Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Summit

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to attend SAISD's Parent Summit. Considering I'm not a parent, I decided to attend to grasp a better understanding of what was being offered at the summit to SAISD parents. The summit was held on a Tuesday from 8.00am to 3.15pm, working hours for most parents.

The day began with a session entitled "Desire, Drive, Determination: A Journey to Student Success". The speakers included an educational trainer, Aric Bostick, and three GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) Class of 2012 students. Aric introduced himself with a story of triumph over adversity involving a family life that included divorce, alcoholism and neglect, the usual story of many troubled youth who end up succeeding in the end. The three students, who all had worked with Aric throughout the past four years, spoke about their path to success and how they're planning and envisioning their future through college and beyond. The session was more of a motivational time for parents, rather than an instructional session.

The session that followed peaked my interest because it elaborated on how to get to the success that Aric and the students spoke about. Dr. Rosales, the Senior Director of Academic Support for SAISD, spoke to parents about the actual steps along the path to graduation from high school into college. She instructed the parents on how to support their children, not only on their path to graduating high school, but also to successfully preparing for college.

Other sessions throughout the day included topics on Behavior Intervention, Time Management, Understanding Your Child's Disability and there was even a session providing information about Adult Education. One of the sessions stood out to me for the title alone, "School Attendance: It's Important!" I didn't think that anyone needed to be informed that it is important for their child to be in school, so I decided to attend the session to see what it was about.

The entire session consisted mainly of what are acceptable and unacceptable reasons for children not being in school. Considering the presenters laid it out pretty well in their presentation, I didn't expect many questions from the audience. I was wrong. After the speaker was done, several hands went up immediately for the Q&A portion. Questions like, "What is the latest I can turn in a doctor's note to the school before it is an unexcused absence?" to "Which class does my kid need to attend to be marked present?" to "What if my kid doesn't listen to me?" It stunned me. Not for the fact that parents were curious about their children's attendance, but that it seemed like every question referred to how far they could cross the line, without getting in trouble.

The motto for the summit was "Students, Parents and Teachers Together Achieving Academic Results", or STAAR. Coincidental or not, STAAR is also the acronym for the new standardized tests being implemented in Texas this year, STAAR (State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness). STAAR is replacing TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills), which replaced TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) in 2003, which replaced TEAMS (Texas Educational Assessment of Minimum Skills) in 1990, which replaced TABS (Texas Assessment of Basic Skills) in 1986, which was the first in the line of state-mandated tests in Texas.

I got the impression that STAAR would be engrained into these parents heads just as much as TAKS was in the past. In fact, the summit agenda was closed out with a whole group session entitled "State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR): A Parent's Guide to the New Student Testing Program". Not to mention, there was a separate session earlier in the day focused on the "New STAAR Assessment Program for Students with Disabilities".

Overall, the summit was definitely a success in my opinion. SAISD did a wonderful job of providing information that covered all bases from behavior intervention to attendance to college preparation. My only wish is that the summit could have been held on a weekend, or repeated more than once a year in different locations.

As I walked out of the conference center I stopped to ask the ladies at the front desk how many parents they had attend the summit. They told me "about 400", with a proud smile and nod to follow. I confirmed with them that we have over 50,000 students in SAISD. Which means we have at least 50,000 parents in SAISD. They got the point.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Coach

In my previous post I referenced that a Jefferson High staff member kept his class after an assembly to give them a pat on the back for demonstrating how true leaders should act. What I didn’t mention is that he also invited me to sit in on one of his classes and observe. The next week I followed him up on his offer.

As I walked onto the football field at 8.25 AM, most of the Jefferson football players were already there. Defensive Coach Mark Polit was walking down the sideline greeting the players as they gathered together to prepare for practice/first period. He laughs and jokes with a few and yells at the few stragglers to “Hurry Up!” When 8.30 rolls around, the players begin their group warm up and stretch. Afterward, they huddle around Coach Polit. He begins practice by reflecting on a recent loss and tells the players that he and the coaching staff are “exceptionally proud of you. EXCEPTIONALLY proud, BUT, we are not satisfied.”

When practice begins the atmosphere gets serious; you can tell it’s time for business on the field. There’s no more laughing, no more chit-chatter between players. They are focused on what is going on and the direction being given by Polit and his staff. Such discipline and respect is sometimes rare in our inner city schools, but here, that is the rule, rather than the exception. To reinforce and test that discipline, Polit yells out “Lock In!” The players simultaneously lock into a military stance with arms to their sides and feet together. He then reminds them two factors that are key to success, “Discipline and Focus”.

While discipline and focus are key in Polit's world, there's room for plenty of humor as well. At the end of practice he follows the players back to the locker room. As we’re walking he hears one of them rapping Tupac. He quickly throws a verbal jab at the student by saying, “You’re rapping Tupac? You’re at the 90210 of inner-city schools and you’re rapping Tupac? You may listen to Tupac, but you can’t HEAR Tupac.” The kid laughs as Coach Polit chuckles.

As we enter the coaches’ office, Coach Polit introduces me to one of the other coaches. While Coach Polit hits the showers I begin to pick the other coach’s brain about his profession and experiences within. He tells me about the overwhelming number of students with socio-economic issues and issues relating to lack of parental support. I ask him why he chooses to accept the responsibility of dealing with it all. “Why not just go to the Northside where parents are more involved in their kids’ lives?” He informs me that he came from the same surroundings as these kids and that someone helped him out along the way. This was his way of “paying it forward”. Just as he says that one of his players walks in. The coach requested the student come see him because he noticed that he was extremely late to practice. The coach asked the student if everything was okay. He asks the student about a personal issue that was occurring in his life and reassures him that he is here to help. Before the student walks out, he gives the coach a hug and the coach tells him “I love you. You know that right?” The student smiles and nods, “I know coach.”

