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What We Can Do For Our Neighborhood School

I’m writing as a parent at Becker Elementary School in Austin Independent School District. And I am cross-posting here as an advocate for all of our sister schools in our vertical team, our district, our state, and our country.

Some of our new and returning families may not know that twelve years ago, Becker’s enrollment was 189 students and we were under threat of closure. To increase enrollment, we asked prospective families, “What do you want from your neighborhood school?” and a partnership grew between parents and school to create what we seek: a joyous, inclusive, and bilingual community for our students and families.

This year, we are full and currently have 500 students enrolled, a threshold we have been working toward for years, affording us a full time assistant principal.

I speak of “our” school and “our” work because hundreds of individuals– educators and families–share responsibility in bringing our school to where it is today and in how it will look tomorrow. Here is a video I love and that, in rewatching it and reminiscing, moved me to write down my thoughts today.

On the spring day featured here, the Statesman captured just one of many beautiful moments Becker students, staff, and families have shared in solidarity and advocacy over the years. I feel lucky to have witnessed this one.

The students in this video are now adults. I think about how our school has changed, and it weighs heavily on me that, unintentionally, through focusing on attracting new families, some of the work we have done marginalized the voices of the families who have loved and attended Becker for decades. In the current context of the Black Lives Matter Movement and a pandemic that disproportionately affects underprivileged communities, it is important for us to know that, as a good friend recently reminded me, in putting forth good intentions, we must consider their impact. Good intentions often perpetuate inequity.

I have been hesitant to write these days, as a white woman, not knowing when to speak and when to listen. When I rewatched this video, I had to write.

At this time many of us are making decisions about what the fall will look like for our families, for our children. I know that some of us have more decisions to make because we have more options. I know that, for some of us, the option to unenroll or to enroll elsewhere may seem like the only option. We have good intentions. We need to work. We want to keep our families and children safe. We may even plan to return to our public school one day.

But let us not make these decisions without seriously considering their impact.

Enrollment impacts our school’s funding. When enrollment drops, our schools will lose the teachers who have been helping to raise our children. In a normal school year, the first step is “leveling”. A week or two into the school year, enrollment causes a shift in teachers around the district. Teachers whose classes didn’t make minimum enrollment numbers will be transferred to other school communities. They will not get to choose where they go. Returning to Becker depends upon an available space the next year and a new interview process. And returning is unlikely (I’ve never seen it happen) because transferring schools is incredibly stressful for teachers as they need to get to know a whole new community and school climate, not to mention move a classroom-full of personal materials. It’s like moving your family to a new city. If enrollment levels throughout the district drop significantly, there will be reductions in force. Over the last few years, Becker advocacy and enrollment committees have worked tirelessly to raise enrollment from 485 to 500 students to earn a full time assistant principal, which is an enormous help to a campus. If just a few families leave, years of work is lost.

One individual family’s decision does not exist in isolation of the big picture here. Our public schools will suffer when families unenroll.

Let us each ask again, What do we want from our neighborhood school?

Are we looking for a community with shared goals and a commitment to work toward those goals? Do we want our children to have a joyous, inclusive, and bilingual environment to learn and grow? Do we seek a community that holds us accountable for thinking about how our intentions impact our whole community? Do we want to engage in courageous conversations, seeking ways we can work for a more equitable world?

The Becker community will continue to work to bridge communities, to create spaces where every parent has a voice, to align all of our work and initiatives with our shared goals.

The Becker community, under the guidance of professionally trained AISD and campus staff and parents, will guide students to take active part in sustaining a joyous, inclusive, and bilingual school.

And now, in this current reality, knowing how much our school has done for us, we must also ask, What can we do for our neighborhood school?

First, we can stay enrolled, commiting to our shared goals. Soon we will know what the requirement for staying enrolled will be: how many minutes of synchronous learning and how many learning activities submitted, for example. We can meet those requirements.

Then, we can ask, who is represented and who is not? How can we work together to ensure all families have a voice in our community? How can we support each other, love each other, hold each other accountable to the ideals and shared goals we work to uphold?

On that spring day in 2009 our Becker students sang the Beatles’ words:

What do I do when my love is away?
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day?
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

This is an unprecedented time. An uncertain, difficult time. A time when we need our community, and our community needs us. You’re not alone. Together, we’ll get by with a little help from our friends.

Join us in the important, ongoing work of our beloved neighborhood school.

