Volunteering at Columbine Elementary School (Race, Income, Stratification, Oh my!)

Wednesday 12 October 2005 at 23:40

On the Summer Solstice I whined about the past few years of seemingly ineffective ranting. I really missed the tone I was hoping to convey. I've been wanting to post something more optimistic to contrast that gloomy post, but spare time has been really elusive. I was actually feeling kind of inspired. Missed that tone by a long shot. I'm just not satisfied to watch news of wars and famine and genocide and tsunamis and hurricanes and earthquakes. It's not satisfying to rant about it here. It's not satisfying to write letters to the White House and Congress. It's not satisfying to send checks to the Red Cross. I want to be directly involved in making something positive happen in the world. I realized in June that I wanted to volunteer in my own community -- to direct my energy closer to home. So I did.

I volunteered to participate in a task force at Columbine Elementary School here in Boulder over the summer. Tuesday night I helped to present the results of our work to the School Board. (You will have heard about a different Columbine which is in Jefferson County, in Littleton, about an hour's drive south of here. I have a lot to say about that event too, but not tonight.)

I also volunteered to work on a web application for Impact On Education through bivio.

Anyway, about Columbine.

Colorado offers school choice through Open Enrollment allowing parents to enroll their children in schools other than those assigned by geographic boundaries. One side effect of open enrollment in Boulder County has been stratification (think segregation only by choice instead of by legal mandate). Columbine is the most stratified elementary school in the City of Boulder and one of the most stratified in the County.

The Board commissioned a task force to study the stratification and make recommendations for remediation. Various related documents can be found here: BVSD Stratification Task Force. The Board also directed Columbine to attract more Caucasian families to the school. There's data in the Spreadsheet of Student Data Profiles for all Schools which helps illustrate why.

The Columbine data are pretty telling. In the 1997-98 school year, the school was 26% Latinos and 46% free/reduced lunch (a measure of family income). Those numbers increased quickly until 2004-05 when the school had 83% Latinos and 87% free/reduced lunch. The open enrollment data only go back to 2001-02. It peaked in 2002-03 with 64% of the kids in the attendance area open enrolling out of the school and has declined to about 58% open enrolling out. That last bit suggests that some of the changes they've made in the past five years have been helping to reduce the open enrollment, though it's probably not enough data to establish a trend.

Some other data not shown in the spreadsheet are as follows. The demographics of the attendance area right now are about 53% Latino and 38% Caucasian. 45% of the kids are English language learners and 87% free/reduced lunch.

With that introduction, I'll post the email I sent out to a group of neighborhood parents after the first couple meetings of the task force.

Dear Columbine Neighbors,

In case you don't recognize me by name, Sarah and I moved onto 23rd St in April last year and our son Elliott is now 8 months old. One of the things that drew us to this area was the number of young families, and the notion of our kids and their friends being able to go to a school right around the corner. We're pretty excited to find ourselves in a community with parents who are already so interested in education. Our extended conversation about Columbine is forging community ties that will be as important to our kids' social development as their formal education. Thanks so much for being great neighbors. I can hardly wait for Elliott to start playing with your kids. :-)

I volunteered to join Columbine's neighborhood task force and math differentiation committee after Alexis sent out a message about it in the Spring. I'm writing mainly to share what I learned in our first two meetings which were on Thursday, June 16th and Tuesday, August 9th.

I have been wanting to volunteer in our community for a while and I have always loved math. This also seemed like a great opportunity to get to know the Columbine teachers and administrators. Living so close to Columbine makes it a pretty easy place for me to get involved.

First let me say, I came to the meeting feeling mostly ignorant about Columbine. I've been to two community meetings in the library with Lynn Widger, the principal, and some of you. I still went into the meeting feeling like I only had rumors and speculation with which to judge the school. I've heard that the school is mostly low-income latino kids, that the school devotes a lot of attention to English as a Second Language programs. I suspect the questions that have been on my mind will be pretty familiar. I present these questions mostly to share my biases at the same time as I share what I've learned.

If the school is overwhelmed with kids who barely know English, how can they possibly challenge my native-English speaking son? If they're focused on basic literacy, will Elliott learn any math, science, art, music, social studies? I'll also admit that I've worried about the social implications for Elliott to be in the visible minority. That feels like it betrays some underlying racism that I would otherwise deny. Would it be racist of Sarah and I to open enroll out of Columbine? I was a computer geek as a kid (still am) and was pretty alienated for it. Even for the kids who do speak English, if they can't afford books and puzzles and similar toys at home, will Elliott end up taunted for liking books or liking math? Will he be farther ahead of the other kids at school? Will he be bored?