After Coach Polit hits the showers and changes into his ‘teacher attire’ we head with his players over to the cafeteria to hang out with the students as they grab a quick breakfast. Coach Polit introduces me to the students at the table as we sit down. He has them introduce themselves and gives me a background of each. Their backgrounds range from parents in the military, to single parent households on welfare. I asked the students why they respect Coach Polit so much. All of their answers pretty much came to the same conclusion, ‘Because he doesn’t give us any other option’.

The bell rings and we head to Coach Polit’s classroom. As we exit the cafeteria, his players break into a synchronized clap session of “Let’s Go” (Google: ‘The Cars’) as they make their way to class. Coach Polit joins along. We enter his classroom and I am hit by a ceiling completely covered in paintings. Each ceiling tile has a different symbol on it representing an association with government. From the EPA logo to the NASA logo to the Statue of Liberty to a painting of the White House which covers four ceiling tiles on it’s own; each tile is completely encapsulated from end to end with a different painting. The paintings aren’t juvenile either. Although I forgot to ask, I questioned whether he commissioned a professional to do the work or if student’s had done it all. My idealistic side imagines that it was the latter.

Coach Polit tells me to make myself at home as he goes back outside to greet the students in the hallway, most of whom aren’t even students who are headed for his class. His tone is different. It isn’t one of strict authority; it’s a tone of excitement. It’s a tone that makes you happy to be in his presence, rather than want to avoid him.

The bell rings again and the day begins with announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a moment of silence. Coach Polit reminds the class that the moment of silence is going to be a little longer today. I assume he is referring to the moment of silence initiated by Principal Cockrell over the PA system, but he is referring to an extension of his individual class’ moment of silence. He comes over to me after the moment of silence and explains to me with a whisper that one of the students lost their father two years ago to that day. “He was deployed and she got the news while we were in class”. For the next few minutes my mind is wrapped around the complexity of being a teenager and someone coming into your classroom informing you that your father was gone. You would never see him again. When he left for deployment months before was the last time you would ever hug him or hear his voice. Considering I’m in the military, it really hit me hard. As Polit tells me about it, his entire demeanor changes. His energetic and focused persona goes into a somber stare for a second as he puts himself in her shoes. In this moment, Polit unknowingly demonstrates an ability most desirable in leaders. The ability to transition from a stance of brazen fortitude to empathetic compassion.

After the announcements are over, Coach Polit goes right into a story regarding his childhood. Mark Polit is from the rough side of Boston, MA. His father was one who worked three jobs while going to school and eventually built his own business (a pharmacy) from the ground up. He tells about a lesson he learned from his father about appreciating what you have in life. The story began with his father giving him and his little brother a Nintendo. Coach Polit reminds the students that, at this time, his father was working three jobs just to put food on the table; so to get a Nintendo for Christmas was a miracle. He continues by telling about how he would always fight with his brother over who would play it. The story ended with his father taking a hammer to the game and young Mark Polit learning a lesson about being grateful for what you have. He mentions that this lesson stayed with him his entire life. He then begins the day’s Sociology lesson about Personality Self-Assessments.

He gives the class 15 minutes to write about how their past has led them to be the person they are today. They were required to base their writings on four factors: 1. Heredity, 2. Birth Order, 3. Parental Character, and 4. Cultural Environment. This task was intriguing to me because it not only taught a sociological process, but also forced the students to reflect on themselves and what makes them who they are. Most sociology courses I have taken have taught and encouraged me to study others, but seldom have forced me to assess my own personality and its development. This is key for developing minds, in my opinion, because it promotes a better realization of who you are, why you are who you are, and why you are different from everyone around you. It instills a sense of pride and a realization that you are a unique individual with a unique background, and therefore have unique potential.

After the students were done with their self-assessment, Coach Polit had them trade with someone else in the classroom. “Don’t trade with a friend or someone that you always sit next to. Trade with someone who you seldom talk with. Get to know a different classmate today. Don’t be shy.” After a bit of reluctance and hesitation, the students find their partners and Coach Polit laughs and tells them “Good job! Welcome to college, where you might not know everyone.” After the class settles, Coach Polit directs them to read over the other person’s assessment and develop their own questions. After everyone had read over each other’s paper, they are then given an amount of time to ask the questions they wrote down. The entire time Coach Polit walks around the classroom and monitors each group’s Q&A session. He guides certain conversations that have gone off track and gives a verbal ‘pat on the back’ to others.

As he wraps up the class, he encourages the students to consider the factors that they have learned from the lesson. He reminds them that there is a background to each and every one of them that has made them who they are today. Those backgrounds can be negative or positive, regardless, Coach Polit reminds them that they should use them in a productive manner to build the person that they want to be in life.

After seeing Coach Polit hold his student’s behind after the assembly the week before, I knew seeing him in action as a teacher and a coach would inspire me. After spending several hours with him, on the field and in the classroom, I certainly was not disappointed. Jefferson High is definitely lucky to have such a passionate and caring teacher, coach and mentor like Mark Polit. At the end of my vist I drove away wondering why this guy who I just met gained my respect so quickly. I then realized he didn’t give me any other option.