Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Local teacher walks the walk... - UPDATED!

UPDATED - Karen McDonald wrote a story as well complete with interviews with the students. Her excellent coverage is here. Hedy also reported today that since this story broke the PHA phone has been ringing off the hook from citizens wanting to make donations of supplies to the program. She wishes to thank the Peoria Fire Fighters who donated calculators, rulers and pens, and in particular, Firefighter Byron Yang who personally wrote a check for $100! Mr. Yang also asked for and received a gift card from Kroger's Foods for future supply needs.

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Lao Tzu.

With the persistent bad news regarding the state of public education, it is my pleasure to write about something positive. No, it has nothing to do with shiny new buildings. Nope, it's not about new IPAD's or smart boards. Sorry, but nothing to do with the snappy new Charter School... and no, there is no latest bestest learning program to unveil. This news is about one person who wants to teach and students who want to learn.

The teacher I refer to is our own Hedy Elliott-Gardner, daughter of comedian Royce Elliott, a familiar voice at the District 150 School Board podium, and Vice President of the Peoria Federation of Teachers. Her students are residents and children of Peoria's Housing Authority, Taft and Harrison homes.

Last week I shadowed Hedy, a woman I have long admired, as she prepared for her first day of classes at Taft. Through her employment as a District 150 teacher, Hedy sought and received permission from the Regional Office of Education to create and teach an adult GED program and supplemental grade school classes on the premises of Taft and Harrison Homes. She said she had been mulling the idea for awhile, and finally approached Regional Superintendent of schools, Dr. Gerald Brookhart. From the onset he was enthusiastic about the idea, and encouraged Hedy to follow her dream. He helped her lay out a road map, and from that point forward the pieces fell in to place.

"While this was in the planning stages, many doors were opened. I had help from so many sources. ELITE founder Carl Cannon, Assistant Regional Superintendent of Schools Jeff Nelson, PHA Executive Director Brenda Coates, Interim Superintendent of Peoria Public Schools Norm Durflinger, and Human Resources Director of Peoria Public Schools Debra Dimke, all played a significant role in this project coming to fruition."

Hedy is thrilled with her spacious classroom, which is located above the Administration Building within the complex. There is nothing fancy about it - all white walls, a suspended ceiling, and old linoleum floors. She has big plans to bring it to life, however, with bold colors and inspiring wall murals. She enlisted the assistance of accomplished local artist Larry Hendricks, (pictured above) who will paint at least one wall with a large educationally themed mural. He is also helping her with color choices and room design. "When my new students first walk into the classroom," Hedy said "I want them to feel like this is the first day of the rest of their life". In the top photo, Hedy is shown perusing her new workspace.

Many of her students have experienced an unrelenting sense of hopelessness - a condition described as "generational poverty" that is handed down from parents to children. Just as a middle class parents will have children that are likely to become middle class themselves, those born poor are likely to remain in poverty. According to Hedy education can break that cycle. "Education is the ticket to a better life for themselves and their children."

Last Friday was her very first day of classes at Harrison, located on the South side of Peoria near Manual High School.
"I hoped and prayed that I would have 1 - 3 people walk into my classroom today. I was shocked when people kept coming in, and I ended up with 11! They were prepared, rested and pen in hand. It was a wonderful experience. They were all so engaged and wanting to learn. It was no different from any of my other classrooms. One of my students was a Great-Gram-ma. She had 7 children, 20 grand children and 27 great grandchildren. She told me that she felt she needed to have a diploma in order to personally demonstrate to her children and grandchildren the importance of education.

So what makes Hedy tick? I just had to ask. Wouldn't life be a whole lot easier if she just worked in a classroom and punched the clock every day?

"I know I can inspire and reach these folks, and when I see a need that I know can be satisfied I can't ignore it. It tortures me. The way we currently treat this population just feels wrong to me. You know many people are willing to step up and help children. They are small and cuddly and cute. But the adults are largely overlooked. We can do so much more than just satisfy their basic needs. The key is education. We can give them the tools they need for a better life. The children cannot succeed if we don't simultaneously address the needs of the the parents."

Hedy's style is self described as "old school".
"I get back to the basics. We don't need fancy buildings and technologies and the latest in newfangled research. We need to implement the tried and true recipe of structure, expectations, rules and hard work. For children we need smaller classrooms, more individualized instruction and fewer interventions and disruptions in the school day."

I couldn't resist asking her opinion of the new Charter School. She cautioned that it is not the "magic bullet" that everyone wants it to be. "The Charter School will serve several hundred, but I am concerned about the needs of over 13,000 students in this district".

That is why I admire her so much. She doesn't bow to political pressure but instead marches to the beat of an inner moral compass - a characteristic that is becoming increasingly elusive among our leaders. With her position in the PFT, her tenured status, and the widespread respect she commands among her peers, she could most likely snag a cushy job in her choice of schools. But teaching is her passion. She wants to teach - anyone who wants to learn. What a novel concept.


Jon said...

I couldn't help but change a few words from Hedy's comment about the charter school to see if the implications could be applied elsewhere:

"I couldn't resist asking her opinion of the new ADULT GED PROGRAM. She cautioned that it is not the "magic bullet" that everyone wants it to be. "The ADULT GED PROGRAM will serve several hundred, but I am concerned about the needs of over 13,000 students in this district".

Yes, there is no magic bullet. There is also no singular solution. What Hedy is trying to do with those 11 students is the same thing the charter school is trying to do with its students. It's the same thing Hedy and the other teachers at Garfield try to do with its students. In order to address the needs of 13,000 students, you have to address the needs of each student, one at a time, in a decentralized hands on way, rather than the bureaucratic current system.

Not everything will work. However, the mere fact that the charter school has already received over twice the applications as there are seats is proof that people aren't happy with their current situation.

Diane Vespa said...

"However, the mere fact that the charter school has already received over twice the applications as there are seats is proof that people aren't happy with their current situation."

Then why wouldn't the goal be to correct the conditions that are making people unhappy with our existing schools?

Diane Vespa said...

...when in fact, the conditions that so many are unhappy about are actually being exasperated by the decision making in this district...

Jon said...

Simple - locked in bureaucracy at the administrative and teacher's union levels. That system can't seem to fix itself.

Also, not everyone agrees on what needs to be done - that includes parents. A school district this size, this diverse, has the ability (and facilities) to provide more options - the charter school is just one of those options.

Those who like their current schools won't apply - that's fine and good.

Diane Vespa said...

Ah, I think we have finally uncovered a plateau of agreement. ;-)

I agree that bureacracy is killing our public education. Too many hands in the pot, too many people looking at our schools as profit centers - and not enough funneling of education dollars to put a teacher in front of a kid.

It seems silly though, Jon, to shrug your shoulders and say "oh well...". Then keep that disfunctional education killer model in place as you move on to build another one.

Jon said...

Maybe you need to learn more about the charter school. The focus is the school itself and its students - there is very little bureaucracy (relatively :)) It will teach students for longer hours in the day and more days in the year - and at 85% of the current cost.

It still isn't the magic bullet. But it's started by offering something people obviously want.

How do you change the system? One child at a time. One school at a time.

$TAX said...

Great article about Hedy !

Keep up the fight !

You Rock Diane !


Anonymous said...

Great post. Glad to see PJStar covered it, also. It took a lot of courage for Heddy to take this huge leap. The students who showed up are very brave and bold. This could be life changing for a lot of people in Peoria. Nice to hear this program got some support from admn.