Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Oakland school officials scramble to turn heat on

Thousands of students in Oakland are suffering through another chilly day of unheated classrooms. It's been going on for a week and a half now and the rain is leaving them wet and cold. The big chill problem started after the school district's plan to save energy backfired. At least 20 schools are still having trouble of one kind or another with its heating system.
Moravia Thomas is all bundled up for her day at Kaiser Elementary School, where the temperature inside the classroom is pretty much what it is outside the classroom.
The school district turned the heat off over the Thanksgiving break to save money, and when it tried to turn it back on there was no heat at 72 school sites. Thomas' dad Devon Thomas is waiting to see what happens next. "I'm not really cool with it, but if there is an upside to it, they can put something up in the classroom. I hope the district addresses it sooner than later," he said Rebecca Weber is mother of four students at Kaiser and she is not cool with the cold classrooms. "The kids should be warm, there should be heat especially in the winter, and it's getting cold," she said. The principal at Kaiser, Mel Stenger, says most of the technicians trained to work on steam heating systems have been laid off. "The boiler is telling the central buildings and grounds feedback that it is on, and it is indeed on, but it's not heating the school," he had. "We have a lot of older equipment which doesn't take well to being shut down and re-started. It doesn't always come back to full capacity and in other cases parts break, they have to be re-ordered and installed and it created a huge delay," Oakland Unified School District Spokesman Troy Flint said. The district apologizes for going dark and not being able to snap out of it. This money saving experiment is over. "It was a well-intentioned plan, but it was a very flawed policy for this specific context and we won't do it again," Flint said. The school district administration building was hit by this heating problem. It was one of the first buildings to go back on line because it did not require any new parts, as so many of the old heating systems did. Kaiser may have its heat back by late Wednesday afternoon.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Wedding bells ring in school for Oakland teacher couple

The last day of school is often chaos with cupcakes. But in June the students at Oakland's Hillcrest Elementary School got a big surprise. There were cupcakes, but something else, too.
It was the final school day of the year and Hillcrest's 300 children were assembled at "morning meeting" when wedding music started to blare from a boom box. Miss Chang, the school's beloved first-grade teacher, appeared in a wedding dress. Slowly, she descended the stairs to the schoolyard. Waiting for her there was Mr. Inclan, the school's popular physical education teacher. And more magically, he was wearing a suit and tie.
It was the first time anyone had seen the gym teacher in long pants.
The kids went wild. Principal Beverly Rothenberg led a six-minute ceremony that was both legal and moving. And by the time the bell rang, Candace Chang Inclan, 35, and Jesse Inclan, 50, were back in Miss Chang's - ahem, Ms. Inclan's - classroom. The rest of the day was spent celebrating with games and - of course, cupcakes.
"A perfect wedding day," remembers Candace, who says the moment of the wedding kiss was most amusing. With students ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, there were both "oooooooohs" and "eeewwwwws."
The path to this crazy wedding day was nearly as unusual as the wedding itself. In 2002, Candace's best friend was house-sitting at Jesse's Orinda home while he was on vacation with his then-wife. Though Candace had even done laundry at his home, the two didn't meet for another year. Their paths crossed at Hillcrest, where Candace had just started teaching and where Jesse worked half time. With both in long-term relationships, it took until 2006 for them to become friends. By then Candace had broken a decadelong entanglement and Jesse was swamped with a divorce.
A friendship was born of a shared love of hiking and an ear to help each other through rough life transitions. In 2007, however, Jesse felt something shift, but he had hesitations about blowing the friendship. Taking a direct approach, before school on a Friday he asked his co-worker straight out if she had feelings for him.
"Jesse is never early to work," Candace says coyly, "so I knew it was important when he asked to talk." She admitted that she, too, wanted to see where things between them might lead.
At work, the romance was kept under wraps, despite rumors. A year later, after Candace had proposed and Jesse accepted, their colleagues were free to settle the bets that had speculated on their relationship.
Jesse, who was born in Mexico City, wonders what might have happened if they'd met earlier in life. Candace was born in Korea.
"It's a miracle we found each other," he says. Candace, smiling, obviously agrees.

What would you tell your students about love?
Candace: "Don't settle - I was (spinning) my wheels in my other relationship; this one works."
Jesse: "You never know where you will find it."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

How Many of Our Students Live in Poverty?

The number we often hear for the proportion of our students who live in poverty is in the range of 20% to 23%. But Susan Ohanian has flagged some frightening data from the Department of Education's Data Express. The number of students receiving free or reduced price lunches has grown significantly, and in 2008-2009 44% of our nation's students were eligible. In the state of California, 52% are eligible. In Mississippi, 68% are eligible, and the prize for the lowest proportion goes to New Hampshire, with 20% eligible. In the city of Oakland, where I have worked for the past 24 years, more than 68% of the students were eligible.
What does this mean in terms of income? Each state sets an income level that makes one eligible. In California, a family of four with an annual gross income of less than $28,665 qualifies for a free lunch, while reduced price lunches are available for students with a family income less than $40,793.

Is this a reflection of true poverty?
Think about your own family's income. I know my California household would have a very hard time getting along on this amount, and there would be no margin of safety if someone lost a job or had hours cut back. We are seeing elements of our societal safety net eroded every week. Several million Americans are about to lose unemployment benefits after having lost their jobs in the recession, and we are being told these jobs may not return. Many of these millions are parents. How are their children going to be affected by seeing their parents financially ruined?
College degrees do not offer much protection from the insecurity that has become the norm, especially for those just out of college. Andrew Sum reports

Young college educated workers, particularly those 25 and under, however, have not fared very well over the past three years. They have experienced rising joblessness, underemployment, and malemployment problems (i.e. working in jobs that do not require a college degree). During the January-August period of 2010, we estimate that fewer than 50 of every 100 young B.A.-holders held a job requiring a college degree.
In films like Waiting for Superman, student achievement in the US is compared unfavorably to outcomes in countries such as Finland. However, Finland has less than 5% of its children being raised in poverty. And the country has a strong social safety net, so that children are not in danger of eviction and deprivation.
As Stephen Krashen has pointed out, poverty is closely correlated to school achievement. Those of us who have worked in these schools know firsthand why this is so. Poverty is associated with poor health, poor nutrition, lousy day-care and pre-schools, dangerous and violent neighborhoods, family instability and even violence, poor access to dental and vision care, and so on.

Our education secretary styles himself a civil rights leader.
But Arne Duncan last week gave a speech that called on us to accept that the "new normal" in education will be budget cuts and "doing more with less." This speech before the American Enterprise Institute, was lauded by National Review columnists Frederick Hess and Michael Petrilli, who wrote:

In one speech, this (Democratic) secretary of education came out swinging against "last hired, first fired," seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master's degrees, and bloated special-education budgets. Which means he just declared war on the teachers' unions, parents' groups, education schools, and the special-education lobby. Not bad for a day's work.
When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.
Our schools ought to be places of refuge for children in poverty. Often the free or reduced price lunch is their only solid meal of the day. Smaller class sizes allow teachers the chance to give more attention to individual students, who need it all the more when their families are financially stressed. Sadly, Secretary Duncan appears to be doing his best to clear the way for cuts to the schools and attacks on teachers and students. It looks like we are going to need to start handling this ourselves. The group I started just over a year ago, Teachers' Letters to Obama, has decided to join others in organizing a non-partisan conference and march in Washington, DC, next July 28 to 31.
What do you think? How many of your students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches? Does this equate with poverty? Are you ready to get active yourself around these issues?