Absence makes the mind grow flounder

It used to be that going to school on time every day was a given.   Only truly sick children missed school.

Not anymore.

Six million children missed at least three weeks of school in the 2013-14 school year, according to the U.S Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection report.  That equates to 13 percent of all students.

Think of a business that could operate effectively without 13 percent of its workforce.

The bad habits students practice in kindergarten through 12th grade cannot simply be altered like a light switch once they enter the job market.

Name one job where people get paid for not being there.

“Even the best teachers can’t be successful with students who aren’t in class,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. told reporters last June.

California has a Compulsory Education Law stipulating that “every child from the age of 6 to 18 be in school—on time, every day.”

A student’s education suffers when he is not in school.  Period.

There is a direct correlation between missing school and falling behind academically. According to the California Department of Education, “first grade students with 9 or more total absences are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers who attend school regularly.”

Last December, President Obama signed into law a revision of the No Child Left Behind act that requires for the first time that states report individual absences for all students.

It’s not just the learning that suffers when a student isn’t in a classroom.  Money is lost as well.

Schools derive much of their funding based on Average Daily Attendance or ADA.  In Glendale the ADA is $55 per student per day.  With an enrollment around 26,000, that adds up to $1.43 million if all students are present.

If 10 percent of students are absent for one day the entire year, that results in a loss of $143,000.  Multiply that by 180 school days and you have $25.7 million.  Quite a sum of money that could go towards hiring more teachers and funding more programs.

Last semester, I tracked the number of students present over a 78-day period and here are the results:

In my first period class, 25 percent of the time I had full attendance, second period had seven percent, third period had 17 percent, fifth period had 20 percent, and sixth period had 12 percent.

Looking at the numbers in a different way, 88 percent of the time I had at least one student absent in my Per. 6 class.   This makes it quite difficult for a teacher to maintain consistency in lesson planning as well as cooperative learning groups.

I had 25 students who had double-digit absences including one who had 24 (that’s a loss of 5 weeks of instruction in a 17-week period), plus five students with double-digit tardies (the highest 16).

When I returned to work last week, teachers were asked to do more to encourage students to get to class on time in order to decrease the number of tardies.   However, the bulk of the tardies come at the start of school; in other words, due to kids arriving late.

Unless teachers don Uber hats and pick up kids from their homes, the responsibility of getting children to school rests on the shoulders of parents.    Parents need to model to their children good work habits and work habit number one is getting to school every day and on time.



Memorizing 200 names: Part of a Teacher’s First Day

My head is throbbing, my throat’s on fire, and my limbs are numb.

The cause of these symptoms? The opening day of the school year.

While I’m beginning my 27th year as a teacher, each start of school gets more challenging.

One would think with more experience, the easier it would get; however, with each year, I learn more, and in sharing all that I know with students, it causes stress on how to fit it all in.

Plus, there are the usual tasks that require completion within the first few days such as creating spreadsheets with the rosters, typing seating charts with the correct names students wish to be called (not the ones on the rosters), collecting signed parent forms, and photocopying handouts that cover the entire school year.

Since I’m teaching an extra class this term, I have even more students than normal. I discussed this challenge with my students, one of whom asked me, “How do you memorize the names of 200 students?”

It’s funny how it takes a 15-year-old to remind me how numb I’ve become to the reality of that number.

For years now, California ranks near the bottom among states in per pupil spending and in key education factors.   However, according to the most recent National Center for Education Statistics report, the state can lay claim to one category: the highest student to teacher ratio in the country of 23 to 1.

But that number is deflated since “teacher” includes educators who are specialists. The reality is that most classrooms average in the mid-30s.

It makes sense why some parents remove their kids from public schools and go the private school route where ratios are less than half.

Whether or not class size makes a difference in the learning process is an issue that has no clear evidence to support either viewpoint.

Still, there are the raw numbers that can’t be disputed in terms of the alarming amount of work that is required of public school teachers: the ability to know 200 vs. 100 students’ names, the amount of time to evaluate 200 papers vs. 100 papers and to modify lesson plans, the cost of additional books, supplies, and equipment, the lack of mobility to move about in a room with 40 vs. 20 students, and the warmer the rooms are due to the additional body heat.

It also is difficult to call on 40 students in an hour-long class than one of 20, meaning a larger share of kids remain mute each day.

Imagine an attorney meeting with 200 clients every day. Or a physician seeing 200 patients a day. It does not happen.

If a doctor were to see one patient for only 5 minutes at a time, it would take him nearly 17 hours to get to 200 patients without any breaks. And who would think 5 minutes qualifies as a quality healthcare visit?

