Its $22 million shortfall gives District 4J the opportunity to do the right thing. During flush times, “the right thing” is banished, because its politically incorrect truths make too many people feel uncomfortable. But now is a different time. When tears flow, sometimes minds open, and opportunity will then find its champions.
Our predicament requires triage thinking: doing the greatest good for the most people with the available resources. In triage, some victims are not helped, but “greatest good” thinking can go a long way toward helping everyone.
District 4J should: 1) transform Edison School from a neighborhood elementary school to a citywide high school for Eugene’s most brilliant mathematics and science students; 2) transform North Eugene High School from a regional general high school to a citywide Special Education high school focused on preparing students for blue collar work, independent contractor self-employment, and/or apprenticeships in union and/or shop trades; and 3) create a citywide on-campus middle school at South Eugene High School so Eugene’s most brilliant eighth grade students can enroll in high school classes.
The basic Education Standard should be: Every Child 21st-Century-Literate at No Less Than Grade Level While Being Actively Challenged and Fully Facilitated to Achieve Personal Potentials in All Core Academics.
At the top end, the Education Standard should be: Students Must Be Advanced to the Academic Level at Which They Can Succeed While Being Challenged.
Schools teach to the middle. Therefore, more on-topic learning happens if students are grouped according to their academic ability.
> > > > > The Above Has Exactly 250 Words < < < < <
My basic premise is: constitutional equality of personhood always requires an equal opportunity for all people to achieve their personal potentials, but it cannot necessarily require the very same actual opportunity for all children at any particular K-12 grade level when abilities are unequal from person to person in proven proficiencies and/or in mastered skills, and are therefore also unequal from person to person in realizable potentials, both personal and academic. The capacity to eventually learn something with average competence should never be confused with the capacity to quickly learn something with surpassing expertise. The uncomfortable truth is simply this: some children have vastly superior intelligence when compared to other children, and vastly superior intelligence will reliably result in vastly superior academic performance if stifling circumstances do not cause the most brilliant children to disengage from the learning process.
The United States requires that thirteen years of free public education be provided to all children within its borders. Some might argue that the commitment is only to provide an opportunity to learn the standard K-12 curriculum and nothing more. I argue that the commitment is to provide thirteen years of education according to the needs and the abilities of each student, and that the commitment is not in every case fulfilled when the standard K-12 curriculum is accomplished.
As it happens, District 4J agrees with me, and its Duck Link program in partnership with the University of Oregon provides supporting evidence for my claim. See: http://www.nehs.lane.edu/pages/resources/guidance-ap-ib.html .
However, it is one thing to offer Duck Link, and it is another thing entirely to make it logistically doable. As it is, only students at SEHS have close enough proximity to the UO campus to reasonably take advantage of Duck Link, but even they too suffer a hardship because the UO daily class schedule and term schedules do not at all coincide with 4J school schedules. My proposed Edison High School would solve this problem by operating entirely according to the UO schedules, therefore making Duck Link participation simple and easy — and less than eight blocks away!
Edison Elementary School currently enrolls 320 students in its K-5 program. See: http://4j.lane.edu/schools/edison . Its staff numbers 35 employees, including 16 teachers and 3 specialists.
If a four-year Edison High School enrolled 240 students, each of the four current Eugene high schools would be contributing approximately 15 students per grade level per year to its enrollment. Edison would have other enrollment sources, too, including local students who now either homeschool or enroll at private schools (Marist or Oak Hill), and perhaps including out-of-district students who are willing to pay tuition. Though Edison would have very few electives and no athletics, its mathematics and laboratory science curriculum would be unsurpassed, because it would actually include class offerings from the UO Catalog. The Catch: Edison would have selective enrollment based on tough requirements, both to get in and to stay in, and this necessary policy would bother some people in Eugene.
Though an equity argument opposed to alternative schools might be objectively correct, it can still be wrongheaded in the final analysis if it misses the whole point of what Education is about (see: Nancy Willard commentary “Alternative schools breed inequity: In a time of budget crisis, Eugene school officials should consider scrapping their two-tiered system” published in The Register-Guard on Sunday, December 26, 2010). Education is about the individual student — each and every student. The success or failure of District 4J is something measured at the individual student level, not at the system level. Furthermore, that “success or failure” is best measured at the extremes, meaning: in the ability-appropriate challenging instruction provided by 4J to genius students at the one extreme and to functionally illiterate students at the other — if the extremes are being well served, then the middle is likely being well served, too.
Another point needs to be stated clearly. Unless you are genius-level brilliant yourself or your child or spouse is genius-level brilliant, you simply have no idea what it means to be genius-level brilliant. What ordinary people can possibly imagine about geniuses falls significantly short of the true reality in most cases. Geniuses might be passably ordinary in five out of ten ways, but there is nothing at all ordinary about the other five ways — the ways in which their genius manifests. Even so, geniuses are human: they need love and companionship like everyone else, and they want to fit in with a peer group that understands them. To purposely deny geniuses their peer group is an outright cruelty in my opinion. The abiding truth is this: genius children are children at risk.
