Favorite "Meditation of My Heart"

Call unto me,

and I will answer thee,

and shew thee great and mighty things,

which thou knowest not. --Jeremiah 33:3 KJV

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

First Day of School Worries (Revisited)

On this First-Day-of-School Eve, my three kindergartners to-be have been very excited.  At dinner we asked them to tell us why they are excited.  Both Mark and Luke explained because they will get money.  After a few moments of confusion, we realized what they were saying.  Both of them thought that they would get money for perfect attendance like during Summer school!  Needless to say, we had to burst that bubble as we couldn't let them think the school would pay them on Friday!  After the bad news, the boys are still excited for the bus ride in the morning, but they are much less excited about actually going to school.

As I was sitting at my desk tonight and thinking of all my worries for my kindergartners, I could not help but remember when Vanessa and David started kindergarten.  I had so many worries.  However, on that day, a misunderstanding lessened my worries.  I found this story that I had written about their first day.  I thought that you might enjoy reading it too.

In May of 2009, I was dreading what was ahead for David and Vanessa.  I knew my own early experiences in school and I was worried.
For the past year, I had stayed at home with the kids after their adoptions. We had worked on pre-school skills, life skills and English skills to get them ready for kindergarten.  However, that year flew by quickly and it was soon going to be time to go to traditional school in August.  I was very reluctant, but I knew this was a step that they needed to take. 

Kindergarten would be a big step with all new adventures, new skills, new friends and new discoveries.  However, it was the new discoveries that worried me and to be honest, even scared me.  I can remember my first year of school, and while it was not a bad year, I learned some tough lessons that year.   Lessons that I still sometimes wish were not true.  I cringed at the thought of David and Vanessa learning similar truths about their world.
In the 1970’s, I lived an ideal life with my parents on a small farm.  My grandparents lived beside us and our community and church were small.  Due to my being born with a disability, I had been to see the “Big City” many times and frequently spent weeks at the Children’s Hospital with kids from all over the world.  School would prove to be an intrusion into my ideal life.  From my very first day at school, I started to learn tough lessons.  No one looked like me.   No one was taught like me, and ultimately I learned that not everyone wanted me in their school.  Unlike the hospital, with kids with all types of disabilities and unlike my home, with my father who was a disabled veteran and our neighbor with a wooden leg, at school I was the only one with an obvious disability and at first I was a curiosity.  Eventually, my classmates became bored with being entertained by my every move and they mostly accepted me as a playmate.  Recess became the best part of my day because I mixed freely with my new friends.  In the classroom, I sat in the back at a table and colored.  I could catch bits and pieces of what the others were learning and I was occasionally given a book like theirs to look at while they did their lesson. I learned the words for kids like me.  I disliked the word “retard” the most.  Some teachers didn’t think I could be taught and I learned that some did not want to waste time with me.  Even the principal doubted aloud in my presence if I belonged in their school.

My early experiences were the solid foundation of my fears for David and Vanessa.  Haitian by birth and now living in rural America, they enjoyed a small community of family and friends.  They had already made many discoveries, just coming to join our family.  Starting in the airport and continuing at church, they found out that few black people spoke Creole, even the darkest skinned people spoke English.  To add confusion, a white woman with light hair spoke Creole to them because she had lived in Haiti.  David knew that he looked different than me.  As he colored pictures of moms and kids, moms were orange and kids were brown.  However, what concerned me the most is that like me, neither David nor Vanessa knew that their community was not like their home and church. 
To try to ease the transition to go school, I made arrangements for David and Vanessa to go to pre-kindergarten, two Vacation Bible Schools and a day camp.  When the first day of Summer school arrived, David and Vanessa were so excited to get to go play with lots of kids.  I drove the kids to school that morning, and I got Vanessa to her class first.  Due to her disabilities, she had already met her teacher and toured as part of the process of getting the school ready for her so she separated from me quickly and was ready to start her day with the help of a classroom aid.  David and I went more slowly to his classroom, pointing out where the cafeteria and restrooms were located and finally stopping to take a picture of him outside the classroom. 

