I have a typical David vs. Goliath story for you today. As our school district goes through huge changes in the next year there have been many questions that need answering. Some of those questions are easy, some, not so much. As we move from a junior high model to a middle school model, many district task forces have been formed to answer these questions. I am actually on one of those reconfiguration task forces as a staff member, community member and parent.
Currently our junior high schools have a popular program called Self-Select Challenge. The program allows students and parents to select more challenging classes in the core subjects. The purpose, to be better prepared for AP/IB classes when they enter high school and to challenge those students who tend to get bored in regular classes. The debate over the fate of the challenge program has erupted in our community over the last nine months, with passion on both sides of the issue. Our wonderful school board gave the responsibility of a recommendation for this program to my task force. We, in turn, created a sub-committee who could spend the in-depth time required to make such a decision.
As the school year continued, the sub-committee spent hours upon hours pouring over data provided to them by school district administrators. Unfortunately, as I personally have found out, district administrators always have an agenda. The provided data supported their desired outcome, to eliminate the challenge program and create heterogenous classrooms with the challenge curriculum. The sub-committee presented four options to the task force and we voted on our level of support for each of the options. Myself and one other task force member voted to keep the self-select challenge program. The four options were then forwarded onto the school board with the votes from the task force. The board deleted two of the options, leaving two options to choose from.
The first option was challenge classes for all students and the second was challenge classes for all 6th graders and self-select challenge for 7th/8th graders. Over the last nine months, many people have testified before the school board regarding the challenge program. I myself, sent a letter to the school board explaining my position. Up until last night, I had abstained from testifying before the board. However, as one of only two task force members to support keeping the program, I thought it was time. Below is my speech standing up for what is right for all students, not just some.
My name is Leah Williams. I am a lifelong community member, district staff member, Middle School Task Force member and, most importantly, a parent. I am here to address the decision on the challenge program. I do not need to be here, however, as one of only two task force members to support keeping the challenge program, I felt it was important for me to speak.
I do not need facts, figures and studies to know that challenge for all would be a huge mistake. My own children have had struggles with regular classes; my son being forced into a remedial class because he failed the [state test] by a few points, my daughter forced to sit at the “kitchen table” during lunch at [her junior high] because she had a failing grade. In both instances, my children were humiliated by letting the entire school know that they were in trouble. By being in a remedial class, my son was only able to do one semester of an elective because he is a band student.
If challenge for all is selected, these remedial classes and interventions will grow with more and more students made to feel bad about their individual learning abilities. I say individual, because that is how we should be looking at our students. Grouping them together in an accelerated class will hold some students back and make more students struggle.
I also wanted to address a previous board meeting. The disrespect that staff members showed towards students and parents made me ashamed to be a staff member. Yes, I am only a bus driver, but up until that night, I was always proud to be a part of [our district]. I could not believe the callous behavior of our staff walking out and not listening to differing opinions especially from their own students.
This brings up another point. More staff than you know support keeping the challenge program, but they are afraid to speak out. They are afraid of retaliation from the [teacher’s union], other staff and administrators. I fully expect repercussions from my speaking tonight, whether it be getting kicked off the task force, or administration trying to find ways to fire the trouble maker. Retaliation is rampant in our district. I must say, however, that I don’t mind being called a trouble maker, I am just taking after my ancestors. Thank you.”
Of course, I was shaking the entire time that I was speaking and ended up with tears by the end. Many people spoke before and after I did last night, mostly supporting keeping the challenge program. Two students presented the board with personal surveys that they had taken of their fellow students. What a concept?!? Ask the students what they want! No adult has asked the students what they want. After the public speakers were finished the board took a short break as it had been about 2 hours of commentary. During the break I had about a dozen people approach me and thank me for my words and bravery. I must say, I did not feel brave, more scared to death! However, I am passionate about doing what is right and not what is easy.
As the vote approached, the board members started explaining why they would vote the way they would. I could tell that four out of the five struggled with this decision. The one who did not struggle obviously did not listen to a word anyone said to him and had his mind already made up before the meeting even began, as he had a prepared speech. In the end, David, the community and students, won out against Goliath, the district administration and the teacher’s union. The board voted 3-2 to support keeping the challenge program. As scared as I was to speak in front of all those people, I am really glad I did. Congratulations David! I am so happy to support your victory over Goliath!