Edison would be unlike any other high school in Eugene. Its students would routinely finish two years of college during high school, and would thereby earn an advantage in their career pursuits. Some might argue that International High School already offers these potentials to 4J students, but two things would be overlooked in their argument: 1) IHS does not have selective enrollment, so it must “teach to the middle” at the general-student-body level, while Edison would “teach to the middle” somewhere above the 95th Percentile; and 2) the IHS curriculum is humanities-based while the Edison curriculum would be mathematics-and-science-based, a difference so basic that it is wrong to assume an equivalency. Simply, IHS serves a different sort of student than would Edison serve, and both sorts of students deserve to have a school alternative within 4J.
District 4J could make Edison High School happen in Eugene. The United States needs it. Eugene needs it. There is not one good reason to not do it. It is entirely doable, and doing it would benefit every other high school in Eugene, because teaching to the middle with most of the very best students gone would be much, much easier. Nobody loses. Everybody wins.
Likewise, “everybody wins” with my proposal for a newly focused NEHS. Though the loss of a regional general high school in the North Eugene area would trouble many people for many good reasons, the net gain for all of Eugene would be enormous. What I propose are two distinct and separate high schools that together share facility resources on the NEHS campus: S.T.R.I.V.E. (Skills Training Required In Vocational Education) Academy @ NEHS and 21st Century Tech @ NEHS. While S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy could rightly be called a Special Education school, 21st Century Tech would be a top-notch academic tech school par excellence. In fact, some of Eugene’s most brilliant students would find it difficult to choose between Edison High School and 21st Century Tech, especially if their career ambitions were in mechanical engineering.
I predict that the very reason why my NEHS proposal should be done will be the very reason why 4J administrators and the principals at SEHS, Churchill, and Sheldon will not want it done at all, and that “very reason” has to do with the peculiar calculus of Special Education funding in Oregon — money! Help yourself: read and study the document “Special Education Funding in Oregon: An Assessment of Current Practice with Preliminary Recommendations” dated August 7, 2007, which was submitted to the Office of Student Learning and Partnerships at Oregon Department of Education by Thomas B. Parrish, Ed.D. and Jenifer J. Harr, Ph.D. from the American Institutes for Research. The document can be accessed at: http://csef.air.org/pub_related.php
The “Overview of Oregon’s Special Education Funding Formula” found on pages 4 and 5 of the document begins with the following quote: Public education funding amounts in Oregon are based on average daily membership (ADM) counts of students in each district. Under this approach of allocating state funds, special education students receive twice the per-pupil funding provided for a non-special education student. According to a report issued by the state’s Legislative Revenue Office (June, 2006), this “double weighting reflects a national study in 1988 that showed districts were on average spending about twice the norm for services to special education students” (p. 5).
In addition, two major adjustments may be applied to the amount of funds special education students generate. First, districts must receive approval from the Oregon Department of Education (ODE) to qualify more than 11 percent of its students for the special education weight. This is referred to as the 11 percent cap waiver, and students above the cap who are waived under a complex process generate a partial funding weight as opposed to the full weight of 2.0 for students falling under the cap. In 2003-04, districts applying for waived students generated an average weight of 1.36 for these students, with this amount ranging from an average of 1.1 to 1.9. Second, the state has a High Cost Disabilities fund for reimbursing districts when the State School Fund (SSF) expenditures for a given child are in excess of $30,000 for the fiscal year. The total statewide allocation for this purpose is currently set at $18 million per year. If approved claims for High Cost Disabilities funds exceed this set allocation, all such claims are prorated accordingly.
According to http://www.4j.lane.edu/schools , the total combined enrollment in District 4J high schools is 5,622 students. Operating from the assumption that 4J is minimally claiming 11% of its students as “special education” students, fully 618 high school students are receiving twice the per-pupil funding provided for a non-special education student from state funds — yes, TWICE the per-pupil funding! According to the “Special Education Funding …” document, in 2003-04, Oregon school districts with more than 930 Special Education students received $7,387 in Revenues per Special Education Student, including state base, cap waivers, high cost, and federal IDEA funds (Exhibit 7 on Page 17). If all 618 special education students now in the 4J high schools enrolled in my proposed S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy, $4,565,166 in government funding would go to NEHS for those students. If NEHS maintained its current enrollment of 1,038 (including the 32 students in its alternative high school), then 420 students would be enrolled in my proposed 21st Century Tech. At $3,693 in estimated revenues per non-special education student, 21st Century Tech would contribute $1,551,060 in revenues to the NEHS budget, making a grand total of $6,116,226 in funding for NEHS. By comparison, if SEHS and Sheldon both maintained their current enrollment of 1,564 students each, those high schools would each receive $5,775,852 in funding, which is $340,374 less funding than NEHS would receive, even though NEHS would be educating 526 fewer students — such is the impact of government funding for special education.
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ASIDE: According to Colt Gill, the superintendent of Bethel School District in Eugene:
Last update: 12-23-10
Bethel currently receives about $5,800 per student/per year from the state of Oregon. Even with “cut days” that is about $35 a day. …
According to the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, since the 2003-05 biennium Oregon spending on education has increased by about 16%.
