Archive for the ‘Families’ Category

Underdogs

June 1, 2009

I was given the honor of speaking to the most recent graduates from St. Vrain's Adult Education school on May 22.  Here is the text of my remarks.

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It is a great privilege for me to be here with you tonight to witness this milestone in your life – to witness your accomplishment of reaching graduation.

I want to thank Mary Willoughby for inviting me to be here tonight.  I want to say congratulations, too, to all of the families who are here.  I know from personal experience that very few of us achieve a milestone like this on our own.  Teachers and family provide us with immeasurable support.

My wife and I supported each other as we completed our educations.  First, she worked while I finished school and then we traded roles.  I worked while she finished school. 

So, I would like to say thank you to the staff at Adult Ed and to the parents, spouses, significant others and friends who are here.

I want to talk for a very few minutes about a subject that is not often mentioned at graduation ceremonies.  I want to speak on the subject of Underdogs – people and groups who find a way to be successful even when the odds are against them.

Some, perhaps many of us on this stage have felt like an underdog at one time or another in our lives.  I know that I have had that feeling.

I never felt more like an underdog than when I graduated from high school and went off to college.

I grew up in a small town.  There were barely 1500 people in my town.  I had 40 in my graduating class from high school.  About the same size as your class.

When I went to college, there were more people living in my dormitory than lived in my entire town.  I went to my first class – a required class for freshman in a giant lecture hall.  There may have been more students in that one lecture hall than there were students in grades K – 12 where I had come from.

I didn’t know if I could do this.  I didn’t know if I could survive at a big University.

I became even more intimidated when I heard my college classmates talk about all the math and science classes they had taken in high school.

When I was a senior in high school, my science teacher took a new job the 2nd week of school.  My school wasn’t able to recruit a new teacher.  That was the end of science for me.

I wasn’t sure how I would be able to keep up in college.  I went to sleep feeling homesick most nights my first semester.

But, I had learned something growing up in my small town that would help get through college and succeed I had learned to work hard.  I’ve had jobs since I was 10 years old.  That was a gift my parents gave me.  It was a gift my wife’s parents gave her.  They made us work.

I learned that hard work can make up for a lot.  And the best thing is, we get to decide how hard we want to work.

I read a magazine article recently by a person named Malcolm Gladwell.  The whole article was about How Do Underdogs Win?  How does David beat Goliath?

Gladwell says that there are three reasons that Underdogs are successful.

1.       They work harder than most people are willing to work.

2.       They are willing to do things other people won’t do.  Successful underdogs don’t care if people say “you’re not cool.”

3.       Successful underdogs keep getting up on their feet when they get knocked down.  They don’t give up.

I want to tell you about the janitor at my high school.  Mr. Bray.

Mr. Bray had a big family.  He had five or six or seven children.  I don’t remember exactly how many.  Mr. Bray had a dream.  He wanted his family to have a house where every one of his kids could have their own bedroom.  Throw in a family room and a dining room – that’s a big house.

It’s hard to find a house like that on a janitor’s salary in a small town.  But, that was Mr. Bray’s dream.  He wasn’t going to be stopped by lack of money.

From the time I was about five or six, we would see Mr. Bray at different places around town – after school, on weekends and all through the summer.  Mr. Bray would tear down abandon buildings in town.  He would work out an arrangement with the property owner.  He would tear down their old building if he could keep the wood and bricks and pipes.

I remember people around town talking about Mr. Bray.  They would say things like, “I can’t believe he spends so much time tearing down buildings.”

I’m ashamed to say we kids weren’t so kind.  We said the things kids say before we know better. “There’s Mr. Bray tearing down another building.  What a dork.”

Mr. Bray didn’t care what people in town said about him.  He had a dream.  He was going to make it come true.

Mr. Bray carried himself with pride and dignity everywhere he went.  When he completed a demolition job.  The lot left behind was spic and span.  Mr. Bray did things right.

And, by the time I was a freshman in high school… Mr. Bray had built one of the biggest houses in town.

That’s what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things others won’t do.  They don’t worry whether or not people think they are cool.

I want to tell you one more story.  It’s from a book I’m reading with my daughter.  It’s called Rain of Gold by Victor Villasenor.  It is a true story about Juan and Lupe Villasenor – two immigrants who were driven from their homes in Mexico by a revolution almost 100 years ago.  They built a successful life in the United States.  (Their son is a well known author – he wrote the book.)

