Guest Columnist

An open letter to the 2019 school board candidates

McKinley Middle School seventh graders in Molly Lamb's advanced math class on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
McKinley Middle School seventh graders in Molly Lamb's advanced math class on Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

As a recent retiree from the education profession, I bring a “person in the trenches” perspective that I believe is vital to the upcoming school board elections.

Quick background: 27½ years teaching K-8th grade, two master’s degrees, an administrative license as well as taking many and varied courses on connecting with and meeting the needs of at-risk and diverse students. In other words, I am a professional who not only has a right to speak, but should, frankly, be listened to by the individuals making decisions on what happens in classrooms.

Though there are critical issues at every grade level, students in 6th-8th grade are experiencing the greatest challenges. Before retiring, former Cedar Rapids Community Schools superintendent David Benson transformed the district’s middle schools into junior highs. This decision removed the “team” approach (a cadre of four teachers working with approximately 115 students who met daily for 45 minutes to discuss and address individual student needs) to mini high schools.

A typical core classroom educator now instructed 150 or more students. No meeting with colleagues, and only 45 minutes to prepare for 6 classes, grade assignments, contact parents, or work one-on-one with students having behavioral issues. Let that sink in, previously we met four hours per week to help students academically, emotionally, and socially. Now: zero minutes per week. Imagine juggling 150 students, connecting with 150 students, trying to open the lines of communication with their parents or guardians, preparing lesson plans (possibly for two or more grade levels), setting up and breaking down labs, projects/etc., as well as staying ahead of any issues that may arise (social media, need I say more?).

Teachers and students were overwhelmed. With a general climate of distrust, rampant disrespect, an inherent sense of entitlement, and lessening parental engagement you have a perfect storm that erupts daily in our classrooms. As expected, office referrals and disruptive classroom and hallway behaviors skyrocketed. There is a tool kit of strategies that every instructor brings to their classes, but the sheer numbers made most of them moot. The most reliable tool that any professional teacher can use (treating all with fairness, respecting each individual and connecting in ways beyond the classroom itself) made little to no impact. A myriad behavior management systems was shuttled through our buildings each requiring a steep and quick learning curve only to be set aside within a year or two. Meanwhile, educators struggled to teach basic curriculum while maintaining an atmosphere of controlled chaos.

There was a sense of hopeful optimism when Brad Buck became the next superintendent. Unfortunately, his brief stay at the helm didn’t have the impact hoped for. I believe that the single most frustrating fact about the profession I once loved is the fact we are routinely treated as bothersome bystanders constantly nagging our administrators, school board, superintendents to make changes they feel are unwarranted. At the dentist or when the plumber visits, I would never dream of telling either of these “professionals” what they’re doing wrong and how I’d fix it. Never! This may appear as hyperbole; I assure you it is not.

Meanwhile, magnet schools, “schools” within schools, and altered scheduling are changes some buildings have made. Each program has its unique spin, but share attributes with the middle school concept. In other words, finding ways to decrease the number of students per educator making it easier to build connections that bring an atmosphere where learning can occur. This year it is imperative that we elect school board candidates who will truly listen to the professionals and make the necessary changes so all 6-8th graders can thrive during the transition from elementary to high school.

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Finally, I want to express my deep respect for my friends still in the trenches. There is little light at the end of this tunnel, but you walk into it each and every day, giving everything you have, hoping to make a difference in your students’ lives.

Kelle Kolkmeier lives in Cedar Rapids.

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