In which I am a mama bear. With claws. And teeth.

grizzly

I have been on the phone quite a bit so far today. I intend to be on the phone quite a bit for the near future. I’ve connected to the principal, the school office, the crime specialist at the police department, the Climate Coordinator for the school district and someone from building security.

I still don’t have good answers.

Last Monday, November 17, there was an incident at South High School – my daughter’s school, my alma mater, the school that educated my siblings and my cousins and my second-cousins and the children of my cousins and second cousins. I have had a family member attending South High every single year since I graduated in 1992. My bonds with that school are deep, and they are meaningful to me. Still, I am not happy with what happened. I am not happy with the school’s behavior in the moments following the incident in question. And I am SUPER NOT HAPPY about the vague and detail-less communication between the parents and the school in the ensuing days.

This is what I know:

1. On Friday there was an incident in which a girl was beaten up.

2. On Monday, there was a retaliation, and a large fight occurred on school property, just as school was being let out.

3. A Code Red was issued, meaning that kids who were still in the building (in after school activities) were told to lock the doors, turn off the lights and huddle in the corner in the dark. The kids who had already left the building, who saw the large fight and were scared, ran back to the building, and were not permitted to come back inside. My daughter’s good friend was one of them. She was screaming and crying and pounding on the door. And the school did nothing. She was not allowed inside.

That image? Of a kid outside shouting please. It guts me.

And if it weren’t for the fact that it was Monday when my daughter was at Math Team (my darling little mathlete!) she would have been out there too. Banging on the doors. Begging to be let in. This girl – Ella’s friend? She is the sweetest girl in the world – her family came here from Somalia to seek safety and opportunity. She deserves to be safe. Every student at South deserves to be safe.

Now, times being what they are, we are awash in “information” but it is difficult to find out what is actually true. Ella’s friend reports hearing gun shots – lots of kids do – but the police do not have that information and neither does the school. So I have to assume that in the heat of the moment, frightened children hear all kinds of frightening things, and fear the worst. But that speaks to a larger concern: where the hell were the grownups? My daughter showed me some of the videos that had been posted on kids’ pages on Facebook, and all I can see is a lot of chaos and confusion. And frightened children.

I understand the need to keep the building safe. I do. I understand that school officials do not want violence to come inside the school walls. But the kids on the grounds deserve to be safe as well. They were just about to walk home. They are good kids who work hard at their studies and who have bright futures, and they should expect to be safe coming and going. The school has a responsibility – given that it is district policy to hand them bus passes instead of transporting them by school bus – to ensure that each child is safe between school and home.

When we have policies that lead us to lock our doors, lock kids out, and simply say, “Sorry, kid. No grownup will help you. Good luck not getting hurt.” we need to take a good, hard look at what we’re doing, and what the results of these policies actually are. Because this situation? Well, it sucks. And we can do so much better.

Yes, they are teenagers; and yes, they sometimes make horrible choices; and yes, sometimes they get involved in groups and behavior patterns that lead them into some scary places; and yes, they are big and zit-faced and sometimes stinky; and yes, sometimes they have big humungous feelings that they cannot control – confusion and hurt and defiance and longing and bravado and need, and rage, rage, rage; and yes, sometimes they can frighten us – even big strong adults like ourselves. But the fact remains that they are children. Children. And we have duty to protect them. Every last of us. Because we are grownups.

And mama bears.

[ETA: Let me be clear on one thing. I love South High. I do. I love everything about it. I love its teachers. I love its diverse and complicated student body. I love the dedicated folks walking the halls every day to keep those kids safe. I love Ray Aponte – the new, big-hearted principal who has been spending the last few months sitting down with the kids and talking to them and caring about them and treating each one of them as a wondrous and precious human being. I love it that, right now, they have the kids arranged in Peace Circles trying to break down the racial and cultural divisions that often foment this kind of anger and bad behavior. And I love how quickly the grownups at South have been to answer my questions and talk to me. I do love that. And I believe them when they tell me that a.) there were no weapons, and b.) there were grownups present trying to break up the action – though not enough to make the panicked kids banging on the door to feel any safer. What I learned is that this practice of locking the school up and locking some kids out is considered a Best Practice – and is used in districts around the country. I learned that the building safety staff hates this practice but they don’t know what else to do. This means that this is likely the standard operating procedure in YOUR home district as well. I am not okay with this practice, and I hope that you are not either. I truly believe that we can do better. I truly believe there must be a better solution. And I intend to find one.]

