Posted in School governance, School Leadership

Learning From Those Who Came Before You

Here’s some advice if you’re currently leading a school.

Do a checkup on your cumulative files.

Because there is a good chance a non-educator will be sending out cumulative files in the future, I’m using this time to sort them out and get things out of them that need to be removed.  While doing this, I’m also learning a few things.  Here’s some of what I learned.  If you’re a parent, this will tell you what to watch out for.  If you’re a teacher or a school leader, this will help you to understand what not to do (as well as what to do!).

People, the Parents Own The Files!

So, this isn’t something I learned recently because I’ve known this a long time, but something I wanted to be 100% sure my readers know.  Anything you put into a school record is, by law, owned by the parents and not by the school.  So, if you’re going to call child protective services, you know where you don’t put that information?

I’ll wait.

I’m sure you all figured it out.

YOU DON’T PUT IT IN THE CUMULATIVE FILES.

The bad principals who ran the place before I got here did.  And yes, it might have been standard practice when they were here, but it has NOT been okay since the 90’s, so why would no one have gotten that stuff out of there until now?

Hiring Elitist, White Teachers Is Not a “High Standard”

Our school is in a “poor” neighborhood.  It has been for years.  Before that it was in a working class neighborhood.  The only times families have had money is when they’ve been able to work at a large automobile manufacturing plant and when that 1) transferred a lot of people away at one point and 2) eventually closed, we were enrolling a lot of poor working class people (or simply poor families).

Thing is, I like working with these families because I want to help them get into the middle class.  Studies have shown that Catholic schools have done a better job of moving poor kids into the middle class than public schools because they don’t track these kids into remedial classes by default.  They have one track, and that track is college bound, so even kids who don’t go to college have access to the ideas anyway.

However, this does not work when you hire elitist teachers.  The whole child protective thing was annoying me, not that they called (real abuse could have been happening), but the documentation I saw as I was shredding away told me a story, a story of people with money judging how people without money live.  They called for any number of things that I can’t write here, but suffice it to say: these weren’t real reasons to call.  These were family judgments.  They were not offers to help families who were struggling to solve problems, but documentations based on elitist perspectives of what family life ought to be.

If Your School Has a Revolving Door, It’s a Problem

I learned it was difficult to find families who stayed here very long.  Getting to 8th grade here was like a sort of Hunger Games, unless you came from certain key families, most of whom are still parishioners here, or were until I made massive changes.

Apparently this was really a school for those families and catered to their needs and interests.  They struggled to attract and maintain any families past a certain point.

But this struggle to get new families in meant taking any kid and then making it impossible for the child to stay because of judgments (eg. the child welfare calls) or otherwise not helping them to solve the problem that made them flee the public schools in the first place.  A big one was truancy.  If they were truant before they came, wouldn’t they likely be truant after they came?  They were.  I’d read whole files where the district had been sending letters about truancy and somehow they’d come here next.  For a year, maybe two.  No one helped with the underlying reasons for the truancy.

Document or Document Not

I got tired of shredding “evidence” of kids’ misbehavior.  In a lot of cases, it was normal kid stuff.  Why did they put this stuff into the cum file, to languish for decades for some (whoever they decided they were going to “document right out of here”) and seemed to put nothing in other kids’ files?  Is it because some kids get a pass?

We know the answer to that, don’t we?  Of course some kids get a pass on bad behavior.

Some files told me more about the teachers and principals than they did about the kids.  One made me cry, because it also had the psych report (which should have been shredded by now, and now is history).  The school bullied and harassed this kid.  Sometimes it was us, and other times, it was the public schools (we’d get the documents from them, too), but either way, you don’t “fix” a problem by bullying and harassing kids out of a school.

Now that you can’t keep this stuff in the cumulative file anymore, I wonder how much of this administratively-sanctioned bullying still goes on, but we don’t have easy access to the records for it.

Low Standards Do Not Help Anyone

This one is obvious, right?  But the weird thing was the low standards were apparent when I looked at the curricula they were using and the way they were assessing students for years.  It was of a low quality and rarely changed to reflect current understanding of children and their needs.  I’m not sure why they thought sticking with this old stuff (it wasn’t tried and true; it was just old) would help anyone, but watching old-fashioned notions of child development continue to be at work decades after they were no longer considered relevant was painful.  On the one hand, I knew this when I got here, and that was why I made curricular changes and our students are starting to advance faster than ever before.  It’s not that what I gave them was magic; it was more that they finally had access to things that made them think.

That’s all I have for today, but a word of advice to anyone who is in charge of cumulative files: check the state (and/or your diocese) record retention schedules and go through the old stuff every so often.  You’ll end up saving a lot of space because it will make for a very thin folder when you pull out all the junk you’re not even supposed to have so you can store more files in a smaller amount of space.  If you’re a school leader, don’t make your secretary do it; go through at least some of them yourselves, or work with a group of teachers to do this together.  When you look into the history of your school, you can feel proud if it looks like you’ve got a long tradition of doing the right things.

If you’re like me, though, you can find out why your school really closed, and must close.  One year of doing the right thing isn’t enough to make up for decades of neglect.  I hope you have time to turn something around, if you don’t like what you see.

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