Author: Bekah McNeel

I gave up pudding for Lent

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Also donuts. I don’t have any photos of pudding.

I’ve rotated between the usual lenten abstinences for years. Dessert, alcohol, meat, soda, dessert, alcohol, dessert, dessert, etc. I’ll be honest, that usually there’s a ulterior motive of shedding a few pounds, or kickstarting a healthy habit.

A few years ago, I was introduced to proactive Lent, wherein you replace the thing you’ve given up with some discipline—Bible reading, service, prayer, Scripture memory.

This year, I decided to think really hard about what to give up for Lent, and what to replace it with. Thinking really hard these days, for me the working mom, usually happens when I’m woken up at 3am but a tiny elbow to the jaw, or on the way to pick my kids up from school.

Simultaneously, but not coincidentally, I’ve been getting very serious about the destructive perfectionism that has crippled me since having children. I was a perfectionist long before children, but I was functional. With baby one I became, shall we say, compromised in my abilities. Baby number two sent me into full fragility. But because it was perfectionist fragility, you may not have known. 

I didn’t ever think about myself as a perfectionist, because I’m not super detail oriented, not obsessive about the condition of my house, appearance, or children. However, my perfectionism runs along a deeper, subterranean channel. The definition of perfect was set during my childhood from a mix of family and cultural expectations: perfection is effortless, universal, well-rounded admirability to which I must be totally oblivious and toward which I must be totally ambivalent.

“She doesn’t know how pretty she is.”

“It comes easily to her.”

“All that and a heart of gold.”

“With all she has going for her, she could be totally full of herself, but she’s super down to earth.”

When I wished on stars as a child, I wished that I could be skinny without trying. My worst nightmare was to get the “most improved” trophy in sports, because effortless mastery, not hard work was my goal. In 8th grade a girl who (probably with good reason) wanted to hurt me found the perfect insult, “She’s perfect, and she knows it.”

“She knows it.” That clause turned what would have been a sort of weak, gen-x-ish insult into total melt-down devastation.

The other way my perfectionism revealed itself by its shifting goal posts. Whatever I lacked, whatever superlative I could not effortlessly achieve, that became the one thing that mattered. If I deliver my children to school clean, fed, and rested, but didn’t volunteer to be a reading buddy—then I’d immediately remember that article I read about how “parental involvement” was the single greatest determiner in a child’s success. If I was invited to moderate a panel at a public event, but saw an unflattering photo of myself doing it, I heard a voice saying, “It’s so sad that someone who has to be in front of people is so unphotogenic.”

I couldn’t enjoy my professional success, my lovely children, my delightful marriage, or my totally functional body because I always lacked…something. And thus, lacked the perfection I really wanted.

The turn of screw there is that we live in a culture where experts vie for the final word on sleep, child rearing, diet, sex, budget, philanthropy, race relations, education, worship, and how to clean your mother f-ing house…you cannot win that game. It is intrinsically impossible to live according to the experts, because they contradict one another. And before my Bible-people say “just live by God’s rules” don’t even get me started on the contradictory things I’ve been taught from various pulpits in my life. 

At the heart of perfectionism is a powerless subjectivity, a need to fit everyone’s description of perfect. It’s a world where you are your own worst enemy, because becoming aware of any strength nullifies that strength, so you have to focus in stead on your weaknesses. Non-perfectionists see this as a quest to “perfect” the weaknesses, and, yes, that is part of it. But deep deep down, dwelling on weakness is the safe zone. It’s the place where I will not come off as arrogant, where I won’t risk ruing the admiration I receive by becoming aware of it.

This perfectionism is crippling my parenting, stealing my joy, and hurting my family, so I’ve been on a multi-year journey, slowed by postpartum anxiety, to get free.

Which brings us back to Lent 2019.

I gave up dessert.

Allow me to explain.

In Amy Poehler’s (highly-recommended) autobiography, Yes, Please, she talks about “the pudding” as the accolades and awards that can crowd out an artist’s focus on her work. The subjective preferences and shifting tastes that can cause someone to compromise what they know is good for what will get them recognition. In her world, that’s the temptation to make “Oscar-bait” and the Emmy version thereof.

While she admits, “pudding is delicious,” Poehler also cautions against it’s seductive, distracting nature, and reminds us that, “The doing of the thing is the thing.”

She compares awards and all that to pudding because it’s totally superfluous and we don’t need it. Sugar burns fast, and you’re left wanting more and getting very little from it, except a fleeting high.

My perfectionism runs on the pudding. In my world, that is retweets,  “some personal news,” fellowships, headlines, good stuff in the comment section, mentions, cover stories, “we are happy to announce,” hand-clap emojis, people recognizing me at the coffee shop, invitations to speak and moderate, and best-of lists. It runs on comments about my kids. It runs on compliments about everything from my appearance to my signature quinoa dish.

These are the subjective signs that tell me I’m getting it right, and when they aren’t there, I’m lost. And remember, I can’t give those things to myself…that doesn’t count in perfectionism.

Now, giving up the pudding itself would be impossible in my world because it would involve wearing a sign that says, “don’t compliment me or my children.” Getting off social media would help for about 10 minutes, but I use social media for work, so it would get me in the end. Plus, I was like this way before social media. (That being said, I do have parameters in place to help social media not run me into depression for a multitude of other reasons.)

Plus, I’ve been really hurt in the past by people who tried to send me into affirmation-detox. If you know someone who struggles like this, do not withhold praise “for their own good.” You’re not God and you have no idea what you’re doing.

Anywho, instead of giving up the pudding, I needed to change the way I thought about it. So I’m using a Lenten fast to remind me to think about my worth, where it comes from, who made me, why he made me. A natural physical reminder would be pudding, but I don’t eat pudding. At least not frequently enough to merit giving it up for Lent.

So I gave up dessert. Dessert in addition to being a reminder of “the pudding” is what I go to when I feel like I’ve earned a treat. What I go to when I feel like life is hard and I’m not getting enough of “the pudding” elsewhere.

Giving up dessert this year is my reminder that I don’t need “the pudding” to enjoy my work or my family. And that my worth is anchored in something that doesn’t burn up fast like sugar. Lent is part of a larger journey to free myself from perfectionism and find a constant, strong sticking place for my eyes, my confidence, and my peace.

It’s here! Everybody has a take on the TX House’s School Finance Bill.

It’s here! It’s here!

No, not the phone book.

The Texas House’s bill, “The Texas Plan” to overhaul the State’s love-to-hate school finance system.

Now, every public school advocate will tell you, “this is a start.” But it’s also the best start Texas has seen in decades, and before horse-trading with the ultra-conservative Texas Senate begins, they are throwing their support behind the bipartisan bill.

Kevin Brown with the Texas Association of School Administrators tweeted:

The Center for Public Policy Priorities issued a release.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation has been pretty quiet, continuing to tweet their own priorities, but *shrug emoji.* Not a huge surprise.

The Texas Charter School Association has been similarly absent from the Twitter love-fest. The benefits for charters are more nuanced in the bill, and some of them may come out a little behind, because of the elimination of the Cost of Education Index. But an increase in base funding, and adjustment to the weighted funding for special populations may ease that. The radio silence may actually be the quiet patter of calculator keys.

There’s a lot for wealthy districts in there, including tax rate compression, and adjustments to the Robin Hood laws which took income from property wealthy districts to put into the State aid funds for property poor districts. Wealthy districts have long argued that Robin Hood was not taxing the rich to feed the poor, but was taxing anyone who could make ends meet in order to feed the State’s rainy day fund and corporate tax breaks (by reducing the State share of funding for schools). Some would like to see Robin Hood done away with forever, but Robin Hood was one of the mechanisms that kept Texas from being one of the most egregious offenders in the recent EdBuild report on the gross funding disparities between majority white districts and majority brown districts. We still have them, but Robin Hood kept us off the top of the list.

