Monday, December 26, 2011

Reasons unclear for fatal CPS decision to return a child to her parents

Reasons unclear for fatal CPS decision to return a child to her parents
By Brad Branan
The Sacramento Bee
Dec. 26, 2011

Giovanni Melchor was just a year old when he drowned in the stagnant water of his family's backyard swimming pool in late 2006. The family's single-story, purple-trimmed home in south Sacramento seemed well maintained on the outside. But inside, a neighbor said, the house was infested with roaches and city inspectors later cited Giovanni's father for an unsecured pool fence, the lack of a door closing off the garage from the pool, and a host of other health and safety code violations.Not even three years later, Giovanni's sister, Yeinira, who had been removed from the home and then returned, was also dead, a victim of medical neglect by her parents. Case files from Sacramento County Child Protective Services, recently obtained by The Bee, show how the 2-year-old girl died. Court records show that her parents, Jose Jaime Melchor, 35, and Elizabeth Melchor, 29, pleaded no contest to child endangerment charges in July and were deported this year.What the records don't explain is how the agency made the decision to return the child to care that led to her death.County officials say they cannot discuss the case or the records because of confidentiality laws.But without documentation, evaluating the agency's actions is difficult, said Ed Howard, senior counsel at the Children's Advocacy Institute in San Diego, who reviewed Yeinira's file at the request of The Bee."If we take them at face value – that there is no documentation for reuniting this child with a very troubled family – then this is a fiasco," Howard said. "You can't do this job without documenting your reasons for making such a decision."Specifically, CPS records for Yeinira do not show whether the agency conducted an assessment about the risk of returning her to the home – using what's called the Structured Decision Making tool – in violation of its own policies."In all of its reports, the (CPS) Oversight Committee has recommended comprehensive and consistent use of the tool," said Gina Roberson, co-chair of the committee. "It means social workers are using the best practices in trying to prevent child abuse."The CPS Oversight Committee, echoing the complaints of experts and child welfare advocates, has repeatedly found the agency's social workers have made questionable decisions and serious errors in high-risk cases such as the Melchor's. That assessment was repeated in other reports this year, including one by the California State Auditor.CPS released two sets of files on the Yeinira case. The first contained 12 pages and no information about the family's extensive record with CPS. The second, released after The Bee requested it under the California Public Records Act, had 124 pages.County Health and Human Services Director Ann Edwards said the release of the incomplete file was unintentional. But neither set answers the questions about the fatal decision to return her to her parents. A troubled historyThe year Giovanni died, the Melchors were living in a working-class neighborhood on Center Parkway. They had five children.Neighbors, attorneys and a social worker who had contact over the years with the Melchors, an immigrant family from Mexico, said the family needed help. They said Elizabeth Melchor seemed incapable of caring for her children and, according to court records, Jose Jaime Melchor physically abused his wife.Five reports of alleged abuse or neglect involving the family were made to CPS prior to Yeinira's birth in July 2006, court records show.Some of the reports involved the father, who allegedly had a drinking problem and abused his wife, according to court and CPS files. Other reports involved the mother, accused of hitting the children. Two of the reports were upheld by CPS.Yeinira had a heart defect and a cleft palate that made feeding her difficult. Less than a month after she was born, CPS received another complaint, noting the mother wasn't learning how to take care of her fragile daughter. The child was still in the hospital and at risk of dehydration if not properly nourished.Melchor "admits she is depressed and overwhelmed," according to an unidentified reporter quoted in the CPS case file. The mother and the father were refusing the training needed to feed Yeinira, according to the report. The source recommended placing Yeinira in a special foster home for her medical needs.The complaint was upheld. CPS started monitoring the child, but allowed her to go home with her mother. Yvette Washington, a home visitation worker with the county's Birth and Beyond program, was assigned to counsel the family."She seemed withdrawn," Washington said of Elizabeth Melchor in an interview with The Bee.Washington said she brought a public health nurse to the family's home to explain the risks of having a pool with stagnant water and a small and unsecured fence.The mother didn't seem to take the matter seriously, Washington said, adding that she stopped providing service to the family in 2006 because Melchor was unreceptive.Giovanni drowned in October that year. Melchor told police she