Education Opinion


By Roslyn Johnson Smith, Ph.D. — May 28, 2008 15 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

I wanted to make my last entry in the “Starting Over” blog distinctive by detailing a chronology of the last week of school. Unfortunately, everything was happening so fast that I did not have time to write about it. Today, I am reserving the time for this special piece of work. It is so important that I am pushing back everything on the desk, including submitting invoices for my consultant’s salary that help feed my family. Nourishing the intellect is a more valuable use of time and energy.

Kindergarten Graduation
Our Kindergarten teachers really know how to plan a celebration. The entire auditorium was decorated with larger-than-life figures of students in graduation garb. There were balloons and hanging plants. Trees and flowers decorated the stage. At 9:00 a.m. on Friday, May 16, 2008, the auditorium was packed with parents, grandparents, and siblings of the graduates. Parking was scarce on the blocks surrounding the school. I arrived just in time to intercede between two proud mothers who threatened to ruin the program as they argued over a seat near the front of the assembled crowd. Emotions were high as we waited patiently for the students to enter. At long last, the final corsage and ribbon were pinned on the last of sixty-two anxious five-year olds.

The students entered in measured steps to the strands of Pomp and Circumstance. A few students led the “Pledge of Da Legions” and three others sang the national anthem. Parents stood up for the pledge but sat through the anthem—no one told them to remain standing. It was something to ponder at another time, but I was next on the agenda. My remarks for the “Occasion” were less than a speech but more than a few statements about why we were there. My “Rules for Success in School” which I shared were based upon experience raising my own children.

The students performed songs, poems, and dances. Certificates and awards were presented and the principal made closing remarks. He encouraged the parents to stay actively involved in their children’s schooling and invited them to visit often. The families moved to the basement classrooms where they were served cake and punch. It was a beautiful, traditional ceremony. Next year, we will probably move the ceremony to a larger place, maybe a neighborhood church. If not, we will have to limit the number of guests each student will be allowed. We really needed admit cards for the Kindergarten Graduation; imagine that.

Eighth Grade Recognition Ceremony
The Eighth Grade Recognition Ceremony was a gathering of the “senior” class and their loved ones on Friday, May 16th. I had envisioned a candlelight ceremony with the students dressed in suits and beautiful dresses. I imagined them singing a class song and a few inspirational speeches. In my dream ceremony, parents would be presented with “I am a Proud McDonogh 42 Parent” ribbons, students would receive their “graduate” trophies, and the Class of 2008 would present the school with a memorial gift. We would have a class photo to hang in the Hall of Fame (display space TBD), and everyone would enjoy light refreshments before tearful goodbyes. Maybe next year.

As it turned out, one teacher planned the program, almost single-handedly. Following a processional by the students and a welcome speech by the eighth grade chairperson, the Salutatorian gave reflections. I don’t know what happened to the Valedictorian. The chairperson presented awards and the principal made remarks. A PowerPoint of the 8th grade students was the highlight of the program. One of the students put the piece together.

Some of the boys were dressed in new jeans and designer tee shirts instead of dress slacks, and ties. They came to the ceremony unsure about their status in the class and not knowing whether they would be allowed to participate. All of them sat in the back of the auditorium instead of on the front row with their classmates. The news about the LEAP tests was not good for them. These were students who had taken the tests and failed last year. This year, although they showed progress, they failed again. The boys will be assigned to the next grade if they attend the summer remediation program and retest one more time at the end of June. Since they will not be returning, I wanted them to participate in the closing ceremony.

I took pictures of the event; the pictures are worth thousands of words about our first class of promotees. The students’ names were not typed on the back of the quickly assembled program. The auditorium was only two-thirds full. The entire ceremony was over in an hour. Surprisingly, everyone was very pleased with the turnout and the entire event. I accepted the situation for what it was and I am grateful for the effort put forth by the staff, but we can (and will) do so much better.

Four More Days
Over the weekend, I thought about the routines and rituals that make school days special in some institutions. We had not planned a closing ceremony for the staff that went through so much this year to turn a new school into a distinctive place. The principal suggested catering a luncheon to be served while he presented the testing results. I thought it was an important topic, but too somber for a closing meeting.

He and I discussed awards for the teachers. Although he was reluctant to open that can of worms, out of concern that some people might feel left out by recognizing other individuals, I disagreed. We started making plans for the final meeting. I volunteered to coordinate it for the principal because he was really too busy to plan one more meeting. As a matter of fact, everyone at the school was too busy. The closing of school was overwhelming for all of us, but we prayed and worked our way to a successful end.