The Real Rebels

At our January 7th conference, we will give participants a sticker that reads, “Somos Rebels” and includes the names of our 11 Vertical Team Schools. “Somos Rebels” is a slogan that originated with the new Travis Early College High School t-shirts. One of the goals of our conference is to promote and rally around our Travis ECHS Vertical Team schools. But, we do not use the word “rebels” without deep reflection about its historical context. Here, we hope to clearly share what we mean, today, when we say, “Somos rebels”.

The slogan, “Somos Rebels” is an example of translanguaging, “the dynamic process in which multilingual speakers navigate complex social and cognitive demands through strategic employment of multiple languages.” The Spanish word “somos”, meaning “we are”, together with the word “rebels”, speaks to the social and cognitive demands that adopting a critical lens requires. Who are the real rebels? We celebrate multilingualism, multiculturalism, and brave acts when we put these two words together, especially in today’s sociopolitical context.

This year, along with several schools across AISD, Fulmore Middle School’s name changed. The school is now named Sarah Beth Lively Middle School after a beloved former Fulmore teacher.

The school name changes movement has impacted schools across the United States where, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1,747 confederate symbols still stand.

As we put together a conference aimed at advocating for equitable educational opportunities for all students and amplifying the stories of our William B. Travis Vertical Team schools, teachers, and families, the challenge arises of how to celebrate strength in diversity under a name that conjurs a confederate history.

In this article, The Real Rebels of the Civil War, author Scott Hancock, an associate professor of history and Africana studies at Gettysburg College, points out that,

In the Civil War, words were often misused. Connotations changed. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t even a civil war, since the battle was not about who would control the entire United States, but whether part of the country could secede.

Hancock points out that the secessionists of the Civil War adopted the title “rebels” so successfully that the word is still sometimes used to describe confederates. And, as the school mascot, it clearly was originally used in this way at Travis High School. Austinites today still remember days when a confederate flag was run up and down the football field at games as the band played “Dixie.”

However, the word “rebel” is another word that was misused during the Civil War. Hancock also shares that in 1862 Frederick Douglass declared,

I really wish we had some other expressive title for the traitor and rebels who are now striking at the heart of the country which has nursed and brought them up. REBELS and TRAITORS are epithets too good for such monsters of perfidy and ingratitude.

Such an important point that Frederick Douglas made. Rebels rebel against the establishment, fight against conformity, and rise against oppression. They don’t fight to maintain it.

In his article’s conclusion, Hancock states,

Confederate soldiers, regardless of their bravery during battle or their commitment to comrades, were fighting for a government that sought to maintain the ancient institution of slavery. They were preservationists. Accommodationists. Conformists. Anything but genuine rebels. The real rebels were the hundreds of thousands of black men and women who, in what was arguably the most successful slave uprising in world history, did more than simply resist slavery: they actively, militantly, violently, killed it.

At our Equity Conference on January 7th, where we come together to promote equitable educational opportunities for all of our diverse communities, we wonder how we might be able to reclaim the word “Rebel”, framing our mascot, instead, as a “real rebel” that rebels against oppressive educational practices that perpetuate the inequities that exist in our educational system.

Afterall, at a time when our country is divided, we are a Vertical Team of Dual Language, of No Place for Hate, of All are Welcome, of All means All, of Social Emotional Learning, of Restorative Practices. We have even been recognized nationally on HBO’s show Problem Areas, where Wyatt Cenac featured our Dual Language and Ethnic Studies programs as ways we provide culturally inclusive education to immigrant and bilingual students.

Somos rebels.

Our rebellious act on January 7, 2020 is to collectively push back on deficit perspectives of historically marginalized populations by actively adopting an appreciative lens and sharing teaching practices that build on students’ strengths and celebrate their stories.

Join us.

Travis Vertical Team Equity Conference 2020

Lively Middle School and Nuestras Escuelas are thrilled to co-host the 2nd annual Travis Vertical Team Equity Conference on January 7, 2020 from 8:00am to 12:30pm at Lively Middle School.

The Travis Vertical Team Equity Conference is a teachers teaching teachers conference to promote solidarity and equitable educational opportunities for the diverse communities across our vertical team schools.

In 2019, we hosted 150+ Travis Vertical Team teachers, attending 10+ different sessions. Click here to view a slideshow of photos from the day.

This year, our theme is Our Stories, Our Strengths. We have more than 300 teachers registered and more than 30 sessions that will be led by our very own Travis VT teachers!