was taking care of Yeinira, and left her other children unattended in the garage for about an hour, records show. Giovanni apparently wandered from the garage and into the pool.Police found the missing garage door and the unsecured pool fence. Neither parent was charged. CPS also initially declined to take protective action, determining that an allegation of neglect was unfounded, court records show.That reluctance befuddled some of the Melchors' neighbors.Andrea Garcia, who lived next door to the family, said the Melchors were troubled. Her interactions with the family usually came when something went wrong, she said, such as when the children were left outside in diapers in cold weather.The Garcias watched the other Melchor children while the parents dealt with the emergency of finding Giovanni in the pool.Andrea Garcia said the children were filthy. She said she entered the Melchor home for clean clothes and saw cockroaches everywhere.Her father, Jesus Garcia, said he had worried about the safety of the Melchor children under their mother's care."We never understood why CPS let her keep the kids," he said.Taken away, brought backTen months after the drowning, the four Melchor children became dependents of the county as a result of abuse and neglect, court records show.In Yeinira's case, her parents repeatedly failed to bring her to doctor's appointments, CPS records show. She missed eight appointments in seven months. Doctor's notes indicated a growing concern about her well-being.In foster care, she had surgery for her ailments and had recovered well. But in May 2008, less than two months after her surgery, Yeinira returned to her parents' home, joining her siblings who had been reunited with them several months earlier.To place a foster child back in a parent's home, CPS must convince a dependency court judge that the conditions that originally made the home unsafe had been fixed. For Yeinira, CPS needed to ensure the issues at home had been addressed, said Bill Grimm, senior counsel at the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, who reviewed the child's file at The Bee's request."Given all that was going on before, there was a pretty high threshold for them to resume care," Grimm said.The lack of documentation calls the agency's decisions into question, said Grimm, adding that returning Yeinira home without doing a risk assessment would have been a serious error, if that's what happened.Without careAfter Yeinira returned, she did not see a doctor for about a year because the family didn't have insurance, her father told Sacramento police investigators in 2009.During that time, Yeinira had a seizure, her mother told police. She said she put rubbing alcohol on a cotton ball and placed it under Yeinira's nose to revive her.A couple of months later, Yeinira had another seizure. Yeinira "fell back, arched her back, and her feet twisted" as she fell onto concrete, her mother said, according to the investigative report. She again used rubbing alcohol and an onion to revive Yeinira.The problem returned the next day, as Yeinira "fell forward, and her head hit the wall and her eyes went up," her mother said.Again, Melchor turned to an onion and rubbing alcohol to revive her daughter. Her father was holding Yeinira in his lap when the mother noticed Yeinira wasn't breathing, she told investigators.The father brought her to Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento, minutes away from their home. Two days later, April 20, 2009, Yeinira died at Kaiser's Roseville hospital because of a lack of oxygen in the brain, an autopsy found.The Coroner's Office said physical abuse also may have contributed to her death, noting that she'd had a broken arm and other recent injuries.In court documents, Dr. Michael Myette of Kaiser said he could say with "95 percent to 99 percent certainty that if the parents had accessed care when she began seizing, she would still be alive."One of the Melchors' attorneys, Lori Calvert, said the couple grew up without doctors and that Elizabeth Melchor had been taught to revive her mother, who also suffered from seizures, as she had revived Yeinira.The Melchors faced a number of obstacles, their attorneys said. They were illiterate in their native Spanish, couldn't speak English and were poor.The prosecutor handling their neglect case agreed and cited those factors when explaining to a judge why she sought approval for a plea agreement resulting in a two-year jail sentence for the Melchors, the lowest under sentencing guidelines.The judge agreed to the sentencing recommendation. The Melchors had served about a year in jail awaiting trial and, with various credits, were released in July after pleading no contest to the charges. They were deported to Mexico shortly afterward, without any of their children. Their attorneys said the children were put up for adoption by the county.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Failure to Report Student-Teacher Sexual Relations Costs SD Unified $1.25 Millio

There is a lot of secrecy in schools about things that should be discussed and, in some circumstances, reported to authorities. Schools should make a habit of having adults tell the truth. They do the exact opposite.