As you can tell, there's a lot of fear behind these questions: fear for Elliott's education, fear for his social well-being, and fear that I might be racist or elitist. As I said, these questions are here mostly so you know where I'm coming from. I also want to put the issues of race and income right on the table rather than try to tiptoe around them. I also joined the math differentiation committee to face up to and hopefully dispel any of my own unreasonable fears and see if Columbine is actually a good fit for Elliott.

I learned a lot in the six hours I've spent in two meetings. I'm really encouraged about Columbine. There are several specific things that got my attention. First, I've really misunderstood ESL. Second, Columbine is actually ahead of the district in implementing the new district-wide math curriculum, "Investigations". Third, I learned a little about what "differentiation" means.

I don't know about you, but I don't really know what ESL is in practice. I know it stands for English as a Second Language, but all I see there is "English" and "Language" and no math or music or art. My assumption has been that Columbine must be overwhelmed just teaching basic literacy, never mind covering any other subjects. The bit I didn't know seems obvious to me now, but it sure wasn't obvious to me before. "Basic literacy" means learning the vocabulary of all the different subjects. So the subjects are being taught with the language. That somehow changes the picture for me in an important way. It no longer seems like a remedial reading program to me. I'll also add that the teachers on the committee didn't seem at all overwhelmed or even burdened by the language instruction. In fact they seemed very confident in their ability to teach to different levels of learners. Also, it's pretty clear to me now that most of the kids in the school speak English, just not as their first language.

I'll offer another one of the biases I brought with me. I think that any subject is best taught by someone who loves the subject. And I think all elementary schools suffer in math and science because the people who love math and science don't generally end up working in elementary schools. So I was excited to learn that one of the teachers used to work as a software engineer. How many elementary schools, public or private, have former engineers on staff? Steve (the teacher in question) says ESL actually improves his math instruction because it doesn't let him rely on language and lecturing alone to teach the concepts. As he explained it, you have to use many ways to convey the concepts and native English speakers benefit from that every bit as much as non-native English speakers. All children learn best when they learn through different modes and it is easy to overlook some of those modes if the class is full of native English speakers.

As I understand it, the school district adopted the Investigations math curriculum district-wide starting this year. Columbine has been using the Investigations curriculum for three years already. I don't yet know what the curriculum looks like, but it's encouraging that they're three years ahead of the district in implementing it. I did a little digging on the web and I think this might be what they're talking about:

http://investigations.terc.edu/

I also didn't know what they mean by "differentiation". As was described in the first meeting, at Columbine they organize their curriculum plans with four groups in mind: 1) all, 2) many, 3) some, and 4) few of the students (which could be the few who are really good at a subject as well as the few who are really challenged). The point of breaking down the curriculum in this way is to allow them to teach to students' varied needs and abilities instead of trying to teach to some common denominator. Also, it's not that there are four separate lesson plans. Rather the kids will generally work on the same activity, but different dimensions of the activity will be prepared for those four groups. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense to me. For any classroom in any subject there are going to be varying levels of ability and knowledge, especially in elementary school, and this method of planning and instruction seems entirely sensible.

This page I found on the net also helps me better understand the jargon.

http://www.ericdigests.org/2001-2/elementary.html

I've been noticing differentiation in more places now that I know more about what it means. It shows up in a couple places in the stratification task force's final report. For example, it's part of the rationale for the first recommendation regarding decentralization of ESL: "An added benefit of decentralization would be to drive the adoption of methodologies such as differentiated instruction and language-enriched classrooms." It's also in the ninth recommendation regarding professional development: "The techniques of differentiated and language-enriched instruction improve academic quality for all students." This corroborates Steve's impression. Columbine has been working for the past five years through professional development and planning to create well-differentiated curriculum and instruction.

I like the people who have attended these meetings and feel good about them as teachers and administrators. They all seem like exactly the kind of people you would want to be implementing changes in the school. I also like the way they are going about it -- finding ways to extend their strengths in differentiation into the math and talented and gifted programs. There's a lot of depth in their knowledge and experience. They're earnestly interested in improving on what they have and genuinely interested in encouraging us and our kids to join their school.

If you've read this far, thanks very much for taking the time. Please feel free to call or email if you have further questions. I hope it's helpful to hear what I'm learning as I get involved at our neighborhood school. And I hope you're as encouraged about it as I am.