Juan and Lupe did not have easy lives.  Their families were knocked down many, many times.  But, they kept getting back on their feet.

There is a scene in the book that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Juan and his family are camped outside of Ciudad Juarez.  They are hoping to cross the border into the United States.

They have nothing.  They have to pick corn out of manure to keep themselves from starving to death.  One night, after a terrible sandstorm, one of Juan’s sisters goes blind.  The family is discouraged.  They want to give up.

Juan’s mother, Dona Margarita, calls her family together.  This is a women whose lost several children; her daughter is blind; her grandchildren are crying with hunger; they have to sleep on the ground through dust storms.

With all these hardships, this is what Dona Margarita said to her family, “We must open our hearts so that we can see the possibilities in our predicament.  If we do not look for the possibilities, we have nothing.”

I can’t imagine the hardships the Villasenor family endured.  It is humbling to hear the words spoken by Dona Margarita; to hear someone who has endured so much declare We Must Find the Possibilities in our Predicament.

But, that is what successful underdogs do.  They work hard.  They do things other people say aren’t cool.  They keep getting back up on their feet when they are knocked down and they look for life’s possibilities.

That is how Dreams Come True.

You all have taken a less traditional path to graduation than people who will graduate tomorrow from traditional high schools.  Some people might consider you underdogs.

Here’s what I would say.  You already have an advantage in life that others don’t.  You know how to overcome adversity.  There’s no softness on this stage.  I’m sure of that.

You know how to work hard.  You know how to keep going when others say you aren’t cool.  And, you know how to pick yourself up when you get knocked down.

You can accomplish your dreams if you keep doing what you’ve done to reach this place tonight.

Congratulations.

Thank you again for giving me the privilege of witnessing what you’ve accomplished.

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Why I’m for the MLO and Bond

August 25, 2008

On Wednesday, I will vote to put a Mill Levy Override (MLO) and Bond on the November 4 ballot.  I think it is a good thing that voters decide whether or not to raise taxes.  It is an opportunity for a community to decide how to invest its money.  Here is why I believe the MLO and the Bond are critical investments.

 

For me, the MLO and Bond come down to a very basic question.  Will we, as a St. Vrain community, keep out the Welcome Mat for young families or will we slam the door in their face?

 

When my wife and I moved our family to Longmont in early 2001, we were struck by the community’s family friendly nature.  We found it to be a great place to raise young children.

 

The family friendly focus in St. Vrain communities is at risk.

 

We do not have the resources in the St. Vrain School District to provide educational basics that are taken for granted in most other school districts in the state and nation.  It is not hyperbole.  It is a fact that St. Vrain is one of the lowest funded school districts in the nation.

 

In most school districts in our state and nation, people take it for granted that class sizes in the elementary grades should be in the low 20s, at most.  We have many elementary classrooms in the high 20s and low 30s.

 

People take it for granted that we should be expanding course offerings in math, science, language and the arts to meet the needs of 21st Century students.  We are cutting our course offerings.

 

People take it for granted that school infrastructure must include ready access to high speed internet and modern classroom technology.  We’re falling behind.

 

People take it for granted that early targeted intervention for students who need extra help and need opportunities to stretch themselves is of critical importance.  We’re rolling back programs we know work.

 

These are the consequences of being one of the lowest funded school districts in the nation.

 

All of this sends a strong message to young families.  Look somewhere else to raise your children.

 

Young families will not put up with large class sizes, limited course offerings and a lack of education basics that people take for granted in most other school districts.  At least, not for long.

 

I do not want to slam the proverbial door in the face of young families.  Young families are the cornerstone of any vibrant community; the lifeblood of sustained well-being.

 

I want to hang big banners across the entrances of our communities that say, “Young families welcome here.”

 

I can think of no better way to raise those banners than voting yes on the MLO and Bond.

Go St. Vrain Discussion Forum

June 4, 2008

 Most of you are probably awared of the web site Go St. Vrain Discussion Forum.  It is a site developed by a grassroots group of parents working to support St. Vrain public schools.  Check it out.  Participate.

Conversation Themes – Parents

May 1, 2008

Since January, school board members have been making a concerted effort to visit each of the schools within the school district.  We have been holding conversations with parents and teachers in our respective representative areas of the school district.

