Friday, January 28, 2011

SPPS District Plan

Dear Members of the Board,

I am writing in regard to Supt. Silva's new plan for SPPS, and I thank you in advance for your time and consideration.

One of the great things I see in this plan is the focus and accountability it places on families and communities. I am also in favor of rethinking intradistrict transportation, because according to Supt. Silva during a meeting with Open World Learning Community staff, this transportation costs up to $150,000 per student per year depending on their school choice. I see great potential in for equity in the idea of a zero-based budget plan, and am thrilled it is on the table.

My deep concern lies not with the intentions of this plan, but in the potential accidental aftermath. In the state supreme court case of Sheff V. O'Neill, it was held that the students in Hartford, Connecticut schools were racially, ethnically, and economically isolated. As a result, they did not receive a substantially equal education. Two areas were wholly overlooked in Hartford's initial plan; that of social and intellectual experiences within schools, and that of physical school condition. Given that schools are crucial institutions for the socialization of students, the educational experience between schools in Hartford was found to differ greatly; economic and racial isolation gives no opportunity for the mutual respect and understanding that is necessary in building a cohesive and strong community. It is also important to note the study written by Glen Earthman in 2002 entitled "School Facility Conditions and Student Academic Achievement." He states that school buildings have an influence on teacher performance, which in turn affects student performance. This evidence has been argued against in many arenas, but the basic fact remains that if a building is not deemed worth fixing, the attitudes of students and teachers reflects that same low self-worth.

Having attended schools in SPPS, and now working within them, I am acutely aware of the disparities in equipment and overall building appearance, as well as racial and socioeconomic experiences, specifically between Area(s) F1/2 and Area C. With a zero-based budget, the socioeconomic disparity means equality for students in the future, but it does not address the current conditions at area schools.

What I am asking for is not radical. I am asking for a plan and a system of checks and balances that ensures these disparities will be addressed before the beginning of the 2013 school year. I am asking for an amendment to the three year plan that includes rigorous monitoring of the equality of experiences and overall education between areas and schools. As a successful college graduate who attended St. Paul Public Schools for 13 years, I believe strongly in the district's ability to provide a substantial and phenomenal education for all its students that upholds the state and federal constitutional ideals of equality in education. I look to you, our elected school board members, to maintain this reputation and potential.

Thank you for your time,
Alexandra M. Riley
U of M B.A. English Literature, Gender Studies, French (2009)
Central High School graduate (2005)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Bowling Alone and other fulfilling activities

Recently I've been revisiting a book that I leaned heavily on during the writing of my undergraduate thesis called "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community." While writing my thesis I used this as a springboard to dictate that the use of social capital for gains (both personally and for the community) was faulty, and capitulated my distaste for the wishy washy idea that reciprocal love, trust, and relations could save the world. My harsh cynicisms about human nature and our inherent desire to question or feel intimidated by difference still stands; only now it is complicated by the fact that tasks are getting accomplished, despite these teetering forms of community they function under.

Let me preface this with my experiences with community: I've worked within communities before. I've always been an advocate for the queer/GLBT community, but this is a pieced together community with a distasteful history and present of infighting; I've never felt "part" of it (meaning my social capital reciprocity has not been met). I've supported strike workers at the U of M when I could not strike with them. Currently I work as a literacy tutor in not just any SPPS school, but in a school that promotes social capital and reciprocity as school values. I teach English to adults in a small community on the West Side, in which students help each other out daily. The best intentions come with all of these communities; to promote knowledge and understanding, a feeling of family, or the improvement of a whole school and learning system.

After WWII and before the advent of television as the main form of entertainment at home, families and individuals participated in (almost across the board) about 30% more volunteer activities, as well as societies and associations than the average person does today (today being the late 1990s, when the book was written). Putnam asserts that several factors have caused this decline, and that interestingly enough, none of them are more important than the other. He leaves it up to the reader in many examples to decide whether the individualized entertainment afforded by televisions in the home, or less carpooling due to the burgeoning auto industry (merely two examples among hundreds of factors) is more detrimental to people's desire and inclination to devote time on things other than themselves.
Not only does Putnam assert that this decline is frightening, but he says that a revival of social circles and other networking is essential to more than just the social capital of communities, but also to the physical and mental health of community members. Many studies show that in places with higher volunteer participation (and therefore higher reciprocal trust), physical health (few doctor visits, less infections, etc.) of individuals fares better. His thesis is that volunteering and being part of communities should be more a part of American life than it currently is.
It is very easy for people from all walks of life to claim they are too busy, too rushed, too swamped to partake in civic engagement or social capital building activities. The important thing for me to remember after my service is that there is no such thing as too busy for maintaining and reinforcing trust and community health for personal, professional, and interpersonal relations. This book has inspired many conversations between me and my friends about staying civically engaged, and how to begin a dialog with someone who is currently not civically engaged.

