Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Drop-out Drops In ('07)

Year after year the scene is replayed:

There's a kid in my class, who "gets it". He gets the concept, has the right answers, gets the joke. The sarcastic comment that flew over the rest of the class like a 747, elicits a quiet chuckle. Assignments that take most of the students a whole class period to complete, this student will finish in a few minutes. He's always ahead of everyone else, until...until he starts missing class. At first it's a day here and there, then it's a few days at a time. I call home, leave a message, maybe a parent will call back, more likely I hear nothing. I check in with the school office.

"What ever happened to... (Mike/Ryan/Josh)..?" I inquire.

"He was withdrawn."

Hopefully, I ask. "Did he transfer to another school?"

"No, he was withdrawn for nonattendance."

"Oh!" I grimace. "Damn!" I think..."Another one bites the dust."


Last month during open house, a former student, who had joined the ranks of high school drop-outs two years ago, stopped by my room to visit. He'd brought his girlfriend along, eager to introduce us, and to let me know he'd finally decided to take the GED so he could apply to Community College. Affable and extremely smart, when he was a student at Max Hayes, he stood out like a halogen torch in a procession of candles.

"What ever made you quit school? I asked.

"It was boring. I hated it. Everyday seemed like I was just wasting time in my classes. Art was the only reason to come to school, but eventually I couldn't even motivate for your class, so I stayed home and stayed high. I was high half the time I was at school."

That was pretty much my suspicion, but I was surprised he admitted it to me.

"Now I'm a roofer. It's funny, I'm the youngest one on the crew, but the owner put me in charge. Everyone keeps telling me I should go to college, so I signed up for the GED class.

"Do you regret not getting your diploma?"

"Not really, but I guess that will depend on how I do on the GED"


Today I asked my students, "Who knows someone who dropped out of high school?" Not surprisingly, all hands go up.

"Who do you know?"

The answers were readily volunteered.They mostly responded with family members; parents, siblings, cousins; some close friends; some former classmates. One boy smiled shyly and told us that he quit going to school last year, but re-enrolled this year...he needed a drivers license, and couldn't get one if he was under 18 and not going to school.

"Why did the people you know quit school?"

By far, the reason given most for female drop-outs was pregnancy. Their male counterparts stopped going to school for many different reasons, including boredom, drugs, frustration, fighting, problems with teachers or principals, and the need to support a family.

"You know, school is not for everybody." a thoughtful 12th grade girl spoke up. "People learn in different ways. Some people need to get out and do things, not just sit in a room and listen...blah, blah, blah."


"Hey, Ms Matthews!" I could hear the smile in the voice on the other end of the phone line. "I scored a 12/9 ( 12th grade 9th month) on the GED. I'm going to college! I thought you would like to know."

I hope he calls me again when he gets his degree.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cleveland School Shootings: One Week Later

The initial commotion over last week's shootings at Success Tech has begun to settle down, and the district is beginning to implement a new security plan. Students are back in the classroom, and things are once again feeling like business as usual.

The main differences affecting the staff and students in our building are the new bans on book-bags in classrooms, the increased implementation of lock-outs and hall-sweeps, and the relocation of a security guard from the second floor to a desk by the main entrance.

My students seem to be in agreement that a metal detector in the building would not be much of a deterrent to any student who was intent upon bringing a weapon into the school. There are too many entrances (at least 15) and easily accessible first floor windows. These would be almost impossible to control, especially if there was more than one student determined to enact a vendetta type of confrontation. Every one of the kids in my morning class told me they had already figured out a way to smuggle something into the building if a metal detector was brought in, and quite frankly, it wasn't much of a challenge. One boy said there was probably more to fear from an assailant out in the parking lot than inside the building anyway.
Good observation, I thought.

One point of discussion the kids raised was the fact that in all of the school shooting cases where the shooter was a student, there were plenty of signals and even warnings, that were ignored or not taken seriously.
A twelfth grade boy said, "It's hard enough to make the decision to snitch, but then, when you do tell a teacher or a principal, and they act like they can't be bothered with your stupid stuff, it makes you not want to talk to any of the adults, 'cuz they 'll just blow you off."

