Monday, December 31, 2012

What is a normal year?

December 31, 2007: We go to Yosemite Springs, to some fancy country-clubesque New Year's spot. It isn't particularly fun.

December 31, 2008: We spend New Year's at our house in Fresno. My father-in-law is in town, so we have a half-Venezuelan, half-American New Year's celebration: We watch the ball drop AND he drinks scotch.

January 1, 2009: We awake and my car is gone. We call the police, only to find out it has not been stolen but repossessed.

June 2009: Our school, KIPP Fresno, closes. I won't get into the nexus of causality right now, but it was heartbreaking.

June 2009: I am selected to become principal of the new KIPP middle school in Florida. I begin traveling, first to spend the summer in New York and then to visit several of the best schools in the country.

November 2009: We drive six days to Jacksonville. Maria and the kids go to Venezuela for an extended holiday vacation; I stay in Jacksonville.

December 31, 2009: A somewhat-cousin and I drive to Miami to stay with his wife's (real) cousins.

January 1, 2010: I wake up vomiting.

August 2010: Our school, KIPP Impact Middle School, opens in Jacksonville.

December 31, 2010: We are in Miami, I'm running a lot (and watching every available episode of Dexter on Netflix) and writing something like 60 mastery quizzes in a week. We have dinner at our (real) cousin's friend's house - a very Venezuelan affair. Everybody (else) drinks scotch, and we eat bread filled with ham, bacon, and capers.

June 2011: Our school receives a school grade of 'F' from the Florida Department of Education. A lot of people don't take it well. About this fact, I believe two things to be true:

  1. In our first year of existence, we did not do a great job of teaching our kids, and
  2. Our low scores largely reflected that our kids came in with some pretty significant challenges, and still, by April, couldn't read most of the tests. Yes, our kids didn't 'show growth' on the FCAT, but they did beat the KIPP national average in terms of 5th grade math growth (which is true but still hard to believe), and they did grow 1.5 years based on the DRA. Lest you think these are excuses, see point #1 above.
In any case, this is when things really start to get bad. I have picked a reading approach that makes sense to me, based on some great work being done at Uncommon and Achievement First, and the approach is eyed with suspicion. From this point, with the exception of the FLDOE's reading expert sent to monitor our school (a wonderful, knowledgeable, and brilliant woman named Charla Bauer) and my friend Chi, every single person who purports to know anything about reading instruction who observes a reading class concludes that we're going about it all wrong - and points to our F as evidence.

December 31, 2011: We celebrate at a friend's house. The school year is not going well. I am not happy. I am working with one teacher who has become openly antagonistic, and several others whose priorities aren't what I think they should be, or what our kids' parents would think they should be. Many are just very confused about what they want to do with their lives, or how much work is a reasonable amount of work to be expected, in order to earn a salary. Some of this is generational; some is individual. Some of it I still find incomprehensible.

Some things are going better than others. Our Data Czar, Joseph, and I have essentially taken over math instruction. Our reading teachers Anna and Tanesha, and Warren (our nonfiction teacher who also put more effort into teaching math than our math teacher), are rocking it out. Our music program continues to improve, and our kids are sounding amazing. By this point we have crushed our MAP goals, showing more growth than 99% of schools nationwide on 3 out of 4 tests, and more than 95% of schools on the fourth. Most importantly, we have done everything in our power for the elementary school to be allowed to open, which feels good. So we're proud to have done what we can to make this happen.

Note from the present: I'll cut out the majority of the details here because I can't find a way to write about them that will come across as positive or reflective. The fact is that I learned a lot, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do what I did in Jacksonville, but I feel a lot of regret and guilt about how absent I was from my own kids' lives during this time, due to the sheer amount of work that I had to do - in some cases because the people who otherwise would have done this work decided not to. Things at this point were not going well, and I was simply looking forward to things improving, to all of this hard work paying off, sometime. The hard part at this point was that I saw at least another year of intense struggle before we could be in a place to perhaps begin talking about sustainability.

So December 31, 2011 was not a very happy time in my life.

From April to May 2012, it is decided that I'll resign at the end of the school year. Though I am sad to be leaving all of the good kids, parents, and teachers I had a chance to work with, I am equally grateful for the opportunity to do something else. Note from the present: I didn't realize just how miserable I was until after I left, and remembered how positive feels to feel appreciated, to add value, and to have a much more reasonable amount of work expected.

May 16, 2012: I call MATCH, AF, and TFA Jacksonville, to see if they're looking for somebody (me!)

