Note to readers: I uncharacteristically made three separate posts between last night and this morning. Please don’t miss the previous two, the first of which is pictures from a wonderful event.
This piece has been a long time coming. Unfortunately, when you are a candidate in a campaign, talking to as many people as possible and making important decisions, it’s hard to sit down and let it all out.
The debates have passed, and while I think I picked up support at both, they were not recorded nor well attended at all, unfortunately. So much for building an advanced political discourse in Plainfield.
I doubt this has ever been done before by a Plainfield candidate, at least at this length, but here are my thoughts about a host of issues concerning the schools, some innovative ideas of mine, and responses to common myths, misunderstandings, and outright lies.
Let’s talk about the truth.
The Real Patronage
It’s ironic that our opponents throw out baseless allegations of patronage. The 4, 5, 6 slate is supported by Jerry Green who serves as our Assemblyman, the Democratic Chairman of Union County, and Plainfield’s Democratic Chair. He’s our most powerful local politician by a long shot – and he makes sure you know about it.
Both Center’s fiancé Lamar Mackson and School Board candidate #4 Michael Horn were hired by Union County. I’m not even talking about long time employees – the two were hired preceding this Board of Education election.
That’s what I call textbook patronage.
Tania Center was fired
She avoids talking about the issue – but Tania Center was fired from her teaching job at Stillman School recently. After losing her teaching job – losing such a position is not very easy to do in Plainfield – she has an ax to grind with the BOE for not blocking her termination, as they can for any employee. There is a rule where Board members can’t work for the district within one year, to avoid someone setting themselves up for a job beforehand. However, doing the opposite is permissible. There is no scorned teacher rule. Hence, we have Tania Center.
The positive state ratings; Nationally accredited High School
During our NAACP forum, Tania Center declared that the QSAC ratings should not be cited as a positive for a Board of Education. By the League of Women Voters forum, her entire team was singing a different tune, citing the numbers as a district positive. My guess is that they hadn’t even heard of them before.
These state ratings are essentially a report card for the Board of Education itself. They rate governance (100% in Plainfield), fiscal management (100%), instruction and program (62%), personnel (100%), and operations (95%). Several years ago, things were much worse. Additionally, in the three year period ending in 2010, the Board of Education had four different Superintendents and just as many Board Presidents.
If you have followed the campaign of the four-five-six team, they make it clear that they want another Superintendent despite momentum finally shifting in a positive direction. Their insistence on change at this juncture, four years in, is premature to say the least. They ignore that Plainfield High School is Middle State accredited now, after several decades – few can even remember when the last time it had its accredidation.
The party machine’s team uses fear mongering about state takeovers and test scores to push that narrative. The scores need to improve, as they’ve had to do since the 1970s – this is not a new phenomenon despite their constant rhetoric of panic and impending doom. Furthermore, changes in scores never come before the arrival of stability and positive report cards for the Board. Districts that are high achieving have long records of stability and competence.
One can always impress voters by yelling “change,” even when that change is just for change’s sake. Their call for change is accompanied by unfounded anecdotes about how everything is so miserable. The truth is that districts like ours have unique challenges and have to ultimately do even more than their neighbors, as I said during the LWV debates. But let’s not be tone deaf to the positive ways that the district is moving.
All Board of Education members and candidates should have their own ideas on how to improve further. Here are mine.
The Plainfield Board of Education has recently released a newsletter which many of you received between Thursday and Friday of this week. Maybe I’m swayed by a nearly life long belief in written media, but a well-written newsletter is an effective way to communicate with a large portion of the public, updating them. I think the frequency of these newsletters should increase to at least once per season – four times yearly.
Furthermore, newsletters – and potentially e-newsletters – would allow the district to use its resources to help other parts of the city. There are volunteer-run organizations that partner with the Board of Education, like the Queen City 5k Walk/Run or the YMCA, which may lack the resources to get the word out the entire community. A welcome consequence of more regular newsletters would be stronger unions with other groups, and more successful partnerships – more engagement.
The recently unveiled Plainfield Public School smart phone and tablet application is a great start towards advancing communication. You can find it in the Apple Store and on google play.
Maintaining a Physical Presence
Of course, a newsletter or app notification won’t reach everyone.
Legendary educator Jonathan Kozol, at the beginning of his career when he taught third grade in Chicago, made it his mission to visit the homes of each of his students throughout the year. He usually showed up around dinner time, and the results were remarkable. Even his most disruptive students became more endeared to him when they saw that he cared enough to visit their home – not to talk about their performance, but just to say hello.
While this is obviously not enforceable throughout a district – Kozol decided to do so himself – there are districts that have had voluntary community walks, comprised of School Board members, teachers, administrators, and other staff. It’s a way to be on the ground, to meet students and parents at their homes, at their meeting places, at public gatherings.
Right now in Plainfield we have several visible and active Board of Education members. At the very least, I intend to count myself among them.
Project Based Learning
Can you remember your favorite multiple choice or short answer test you ever took? Probably not. Few can.