We are thrilled to welcome for our keynote UT Austin’s Dr. Luis Urrieta, Suzanne B. and John L. Adams Endowed Professor in Education. Dr. Urrieta is a Lively Middle School parent and the author of the award winning book, “Working from Within: Chicana and Chicano Activist Educators in Whitestream Schools” (2009, University of Arizona Press), in addition to an extensive publishing record. His most recent book is a co-edited volume (with George W. Noblit) titled Cultural Constructions of Identity: Meta-ethnography and Theory (2018, Oxford University Press). Dr. Urrieta was also honored as a César E. Chávez champion of change by the White House in 2014.

Access 2020 conference materials via the links below:

Equity Conference Schedule

Travis VT Equity Conference Program of SessionsAll sessions are designed for PreK-12 Vertical Alignment. Sessions with bilingual presenters are indicated in the program.

Sessions SummaryThis summary includes session titles, room numbers, and indicates which sessions have bilingual presenters.

Day of Sign-in Please sign in when you arrive to Lively Middle School at 8:00am. The sign-in form includes a time stamp. We will send this sign-in form to principals so that attendees receive credit for their attendance.

Session evaluations Please complete a session evaluation for each session you attend.

Conference evaluation Please complete the conference evaluation during our closing session at 12:15pm.

 

 

 

 

Teachers Teaching Teachers

The Nuestras Escuelas collaborative has been coming together monthly for almost a year now to think about how we can provide local, authentic audiences for Travis VT students’ work. We have paired several projects with community spaces and events or other schools in our team. Students have embraced their identities as artists and writers, seeing their creations and original texts displayed publicly and read by various audiences.

We have also asked the question, How can we support teachers in our neighborhood vertical team schools in professional learning around how to guide students in such authentic work? Designing units of study that are 1. responsive to diverse students 2. honor process-based work, and 3. culminate in purposeful projects is complex professional work–a far cry from STAAR prep guides, testing strategies, and multiple choice practice booklets.

But we know that the 17 years since No Child Left Behind was passed (and the years before that when high stakes testing was percolating right here in TX) has caused many districts, administrators and, therefore, teachers to react with remedial teaching. “Back to the basics” teaching thrives in test-centered classrooms and grows dependent learners who know no other purpose than to get the grade or to comply with the teacher.

And so there is a need for high quality professional development that can prepare teachers for implementing the type of teaching and learning that research supports and that parents and children crave. We believe that the best professional development that we can offer teachers is from their peers–local teachers who are already engaging in this rigorous and inspiring work with our local students.

And so, we are thrilled to announce that the conversations that started at our first meetings in January and February of 2018 have led to the development of a professional conference for and by our Travis VT teachers and parents.  On January 4, 2019 from 8:30am to 12:30pm the Nuestras Escuelas Collaborative and Fulmore Middle School are cohosting an Equity Conference titled Building on Strength.

Here is the flyer for the equity conference!

We have presenters coming from Uphaus PreK Center, Houston Elementary, Travis Heights Elementary, Widen Elementary, Mendez Middle School, Fulmore Middle School, and Travis Early College High School. We expect nearly 200 participants representing almost all of the ten schools in our Vertical Team.

Below is the menu of session titles. This is what we’d call a healthy dose of professional learning! Grass roots and home grown en nuestras escuelas!

Making Parent Engagement a Priority

The Power to Produce is in Your Pocket

Literature Circles in PreK

Using Games to Engage All Learners

Designing Blended Learning for Student Autonomy

Making is a Mindset

Using Mindfulness in the Classroom to Build Relationships and Communication Skills

La participación activa de los estudiantes multilingües

Developing Identity

How Can You Use Drawing and Manga to Engage and Grow Diverse Learners?

Texting, Messaging, and Posting: Valuing Students’ Existing Literacies from the Start

Authentic Purposes (not the grade nor the teacher!) for Student Work

 

Student-centered solutions to deficit-based problems

In just the last few weeks since our May 8th Nuestras Escuelas meeting, discussions about the harms of programs and practices that grow from deficit-based beliefs have been buzzing in local Austin and national media.

On June 1, 2018 NPR published this piece about methodologically flawed and deficit-based research that began almost 40 years ago and how it has impacted educational funding and programming nationwide. They certainly aren’t the first to point out the harms and problems with this research, but it is heartening to professional educators to see this more mainstream and national attention.

