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DISCUSSION: Are You Ready to Help Change Our Schools?

We're going to have to be bold and it's going to take our entire community.

Our schools are failing our kids, but not for the reasons you might think. We're not teaching them what they need to know to prepare them for the future that's in front of them instead of a future based on models from the past version of a future.

Yeah, our kids need to know how to add, subtract, divide and do fractions. They also need to be able to write sentences with the appropriate subject-verb agreement and proper punctuation, but you know what else they need? Well, that depends on the kid, but by and large, our kids need our schools to change.

I know there's some issue with whether or not was really necessary to deliver the message. Let's talk about what he told us that has really resonated: our public school model is antiquated and in serious need of an overhaul; and it takes an entire community to change schools for the good of the students.

As described by Vollmer, our public education system was designed in 1781 by Thomas Jefferson to "cull the genus from the gatherers." Not very PC, but you get the point. We needed more workers than thinkers and our education models were implemented to fill that need. Well, that isn't the case any more, but we're still doing things based on Jefferson's 231-year-old idea.

We've gone from the industrial age to the technological age in what feels like the blink of an eye. For the Racine Unified community, we need to get it stuck in our heads that manufacturing is not the same game as 25 or 30 years ago. Instead, manufacturing is high-tech and requires education and training. Prospective employees who lack these mean positions go vacant while our unemployment rate remains sky-high.

On the surface, it appears that State Sen. Van Wanggaard's Technical Education high school diploma is a positive step in the right direction. I say "surface" because I've not read the entire bill and don't know how it could work for Unified. I do think it deserves exploration and it looks like Unified seems fairly well situated to implement such a curriculum.

The statistics are sobering:

So what should we do? First, I agree that if parents - or members of the Unified staff ranks - have been trying to offer solutions and suggestions that have gone unheeded, then shame on whomever brushed them off. That is not how a community gels to improve the lives of their students. But now that Vollmer has visited and there are residents (teachers, parents, administrators) who want to work together and with the business community, we need to start having conversations about what we want changed and how to go about it.

Even as we identify challenges, we have to stay steady on solutions. If you can't bring a solution for an issue to the table, then we don't need you at the table with us. I know that's blunt, but there it is. The time for negativty is past, and we need to focus squarely on the changes we need to make to help our kids succeed, whatever success looks like for the individual child.

This change means trying stuff that is going to make people shake their heads. For example, over on the original Jamie Vollmer story, Patch readers offered a bunch of ideas that deserve more exploration and discussion:

  • Change the way schools are funded so where the kid goes, so, too, does the money. This allows parents to make better informed choices and promotes more competition between schools to up their programs. It also gives parents the ability to place special needs or disabled children in the environments that work best for those students. (kath)
  • Follow the Montessori model where kids are the center of the focus, but are allowed to learn at their own pace in structured classrooms. (Alida)
  • Use concrete examples from educators and districts (Jaime Escalante in California; Joe Clark in New Jersey; and Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C.) facing similar socio-economic factors and how they turned things around by getting folks to change their minds. (James R. Hoffa)
  • Matching learning styles to teaching styles to not just improve the relationship between teachers, parents and students, but to really help children grasp concepts more organically. (Sandy)
  • Incorporating materials provided to parents for homeschooling that help kids learn at their own pace, in the style that works for them. (Sandy)

And while we're talking about changes big and small, let's remember that our community is full of talented people - resources - that go beyond money. There are kids in our district who could use some of our time and talents to help encourage them, support them and move them along a bit. We can't mandate good parenting, but we can still show up for these kids at the same time we show up for our own.

These are great beginnings! Let's keep building on them because our entire community's future depends on us working on change together.