According to: http://www.publicschoolreview.com/school_ov/school_id/67431
Eugene 4J School District has $11,034 District Revenue / Student.
It is unknown to me how much revenue District 4J currently receives from the state of Oregon on a “per student per year” basis, and how that revenue total breaks down to account for special education funding. But what is known from above is 4J received about $7,387 in revenues per special education student in 2003-04, and Oregon spending on education has increased by about 16% since the 2003-05 biennium. Simple math then suggests 4J is now receiving about $8,570 in revenues per special education student and about $4,285 in revenues per non-special education student.
District 4J will keep it all a mystery, because Oregon law does not require special education funding to be actually spent on special education, either directly or indirectly, or to even be accountable at all (see below). But that is unacceptable, at least to me. Consequently, know this: my calculations in the paragraph immediately above this “ASIDE” were based on 2003-04 numbers — numbers that are now out of date by seven years and that should be increased by about 16% at the very least.
* * *
Plainly, in my proposal, NEHS could afford every possible advantage, so its success should be assured, even in these difficult economic times. But the opposition from 4J administrators and the high school principals is predictable. They will beat the drum that glorifies mainstreaming for special education students, and they will put forward the “Special Education Funding …” document quote: in 2005, over 70 percent of all students in special education in Oregon spent less than 20 percent of the school day outside regular education classrooms (the least restrictive federal placement reported). Although the percentage of special education students served in this highly integrated setting has been gradually growing across the nation over the past several years, Oregon is still well above the national average of somewhat less than 60 percent. (Page 7)
In response, my quotes from the same document include: Another respondent expressed the opinion that many special education directors in Oregon have no idea how their special education revenues are being spent by the district. A third respondent noted the tension between the desire for flexibility and the need for accountability. A superintendent present at one of the meetings said that disparities between revenues and expenditures should not be a concern because “all superintendents would agree that these formulas were meant to be revenue, rather than expenditure, based.” The point seemed to be that the formula was designed as a basis for determining revenues overall rather than an attempt to be prescriptive as to how funds should be spent. (Page 11) And: Concern about a lack of consistency in high quality special education practice throughout the state was regularly emphasized. These variations were partly attributed to fiscal flexibility (i.e., special education revenues are not required to be spent on special education services in Oregon) and to varying local attitudes toward special education. (Page 12) And finally: A key determination in regard to flexibility is that state special education funds in Oregon need not be spent on special education. This may be contentious if the concerns of possible substantial variations in special education service provision across the state are borne out. (Page 26)
Plainly, in Oregon public schools, doing “the right thing” is doing whatever you can get away with when it comes to spending special education funding. However, in the world of black-and-white, even children can identify a cheat. So let me be the first one to ask: What in the world is going on here?
But mine is not an expose; mine is an attempt to go forward with a better idea that solves problems with available resources. If there are any past wrongs in District 4J concerning the spending of special education funding, let there be quiet about it and amnesty. But let us go forward with The Lord’s Prayer in mind, especially the words: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” In asking for that blessing from Our Father, we carry the obligation to grant the same to our selves and to each other in all that we do. In these difficult economic times, “trust me” accountability will not satisfy angry parents who are advocating for their children.
In my own case, I am no longer in the fight, except on principle as a citizen who is concerned about the future of America. My advocacy is no longer the shrill and insistent advocacy of a parent standing in defense of his own children, it is instead an advocacy in retrospect that is not yet too far removed. Parents who have survived their children’s K-12 public education generally do not look back, except in relief that their war is over. However, I learned a lot in the campaign I fought on behalf of my two children, and learning is something to be shared.
The basic truth is this: schools win through attrition, and school administrators understand that inevitability very clearly — that time is on their side. Simply, theirs is a career job that spans decades while yours as a parent is a child that passes from grade to grade on a yearly basis while growing up. More simply, they sometimes do not care about your child unless you are willing to always make them care about your child, because theirs is a temporary job obligation while yours is an eternal flesh-and-blood obligation — that is the war.
When parents grow weary of elementary school, they expect middle school will be different. When they then realize middle school is not different, it is already half over, and so their hope gets focused on high school. When that hope gets dashed at a midway point, survival mode sets in while the family focus turns to hopes for college for a child now grown to a young adult. Thirteen years is gone in a flash. Consequently, the status quo is maintained — the schools win, your child gets a diploma, and everyone is happy.
My two children are genius-level brilliant. Both of them earned full-ride academic merit scholarships to the UO. According to District 4J testing, the oldest was already reading with comprehension at an adult level beyond high school level during her first month of first grade. She skipped sixth grade, and graduated from NEHS at age sixteen. The youngest was a National Merit Finalist who graduated from NEHS with 100 credits already on her UO transcript. I know the needs of the top-end student very well.