I have held conversations at the following schools:

Parents:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School Education Foundation

·         Silver Creek

·         Westview Middle School (attended “town hall” as an incoming parent)

Teachers:

·         Eagle Crest Elementary

·         Central Elementary

·         Altona Middle School

·         Longmont High School

·         Silver Creek High School (Fall of ’07)

Combined:

·         Blue Mountain Elementary Planning Team

·         Rocky Mountain Elementary (Tamales & Talk)

Community:

·         Latino Advocacy Committee

Today, I am posting themes from my conversations with parents.  Tomorrow, I will post themes from my conversations with teachers.

I would encourage readers to comment.  Which of these themes resonate with you most?  Which of these themes do not resonate?  Why?  What would you add to the list?

If you are a parent who took part in these conversations, is there something I missed or got wrong?

The overarching question I posed in my discussion groups was: As a school district, how might we move closer toward our potential.

Overarching Theme:

Respect and support for principals and teachers.  Ready to support/work for more resources for the school district – as long as it impacts the classrooms.  Concerned that the school district is falling behind the times.

Most commonly mentioned  issues:

“21st Century Skills” (my label not theirs).  In every parent conversation, parents said they want their children’s learning experiences to place greater emphasis on creativity, critical thinking and collaboration/group learning.  These types of skills are of greater concern than elevating test scores in the “basics” of math, reading and writing.

More robust curriculum.  As a means toward “21st Century Skills” parents say they would like to see more science and nature (outdoor learning), language instruction at early grades and more emphasis on fine arts, more emphasis on algebra in middle schools.  High school parents are concerned about maintaining AP offerings.  Parents also mentioned integrated learning experiences that combine multiple subjects of the types of things they liked to see more.

Don’t squeeze out recess, play and movement.  Parents are concerned that budget constraints and an emphasis on standardized tests will lead to elimination of play and movement.  This is something parents (elementary in particular) would like to see more of not less.

Rethink Assessments.  Antipathy toward standardized tests came up in every discussion (especially strong among elementary and middle school parents).  Parents, by and large, do not like the current assessment regime.  Parents do not see how standardized tests, for instance, are serving their children’s needs and interests.  Parents do believe that assessments are important but not the current approach.  When asked for alternatives, parents emphasized these types of changes:  Individual growth over the course of a year (personal progression); a portfolio of work, and something that parents can do in response (again, emphasized at the elementary level).

At the high school level, parents want more emphasis on ACT tests and tests that build toward ACT.  These are more relevant and help students gauge themselves nationally, parents say.  I have heard similar comments from high school students.

Consistent (not uniform) Opportunities.  Parents, to varying degrees, accept and/or support the notion of different schools providing students with different options and opportunities.  But, parents are concerned about the unevenness of opportunities – e.g. some schools have a focus others don’t.  Parents also perceive that different schools have different standards.  They say it is difficult to understand what the districts’ standards are.  And, parents say, they don’t understand how decisions are made that enable some schools to provide options while other schools don’t.

Equity.  Parents expressed concern about the disparities that exist, in particular, between new and older schools.  Technology is where they found this most notable.  PTOs with strong fundraising capacities see that they can address these inequities but would rather direct their money in other ways – rather than what they consider paying for basics.

Support for a MLO.  With only a few exceptions, parents expressed willingness and an urgency to help pass a MLO.  Parents want to make sure that a MLO will impacts the classroom in a meaningful way.

Always Responding.  In three of my parent conversations, parents expressed a frustration that the school district always seems to be responding to issues.  “We never seem to be out front on issues,” one parent said.  Several parents said they are uncertain about the district’s long term plans.

Turn Off the TV Week

April 20, 2008

Tomorrow begins turn off the TV week.  It is promoted by the Center for Screen-Time Awareness.

I’m not a big fan of these types of weeks.  They are designed to make people aware of the need for better habits.  That makes sense.  Too often, people adopt good habits in the extreme for one week and then go back to their normal routine.

Having said that I’m not a fan of “weeks,” I do think we need to promote more awareness and better habits around screen time.  Many families already do.  Many families set limits of daily moderation.  In our family, it’s no TV at all for the kids on Monday-Thursday (unless the KU Jayhawks are playing); an hour or two on Fridays and Saturdays, and an hour on Sundays.  Sometimes our kids watch less due to activities other times more because of movie length.  But, those are our general rules.  And, I must confess, my wife is a better enforcer than I.

While many families are diligent about moderate use of screen time, many are not.  The stats you’ll find at the Center for Screen-Time Awareness are remarkable – and troubling.

But young people are not the only ones watching too much TV.  Adults are watching, too and it’s undermining our communities.  Robert Putnam found that watching commercial entertainment TV is the only leisure activity where doing more of it is associated with lower social capital.

