My School of Thought . . . on Teachers

I was a high school Spanish teacher for over a decade. My student teaching experience at Hillsboro High School was mostly terrifying, and my first year in my own classroom in Seattle remains a blur. I never felt caught up, and was amazed at how easy it seemed for my seasoned peers. I was earning a little more than I had as a waitress the year before, but was thrilled to finally get to teach students every day. Over time I found my confidence and eventually took on a leadership role in my school. I was hesitant to leave the classroom, but excited about the challenge. And frankly, we needed the money. We had two kids entering high school, and college expenses were on the horizon.

The people that have inspired me the most in my life have all been teachers; my father, my aunt Sandy, Professor Irving Katz at Indiana University, and countless colleagues and mentors in the schools where I have worked.

The teachers I worked with are selfless; many give more in time and attention to their students than to their own families. But there is a limit to that selflessness, and change is in the air. Over the past few months we have seen teachers standing up and demanding better pay and greater voice in walkouts across the nation.

I see this as a moment of opportunity – a chance to increase teachers’ pay and benefits, and to expand their access to critical supports and resources. It’s also a chance to acknowledge the value of their work, and provide them with greater voice in the decisions being made on their behalf.

Much has been asked of teachers in Tennessee; implementing new standards, differentiating instruction, adapting to a new teacher evaluation system, utilizing the latest instructional technology, and most importantly, ensuring every student is successful. And Tennessee teachers responded to the challenge, helping our state become the fasting improving in the country over the last decade.

But the compensation for our teachers does not honor the work that we ask them to perform. Tennessee teachers, with an average salary of $45,000 per year, often have multiple college degrees, yet they are grossly underpaid in comparison to their similarly educated peers. Many teachers supplement their salaries, taking on summer or part-time jobs to make ends meet. Time is not on our side. We face teacher shortages nationwide, and we must tackle this issue soon.

Our gubernatorial candidates have all committed to raising teacher salaries. Let’s make sure that we don’t end there – we must convince school district and city leaders to do the same. One of my four priorities as a candidate is to focus on our people. As a school board member I will commit to supporting increased teacher pay. But I’ll also promote policies that increase time for planning and preparation, peer support and feedback, and authentic opportunities and mechanisms for teachers to share their ideas, hopes and concerns. Let’s bring our teachers to the table instead of forcing them to walk out of their classrooms.

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . On Being Latina

I grew up in a Nashville with few Latinos, and those we knew were professionals, associated with universities and medical centers. My Latino consciousness was formed by experiences with my father, who left Cuba at the age of 24, a year before the revolution, to study at Duke University. We made the long drives to visit family in Miami, and shorter pilgrimages to an international grocery on Church Street with a small Latin section—Goya products, plantains, pasta de guayaba, mangoes. My consciousness evolved as a teacher in Seattle where I was the only Latino educator in my school. Students and staff saw me as an interpreter and bridge between the school and the community. I took the responsibility seriously and learned a lot about my students and my own heritage in the process: traveling to Cuba and other Latin American countries, and teaching Spanish to students from all over the world.

While I was gone Nashville was changing. On visits home in the mid-90’s, I was struck by the landscaping crews and construction sites full of Latino laborers, a visual representation of the emergence of the New South. I returned for good in 2004 and I taught hundreds of Latino students at Overton High School to read and write in Spanish, their first but fading language. They wrote of borders, crossings, funerals missed, hard work in the family business, teen angst, traffic stops, and deportations. I attended quinceañeras, graduations, and weddings. I became an advocate, working with colleagues and partners across Nashville to create a more welcoming city and opportunities for Latino families.

Although I am not licensed to teach English Learners, I have spent much of my career advocating for them, and for policies that would bring them out of the shadows of our schools and ensure they received an education worthy of the their aspirations and the sacrifices made on their behalf. My strategy is to bring people together to solve challenges; I helped start COPLA, a Spanish language parent advisory group in MNPS, served on the boards of the YMCA Latino Achievers and Conexión Américas, and currently serve on the board of FUTURO, a leadership development program on 8 college campuses in Middle Tennessee. I am also a Master Fellow for the National Institute for Latino School Leaders. Today 27% of the enrollment in MNPS is Latino, which translates to roughly 24,000 students. This community needs a voice at the table.