Six years ago, I was formally trained as a Read Right tutor at NEHS because I agreed to volunteer as a reading tutor all day every day for three quarters of the school year. The other three people who went through training with me were full-time paid teachers. I was assigned to tutor select high school students on an ongoing regular basis. Most of them were special education students, and some of them were functionally illiterate when I began as their tutor. By “functionally illiterate,” I mean they were unable to read a sentence comprised of three one-syllable words in a first grade book — and I am not kidding! To say that I was stunned by it all is an understatement. Even so, I persisted, and I can tell you from firsthand experience that it is possible to teach a functionally illiterate high school special education student how to read in less than six months if you work one-on-one with the student on a daily basis within the context of a four-person grouping — and I mean going from near scratch to near regular grade level reading ability. Many (most? all?) special education students can learn to read. Read Right believes anyone who is capable of coherent meaningful conversation is also capable of reading at grade level, and I now share in that belief without a doubt. Consequently, I know the needs of the bottom-end student very well, too.
And so I am expert in my own opinion based on my own life experiences, and that is a significant amount of expertise in this case.
What I propose for NEHS must not be misunderstood. Yes, I referred to my proposal as “two distinct and separate high schools,” with the dominant school being “a citywide Special Education high school focused on preparing students for blue collar work, independent contractor self-employment, and/or apprenticeships in union and/or shop trades.” But I have acknowledged that, in 2005, over 70 percent of all students in special education in Oregon spent less than 20 percent of the school day outside regular education classrooms, and I assume that statistic is at least maintaining itself in the present. So — getting very real — I am stating plainly that not all District 4J students should be educated as if they were preparing for a future at a university somewhere. In other words, all public high schools should not be university prep schools. SEHS, Churchill, and Sheldon can continue on as university prep schools, but NEHS should be something else — something in addition to the usual — something with a curriculum designed specifically to achieve a different purpose.
But remember my proposed 21st Century Tech @ NEHS is “a top-notch academic tech school par excellence” that would attract “some of Eugene’s most brilliant students” — students who would hope to continue their education at M.I.T., Stanford, or Caltech after high school. The academics at NEHS would have to serve the needs of those top-end students without fail. So bring my proposal into tighter focus.
Basically, I propose creating a “shared interests” place at NEHS that cannot otherwise exist in District 4J because of the $22 million shortfall. If the entirety of all high school special education funding is directed solely to NEHS, 4J could afford to equip that one school with every bit of cutting-edge modern technology in the academic classrooms and also in the shop classrooms. When I attended Churchill High School in 1970, every public high school in Eugene had the full range of shop classes, including auto mechanics. Four years ago, NEHS was the only 4J high school that still had any shop classes at all to my knowledge, and those classes were limited to wood shop and metal shop. My National Merit Finalist daughter took two years of wood shop and one year of metal shop during her high school years at NEHS — and she loved every minute of those classes! Most of her classmates in those shop classes were bottom-end students, including some who were certainly special education students. Hands-on learning of shop techniques, tools skills, and craftsmanship proficiencies in a fully equipped shop with a teacher who can actually make things is something entirely different than textbook-based learning of an academic subject in a sit-down classroom with a lecturing teacher. A science laboratory class comes close to a shop class if you consider a country mile away to be in close proximity.
It is a crying shame that shop classes have gone away in Eugene’s public high schools. Actually, it is an outrage! And it is just wrong. The sort of thinking that thinks every high school graduate should continue on at a university is the sort of thinking that does away with high school shop classes. It is stupid thinking, because it removes valuable learning opportunities from public education for future engineers, future carpenters, future cabinetmakers, future furniture makers, future welders, future metalworkers, future die and tool makers, future machinists, future forgers and casters, future auto mechanics, future plumbers, … and future homeowners. Stupid! What are we doing? Not only does America not make anything anymore, we are purposely making sure that nobody knows how to make anything anymore. Right here, right now, we should force ourselves to turn the tide, and we should start in Eugene at NEHS.
S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy @ NEHS and 21st Century Tech @ NEHS could function together with a very effective synergy. The former would have assigned enrollment, and the latter would probably have selective enrollment because of its popularity. If selective enrollment at 21st Century Tech became necessary, I would recommend selecting as many top-end students as possible — the future engineer types — because their influence on the S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy students could be enormous. It would be very important to have high-achieving excellence in the building to help create and demonstrate a fine-working educational model, and to thereby maintain self-esteem and self-worth for all of NEHS. If I could, I would hire former Sheldon High School football coach Marty Johnson to be in charge of Effort & Excellence as Special Assistant to the NEHS Principal. That might seem silly to some, but I am sincere. Johnson is someone who cares deeply, who is a proven leader, who knows how to strategize toward short-term and long-term goals and yet how to think on his feet in the immediate present, who can inspire the full range of high school boys to achieve determined excellence, and who graduated from Marshfield High School in 1979, meaning: his upbringing was in a largely blue collar community.
If anyone living in Lane County, Oregon, does not yet appreciate the value of an excellent coach, they have been totally ignoring the UO football team. A coach is a teacher, but a teacher is not necessarily a coach. A coach is an administrator, but an administrator is not necessarily a coach. A coach is a motivator, but a motivator is not necessarily a coach. A coach is an improviser, but an improviser is not necessarily a coach. An excellent coach will bring an ingredient to a striving for success that no one else can be relied upon to bring, and some endeavors will fail simply because that ingredient is missing. Marty Johnson (or someone like him) could be crucial in establishing the culture at NEHS, and District 4J should think twice before deciding otherwise.