We entered the room and we were greeted by an experienced and prepared teacher who had activities already going at the tables.  I took David to the seat for him, and he immediately dove into playing with the building blocks at his table.  I lingered and took a couple more pictures as he started to talk to the boy next to him.  I was pleased to see that the boy was a minority, and based on a brief exchange with his mom as she left, I knew they were from Guatemala.  I was pleased that David would not be the only minority student!  David had told me bye, and I was across the room when I heard the little boy ask in a suspicious tone, “Who was that?”  I stepped behind a cabinet out of view. David said, “My mom.”  The boy said, “That’s not your mom.  She’s white.”  I sucked in my breath and waited to hear David’s response.  David said insistently, ”She is my mom.”  The boy said, “Not your real mom.”  I was about to step back around the cabinet, when the teacher interrupted the boys with a new activity.
That afternoon I went to get David from school.  The little boy and David saw me waiting in the hall.  I could hear enough to know that they had resumed their previous conversation.  I stepped closer to the door as the boy was asking David questions again.  David replied, “There are white moms too”.   Then the little boy asked, “How do you get to school?”  David seemed annoyed as he answered, “I told you; in a car.”  The boy inquired, “But who drove the car?” David seeming more annoyed, ”My mom!” The boy confused, “Your real mom?” David pointing to me in the hall, “Yes.”  The boy then said, “She can't drive.”  David who was looking completely annoyed now; responded, “White moms can drive too!”  As luck would have it, the bell rang and David came running to me.  I figured I’d explain the little boy’s concern about my disability and driving later.

On the way home, David told me all about his day including about the boy who kept asking him about his mom all day.  David explained,” He has a brown mom.  He doesn’t know about white moms.”  He exclaimed, “He didn’t even know that white moms can drive!” 
I decided that David understood the little boy just fine so I never explained the boy’s concerns.  However, that afternoon I felt more confident that David and I would do just fine handling the tough realities of kindergarten…one misunderstanding at a time.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Give Me What Is Right for Our Kids....

A BIG apology to everyone who has had to hear me rant this week on this subject.  I finally just put it all in writing to our Board of Education and emailed it. 

Neosho is an awesome school, but we need everyone's input, expertise and vote of confidence to stay awesome!  Awesome takes work and facing some often harsh self-images for the purpose of improvement. 

Please disregard any typos or grammar errors that I tend to make more freely when I feel passionately about something and I am passionate about this subject.  We have needed a new Jr. High School for over 5 years.

If you are not from Neosho, but an educator or school administrator please consider reading point #4.  It is true in most every community in our area. 
                                                                                                                                                                                Dear Neosho R-V Board Member;
I have been hoping that this letter would not need to be written.  My letter is concerning the inability to pass the increase needed for a new school.  It is typically my policy to only offer solutions, not criticisms.  However, I am finding it difficult to offer solutions without explaining what has gone wrong.  Please set aside egos and read this with an open mind.  I am hopeful that my observations may help our district get the Junior High School building that it has needed for over 5 years.

1.       Our new superintendent was not given the proper chance to build a rapport with voters before he was out “with his hand in their pocketbooks”.  Decker’s first contacts with community groups should have been to give a “state of the district” assessment.  He should have had a year to brag on what is going well and prepared people for what he saw as challenges for the district.  He needed to give people a vision to “buy into”.  Instead, Decker was introduced and then sent to tell the community how badly the school needed money.  I am sure it was done out of urgency, but it disengaged some voters from the feeling of being a part of improvements and made many informal community leaders with concerns appear as opposition in open forums.  Additionally, it is generally believed that passing tax increases is good for a superintendent’s career so without rapport, Decker’s meetings with the public seemed self-serving to some, rather than being a genuine need in our community.
                Our school needs other things too, and by mentioning the building on a list of big and   small things that are needed would give time for people to see progress and “buy in”.  Even a             SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis written by/for Decker and published in the newspaper or online would have prepared voters to be a part of change. 