My most important task was to begin writing letters to each employee. There were two prototypes. One letter congratulated the employee for a successful year and offered a job for 2008 – 2009, usually with a salary increase. The second letter thanked the employee for working with us and noted that he or she would not be rehired for 2008 – 2009. Rehire offers were made to everyone who had a Satisfactory Personnel Evaluation and a recommendation from the principal. Teachers who were not certified, rated as “Needs Improvement,” or deemed a poor fit for the school received the second letter. Some of these teachers were encouraged to reapply and accept jobs that fit their qualifications. Others were simply told goodbye and thanks. It was not easy to write goodbye letters to teachers that I genuinely like. However, the principal is charged with assembling the staff, not the Board. He was both kind and respectful as he explained why some of my “favorites” would not be recommended to return. Done. Once again, I was glad to be the Board President and not the principal of the school.

Pre-Kindergarten Promotion
It was an unexpected honor to be asked to say a few words at the Pre-Kindergarten Promotional Exercise scheduled for Monday, May 19th. I didn’t know that a program had been planned and actually didn’t think it was necessary. Afterwards, I was glad that the teachers and principal disagreed. The brief, well-organized program was a delight!

The teachers started at 9:00 a.m., right on time. Following the march on to the stage, the students did the pledge and a welcome song. I gave the same speech to the Pre-K audience that I had given on Friday to the Kindergarten assembly. This time it was even shorter. The students recited a poem and sang a few songs before being awarded their promotion certificates. One of the parents whispered to me, “You have some wonderful Pre-K teachers.” I smiled and nodded. Immediately after that compliment, the students did a song and finger play to the children’s classic, “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” They sang the song in English and repeated it in Spanish. I cried tears of joy, gratitude and pride. One of our goals is to teach all of our students to speak conversational Spanish beginning next year. This group did not wait to get started.

As the students sang the Barney song, “I Love You,” I was thinking the same thing about Claire, Travis, Barbara, and Cynthia, our wonderful Pre-K teachers and para educators. It was a pleasure to welcome forty students who closed the program with the song, “We’ll be Going to Kindergarten in the Fall”. I was impressed!

Happy Birthday, Gian!
Tuesday, May 20th was my son’s birthday. I had planned a special dinner including his favorite dessert, homemade apple pie. Luckily, he had a basketball game that night. All of my day was spent between end of year planning activities and some work assignments unrelated to the charter school. I was tired because having spent so many hours at the school every day, each night I had to stay up late doing assignments related to my consultancy clients.

We were planning the faculty luncheon for Thursday and determining year-end extras for teachers. Teachers were receiving their next to last paycheck on Thursday. The checks included extra pay to the teachers who tutored students in the after school LEAP Remediation program. Their extra checks ranged from $82 to $1,700 depending upon their hourly wage and the number of sessions they conducted. Before we rehire anyone for the summer program, I want to see their record of success with the students who took the tests in the spring.

We also paid one-time $5,000 bonuses to eight teachers who transferred from RSD to TCSA last year. These teachers would have earned retention bonuses, had they remained in their RSD assignments. Although they did not negotiate the bonus in their salaries, as one astute teacher had done, the Board thought it only fair to grant all of the transferees this equal payment. Only one teacher mentioned the promise of the bonus and requested it at the time of hire. Based upon the principal’s recommendation, she received her bonus several months ago.

I also spent time figuring out how to document teacher activities that would earn points on our pay-for-performance system. Teachers can earn from $0 to $1,000 in this plan. We only wanted to collect their data last week; payment will be made by June 30th.

The OK Corral
Wednesday, May 21st was the last day of school for the students. I received notice that our heretofore well-behaved sixth grade students were threatening to bring guns and knives to school to fight with the fifth and fourth graders. Some students threw eggs and paint on the cars of their teachers. We were able to clean off the cars before any serious damage resulted from the vandalism.

I remembered one year when a student at my old school egged my new car on the last day of class. I drove up and down every street for ten blocks in each direction. I went to his house looking for him and left messages with all of the students I saw playing in the neighborhood. My message was simple and deadly, “Tell Henry that Mrs. Smith is looking for him.” Finally, I went back to the school. I never saw the student again, but when I left the building that afternoon, Henry’s mother and aunt had carefully washed my car, without my knowledge. I’m sure they delivered the message to Henry.

The principal wanted to hire extra security guards and a police patrol to ride around the neighborhood on the final day of class. I can’t believe that these children would be crazy enough to bring weapons to school on the last day—as if we’ll never see them again or don’t have their home addresses. I suggested that the teachers be placed on duty on all corners and down the block on each side of the building. Students who threatened others should be retained until their parents retrieve them after dismissal. The principal had already told the students to leave their book bags at home for the last day. He also planned to use metal detector wands to scan all of the students who were making threats. I hate the appearance of high alert security because it makes the school look like a crime scene. But, I wouldn’t second guess the principal if he felt the need to increase security. I went to bed at 3:00 a.m.

See You Next Year
The last day of school was calm and orderly. There were no attacks on students or assaults on teachers. No one set the building on fire. They even stopped pulling the fire alarm (a disturbing behavior that lasted three days the week before, until our administrative intern brought it to a halt). Students received their final report cards and a newsletter from the principal. Some children received special letters of information about the summer programs.

