at any time that the employee is performing his or her job duties;

2. involve school monies or materials; or

3. make use of an official school position to encourage or to coerce students or other employees of the system to support in any way a political party, candidate or issue.

As important as these policies are in ensuring that teachers don’t stray outside the parameters of their job description, it should be obvious that have absolutely nothing to do with what a teacher does on a personal day.  It’s called a personal day for a reason.

On the contrary, the North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards actually encourage teachers to be active in their advocacy and work to improve teaching conditions and change policies that negatively impact our profession.  Take a look at Standard 1 for yourself:

Teachers lead the teaching profession.

Teachers strive to improve the teaching profession.  They contribute to the establishment of positive working conditions in their school, district, and across the state.  They actively participate in and advocate for decision-making structures in education and government that take advantage of the expertise of teachers. Teachers promote professional growth for all educators and collaborate with their colleagues to improve the profession.

  • Strive to improve the profession
  • Contribute to the establishment of good working conditions
  • Participate in decision-making structures
  • Promote professional growth

Teachers advocate for schools and students.

Teachers advocate for positive change in policies and practices affecting student learning. They participate in the implementation of initiatives to improve the education of students.

  • Advocate for positive change in policies and practices affecting student learning
  • Participate in the implementation of initiatives to improve education

North Carolina teachers who are coming to Raleigh on May 16 will be hard at work on Standard 1, demanding that our state legislators work to reverse the alarming trend of defunding public education, making it harder for our state to attract and retain great teachers, and depriving our state of billions in potential revenue through massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations.  

While you’re at the General Assembly advocating on behalf of your students and colleagues, be sure to get some pictures of yourself.  They will serve as useful evidence of your distinguished performance on Standards 1c and 1d.

North Carolina teachers ready their megaphones to demand change in priorities

Note:  This column appeared in the Washington Post

The past two months, the education version of the Arab Spring has swept across the United States.  In West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona, teachers who had previously seemed resigned to their fate have suddenly stood up, linked arms, and demanded their legislators increase support for public education.  Now North Carolina’s educators are preparing to follow our colleagues’ lead.

What many of the states seeing widespread teacher protests have in common is that they are so-called ‘right to work’ states, where teachers don’t have the job protection provided by unions in the event of a strike.  Another similarity they share is GOP-dominated legislatures which, despite major economic improvement over the past several years, have neglected fully funding public education to focus on lowering taxes for the wealthy.

Consider Arizona, the state I left fifteen years ago in search of better teaching conditions.  Arizona lags near the bottom of the barrel in teacher pay and per-pupil expenditure, and its GOP-controlled legislature has repeatedly slashed corporate taxes to the point of creating a $100 million budget shortfall.  

On April 26, thousands of Arizona teachers walked off the job to call for significant change, forcing the closure of more than a thousand schools.  50,000 educators marched on the state capitol, demanding salary increases, restoration of education funding to pre-recession levels, and a commitment to no new tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The better teaching conditions I found in North Carolina in 2002 are now long gone.  Since taking over state government in 2010, Republican lawmakers in our state have ushered in a jaw-dropping decline in the quality of teacher working conditions and student learning conditions.

Consider the facts of the last several years:

  • NC teachers earn 5% less, on average, than they did before the recession when numbers are adjusted for inflation.

 

 

  • Staffing ratios for school counselors, psychologists, and social workers are far below what industry recommends, leaving our students without the social and emotional support they desperately need.

 

 

 

 

  • Health insurance premiums have skyrocketed.  Teachers responsible for insuring their families now pay an average of nearly $10,000 a year.

 

  • The General Assembly implemented a new principal performance pay system, which will result in some school leaders suffering pay reductions of more than $20,000, leading to early retirements.

 

  • Despite some progress, a bungled class size reduction leaves schools with unfunded capital needs and almost 7,000 new teaching positions that will be difficult to fill, especially considering the hostile landscape detailed above.

Under the same leadership that has presided over this shameful decline, cuts to corporate and income tax rates have cost North Carolina $3.5 billion in annual revenue.  This already staggering number will increase to $4.4 billion when additional rate reductions go into effect in 2019. While education needs become more urgent at every level, the North Carolina General Assembly’s misguided priorities have made it impossible for our state to invest adequately in our own children’s futures.  And it’s time for that to end.

The teachers and students of North Carolina deserve to be provided with conditions that allow them to succeed.  On Wednesday, May 16, thousands of educators from all over our state will greet lawmakers in Raleigh as they return to the General Assembly.  Like our colleagues across the country, we will demand that our elected officials make public education priority number one in our state. It will mark the dawn of a grassroots movement which will continue until we see significant improvement in the educational environment in our state.

Charter bill gives Matthews new permission to raise taxes

 

House Bill 514, a bill introduced by Rep. Bill Brawley which would give the towns of Matthews and Mint Hill authority to create independent schools within Mecklenburg County, does in fact give those towns permission to raise property taxes for the purpose of creating new charter schools.

