How many students may I leave behind?

So how many dropouts does it take to deem a school a failure? Really. I get the NCLB requirements and the close focus New York State has on graduation rate. I pay close attention to our data, but more important, to our students. We all spend a great deal of our time and energy keeping kids in school. Why? Because it’s the reason we’re here and it’s important that every child has at least a high school diploma. I know with certainty that every student who leaves G-Town with a diploma is stronger and more capable in the world and for the children that they in turn will raise. I know all this and still, I wonder, how many dropouts are acceptable?

The school year signals a beginning, another fresh start, new school supplies. It’s a chance to make new friends and spend time with old friends, a chance to make a good impression, improve a GPA, attend school more often, learn new subjects and meet new teachers. We spend most of July and August planning for the return of our teachers and students and hoping that this year will be even better than the last.

But September also brings back those students who weren’t successful last year, or the year before, or the year before that one. Students who aren’t here to learn anything, they’re here because probation told them they have to be, or because they can’t or won’t get a job and the parent says you have to do something, or because they see this as a place to socialize, or as their “marketplace” for whatever it is they are peddling, or because they haven’t got anything else to do.

Let me further describe him or her. A typical student in this position is 18 years old or turning 18 this year, with only three or four credits earned of the 22 needed for graduation, so he’ll be 21 when he graduates if he does everything right from here out. This student has repeatedly been absent, suspended, disruptive, truant, and sometimes preying on the rest of our students. This is the student who teachers cringe at the sight of that name on a roster and the other students are either afraid of or poorly influenced by him.

And you know what? I must “leave this child behind”. I know he needs a diploma just like every other kid. But I also know that it’s not what she’s here for, it’s not going to happen no matter how helpful, hopeful and optimistic I am. And I must consider the impact this child has on the other 500 students in the building. I must consider that this young man will sit in class next to my incoming 13 and 14-year-old freshmen. How is that fair or appropriate or conducive to their learning?

I know that some dropouts are acceptable because despite our best efforts, and I sincerely tell you we make them, we can’t do anything to change the course of their lives. I hate to put that in writing, but it’s true. And every school has those students who return every September for no good reason.

But still I struggle. I think of each of these students when I should be enjoying my own family at home. I worry about the future and wonder what they do all day. And I hate that I don’t have any good alternatives for them and I can’t “fix” them now. I know what some will say, that they have lousy homes and parents, that they could have been identified ten years ago, maybe even in kindergarten, that it’s too late, that there’s nothing we can do. And it makes me angry because inside the mess that they present to the world and their bad behavior, is still a child. A child who wasn’t loved enough or taught enough or guided enough or smart enough or helped enough. And I can’t do a damn thing about it. I can only commit to spend the time to be certain there’s no other way within our setting. I can connect the child with the right and caring people here at school and from outside agencies to be certain we’ve done our best. But sometimes it is too late for us to change a young man or woman and I have to leave this child behind.

If the answer is in the elementary years and then in the middle school years, we better get busy fast. Because I turned one away yesterday, I know it was the right thing to do, and every time it breaks my heart.

And more to the point. . .

In “On Board”, published by the New York State School Board Association, President Carl Onken writes in his commentary “Said the Education Trust’s Kati Haycock, ‘The research shows that kids who have two, three, four strong teachers in a row will eventually excel, no matter what their background, while kids who have even two weak teachers in a row will never recover.’ Mr. Onken goes on to write that ‘Any board member who is not paying close attention to teacher quality in the district is not paying close attention to student achievement.'”

I would suggest that more to the point would be to replace the words “board member” with “administrator”. Tenure doesn’t protect ineffective teachers; ineffective administrators do that for them. It is our responsibility to clearly and honestly discuss quality teaching individually and collectively. Administrators have to be brave enough to address the tough issues.

I often think of something Professor Janeil Rey said to me seven years ago in my administrative coursework, “you have to decide who you want to be angry with you, the good teachers or the bad teachers.” If I’m not addressing the behavior of the reluctant teachers, the good teachers are ticked. Not hard to figure that one out.


What do you expect of yourself?

I swear to you when my fourteen-year-old son hears me mentioning blogging, he covers his head with a pillow, his hands, anything he can get. Not that he’s adverse to the idea, he’s just sick of hearing about it.