In a state with a large non-native English speaking population, expecting that educators with their extraordinary workload can have all their students meet the Common Core standards is quite an undertaking.

It is time for Californians to question how much longer can such overcrowding continue when schools are held to high accountability measures.

If the goal of public education is to house students, consider what we are doing a success. But if the charge of schools is to illuminate ideas in the minds of young people, to enable them to realize the potential of their abilities, deep-rooted changes must take place.

Saying Goodbye at the end of the School Year is Never Easy

Each June I struggle finding the right departing remarks to say to my studentsas the class runs its course (pun intended).

It’s my last chance to hold their attention and leave a lasting impression with them of sage advice.

I fail every year.

How can one encapsulate the meaning of the yearlong learning experience?

I know that the secondary teacher does not have as hard a time emotionally as the elementary teacher in saying goodbye.

In grammar school, a teacher accumulates 180 days of 6 hours each for a total teaching time of 1,080 hours—accounting for a lot of bonding—while upper grade teachers spend only 17% as much time with their pupils. No wonder why people tend to remember a beloved third grade teacher more than an algebra teacher; one is more like a parent while the other an uncle that visits on holidays.

Still, I wish I could stop the clock and hold on to each class a little while longer.

But part of the education business is saying “hello” in August and “goodbye” in June.

For me, saying final farewells to my journalism students is the toughest for these young people have been with me for two to three years, spending their lunchtimes and evenings in room 11202, forging friendships with fellow dedicated kids who recognize at an early age the benefits of a group of people working hard together to produce a publication.

When I first took on the journalism job during my fourth year of teaching, I realized how remarkable it was to work so closely with young people on the school newspaper, finishing it long into the night, then driving the individually cut and pasted 11×17 rubber cemented pages to the print shop. (Now we electronically send the files—faster, but not as fun.)

When that 1993-94 year wound down, I could not imagine having those 18 kids vanish without commemorating and celebrating the work that was accomplished.

So we all agreed to have breakfast at Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood, a special restaurant in order to reflect that special year so that we all could be together one last time.

Thus was born what has now become an annual end of the year tradition, the journalism banquet.

After eating, I suggested a walk along Hollywood Boulevard. Only a couple of students had ever been to Hollywood so many were giddy about seeing in person the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre with its forecourt of handprints and footprints in cement, and other famous sights.

As the staff grew to 70 students within a few years, we had to change the venue to eating establishments with private banquet rooms since students would make speeches which extended the event past two hours. Over the years, we have held journalism banquets at the Smoke House, the Tam O’Shanter, and most recently Brookside Golf Club.

Of all the memorable speeches journalism students have given, I will never forget one by a young lady who as feature editor did little work, leaning on others to layout her pages. Yet when it came time to thank everyone, she turned to me and tearfully said how grateful she was for my support during her darkest days, looking up to me as a “second father.” Her kind words touched me more than any spoken by any other student in my career.

It is often said among educators that a teacher will never know with certainty the impact he makes on young people.   This student reminded me of that saying. And that the best way for a teacher to say “goodbye” is to let a student speak on his behalf.

Goodbye Nurturing Elementary School, Hello Terrifying Middle School

This week I attended my youngest son’s spring dance at his elementary school.   After 12 spring dances (counting my oldest son’s tenure), this was my final one.

Recognizing the significance of this milestone, I stayed for the whole program. The transition from 5-year-olds to 11-year-olds reflected in the song selections. I watched the younger kids dance to the Jackson Five’s “A,B,C” and the fifth graders dance to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off.” As the kids got older, their music became newer and bolder.

The playground was packed with parents, some with the ubiquitous monopods, jockeying for position behind their child’s group of chairs to capture the memories.

I even remained for the finale where all the teachers performed a group dance. Usually by this time I’m already in my car headed toward work. But this was my last spring dance, my last elementary school event (not including the promotion ceremony), and I wanted to soak it all in.

Watching the joy on the children’s faces, I couldn’t help think about how different their academic lives will soon become.

With the end of elementary school vanishes all the support and protection and peace of mind that goes along with a small campus with comforting instructors and staff.

At middle school, the 20-minute recess gets cut in half, and the population nearly doubles.

How quickly the highly confident fifth graders will transform into terrified sixth graders as they attempt to navigate to six different classrooms, some located on opposite ends of campus, in breathless five-minute passing periods.

The one nurturing all-day teacher gives way to six one-hour teachers who hurriedly corral a fresh group into the classroom hour after hour after hour.

I have never understood why public schools long ago decided that the best thing for children right before they are about to enter puberty, the most dramatic change in their lives, is to be thrust into an environment that negates much of what they thrived in during the primary grades.