The truth is that testing has its limits. Many students don’t test well, and even those that do don’t really benefit from it. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire refers to traditional education as “banking education.” We teach as if students are empty vessels without knowledge, and their teachers as depositors of wisdom. Students then regurgitate what they’ve memorized to the teacher’s satisfaction, hampering – according to Freire – critical thinking skills, creativity, and a desire to change the world around them.
Project based learning refers to actively working on a collaborative project, during which student’s progress is judged on a rubric based on a host of factors – not unlike real-world teacher evaluations. In fact, in adult life we are all judged in this way. As an architect, I am judged on my overall performance in delivering projects – not whether or not I can fill in bubbles or write short answers about them.
Students are no different, and they are much easier to engage when the end result of their work will be a product. Furthermore, teachers who use project based methods to teaching report that their pupils do at least as well on required standardized tests.
I believe that the district should keep an eye towards project based learning when hiring a new curriculum specialist.
Board of Education Meeting Attendance
During the League of Women’s Voters Debate, I made the point that Board meetings will never be interesting for mass parental consumption. I stand by that claim.
Parents have limited time. With so many schools lacking in high or even decent percentage participation in its own PTO’s, we can’t expect to see people coming out in droves to the Board of Education’s business meetings. During the debates I did a little bit of simple math. Seventy-five parents at a BOE meeting – a huge amount, historically – would still be at absolute maximum one percent of all parents. The only time BOE attendance has spiked is when people are angry. This is not unique to Plainfield, as attendance in all districts is low without controversy. In fact, the Plainfield Board of Education once put on student-driven entertainment prior to its meetings in hopes to attract larger crowds. As soon as the children were done performing and the business began, the parents cleared out.
Additionally, despite Tania Center’s claim otherwise, these meetings are televised. I don’t watch public access television much, admittedly, so I was just short of 100% positive when she made the claim – but they certainly are on PCTV. In fact, Ms. Center should have known these meetings were broadcasted. At a recent business meeting, the machine’s candidates were caught participating in subversive activity by trying to compromise the district’s taping of said meeting.
My opponents have also suggested that Board Meetings should be moved much earlier. Totally off-base. For bi-monthly 8pm work study and business meetings, members must arrive at 6:30. I think we’d all agree that it’s unreasonable to ask anyone to ask working people to arrive much earlier than that, as many jobs let out at 5:30 and 6pm. It’s hard enough to find people who’d like to serve on the Board of Education nowadays. Let’s not introduce another hurdle of, say, 5pm arrival.
Improved Dual Language Program
Due to its diverse population, Plainfield has a wonderful opportunity to build upon its dual language program. Often, our dual language classrooms are comprised primarily of Spanish-speaking students who learn English with few to no English-speaking students learning Spanish. The benefits to being bilingual are well-established, both on a cerebral and practical level, and we should look for ways to give that opportunity to children who speak both Spanish and English at home.
The machine’s candidates have addressed bilingual education, too. Norman Ortega voiced concerns that the district doesn’t have enough special needs ESL teachers. No district does, but apparently Ortega never heard about the massive, national shortage of bilingual ESL teachers of all sorts.
A Budget Consultant
It is my understanding that school boards spend a good amount on repairs, like boiler repairs and maintenance – to use one example. Costs can go into the hundreds of thousands of dollars for this sort of work through outside companies – levels that may make it reasonable to hire a budget consultant to see what can be done in-house. There could be big advantages to in-house work of any sort when it’s deemed financially advantageous – not the least of which is potential employment of local workers.
Before the 2012-2013 school year, the BOE hired an energy consultant who was able to trim over a quarter of the school utility bills. The 1.5 million yearly that the Board saved was put towards the upcoming technology roll-out at zero cost to tax payers. A budget consultant could make similar recommendations in other areas.
Suspensions & Restorative Justice
If we check the numbers, suspensions are often students’ first contact with the criminal justice system. You can do your own google search, there’s plenty of evidence. Some consider it as important cog in the coined “school to prison pipeline.” Plainfield is not particularly egregious in the area of suspensions, but this is a universal problem in many districts.
Suspensions are a result of conflict of some sort, and most conflict is a result of bad communication and misunderstanding. The concept of restorative justice is to make the punishment “fit the crime,” so to speak – using draconian suspensions only as a last resort. Instead, a restorative justice specialist intervenes with both parties and figures out where the break in communication was and aims to resolve the damage done. The intermediary gains the trust of the students, not only giving a voice to the offender, who may be dealing with all sorts of issues, but they give a voice to the victim, who is usually never heard. Lines of communication are kept open.
I’d like to at least take a look at the benefits of such a program, which are gaining momentum in the educational community.
A New Teacher’s Contract
Incumbent Dorien Hurtt was offended by my statement at the League of Women voters forum that the teachers need a contract. It’s true that Board of Education members, especially those in on negotiations that serve on the negotiating committee, are not able to comment on contract matters. Nevertheless, there are always two sides to any negotiation, and it’s important that both sides communicate effectively.
I ran into two teachers, separately, who informed me that word amongst PEA members is that Mr. Hurtt said that the teachers “don’t deserve a raise.” It’s a shame that the teachers heard someone who represents the BOE in their negotiations thinks that they don’t merit a routine pay increase. At the very least, this is a crucial failure in communication.