The bill creates two new chapters for the Texas Education Code, 48 and 49 to replace the current chapters that lay out the rules for property wealthy districts (chapter 41) and everyone else (chapter 42). It attempts to take Robin Hood back to its original intent.

Everybody is going to have their take, but the one I was personally most interested in was Seth Rau, SAISD’s guy at the Capitol. Seth’s legislative updates are required reading for those closely following #txed. (He also gives them live, on the last Thursday of each month.) SAISD has tons of interest in both ISD and charter policy, given their pursuit of partnerships.

Seth has given me permission to share highlights from his analysis of the school finance bill here. Enjoy.

  • An additional ADA incentive if districts offer at least 30 additional half days of instruction. Many schools in SAISD would like consider this incentive moving forward. The extra days are not mandatory.
  • Tax rates compression. My understanding is that it limits a district to $1.04 (as compared to the previous limit of $1.17), as all 8 of the enrichment pennies become “golden” pennies. In the $1.00 of Tier I that most ISDs in the state have, there will be a 4 cent compression going down to 96 cents. A hold harmless will exist for ISDs who don’t have 4% property value growth in this year.  In this tax rate compression, every district is guaranteed to not lose funds during the upcoming biennium. Therefore, some of the rates may be still be above $1.04 for a period of time until their rates can be compressed. The goal is continue tax compression in future session as value continue to rise. The rate of the “golden” pennies is decoupled from Austin ISD and is now 160% of the basic allotment. “Copper pennies” are now worth 80% of the basic allotment .
  • The bill creates a definition of a full-time counselor in PEIMS as one that works 40 hours per week along with some other technical changes in PEIMS.
  • The Commissioner gains discretion to make decisions to correct for unintended consequences of changing the school finance system that results in greater gains or losses than expected. The Commissioner gets 30 days for the Governor or the Legislative Budget Board to reject the change. If they do not reject the change, then the Commissioner may proceed in making the change. This section is only valid for the next 6 years.
  • Basic allotment. It increases from $4730 (in code)/$5140 (in budget) to $6030. The small schools allotment has one formula for LEAs with fewer than 450 students and then another formula for LEAs with between 450 and 1600 students. Then, there is a new mid-sized adjustment formula for LEAs between 1600 and 5000 students.
  • Throughout the bill there are a number of places where the SBOE’s authority for rule making is replaced by Commissioner rule making. One of those areas is giving the Commissioner more discretion on setting the appropriate indirect cost rates. 
  • The bill also creates a .1 dyslexia allotment for all students who qualify statewide. The districts only receive this funding if a student who qualifies via an approved evaluation and the teachers have properly trained to provide the appropriate instruction. A new weight for pregnant students of 2.41 on top of the comp ed weight is created. 
  • In very exciting news for (SAISD), our socioeconomic block system was included in the bill. The Commissioner has discretion on creating the specific system to be an additional multiplier onto the compensatory education weight. There will be 5 statewide tiers based on census blocks data for median household income, the average education attainment of the population, the percentage of single parent households, the rate of home ownership, and other metrics that the Commissioner deems appropriate. The tiers will be .225, .2375, .25, .2625, and .275. If there is not enough data, every student is the block qualifies for the .2 weight. LEAs receive the greatest possible funding option under any weight. This data must be updated by March 1st of any year.
  • Another idea from SAISD made into the bill creating a .15 weight for dual language (one-way or two-way), which would replace the current .1 weight. I believe other non-English proficient students may be entitled to a .05 weight (such as native English speaker in a two-way program). However, I am not certain on that part, and please reply to me if you can better explain this provision. The old indirect cost rules are eliminated for both compensatory education and bilingual.
  • The Career and Technical Education weight is expanded to include grades 6 through 8 and is also aligned with the Perkins Reauthorization.
  • Another recommendation from the School Finance Commission that made it into the bill was the early reading allotment. Every bilingual or comp ed kid will receive an additional .1 weight in grades Kindergarten through 3. That can fund full-day Pre-K for bilingual and comp ed 4 year olds across Texas. All programs will default to full-day Pre-K but half-day Pre-K can still be offered if it is part of a partnership and for students under 4 years old. All Pre-K classes must meet the 2015 high quality standards.  
  • For the transportation funding formula, linear density and daily costs are removed and it goes to a per mile rate that will be set each session by the legislature. We will be reimbursed for dual credit transportation and transporting kids from/to another ISD if programming is not offered in one of the locations. 
  • The New Instructional Facilities Allotment (NIFA) is added into this bill and the cap is increased from $25 million per year to $100 million per year ($200 million per biennium). With the amendments we won last session, CAST Med in SAISD should qualify for this funding for the next two years.  
  • The state’s minimum salary schedule is increased by 4.2% per year.
  • The bill creates a new effective educator allotment putting in $3000 for each recognized teacher, $6000 for each exemplary teacher, and $12000 for each master teacher. Schools receive these allotments in multiples based on student tiers based on the compensatory weight tiers. Rural schools automatically get a two tier boost. Each boost is worth is $1500 for recognized, $3000 for exemplary, and $5000 for master. That means a master teacher in a 4.0 boost district could receive up to $32,000 extra. The commissioner will assign the tiers to each campus. All funds must used for salary, specific exams, certifications, or professional development. Each teacher must be reconfirmed at each tier each year. Previous master teacher designations do not apply.
  • The commissioner will criteria involving local stakeholders for creating the distinctions between recognized, exemplary, and master teachers. The designations last for 5 years as long as teachers maintain their standard of performance. Any teacher that holds a national board certification is automatically a recognized teacher. Recognized teachers should be in the top third of teachers. Exemplary teachers should be in top 20 percent, and master teachers should be in the top 5 percent. The Commissioner can change the percentages. 
  • Each district is required to set up their own district appraisal system with multiple years of student performance, student perception surveys (by 2022-3), educator leadership, observations, and other assessments. The district cannot receive funding under this bill until the Commissioner approves the local system. The Commissioner can audit the local system and suspend eligibility if the district is not compiling. The designation is valid in any Texas district or charter school. SBEC regulates parts of the designation. Teachers can hold multiple designations but can only receive funding for the highest. There will be a student performance study to see if this system raises student achievement. Commissioner has most of the rules control under this section.     
  • The state will once again pay for a college assessment, a change that we welcome in SAISD as we currently pay for the SAT twice for our students. We believe this reimbursement will cover one of those assessments. 
  • Recapture still exists but with the increased funding elements, its rapid growth should be reduced. The bill also guarantees that the amount of recapture can eat into a district’s FSP entitlement as was currently happening in some districts. Many provisions where Chapter 41 ISDs did not get full access like the CEI and transportation allotment in old form have been eliminated. The Cost of Education Index is entirely eliminated from the bill. 
  • For the 56 LEAs (mostly charters from our understanding) that lose money under these changes, there is a formula transition grant to support them through this transition period. There is a 10% reduction in these funds for FY21, 20% reduction for FY22, and it’s eliminated after that. 
  • The Legislative Budget Board is now required to estimate the percentage of the state share in the next biennium along with the compression that will be necessary to not increase the local share of funding. Districts can also adjust their tax rates during natural disaster or similar events that dramatically impact property values.   
  • The bill also allows for the Commissioner to enter into agreements with government agencies, political subdivisions, higher education institutions, and relevant private organizations to collect data necessary to measure college and career ready outcomes. 
  • Every district and charter (non-DOI exemptible) must adopt an early literacy plan to have 3rd grade reading targets for the next 5 years. The goals must be broken out by subgroup. It must include a targeted professional development plan for teachers who aren’t meeting their expected goals. Each district needs to produce an annual report with a public board meeting and have a district or ESC coordinator over their plan. 
  • Through this bill, TEA is requiring access to all statewide teacher evaluations. Previously, it was optional for LEAs to share that data with the state. This data includes past evaluations for investigations. Districts can also create performance tiers.  
  • Every district is required to have a Kindergarten readiness assessment. The Commissioner will expand the list of assessments that are eligible, and that office controls the rules. Results must be reported to TEA within 30 days. The state will be tracking both Pre-K and K results to see how they align with 3rd grade reading results.  
  • The Gifted and Talented Allotment is eliminated from the current school finance formula. However, if a district eliminates the services, 12% of its funding for 5% of its students will be removed. 
  • A blended learning grant program is also created. Priority goes to districts with the highest percentage of economically disadvantaged students. Districts must come up with a plan for blended learning that is approved by the Commissioner. It ideally should be implemented across the campus and at minimum a grade level at a time. Districts can receive the grant for up to 4 years. 
  • It also creates an enhancement services grant to provide for more resources for Special Education students, mostly using Federal funds as part of the state’s remediation services. All of the SPED weights stay the same in this bill. School districts can help students and families out with the application for the grant funds. The program will prioritize students who are economically disadvantaged and reflect the diversity of the state. Vendors have to apply to the state to be able to provide services through this grant.  
  • The state is also going to be required to produce a state of student achievement report statewide by December 1st of each year with significant outcome data. That being said, there is no direct outcomes based funding in the bill. 
  • Other things that are repealed include the High School Allotment and others elements that are now outdated by what is mentioned above. It also clears out all of the other hold harmlesses currently in the school finance system. 
  • Throughout the bill there is a lot of new terminology that is meant to be more citizen friendly and ideally make the bill easier/education code easier to understand. For example, property wealth/equalized wealth levels become local revenue.         

