Nov 25, 2022

TALLMAN: Principal for Day offers glimpse of public school changes

Posted Nov 25, 2022 1:59 AM
<b>Mark Tallman.</b> Photo courtesy Kansas Association of School Boards
Mark Tallman. Photo courtesy Kansas Association of School Boards


“Is that one of the people who owns this school?”

The question came from a serious-looking young man as I was starting my tour of Jardine Elementary School as part of Topeka USD 501’s Principal for a Day program. I assume it was a combination of my tie and jacket and a previous alert that some strangers would be visiting that raised his interest.

My guide Angela Pomeroy, who is principal every day, quickly responded: “Well, he is a taxpayer, so in a way he is.”

It was a great answer and reminded me that all of us really are the owners of our public schools. Like any good owner, we want to know how our investment is doing. Is it accomplishing what we want? What return are we getting?  

Spending a few hours with Jardine staff and students gave me small glimpses into the management of one of our schools. What I saw was a different world from when I went to school in the sixties and seventies; even from when my kids were in school in the nineties and 2000’s, and I suspect, different from the experience of many other “owners.”

Start with the nearly 700 students. “I have 176 special education students in this building,” said Principal Pomeroy. “That's 26% of my population, who have either a learning disability, an emotional disturbance, or some kind of instructional need that are behind. That's a fourth of my kids having diagnosed disabilities.

“And then I have about 75 students whose English is their second language. That's another subgroup. This year, I'm the site for the Ukrainian refugees, so I currently have 13 children who only speak Russian or Ukrainian. That jumps the English Language Learners up to almost 100. So that's almost 300 of my almost 700 students that are already going to be behind the eight-ball due to language challenges or disabilities.”

Jardine Elementary is also the location of the Jaguar Academy, a “Special Day School” for district students with extreme behaviors, which requires a one to three teacher to student ratio. The school has a state funded mental health intervention team that serves not only students but parents who don’t have the time, money or access for any other mental health service.

I don’t remember everything about my time at St. Joseph’s Elementary School in Hays, Kansas in the 1960’s, but I’m quite confident the number of special education students, ELL students and refugees from a war zone were zero, zero and zero. And while there certainly were children and families struggling, I don’t think there is much disagreement that depression, anxiety and other mental health issues, and social conflict are far worse than a generation or two ago. We didn’t have to lock the doors. Is a tornado drill as frightening to young minds as an active shooter drill?

Yet Pomeroy says it is not so much the students that have changed as the society they are living in. “When we were kids,” she said (generously including me in her age range), “we played with other kids in the neighborhood, we had constant interaction with others and learned how to manage conflict. A lot more children had a parent at home to supervise, but we had to amuse ourselves because our parents didn’t see it as their role to entertain us and occupy our time. If we had a fight with our friends or a problem at school, we could just come home and shut it out.

“Now, unless children have gone to preschool or have parents who can give them a lot of experiences, many kids come to school without having an interaction with other children or adults. They may have absent parents working multiple jobs, or others that try to meet every desire to keep them happy. Kids are constantly babysat, entertained, or distracted, by phones, tablets and TV screens. And because of social media, they are never disconnected.”

Like so many other veteran educators I have spoken to, over her career Pomeroy has seen a spike in children who come to school struggling to get along with others, follow directions and simply focus on a topic for a longer time than a video clip – because they have never had to. COVID has made things worse.

“I have some kindergarteners, I call them little COVID babies, because their parents really didn't leave their home, out of fear or otherwise, when these guys were three and four years old,” she said. “They're not eating in restaurants and being out at Target and having all the exposure to stimulus. Now they're in a school being expected to sit and follow rules and being around a ton of people. And they just can't do it.”

When young children start behind, it is hard to ever catch up – it is hard to learn much more than a year of learning in a school year, especially if a child is battling other issues. In fact, Pomeroy notes, as students become aware that they are behind, it creates more problems. “When kids see they can't read like their classmates, they have an awareness now. They can see what their peers are doing that they can't. So, they would rather act up and be out of class and have avoidance behaviors than to be in trying to figure it out and get it going.”

Compounding the challenge is that new Kansas standards, measured by state tests, are based on getting kids academically prepared for college. This is also vastly different from my childhood, when only about half the adult population graduated from high school and only about 15 percent had a four-year degree. In the workforce of the 1970’s, two-thirds of jobs required only a high school diploma or less; today two-thirds of jobs require more than a high school diploma. The percentage of Kansans with a four-year or more than doubled since I was in school but is still only 35 percent of adults over age 24. For a school like Jardine, where 60 percent of students are low income, many parents never attended any college. They feel ill-equipped to help their children prepare for more rigorous academic standards, and children may not see the need for college themselves.

So, when we evaluate students based on how they do on measures like state tests, it is important to remember that students come to school less prepared, but expectations on what they are supposed to learn are much higher.

These seemed like reasonable facts to me, but as an “owner,” I didn’t want just to accept excuses. I decided to compare my school to a similar private school in Topeka, because of arguments that public schools are failing to meet the needs of students who could do better in private schools.

Through the Kansas State Department of Education’s school building report card website, I found a private, accredited school in Topeka that reported 65.8 percent of students as low-income last year, a little more than Jardine’s 61.3 percent. But that private school had just 6.6 percent of students with disabilities, compared to 21.8 percent at Jardine last year.

Using state test scores as a measure, the private school had 41.9 percent of students at the lowest level in math, slightly worse than Jardine’s 39.3 percent. The private school had 43.7 percent of students in the lowest level in language arts, better than Jardine with 49.4. But Jardine had 21.8 percent of students at the highest two levels (on track for college) in math and 21.5 percent in language arts, better than the private school’s 10.5 percent in math and 18.4 in language arts.

In other words, Jardine’s state test scores are equal to, if not better, than the most comparable private school in the area.

That’s not a criticism of the private schools. It’s confirmation that the biggest challenges in education start with issues that students bring with them that the school can’t control but can only work to mitigate. It’s the challenge for both public and private schools of bringing more students to meet higher expectations than we have ever had in a society that supports learning less.

Because if we are honest, we know schools in the past didn’t really produce more college-ready students who graduated and took their Shakespeare-reading, essay-writing, calculus-preforming skills off to work on farm, in factories, be stay-at-home moms. That fact is, we simply tolerated lower performance, kicked kids out for bad behavior, isolated students with special needs and accepted more dropouts because the economy and society said we could.

But we can’t do that anymore. Kansas has set higher standards because more students will eventually need higher skills. There is no question students lost ground during COVID. Kansas is competing with other states that are stepping up their efforts and improving results.

At Jardine, we talked about what the school is doing to get better results. That includes continuing efforts to help students with self-regulation to improve both behavior and focus; training teachers on better ways to deal with the multiple needs of students at different levels; adding after school programs to give students more time and support; working to meet more rigorous academic standards and exposing students to more postsecondary and career options at younger ages, including a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focus.

I left hopeful because of the deep commitment, knowledge and focus I saw in Principal Pomeroy and her colleagues at Jardine Elementary. I’m sure they and their colleagues across Topeka had many other things they could have done in the two-plus hours they spent with me and 30 other “principals for a day.” But what I learned was invaluable. I would encourage all other districts to consider a program like this. Show the “owners” what is really going on in your schools. Answer their questions. Share your plans to help more students succeed.

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In addition to writing "The Tallman Education Report," Mark Tallman also serves as the associate executive director for advocacy for the Kansas Association of School Boards.