On Our Visit to Roosevelt High School – expectation, transformation, and super awesome kids.

My oldest daughter – math wiz, artist, DIY crafty-manx fashionista, geek princess, treasure of my beleaguered heart – is in eighth grade, which means that we, as a family are looking into high schools. My baby is going to high school. This baby:

wee ellaLook at her! So tiny! Her foot is about the size of my dang thumb! High school? Really? It simply cannot be. This is the face I make every time I think about it.

In any case, we are now looking at schools. Now, this, alas, is tricky business. She used to go to Seward Montessori – a public, wonderful school in South Minneapolis, and we were very happy there. Unfortunately, in fifth grade, while Ella was busting at the seams of every standardized test that they handed to her, we found out that her school had simply decided to stop teaching her math. “Oh,” they said. “She’s so far ahead. And she loves helping the other students. And when she reads a novel, she’s just so quiet. And, really, she’s fine.”

Note to educators everywhere: Never tell the parents of your high-testing kids that they are “fine”. No matter where they are in the spectrum of learners, every child deserves to learn every day. Every child, wherever they are, deserves to have reasonable educational goals and a guided plan to help them achieve those goals. Just because they’ve topped out of your curriculum, does not mean that they no longer need to be taught.

Anyway.

So she’s gone to a G&T program in the Bloomington Public Schools called Dimensions Academy, which has been a good fit for her, learning-wise, even though we did have to haul her butt deep into the suburbs every dang day. Which has been a pain. And even though she has made wonderful, dear, and life-long friends, she has never felt entirely comfortable in a suburban setting. She misses the diversity of the Minneapolis Public Schools. She misses the dynamism. And frankly, so do I.

So. High School.

My inclination is to have her go to South High, which is where I went. And my sisters. And my brother. And a gaggle of my cousins, second-cousins and so forth. In fact, my first-cousin’s son is a freshman there now. It’s a wonderful school with six bands, a fantastic art program, an incredible theater program, good academics, a deeply-involved parent base and a wicked awesome choir.

The problem is that, while we are in South’s zone, it is not our neighborhood school. And Ella might not get in. Roosevelt is our neighborhood school. And that? Well it was problematic for me. I had….expectations about what I would see at Roosevelt. Biases. And they were not kind. (Nor, let’s be honest, were they fair. More on that in a minute.)

Now, here’s the thing about Roosevelt’s reputation: it’s not entirely undeserved. At least historically. It’s been one of those schools that has struggled and struggled, for years. And things just haven’t gone right. Bad planning, extenuating forces that they could not anticipate, poor decisions by the school board, disastrous decisions by the Federal government, shifting demographics, high needs, what have you. Roosevelt couldn’t catch a break. Heck, even when I was in high school, if a teacher said that their job was moving to Roosevelt, we’d hug them and sob as if they told us they had inoperable brain cancer. During my senior year, the school board (in its perpetual wisdom) decided to transfer our principal – Dr. Andre Lewis – to Roosevelt. The students walked out and the protests lasted for days.

Now, let me say here that while I loved my experience at South, it wasn’t perfect. There were massive behavior problems back then and ….well, let’s just say it was rough around the edges. There were fights in the halls. I once found my locker splattered with blood because some guy clocked another right in the nose (with splattering) and the kid face-planted right next to my padlock. My principal got hit over the head with a crowbar when he got in the middle of a gang altercation. A kid in my music theater class got shot.

It was the early nineties in Minneapolis, the term “Murderapolis” hadn’t been coined yet, but we were on our way.