The McNeels Chose a School

Feb 19 was a dramatic day in San Antonio ISD. Offers went out. Parents groaned and cheered. A ”now what…” for families waitlisted at their first choice and accepted at their third choice. 

Here’s how it went for us with Moira, our will-be kindergartener and Asa, our will-be PreK-3:

Moira had already been waitlisted at the Advanced Learning Academy, something we knew from day one. 

We received text messages next that both Moira and Asa had been waitlisted at Steele Montessori. 

And next, a text message that Moira was waitlisted at Twain Dual Language Academy. 

At this point, I tell you, I believe in the system, I believe in fairness, but I could feel a little fight burning in my chest. A little “fine, if you don’t want our amazing, wonderful, lovely baby we will take her elsewhere! Somewhere she’ll be happier! And more successful!” 

I was surprised by how my defensive “I’m being rejected” emotions came up. That’s how fairness feels when you feel sort of entitled to everything.

Then we got the text message about Asa. He’d been offered a seat at Twain. Immediately after, we got a second text telling us that, essentially, Asa’s offer had pulled Moira in as well, and she was offered a seat at Twain. 

No longer feeling totally miffed, I now just had, for the first time since having children, real and limited options to consider. Limited options…I really don’t know what to do with that as a parent. I remember the sting of not getting into the graduate programs I wanted. I was rejected by two out of three. But going to grad school didn’t seem as fundamental as kindergarten, and it was weird to think of something so fundamental being restricted in any way. 

Again…that’s how limits feels when you’re used to a world where you almost never hear “no” only “here’s how much it will cost.”  

Lewis and I discussed it as we drove to pick up the kids at my mom’s house. Twain was his favorite option, and he was thrilled. It’s less than a mile from our house, literally at the end of our street. Five blocks. 

It was my second choice, only because I love Montessori so much. I was relieved that at least the my preference vs. his preference choice had been made for us. 

For me, it was then just a matter of accepting the offer. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lewis McNeel is one thorough man. He wanted to take the kids up to the school, and see how they responded. 

Now, here’s a note: Asa cries every. single. day. at drop off. The teacher tells me he stops the second we’re out of sight, and when I pick him up, he’s happy, grinning, and loving life. But if I ask him, “how was school?” he tells me, “I cried and cried. I’m just a guy who cries.” 

I’ve asked the pediatrician about this. He says, “there’s one in every family. Don’t sign him up for sleep away camp.” 

Asa is also the kind of kid who obsesses about one single thing and cannot be distracted or deterred. He will ask no matter how many times you say no. He wears gloves at all times, keeps a sketch pad with him always, and asks for chocolate at least once per hour.  Gloves. Sketching. Chocolate. On repeat. All day. Literally from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep. More than once he’s woken up in the middle of the night asking for his gloves or chocolate. That’s why Asa has to go to school. 

Moira is very much NOT that kid. Moira has loved school since the day we dropped her off at age 20 months. She almost never asks to stay home. She runs to the car in the morning. 

So I was skeptical that we would learn much from a campus visit. But letting Lewis take his time has never been a bad idea in our house. It usually leads to better decisions. 

We told the kids about their new school, and that they would be learning Spanish. (Beyond what they’ve gleaned from watching their favorite movies in Spanish.)

“Hola, familia!” shouted Moira, right away.

“Cho-co-late” said Asa, with Spanish pronunciation. 

So they’ll know how to get what they need…

We took them to the campus, and both were enraptured with the Spanish instruction. Moira was ready to explore the classrooms. She saw “Morado” on the color rug and asked if they had made her a spot already. I told her that meant “purple” and she said, “They even knew I like purple?!?”

The school assured us that language acquisition would come quickly at their age. Asa made a friend on the tour. Moira made friends with the tour guide. 

They were anxious to get back to St. Paul’s that day…but are generally very happy about the prospect of learning Spanish and sitting on a purple spot on the rug. 

So, that, my friends, is how the McNeel family chose a school, and all the things we learned along the way. 

Union questionnaire for board candidates spotlights specific tensions in SAISD.

Shannon Elledge, a teacher at SAISD and a member of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel participates in a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Just the other day I asked a member of the San Antonio Alliance, the San Antonio ISD teachers and support staff union, whether relations with the district administration had improved at all. She demurred.

But today I got my answer.

They have not.

The Alliance distributed a questionnaire, printed below in its entirety, to vet the candidates on a range of issues. A few of these are standard ethics questions, and few more pertain to how the board and administration relate to the union. It reminds us all that the Alliance does plenty of work that is not defined by it’s contentious relationship to the current board and administration.

However, exactly half of the 22 questions do expand on this question:

3. How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?

Candidate’s answers to these questions will be further fleshed out in forums according to Alliance executive Katy Bravenec. From there, the Alliance’s political action committee (PAC) will make it’s endorsement.

“Our Alliance PAC board will determine the endorsements after all of the candidate forums are complete,” Bravenec wrote in a message, “Our Alliance PAC board will choose the candidates that they believe will best represent SAISD students, families and teachers based on the responses candidates give to all questions.”

During the last board election in May 2017, the Alliance endorsed all incumbent board members, despite less visible tensions between the union and Martinez, who had 7-0 board votes piling up in his favor.

In May 2018 came the 132-teacher layoffs, alluded to specifically in the questionnaire. Now, in May 2019 sitting board members may be facing re-election into the headwinds promised by teachers and their advocates during the layoffs.

Municipal elections do not typically bring out the voters, though a mayoral race on the ballot should help a bit. Teachers do vote. They campaign. This matters to them. Other groups–parents, business leaders, or SAISD taxpayers–could develop their own questionnaire, or host their own forums, letting candidates know they too have concerns and priorities. But for that to matter, they’ll need to be able to back up those priorities with votes.

The questions elucidate some of Alliances continuing disagreement with the the current administration over the direction of the district. Questions like this one indicate that the Alliance considers Superintendent Pedro Martinez as either responsible for declining enrollment, or doing little to stop the bleeding. They don’t acknowledge that the decline has been going on for decades, though they are correct that it has gotten pretty steep in recent years.

10. Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?

Martinez has not been sheepish about declining enrollment. In May of last year, he included this assessment.

This school year, the number of in-boundary students who did not attend SAISD was 8,654, with the great majority of them enrolled in external charter schools. That’s an increase of 3,242 students from the prior year, the largest increase we’ve seen to date. However, our enrollment only declined about 1,800 students – a little more than half of that. While still a substantial loss, it could have been worse. Our increased options for families has helped to offset some of this.
Competition for students has been increasing over the past five years, and recognizing this trend, we proactively have been preparing for it. We know that some parents and students are seeking different options, and we have been developing more diverse models and programs – through in-district charters, partnerships and expansion of successful programs to more neighborhood schools. These options have kept or brought in families.

So Martinez’s answer, unanimously backed by the current board, is to create SAISD choices to compete with non-SAISD choices. That’s not just charter schools. We can’t forget that moving out of the district is a form of school choice. One exercised by more than a few SAISD teachers.

We call this white/middle-class flight, and it’s left many areas of SAISD in deep poverty. There is not a single SAISD school with less than 60 percent free-and-reduced lunch (FRL) rate. Some are as high as 99.5 percent. With that many kids living in households where food and electricity may be unreliable, where parents are working around the clock and still struggling to make ends meet, where doctor visits and dentist visits aren’t happening, schools start to feel the squeeze. They need more counselors. They need more specialists.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

In response to this data, SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury (the guy behind the diverse by design initiative) likes to say, “We have to do high poverty schools well, and we need to stop recreating them.”

But Choudhury is the Alliance’s Public Enemy #2, for sure. In its questionnaire the Alliance calls into question that second part of his mantra.

8. Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?

Here the Alliance builds its case that SAISD is more interested in serving the middle and upper-middle classes than it is in serving it’s lowest income populations.

(I have to take a moment to appreciate the irony that Patti Radle is one of those board members running for re-election and thus being questioned about her commitment to the poor.)

My understanding of the district’s choice-school initiative, after reporting on every sneeze, hiccup, and toot of this administration is this: First, the middle class, broadly speaking, has been leaving the district for decades, so that’s the low hanging fruit of who they can get back to bring up enrollment (and avoid another round of layoffs). Next, socioeconomic diversity is a plan intended to benefit kids currently being educated in what’s called “concentrated poverty.”

Here’s a tidbit of the research behind that strategy:

Socioeconomic (SES) school integration is a public policy designed to improve opportunities for students by: 1) reducing the negative educational effects associated with school poverty concentrations, and 2) providing a diverse environment that benefits all students.

Lastly, while 50 percent of the diverse by design schools are reserved for kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch (parents make $44,000 or less), a quarter of those seats are reserved for kids living in the deepest poverty in the city (median incomes between $19,000-$27,000).

If the district were interested in catering to wealthy families, the token 50 percent low-income seats would not be so heavily policed by Choudhury’s office. They would open the doors, let the chips fall where they may, and you’d have 50 percent middle class kids and 50 percent kids from the higher end of the low-income spectrum. That’s how choice works if you don’t police it, and there’s no incentive to police it unless you’re trying to make it equitable.

Honestly, if you were trying to court middle class families only, you’d just open up a bunch of specialized academies with no guardrails and let them fill up the way that all special curriculum schools do. Check the economic math on schools like the International School of the Americas, Great Hearts, BASIS, Health Careers. That’s how it works.

The district has been quick to admit that things aren’t moving as fast as they want them to at some of the schools. However, it’s not accurate to imply that the district isn’t trying to “do high poverty schools well.” By deploying principals like Sonya Mora to Gates Elementary, Brian Sparks to Bowden Elementary, and Master teachers throughout the district, the administration is arguably doing one thing that has proven to be effective across the country. It’s just going to take time to scale, the district says. Many of the glitzier schools, like CAST Tech and ALA are made possible through highly specific partnerships and grants–but the meat and potatoes of school improvement are being distributed throughout.

There are also, however, some resources that the Alliance does not want given to high-poverty schools: charter partners.

In its questionnaire the Alliance seeks further assurance that board members will not pursue/support more Democracy Prep and Relay Lab Schools-style charter partnerships, which they oppose on many fronts. For teacher’s unions around the country, “charter school” is simply a non-starter. They don’t want to cooperate, compete, or cooperpete.

All that to say, the charter question is not surprising.

The Alliance would also like to hear board members vow to do whatever it takes to avoid a RIF. That’s an understandable concern for a teachers union to have.

However, two State initiatives–the District of Innovation and the System of Great Schools–have also enflamed frustrations. Both make an appearance on the questionnaire. These two initiatives have poised the district to continue ambitious changes, and will likely be the backdrop of every district maneuver for the foreseeable future. They give legal and philosophical grounding to major changes—many of which will effect teachers.

Given that only three positions out of seven will be on the May ballot, there’s almost no chance of a board flip, or a rerouting of the district. However, 3-4 split decisions aren’t where any board wants to be, and it could slow things down significantly if resistance to Martinez gains a foothold.

The full questionnaire can be read below:

2019 SAISD School Board  Questionnaire

Name:        _________________________________________ SAISD Single-Member District #: ______

PLEASE NOTE: When the question is a multi-part question, please be sure to answer all parts of the question. If there is a question that asks about something with which you are not familiar, please research the issue as this is something you will need to be able to do as a school board member.

  1. What do you feel are the most important qualities and skills you bring to the Board?
  2. What do you believe is the single most important issue the district faces right now?
  3. How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?
  4. Do you support or oppose the privatization (contracting out) of the district’s custodians, food service employees, trades people, and other support personnel? Why or why not?
  5. Do you support or oppose the state law that provides a financial incentive for public school districts to partner with privately-run charters? Do you think that public school districts should partner with privately-run charter schools? Why or why not? As a school board member would you support a resolution declaring the board’s opposition to charter partnerships, privatization of schools, and corporate grants intended for privately-managed schools?
  6. Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Democracy Prep, a privately-run charter from New York City, to operate Stewart ES? Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Relay Lab Schools, a privately-run charter, to operate Storm and Ogden?
  7. What are your views regarding “choice” schools? What are your views regarding neighborhood schools and their preservation? What do you think is the appropriate balance between “choice” schools and neighborhood schools and why?
  8. Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?
  9. What is your view of the “portfolio model,” embodied in SAISD as the “System of Great Schools?”
  10. Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?
  11. Over the past two years, the district has not complied with the state law of no more than 22 students per classroom for K-4th grade due to the district’s District of Innovation status under which they have a waiver from this state law. Would you support removing the class size waiver from the District of Innovation plan so that our K-4th grade classes have no more than 22 students? Would you support a resolution directing the superintendent to work with our union to create reasonable class size limits for other grade levels?
  12. Last Spring, the superintendent recommended, and the school board approved, a “reduction in force” (RIF) of teachers for the first time in SAISD history. 132 teachers were RIF’d purportedly because of the district’s financial situation. Would you support another RIF of teachers and/or support personnel this Spring? Why or why not? If not, what steps would you take to help avoid a RIF?
  13. This school year, the district began the year with 35 teaching vacancies. In past years, the district has begun the year with no more than 0-5 vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and the district’s Talent Management Department accountable for this? We have some classes this school year that had a sub all or most of the first semester due to the high number of unfilled teaching vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and Talent Management accountable for this?
  14. Do you support high-stakes state testing of students? Do you support the concept of rewarding teachers based on student test scores? Why or why not? Do you support the concept of rewarding principals based on student test scores? Why or why not?
  15. What measures do you believe need to be taken to attract teachers and support personnel to our district? What measures do you believe need to be taken to retain them? Do you view experienced teachers and support personnel as an asset or liability? Why or why not?
  16. Do you support and respect the current SAISD Consultation policy regarding input from employees, including the right of the employees to choose their exclusive representative organization in a secret ballot election? Why or why not?
  17. For seventeen years, our union partnered with SAISD to provide high-quality, research-based professional development for new teachers that was facilitated by active SAISD teachers. For the 2018-19 school year, the district discontinued the partnership without explanation. New teachers, and those who provide them with support, consistently tell us that they need the support that the partnership provided them. Would you support the reinstatement of this partnership between our union and SAISD?
  18. From whom have you received support, or expect to receive support, for your campaign? What resources and support will you have to help you run a successful campaign?
  19. If elected, from whom would you seek advice regarding issues that come before the Board?
  20. Would you be willing to meet regularly with Alliance leaders and members to discuss issues and how the implementation of district initiatives play out in the field?
  21. If faced with a decision to stand for what you believe in, for the good of our students, our teachers, our district, and it meant being the only board member for or against an issue, would you stand firm, or decide to follow the rest of the board and change your vote?
  22. Do you have a personal or professional relationship with the district or its contracting agencies which involves compensation to you or your family members? If yes, please list those.