Middle school is the stage where many kids get lost educationally, some never getting back on track, struggling throughout high school.

The transition from elementary to middle school should be smoother, involving only three teachers: one in the humanities that teaches English and history, one in the math and science field, and one skilled in the arts.

Or, follow the lead of some preparatory schools by extending grammar school through the eighth grade.

Whenever I encounter a troubled student, I try to imagine him as a young child. He must have been cute once, respecting his elders, unafraid to dress in Spiderman pajamas out in public, still believing in Santa, preferring Disneyland’s Dumbo ride to Six Flags’ Goliath roller coaster.

If only we could freeze the innocence of our children, shielding them from growing up too fast.

At the conclusion of the dance, as I returned to work and walked to my classroom, a few male students passed by me spewing out filthy language about sexual acts, unconcerned that I was a teacher.   I wanted to stop and ask them, “What happened to you along the way?”

Atticus Finch tells his son Jem in To Kill a Mockingbird that “there’s a lot of ugly things in this world, son. I wish I could keep ’em all away from you.”

I may not be able to hold back the ugliness in the world, or the shock of middle school, but I can celebrate this upcoming summer by delighting in my son’s present view of the world before it disappears.

He will never be as carefree as he was that day on the playground dancing with his fifth grade classmates, overflowing with childhood. Per the title of the American Authors song also played that day, this was the “Best Day of My Life.”

Parents Who Don’t Vaccinate Their Children Are Abusive

What began as a curious story of a small measles outbreak in, of all places, the so-called Happiest Place on Earth, Disneyland, has stretched to nearly 100 cases across 8 states and into Mexico.

With all the health problems that can befall people, the last thing we need is for people themselves to harm each other by not getting vaccinated against scourges that modern medicine has already eradicated.

Parents who choose not to give their children vaccinations due to irrational mistrust of medical science not only put their own children in harm’s way, but allow diseases which should remain in history books to resurrect.

As an educator who works in a public school, I have no choice but to be tested for tuberculosis every 4 years. Why? So if I am infected I don’t pass it along to children. I can’t opt out.

However, parents do have that option by filling out the California Department of Public Health’s Personal Beliefs Exemption to Required Immunizations or PBE. Last year, the PBE was revised to require the signature of an “authorized health care practitioner.” While this requirement was intended to make it harder for the form to be completed, all a parent has to do is check off the “religious beliefs” box which requires no medical employee to sign it.

A few short months ago the Ebola hysteria consumed the nation.   Yet there is much more likelihood of a child catching measles than Ebola in this country, a disease with a 90% chance of transference when in contact with an infected individual.

Luckily, the Glendale-Burbank area has been spared thus far. Glendale Unified School District Health Services Coordinator Lynda Burlison said that in the nearly 20 years she was worked in the district, “the last case of measles that I can recall was back in 2000.”

Very few parents have submitted PBEs. Still, there are some schools which have a significant number of children who do not have all their shots.

By visiting the California Department of Education’s (CDE) website and navigating to the Shots for School link, anybody can type in a zip code and click on a specific preschool, elementary, or middle school to receive immediate information.

Schools with fewer than 70% of fully vaccinated students earn a “most vulnerable” rating by the CDE.   Based on the most current information available from the 2013-14 school year, Burbank has one such school, Walt Disney Elementary (how ironic), with 62.8% of the kids there vaccinated.

Glendale, however, has four elementary schools ranked “most vulnerable” with an “increased risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases”: Thomas Jefferson at 68.7%, John Muir at 63.8%, Benjamin Franklin at 60%, and Columbus Elementary at 56.1%.

Just south of Glendale in the Los Angeles Unified School District is Fletcher Drive Elementary where just 40.4% of children have all the required shots meaning more than half of the student population lacks full vaccination. There is an outbreak ready to happen.

If one occurs, those with waivers would be expected to remain home for up to 21 days, the incubation period for measles. This Wednesday nearly 70 non-immunized Palm Desert High School students have been required to stay home for at least two weeks due to an infected teen.

It is a cruel irony that since diseases such as polio and measles have for the most part been eradicated for so long, there exist few eyewitness accounts of people who have had to battle these ailments, leading some to think they are safe.

Maybe the government needs to blast billboards and websites with photos of children afflicted with measles to get people’s attention.

Ultimately, parents who don’t immunize their children exhibit the highest form of selfish behavior. They are taking for granted that the herd immunity of the community will protect their own children.

These militant parents are more than just anti-vaccinators—they are anti-society. As a parent, yes, job number one is protecting your child. But once a parent’s actions go beyond the boundaries of one’s home and will cause harm to other people’s children, the concept of one’s right to do whatever you want no longer applies.

It’s a small world after all.