My proposed NEHS can only work if it completely breaks the mold — and I mean shatters the established mold, and then smashes it to smithereens! Three examples:
1) No required homework — none at all ever. The students would experience NEHS as a job, not as a school. When the job is over, the rest of the day is free. Teachers could assign optional self-enrichment homework to those students who request it, but such homework would not be allowed to affect a term grade.
2) The school day would be structured in six 80-minute periods with 6-minute breaks between each period, which translates into an 8.5-hour day. The school day would start at 8:30 a.m. and end at 5:00 p.m. There would be no study halls. Instead, every school day would consist of five instructional periods and one lunch period, and one of the instructional periods every day would be twice per week dedicated to team sports physical education, twice per week dedicated to choral singing, and once per week dedicated to strategy games with a focus ranging from playing board games and card games to learning the strategies of football, basketball, and baseball. The lunch period would be divided into two 40-minute segments to allow for optional student-initiated club meetings during half of the period.
3) No interscholastic sports teams — none at all ever. NEHS would practice an everyone-plays ethic during its P.E. instructional periods, and would concentrate on developing coordination skills, physical conditioning, gamesmanship, sportsmanship, and team spirit. The dominant P.E. sport would be half-court basketball, because four games could be played in the gym simultaneously, thereby allowing 40 students to be physically active in game play at all times, with an additional 24 students regularly substituting into the games if eight-person teams were the norm.
Though the two schools at NEHS would be “distinct and separate,” they would nonetheless have some crossovers. For example, P.E., choral singing, strategy games, shop classes, and lunchtime clubs would be all-NEHS crossovers, at least in part. The two schools would have to be in synch because of their unavoidable need to share many key facilities: the main computer laboratory, the science laboratories, the shops, and the gymnasium. Therefore, an 8.5-hour school day would be a shared reality — and that is enough time spent.
However, some 21st Century Tech students would certainly take Advanced Placement classes, and they would be motivated to do well on the national tests. Only in the case of A.P. classes would I ever waive the “no required homework” rule at NEHS.
Why? Because the average special education student is functioning at a disadvantage that is being caused by an uncontrollable and reliably unreliable outside force. That force can only rightly be described as a circumstance, perhaps known, but just as likely unknown. It could be a dangerously dysfunctional family that hides abuse and violence; or an unbearable emotional distress being caused by separated or divorced parents, a family health catastrophe, or the death of a loved one; or a strongly medicated mental illness of some sort, either in the student or in the student’s family; or the misery of transient uncertain homelessness; or the burdensome codependency of functionally illiterate parents; or family joblessness and poverty; or abject hunger, either for food or for love; or God knows what — a mysterious despair that is as much destructive as it is unknowable.
Do I overstate? Or do I understate? All I truly know is this: Functionally illiterate high school sophomores and juniors can be taught to read with confidence and competence in six to nine months time if a caring literate adult will engage them one-on-one until a breakthrough is accomplished. And, yes, it is a breakthrough — the ability to read is fully present in those students as a potential, but its actuality remains blocked by a circumstance until a breakthrough occurs. The countenance of a long-time special education student noticeably comes alive when he/she can suddenly read. The glee is like that of a toddler who can suddenly walk. Imagine a frustrated student who is broken in self-loathing because he/she detests the personal embarrassment of not being able to read. Now imagine the sudden breakthrough: the moment when the student first comprehends that he/she is actually reading at will, and how it then happens that a reluctant reader now wants it to be his/her turn to read all of the time. That breakthrough is a life-changing precious moment when it occurs, and I think a high percentage of special education students are capable of experiencing that moment.
Maybe there are the profoundly retarded. Maybe there are the severely autistic. Maybe I am wrong in some cases. Maybe I am creating a false hope. But maybe not, maybe I am correct beyond any reasonable expectation.
I was born without a left hand. Nobody taught me how to tie my shoes. My father — a college professor in elementary education — could not figure out how to tie shoelaces with just one hand, so I figured out how to do it myself by inventing my own way. But the world is meaner than what one child alone can in every case overcome without help. My savior was an older girl named Jody Schwich who ruled my childhood neighborhood enough to institute and enforce an “everyone plays” ethic in the sports games being played.