The McNeels Choose a School, part seven: My very favorite school.

Image: Robin Jerstad for Folo Media

So, there’s a dark horse contender in our school search. It’s only a dark horse because it’s outside of our school district, and quite frankly, an SAISD family fleeing to Northside is about the oldest trope in the San Antonio conversation.

Though the school I’m about to write on is a Title I school, with a higher rate of economic disadvantage than the diverse by design schools to which we are currently applying. So it’s not classic white flight in that sense. But, after discussion with my very principled husband, I’m still 99 percent certain we’re going to invest our attendance where our tax dollars go (so the district can actually get those tax dollars).

However, indulge me for a moment while I share my love of Colonies North Elementary, the school that transcends districts, cities, and countries. 

Anyone who has ever “picked my brain” about schools knows that I have loved Colonies North Elementary for a very long time. From the first time I read the press release for their yearly Parade of Nations. And immediately began reporting for this story

Colonies North educates many, maybe most?, of the elementary-age refugee children resettled by the U.S. Government through Catholic Charities here in San Antonio.  It varies year-to-year but the school usually has over 40 different countries represented, and over 30 different languages spoken across the student body of 700ish (give or take 50). 

The newcomers, as they are called, are integrated into the “regular” classrooms as soon as they are able, beginning with one or two classes, until they are able to fully integrate. 

For some, this is a quick process. They come with some English already, thanks to formal education or professional parents who are fleeing relatively recent outbreaks of violence or threats against the family. Some of the parents were U.S. contractors in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. 

Others take more time to adjust to formal schooling. When students have grown up in refugee camps, such as the Rohingya students or those whose parents fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, they have a steeper learning curve. They spend longer in the newcomer classrooms, like the one where Sarah Aguirre taught for years. Aguirre is now at UTSA working in the Center for Inquiry of Transformative Literacies, another partner of the newcomer program. 

She’s still, however, a Colonies North parent. 

“I had no idea that one day I would work (at Colonies North),” Aguirre said, however, “We did purposely buy our home with the intention of going to that school.”

Like us, Aguirre’s family prioritizes diversity. Not only for the feel-goods, or even just the “raising good humans” aspect of it, though that is a huge part. She sees comfort with diversity as a huge advantage to her kids who will likely work in a globalized market.

While one of the goals of the newcomer program is to help the students learn to function in the U.S.—families are given six months to settle in, students are given two years of newcomer services in the schools—Colonies North is not about the business of erasing what came before. 

DanCee Bowers supports the school’s celebration of students’ home cultures. If people took time to appreciate them, she believes, the anxiety around assimilation would ease.

“We’re only comfortable with people who come here if they’re going to do what we do,” Bowers said, and we’re missing out.  

She would know. Colonies North had a profound impact on Bowers own worldview.

Bowers went to Colonies North as a child herself, when it was primarily white and suburban. As the daughter of a single mom in the 1970s she found camaraderie with the school’s one black student. They were unlike the others. That was what diversity meant to her, and she went on thinking of herself as “open-minded,” she said.

Bowers served in the military, stationed in the Middle East. Again, she never thought of herself as racist, but when she came back to the neighborhood where she grew up, she encountered a woman in a full burqa. Her reaction, she admits, was not what she wished it had been. 

“I hadn’t realized how much the neighborhood had changed,” Bowers said.

Her military experience had given her particular kinds of exposure to some aspects of some Muslim cultures, but she wasn’t prepared to have those same cultures in her neighborhood. 

“It’s hard to say it,” Bowers said, “I have a lot of shame about that.” 

Bowers inherited her mom’s old house, and enrolled her kids in Colonies North. There again she was confronted with this new, intensified diversity. Some parents balked. The attendance zone for Colonies North has been heavily harvested by private and charter schools.

Bowers didn’t see a better choice for her kids, so she dove in. She got to know the newcomers and their families, started volunteering and serving the school however she could. Once she educated herself, she said, her fear of the Other dissolved. She wishes other parents, those who leave the school over their discomfort, would do the same. 

Of course, a school needs a few things in addition to social strengths. Colonies North PTA president Kathy Mochel wasn’t necessarily looking for the United Nations of elementary schools. 

“I really did push for private school because I wanted that warm cozy small environment,” Mochel said. Her husband convinced her to try the neighborhood school, and she found exactly that. Small classes, tight knit community, and tons of support. For her, the cultural education is a bonus. Also, no homework.

Bowers, Mochel, and Aguirre all said their students benefitted from the differentiated instruction they get at Colonies North. They have kids who are driven to excel and kids who are looking to coast. Each, they said, has been well served. Teachers are trained to meeting each kid where they are academically, so the newcomers can be just another kid in class.

The moms I spoke to all heard rumors of the English language learners “diluting” the instruction in classes, but none have seen it. 

While reporting on a different story, I’ve been keeping an eye on Facebook groups for parents at a variety of San Antonio area schools. Inclusion of English language learners and students requiring special education accommodations really irks parents. 

Which, in turn, irks me. And brings us to today’s soapbox. You’ve been warned.

Nothing makes middle class parents throw off our thin veneer of tolerance like the vague suspicion that our children are being inconvenienced at any point during their school day. It interferes with the competitive grooming and sheltering from any struggle that might accidentally result in emotional growth. As though our children are show ponies getting ready to prance around the ring in front of Ivy league admissions officers when we all know they are just going to come home and use our professional networks to get a job anyway. Give me a break. You can keep your anxiety and neuroses, and the sense of abandonment children sense when they feel like their acceptance is tied to their performance.

I’m going to try to find a better option.

And that’s why I’m bullish about Colonies North. Because you can’t create a special curriculum that’s better than the peer effect, and Colonies North has the most unique peer effect in the city. Nothing will serve my children better than resilience, and that’s what they’ll learn from sitting in class with refugees. And if you want to talk about values…those are my secular values. Radical hospitality, patience, empathy, cultural and personal humility, and grace. I’m sort of gobsmacked that other parents would pass up this opportunity, but enough are willing to do so that Colonies North has become the overflow campus for Northside. Classes there are allowed to stay small so that they can receive overflow students throughout the year. 

Which may open up the door for the McNeels. Again, I’m *pretty sure* we’re staying with SAISD on principle, but if this were an option in our district, it would be my first choice. 

What Got Cut: Johanna’s and Stephanie’s stories

Late last year I got the chance to report on working families trying to be involved in their children’s education. The story, published by the Center for Public Justice, can be read here.

Because of the length of the piece, the editors decided to cut two stories, which I have included below. They offer insight into just how difficult it can be to be a “working poor” parent, and how having primary parents in management positions could be a huge benefit to workers.