So, has my cynicism waned? I suppose it doesn't matter as long as I keep doing that thing I do--caring anyway.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

False Praise and other Ignant Shiz

I just got back from a workshop on “Challenging Behaviors in Students.” I learned about a lot of helpful ways to approach the challenging cases, who I call “the stinkers,” but I also learned a lot about the contradictions and confusions that each kid faces (because of teachers, and a broken education system) every day.

I was telling a story about how hard it is to get through to some kids with the notion of “where they're supposed to be” to pass on to the next grade when, no matter what, they will. This was when a woman piped up, rather passive aggressively, to tell the group how “saddening it is to hear people say 'kids can't read” because we should be positively encouraging them at every turn. Then the workshop leader tells us that we should be nurturing kids to read for reading pleasure, not just to move on to the next grade. This is an entirely valid point, which I bring up to my kids frequently. I tell them that I practice reading, and show them the stack of books (usually 2-3) that I keep at my desk for my own reading, because I like to. At the same time, it's an incredibly moot point. Just after the workshop leader tells us to nurture kids for the sake of reading, she also adds “yes, education is a broken system;” she acknowledged the problem that kids get passed into the next grade without merit constantly.

My point is this: in order to create a permanent and viable solution1 to this enigmatic “broken system” we're all speaking of, we need to help these kids excel within and beyond it. If a child goes through school, reading only how and what they want because it “nurtures” them, and they pass along to the next grade, lacking the knowledge necessary, it will eventually be a detriment to them. There comes a point where false praise and “success” bites you in the ass, and that point is college applications. If a kid can't take a test or even take it because they don't feel like it, they won't get into the higher education that they're told they're capable of—the world isn't as shiny, comfortable, and successive as we tell our kids it is. Once the youth are educated in a way that allows them positions of power within and around schools, then the “system” can change. However, to argue that inadequate reading and learning practices are acceptable because it makes kids “feel good” is a ridiculous notion. It won't feel so good when the 2nd grader I tutor now gets to high school or even junior high, and realizes she's been cheated and left behind.

Children need to know where they stand and what they stand to lose. Do I think I should tell my 2nd grader she can't read? No. Should I make it clear that, while reading can and mostly is fun, reading at a certain level is vital to continued success? Absolutely. Many educational theorists (Jonathon Kozol and bell hooks) advocate the idea of a metropolitan solution that would reform education(the kinds that enforce cross district busing in certain areas to reduce white flight, etc.) and fix our achievement gap. I propose an individual solution that involves each educator being open and transparent with their students, eradicating false praise that breeds confused, bored, and lazy citizens. I advocate honesty.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Boycotting Conan O'Brien

He definitely walked the line with his inability to discern inherent gender roles and socialized gender roles re: his 3 year old son being "inherently" aggressive and "inherently" wanting to play with trucks...

But now he's straight up gay bashing. In an interview with Sandra Bullock, he flat out stated that men who openly show interest in other men "are gay," and went on to make jokes about hiding it, while making fun of audience members that were "overly" enthusiastic about gay marriage. Apparently homosocial interactions and appreciation are not normal.

I mean, not that television was really watchable in the first place...but gromble.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Hear Ye Hear Ye

I know a lot of creative people. Those of you who read this are all talented. Trust me, I know you. (unless you're a random reader, in which case you have very good taste; read on...)

That said I'm happy to introduce, plug, and shout on rooftops about Paper Darts. Paper Darts is a grassroots literary magazine....that needs your input! The output If youc na thin? A beautiful amalgam of art, music, poetry, fiction, nonfiction, snark, love, hate...get my drift? Anything. Everything. If you have anything you want to submit, email it to If you want to learn more, and poke around, become a fan on facebook, or follow @PaperDarts on Twitter!

Stay tuned for events, sponsors, and other Paper Darts features!

Monday, August 17, 2009

A little bit MidWest of Eden...