                Changes to the front of the high school surprised the community.  Signs should have been up   months before construction started and a media blitz should have explained how and where the  money was coming from and why the front of the school was selected.   The way it was handled, lead many to take the attitude “See, I voted no and they found the money in their deep pockets.”

2.       A clean-up of past mistakes and misunderstandings should have occurred.  Carver was a big disappointment to many voters, especially older citizens.  As I have explained to Shawn Dilday and Tim Crawley, the day after Grandparents’ Day is not a positive time to get school reviews at the Senior Center and other meetings of grandparents.  The lack of parking at South and Carver and the excessive walking distances at Carver are viewed dimly.  Carver has never had ADA complaint parking despite complaints since the ribbon cutting event (that I could not attend because the only ramp was blocked).  A second ramp and parking in the back lot was added, but the door was kept locked for 6 years.  Crawley says a buzzer was added over the Summer and I look forward to using it.  However, unless a note is added to the information sent home concerning Grandparents’ Day, most people won’t know that the back lot is now an option.  Crawley explains that he is new and did not know of these problems, but our new leaders must fully understand our past mistakes and challenges!   I was furious when I saw the artist’s depiction of the new Junior High with the disabled parking as far from the main door as possible!  It told me that the district is not learning from its mistakes and it is not interested in “my” issues, which should be “our” issues.  If Crawley had known that the parking at Carver is viewed negatively, he could have asked the artist to correct the drawings before they offended people.

Questions and concerns about past problems, donated land, location, and clumping so many schools close together by a bus barn needed lots of public forum exposure at community meetings, on the web, on the radio and in the newspaper before asking for money.  I have heard so many people say, “the bus barn, Carver, Middle School and a Junior High that close together?  What if there is a tornado?  Our community will have too many assets in one place.”  Plus there are concerns about traffic.  Some people already feel that pickup and pulling onto Norway is too congested.  If intersection improvements are planned, then this should be public knowledge.

3.       The Devil is in the details…asking for millions of dollars before releasing a floor plan sketch that demonstrates good stewardship of the money is only inviting critics and “no” votes.  Of course construction costs can be estimated by square footage, but voters want to know what is in that square footage.  I toured the high school on a day that the air conditioning was running and the fire place was burning in the library.  The nice amenity of a relaxing fireplace was instantly rebranded as “showing off” and wasting resources. 

Current estimates say that 30% of our population is in arrears on one or more major loans.  When people must keep their thermostat in the 60’s in the winter and people are forgoing air conditioning, neighbors have a hard time voting for an increase that will place further hardship on their friends and loved ones, especially if they are thinking that the new building could be built for less. 

4.       Neosho is a town of hardworking and thrifty people.  It is not a town of cheap people.  It is a town of people who know the value and power of a dollar.  The school has presented itself at “odds” with the basic community values of stewardship and fiscal responsibility numerous times without realizing it.  One example is the school supply lists.  Those lists have more name brands than they should, and the name brands are even bolded.  (Elmer’s ® purple glue, what is wrong with Scholastic® purple glue at ¼ of the price!  Metal blade Office Depot ® scissors are identical to Fiskar’s ®at 1/3 of the price!)  Post-its, Crayola, Play-doh, Eagle, Avery binders, Clorox wipes, Papermate  and Ticonderoga pencils,  Expo markers, and Germ-X just make me want to scream, “Who do you think we are!” (BTW- Kudos to Dr. Fox’s building which did not include a single brand name on any list!  It is much appreciated.)  Does the BOE realize who buys 60% of our kids’ school supplies?  Let me tell you, it is grandparents.   You just asked limited income patrons for more at the ballot box right after they just bought “you” brands that they don’t have in their own homes.  Yes, I said “you” and not “their kids” because when the school asks for brand names it becomes about the school’s needs and not the kids’ needs.  Name brands need to go! 