This makes me think about fourteen year old children in general and the fact that I have 130 of them entering my building in another month. I wonder how often my son, and others just like him, will want to cover his head rather than hear something again and again in class. I wonder how much richer his learning experience would be if he had only those teachers who are passionate about learning and about students. And more important, teachers who fuel his passions and interests—those are the teachers our kids need.

I have mentioned before and continue to maintain that it is the teacher’s responsibility to make the class engaging in a meaningful way and more important, to make it relevant. I wonder why this is so difficult for some teachers to do. How is it that someone can stand in front of a room of disconnected learners, who are clearly and visibly disconnected, and keep doing the same things? If a teacher is dedicated enough to go to college and to achieve a Master’s degree in their chosen content, then they must be dedicated to teaching. Right? Or are some just dedicated to the content, to the idea of being a teacher, to the summers off and the ability to return home by 2:30 in the afternoon?

We need teachers who are dedicated to the students, each and every one of them. Teachers who realize they aren’t teaching Math, Science, English, Social Studies, or the encore subjects. They’re teaching children. All 130 students entering our ninth grade are different, with interests, passions, hopes and dreams. They also come to us from very different parents, backgrounds, and histories. I want teachers who care about every student who walks through the door, who understand it’s their responsibility to connect with each student, to give them their absolute best each and every day. You know what? Our kids zero in on those teachers who don’t care or don’t know what they’re doing faster than we do. And our kids don’t want to do anything for those teachers. So listen at your faculty meetings this year because those teachers complaining the most about students not doing anything often lack the ability to connect with all students and they therefore lack the ability to motivate. Kids won’t do anything for a teacher they hate and they generally hate a teacher more than anyone else who disrespects them or belittles them. Pay attention to the teachers who keep quiet during those discussions, because they’ve most likely figured out ways to engage and connect with students. In seventeen years in education, one thing I know for sure is that children will do anything in the classroom for a teacher who they know cares about them and expects the best of them.

I don’t want to hear about how hard the job is or how difficult it is to get everything done. Every job is hard in different ways. If this one is too hard, go find something else to do. Our kids deserve the very best, the most passionate teachers, and adults who care. I believe with all my heart that there is no job more important or more rewarding. How hard is it to love our kids and give them 100% each and every day? I plan to do just that on September 1 and throughout the school year and I can’t wait to see my teachers return, ready to do the same.

How do we measure a man?

I’ve tried to start this post at least ten times and stopped.  As a high school principal, I am immersed in data and Regents results, drop out prevention, our literacy issues, staff development plans, hiring, and problem solving one hundred other day to day questions. I spend much time thinking about our teachers, our students, our school climate, and our achievement. I try to learn new things and to plan for our future. And then I have a conversation, or two, that stop me in my tracks.

I have a student who came to see me right before Regents week because he expects to go to jail for a few months, and he was struggling with a decision. Seems he thought he had the choice between two months of jail time with 3 years of probation or four months of jail time with no probation. He had already convinced the judge to prolong his sentencing date until after his exams were over. He figured the four months were better because he’d never manage to stay out of trouble for three years, but he didn’t want to miss so much school. His decision was a tough one because he really wants to graduate. Well, that’s easy, because I really want him to graduate too. So I’m trying to work out the details with the county jail and keep him moving through his curriculum. Here’s a kid who really wants to graduate, who understands the importance of it, who can’t get out of his own way to make it happen.  Sometimes it feels as if the issues, the obstacles, the stuff keeping them from graduating are so much bigger than I am. 

This makes me strip away all that we do, each and every day, all that the State expects, all of the testing and the data and the reporting and the planning. It makes me remember that it’s all about a boy. And a girl. Times 474. If we don’t get to know each and every one of those students, to care about them, to let them know that they matter in G-Town, to form those relationships, then the rest doesn’t really matter. Not to me anyway. I now have a boy, who’s in county jail, who called me at least four times since that initial meeting to let me know how his case was progressing. A boy who came to see me on Tuesday, in lousy shape, to tell me he was going to jail on Friday. A boy who has my word that I’ll do whatever it takes to get him to a diploma when he gets home. A boy with whom I’ve now formed a relationship. A boy who desperately needs that diploma as he’s minutes away from becoming a man.

