Despite CSAP, Columbine is succeeding

Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 22:25

I attended meetings about Columbine every night last week except Friday. This is an archive of my guest opinion published in the Daily Camera on Saturday

On Tuesday night, I witnessed a profound civics lesson. Despite CSAP and other data, Columbine Elementary School is doing something right.

Recently BVSD announced Columbine will get a new building. Two weeks ago, the principal announced her retirement. Last week the superintendent appointed a new principal, promised a redesigned program, and told teachers and staff they must re-apply for their jobs.

CSAP data report a gloomy academic performance. For two years Columbine have not made Adequate Yearly Progress. The Colorado Department of Education (CDE) recently conducted a thorough audit of the school. Though the district have reviewed the results, they cannot present them until CDE releases them in early January. The school itself will review the report next week.

Several weeks ago, exhausted with years of Columbine rumors, a group of neighbors arranged to meet with Superintendent Chris King on Monday to look at data -- no hidden agendas, just the facts. Our conversation focused on CSAP growth data first made available this year. These data show student improvement, not absolute scores.

Most disappointing, the median growth rates for English language learners (ELL) at Columbine is below the median for ELL students both district- and state-wide. Most surprising, the median growth rates for Anglo children at the school is higher than district and state medians. Consistent with BVSD achievement gap but exactly opposite the rumor mill, ELL students are scoring better at schools other than Columbine and Anglo students at Columbine are outscoring those at other schools.

I believe the superintendent sincerely feels a moral obligation here, and also that his recent decisions were based not only on test scores, but other data as well, including the school climate data and the CDE audit. However, he made at least four mistakes.

1) Last week's announcements implied blame on the teachers and staff. The issues impacting Columbine are far too complex to affix blame on one group. Teachers at Columbine are committed to their students and would welcome any effort to improve the school. They deserved better.

2) Effectively firing the entire school stifled communication. Who would be willing to challenge the decisions of their future employer before the job interview? Moreover, educators throughout BVSD now fear similar treatment.

3) He should have discovered the restrictions on publishing the CDE audit before taking action. In haste to answer his moral obligation, he took actions that could not be defended convincingly.

4) The teachers and staff participated in the CDE audit with great candor about their strengths and weaknesses. The superintendent violated their trust and candor by firing the school in part for weaknesses disclosed in the audit. The teachers deserve to be involved in whatever changes are demanded by the audit.

On Tuesday night the community responded. What the data could not show was on wide display as hundreds of people, about eighty percent Hispanic, packed into Columbine's cafeteria. Clearly, Columbine have forged deep and strong bonds with the families they serve. The air was thick with indignation at the threat to the staff and teachers.

Although the superintendent had prepared a statement, his agenda was quickly overwhelmed by angry questions.

For three hours he endured our moral indignation in English and Spanish. About half-way through, a number of children joined the line for the microphone. Children, including one fifth grader who translated his own speech, asked eloquently, why the teachers who had taught them English wouldn't be at Columbine to teach their younger siblings.

It was a microcosm of our great nation: citizens, immigrants, and children assembled peacefully to petition the government for redress of their grievances. Late in the evening, to his great credit, Chris King agreed to reconsider his decision in the face of this unexpected opposition. He also agreed to first personally review the CDE audit with the teachers. He was visibly affected by each of the students.

He confessed "I get no points for style on how I handled this" and publicly and sincerely apologized for the pain he'd caused.

We now face an extraordinary opportunity. Dramatic changes are necessary and we all -- board of education, administration, staff and teachers, parents, and the community at large -- have a responsibility to be involved in that change. Let us strengthen the powerful social fabric on display Tuesday night. There's work to be done here and we are obviously up to the task.

I can think of no better lesson in civic duty than what happened Tuesday night: through peaceful if angry assembly, the government heard the will of the people and responded accordingly. In particular, the government bowed to the courageous children who, even in elementary school, have already begun to assume their responsibility as our future leaders. Whatever the CSAP and other data show, there can be no greater evidence that Columbine is succeeding.

I'm reminded of something my mother-law wrote after Wellstone died in 2002

We have the great privilege, we think, of living in a democracy, but we are training our students to act in ways that may undermine that democracy....I think that helping our students develop into effective citizens lies straight in our laps as teachers of reading, writing, speaking, and listening. We need to help them to be discerning as they take in information about the world and to speak their own conscience as they act upon the world.