Sandy January 30, 2012 at 01:09 PM
I second the motion...lets work together!
Frances Martin January 30, 2012 at 02:21 PM
The Finnish educational system is very successful ,including with their immigrant children--looking closely at that model might provide some helpful info.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 30, 2012 at 02:44 PM
@Frances - I've read a lot of good things about the Finnish model of education and am impressed a few methods, but especially with how high a regard they hold teaching. Not trying to be picky, but we need to remember that Finland is largely a homogenous society with less than 5% of their kids in poverty. While certainly we can - and SHOULD - look at how they do things, we also need to not kick ourselves if we don't all the way measure up to their success because our societies are so different. What would you suggest we take from their model to try here?
Brian Dey January 30, 2012 at 04:37 PM
I encourage you to do a story with the Director of the REAL Achool, Willie Maryland. With a graduation rate of 100%, some of th highest test scores in the state, and an extremely high rate of kids going on to college, we have a model of what I and Vollmer ave been talking about. Recently, I was contacted as a business owner and former school board member by Willie. Willie has come up with a plan to use the adult talents of our community and incorporate that with the students. I have been lecturing for years that the industrial age school system can no longer exist and be successful. But there is a political mood that has to change, internally and externally in our community and the school district.
Dennis January 30, 2012 at 06:15 PM
What's wrong is that we teach thinking everyone wants to go to college. Show me a college that teaches welding or CNC operation. Show me a college that teaches construction workers or electricians. What college teaches auto mechanics? Starting in high school we should offer 2 different career paths, one designed for college and one designed for labor. Both would still have to contain the basics of math and English but it might be more interesting if a student is studying combustion ratios on an engine and making a report on it. Meet these ideas "before" the student ends up at Gateway.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 30, 2012 at 07:48 PM
@Brian - thank you for the suggestion. I'll contact him soon for a story. You're right about the political mood changing - that's the hardest part. It will take a while but if we don't start chipping away in the first place, nothing can change, right?
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 30, 2012 at 07:50 PM
@Dennis - I think you're spot on with the "everyone to college" mentality. When did working with your hands become dirty words for good jobs that everyone needs?! Plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welding, CNC ... the RCEDC (Racine County Economic Development Corporation) has the results of surveys from area manufacturers and you know what they say? They have jobs, but no prospective employees because of the lack of training and education. This is why I think Sen. Wanggaard's bill should be fully vetted and if appropriate, implemented as quickly as possible in Unified.
Brian Dey January 30, 2012 at 09:38 PM
Heather A.- In our community we need a sledgehammer or a jackhammer to chip away at here. The problem here is trust. There is very little trust in the board, and I am totally serious when I say this, that there are actually Board members that believe they are there not to represent you and I, John Q. Public, but they are there to provide a collaborative atmosphere between the union employees and the district. It would be funny if it weren't true. It is my belief that there needs to serious and fast turnover of the existing board in order to have enough open minds to actually list to the community and Act on their suggestions.
John Peterson January 30, 2012 at 11:25 PM
Funny thing; the discussion here goes in circles, suggesting the old failed "reforms" that haven't worked for the last 20 years. If vouchers and charter schools were so good, why have they done so poorly in study after study? Public schools are beating them. What will force private interests to share their formula for success without a large price tag? Stranger still, union troubles? Teachers have no input and are controlled by school boards. Time to get rid of the old arguments. Unions don't teach, teachers do...because they are driven to help our kids. It's not a money thing, it's not a union thing. Get over it. Finland's model encourages some students to enter a trade, and that should be considered for our schools. But to whine that too many kids are going into higher education? Plus, students are taking longer to graduate because they don't have enough money to go full time. Part time jobs are few, and pay is lower now. Jamie Vollmer said nothing new. You don't think schools aren't already doing what Vollmer listed? They are. If you want change, look at the countries that are doing it right. One big problem though; a national curriculum, national test along with national vouchers will not sit well with ideologically driven partisans. Finally; The privatization effort in the Racine area involved 3 time felon Scott Jensen, who's felonies were dropped on appeal. You trust him? Good luck, maybe you can do what New Hampshire did to their public schools.
Brian Dey January 31, 2012 at 02:01 AM