Love and Expectations

April 20, 2008

Shelby Steele once wrote:  People do well because they are loved and much is expected of them.

I love this quote.  Both as a parent and as a member of the school board, I find it a useful touchstone to inform my actions.

At a family level, love and expectations come naturally (though I, like most parents I suppose, am not always consistent at upholding high expectations).  It is more challenging, yet equally necessary, to strive to meet this standard at a community level, too.

Pet Peeve in the Cafeteria

February 16, 2008

The school board heard a report from Shelly Allen, director of nutrition services.  See Victoria Camron’s story in the Times Call.

The nutrition services group is doing great work.  They are making improvements in nutrition and the efficiency of services.  I am impressed with their efforts.

I do have a pet peeve when it comes to what transpires in our school’s cafeterias.  It is not high on my priority list.  Our district administrator and board have far bigger issues to manage.  I’d still like to see changes.

I ate lunch with my Kindergarten daughter not too long ago.  I was disappointed when I saw her classmates choose strawberry milk rather than plain milk, including my daughter.  I looked at the label on the strawberry milk.  It’s full of high fructose corn syrup.  I was dismayed when a high proportion of her classmates purchase a “fruit” roll up a la carte.  Best I can tell is these things are corn syrup and gelatin.  I told my daughter no on the fruit roll up.

When we sat down to eat, the kids went for the strawberry milk and fruit roll ups before the entrée.   I tried to nag the kids near me to make better choices.  But, I held little sway.  Some of the kids ended up consuming nothing but the junk.

We allow our children to eat this crap from time to time.  I’m only a borderline prude.  We occasionally allow them to buy these items at school.  Still, I don’t think it should even be an option.  If parents want their kids to eat junk then they can choose to send it to school with them.

Here’s the problem.  It forces the school to be a parent when they shouldn’t have to be.  Parents can monitor their children’s purchases by tracking the balance of their child’s lunch account.  If the child is purchasing junk food against parent wishes, parents can ask the lunchroom cashier to restrict further purchases.  The lunchroom clerk who we work with is great.  But why should she have to be our police officer?  And, there simply are not enough adults in cafeterias to ensure that children eat their entrée before they eat the crap.

The best option is to restrict sales altogether.  That way, parents don’t have to have the fight, “Can I buy…” and school staff doesn’t get settled with one more parental duty.

I have asked, through Randy Zila, the nutrition services team to re-evaluate the policy of these types of sales.  An exemplary school district would make this change.

Eagle Crest PTO Listening Session

February 15, 2008

I had the opportunity to visit with about 15 parents at Eagle Crest Elementary School on Monday, February 11 – I got home just in time to see KU blow its lead against Texas.  Alas.

The group of parents who I met with is thoughtful, enthusiastic and extraordinarily supportive of their children’s school.  The group is a role model PTO.  Every time I visit I get ideas to pass along to the Central Elementary PTO (where my children attend).  I want to thank the group for allowing me to attend.

I posed the following questions to the group of parents.  We had a non-linear discussion.

1.      What skills and experiences do you want to make sure your children are developing as they move through school in the district?

2.      What is needed to help St. Vrain on the path toward being an exemplary school district?

3.      What is the school and school district already doing well?

4.      What does school accountability look like to you?

Here are the themes from our conversation.

Creativity.  The group emphasized the need for creative thinking to be part of every subject.  There is concern that preparation for standardized tests undermines creativity.  A specific example mentioned by the group is they would like to see far more emphasis on the fine arts.

I asked the group about how U.S. students compare to other nations, for instance, in math.  The group suggested that creativity is our competitive advantage and we must not lose our focus on developing this attribute in our children.  One parent talked about working with people all over the globe.  Another shared an experience teaching in Japan.  Both said that they don’t want their children to be like the children from other countries.  They perceive that other countries do not support creativity the way we do/should here.

Critical thinking.  Eagle Crest parents would like their children to have more experiences dealing with ambiguous problems in which there are not clear right and wrong answers but in which judgment is required.

Experiential learning.  Parents would like their children to have more hands on learning experiences especially in the area of science.  They also would like to see their children learning outdoors from time to time.  For instance, parents said, learning about the environment from a book or screen is not the same as being in the environment.

Preserve recess.  As the need for instruction time grows, Eagle Crest parents say that it is essential to balance this with time to move and play.