Jody Schwich remembers: “… When I was 6 in 1956, I used to throw a tennis ball up against the side of the “Hackman house” where we lived and catch it with my baseball glove. Paul Rosel (the music professor who lived next door) noticed that I (the baseball coach’s daughter) was throwing off the wrong foot. He corrected that and should receive partial credit for the fact that 14 years later I was an All-American softball player with the Utah Shamrocks. …”
In early June 1960, I celebrated my sixth birthday and my family moved into the two-story white house at the east end of Faculty Lane in Seward, Nebraska. In the linked photograph — http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikesylwester/3596456693/ — North is to the left and East is to the top. Faculty Lane is the curved street running East and West on the lower left side of the photograph. On the south side of Faculty Lane directly across the street from my family’s house are a double tennis court and a single tennis court separated by a narrow north-south parking lot. Just east of my family’s house is the campus gymnasium and indoor swimming pool complex with a wrestling and weight training room in its basement. At the south end of that complex is the campus football field encircled by the campus track. On the east side of the track is a raised area known as East Field, which served as the football practice area and as the baseball field. At the time, the campus served Concordia Teachers College and Concordia High School, so all of the home games for both the college and the high school happened just across the street from where I lived. I was granted free admission to all campus events as the child of a faculty member, so I watched every game played.
In the summer of 1960 in the four two-story white houses at the east end of Faculty Lane, there lived 20 children, aged six months to ten years old — 15 boys and 5 girls. Jody Schwich and Eddie Hackmann were the two oldest at age ten. Jody’s father was the college baseball coach, and Jody was the ultimate tomboy, so Jody was more-or-less in charge of the games, and there were always games being played — always! The parents were not involved in the neighborhood games at all; the neighborhood children played on their own in the old tradition of “go outside and play.”
The campus was our playground. We played tennis on the campus courts. We played football on the campus lawn on the south side of Faculty Lane just west of the tennis courts. We played bicycle hide-and-seek throughout the entire main campus area with home base being the front steps of Weller Hall at the crest of the half-moon. At the north end of the shared driveway between the two middle white houses on Faculty Lane was a two-car garage with a basketball court in front. Behind the Schwich house was a small baseball diamond, and across the street at the west end of Faculty Lane was the baseball diamond for St. John’s Lutheran School (K-8), with the school being located just south of the outfield. Concordia is a Lutheran college. In every house on Faculty Lane, there lived the family of a faculty member, so all of us neighborhood children were enrolled in the parochial school.
In that idyllic childhood setting, Jody Schwich made sure that I was included in every game from June 1960 until August 1961 when her family moved away. To my knowledge, she included me without being told to do so, and she alone was responsible for the “everyone plays” ethic — and she was only ten years old in 1960. Because of her, I became skilled in playing baseball, basketball, and football, and also eventually tennis, racquetball, swimming, wrestling, track, soccer, volleyball, and golf, too. Sports completely defined my life until my junior year in high school, and I cannot possibly overstate that. Sports participation was the very joy of my life, especially during the endless sandlot play of my childhood through eighth grade.
Why does my childhood story matter?
School administrators need to appreciate that their schools with their curriculum and their professional teachers are sometimes most to blame when education fails and least to credit when education succeeds. My peers always included me, but coaches in organized play often did not. In sandlot, I got to pick teams as much as anyone else, and was usually the quarterback for whatever team I played on if the game was football. When coaches decided, I rarely got to play. What do you do if you are the coach and one of your players has only one hand?
The same question holds for teachers, except with a twist. What do you do in the classroom with students who are disabled in some fashion — a bit slow — a bit stupid — a bit uncoordinated in their thinking — a bit unconventional in their logic? Unfortunately, those students become the bench-warmers; the academic game is played without them. And that is the truth of the matter: the academic classroom is a place of competition and judgment, a place that is often unkind and unforgiving, and a place where the joy of learning can become the fear of failure and humiliation for the bottom-end student. The “everyone plays” ethic is not practiced in the average American public high school classroom, because impatience does not allow for it — the model is not the endless inning of baseball, it is any game in which time runs out.
The following is a long excerpt from a letter I wrote to Bill & Melinda Gates on May 13, 2009, in which I describe some experiences I had six years ago as a volunteer Read Right tutor at NEHS. The letter was seeking support for an idea of mine now known as "NASA Academy of the Physical Sciences" (NAPS): http://nasa-academy-of-the-physical-sciences.blogspot.com/
To whole letter can be read at: http://giftedissues.davidsongifted.org/BB/ubbthreads.php/topics/77811/9.html
Know this: The students who were functionally illiterate when I started tutoring them were reading well six months later. Some who began at a second or third grade level were actually reading at a ninth grade level or better just six months later. That is what is possible. That is what I witnessed with my own eyes and ears.
But what impressed me the most was the kindness, gentleness, and patience that these poor-performing students had for each other when they were in the non-threatening environment we had created for them in the tutoring classroom, and how honestly encouraging they were to each other as they struggled to learn how to read. It was at once both heartbreaking and wonderful. More than that, it was a very rewarding experience that revealed much about the difficult divide that confounds effective education reform. Why? Because the classrooms I had grown up in and that my daughters excelled in were places of intense intellectual competition where something so simple as kindness was not always present. It is no wonder to me now that the poor-performing students fall behind, and that they eventually give up - they don't stand a chance.