Failure to Report Student-Teacher Sexual Relations Costs SD Unified $1.25 Million
By Dave Rice
December 21, 2011

The California Court of Appeals has confirmed a $1.25 million judgment against the San Diego Unified School District, a decision filed Tuesday reports. The case stems from the District’s failure to report suspected sexual abuse while plaintiff Wieder was a student at the District’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA).

In 2007, Wieder filed a complaint naming the District, John Lee, and Elizabeth Laughlin as defendants, alleging negligence and failure in their statutory duty to report suspected child abuse. In 2008 the complaint was amended to name sexual abuse, sexual battery, battery, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

At trial, various school employees testified concerning their knowledge about a sexual and romantic relationship between Wieder and defendant Lee, that began while Wieder was in the 10th grade and continued through her high school years. Lee had been Wieder’s ninth grade physics teacher.

In the plaintiff’s sophomore year, she was a member of an after-school martial arts club that Lee instructed, and he often gave her a ride home after class in his pickup truck equipped with a camper shell. Wieder had developed a crush on Lee, who was 36 years old at the time. Shortly after Wieder’s 16th birthday, Lee initiated a sexual relationship.

The pair had intercourse one to three times per week throughout Wieder’s junior and senior years, according to testimony. Most of the time, Lee would drive her to a Mission Bay parking lot, where they would have sex in the back of his truck. The two were also close at school, with Wieder frequently eating lunch in Lee’s classroom and exhibiting displays of affection several testifying believe to be excessive.

Andrew Hinds, a teacher at SCPA, said he saw Lee and Wieder “hugging, grappling, stroking, and petting.” Wieder often spoke about Lee in class while she was a student of Hinds. In November 2005, Hinds began to suspect her relationship with Lee was sexual in nature.

Matt Stoever, another SPCA teacher, concurred. He told Hinds that a substitute teacher told him Wieder had confessed the nature of her relationship with Lee to a friend of the substitute. Hinds then wrote a letter to Laughlin, the school’s principal, informing her of what he had seen and heard. Stoever prepared a memorandum regarding what he’d seen, and made it available to police in a subsequent investigation.

Andrew Barbolla, yet another teacher at SPCA, testified that he heard from students that they believed Lee and Wieder were “maybe a little too close.” He also observed Wieder riding in the middle seat of Lee’s truck next to Lee, saw the couple hug multiple times, and witnessed Wieder run up to and jump on Lee, straddling him with her legs around his waist. Barbolla says he confronted Lee about the inappropriate relationship, and also conferred with Stoever and Laughlin about it, telling Stoever “it’s only a matter of time until [Lee] gets popped.” While Laughlin agreed she “needed to do something” about Lee, neither of them reported suspicions to Child Protective Services or police.

Hortencia Garcia-Rubio, another teacher, testified that she confronted Lee after having concerns expressed to her by another student. She says she also informed Laughlin about the report. The student testified that Susan Strasser, another SPCA teacher, was within five feet of Lee and Wieder while they engaged in some of the inappropriate behavior he’d witnessed.

Priscilla Pearson, an SPCA security guard, said she saw Lee and Wieder leave the campus together in Lee’s truck. She also saw them alone in Lee’s classroom, with Lee seated and Wieder standing behind him, running her fingers through his hair. Pearson immediately reported what she saw to vice-principal Emma Martinez, who went to the classroom and saw Wieder’s arm around Lee’s neck and her head on his chest, while other students milled about nearby.

Martinez pulled Lee aside and told him she thought the behavior was inappropriate, then reported what she’d seen to Laughlin. Martinez later wrote Lee, stating she was “shocked” with what she’d witnessed.

When it was principal Laughlin’s turn to testify, she denied Barbolla had reported any concerns to her. She likewise denied expressing concern about Lee to Hinds, and said Garcia-Rubio never reported student concerns either.

None of the witnesses reported what they’d seen to any higher authority than Laughlin. Child Protective Services and police did not become involved. The truth came out only after Wieder graduated SPCA and entered college, at which point Lee confessed to her mother that he and Wieder had shared a romantic and sexual relationship since her sophomore year. The relationship ended shortly after this conversation.