And as tough as it was, our understanding was that Roosevelt was tougher. Meaner. “Rougish” was the word we used. We didn’t know anyone who went there.

So, it was with not a little trepidation that I brought my child to Roosevelt for a visit.

And it was not without a little bit of skepticism. Sure, I had been told that they’ve been experiencing a turnaround. And sure, I had heard that they’ve got a big-ideas principal and a cadre of super-committed teachers. I had heard all of that. But I didn’t really believe it.

What I saw blew me away.

The high schools in my city in general are stronger now. They are cleaner. They are more orderly. The hallways are calm. The kids are smiling at each other.

But Roosevelt? Well, it’s something else. The kids loved each other. And they loved their teachers. Like, every kid I talked to. I’ve never seen anything like it.

We first had a meeting with Michael Bradley, the principal, who laid out for us where his school has been, how it has approached its restructuring, and what it’s plan for the future is. He talked about the middle schools in the area that have managed to turn themselves around (Sanford Middle School, for example, whose transformation is nothing short of a miracle) and what he is doing to replicate that for Roosevelt. He told us of his very personal goal to transform the school into an institution in which any student – be they high end or low end – would receive the tools and instruction they needed for a stellar education. He talked about the lasting damage of No Child Left Behind – the Bush Administration’s brilliant strategy of punishing schools into succeeding (may they rot in hell forever for the damage they did to our nation’s schools) – and how struggling schools were forced to abandon all programs except for baseline remediation. Gone went the music program. Gone went art. Gone went the choir. Gone went the debate team and the theater department and the math team. Gone went languages and upper-level math and creative writing.

“It was,” he said, “a system built to fail. And the people it hurt the most were the ones who deserved it least – the kids.”

I almost started crying.

“It’s not enough,” he said, “to put our efforts on remediation. Remediation outside of the context of a well-rounded and vigorous education – educating the whole person – is not going to work. It can’t be either/or. It has to be both/and.”

They implemented an IB program. They doubled their art program. They partnered with 3M to put in a writing center. They have a robotics program. They have a fantastic band teacher who is building an amazing band and orchestra program. They’re adding to their library.

But what’s more, they have a vigorous and deeply committed teaching staff that impressed the hell out of me. Our guide kept grabbing kids at random as we walked through the hallways, asking kids what they liked about their school.

“I really like my school a lot,” kid after kid after kid told us. “But I love my teachers.”

We grabbed another one. “The teachers here are the nicest in the world. If you’re lost, they will help you. If you are bored they will challenge you.”

And another: “The teachers here treat you like you’re one of their own. Like we belong to them.”

And another: “The teachers here are the best in the world.”

And another: “My teachers are either saving my butt or kicking my butt – sometimes in the same class period.”

And finally, we talked to a completely gorgeous senior girl – the first in her family to ever get into college. She is a singer, and had been accepted to the U of M, the conservatory at Lawrence University and NYU. And she said this: “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for my teachers. They helped me and believed in me and made me believe in myself even when I wasn’t ready to do it. They’re the best.”

These kids at Roosevelt, they were happy, they were kind, they were silly, they were crude, they told dumb jokes, they were committed students, they played their guts out in band, they asked thoughtful questions in English, they built cool catapults in Physics and were building a robot that could play Ultimate Frisbee in Robotics. They were awesome, awesome kids.

I’m still not convinced that it is the best fit for Ella (the fact that there is no choir might be a dealbreaker for us). I do feel, though, in a way that I did not before, that if we do not get our first choice and are at Roosevelt, that Ella would be just fine. She’d make friends. She’d learn. She would really love her teachers. All of that is good.  But, mostly, as an educator and as a neighbor of the school, I found the experience profoundly thrilling. Because this is happening. This transformation. This growth. This change. It is happening right now. And it did my heart so much good to see an entire building cooperatively involved in their own transformation, and, as a community, committed to the idea that yes it is possible, and yes it is probable, and yes we can build it together.

Go Roosevelt.

Yes.