But there is a solution, and it is to be found in the simplest and most amazing of simple observations, and I can tell you with certainty that it is absolutely true. If you want to solve the problem of educating the slow learners who become the poor students who become the drop outs, you MUST start with this scientific fact: Every brain has a discernible brain speed at which it functions while learning; brain speeds vary from person to person; brain speed functioning is negatively impacted by stress; and slow normal brain speed can slowly be sped up to the point of classroom speed with no loss of skill, proficiency, and comprehension if both personal competency and personal confidence can be demonstrated by the brain to the brain (meaning: the slow learner drops the "slow" from his/her identity and simply becomes a learner who approaches learning with calm self-confidence).
How do I know this? My father is Dr. Robert Sylwester, Emeritus Professor of Education at the University of Oregon. He is a world-renowned expert on current developments in brain research, and the implications of those developments for education. He has had a relationship with Scientific Learning for many years, and writes a column for their website (http://www.brainconnection.com/). The Scientific Learning story and its many discoveries are told here (http://www.scilearn.com/our-approach/ourfounders-story/index.php). But, in layman's terms, it is essentially what I have described above referring to "brain speed."
The problem going forward is the problem of capitalism, which is the profit motive that controls intellectual property rights. In the case of Scientific Learning, the copyrights and patents have to do with computer hardware and software. In the case of Read Right, the copyrights have to do with materials describing the tutoring procedures, defining the reading libraries, and providing the progress tally forms. But everything my father told me about the scientific discoveries made by Scientific Learning using elaborate computer set-ups is true, and is plainly observable with the naked eye in a four-person tutoring group if you know what you are looking for. In fact, it is all as plainly visible as a snow line is on pavement as you drive from rain at low elevation to snow at high elevation - it is that undeniable: starkly plain and sharply defined. And what you are witnessing when it manifests so clearly is the brain speed of the learner.
It is a truly remarkable phenomenon to behold, and it borders on miraculous what can occur in learning how to read if the "brain speed" reality is made the guiding light. Students fight it at first as you insist that they slow down, sometimes way down - sometimes slower than they have ever talked before. But then suddenly it happens: you find their natural brain speed >> and they can read! It is startling for a high school kid who has been stuck in Special Ed for ten years with a dunce cap on his/her head to suddenly be able to read. I preached confidence when I tutored (as in: "I know you can do this"), but my spiel was not according to the copyrighted abracadabra terminology I was supposed to use. Against the plan, the kids needed confidence, and so I gave it to them in heaps - and in straight talk. Thinking back now, it was these three things: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. And they could.
Read Right had this simple belief: If a person can engage in meaningful conversation, that person can also read with comprehension. By what I have witnessed, I absolutely agree with that conclusion.
But there is another obstacle in the way of successful education reform - and it is horrific! Sadly, it too is about "the profit motive," and again the slow learner is the one who is potentially harmed. Remarkably, it is not a capitalist corporation doing harm by legally withholding effective learning tools and processes if its products are not purchased, it is the school system itself doing harm by holding students in an official Special Ed classification who no longer belong there. It is a fox guarding the hen house situation: slow learners have become a huge revenue source in the education finance equation because the site school and the site school district are paid significantly more by the government for educating students who are classified Special Ed than they are paid for educating normal students - so significantly more that deciding to do the wrong thing can be judged the right thing to do!
I witnessed this twice firsthand.
In one case, a girl I tutored was as close to being a zombie as anyone I have ever encountered; she was emotionally unreachable - she was a walking dead person who was unreliable to follow even the simplest procedure. I was completely stymied by her, so I begged my supervising teachers for any privileged information they could possibly give me to help me understand the girl. I found out the girl was adopted, and that her adoptive parents were an older couple with no other children. Also, I found out that the girl's biological mother was alcoholic. The girl was long-term Special Ed. All of that did not help me one bit. What finally helped was the gentle kindness of a boy who was also in her group of four. Every morning, the boy greeted her, even though she never responded back. And every morning, before we started the tutoring session, the boy told a funny story of what he had done the previous day, and eventually - finally - the girl smiled one day. And then one morning out of the blue, the girl wanted to tell her own story of something she had done the previous night. And the boy was all ears, and was genuinely interested in hearing the girl's story. And thereafter the girl actually started participating, ever so slowly at first. When that girl began her tutoring, she literally responded to books like a kindergarten student if she responded at all - it was weird. But once she actually started reading, her progress was faster than anything I ever witnessed as a tutor. Before five months was over, that girl was reading Jack London books out loud near flawlessly at first read (maybe one word error per page), including dramatic readings of odd dialect story conversations with unique phonetic word spellings. It was a stunning thing to behold (the Jack London books were at the twelfth grade level, and have very sophisticated complex sentences with challenging vocabulary throughout). We actually contemplated how to possibly make that girl a tutor's aide to legitimize keeping her around, because she had surpassed any need at all to remain in the program. Yet that girl was kept in Special Ed afterwards, and away from the standard curriculum. Imagine that. How do you explain something like that without contemplating evil?
