Calling for 500 volunteers
Some people may be skeptical that the city school system will find 500 volunteers in the next two weeks. (I report on the campaign in today's paper.) But whether the initiative is successful may depend less on the number of people who step up to the plate than on how they're received at a school. System officials say the schools where they'll be deploying volunteers en masse will all have to ask for the assistance, and they'll have to give the volunteers something specific to do.
Historically, though, it's clear that some schools have struggled with parent involvement because they haven't made parents feel welcome. Letting parents into a school means more eyes on the adults running the place, as well as on the children.
If you haven't read Dr. Alonso's email to the community yet, I've pasted the text below.
Dear friends and colleagues,
I am writing to speak directly with you about safety in our schools, to share some important facts with you and to ask for your help. There has been a great deal of attention in the media over the past week about an altercation at one of our high schools, a disturbing cell-phone video of which was posted on the internet. As we have explained in the press, by law we are prohibited from commenting publicly about a specific incident involving a specific student or staff.
But beyond a specific incident, it is critically important that we communicate together about how to make our schools safe. This is fundamental to our work together of creating a system of great schools for our great kids.
A school must first of all be a safe and supportive place to learn. This is a fundamental commitment to our students, teachers, and parents and a major focus of our reform efforts. We take any disruption of the learning environment extremely seriously and must respond immediately and forcefully to any disruption. Certain behaviors should be and must be unacceptable, when they endanger adults and other children. I have made it clear over the past year that administrators in schools should follow the protocol which outlines the disciplinary process for our schools. There is a quite specific directive that when students engage activities that trigger persistently dangerous status (and they are specified by law) then they MUST be suspended. This year there have been 112 expulsions for incidents involving assault on staff, compared with 98 last year at this time. When students are not engaging in those types of activities, then schools should do everything possible to provide interventions that keep students in school, as opposed to pushing them out of school.
The evidence indicates that schools are following this guidance. Extended suspensions—a consequence for serious, violent disruptions-- are up by 7% over last year (1,254 compared to 1,173 last year at this time) while total suspensions for all conduct are down from 13,943 last year at this time to 10,502 this year.
The answer to the question of what makes a great school is not an automatic reaction that moves to throw a kid out of school for any inappropriate behavior. Earlier in the decade, the school system had over 26,000 instances of suspension, while outcomes were those abysmally low graduation rates you've also read about in the past week. The outcomes have improved as the number of incidents of suspensions has been reduced. That might have to do with this simple fact – you cannot teach children when they are not in school. Similarly, you cannot teach them to value themselves if the reaction to any mistake is to exclude them and to push them out. We cannot go back to practices that haven't worked because we still face challenges in our classrooms.
Schools are safe when there is:
A clear vision for the school that the entire school community supports and owns.
Instruction that reaches all kids, with their many different needs.
Support and interventions for students who –like many of our students—are dealing with serious challenges in their homes and communities.
Training to give our teachers, staff and students the tools to solve conflicts peacefully and respectfully.
Clear norms that everyone in the school understands and enforces, about what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Support from parents and community.
Please know that we are taking specific steps in each of these areas –in professional development, student support and re-emphasizing school norms. But, this essential work of making safe schools cannot be done by the administrators, teachers, staff or students at each school alone. I cannot say strongly enough how important it is for families and community members to rally around our schools, our teachers, and our students. To volunteer to take specific action to help our schools and students feel safe please click here. Please do all that you can to help.
We have taken critical steps toward making ours a system of great schools. We are shifting resources and responsibility to schools and away from the central bureaucracy. We are creating new options for students that address critical needs. And we are engaging parents and community in a much deeper way.
There is a great deal of good work still to do. Thank you for being steadfast in insisting that all our great kids get what they deserve: great schools.
Dr. Andres Alonso