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Schools need to have a voice

Editor’s note: This article was submitted by teacher Mark Thorsen from Ponderosa High School in Douglas County.

Our school now enters a critical period, and a recent conversation with a well-respected colleague helped to keep some of my angst in perspective. He mentioned that he felt like we were in a period of mourning; we were dealing with a loss. It is a process, and we enter stages of sadness, anger and a sundry of other emotions, emerging with a sense of purpose and duty, knowing that our students show up every day hoping for the best from us.

I am in a precarious position, balancing this notion of service and obligation as a public school teacher with the hope for something better as a father of three school-age boys.

As I look at the young faces of my boys in their beds each night, an unfamiliar gloom hangs. I want them to have opportunities to explore, discover and play as they navigate through their schooling. I want them to have opportunities to reach their potential and uncover their unique voices. Today, I feel as though these opportunities are fading. The debate within our community should be driven by significant inquiry and critical discourse, not by dogma and political diatribe.

My discontent radiates from our inability to ask the right question as a public school organization. Do we value education as a public good, and as such, something to be nurtured, groomed and refined as a community? Instead, we asked to be rewarded and have allowed private interests and ideology to define the organization as a “government” entity, scavenging and burdensomely inefficient.

By asking the wrong question, we take away from the potential gains of critical engagement with community. We allowed these interests to define the monetary struggles of our school district solely in market terms, as opposed to defining the district as community resource shrouded in service and caring.

When a grocery store loses employees due to economic downturns customers are inconvenienced. When schools lose teachers, administrators and staff, there can be a profound sense of loss. Students miss the connections that they made with another adult, now gone. Parents, who had a staff member they could come to for help with their child, feel isolated. Colleagues, who used to be sounding-boards and inspiration for innovative ideas and shared experience, are replaced by darkened rooms and locked doors.

We recently asked our community to support our efforts on the ballot. Mailings tried to assure voters that the district would be a good steward of their treasure, that we would continue to innovate along a continuum toward a more competitive and choice-laden future, that we would work to support and uphold the market value of local homes and that community sacrifice in terms of tax dollars would be minimal. Competition and choice would lead to greater gains within our walls.

Return on investment is often categorized in terms of profit and loss, but schools are far more complex to evaluate than a typical investment. Competition and choice leads to winners and losers, but the losers in these circumstances may very well be students. Students are not customers, nameless and numbered, waiting their turn in line to emerge with a receipt quickly discarded. They are minds to be grown, just as any culture is grown. They are to be the objects of care and accountable for the same. The nature of this transaction is relational, a work in progress and nuanced, and as the foundation of any school district, market terms tend lose their own nature as we bend them to a misguided will.

Local schools are ever more reliant on quantifiable data and blunt instruments to measure success or failure, leaving the far more compelling tale in its wake. The numbers demonstrate achievement that can justly be attributed to many variables, but a narrative can capture the spirit of a school, and with enough detail it places the reader vicariously within its walls. Voters did not know our story and therefore had little on which to build trust.

Here in lies our achievement gap.

The adherence to politically driven theoretical reforms and privatized principles may do exactly what our school board set out to do only two-plus years ago, break up the government monopoly on education. But as public educators we can no longer sit idly and allow others to construct our voice and the language in which it is translated. Refining an educational organization takes more than choice and competition, it takes dedication to the crafts of teaching and learning, molded and remolded over time. Although a gloomy front has left us in the doldrums – tattered, shiftless and dreary – we have students who depend on our integrity and care. It takes a compelling narrative. We can work to build trust within our own school communities, seemingly unable to influence the district messaging writ large, and endeavor to write our own story, sharing it with vigor and veracity not because it makes us as a school more competitive but particularly because it is our story, that of a community resource and not some glib ivory tower.

In a weakened state, we need our voice.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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