I had my orientation with the Saint Paul Public Schools today (SPPS)*, and I finally realized how large the task ahead of me is, and what kind of people and struggles I will meet along the way. Some people just. don't. get it.

The Community Outreach Coordinator that met with us today talked about decidedly uncomfortable facts. Individuals with privilege are the ones that succeed within the current system. This predominantly means the white students in middle to upper-class socioeconomic situations—i.e. Being born into the “right” race at the “right” time. This is what the Outreach Coordinator had said to us, and I completely agree, as should anyone who recognizes privilege and its relation to education. However, one cracked up lady in the back piped up about how uncomfortable she felt with the language of “right” and “wrong” in regards to race and privilege “With all our diverse backgrounds I don't see how 'right' and 'wrong' are applicable” she said. She. Does. Not. Get it. It's her refusal to accept and own up to her own privilege (she was white, by the way, and daintily eating a fruit salad with a silver fork—presumably because the lunch we were provided was not adequate for her desires...excuse me...needs? ) that perpetuates the cycle of inferiority. What the Outreach Coordinator meant, which was clear to everyone around us, was that it is mere chance and situation that places us within our respective positions of privilege, or non-privilege.

What scares me is the damage this woman has the power to cause at her service site by socializing the students she works with. Not that it would be widespread or even noticeable on the surface, but the imperceptible continuation of her inability to talk about privilege and its effects means that she has the power to influence children to also not talk about it. If someone is uncomfortable talking about issues so difficult, the trajectory of these damaging hierarchies remains the same. Racism and classism do not go away by ignoring them and not talking about them. I learned today that my job includes not only teaching children this, but possibly educating my peers.

Encountering uninformed, yet self-righteous individuals has already become commonplace in this job (well, and my life). During one of the days of training (we were learning an early literacy intervention technique) a woman started ranting about how she was uncomfortable (people always use “discomfort” to describe situations they disagree with, is this just Minnesota Paggro? Or are all pseudo hippie weirdos like this?) with the idea that the MN Reading Corps helps the children on the “cusp,” i.e. the children who we can help improve greatly within the three years we are available to them (aforementioned in previous blog about What I Do). After 20 minutes of interruptions and repetitions, my training instructor finally got the woman down off her high horse, or at least stuffed her mouth with a knowledge rag to chew on for a bit. After three days of interactions like this at training, and a fourth day of paggro whiners at orientation, I started to worry about my ability to maintain sanity during this job.

I'm holding out for those “eureka!” moments with children that I work with on a day to day basis—the rest will just have to be practices in patience. And those moments where kids crawl under desks, and yawn through their phonetics practice, 'cause DAMN that's cute.

*This blog in no way represents the views of the MRC, MLC, SPPS, or Americorps

What I Do

This month I started my training to be a K-3rd grade literacy tutor through the Minnesota Reading Corps (MRC)*. I'm placed at an elementary school within the Saint Paul Public School system (SPPS for short). The focus of the MRC is to get children to be sufficient readers by the third grade. We start by doing benchmark tests to see if students are where they should be along the lines of words they can read correctly per minute, letter sounds, phoneme blending, etc. Once the tests are administered, I'll be working with an internal coach to determine which students are eligible to receive MRC help. One of the biggest goals we have is to take the children that would benefit from help—i.e. the ones who are just below the proficiency marks. This means that instead of tutoring the kids who have the lowest scores first, we take the students that will be back on track within a few weeks of interventions. This can be a controversial concept because it seems to neglect the ones that need our help the most. The defense of this argument is twofold 1) the students who are doing the worst should qualify for title 1 funds that lend themselves to special education teachers, etc. and 2) the students who are just barely at the proficiency line will NOT receive help from any other organization—the ones that are so close to success are usually overlooked, but generally stay on the same below-proficient trajectory all through school.

So....shmanyway...In training I learned different ways of helping these kids that we would have chosen for the program. Most of it involves sounding out letters, words, and doing fluency practice with more advanced readers. I've decided that I want to get my friends drunk and practice the literacy interventions on you think they'll comply? One of the frustrating things is that I have to keep to the script while doing the interventions. This is due to the fact that each intervention is based on extensive research that has been proven effective year after year—it makes sense, I'm just bad with scripts.

I came home exhausted from training and ended up sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night. It took me a run in the 90 degree weather, pages and pages of East of Eden, and reorganizing my papers to finally relax enough to sleep through the night.

*This blog in no way represents the views of the MRC, MLC, SPPS, or Americorps.