Monday, January 9, 2017

Thoughts from a tired urban teacher: School funding remix

I haven't written much about what is going on with my work situation, mostly because the school district has a clause about employees writing anything defamatory. Suffice to say, I am caught in a process that has left me without income at the moment, although not unemployed.

I look back on this past year and I am so grateful to the people who donated money, books, and sent well-wishes to me as I began teaching in an open-enrollment high school close to my house. I began with many big dreams. I painted the classroom, with my husband's help, of course. I set up comfy chairs and a book corner. I had lamps and an essential oil diffuser. I was energized.

I got slowly beat down by many different forces.

When I decided to work at the high school, I did so because I wanted to prove people wrong about the kids. I didn't have an illusions about the rest of the issues that plague "urban" schools. But I seriously resisted the narrative that the school was a "war zone," or that the kids were going to all be "bad." Even the students said that about themselves.

The kids I taught were troubled sometimes, as teenagers are. They had different challenges that they faced due to socioeconomic conditions. Many of them had lost a family member to violence or accidental death. They had difficult school experiences that sometimes made them more frustrated with learning than I would have expected.

But they were good kids. The kids that showed up to school every day were kids that stayed off the streets at night because they didn't want to get caught in any trouble. Many of them had jobs that kept them up late at night. Some of them got their younger siblings ready for school in the morning. They kept showing up to school because it was a priority and because school was a safe space for them. That is a testament to the administrators and teachers who worked very hard for the kids.

In the end, I am glad to say that I did prove people "wrong" about the kids and about the school.

It's not a bad school with bad kids.

The school has issues that go beyond the kids. For example, it is one of the only open-enrollment schools still left in the district. So if a student needs to enroll in school at the last minute, they only have two options for high school.

Secondly, magnet schools and "choice" schools in the district have GPA and behavior requirements that allow them to "weed out" the students that they don't want in the school. County schools can do the same thing, and city charter schools have a similar reputation. This means that the kids that end up at the open-enrollment school are often the kids with the most issues, for whatever reason.

Finally, a huge issue that I recently began to understand has to do with Title I money. Title I is derived from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and "provides financial assistance to local educational agencies (LEAs) and schools with high numbers or high percentages of children from low-income families to help ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards" (U.S. Department of Education).

This seems like a boon to a struggling school, since most districts exist on the basis of property taxes, and St. Louis city has perpetual and complicated issues with supplying an adequate property tax base. Most schools in this district receive Title money, although some more than others. However, Title I money is extremely limited in its usage.

For example, Title I money comes with restrictions on student-teacher ratios. If there are too many teachers in the building based on the current enrollment, the district gets money taken away. This has resulted in the practice of the district doing a "census" at week 5 of the school year, and then moving "extra" teachers from building to building in a crazy game of chess until the ratios are balanced so that the district doesn't lose money.

Another consequence of this one stipulation about student-teacher ratios is that the district is not able to add more teachers to classes where students are struggling the most. We know that a smaller class size is a huge factor in helping students learn, and yet the funding scheme would essentially penalizes this reform measure.

Title I money can also only be used on certain subjects. Beyond basic supplies, schools that rely heavily on Title money for books can only use it for subjects such as math, science, and English. In other words, anything that isn't tested doesn't receive funds. Social studies, music, art, world languages, and physical education (to name only some subjects) are still left without class sets of books and other necessary materials.

The lack of funding for schools is a systemic issue. A local school district is seriously restricted when it depends largely on Federal money, and has no promise of a growing local tax base. I'm hoping that our city is somehow able to address this issue in the future.

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