Also on June 1, 2018, the Austin Chronicle published this piece investigating the story behind Austin ISD’s School Board president, Kendall Pace’s, resignation on May 21st that is closely tied to local programs that also cite the word gap argument.

This quote from Making Millions Off the 30-Million Word Gap blog post, published on May 31, 2018,  relates to our work and how it contributes to this conversation:

…teachers who are working from a mindset that their children are broken and in need of fixing are not going to be effective at educating these students. Yet, this is exactly what the 30-million-word gap is suggesting to teachers. Ironically, these programs are getting millions of dollars to disseminate a racist message in the name of challenging racial inequalities.

What if instead of accepting deficit perspectives of low-income students of color, we worked with teachers to understand and value the rich linguistic practices that all of their children bring to the classroom. What if instead of creating programs that seek to fix low-income students of color, we created programs that would support teachers in building on their linguistic resources in the classroom?

In our last post, we got a glimpse at the initial stages of some Nuestras Escuelas projects. Here’s an update on how our Nuestras Escuelas Collaborative is creating programs that support teachers in building on students’ strengths.

Last month, when Marian Thompson, mother of a kindergarten student at Dawson Elementary School, saw a 2nd grade art display in the Dawson hallways, she recognized that it was inspired by Ellsworth Kelly’s art. She knew that the local Austin Blanton Museum of Art had recently opened what the Blanton website describes as Kelly’s “most monumental work, a 2,715-square-foot stone building with luminous colored glass windows, a totemic wood sculpture, and fourteen black and white marble panels.” She approached the Dawson art teacher, Casey Hickey, and a Blanton Museum Educator, Sabrina Phillips, and made it possible for the elementary students’ artwork to be displayed in the Blanton Museum of Art’s Education Newsletter.

When she did so, Marian:

Screenshot (1)

When we use this assets-based approach, we are not only recognizing and sharing strong teaching and learning but also enhancing that teaching and learning.

Also in May, at Galindo Elementary, the 4th grade team engaged their students in writing about powerful and personal topics that “talked back” to some of the more teacher-centered prompts students are traditionally given for their writing. They instilled in their students identities as writers and autonomy in their work. When they shared that work at the Talking Back Celebration of Untold Stories and Student Voice, they were:

  • Inviting the community to be a part of that conversation
  • Educating educators, parents, and other community members about the high level of work linguistically and culturally diverse students can and will produce when given the guidance, the space, and the choice

 

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When Barbara McKinnon’s Houston Elementary  3rd graders displayed their original informational books at the Pleasant Hill Library, they were real authors published in academic spaces. Students saw that their stories belong on the shelves that often lack diverse representation.

 

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Young visitors who flipped through the pages thought, I could try to make a book like this, too! Older students read and connected with the topics. Adults delighted in the honesty and voice on each page.

Next, Houston’s 3rd graders’ work traveled to Mendez Middle School where Juan Martinez-Esqueda’s 8th graders were working on documenting their Middle School years in this beautifully displayed Legacy Project. Each student crafted a feather that helped make up the wings with which they will soar to their next school.

 

They took a break from their project to read and comment on the Houston 3rd graders’ books. Before the school year let out, Ms. McKinnon’s class received the feedback. This layer of sharing made this work peer-supported and also built a sense of leadership and mentorship across feeder campuses.

 

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While Mendez Middle School students were finishing up their Legacy Project, Fulmore Middle School students not far away in Bridget Farr’s class were finishing up their diverse super hero posters. Many Mendez and Fulmore students will meet for the first time when they start high school at Travis.

 

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And once the posters were done, Larry Frier had displayed Fulmore students’ posters back at Dawson Elementary, and students walked the halls and stopped to view and respond to Fulmore Middle School students’ diverse superhero posters… Yet another peer-supported, interest-powered, and production-centered learning experience that connected elementary school students with their future middle school.

 

 

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When we look through these photos, it is striking how engaged, motivated, and inspired youth are when we provide opportunities that are engaging, motivating, and inspiring.

At our next meeting on June 5, 2018 from 5:30 to 7:30 at the Twin Oaks Library, we will take a moment to reflect on our work in our first semester together and think toward next school year. Today, our public schools often feel under attack–from outside and, sometimes, from within. But, when we fight back with an appreciative lens, highlighting assets, we are not only spotlight amazing schools, teachers, and students, we fortify their strength.

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