5.       Shorter Fridays cost people money.  When the school day was shortened many folks found themselves searching for affordable after school care.  People have turned to grandparents and the goodwill of neighbors who are now providing funds for snacks and recreation for little ones and big ones every week.  Our family is adding extra hours for a nurse’s aide because my children’s medical needs cannot be met through a program like the YMCA.  We are not alone because other special needs families have called me looking for affordable ideas.    Our nurse’s aide costs $12.38 an hour.  That may seem small, but it will equal $1,188.48 or more in new expense for our family by May 2015.  Was this even considered when the BOE voted to shorten Fridays?   This Friday schedule change has hit a lot of people in an already empty wallet.

6.       The problems need clear explanations.  Never did I hear the public being informed that the 8th-12th graders are dismissed a minute early to get to/from the trailers.  If that 1 minute happened just once a day, that is almost 3 hours of lost instructional time per year.  No one explained that instructional time is also lost during tornado watches/warnings.  No one took a picture of a crowded hallway at the high school.  No one showed the class meeting in the atrium.  There was no list of classes/opportunities that cannot be offered at the high school because we are out of room.  Neosho is a VERY giving and generous community, but in order for generous people to help, they must see the needs.

7.       Do you fully understand how much money the school asks our community for already? 

ü  Field trip money (lots of field trip money),
                  ü  money for required school planners,
                  ü   school picture money two times a year (and you just try to tell your little one that you aren’t buying their cute picture!),
                  ü  3+ fundraisers a year plus a PTO Carnival with baskets to donate to and raffle tickets to buy/sell,
                   ü  book fairs,
                   ü  school dances/fun nights with concessions,
                   ü  book orders,
                  ü  Spirit Day tattoos/face painting,
                  ü  sports fees,
                  ü  Stuff the Bus donations,
                  ü  school T-shirt money,
                  ü  gifts for teachers,
                  ü  classroom snacks (about 9 times per year per child..store bought and individually wrapped) plus store bought birthday cupcakes,
    ü  teacher appreciation carry-in meals, and  
                  ü  donations for Trike A Thons and Pennies for Patients and on and on….

 It is no wonder voters may be experiencing “compassion fatigue”.  It is time to say “Thank you” and limit the requests.  One school picture is enough.   One fundraiser is enough (and fundraiser assemblies are a BIG waste instructional time).  I personally would pay money to not have my kids involved in fundraising!  Ten dollars a year for field trips (including Summer school) is enough.  Book orders and book fairs are  often a financial burden, and the carnival trinkets are a choke hazard and in the trash in a week.   My kids have seen more movies in theaters with the school than with our family.  Who spends cash this way?  In today’s economy, less is more.    

Steps in the right direction include the following:

Ø  Align the schools needs with the community’s values. 

Ø  Work on engaging in a rapport and cooperation with all citizens by providing multiple opportunities to ask questions of the public and to share concerns with the public in a variety of settings. 

Ø  Create a system for “knowledge management” in which mistakes and misunderstandings of the past are imparted to new staff so consistent answers can be given as these issues are revisited.

Ø  Take the narrow focus off the building/overcrowding temporarily.  Broaden the lens and show people the other challenges.  I, for one, am alarmed at the small percentage of students taking advanced and honors’ classes and the stagnant average of our ACT scores.  If the district can show the public their problems, the creative solutions, and the opportunities to help be a part of the solutions, especially in non-monetary ways, then people will feel more a part of the school.  This will show the voters that money is not the only solution that the R-V uses to solve our community’s challenges.

Ø  Don’t put this back on the ballot for at least a year and consider an April 2016 election.  (April is a great time for people to give money at the ballot box as some have just gotten a tax return.  In fact even fixed income families often get the Property Tax/Circuit Breakers credit return right before the April election so they will have just had a reminder that the increase will likely not affect their overall budget.) 

Ø  Get a focus group of about 18-20 people and look hard for folks who openly say that they voted no to serve on the committee.   During the wait time for it to be on the ballot again, get a specific plan and get feedback from the focus group before releasing it to the public.  Adjust the plan accordingly and then “wow” people with the value of their dollar.  Tell them exactly what they are getting and show them that it is the right building in the right place, with the right features and at the right price.

Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions or need any clarifications.  I apologize for the length of the letter, but I should have drafted it sooner...five years sooner.

Leatta Workman