Before trial, Lee entered into a settlement agreement with Wieder for $40,000. After the trial, a jury awarded Wieder $250,000 in economic damages and $1,000,000 in noneconomic damages. It assigned 40 percent of the fault for harm caused to Wieder to the District, and 60 percent to Lee himself. The trial court then entered judgment against the District for $650,000.

On appeal, the District argued that Penal Code 11166, which requires “mandated reporters” including teachers, classified employees of any public school and others to report suspected child abuse, does not create a civil cause of action for its failure to follow the law. The district also argued that it “does not have any direct, mandatory duty under section 11166 to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse.” The appellate court struck down the appeal and upheld the judgment in total.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model

From Finland, an Intriguing School-Reform Model
New York Times
December 12, 2011

Pasi Sahlberg, a Finnish educator and author, had a simple question for the high school seniors he was speaking to one morning last week in Manhattan: “Who here wants to be a teacher?”

Out of a class of 15, two hands went up — one a little reluctantly.

“In my country, that would be 25 percent of people,” Dr. Sahlberg said. “And,” he added, thrusting his hand in the air with enthusiasm, “it would be more like this.”

In his country, Dr. Sahlberg said later in an interview, teachers typically spend about four hours a day in the classroom, and are paid to spend two hours a week on professional development. At the University of Helsinki, where he teaches, 2,400 people competed last year for 120 slots in the (fully subsidized) master’s program for schoolteachers. “It’s more difficult getting into teacher education than law or medicine,” he said.

Dr. Sahlberg puts high-quality teachers at the heart of Finland’s education success story — which, as it happens, has become a personal success story of sorts, part of an American obsession with all things Finnish when it comes to schools.

Take last week. On Monday, Dr. Sahlberg was the keynote speaker at an education conference in Chicago. On Tuesday, he had to return to Helsinki for an Independence Day party held by Finland’s president — a coveted invitation to an event that much of the country watches on television.

On Wednesday, it was Washington, for a party for the release of his latest book, “Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland?,” that drew staff members from the White House and Congress.

And Thursday brought him to the Upper West Side, for a daylong visit to the Dwight School, a for-profit school that prides itself on internationalism, where he talked to those seniors.

Ever since Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million that does not start formal education until age 7 and scorns homework and testing until well into the teenage years, scored at the top of a well-respected international test in 2001 in math, science and reading, it has been an object of fascination among American educators and policy makers...

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Dedicated teacher sentenced for murdering wife

It can be quite shocking hidden aspects of the personalities of "dedicated" teachers are revealed. You can't always judge a person by the personality he or she presents to the world. And you sure can't have any confidence at all in the hit-or-miss evaluations teachers receive in public schools.

Cruise ship killer gets life sentence
Greg Moran
Dec. 8, 2011

...On Thursday, Robert McGill was sentenced to life in prison by U.S. District Judge Irma Gonzalez, who acknowledged that McGill had led a life dedicated to helping at-risk teens but had to be punished for the murder for which precise motives remain unknown.

Shirley McGill’s children from a previous marriage and her elderly parents gasped in relief when the judge announced the sentence. They had pleaded with Gonzalez to impose the maximum sentence.

Robert McGill, 57, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in July, and his lawyers were seeking a sentence of slightly more than 11 years in prison. They cited his lifelong work as a dedicated teacher and that he was extremely intoxicated when he beat his wife, so much so that he has no clear memory of what provoked him or what happened...

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Police chief's many hats raise questions

Police chief's many hats raise questions
San Diego Union-Tribune letters
Chula Vista chief’s jobs raise questions
Susan and Peter Watry
Dec. 9, 2011

Recently on KUSI, Chula Vista Police Chief David Bejarano said that he spends 14 hours a day on Chula Vista police business (“Bejarano cuts ties to security firm,” Dec. 9). By that statement, it would seem that he certainly earns the $187,000 a year that Chula Vista pays him.

But then, when does he find time to earn $100,000 to $1 million as a board member of Vibra Bank? And when does he find time to earn $9,000 as a board member of the Chula Vista Elementary School District? And when did he find time to earn the $100,000 to $1 million that he earned, until recently, as an owner in Presidential Securities? And when does he find time to earn $1,000 to $10,000 serving as a consultant to Tatro & Zamoyski, LLP?