Sarah Hernandez (no relation to Johanna, her kids, and their friends.

Johanna Hernandez’s Story

When one parent feels like they are unable to ask for time off, it creates tension within the family, said Johanna Hernandez. That was one of the key factors that led to her divorce when her son, now 11, was three years old.

Before the divorce, she often volunteered at her son’s daycare in San Antonio. After the divorce they hired her, but because she was not credentialed, she could only work as an aid. She knew that to support herself and her son she needed a college degree, and so began taking classes to get her early childhood credentials, and working other jobs as well. Her life as a single mom was a difficult, but stable balance, but then in kindergarten her son began to be bullied. She had to devote more time to working with the school.

“As a parent, you are your child’s first advocate,” she said.

As she addressed his emotional distress, she kept him close by, sometimes taking him with her to school or work.

“The jobs I’ve had, I’ve been lucky, they’ve always worked with me,” Johanna Hernandez said. But she’s clear about the fact that it’s on the employee to speak up. “The parent has to be real.”

Even with employers who were willing to work with her, she had to take significant time off. Money became tighter, and they had to rely on the food bank and other community resource centers.

“Through the rough times, it was like, how’re we going to eat?” she remembers, “It was tough, believe me it was tough.”

While her time with her son increased during that season of his additional need, she wasn’t doing all the things the school suggested as “parent engagement.”

“Sometimes we think parents are lazy…but they’re not,” she said, “It’s work.”

Employers Can Help: Stephanie Ilderton

With each new job, workers have to learn a new set of policies about leave, paid-time-off, and flexible scheduling. For contract, shift, part-time, and hourly workers, as well as those in support roles with multiple layers of management above them, those policies are not always easy to find—sometimes they are informal. Sometimes they are subject to interpretation by a manager or supervisor, and then re-interpreted by that person’s superior.

Sarah Hernandez’s (no relation to Johanna) law firm recently announced a new flexible leave policy that allows workers to accumulate additional time off. The firm’s website, like the website for the public utility where America Espinoza works, lists the many work-life balance benefits. However, researchers have found that most companies with such benefits typically only extend them to executives, or certain tiers of management

Even if the benefits are available to lower-wage workers, says Stephanie Ilderton, an executive with Marsh, a global risk management firm, executives set the expectation on how those benefits should be used. She has two small children herself, and is open about her needs to work from home and take time off when her kids get sick or otherwise need her attention. 

She’s been in jobs where using time off benefits was frowned upon, if technically allowed. She remembers fearing that using personal time would be secretly counted against her when it came time for a promotion. 

With that in mind, Ilderton takes her responsibility as a manager seriously. She isn’t just responsible for the work her team produces, she said, but for making sure that they have a humane work environment. That depends more on her attitude than on the fine print of company policies, she said. 

 “I try to be human,” she said, and to pass that freedom on to those she manages. Knowing the tension working parents face, Ilderton believes that it’s in the best interest of any company to help parents balance their time–to be up front about available benefits, FMLA rights, and other resources. If it’s not codified, she said, it’s less likely to permeate company culture. That puts workers in a constant push-and-pull between their family needs and their work life. 

She can’t change the standards of human resources policy in America’s workplaces, but adopting two children gave Ilderton the opportunity to demonstrate how she thinks the family-work balance should tip, if companies want to keep talent. 

“Personal always has to win or they’re not going to work for us much longer,” Ilderton said.  

Of course, Ilderton acknowledged, keeping talent is less imperative in some industries. With the rise of the gig economy and increases in part time jobs within the national workforce, fewer employers have to worry about the long-term health of their workforce.

More metal detectors and less STAAR seemed like a good idea at the time

The 2019 legislative session is off and running, with new leadership cut from old cloth at the helm in the House of Representatives and no bathroom bill on the agenda. 

Promising signs range from stryofoam cups embossed with the message “School Finance Reform: The time is now” to a speaker pro tem wearing a Notorious B.I.G. tie at his swearing-in.

Not that all signs are good. We’ve already seen a strong effort to disassociate poverty and standardized test scores, and age-old trick to try to prove that funding makes no difference in education.

In addition to the serious buzz around school finance reform, we’ve also seen a wave other education-related bills filed. Two so far address major concerns of ordinary parents—those who mainly experience the school system via their children, rather than think tanks, policy analysts, and budget reviews.

HB 797 filed by Shawn Thiery (D-Aleif) would put metal detectors in every single public school facility. 

HB 736 filed by Brooks Landgraf (R- Odessa) would lower the stakes of the STAAR test. 

On the surface, both of these simple, seemingly common sense bills draw a near-universal, “yay.” Safe kids who are less stressed out about a single test that determines whether or not they advance to the next grade. 

However, sweeping bills like these should be thoughtfully considered. They often come with unintended consequences. 

Metal detectors won renewed attention in the wake of the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School, but they’ve been a fixture in some schools for decades. Those schools, as you can predict, are not suburban, wealthy schools. They are schools in urban areas, where many kids live in poverty and where gangs are highly visible. These schools are disproportionately attended by children of color. 

Thiery’s district includes Alief ISD which fits that description pretty well.  Gang activity and incidents of violence are high. The white population is small. It isn’t in the heart of urban Houston by any means, but represents the sprawl-meets-gentrification phenomenon of increasing poverty in what were once suburbs. 

In 2017-2018 the district reported more incidents of gang activity in school than did neighboring Houston ISD, despite the latter being 4.5 times the size of Alief. 

Mass school shootings, however, seem to be a uniquely non-urban phenomenon, hence, I suppose, the metal detector bill being extended to all schools and stadiums. All. Charters too.

The question to be asked, however, is whether metal detectors have been effective at preventing either kind of violence—mass shootings or person-to-person violence. 

The answer, unsurprisingly, is that we don’t know. 

So far all school shootings have begun outside the school building, so there’s no indication that metal detectors would have prevented anything.

The American School Health Association conducted 15 years of research on whether metal detectors decreased school violence in any way. They could not show that violence decreased. Their report suggested that it did make students feel like their school was a dangerous place to be. 

Which reminds me of Maddisyn, the junior at South San High School who told me that gang members were the most stressed out people she knows. She also told me that the increased police presence in South San ISD—a response to the Newtown mass shooting—made students feel as though their fellow students were a constant threat, and even that they themselves were somehow in need of policing. 

Basically, when you fill a person’s world with danger cues, they respond to danger cues. If those danger cues—like seatbelts, Caution tape, and bicycle helmets—are making them more safe, then we consider that appropriate safety education. There’s a danger, and our precautions remind us to be careful. They should have the appropriate adrenal response to the situation—increased alertness, circumspection, etc.

However, if the danger cues are not actually keeping them safer…what’s the point? To have them living in a state of constant adrenal stimulation? 

And how much would we pay to make schools, stadiums, and other public school facilities feel less safe? 

At $4,000-$5,000 per metal detector, we’re looking at at least $40 million to put one machine in each school. But to make that math work, you also have to subscribe to the Dan Patrick one-entry-one-exit solution to school shootings. It would take about an hour to get into the school building. Even airports have more than one detector, and not all planes take off at once. 

So really we’d need a ton more. I’m not usually a budget hawk, but I don’t like paying for things that are counterproductive.

Speaking of that, we are paying for STAAR tests. The state pays $90 million to Educational Testing Services. I have never heard anyone say anything positive about STAAR tests. No teacher, administrator, parent, or student. 

With that in mind, Landgraf’s declawing of the STAAR test makes a ton of sense. Pre-No Child Left Behind, we had standardized tests…we just didn’t worry about them. A note went home saying, “eat a big breakfast! The test is long.” And that was it. Far far cry from the madness we currently have. 

So, as Texas House of Representatives Public Education chair Dan Huberty asked Commissioner Mike Morath…can’t we just get rid of STAAR altogether?

