Letter from a VT school principal. An all too familiar story for Montpelier to consider.
From: Judy Murray <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 2015 21:32:57 -0500
I shared this letter from a recent BMU School Board packet on Facebook andwhile it is a long letter, I wanted to share it with the town listservs aswell.
Education funding is in the news a lot lately, but I have not seen the
realities outlined by this VT school principal addressed or even mentioned
by Montpelier. School districts can only do so much to control costs whenthe state looks to s...chools to provide for ..."the children of the GreatRecession and the narcotics plague."The issues are reality here too unfortunately. Our voices, our experiencesneed to influence the decisions in Montpelier.
December 11th, 2014
Dear Governor Shumlin and Secretary Holcombe,
This is the first time in my life I've written an anonymous letter. As aVermont school principal, I find myself in a precarious position. I'mconcerned that if I share my thoughts with you openly, my District couldsomehow come under political fire. I'm concerned for the privacy of mystudents. I also know that my concerns are echoed by many of my colleagues.I assure you, my input should be taken seriously and interpreted as beingrepresentative of the experience of ma ny, many administrators in yourschools.I am writing in response to the Governor's repeated statements about schoolbudgets and class sizes. I do understand that property taxes are a burdenfor Vermonters, because I am one. I understand the drag high property taxesput on the entire Vermont economy. I also understand that there are somegovernance and school size issues that could be addressed differently thatmight result in lower school costs. I am not arguing against the need toexamine how we fund our schools, and to ask critical questions about whatexactly we are funding.I believe that while Secretary Holcombe touches on the issue of specialeducation, neither one of you truly understands the crisis facing ourschoolchildren. I would like to share a few situations with you that areall too real. These are stories of children who are the victims of theGreat Recession and Vermont's plague of narcotics addiction. I have changed all the children's names.Meet Tony. His mother gave birth to him when she was 19, right about thetime she and Tony's father got into dealing Oxy. Tony was only 18 monthswhen he was locked in a closet time after time to "keep him safe" while sheran out to help with drug deals. Addicted herself, she was not able tofully bond or attach with her toddler. After a stint in foster care, Tonyhas now been reunited with his mother, who is in a drug treatment program.The school is providing social work services, and Tony is supported inschool with a full time behavioral interventionist. Still, there were threetimes during his fifth grade year when Tony "disassociated" during a mentalhealth crisis. He threw a chair at his special educator; attacked theschool principal, and destroyed the art room while the other students wereevacuated for safety purposes. It's expensive to educate Tony in publicschool, but it 's much more expensive to send him to a day treatment orresidential center.Then there is Jason. His parents were homeless for years due to losingtheir job and taking up Oxy, then heroin. The Department for Children andFamilies kept an eye on the kids, but left them with their "intact" family.By the time Jason was taken into custody and cared for by an aunt, he hadnot been to a physician in three years. He had never been to a dentist.Jason resisted the medical care, but did get vaccinated and the worst ofhis teeth were pulled. Jason also experienced trauma reactions. Although heis supported with a full time behavioral interventionist, the team has notyet been able to predict what the exact triggers are for Jason. The policehave been called twice since he bolted from the building and into thewoods. The third time the police were called, Jason had barricaded himselfin his classroom behind a wall of overturned desks. Agai n, his classmateshad to be evacuated for their own safety.Oh, and Sara. She told us, "Ed hit mommy again." Sara doesn't act out asviolently as the boys I described to you. We are her seventh school. She isin third grade. "Ed" is the latest boyfriend, sharing the little family'sroom at the local shelter. Mommy was making it as a single parent, untilshe lost her job during the recession. Sara whispered to her teacher thatMommy was scared; they were getting thrown out of the center because Mommyand Ed kept fighting. Sara falls asleep by about 10:30 each morning.Although she is very far behind academically, the school team has agreed tolet her take a 90-minute nap before lunch. The school is providing aninstructional assistant to help Sara with remedial academics, and theclassroom teacher differentiates instruction to align with Sara's currentskill and interest levels. Still, it is going to take addition al resourcesto bring Sara to grade level. She won't qualify for special education,because she has not had "access" to schooling, so all those costs will beborn locally. Well, that will be another school's problem. We got thetransfer paperwork today.These are just a few stories. I