Whew, some guy!

And now he seems somehow mixed in with some private security firm, which in turns seems somehow mixed in with trying to smuggle Gadhafi’s son into Mexico. Wow. Wait until Vanity Fair writes its next story about Chula Vista!

Chula Vista
Stock options and security companies
J.F. Smith
Dec. 9, 2011

For the past two days, after reading about the hundreds of thousands of dollars that David Bejarano has made via stock options from a bank in which he serves on the board, at least two questionable security companies that he has “lent his name to,” and to consulting for an attorney firm that specializes in security legal services, all while serving as the sitting chief of police in Chula Vista, I have to ask the question — does “conflict of interest” mean anything anymore?

San Diego

General counsel at UCSD gets $15K raise

General counsel at UCSD gets $15K raise
His is smallest of dozen UC pay hikes approved this week
Ashly McGlone
Nov. 30, 2011

The general counsel for the University of California San Diego will see a $15,000 boost in pay thanks to a 6.5 percent raise approved by the UC Board of Regents this week.

Daniel Park, chief campus counsel and associate general counsel for UCSD, received the smallest pay raise among the 12 raises approved by the board Monday, including increases for six lead attorneys, four vice chancellors, a dean, and a chief operating officer.

Park, whose annual salary will rise to $250,000, did not respond to requests for comment via phone and email Wednesday.

The highest raise totaled $103,500 — a 23 percent increase — for the chief operating officer of the UC Davis Health System.

Raises among attorneys reached as high as 21.9 percent.

The raises follow recent budget cuts and tuition increases.

Dianne Klein, spokeswoman for the UC system, said the raises, many postponed for years, are necessary to maintain skilled employees.

“Financially, it’s a bad time. We recognize that,” Klein said. “We believe that granting these petitions could not be put off any more without sacrificing the quality of the university as a whole.”

How For-Profit College Lobbyists Bought Congress

How For-Profit College Lobbyists Bought Congress
By Don Bauder
San Diego Reader
December 10, 2011

The New York Times today (Dec. 10) has a story on how the for-profit college industry spent $16 million to soften government plans to rein in industry corruption. The lobbyists won, as usual. This means another debt crisis is coming. This year, student loans will total $1 trillion -- more than the total of credit card debt outstanding. For-profit colleges have 10% of students but account for 44% of loan defaults. Ashford University, which accounts for almost all the students at San Diego's Bridgepoint Education, has a dropout rate of 84% in its two-year program and 63% at its four-year programs. When the Department of Education proposed tougher rules to thwart boiler room-type abuses at the for-profit colleges, the lobbyists, such as former House majority leader Richard Gephardt, assaulted the White House, Department of Education, and the White House, reports the Times.

The Times didn't touch on one of the most interesting angles: how much money was accumulated by investors in for-profit college stocks. Throughout this year, I was saying that while Bridgepoint was a disgusting boiler room draining money from the federal government, its stock would go up. First, more than half its stock was short -- that is, the majority of investment money was hoping the stock would go down. This meant that if there was any good news -- such as the softening of proposed reforms -- the shorts would rush to cover, or buy Bridgepoint stock. That happened. The stock zoomed. How many Washington insiders raked in fat profits, knowing the rules would be emasculated and the stocks would soar? Plenty, I would bet. The manna is probably tucked away in an offshore, tax and privacy haven.

Nonprofit news website lays off three reporters, including education writer Emily Alpert

If I had known this, I would have thought much longer and harder before I made my donation five days ago. I can't help thinking that this should have been revealed sooner. All three of these people did work that was particularly meaningful to me. Is it possible that Emily was not enthusiastic enough regarding San Diegans 4 Great Schools to suit Buzz Woolley?

MEDIA: Nonprofit news website lays off three reporters
December 9, 2011, a nonprofit news website in San Diego, laid off three reporters and another staffer Friday because of a fundraising shortfall, according to a letter to readers on the site.

The three reporters are Sam Hodgson, photo editor; Emily Alpert, schools reporter; and Adrian Florido, neighborhoods reporter. Hodgson was the site's only staff photographer, according to its staff page. The letter did not identify the fourth person laid off.