I am honored to be the first Latino to run for school board in Nashville, and if elected, I’ll be the first Latino school board member in the state of Tennessee. The goals of the parents in District 8 are no different than the goals of our immigrant parents across the city.  As a school board member I will ask hard questions about the quality of our academic programs, including those for our English Learners, and I will continue to press for more thoughtful parent engagement and academic and social-emotional supports for our newest Americans. And I look forward celebrating their success, and the amazing teachers and school leaders across MNPS that move mountains to help our students and their families every single day.

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . On Testing and Assessments

This morning students across Nashville will begin taking TNReady, Tennessee’s annual state assessment. Testing often creates pressure for students and educators alike, but it is also an opportunity for students to show what they know, and for parents, teachers and schools to gather crucial information that will inform their year ahead. I taught Advanced Placement (AP) Spanish, and I offered practice tests to my students to increase their confidence and gauge their readiness. Each May my students took their AP tests, and while their scores were critical measures of their mastery of Spanish, they were also a measure of my effectiveness as a teacher. My students’ tests were scored with those of students in AP Spanish classes across the country, giving us a clear understanding of where we fell when compared with peers nationwide, and information for me, and my principal, to use for the coming year.

Students in Nashville take many types of assessments over the course of an academic year. Teachers create and use formative assessments daily or weekly to get regular feedback from students in order to adjust and re-teach, or to move ahead. Some students require diagnostic testing in order to identify and address learning disabilities. Immigrant students take the WIDA ACCESS test each spring to assess their progress towards learning the English language. Teachers give 2-3 interim benchmark assessments annually to gauge student learning in relation to academic goals, and to predict their performance on TNReady in the spring. MNPS recently began using the MAP as our district benchmark tool, and believes that it is strongly aligned to TNReady and a reliable predictor of student performance. 

Each spring students in grades 3-8 take TNReady tests, and high school students take a variety of End of Course tests. Our high school students also take the ACT their junior year, as well as a range of early postsecondary assessments. All of these summative assessments are used for student grading and school reporting purposes, teacher evaluations, policy and program decisions, resource allocation and professional learning priorities. While we have had major challenges in the administration of the TNReady tests over the past two years, it is essential to press forward, correcting errors and holding the State and the vendor accountable for successful administration of the tests. 

I believe that measuring student learning is essential for informing instruction, designing teacher support and training, and for ensuring accountability and prompting improvement when necessary. I currently serve on Tennessee’s Assessment Task Force along with educators, policymakers and parent and student advocates. Together we review the type and number of tests administered annually, as well as the timely provision of results and reports to schools and parents. We recently chose to reduce testing time in grades 3 and 4, eliminate the English III and Chemistry End of Course tests, and hope to continue underwriting the ACT retake opportunity for seniors. 

As a parent I wanted to know how well my children were performing, but I also wanted to know how well my children’s school and district were serving students. As a teacher I wanted to have timely and useful information so that I could help my students excel. As a board member my goal will be to use the benchmark and summative data that is gathered over the course of the year in order to make critical decisions on funding, policies and the performance of the Director of Schools. We must have high quality assessments of all kinds, and clear, timely, and actionable information so we can address the complex issues before us, and work together to solve them. 

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . on Community Schools

For the past seven years I have spent part of my Sundays at the YMCA in a Zumba class that helps me release some energy, dance to great music, and be in community. I’m fortunate to have the time to pursue multiple activities outside of my work, and they make me a better colleague, friend, spouse, and parent. I believe these types of interests, whether they are in art, music, athletics, science, and drama are best developed in people while they are young. I also believe that our schools must provide these opportunities to students during the school day, but also after school and during the summer. This is often referred to as a Whole Child approach, but it shouldn’t be an add-on, or a program. It should be baked into the DNA of schools, and there is ample evidence that children thrive and are more likely to be successful academically when schools engage them around their interests and talents.

Youth development works best when schools build integrated systems of support for students that truly support the whole child, including; access to mental and physical health services, nutrition, tutoring and enrichment, access to college counseling, leadership opportunities, and programming for parents and the community. This is widely known as the Community Schools model, and it is a key part of the MNPS strategic plan.