could fill pages. I've been in Vermonteducation for over 30 years, and Vermont school administration for over 15.We've always had challenging students in our schools, but the volume hasincreased markedly in the past seven to ten years. You have been vocalabout the problem facing our beautiful state in regard to the narcoticsplague. You reported the statistics yourself: a 250 percent increase inaddicts receiving treatment since 2000; a 135 percent increase from 2012 -2013 in the number of people charged with heroin trafficking in federalcourt. Connect the dots, Governor, these people have children. The childrenare not well care d for. In fact, the vast majority of children sufferedtrauma. Perhaps they were not all locked in closets or living on thestreets, but they may have suffered the experience of at least one parentgoing to jail. They might be living with their grandparents; they might beseparated from siblings. These are all traumatic events that have a clearand documented effect on their ability to manage school. Yes, we are hiringextra staff to care for them, and quite frankly, to protect typicallydeveloping children from their trauma related behaviors. This is part ofthe "spending problem" you continue to talk about with the press.I applaud your efforts to fund universal PreK, I applaud Secretary Holcombefor promoting PBIS and other "safe schools" initiatives. These arewonderful, absolutely to be celebrated. Quite honestly, though, they willnot help Tony, Jason or Sara. These children, and hundreds more like them,have already s uffered trauma. They need additional staff in order to besafe in our schools. They are expensive to educate, no doubt about it. Butthey have a right to an education. We've already done these kids wrong,Governor. It will cost money to make up for what has already happened tothem.
It is very discouraging to "keep on keeping on" when our Governor not only
ignores the problem, he doesn't see it to begin with. When you continue to
declare that we have ridiculously low adult:child ratios in our schools,keep Tony, Jason and Sara in mind. We have support staff trying to helpthese children. They provide security,consistency, attachment, guidance, counseling, academic support, and saferestraints when all else fails. We feed the children, provide medical care,and yes, give them naps when that is what they need. Our support staff makebetween $12-$20 an hour, and do not get h ealth insurance. That, dearGovernor, is a bargain. If you have a better plan for educating these youngVermonters, we'd all like to hear it. When you declare that school budgetsare too high, the public hears "Teachers make too much money." Budgets godown. Technology gets cut. Enrichment gets cut. We can't cut these extrastaff, Governor. The bell rings, and Tony, Jason, Sara and at least fiveothers like them walk in my door every morning. I need those extra adultsto keep everyone safe.We have so many pressures today, We are re-tooling our curriculum to alignwith the Common Core; preparing to administer a new, online standardizedtest; and developing plans for preschool and "Personalized Learning." Theseare the kinds of pressures Vermont educators have experienced again andagain over time. We take them in stride, and continue to provide aworld-class education. We are efficient and effective in what we do. We arenot asking to have these pressures removed; we understand they are part ofwhat it takes to keep schooling current. What we need is for you tounderstand the unique circumstances we are facing with the children of theGreat Recession and the narcotics plague. These children are NOT okay, andthey are not likely to become less expensive over time. I'd like to hearyou acknowledge this. I'd like to know that my Governor understands theimpact these societal circumstances have had on our schools.Imagine that you are a gardener. You tend your garden and raise produce.During a particularly difficult stretch, there was a terrible drought, anda plague of invasive insects and weeds. At the same time, you are expectedto use new gardening tools and approaches, and to generate not only thesame level of production, but to do it at a lower cost. The drought was notin your control, The pests were not your fault, and there is not much youcan do to stop them. Your "boss" has been very public about the increased
costs for your garden, encouraging others to vote down any increases to
help you deal with the drought or the pests. I'm sure you would not feelencouraged, nor would you be likely to vote for this boss.That's where we stand, Governor. I stood in the voting booth and consideredlong and hard before I cast my vote. I don't feel heard. I don't feelunderstood. I think before you do too many more press conferences, youought to interview some school principals. Tell them about this letter. Askthem if they have students like Tony, Jason or Sara. Visit some schools.Learn how we are managing with the children of the recession and thenarcotics plague. Then sit down with Mr. James and decide - do we have aspending problem in Vermont's schools, or are the costs a symptom of alarger disease?I appreciate you taking the time to read this letter and think about what Ihave said. Sincerely,A Vermont principal
Thanks for reading,