Sunday, December 20, 2015
Dianne Williamson: A view from the Southbridge educational trenches
Kelly Landine is a gifted, devoted teacher at Southbridge High School, deemed so troubled and chaotic that it's at risk of a state takeover.
I've known her for years and once sat in on an English class she taught at Quinsigamond Community College. I was awed by her ease in the classroom and her connection to the kids, many of them minority students. She made them laugh and made learning fun, and it was clear they adored her.
Landine graduated from Southbridge High in 1991 and said she was "ecstatic" when she was hired to teach at her alma mater in 2003, only to be laid off twice in one year due to budget cuts. Her last pink slip came when her newborn was in an intensive-care unit and her mother was on hospice. She later accepted a job at QCC and taught there for 10 years.
"But I still felt the huge pull to come back to SHS," she said. "There is something special about the kids in this town. I wanted to become a teacher because of the teachers I had in this district."
She was rehired to teach at Southbridge this fall. Recently, the state released a scathing assessment of a school district in which 72 percent of students fall into the "high needs" categories of English language learners, poor, or disabled. The 100-plus-page report found problems everywhere - in leadership, curriculum, instruction, professional development, student support and financial management.
Landine is frustrated, so much so that she wants to go public and cork off. It's instructive to hear from a caring teacher on the front lines, and here's what she says:
"I was back at SHS for two weeks when I quickly realized this isn't the SHS of 2003 and certainly not 1991. I started to assess our main issues. Issues so huge that I don't want to hear about MCAS scores. I was back less than 70 days when our designated state monitor spent six minutes in my Honors English class. The students were their usual brilliant, articulate selves, making poignant connections to the savage (January) bombing in France to the savage behavior in "Lord of the Flies." Did that get reported out? Nope. What came out of this six-minute observance? The state monitor essentially called me a racist teacher. Why? I spent apparently 3.4 seconds longer on the side of my classroom that has 3.4 more white kids. Me. The girl who grew up in town. Me, who has had a long-term Hispanic partner.
"This state monitor has been at SHS years to watch over us. In six minutes she decided I was racist, but she can't report back that the problem at SHS is we need Student Support Services? She can't figure out that MCAS scores don't matter when we have kids who get kicked out of home and are living in a car, or think they are pregnant or got reamed out again by a mom higher than a kite? She can't realize we need an alternative school to remove the 24 kids who can't handle school right now? These kids are so off the wall they are ruining the learning environment. I have a room with 24 kids. Most have outdated 'sped' plans, three don't speak English. We have no English language learner director. What am I supposed to do to help these kids? MCAS scores? They can't even sit still for five seconds.
"The report at times is designed to tear us down. Specifically, it states that a Grade 10 ELA teacher told students that, "Spelling and grammar do not matter, just answer the question." Makes us look incompetent. What did the state leave out? Context. What my colleague was instructing his students on was the MCAS Open Response strategy. The state decided spelling and grammar don't matter. How ironic they nail him on a gross standard they set.
"I have had it. Shove your MCAS scores.
"Then there is the evil contingent here. Made up of former school committee members and a former superintendent. They are happy to hear about all these failings, but they fail to see their hand in it. These are the same people who sent a central office staff member ... to the same church as the SHS current principal to dig up dirt to get rid of her.
"I'm angry for the kids. This is outrageous. We owe them better - parents, teachers, administrators, the state. We owe them more than we're giving them.
"The state is making a decision in the days to come. All they need to do is take over the inept Central Office staff, and get us Student Services, an alternative school, ELL director, ELL staff, behavior specialists, school psychologists. All of this needs to happen. Then we can talk about MCAS."