The lay-offs amount to a 30-percent reduction in staff. The "about us" page lists 13 employees, including the now-departed workers.

In a letter on Voice's website, CEO Scott Lewis and Editor Andrew Donohue said they had raised $1.1 million this year, but had budgeted for $1.2 million. The pair budgeted $1 million for next year, a 17 percent reduction. The reduction did not come from the loss of a major donor, but out of concern that grants from national foundations might not be available, Lewis and Donohue wrote.

"Further budget reductions will not be considered for 2012," Lewis and Donohue wrote.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Local Student Exchange Programs Under Fire

Local Student Exchange Programs Under Fire
Homestay Services International, Pacific Intercultural Exchange Under Fire
December 6, 2011

Last week, allegations against a San Marcos man came to light. A Japanese exchange student said her host father, Fernando Paucar, molested her. Paucar denies the allegations.

Administrators at Palomar College – where the Japanese student is studying – have asked to meet with the owner of the agency who sponsored her, Homestay Services International.

According to an Oregon newspaper article, another San Diego-based exchange program, Pacific Intercultural Exchange, is facing a $2 million lawsuit after a boy said his host father molested him.

But American students studying abroad are also vulnerable. Danielle Grijalva of Oceanside founded the Committee for Safety of Foreign Exchange Students after hearing one horror story after another. She showed 10News reporter Itica Milanes a horrific picture of an emaciated American teen after he went to Egypt to study and explore the culture.

"When I see the photo, I have to rule out the word 'allegedly,'" said Grijalva...

Monday, December 05, 2011

Call to cut Education Department gets mixed reaction from educators

Call to cut Education Department gets mixed reaction from educators
December 3, 2011

When presidential candidate Rick Perry called for the elimination of the federal Department of Education in a debate last month, teacher Jim Groth did not bat an eye.

"I think it comes up every four years during presidential elections," said Groth, a Chula Vista math teacher who is one of two San Diego County representatives on the California Teachers Association board.

Perry's call to eliminate the department was overshadowed by a now-famous mental slip in which he forgot the third of three departments he said he would cut. He later said he would cut the departments of Commerce, Education and Energy.

The Department of Education was created by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 by combining offices from several federal agencies. According to the department's website, the agency's official task is to establish policies on financial aid for education and distribute and monitor the funds. It also collects data on schools and disseminates the research, focuses national attention on key educational issues, prohibits discrimination and ensures equal access to education.

"As in any bureaucracy, they do some good things, and yes, they do some silly things," Groth said about the department. "It's good in that they do collect a lot of information for us. But at the same time, they are a bureaucracy and it gets frustrating to deal with them."

Asked what they thought of eliminating the department, some local educators and trustees acknowledged that while a federal commitment to education is a good thing, they wouldn't necessarily miss the department if it went away.

"If you go back to our Constitution, education is a federal interest but a local or state responsibility," said Linda Solis, principal of Ramona Unified's Olive Peirce Middle School, which last week was recognized by the state as a model middle school.

Repeating a criticism often heard about the department, Solis also is critical that the federal government mandates programs without providing money to support them.

But the federal department does fund some programs, including Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program, or GEAR UP, which helps prepare underprivileged students for higher education.

Calvin One Deer Gavin, who runs GEAR UP at Palomar College, said he is highly concerned about the prospect of cutting the Department of Education, but understands arguments made by its critics.

"I know there's a debate ongoing that education should be local," he said. "Well, education is local. We have school boards, college governing boards. But the federal government's role is to guide the direction, to complement, supplement and attack some of the issues that the localities can't...

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Great idea: teachers could ask to be evaluated!

I like Paul Bowers idea of allowing teachers to ask for evaluations. The current system is close to useless. Many, if not most, principals write evaluations without doing adequate observations, and their opinions are often based on school politics. Many principals are afraid of their own bosses--and of their own teachers! Superintendents think no news is good news, so if a principal can keep a school quiet, that principal is considered a success.

Evaluations should be done by outsiders: ideally, the evaluators would come from another school district. I'd like to see both experienced and inexperienced teachers doing evaluations; it would be a great learning experience for the newer teachers.

What if someone started a business or non-profit dedicated to evaluating teachers?

