What happens when testing is all you care about in the classroom

root - Posted on 27 March 2007

Students, parents, families, and advocates of West Contra Costa County welcome their new superintendent of schools with a community forum on the crisis of teaching and learning in the district

by Anna Kirsch/POOR Magazine Media & Poverty Studies Intern

"We are here today to activate that voice that our young people already have, to activate their dreams, and to activate their own power to make those dreams happen," the young Latina woman's soft voice came through the microphone with conviction and confidence. Raquel Jimenez, Program Director for Youth Together, who is also a mother, was speaking to a group of about fifty educators, parents, students, and the new superintendent of the West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) under a clear blue sky and strong afternoon sun with the winds whispering in the leaves above her head in John F. Kennedy Park, Saturday August 5th.

It was the perfect day for what organizers had dubbed, Cook out and Speak Up, a multigenerational event and opportunity for community members to gather to meet and voice their concerns to the new superintendent of WCCUSD, Dr. Bruce Harter. Jointly organized by the community based research institute, Justice Matters, and a youth justice organization, Youth Together, the goal of the event was to create an open conversation between the community and Dr. Harter to jointly find solutions to the learning crisis occurring in the WCCUSD.

After speaking with over forty teachers and ninety families in the local community, Justice Matters learned that there were serious problems occurring in the education of local youths. "One of the biggest problems is the high school exit exam and the movement to privatize education," Jimenez says. "We're not asking for lower standards we're asking for better quality teaching and for schools that engage...and provide a meaningful education for students such as defined by them," she added.

As I sat there in the audience surrounded by concerned and supportive family members wearing stickers demanding "REAL SCHOOLS NOW," listening to the presentations, stories, and scholarship offered up by students and community leaders, my mind wandered back to my own high school days in Norfolk, Virginia. I had attended a multicultural diverse public high school and luckily had finished before the horrendous No Child Left Behind Act had taken effect.

I, therefore, wasn't the product of standardized test taking and ridged, unexciting curriculums. My schedule had been filled with orchestra, art, and foreign language classes and to this day I can't even fathom my development as a person without these important electives. I felt saddened by the stories of these students stuck in a system unconcerned with their development as people and a strong desire to stand and fight with these students came over me. Testing isn't what education should be about.

Diane Ponce, a community leader and mother of three, obviously shares this desire. She became concerned and involved with the WCCUSD when her youngest child, Angel Diez, a third grader at Downer Elementary, started losing interest in learning.

"My little one brought it to my attention when he said to me 'mommy we do the same thing everyday and if we don't we get in trouble,'" Ponce told me while shading the bright sun from her concerned, almond-shaped eyes. After doing her own research and classroom observation Ponce learned that that the rigorous academic curriculum her children were forced to undergo solely for the benefit of passing exams wasn't benefiting them at all.

"I felt that the teachers weren't teaching my children; they were programming them," Ponce, who voiced these concerns and more to Dr. Harter, told me. "I'm here today to show that people do care about education and I believe that today's event can bring us together and from one hand we can make one mighty fist and we will succeed," she stated adamantly.

Many parents, like Ponce, and students stood up and took the
microphone out of the administration's hands and into their own, sharing similar experiences and stories with Dr. Harter, who stood in the back of the audience listening attentively. One such student was Nadya Sanchez, a bright, outspoken and engaging senior at Leadership Public and member of Youth Together. She shared her scholarship and firsthand experiences in the classroom and discussed the problems with violence and the need to learn life skills in school.

"I want them (the superintendent and school board) to bring new things to the schools like more electives and to help us by bringing more events to stop the violence and racial tension," Sanchez said. "Right now we have two hour long classes that are only based on testing. I want to concentrate more on critical thinking and not only about topics that are going to be on the test," she told me after giving an informative and effective presentation on the Cycle of Violence in local communities.

While the smell of grilled hot dogs and hamburgers wafted through the air and the balloons and banners rustled in the trees, the audience looked on eagerly and attentively as Dr. Harter approached the microphone after being summoned for his response by Lisa Gray-Garcia, the Communications Director for Justice Matters (and editor of POOR Magazine). "Come up and tell the community what you see yourself doing to make change happen within our concerns," Gray-Garcia boldly stated through the mic.

With his casual attire, wire rimmed glasses and silver gray hair glistening in the sun, Dr. Harter stepped to the front of the group from his safe haven under the trees. With the curious eyes of many scrutinizing him, he began his response by thanking the organizers and community members. He continued by confidently speaking about change and commitments.

"As a parent myself, I understand that parents want their children to be ready to take the next step in life, they want them to have not only academic skills but also social skills, " he stated as many audience members nodded their heads vigorously in agreement.

He reassured parents that he's committed to the arts and a broad deep curriculum although he did note, "testing is a part of life." He continued by addressing the importance of reassuring students and giving them the confidence they need to succeed. "We have to tell them over and over, you can do it and that we are not going to give up on them ever," he added.

The biggest cheer let out by the audience came when Dr. Harter announced his pledge to be an antiracist leader in the community. "I started teaching in the inner-city of Detroit after the 1967 race riots. I've been involved in these kinds of causes and this kind of work for the last 35 years," he later told me individually when I asked about his qualifications.

Perhaps the most important moment of the day came when Dr. Harter was asked by Emma, a mother from Cesar Chavez Elementary, to sign a written pledge promising to meet with Justice Matters, Youth Together, and the community every three months for the rest of the year. Without hesitation, Dr. Harter agreed, checked the “Si” box and signed in permanent black marker for every one to see. Of course these are the types of promises this community has heard before, too many times to count now.

"This is just the beginning of the conversation," program director for Justice Matters, Olivia Araiza, said, "we still have a lot of collaboration to do." While carrying boxes of materials used for the event back to her car she spoke to me about the importance of the next step.

"Of course everything is great now and we are happy, but when he starts making serious decisions that's when we'll truly know what's going on with this administration," she said, her thin arms lugging a box full of literature about today's event. "He needs to come to the table with values and be willing to change agendas," Araiza said.

If Dr. Harter truly remembers the commitments that he made today to the local community and the insight he gained from listening to the people then maybe change will occur where its needed the most in the WCCUSD.

"I only made commitments that I feel in my heart are a part of who I am so it won't take any conscious effort to live up to the things I said I would do today because it's who I am and what I most deeply believe in," Dr. Harter said confidently when I asked him how he planned on staying true to his many promises.

I only hope, like so many of the parents, educators, and students that he's not only committed to the beliefs in his own heart but also to taking action and working aggressively for change in a community and country that so desperately needs it right now.

The new superintendent Dr. Bruce Harter can be contacted through email and phone. Bruce.harter@gw.wccusd.k12.ca.us and at (510) 231-1101. Let him know your concerns and ideas. To get involved in the ongoing work of Justice Matters in Richmond and San Pablo and the rest of West Contra Costa County you can call them at (415) 618-0993.


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