Tuesday, March 06, 2007

You Can't Fight (or even talk to) City Hall


When asked about her trip to City Hall yesterday a look of aggravation quickly came across Mayo's face. The following is the speech Lori Mayo would have presented to city council members had they taken a breathe and let her speak as planned:

Education is all about empowerment. Or at least it should be! Resources provided to empowerment schools have allowed these schools the freedom to allocate funds where they are needed, as they are needed. This freedom allows us to make things happen.

I’ve worked as a classroom teacher, a staff developer in a superintendent’s office, and a UFT Teacher Center staff person. In each of these positions, there was one common frustration: seeing a seemingly arbitrary allocation of funds. All too common was someone saying “we have software money,” when what you really needed was money for books. Or when you’d find out that you had money for books, but it needed to be spent that day. The people on the front lines, so to speak, are the ones that know what is needed at the school level, and should be the ones to determine how money is spent. Since becoming an empowerment school, we at the Queens High School of Teaching, have had a greater voice in determining how to best satisfy the needs of our staff and students.

Empowerment doesn’t prevent us from using the quality services that the region provides; it just gives us a broader variety from which to choose. For example, we valued the region’s new teacher mentor that worked in our building. When we became an empowerment school, we continued to employ her by paying for her service out of our empowerment allocation. However, it’s good to know that if we didn’t feel she was benefiting our staff, we had the freedom to hire somebody else.

At the Queens High School of Teaching, we have had a ten day professional development program for new teachers each summer. In previous years, we never knew how much money we would be able to devote to this. This year, for the first time, we knew that we would have enough money to pay workshop facilitators and participants. We value professional development and we also value the importance of treating our staff as the professionals they are. Being able to pay them for their time allows us to honor both of these values.

The Queens High School of Teaching is taking a leadership role within the empowerment network. We are working with a self-selected group of schools, located across four boroughs, which share a belief system and have chosen to work and learn from and with one another. We are sharing our model for an extended school day and an extended school year with four other network schools in a series of six 4 hour sessions at a weekend during which administrators, teachers, and students will share best practice work with other schools. This work will include creating personal learning plans for each student so that they can recover lost credits, and the sharing of interdisciplinary planning design. After participating in our extended school programs, formerly unsuccessful students have said things like, “Why can’t regular school be like this?” Our goal is to find ways to provide engaging opportunities for students with low skill levels and limited interest in traditional education. The importance of being freed to focus on the needs of our students and to customize approaches to ensure their achievement cannot be overstated. Sharing our findings with other network schools is extremely satisfying for us and beneficial for them.

Empowerment schools funds enabled us to maintain a program that is the cornerstone of our school. That is our Drop Everything and Read (or DEAR)/Advisory program. Everyday a dedicated teacher meets with 17 students for a 45 minute period of Drop Everything and Read. This program has created a culture of literacy in our building by exposing students to the concept of reading for pleasure. When you walk into our school in the morning, you see students sitting on the floor of the lobby, waiting to come into the building, reading books! These are not assigned texts, but books that they have chosen on their own, or with the help of their advisor, or by recommendation from peers. DEAR is a very important part of our day, and its benefits are tremendous. This same dedicated teacher meets these same 17 students for an additional hour during the week in an advisory program. In this class, work centers around issues like our school-wide values, social issues, college and career exploration, and academic counseling. The advisor acts as a liaison between the students and their subject area teachers, the parents and the school, and as an advocate for these students to prevent them from falling through the cracks. This program is very expensive because the staff/ student ration is 1:17. It’s worth it, and without the empowerment school funding, it may have been compromised.

Another area where empowerment school funding was crucial in our school is in the arts. We used funding to hire a fourth fine arts teacher; without the additional allocation, we would have remained at three. Looking ahead, next year we intend to devote funding to a full-time Teaching position so we can fully address the school theme. Empowerment school funds can now go directly into the classroom to lower class size, hire teachers, and allow implementation of key programs.

Personally, working in an empowerment school has allowed me to realize the dream of starting a writing center. After many years of hearing people complain that “these kids can’t write,” I wanted to create a writing center based on the concept used at all colleges and universities. This year, I was able to achieve that dream and now meet students before school to work on writing and putting together a literary magazine. Last week, after students shared aloud what they had been writing, one newcomer to the group, Lauren, remarked, “Man, you guys write so real in here! I’ve never heard writing like this in school!” That was the best testimonial to an effective use of resources that I could have heard. After all, literacy and empowerment go hand in hand.


THe NYTIMES has their take on Empowerment.

2 comments:

-eddelson said...

Are you sure you don't want to be an administrator, Lori?

I think QHST also really needs to refocus itself on the advantages of a truly 21st century classroom...in order to truly perform differentiated instruction we need real-time tools (aka, technology) that allows us - in every classroom - to have on the spot differentiated instruction take place. For example, today I had students examine primary sources...the lesson was great - I had rich text, a great connection to current events, fun activity, etc. but when I noticed a visual learner drift from the lesson I would of loved to have had technology that would immediately allow me to surf the net and get a picture for this student to work from...why should I have to go and find a television, LCD projector, working computer, etc? Our classrooms should be fully equipped...is this empowerment at its best?...in fact, more and more our students want information NOW and can only really feel comfortable with text and content if the delivery system of this information is first recognizable (i.e. from webpages, blogs, forums, etc.) There is no reason why the content of our students' backpacks should be more high-tech than the contents of their classrooms...

W Brown said...

Brian,

The exciting part about being in an empowerment school is that there is discretionary funds available for a teacher like yourself to make requests and make change happen.