John Peterson- I beg to differ on charter schools performance. We have two non-instrumentality charter schools within the RUSD. These schools are not bound by administration and act as seperate entities. They are public schools, as any voucher school as they are funded by taxpayer dollars. Walden and the REAL School are middle/high schools that serve grades 6 thru 12. Walden and the REAL School not only consistently outscore in every category Racine Unified, but also blow away the state average and rank as 2 of the best schools in the state. At the middle school level, Walden scores 95.8% proficient or advanced; REAL School scores 91.1%; the state average 84%. At the high school level, Walden scores 90.1% proficient or advanced; REAL School 93.9%; the state average is 76.3%. This is just in reading but math scores are proportionately the same. Similarly, Walden graduates 98.6%, while the REAL School graduates 100%, with the same percentages for those moving on to college or vocational schools. Racine Unified has a graduation rate of 73% and the state average is approx. 85%. Let's stop this fallacy about charter schools. The only community that counts statistically, is what is happening in our district area, and there is no comparison. We need to look at the things that are working in the district and replicate them. But the current board isn't thinking of anything other than tired solutions that are not working.
Karen Itzenhuiser January 31, 2012 at 04:31 AM
For real change to begin we need to start at square one. Uniforms remove differences of background and class; wearing the same clothes puts students on a level field. Competition then is directed to achieving academic or sports superiority, not who dresses better. Bullying, peer pressure, and taunting decreases. Everyone has an equal chance of making it to the top. Throughout highschool I owned 2 uniforms (navy blue jumpers) and 4 white blouses. The cost was minimal and it was a no-brainer of what to wear everyday. So very easy for parents too.
John Peterson January 31, 2012 at 05:37 AM
Voucher schools cannot be called "public" schools, because they aren't. They're private, feeding off taxpayer dollars. In fact, now they're demanding the same per student dollars as public schools. A deal huh? I don't have anyway to check REAL claims, so I'll go by the research and conclusions of the longest running voucher program in Milwaukee. But additional studies nationwide have been very clear, voucher and charter schools are as good as or worst that public, with a few exceptions. Explain how you would replicate what is working. Right now, school boards hold the keys to education, not teachers. If a voucher school is willing to freely give up their successful formula, great. I'm not about to present fallacies here, there's been too much research for game playing. There are successes, true, but those schools will have waiting lists and the others, serving the majority of kids will have no other choices. That's privatization. The haves and have nots.
Brian Dey January 31, 2012 at 01:51 PM
John Peterson- The numbers above are not fallacy, they are reality. You can check out the claims at https://apps2.dpi.wi.gov/sdpr/spr.action, which is the website for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. And let's take a look at the voucher program in Milwaukee. The fraud that was so prevalent in the 80's and 90's is a thing of the past and so are the rules for obtaining government funding. Vouchers must now accept students of all backgrounds including special needs children, are now accountable to WDPI and must use the same testing as public schools. Messmer and Nicolet, two of the most popular voucher programs graduate black inner city kids 2 and a half times more than in the home schools of these kids. There is also a 2 and a half better chance that these kids will go on to college or vocational schools. And yes, there are extremely long waiting lists for many of these schools. Why? Because the parents of public school students want more opportunities for their children. Vouchers have improved education in inner cities and now are built in to the public school districts. Like Racine, the Chicago School District has created it's own charter schools and has similar success. If it receives public funding, it plays to the same rules and is therefore, public education. If we replicate these successful programs, more kids will stay in the district.
Brian Dey January 31, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Uniforms are a good start, but we need discussion on real structural change. We need to wrap around ideas that include block scheduling, course offerings, hours of instruction, neighborhood schools, school configuration, vocational training and building management. We simply are not in the same era with our children as we were when we were children. Traditional schooling is not working in most urban environments. And if you think just because your kids are out of school and this is no longer your problem, think again. The largest portion of your tax dollars goes to your school district. Developers no longer want to develop here because RUSD has a poor reputation that is data supported. Businesses are not flocking here because we have an unskilled labor pool. Many residents have moved out of the city because of increased crime. There can be no renissance for Racine without improving our education. And it means we have to start looking to what is working, and abandoning things that are not. We need to have better stewards of our tax dollars, as there is not as much money as there used to be.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 31, 2012 at 03:26 PM