Only if we want to get rid of accountability and federal funds altogether, Morath replied (that’s a broad paraphrase.)

I think we all agree that a more well-rounded evaluation mechanism would be ideal. The Every Student Succeeds Act (which is tied to our federal funding) gave states the chance to consider other criteria than test scores…Texas has a number of outcome-based components to its ESSA plan, as well as a consideration of discipline data. But very little in the qualitative categories.

There’s not much of that high-touch, observation-based assessment in Texas’s ESSA plan at all. Probably because there are 5 million children, 9,000 schools, and 1,200 districts in the state.

But that’s really what people instinctively want. They want their kids to be evaluated by someone who knows them. So why not just leave it up to teachers?

And we all understand why teachers and even district administrators can’t be the only ones responsible for determining whether their kids progress to the next level…right? 

Making a child’s mastery of a topic subjective to his teacher’s assessment is the recipe for inequity. Think discipline statistics and G/T referrals, both of which overwhelmingly favor highly verbal white girls from professional homes. There will always be borderline kids for whom their relationship with their teacher will be a determining factor to their success unless there’s an agnostic evaluation tool. Implicit bias is real, even with the best of intentions.

Districts can’t be the last word on assessment, because regional politics and economics also make it possible that kids in one region might not be held to the same standards as kids from another. But if kids from San Augustine and going to compete against kids from Highland Park for admission to UT-Austin, they’re going to need to be held to the same standards from day one.

Educators are awesome—anyone who chooses to spend all day trying to fill young minds and hearts is a hero— but they also need accountability to make sure that their skills match their good intentions. That’s nothing to run from. Every profession should embrace evaluation, whether it’s by an industry standards board or consumer feedback or sales conversion rates. The question is, are we using the right evaluation tool? 

Probably not, but before we go scrapping it, we need to consider what could and should take its place to better accomplish its goals.  

And that, dear reader, is the challenge before all of us watching bills pop up into the headlines as the Legislature progresses. Education, when done equitably, is complicated, and our gut reactions to things should always be balanced by the boring, wonky, details, and the question, “who might we hurt?” 

For those who teach undocumented students, Julissa Arce has some advice.

Teachers in high-poverty schools know that students don’t leave their hunger, sleepiness, and anxiety at the door. We’re *almost* to the point as a nation where we can all agree on that. But for some students, not just those living in poverty, but many working class and middle class students, another quiet anxiety nags at them, and it’s one that teachers are rarely trained to address. 

Some students are afraid of being deported. 

Or they are afraid that their parents will be deported during the school day. 

And many of them are afraid to talk about it. 

That’s what Relay Graduate School of Education students learned on Saturday when Julissa Arce spoke to around 100 members of the San Antonio cohort. 

Arce’s story of her life as an undocumented immigrant is the subject of her two books, My Underground American Dream and Someone Like Me.  After graduating high school in San Antonio and college at UT- Austin, Arce went on to work on Wall Street. She was making six figures with a fake Social Security Number (something she is quick to admit is not advisable. But before you cry “fraud” please not that this only allowed her to pay INTO Social Security, not to collect. Undocumented immigrants using fake SSN pay about $9 billion annually in payroll taxes, including SS.) and sweating every single day until she obtained her green card, and finally her citizenship in 2014. She has become an advocate for both DACA recipients and those who lack documentation entirely. Her talk at Relay helped the teachers gain insight into what their students without legal status— or those with family members lacking legal status— might be going through. 

They don’t get to see themselves reflected in pop culture or national role models. 

Arce moved to the U.S. when she was 11, and until then used pop culture to imagine what Americans would be like, or what life in the U.S. was like. 

“Everybody looked the same. Everyone was beautiful. Everyone was rich. Everyone was white,” she said, recalling shows like “Beverly Hills 90210.” 

While she was relieved to see that tons of people in San Antonio looked like her, she said, she still rarely saw Latinas celebrated in history books or news stories.

She explained this against a backdrop of photos of Latina trailblazers—Sonya Sotomayor, Ellen Ochoa, Dolores Huerta, and more. These were women who she never learned about in school, even in San Antonio where so many students would benefit from seeing Latinas in influential and aspirational positions. 

Muslim, South East Asian, and immigrants from African countries are likely to experience a similar void.

Teachers can do a lot to make sure that curriculum includes relevant examples. For instance, Civil Rights lessons should include Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. When they learn about the space race, students should know which astronauts came from backgrounds similar to their own—literally an encouragement to “reach for the stars.” When a member of the student’s community is elected to public office, it’s worth mentioning. Classroom books and cultural artifacts can be curated to reflect the diversity of a classroom as well, if it is done humbly and accurately (i.e. get your African geography right.)

They do see themselves portrayed as criminals, or as less intelligent. 

Arce was 14 when her visa expired, and her family was no longer in the financial position to be able to renew it. She learned she in the country illegally when her mom explained why she could not go back to Mexico for her quinceañera. 

It wasn’t long after that, she recounted, that she heard the term “illegal alien” on Fox News. It took her a long time to reconcile with the part of her identity that was outside the law. She was not a criminal, because she had not entered the country illegally. But few people understand the nuances of visas, green cards, permits, and residency status. Overstaying a visa is a civil infraction, which is how roughly 40 percent of undocumented people become undocumented, not a crime. 

However, the broad brush of political rhetoric makes no such distinctions. In the minds of many, she knew she was a criminal.

To make matters worse, the perception that she was somehow less intelligent as she learned to speak English made her feel doubly stigmatized. 

Teachers can do a lot to help students understand the immigration system and increase respect for English Language Learners. When their peers admire their bilingual talents and know the right terminology to talk about immigration as a topic, students facing these hurdles feel that they are doing so in a friendly, non-hostile environment…even if their immigration status remains a secret. 

They often feel out of place in both countries—their home and their country of origin. 

One of the Relay GSE students asked Arce how she felt as an American citizen. Did she feel fully American? Did she identify with Mexico still in any way?

It brought up a tricky topic, Arce explained, “The lifetime struggle of an immigrant is wanting to be in two places at once and never being fully accepted in either.”

In one sense, having legal status isn’t what makes her American, she said, “I’ve been pledging allegiance to the American flag since my first day of school (here).” 

Having lived with and without all the check boxes and language skills she now has, she doesn’t believe that she is any more American now than she was at age 14 when her documents lapsed. 

On the other hand, those years of being undocumented showed her the ways in which she would never be totally or singularly American. She had a life in Mexico before she came here, and while she doesn’t feel like she totally belongs there either, she wants to feel connected to it. The first thing she did once she could travel freely in and out of the U.S. was to visit her home in Mexico.

Teachers need to know that their immigrant students are whole people. Pushing an assimilationist agenda without any cultural understanding is likely to traumatize students, because it devalues critical influences of their most formative years. A ten-year-old who immigrates will be 21 years old before the majority of her life has been on U.S. soil. Teachers can celebrate a student’s home culture by asking him or her to share customs and traditions…if the child wants to. They can welcome examples from a child’s home culture, and champion a bilingual child’s continued development of their native language. As the closest adult outside a student’s family, teachers often represent the entire U.S. to their immigrant students. They can make it a welcoming place where students do not need to diminish themselves to fit in.

They are living a life they did not choose and cannot change on their own.

It is understandably irritating when people ask Arce why she didn’t just “get in line” and fix her immigration status. (No one at Relay GSE asked her that. She just mentioned it as part of her story.) The line, she explained, doesn’t exist. Think of it less like jumping off the diving board and more like playing a game of Jeopardy!  There are categories and criteria that applicants must satisfy. There are time limits. Once a person’s documentation has lapsed for a year, they become subject to penalties that make it even harder to get legal status. They loose access to public benefits. They become subject to deportation without their families.