VOSD Radio: No Way to Avoid Schools Insolvency?
November 21, 2011
by Dagny Salas

Listen to the Nov. 19 episode of our radio show on KOGO AM 600, which airs Saturdays at 7:30 a.m.

Editor Andrew Donohue and special guest Paul M. Bowers, a concerned parent and frequent VOSD commenter, spend the show talking about San Diego Unified School District's problems and potential solutions...

"Teachers are the second-most important part of the education equation."

Friday, December 02, 2011

District Investigating if Schools Use Poor Kids for Cash

I don't know anything about principals recruiting students, but I have experience of teachers trying to keep kids out of their classrooms, or forcing kids out of their classrooms after they were placed. Usually the teachers tried to get the kids placed in another classroom in the same school rather than in another school. I can say this for certain: some educators do not feel an obligation to help the students in their care; instead, they just try to make their jobs as easy as possible by getting rid of students who require extra effort. Many teachers are lazy when it comes to helping kids who are behind. They just don't want to do it.

I also agree with those who think that sometimes a neighborhood school with less than spectacular scores is better for some children than a school with very high scores. The child is more likely to be taught an an appropriate level.

District Investigating if Schools Use Poor Kids for Cash

by Emily Alpert
Voice of San Diego
Dec. 1, 2011

Imagine this: Principals recruit poor children to come to their schools. The poor children are counted so that the schools get federal money for disadvantaged kids. Then after the money is secure, principals nudge the poor children to leave. They keep the money but drop the kid.

It's a nefarious scenario — schools using children to get money. School board member Shelia Jackson alleges that it happens in San Diego Unified. Now the school district is going to investigate.

Jackson raised her allegations Tuesday night in the middle of a school board debate about how to divide up federal money for poor children. The school board voted unanimously to start an investigation into the allegations, seeing if principals are indeed using kids to bring in cash.

Schools get a share of roughly $21 million in federal money based on their poverty rate. San Diego Unified calculates that rate from the number of families who apply for free or reduced price lunch at each school. It also uses census data to add in local families who are poor enough to apply but didn't...

Thursday, December 01, 2011

How unhealthy is teacher culture? Suggestions to create a culture of collaboration

In my experience, far too many teachers spend their energy trying to sabotage other teachers rather than improving their own teaching. The phrases "teamwork" and "collaboration" are often just a cover for team dysfunction. The reality is that teacher cliques tend to operate with the tactics of high school girl culture.

Response: Several Ways Teachers Can Create A Supportive Environment For Each Other
By Larry Ferlazzo
Education Week
November 29, 2011

S.H. asked:

Our school culture has a growing sense of [unhealthy] competitiveness. I believe a lot of this stems from the fact that our administration does not recognize (or maybe they do and simply don't voice) teacher expertise using specific, positive praise. We do receive thanks yous - but they tend to be blanket statements and pretty general. (For example, "Thank you Ms. _____ for helping your team out.")

This appears to have led to some teachers to measure themselves against others. Rather than feeling grateful that the students in our school are being taught by many talented teachers, it has become a zero-sum game and fed rivalries and pettiness.

It's sad for me to admit this, but I don't think there's a ton of hope in my administration changing their ways. I guess my question is, how can teachers create a sincere, supportive environment for each other?

I've asked Bill Ferriter and Parry Graham, co-authors of Building a Professional Learning Community at Work: A Guide to the First Year, to provide guest responses to this tricky question, and also include some excellent reader responses later in this post.

I think they offer excellent specific suggestions. The one thought I'd like to contribute is that a challenge to many of us -- whether it is how we operate as teachers with our colleagues or with our students, or if we are administrators or policymakers -- is that it's easy to get caught up in the belief that power (or potential advancement, or success -- whatever you want to call it) is a finite pie -- that if you get some that means I will have less. The reality in the vast majority of instances is that the more I share with you, the bigger the whole pie gets and greater possibilities are created for everyone.

If I share my lesson plan with you, that really means that you might be able to make it better for both of us. If I tell you about the challenges that I faced in the classroom today, instead of making me appear weak, it instead demonstrates that I have the self-confidence to share and hear ideas from others who have probably experienced similar problems (or will in the future).