The conversation then morphed into a gripe session about teachers; which ones they could talk to, who they could trust, who was fake, who liked to get kids in trouble, who was mean, who really seemed like they cared.
I just listened.

Often times teachers and administrators try to avoid gripe sessions, claiming they are unproductive. I think the real reason administrative leadership dislike gripe sessions, is because these discussions point out problems, and many administrators don't like to hear about problems...because, god forbid, they might have do something about them. It is easier to pretend that everything is "great".

If you want to know what the problems are, you need to pay attention when people talk, especially when they complain. Any leader who says they are tired of hearing complaints, should start dealing with the issues. Problems don't go away when you pretend they don't exist.

If there is any lesson the Cleveland school administrators should take away from last weeks tragedy, it should be that communication needs to be a two way effort. If you are going to ask people to talk to you, you need to pay attention to what they have to say. Success Tech parents complained about the lack of security guards, and they were ignored. Students tried to discuss a troubled classmate with the principal, she was too busy to talk.

This year Dr. Sanders added a new page, called "Talk to the CEO", to the official CMSD website. Billed as a community forum, the page only allows comments of 100 words or less to be typed at the bottom of the page, but none of them are published for public viewing. Nor is there any format available for the writer to receive a response to his comment. The term forum is defined as a medium of open discussion or expression of ideas. How is this a forum? The CEO "hot-line" allows you to leave a voice mail. I wonder if he (or anyone) ever returns calls?

What's the point in talking if there's nobody listening?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Code Blue

"Hello MaryBeth! Are you okay?"

It was my friend, Ruth Glendinning, in Austin, Texas calling my cell phone.

"I'm just ducky, why?"

"Breaking news says a student gunman has shot a teacher in a Cleveland school, so I wanted to make sure you were safe."

"I'm not even in the building right now, I took my lunch break late and ran out to Borders to buy some sketchbooks for my after school art program. Did they say what school?"

"No, not yet."

"Well thanks for checking on me. I'm gonna call someone back at Max Hayes and find out if they know anything."

When I hung up, I stood there in the aisle for a few moments just staring at my phone. Damn! This past week at our school there were two serious gun incidents. One boy fired a gun several times in the air during an after school fight, and the next day, a teacher found a loaded assault rifle in a student's gym bag... Maybe the shooting was at Max Hayes.
I called one of my colleagues in the shop class down the hall from my classroom.

"Hey I'm not in the building right now, and I just got a call from a friend that there's been a shooting in a Cleveland school. Have you guys heard anything?"

"No, that's news to us....wait a minute....the PA just came on...they're calling a "code blue"...Talk to you later."

"Code blue" is the phrase used when teachers and students are to respond to a security threat, and take appropriate actions: closing and locking doors, moving to a safe space in the classroom away from the door, etc.

After about fifteen agonizing minutes I called another friend at school, who said they were watching TV, and filled me in on the details as Channel 19 broke the story of the Success Tech shootings.

"You know," she said, "Always, in the back of your mind, you know something like this could happen here. Now it's going to be hard not to worry each time you have to reprimand a student, or when some kid gets upset. You never know who has a gun on their person, in their book bag, in their locker, in their car. We know they have them, and they aren't afraid to use them. This city has gone gun crazy."

I went home, turned on the TV, and watched the story unfold.

Asa Coon, 14 year old boy with bipolar disorder from a troubled family, stops taking his medication. He is teased and bullied by classmates, gets in a fight, gets suspended, and in the confusion of his mental illness decides to seek revenge. He walks -unchecked- into the school building, with two guns, knives and a change of clothes. He shoots and wounds two teachers and two students before turning the gun on himself.

Today Cleveland city leaders and CMSD school administrators are hustling to come up with some kind of new safety and security action plan.
Tomorrow we will discuss our concerns during our staff development day meetings.
Monday classes will resume.
Will we feel any safer?
I wonder how many parents will be keeping their kids home?