@Karen - When McKinley implemented uniforms, we were all for it! Of course, we were more than disappointed that it wasn't fully enforced because Wisc. laws differ a bit from other states, which means public school districts here don't have the ability to require uniforms without offering an opt-out (I think I'm remembering this right). So yeah, uniforms are a good start. @Brian - everything you just stated is what Vollmer was saying and it really does seem like more people are really on board and ready to get to work. I want us to do what we can to keep that momentum going! Our kids depend on this ... it really is a matter of a having a future for our community. It really is that serious.
Heather in Caledonia January 31, 2012 at 03:44 PM
Hey, Brian, maybe you could ask RUSD for $12,000 to give some talks and meet with local businesses. :)
Heather Rayne Geyer January 31, 2012 at 04:04 PM
While I see some great things about the REAL School...I am very disappointed with some of their policies. When I learned that 11 year olds were attending night time dances with seniors - I about threw up. I plan on calling Maryland for this reason. We need to pay attention to social issues as well as educational.
Heather Rayne Geyer January 31, 2012 at 04:06 PM
Gateway and RUSD was working on a program almost identical to Wanggaard's plan. Budget cuts squashed that possibility. A couple months later, Van gets all this credit for something they were trying to do all along. I support the bill to...just sayin'....
Heather Rayne Geyer January 31, 2012 at 04:09 PM
Karen - I have been a strong supporter of uniforms since I was in HS. In fact, I may write about this. I think it could make a world of difference. I was so irritated by the parents who fought against this. School isn't suppose to be a fashion show and you do not need your clothing to retain your individuality!!
Heather Rayne Geyer January 31, 2012 at 04:13 PM
PS...I know of a girl who had to be pulled out because she was dating a 17 year old. She was 12. 11 and 12 year old should NOT be going to school with 17-18 year olds. Let alone going to dances with them!! Why would anyone think this is okay??
CowDung January 31, 2012 at 04:43 PM
I think I can agree with you on the uniform issue, Heather. The idea that clothing somehow equates to 'individuality' or 'self expression' has always bothered me. You always seem to see a bunch of kids all dressed alike claiming that they are each expressing their individuality by dressing in the manner that they do...
CowDung January 31, 2012 at 04:53 PM
My high school did offer a vo-tech program for those interested in those careers. Starting in 10th grade, they left our school every day after second period and went to a nearby tech school to study their trade. They graduated with the rest of us, but received both a HS diploma and an associates degree from the tech school. I think it would be a great system to put into every high school.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 31, 2012 at 06:14 PM
HRG - I went to a combined MS/HS in Milwaukee (Rufus King waaaaay back in the day) and there were few incidents between the two. We did not, however, mix during social functions. School administration kept the MS and HS stuff on that level completely separate, which is how it should be. There's nothing wrong with sharing a building, but I agree about the dances.
Heather Asiyanbi (Editor) January 31, 2012 at 06:17 PM
HRG & @Cow - I think this is very valuable and hope that implementing can be done as seamlessly and inexpensively as possible. I'm wondering what costs - especially in schools like Park where a pretty well-rounded tech. ed. program already exists - would be incurred?
John Peterson January 31, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Brian Day- I took a look at the numbers for REAL, and a 12 th grade student body of 20 is hardly a good comparison. Nice numbers, but not comparable. Low minority levels too. Fraud still takes place, charter and private voucher schools still fold up. Can you imagine a system of schools that can decide to leave at anytime? Public schools don't have that problem. Milwaukee had just gone through that situation, leaving parents less than a week to find another school. Big problem. Finally, private schools have learned to game the system and rob taxpayers. The stories are plenty. Plug in "voucher" or "charter" in my blog search box. Behold the magic of the private sector. My blog: http://democurmudgeon.blogspot.com
Brian Dey January 31, 2012 at 10:58 PM
John Peterson- Public schools are not without scandal, remember Tom Hicks and PBCG? And not to mention, cadillac healthcare and unheard of pensions, and less and less going to the classrooms? As someone who has been involved in the charter school issue since the early 90's, I've seen the horror stories, but times have changed, revenues have changed and parents and children have changed. And private schools have always outperformed the majority of their public counterparts. But that is not what this is about, this is about what are we going to do as a community to right the ship. It's listing now, and it is our job as a community to find solutions, and not just bandaids, but complete overhaul.

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