“No one would choose to be undocumented if they had another possibility,” Arce said.

For children, or those whose documents expired while they were still minors, many come into adulthood without options. That’s why DACA was such a big deal. It wasn’t an option for people with other options. It was a lifeline for people who had none. 

Teachers are a mixed political breed. It would be foolish to assume that all teachers have a sympathetic and informed view of immigrants whose documents have lapsed, or those who never had legal status. Some empathy-training may be necessary. (Though, to be fair, no one in the room at Relay GSE voiced anything less than support for their students.)

Poverty makes being undocumented more difficult.

Arce is very forthright about what she calls “privilege” and, frankly, luck, in her immigration story. The lucky moments are best read in the context of the book. But the privilege component is something teachers needed to hear. 

After legally immigrating as business owners, Arce’s parents fell on hard times. Without money, renewing their visa was impossible. The immigration process heavily favors those with financial means, Arce said. 

“Money and access to money makes a huge difference,” she explained. 

She was working for Goldman Sachs when she realized the two sides of her own coin.

On the one hand she said, “ICE isn’t going to raid the trading floor at Goldman Sachs.”

She could also buy things easily. Without legal status people cannot receive government benefits. No SNAP, Medicaid, or even ACA subsidies. It helps to be able to pay cash.

On the other hand, however, she had to turn down numerous career opportunities, and suffered personal losses because of her immigration status. She kept checking with an immigration lawyer to see if any laws or loopholes had opened up that would make it possible for her to gain documentation. Nothing did.

Her parents had told her that, in the United States, if she worked hard and stayed out of trouble, that everything would work out in her favor.

“The truth is that for many of us that formula just doesn’t work,” she said.

 She did work hard. She did stay out of trouble. But none of that changed her immigration status. 

In many ways, she survived because people didn’t question her—an overachieving vice president on Wall Street. For those who are doing whatever work they can to provide for their family, or those in states that make it harder for undocumented students to get a college education—the situation is more precarious. 

Teachers, Arce explained, will often have to push their immigrant or undocumented students extra hard to take the risk of applying for a dream school. They will need extra help, because they have to jump through extra hoops. Going away from home will seem a little scarier, a little less realistic, and financially untenable. But Arce still remembers the name of the teacher who championed her. She encouraged teachers to be that champion.

The McNeels Choose a School, part six: What’s going to happen at Hawthorne? And why?

Applications are in for our three choice schools. It was super easy. Everyone should do it. 

While we applied, we were automatically registered for our neighborhood school, Hawthorne Academy. It’s a valid option. It’s the kind of school where our kids would be fine. We’d be fine. Everyone at Hawthorne is giving it their all, from what I hear. They just have a vision problem.

Unrealized potential is really frustrating. And where there’s frustration, there’s fighting. It’s one thing when the fight comes to you, it’s another thing to choose to go to the fight. With your kids in tow.

Allow me to explain.

When I first started writing about education in 2013, Hawthorne was a school that folks were watching. Located along the San Antonio River, adjacent to the hottest real estate in San Antonio (the Pearl), it was one of those schools poised to naturally grow its enrollment as a formerly semi-industrial neighborhood filled with people.  

It was one of SAISD’s first in-district charters, focused on Core Knowledge, fine arts, and leadership. Librarian Bonnye Cavazos was the spark that brought in partnerships with neighborhoods, academics, museums, and more. 

Ironically, in the same article wherein I profiled Hawthorne, I wrote about Lamar Elementary, which was similarly located in gentrifying Mahncke Park, with lots of museum partnerships, community involvement, etc.

I say “ironically” because the two seem to have switched places, six years later.

At the time, Lamar was fighting low enrollment. The middle class parents moving into the neighborhood eyed it somewhat suspiciously, though a healthy handful were investing time and energy into getting more resources, forging partnerships, etc.

Under the leadership of Brian Sparks, Lamar is quickly becoming one of the more beloved success stories of SAISD. Parent engagement is up with a strong effort to reach all socioeconomic groups, enrollment is up, partnerships are thriving, and the school’s identity is strong. It has ridden the wave of investment in the cultural institutions with whom it partners.

Not that Lamar is without its challenges, but I’m not going to get into those here. 

Hawthorne, with the same leadership it had in 2013, seems to be stuck. Enrollment is declining. Parents are frustrated. The Core Knowledge curriculum seems to have faded away, while the rest of the charter is in jeopardy as it comes up for renewal this spring. The “leadership” component, it has been suggested, could come from “Leader in Me” curriculum, the same basic Stephen Covey product used all over other school districts and the Alamo Colleges. It’s exactly the kind of pre-packaged, mass market stuff that in-district charters are supposed to be avoiding. 

Some parents at Hawthorne have put forth another idea. They would like to see Hawthorne embrace its place along the San Antonio River more fully, and to partner with civic institutions like San Antonio River Authority (SARA), The Tobin Center, The Culinary Institute of America, The Missions, the University of the Incarnate Word, and others to create a place-based curriculum. As a River School, students could feel connected to the city and see real life applications of what they learn in school. They could see science in action at SARA and the CIA, arts at the Tobin Center, history at the Missions. And they could connect to all of it via the same familiar route: the river.

That idea comes straight from parents whose children are and have been enrolled at Hawthorne for a while. They have been digitally walking around with a Word document asking people to read it.

Now, a few things I’ve learned about parent-led initiatives: Many are enrichment-focused, with little impact on academic subjects. Many are also niche interest projects that will live and die with the parents who champion them. Also, most, like the River School idea, are spearheaded by white, professional class parents. When that happens you have to look at who the idea actually benefits, and who actually wants to see it happen.

However, the River School idea may actually be different, because it’s built off of the existing charter, and has a wall-to-wall vision for the whole school. Not an after-school club, school within a school, or an elective. It would be a marshaling of resources for every child in the school, and bring many low-income kids into contact with powerful institutions, giving them a sense of ownership and belonging in their city.  

From an equity standpoint, I like the River School idea.

SAISD has two in-house resources that could further develop this initial idea if parents and teachers wanted to do so. 

First, they have access to the funding they would need to realize the more ambitious parts of the plan. Senate Bill 1882 would allow a partnership with any of those nonprofit entities (or an umbrella nonprofit formed by the City of San Antonio), to bring in extra per student funding. Unless something changes drastically in the Legislature this year, that will likely be around $1,400 per student more, which could fund supplemental activities and supplies and personnel needed to facilitate all the off-campus learning and on-campus professional development, hosting of partner organizations, etc. 

Next, they can look to a similar model in Dallas ISD. While City Lab High School opened after Mohammed Choudhury left Dallas to become SAISD’s chief innovation officer, he was part of the design process. He knows what needs to happen to make sure students were academically on track while using the city as their classroom.

Of course, mention Choudhury’s name (or any member of Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s cabinet), and conspiracy theories start flying. Something about wanting to turn all SAISD schools into charter schools (because of Democracy Prep at Stewart), or funnel resources to the middle class (because of Diverse by Design schools)…I honestly can’t tell if the theories are misunderstandings, misinformation, or just a bad game of telephone.

But I’m not here to defend or skewer the guy. He knows how to design a school like this, it’s a design parents seem to want, and a design that’s having success somewhere comparable. CAST Tech does similar stuff, ALA does similar stuff. Hawthorne could take that “stuff” and make it something really distinctive and empowering for the kids, and I just hope that it wouldn’t be tripped up by people’s suspicions about how a bureaucrat feels about charter schools—which has nothing to do with the parents’ River School proposal. That would be a shame.

Hopefully, they won’t. The school has been given an extension on its charter revision, and hopefully they will use that time to summon their creative juices and come up with something that inspires the teachers, students, and parents. Hawthorne could very easily recapture its moxie. They’ve got all the ingredients, they just need the right recipe.