I learned about the Community Schools model while I was teaching at Overton High School and sought ways to support my students who shared personal challenges that were beyond my ability to resolve. I began to pursue Community Schools work in earnest and was hired at Glencliff High School to help align resources and partners around a holistic model of service delivery. I am tremendously proud of the work that we did, and of our national recognition as a National Community School of Excellence in 2011. Our team at Glencliff moved to MNPS Central Office to scale the model, and we launched Community Achieves in 2013. Now in its 5th year, and boasting 17 unique schools, MNPS is a leader in the field, receiving national recognition as a National Community School Initiative in 2017.

There are multiple measures of success for Community Schools, including improved student attendance and behavior, numbers and impact of partners, or parents engaged in the school. But success must also be defined by the academic performance of the students, and a Community Schools model is only as strong as its academic program, which requires rigorous and engaging instruction, highly skilled teachers, and visionary leaders who leverage all of these elements in support of their students.

Not all schools need to be Community Schools, but all schools can and must offer some of their basic elements, such as after-school opportunities, family engagement, mental health services, or summer learning programs. As a school board member I will continue to advocate for funding and partnerships so that schools can serve as the centers of their communities, and as places where families and community members gather to help students thrive and find success.

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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My School of Thought . . . on why Parent Engagement Matters

As a child my parents always put education first, and made sure we understood what we were taught and that college was the end goal after high school graduation. My parents made tremendous sacrifices for our education, and my father emphasized to his three daughters that a college education was the key to independence and the ability to make our own choices. My mother, the first in her family to go to college, became a emergency room nurse at Vanderbilt Hospital, but she always made time to help us with school. My parents may not have been volunteering in our classes, but make no mistake, they were deeply engaged in our success from the first day of kindergarten until the day we graduated from college. I credit my parents with my success today, and am grateful to still have their counsel and support.

As a teacher I knew intuitively through my own experience that one of the most important determinants of a student’s success was the level of parent engagement in their education. What I didn’t know at that time was how to truly partner with the parents of my students. My experience in a teacher preparation program did not teach me to engage with parents, and it wasn’t until I developed more confidence that I felt I could reach out and find ways to work together. My story is not uncommon. Over 50 years of research and evidence have proven that strong family engagement practices have a profound impact on student success, yet too few of our teachers enter the profession equipped to partner with parents.

As the former Executive Director of Family and Community Partnerships in MNPS, my team of Family Involvement Specialists and I developed a robust menu of tools and research based strategies to help schools reach out to parents and to make them feel welcome, valued and equipped to help their children learn. We were using a Dual Capacity Framework before the US Department of Education codified it as a high yield approach; we developed parent capacity at workshops through Parent University while we simultaneously developed staff capacity through trainings with Family Engagement University. We worked to leverage volunteers and community partners to support school success, and fostered parent leadership by supporting school based PTA’s as well as the Parent Advisory Councils. We launched programs such as WatchDOGS so that fathers could participate in the school day; we started Parent Ambassadors as a strategy to empower immigrant parents to serve as bridges to our New American communities; Bringing Justice to You was our effort at building trust between families and schools, and to help parents reinstate drivers’ licenses or resolve other legal matters through our partnership with the courts. It was through these and so many other programs that we were able to help teachers and staff focus on instruction. I’m deeply disappointed that the district has chosen to eliminate all 12 Family Involvement Specialists in next year’s budget. While I understand the requests to reduce the Central Office budget, Family Involvement Specialists, as well as Social Workers and Truancy Specialists, (who will also experience cuts next year) are housed in schools and serve students and families every single day. Their positions may be part of the Central Office budget, but they are an example of so many MNPS staff who are embedded in schools across the district. Budgets reflect priorities, and I believe that parent engagement must be a priority. We simply cannot succeed as a school system without their support and involvement in our schools. I will be watching closely and asking questions in the months to come – and remain hopeful that we will continue to welcome all of our families as true partners in the education of our students.

As always, let me know your thoughts on my post. Shoot me an email at gini@giniforschools.com. Have a good week!

Election day is August 2nd – make sure you are registered to vote!

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