The other case had a different twist. The girl was Special Ed since the beginning of her schooling, but was full of life and very talkative. She started at maybe a second grade level, and was very labored in her reading, though she was willing to try when it was her turn. Through the girl's story telling, it became obvious that she ran with a gang of troublesome losers, and that she submitted herself to the rule of the boys in the gang. As it happened, she was originally assigned to a tutoring group that included one of the boys she was subservient to. When that became apparent, we separated the two into different groups, and I kept the girl. Even so, the girl plainly felt the need to subordinate herself to boys by never excelling a boy who was in her company. One day I had had enough, so I excused myself and the girl from our group, and I took that girl out of the room into the hallway where I very seriously scolded her, and told her in no uncertain terms that she was better than any of the boys she was hanging around with, and that she needed to immediately and forever stop giving herself and her potential away. Wow! That girl changed thereafter. All she ever needed was permission to be all that she could be. She became determined. She wanted it to be her turn more frequently and longer - and she wanted to excel! Through dogged effort, that girl got fully to her own grade level with reliable competence and joyful, proud self-confidence. Her turnaround was so complete that one day I finally sprang the ultimate question to her without first talking with my supervising teacher. Even though a new term had already started and even though that girl had always been in Special Ed, I asked her if she would be willing to enter the standard curriculum classes at NEHS if I could open the door for her. Her response was an enthusiastic and very confident "Yes," and she was willing to start immediately, even knowing that she would be behind when she started. I made her ask her parents for their permission, and she eagerly ran home and ran back with permission in hand. Well, the NEHS teachers who should have then opened their classroom doors to that girl would not do so, and the administrators would not intervene - and I was done. In my mind, it was criminal that that girl was held back in Special Ed, and I could no longer in good conscience teach someone to read who would then not be allowed to learn to his/her fullest potential.
One other tutoring story is revealing. A big sophomore boy was one of my students. He was a mess, and he was just plain dumb - a functional illiterate. He was always late, always eating something, and always confused. Slowly, I got that boy to focus, but it was two steps forward and only one step back if I was lucky. Finally, it kicked in: calm down, slow down, and you can do it. Suddenly, the boy could read a four-word sentence made up of one-syllable words - and for him that was an accomplishment! The boy was African-American (which is rare in Eugene) and likable, and he wanted to learn, but he was defeated academically - just broken. He needed hope. When that boy finally got just a glimmer of hope, he became like a bull in a china shop. The Read Right program has a multitude of procedures that I more-or-less ignored, both because they were silly and because they worked in spite of themselves due to their luck-on to the "brain speed" phenomenon. In the case of this boy, I quietly abandoned Read Right altogether. More than anything, that boy simply needed to read to the bottom of the page, and then feel the supreme accomplishment of turning the page - and I was not going to deny him that accomplishment, no matter how many errors he made getting there. It was wild. He wanted to advance faster than he deserved to advance, and I let him to a point. When I quit volunteering as a tutor and had to come clean with how I had made him a special case, I argued with the supervising teacher that she should maintain my strategy with the boy. She refused, and placed him back where he belonged in the program. It saddened me greatly, because I feared the boy's spirit would be broken. After I left and the supervising teacher came to appreciate what I had done with the boy and why I did it, she eventually followed my lead and set the established procedures aside like I had advised. At the end of his senior year, that boy graduated from NEHS and received an academic award for being the most improved student during his four years in high school. More than that, that boy is now happily employed in a child daycare facility as a caregiver.
Back to the point: It is wrong to ever put students like my daughters in the same class in the same high school classroom as students like the three examples I have just described from my experience as a high school reading tutor. It is unconscionably wrong at both ends of the spectrum - absolutely so - unquestionably so! To think otherwise is to be ignorant of all applicable facts, and to have never known either a truly brilliant child or a child in desperate need of a reading tutor. Furthermore, children at both ends of the intellectual spectrum are children at risk, and I sincerely mean that in every literal sense. The easiest and best way to raise the low end into the general population is to get the high end out - not by ignoring them and/or dumbing them down, but by advancing them to educational opportunities that will fully challenge their potential.
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In contemplating everything I forgot to include above, one thing stands out as still worthy of comment here and now, and that is this: an explanation of why there are no interscholastic sports teams at NEHS in my proposal. Three answers: 1) the daily class schedule would not allow for team practices, 2) the S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy has an academic purpose that cannot be compromised, and 3) the "no interscholastic sports teams" rule will inspire some students to focus on academics who would not otherwise do so under different circumstances.
I believe a "special education" designation should not be a death sentence or anything that is necessarily permanent in any way. Yes, all S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy students are assigned to the school, but that assignment is individual in nature, and remains in effect only until a student successfully tests out of the school. An opportunity to test out of the school should be granted at every term break at the very least, and every student who successfully tests out should be immediately placed in the regional high school for their home address.
However, just as strongly as I believe in the reward of a successful "test out," I also believe in belonging, in friendships, and in self-determination. Though students are assigned to the S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy by District 4J, and only students who are assigned there can enroll there, I believe all students who ever leave there should do so by their own choice. Some students who successfully test out of S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy will choose to remain there anyway, and I say "God bless them" in that choice — let them stay.
What then should be done? What then must be done?
1) Edison High School, and 2) S.T.R.I.V.E. Academy @ NEHS and 21st Century Tech @ NEHS
Steven A. Sylwester