How will our teachers measure him when he returns? Will they see only the jokes to be told, the gossip, and the angst of getting him on track with the rest of his class? Will our teachers see an inconvenience, a derelict, a convict, a problem?

Or will they see the whole person, the boy inside? Will they help him to succeed? Will they care even more because they know he’s not cared about enough outside of our school? Will they do even more because that’s what he needs? Will they even think he deserves it?

I’ll see a boy, who needs our help to become a man. I’ll see all of him. His four months away will not define him. He’s the reason we do this job, not the test results.

Don’t underestimate the power of a teacher

I spent the morning working with educators from two school districts and with representatives of the Seneca Nation regarding drop out prevention. The group was formed after an initial meeting with school superintendents and Seneca Nation representatives about the consideration of an alternative school on the Cattaraugus territory. The intent was to provide another opportunity, another way for our Native American students who are not succeeding in our public schools. 

I should mention that approximately 27% of our students are Native American and too many are lost to us before graduation. Not only is it of paramount interest to me as the principal, but also to our teachers, superintendent, BOE members, and community. It’s a fight we can’t afford to lose. 

At the initial meeting, there were those of us who said, “Wait a minute”. Before we consider the evolution of an alternative setting, let’s talk about how we’re currently serving our students. Or more to the point, let’s talk about how we may be falling down. My hope would be that we could be that alternative school, that place where all students can find success. And before we look for another way, let’s make sure that we’re getting it right for as many students as possible. 

This led us to the thought that we should form focus groups and listen to the students. While several studies have been conducted over the past ten years, not much ever seems to change as a result. What if we started to think differently? What if we ask our students questions directly about curriculum and instruction? Questions like what works for you in school; what is keeping you from doing well in class; which is the best way for you to learn; with which teachers do you do the best and what is it that they do that makes that happen; in what classes are you always willing to participate; what challenges you the most; what are the characteristics of the adults who matter most to you; do you feel emotionally safe in school–why or why not; what kinds of things would you like to do in the classroom?

So that’s how we’ll proceed. There are a lot of other details I haven’t mentioned like the group or individual interview formats chosen, the communication with parents and community members, the formulation of a meaningful action plan, and the students we’ll involve. But there’s something about the whole process that keeps playing over and over in my mind. They are all items that are within our realm of control and responsibility. I’m reminded again of the power of a teacher. The teacher is the variable in the classroom, he is the only person who can effectively change what happens based on what our students tell us. She has the incredible power to make a difference. If we only listen and endeavor to connect, to adapt and to constantly strive for engagement. 

We acknowledge that there may be circumstances in students’ lives that are overwhelming to any school experience we may provide. We know some of our students have huge obstacles to overcome. We also know we employ some of the best teachers in the state. I hope they come back in September rejuvenated, hopeful, and willing to assume responsibility for instruction. When they come back, I’ll be hopeful that they’re willing to listen and that we can get past any ideas that it’s “these kids and we’re doing the best we can with them”, ideas which only deflect responsibility. Because while I acknowledge that some of the needs seem insurmountable at times, “these kids” are entrusted to us, they need education, and we’re what they’re given. They deserve everything we’ve got and more.




Huck Finn

I’m wondering about the use of Huck Finn as a novel for tenth grade students. Our English teacher is committed to the use of the novel, spends approximately ten weeks teaching it, and has limited success. Approximately 32% of the students fail the class during this marking period, many refusing to participate for the duration of the unit. They HATE it. Honestly, he works hard and tries multiple methods to reach all students, feels it’s absolutely a necessary classic for this class. As the principal, I struggle with supporting the teacher’s right to make decisions about content and novels and rigor and the failure rate.

 Is this an appropriate novel? Are there other classics that are better suited to our more reluctant learners? Are the difficulties with literacy in our student population compounded on a novel such as Huck Finn? How do I respond to my teacher’s total commitment to this novel if it’s not the best choice? Do I just support him and continue to force the novel for all students? This tenth grade course literally becomes a stumbling block to graduation for a number of students. I clearly support the high expectations for our students, but am not sure Huck Finn is worth the fight.