Section 8 of the bill reads as follows:

SECTION 8. G.S. 160A-209(c) is amended by adding a new subdivision to read:
46 “(8a) Charter schools. – To provide for a charter school operated by the
47 municipality in accordance with Article 14A of Chapter 115C of the General
48 Statutes.”

Section 160A-209(c) of the General Statues lays out 34 purposes for which NC cities have the power to raise taxes.  Brawley’s bill would add reason #35.

It is technically correct that HB 514, by itself, does not automatically raise anyone’s taxes.  But to argue that point in order to get people to support the bill is disingenuous.

The truth is, if HB 514 were to pass, Matthews and Mint Hill would have to raise taxes if they want to open charters–unless they’re willing to eliminate services to free up money to do so.

North Carolina teachers prepare to make some noise

 

colleagues in Arizona

Wednesday, May 16, the North Carolina Association of Educators is holding an event called Advocacy Day: March for Students and Rally for Respect in Raleigh.  We’ll be marching from NCAE headquarters to the General Assembly to greet lawmakers as the short session begins.  The event is intended as a call for our legislators to increase their support of public education.

When adjusted for inflation, the average North Carolina teacher’s salary has decreased 5% since the onset of the recession in 2009-10.  Per-pupil spending has decreased 12.2% over the same period. Under the same leadership that has presided over this shameful decline, cuts to corporate and income tax rates are set to cost the state $3.5 billion annually in potential revenue.  

Other changes we’ve seen in education over the last several years:

  • Repeal of due process rights protecting teachers from unfair dismissal
  • Stripping of masters pay and longevity pay
  • Removal of retiree health benefits for anyone hired after January 1, 2021
  • Decrease in transparency and dialogue around education legislation through practice of inserting legislation into budget bill

We believe it’s time for a change in priorities.

Teachers, please consider taking personal leave (not a sick day) and showing up in Raleigh to help North Carolina’s educators send a loud and clear message to our legislators.  

For Charlotte area folks, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators is chartering buses to provide free transportation to both member and non-members.  

The deadline to sign up is April 30 and you can sign up here: http://tinyurl.com/cmaemay16

Trauma-informed practices: the case for more compassionate schools

*Note:  This article appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Imagine a student, let’s call him Jonathan, sitting in algebra class.  Jonathan is staying at his cousin’s house because his father was murdered last year and his mother’s income from Bojangles’ doesn’t cover rent.  The lumpy couch and the uncertainty about what lies ahead make it impossible to sleep more than an hour at a stretch.

Jonathan’s head begins to droop in the middle of class.  Worried about her slumping test scores and frustrated by Jonathan’s recent unresponsiveness, the teacher issues him an ultimatum:  “If you don’t sit up and pay attention, you’ll earn after school detention.” Jonathan is suddenly overcome by the unfairness of it all.  He snaps, “How about leaving me the %@& alone?” His teacher calls for security and writes a disciplinary referral. It will be Jonathan’s third suspension of the year.

The Center for Disease Control began a study in the mid 90s which continues to this day called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.  The study’s lead investigator concluded that childhood trauma, stemming from experiences such as abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one and food insecurity, represents the nation’s #1 public health problem.  Trauma victims who do not cope with their experiences in healthy ways increase their risk of depression, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, chronic disease, mental illness, and suicide.

In our classrooms, the impact of trauma can range from distractibility to difficulty relating to others and managing emotions.  Teachers may perceive that a student just has behavior problems or is not interested in learning, when the reality is that student is simply too overwhelmed to learn.  Trauma can lead to behaviors which result in lost instructional time, reduce graduation rates and set our students on the road toward joblessness and poverty.

So what are teachers with students like Jonathan to do?  There is innovative work going on in North Carolina called the Compassionate Schools Initiative which is being led by Buncombe and Watauga Counties as well as the Public School Forum’s Resilience and Learning Project.  This movement is changing our approach to students who have experienced childhood adversity by training staff on the impact of trauma, equipping them with new strategies for helping students build resilience, and emphasizing self care for staff and students alike.  

Strategies used in Compassionate Schools include practicing unconditional positive regard, holding morning meetings, teaching students calming techniques, and providing students with choice and control when appropriate.  Trauma-informed practices also involve handling discipline in a restorative rather than punitive manner, giving students a structured opportunity to reflect on choices and offer input on fair consequences that would help them achieve their long term goals.  This approach empowers students like Jonathan and builds positive relationships between students and staff.

After several years of the Compassionate Schools Initiative in Buncombe County, schools have seen improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  The shift in culture has benefited all students, not just those who have experienced trauma.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers from CMS schools.   Over and over during that conversation I heard about the need to move from a reactive mode to a preventative mode and equip students with the coping skills they need to deal with adversity.  Support staff also felt that prevention needs to happen not just in their offices, but in everywhere in our schools. Trauma-informed practices and the Compassionate Schools Initiative have the potential to help us do that.  It’s time to take a meaningful step toward creating the compassionate, supportive school cultures our students need.