Sunday, April 3, 2011

You Were Warned About Monkey Mind and Email Runs Amok

From the time my kids were little I've been involved in our public schools and our public school district. I'm most productive when there's something concrete to do, and my brain turns to overcooked pasta when I get sucked in to endless discussions resulting in everyone pulling out their calendars to make dates for more  discussions. Here are examples of what I have loved:
  • working in classrooms to support the teachers;
  • coordinating and sewing the Kensington Hilltop Carnival Quilt (annual revenue $5000 - $6000);
  • selling pizza to raise money for sixth grade activities;
  • writing grant requests and getting money (whee!!!) for music programs;
  • under a prior district administration, helping to maintain the district elementary school music program by raising public awareness through various means, including newspaper articles (resulting in at least one huge donation from an anonymous donor);
  • working with the elementary music teacher to have her fourth grade students write thank-you notes to the anonymous donor (through the San Francisco Foundation);
  • coaching emerging high school writers;
  • working with the Technical Academy kids as they designed a new school website;
  • developing plans for and staffing fundraising events too numerous to mention.
I will spare you my list of ungratifying projects. Let's just say that these activities usually involve infighting, misunderstandings, power struggles, and much show and no go. I always learn something in these situations, and I always wish I had conducted myself in a classier manner.

In the last couple of days I've been involved in an email thread about school safety and culture, which began after a friend expressed concerns to three of our five school board members over public comments made by one of the three. My friend's email was forwarded to an assortment of recipients, and the entire discussion caved in on itself.

My friend raised valid points and then pulled back with concerns about appearing to be critical of our high school staff. Unfortunately when I  responded again today, I resent my initial reply and came off like a doddering loony. Here's what I meant to send, if I'd been on my game and not half-undercaffeinated:

Hello again,

Yes. The El Cerrito High School principal and his team do an amazing job, despite numerous obstacles. My comments earlier had to do with our community focus. Each of us might  consider our participation in a system that perpetuates varying student expectations. Until we make sure every student develops the skills which will allow him/her to participate fully in society, we have collectively failed. I believe we can make progress, but not if we back away from the difficult conversations.

What if we spent less time in meetings and more time meeting with individual students? What if we launched an "each one reach one" campaign where adult volunteers met with students, one-on-one, just to talk for ten or fifteen minutes to find out what the kid might want to accomplish that year and one small concrete thing they need help with. Then develop an action plan and work with the student to help him/her make it happen. I know many of us are struggling to do this with our own kids, but sometimes it's easier with someone else's.

At the moment I am floating on a cloud of inspiration from this TED talk about a virtual choir symphony. Our principal has pulled together a team to strengthen the way our performing arts theater functions in our community. It's time for a student choir -- how do we attract students who love music but who have never had a chance to participate? Perhaps a non sequitur, but not really.

 And here was what I had originally responded when my friend raised his safety concerns.

Hello all:

I know you will remember the January day  El Cerrito High School student Gene Grisby was shot. Here's an excellent story, with video interviews. Earlier that afternoon I was meeting with the principal when he was summoned, via walkie-talkie, to deal with several vicious fights that were erupting in the courtyard. Not knowing what was going on, I remained in his office, and I watched more than half a dozen ECPD squad cars pull up in front of the school. When it became obvious that our meeting would have to be rescheduled, I left and walked through the hallways toward Eureka Avenue where my car was parked.

At that point ECHS was locked down, and all the kids were forced to remain in classrooms. Obviously they can follow orders, and I passed the principal shooing the few stragglers into their rooms as I left the school. On my way past  I asked if the situation was "worse than usual." The principal looked puzzled and I added, "was there blood?"

I had a terrible feeling in my gut that day, and that feeling was borne out later on when I got the news about Gene. There is no doubt in my mind that his murder could have happened on campus. We are helpless to prevent it and if we think otherwise, we are deluded.

I do not spend nearly the amount of time on campus that some do, but I am there a lot. I am never asked for my ID, which I try to remember to wear, mainly to model the behavior for the kids.  I roam freely about the hallways, and I never get a second look from staff who don't know me. Is this because I am a middle-aged white woman? Who knows.

Will IDs and uniforms keep our kids safe? No. But a culture of respect and consistent expectations will go a long way toward that end. Programs such as Writer Coach Connection, where kids spend time with adults, one-on-one, will contribute toward that culture. We have Todd Groves and Mr. Reimann to thank for bringing that program to ECHS.

To sum up, I do not believe metal detectors and lock-downs will prevent violence. Mutual respect and a hopeful future will. Classroom behavior is a great place to focus -- in all classrooms, with all kids. Student TAs can provide boots-on-the-ground data about what's really happening, and perhaps they'd have some ideas for what could work? All of our kids want an education, even if they don't show it, and it's our job to help them learn the life skills that will enable them to become productive adults.


The bottom line is that we are all struggling to make sure no child, and I mean no child, is left behind. There is so much more to be said about this. I'm really interested in your thoughts, too.


  1. Diane. I completely feel this is a communal problem. Moving to the Bay Area in 1986, I witnessed two decimating events, the AIDS epidemic and the staggering waves of violence. primarily in the black community. Losing friends to both made living here feel surreal, as though somehow I was walking through the proverbial valley of death. The chief difference came in communal responses to the epidemics. AIDS was met with research, education and activism while violence saw only more prisons and a general indifference. Now, we have youth acculturated to meet every perceived slight with violence, and we don't seem to do much about it even still. Why don't we do more? It's unbearable to watch kids compromise their futures and perhaps their lives. We need to end this somehow.

  2. Oh my. I can only agree with you and the commenter above.

  3. You've nailed it. We all need a culture of mutual respect, consistent expectations, clear accountability and it's missing for many of us. I like your "each one reach one" philosophy -- and I think it applies equally well in a broader context, beyond school rooms. It's about taking an interest in what's happening around us and doing whatever we can to make a positive difference.