Alternative methods of assessment.  Parents question the validity of a single test as the way to assess a student or a school.  Parents in this discussion would prefer that student’s have a portfolio of work evaluated over the course of a year.  These parents say they measure the success of a school based on the growth of individual students – are children making at least a year’s growth.

Second language instruction at an earlier age.  Parents in our discussion say that we are doing a disservice to children by not making language instruction part of an elementary education – especially in today’s global society.  They see educational value beyond just learning a language.

Math and writing.  Parents had good things to say about the math and writing programs at Eagle Crest.  The math approach does stimulate creative and critical thinking, parents said.  And, the writing program is helping students develop and organize detailed thoughts.

Technology.  Parents said that it is important for St. Vrain schools to beef up technology; and to make sure that technology is standard (equitable) across the district.  One parent cautioned not to become overly enamored with technology – it’s not a substitute for learning, she said.

School calendar.  Parents are open to some type of modified year round calendar with more frequent breaks between segments of the year.  Most of the parents in the group do want to preserve a significant chunk of time in the summer for families and to let kids be kids.

Neighborhood schools.  The group of parents who attended this session are concerned about preserving neighborhood schools.  They believe too many families leave their community in search of a “focus” school.  Some of the parents in the group don’t see the wisdom in developing focus schools within the district that might contribute to more fragmentation.

Equity concerns.  Many students who attend Eagle Crest will attend Blue Mountain elementary next year.  Blue Mountain is considered the sister school.  Blue Mountain is considering some form of a math, science and technology focus for the school.  That is an exciting prospect to parents.  But, parents whose children will continue to attend Eagle Crest are concerned about the equity between the two schools.  And, some parents expressed concern that they are learning about this focus after the open enrollment process.

Note: It is still possible for parents to open enroll their children in other schools but students who open enroll now will be lower on the priority list once the open enrollment slots are known and filled.

I am sending the link to this blog entry to the Eagle Crest PTO president so that he can send to others.  It would be great if parents who took part in the conversation added comments – in particular if there are items I missed or if members of the group heard different themes.

Rocky Mountain Tamales and Talk

January 29, 2008

I attended a Tamales and Talk hosted jointly by Rocky Mountain Elementary School and the Longmont Multicultural Task Force earlier this month.  It was a memorable event.

The purpose was to bring together school parents, teachers and community members (in particular members of the Longmont Rotary) to get to know each other better and discuss ways to support the school’s students.

I’ve been to a lot of meetings in schools.  Never was one so full and so positive.  I could not see all the tables in the crowded library from my vantage point.  I stopped trying to count people at 80.

I will remember the passion and commitment of the parents and educators in that room for a long time.  It is one of those occasions that makes you proud of the people who call Longmont home.

Honest Conversations with Teachers

October 4, 2007

Our children have a wonderful piano teacher.  Our children are reasonably good piano players.  But they have reached a plateau.  This is not a reflection on either their teacher or our children.  It is a matter of commitment on the part of our family.  To move beyond the plateau they have reached we must make a choice as a family about how much more we are willing to commit to practice time.  It is not simply a matter of imploring our children to spend more time on their own practicing.  Our children do need to practice more to improve.  Some of this practice needs to be on their own.  But, our teacher pointed out, that most piano students do better when they have an audience.  Practice is less of a chore when it is also a performance.  Our teacher told us that when parents sit with their children while they practice progress is much more rapid.  This resonates with the experience we’ve had in our house.

So these are the choices we face as a family.  Are we, as a group, willing to commit the time for our children to improve or are we comfortable with the current plateau?  Are we willing, as parents, to insist that our children practice the piano more and spend less time outside playing?  Are we willing to sit with them when they practice and leave our household chores to a time after our children are asleep?  Do we want to pay for more lesson time so that our children’s teacher can spend time with them? Or, will we just keep going along as is and choose to be satisfied?

These choices became more apparent to us because our children’s piano teacher initiated a conversation.  She said, I can only do so much.  You have to decide what you’re willing to do.

These are the kinds of choices that families face when it comes to piano and to every other academic subject.  The choices don’t always involve time or the need for more time.  Sometimes the choices involve better use of time.  But, we must be intentional about making choices about what we’re committed to doing.

As parents, we need to thank our children’s teachers when they put these types of choices on the table.  We need to thank our children’s teachers when they make us face up to our own commitments.

Today, I want to say thanks to our children’s piano teacher and to all our children’s teachers who have raised similar issues of commitment.