About 15 years ago, during my first year as president of the Oklahoma Education Association, I was invited to an NEA state president’s meeting in Denver, Colorado. The CEA president at the time, Beverly Ausphal, hosted the meeting. One of the topics of the meeting was “Learning to Find Common Ground with Business Leaders on Education Issues”. Beverly had invited Mr. Bill Coors, of Coors Brewing Company, to speak to us.
We talked to Mr. Coors about his philanthropic gifts to both public and private schools – and asked why he gave to both entities. He said that he felt it important to assist in the education of as many students as possible. Then someone asked him what he saw as the difference between public and private schools. He said, “Public schools tend to have better qualified teachers who – for the most part – do a better job than private school teachers. But – I understand why parents who can afford it, choose private schools. Private schools can maintain a better class size ratio between teacher and student – and private schools can kick the kids out that disrupt the learning of everyone else.”
Now, I’m not advocating we kick disruptive students out and deny them an education. But, we could do a better job of making sure all students have a safe and supportive atmosphere in which to learn. As a fifth grade teacher, I had a reputation as a teacher who could “handle” all types of students. One year, I had a student that was out of control. I had mentioned this to the principal several times but he didn’t really take it seriously until I sent the student to the office one day for — once again — exhibiting violent behavior to myself and his classmates. The principal was alone in his office with this boy – and leaned over to talk to him about his behavior. The boy quickly grabbed the principal’s tie and put him in a choke hold. The only thing that kept the principal from choking to death was the fact that his secretary heard choking noises and opened the door to see what was going on. She had to call for help to alleviate the situation. The principal took me seriously after that – but the problem was – the only alternative was to expel this student for three days. We did not have alternative education programs for students in my district. This boy has been in and out of the legal system ever since his time in the fifth grade. We didn’t “handle” him and now prison is providing his learning environment.
During my experience serving on the NEA Executive Committee, I traveled across the nation and was privileged to see several alternative education programs. These programs served students who could not perform in a traditional environment – but that were able to succeed in these alternative programs because their school district made it a priority to meet their needs.
Over these past few weeks – I have heard concerns from several DPS teachers about the lack of support on discipline issues in their schools as well as the district cut backs on alternative education. These reports are coming from elementary as well as secondary teachers. DCTA is currently gathering data from teachers and community members to see what we can collectively do to turn this situation around. Mr. Coors may have been right about what he had learned in his experience – but — those of us that understand our nation’s success depends upon our students’ success – need to accept the shared accountability of providing all students the opportunity to learn.