Michael Goldstein from MATCH and his team are great, Chi and AF are great, and I eventually go out to New Orleans, New Haven, and Boston, for interviews. For the two days I'm in Boston and New Haven, I feel valued and appreciated, which I hadn't really felt since June 2011. In what is a really tough decision that I'm once again blessed to be able to make, Maria and I choose to raise our kids in New Haven, rather than New Orleans. There are many other things to consider here, and I think I/we would have been happy in either place, but this seems like the right move.

July 2012: We drive three days up I-95 to New Haven. I begin working at Elm City College Prep Middle School and fall in love with education again, remembering what it is like to be surrounded by like-minded people, to add value, and to be part of a functional team within a functional system single-mindedly focused on everybody in the building (kids, teachers, leadership) learning and growing.

December 31, 2012: We are here at our place in the East Shore neighborhood of New Haven. Our kids are happy. We are happy. It has snowed, so we've spent the last couple of days sledding. In terms of work, I feel lucky every day that I get to work with such amazing people.

So as this year wraps up, I am feeling very blessed. I am reading to my kids most nights. I love what I do. We get to explore New England on our breaks. I just don't know how to classify 2012 on the whole, other than to say that it has been on an upward trajectory for the last half.

What I wonder is this: What is a normal year? Will I be able to string together a couple of solid years? I sure hope so. I'm not looking for a year with no struggle; I'm simply looking for a year that we don't move across the country, where we have enough consistency in our lives to focus on the basics of being the best people we can be.


  1. ugg. I can't even explain here how sad it makes me feel to know anything about those tough years in there. I do know that regardless of what that grade was...that there was some really important stuff happening at KIPP Impact that will stay with those kids, my son included, forever. I think highly of you and wish you had some sort of role in educating any of my children today.

    Recently, Greyson turned in his science project really late after we had to prod him to get the work done. He would have failed the class without it. The first thing I thought was that this would NOT have happened at KIPP because the science teacher would have called us! His science teacher never contacted us so it would have just been a big surprise when the report card would have come out. He is getting an OK education although not as tough as KIPP was.

  2. Thank you for your kind words; please know that none (or at least a negligible amount) of this negativity came from parents or students. For what it's worth, there were a lot of great things about these two years. We had some really wonderful teachers who were a pleasure to work with. We had a bunch of great kids, and it was great to be able to help them and get to know them.

    As an aside, our kids go to a school in New Haven that is similar to KIPP, but that has been around for several years. It is a great place for them, and they haven't faced any of the negativity that Greyson faced at KIPP. Among other things, I wish we would have met Greyson when the school was at a place that would have better served his needs.

    In terms of the science project, I do think there is a balance between, one one side, teachers working with parents to ensure kids don't fail, and on the other side, teachers putting more ownership on kids. KIPP definitely erred on the side of not allowing kids to fail, largely to address the fact that so many of our kids had failed multiple times before arriving...but there is also something to be learned from having responsibility for something, not doing it, and seeing the negative effects. I was fortunate enough to make these mistakes in 3rd grade, when I balked on completing a huge project - but I remembered the feeling and knew I couldn't get out of projects afterward. I would rather have a kid fail a class in 7th grade than 10th, but if there's a way to fail on a smaller scale and learn from it, that would probably be better on the whole.

    I do wish Greyson were receiving a better education; let me know if I can help in any way.

  3. Oh, I probably made that sound worse then it is for him. I think he is getting the best possible education is our area. There are MANY things I love about his school. His other teachers have been great. His Civics teacher emailed me to let me know that Greyson went from an F on a states and capitols quiz to an A the next time. I liked that he celebrated a positive and not just focused on the negative. And of course their band program is amazing.

    I am not a fan of this science teacher though! Greyson was sick whenever she handed out the big booklet of instructions. She didn't believe him and wouldn't give him another one! Granted, it was a month later so I can imagine why she would have been annoyed. It made it difficult for him to know where to begin though!

    Another issue that makes it difficult for us is that we are supposed to check on grades via an online thing but not all the teachers update things until close to the end of the term so it's not reliable. And so I stopped checking it on a regular basis. I would have liked an email or form for me to sign to say 'Your son is going to fail because he has not done any of the steps required in his science project.' You have given me a lot to think of about allowing him to fail so that he learns from it.

  4. So glad that he is getting a good education. The most important thing for me (and all of us at KIPP) was not that he was at our school, but that he was getting the best possible education. I'm glad that is what he has now, and especially glad that he has continued with the trumpet. I can still point to the hundreds of ways that learning music continue to help me, so I'm glad he gets to continue in this area.

    Also, yeah, failure is tough. The key is failing fast, and doing so in a way that doesn't close doors moving forward.