This perspective of the "pie getting bigger" is a core belief of community organizers (which I was for nineteen years prior to becoming a teacher). The first step towards making this happen in any institution or neighborhood is to build relationships -- an exchange of personal and professional stories -- so that people can learn the hopes, dreams and challenges of each other. The trust that develops during these conversations is the key building block towards countless possibilities...

Response From Bill Ferriter:

Bill Ferriter teaches 6th grade language arts in North Carolina, where he was named a Regional Teacher of the Year for 2005-2006. He is a member of The Teacher Leaders Network.

Another factor that feeds rivalries and pettiness in PLCs is the unhealthy push in many districts and states to use standardized test scores to rate and sort teachers.
Anytime that we try to assign numbers to individual teachers--rather than recognize that improvements in student performance come from collective reflection around practice AND the collective contributions of all of the practitioners that work with a group of children--competition is inevitable.

One way to address this is to establish a team norm that collaborative efforts AREN'T about studying successful people. Instead, they are about studying successful PRACTICES. While that may seem like a subtle bit of semantic gymnastics, it is an essential shift made by every healthy learning team. Conversations focused on the practices--instead of the people--that produce the best results are safer for everyone.

More importantly, they send the message that by working together to enhance and amplify effective instructional practices, a learning team can make tangible improvements in student achievement.

You'll have to be militant about language in order to cement this norm into your collaborative work, though.

Because teachers are (1). surrounded by efforts to tie performance to individuals instead of collaborative groups and (2). used to working in isolation, it is only natural to see competitive teacher-centered language slip into our conversations.

"Wow," we'll say, "Mary is a master! Look at her student's scores on the last assessment."

Instead, we should be saying, "Wow. Mary has discovered a practice that works! Look at her student's scores on the last assessment. How did you teach those skills, Mary?"
When your team stops talking about teachers and starts talking about teaching--or more accurately, student learning--you'll begin to erase the competition and defensiveness that is destroying your collaborative work.

Response From Dr. Parry Graham:

Dr. Parry Graham is the current principal of Luftkin Road Middle School in the Wake County Public School System. He is also an adjunct professor in the education department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

From what I can tell, there are two levels to this complex question. The first level is, what can an individual teacher do to impact the culture of her individual professional learning team? The second level is, what can teachers do to impact the culture of their schools?

At the team level (or department level or grade level), I think there are a couple steps a teacher can take. First, model what you think is positive behavior: don't gossip about other teachers, keep comments about others positive, praise others when you see something worth praising. Second, bring up your observations in team meetings. Mention your perceptions of negativity during a team meeting, ask if others have similar perceptions, and identify specific behaviors at the team level that can help to build a positive team culture.

At the school level, things get more complicated. First, I am somewhat dubious that a relatively simple behavior on the part of the administrative team--i.e., not recognizing teacher expertise using specific praise--could be the primary factor underlying a competitive culture throughout a school. School cultures are complex creatures that typically result from years of behaviors, actions, attitudes, and beliefs. Yes, administrators have some control over culture, but my guess is that the factors underlying this school's culture go much deeper.

So get involved in the kinds of groups that can influence school culture. If they exist, volunteer to serve on the school's improvement or leadership team, on curriculum committees, or on a hospitality group. If your backyard will handle it, host a schoolwide barbeque to bring teachers together outside of school. Set up a Friday afternoon club that meets after school to decompress over beverages of choice. In short, work to improve the relationships between the adults in the building, one interaction at a time.

Reader Responses

Kristen Hewett:

Building a sense of family and community spirit has been something that my school has struggled with for the past few years. As a mentor to our beginning teachers, one thing that I have started this year has been to ask them to select a staff member who exemplifies a certain trait that they admire and would like to emulate and have them let this teacher know this through a short note or a card. My hope is that this will allow my beginning teachers to make connections with other staff members and that it will help to build morale. My ultimate goal is to take this idea and slowly branch it out into other areas and begin a "pay it forward" type of movement. I know that this is just one small step, but my hope is that our small steps will eventually spark bigger changes.

Tyrion Lannister shares a way not to create a supportive environment:

My old school ordered teachers to collaborate, and then graded our collaboration according to a rubric.