We will have three programs running simultaneously in June. The LEAP Remediation Program is mandated by the state for students in 4th and 8th grade who failed the high-stakes tests required for promotion to 5th and 9th grade. Our Intervention Clinic is for rising 4th and 8th grade students who scored Approaching Basic on the iLEAP tests administered to this year’s 3rd and 7th graders. We want to give them a jump on the coming year. The other program is an enrichment plan for 100 students in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 5th, and 6th grade. Students with good behavior are being selected for this program. Because so much attention was directed to those who misbehaved, we think these students have earned something extra. We are also looking for students who may qualify for the gifted and talented classes we want to offer next year.

I did not go to school on the last day of class. I did not go to school on the first day of class either. Both days ended without a hitch.

Hurrah for the Teachers!
Thursday morning, I was driving through blinding rain trying to pick up a plaque and awards from Attaway’s Award Center in Slidell. I don’t like driving in the rain and I hate driving across Lake Pontchartrain. The principal acquiesced to my desire for a big celebration for the teachers. Our luncheon was held at the beautiful Basin St. Station, where we had our recent Professional Development day. Lunch was pork medallions, sweet potato casserole, salad, green beans, rolls, and dessert squares.

The agenda included opening remarks from yours truly. I had not explained to the staff why we advertised so many jobs in the newspaper a few weeks ago. There was a rumor that the Board planned to fire all of the teachers who participated in the sick out in December. One of the parents mentioned that she’d seen the ad for everyone’s positions in the Times-Picayune. I intended to give the explanation during the PD day several weeks ago and forgot to do it. I’d heard the rumors about my “vindictive nature” and I knew that several teachers were waiting for the other shoe to fall. I figured that we could show the truth them better than I could tell them. I hoped the individual letters offering 94% of the certified teachers a job for next year would put that disgusting rumor to rest.

The business manager explained final payroll procedures and the schedule for payment. Some of the teachers will be getting record amounts of money this summer. We are paying teachers for their unused sick days. The attendance awards will range from $0 to $1,800.

The principal gave an encouraging End of Year Report detailing test results and plans for remediation and curriculum alignment next year. He themed his presentation, “The Best is Yet to Come.” Our administrative intern gave a few details about the summer programs and solicited teachers to work during the month of June. All three programs will be managed by teacher leaders. Two of the programs were created at the suggestions of teachers. This is what I envision when I think about charter school possibilities.

The program ended with the awards. The principal compromised with me on the teacher recognition idea. Leadership Team paperweights were awarded by the Board Vice President to thirteen members of the staff who met monthly all year to make decisions about governance in the school. We also recognized a Volunteer of the year. Ms. Hester Cottles volunteered on all but three days this year. She refused my offer of a regular job, stating that she liked to come when she felt like it. Her attendance record was better than most teachers. I plan to solicit her for a position on the Board of Directors.

Our teacher of the year, Sondra Auzout was awarded a plaque and a gift certificate to a popular restaurant. She is a beautiful person and a delight to work with. I wanted to send her picture to the Times-Picayune with an announcement, but every shot has tears streaming down her face. She was so shocked by the honor from her colleagues that she could not stop crying those happy tears of joy. Neither could we.

Farewell Edweek.org
There were many topics that I could have written about in this blog that I did not choose to share with the general public. I’ve tried to be honest in my representation of the events at McDonogh 42 Elementary Charter School this year. If I committed any sins, they were sins of omission. My goal was always to tell the stories of our journey in ways that would teach others about our struggles and successes as they learned about our challenges. I did not expect to learn as many lessons as I was taught by the responses of the readers. Thank you, new friends.

Humbled and Grateful
Whenever anyone responded with a comment to one of my entries, I received a notice via email that stated something like this message, “A new comment has been posted on your blog Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education, on entry #4542 (Party Over Here).” Depending upon what I had blogged about most recently, I mentally sealed myself for painful verbal attacks, misrepresentations, and misunderstandings. I psychologically exposed myself to accusations, emotional charges and even name-calling in a very public forum. So many people from my professional life were reading the blog (although most did not comment in that arena) and emailing me encouraging messages that I thought about writing even when I did not have time to sit and chronicle what was going on in post-Katrina New Orleans. I hope to continue hearing from them via email at rjsmith52@aol.com.

Thank you to all of you readers in cyberspace for taking this journey with me from October 2007 to May 2008. One of my readers wrote “I imagine you have experienced the healing effect in writing, in telling your story, your truth, in feeling heard and valued.” He was correct. It has been a unique professional growth experience for me. I sincerely appreciate the opportunity given to me by Jeanne McCann and Caroline Hendrie, the editors of Education Week who allowed me to reflect on my efforts in this public forum without censorship or sanctions. I am eternally grateful to Lesli Maxwell, the EdWeek writer who initiated the invitation to me for this experience. They are courageous people. Finally, thank you parents, teachers, staff, students, and board members associated with Mc 42. You allowed me to learn, live, and love through this important work we completed together. Ciao!

The opinions expressed in Starting Over: A Post-Katrina Education are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.