How Testing Prompted Me To Leave An 18-Year Education Career

Kristi Rangel | September 24, 2015

The following is a guest blog post by Kristi Rangel, a former principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary in Houston’s Fifth Ward. Rangel left her position at the end of the 2014-2015 school year and today works as an educational consultant on the My Brother’s Keeper program at the City of Houston Health Department. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Kinder Institute for Urban Research or its staff.

 

Image via flickr/dcjohn

Image via flickr/dcjohn

After 18 years in public education, what would make me leave my job as a principal?

The answer is rooted in my unwavering belief that a community’s strength is critical to the success of children and families.

The struggle for many students starts from birth and is dictated largely by the zip code in which they are raised. The factors that lead to the achievement gaps between poorer children of color and their white counterparts start well before kindergarten. Poverty, food insecurity and inadequate healthcare all make a difference in a child’s readiness to learn and a family’s ability to provide support.

My understanding of these stark truths goes well beyond research and numbers. I, like countless other educators, have lived these realities with my students and their families. I understand that the intense helplessness of moms who don’t know where their children will sleep at night never fades away. I am familiar with the workings of Child Protective Services and the foster care systems. Hunger, fear and violence are facts of life in many communities.

These are the communities I chose to call home because of my deep desire to be where I could make the most difference. My drive to be an agent for change with students in my classroom earned me awards and accolades. Reluctantly, after five years in the classroom, I accepted a promotion to the district office as an instructional specialist.

Coaching teachers and supporting instruction became my life for six wonderful years. I was happy with professional growth, but I missed the real action of being on campus. So I became a school-based instructional specialist, then an assistant principal. I jumped at the opportunity to become principal of Kashmere Gardens Elementary School.

Disempowered schools

I knew that Kashmere Gardens was a small school, historically African-American and located in one of Houston’s most struggling neighborhoods. What I would come to know is the vicious cycle of generational poverty and how it leaves time for little more than stopping each daily crisis. Four years of stress and struggling to keep my school afloat alone – with no other administrator, counselor or nurse –left me exhausted and physically ill. My passion and drive were not enough.

The challenges facing my students were not confined to the classroom. I could tell you the story of the 5-year-old with a black eye from his mother’s boyfriend. Or the heart breaking details of the third-grader who suffered a psychotic break at school and tried to kill himself. Maybe I could tell you about the countless weekends and holidays that I wondered how many of my students were hungry or in crisis. These types of stories are the well-documented norms of “urban” schools.

What has also become the norm is for teachers and schools to become disempowered. Educators often become victims of the same circumstances facing the communities they serve.

The “no excuses” rhetoric in education has created the unrealistic expectation that social and economic factors can be overcome simply by educators willing to work longer and harder. High-stakes testing and raising student accountability standards puts pressure on schools to perform, regardless of the well-being of the students they serve. As a result, teachers and administrators spend even more time at school with their students doing what the state considers “good” work.

“Good” work is conducting tutorials – during the school day, on weekends and on holidays – focused on content covered in the STAAR standardized tests. It’s asking STAAR-aligned questions based on STAAR-aligned texts. Educators spend countless hours of planning and instructional time focused on what will yield the result that counts most: passing the standardized test.

A scarlet letter

And yet, there is little time or support for tackling the real life issues – things like homelessness or trauma – that often are the root cause of a student’s inability to earn an “acceptable” store. There are many organizations and agencies dedicated to helping children and their communities. Connecting families to services and agencies does not guarantee timely resolutions because these organizations are overwhelmed and burdened by budgetary constraints. Schools end up applying Band-Aids to gaping, ongoing problems because a single test administered on a single day dictates whether our school is considered failing.

There are zip codes in Houston where all the schools have been rated “D” or “F” by the reform organization Children at Risk. My old school sits in such a zip code. It has been deemed an “F” school, based on a system that correlates how well students perform on STAAR to how well a school is serving its students. Soon the state will issue grade-level ratings of its own for every school in the state.

Schools now wear the label their neighborhoods have worn for years through years of generational poverty and isolation from the greater community. Who wants to be labeled a failure? The goal is to get the score.

I was a terrible principal because I couldn’t bring myself to focus solely on scores. My school opened an hour before school started, not solely for extra instructional time, but because many of my single parents had shift jobs that dictated they drop their children off well before 8 a.m. Many parents visited campus once a week, not to learn how to support STAAR-like thinking, but to get 60 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables through the Brighter Bites Program. These are just few of the many times I didn’t “maximize” my school day. There are consequences for these choices.

I remember a grandmother taking care of three grandchildren. She cried because the extra food we helped provide her family allowed her to pay the light bill. I remember families that opened up about dire living conditions. As a result, we were able to work to find non-profit organizations to support those families. Time was not wasted on those efforts, even though they weren’t directly related to test prep. The lives of countless children and families – not to mention my own – were changed.

A different approach

I realized the constant worry and nagging voices inside my head were because I was not doing enough. I wanted it all: healthy kids living in happy homes within functioning communities who earned the “right” score. Accomplishing this goal is possible. I heard the stories of it being done. I asked. I researched. I partnered with organizations.

What I learned is no one school or system can make it happen for areas plagued by generational poverty issues. There has to be the coordination of services that impact the whole child and his or her family.

Geoffrey Canada proved this with the Harlem Children’s Zone. Canada changed lives long-term within the ecosystem of a School Zone, not a singular disconnected schoolhouse.

Research led me to understand that public health, where I’ve started a new career, is more than just giving vaccinations at school and figuring out responses to measles outbreaks. It is caring for the whole child. In public health, there is no attempt to separate a child’s well being from the stability of his or her family. Both physical and mental health are closely connected to each other, and in public health, we acknowledge that they affect education. Ironically, the education system itself is often unwilling or unable to address these links.

Great educators like Canada are not just “doing school.” They are using their understanding of public health and policies to construct communities that are working, regardless of which measuring stick you use.

My shift away from schools is not a shift away from children and families. It is a shift that will allow me to focus on the entire well-being of students and their families, including – but not limited to – their test scores. I am following my truth, deep-rooted in the belief that children, their families and communities all matter.

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10 Responses

  1. Noel A. Pinnock, II says:

    Very touching and thought-provoking. I can truly appreciate the honesty and your commitment to carry the torch of equity for all children. #greatread

  2. Brandon says:

    I am curious to see the follow up article to this one. Although biased in my belief that a focus on public health will yield fantastic results for children, I think it would be beneficial to share with others the different resources and services available for both the people in need as well as those looking to fight the good fight.

  3. Omowale Luthuli-Allen says:

    A pure masterpiece from a field-tested veteran no limit soldier. Perhaps this shot over the bow of traditional education is only the first salvo. The first thought that this article engendered was who has the power to define, who is qualified. As long as we lack the power of definition the discourse will be determined by entrenched powerful vested interests. Most of the AA high achievers of my generation came from substandard schools that would be labeled failing by todays standards. However, Our teachers, parents and leaders knew that we were a success because success was measured by the progress that we made swimming against an unforgiving and rough tide, often with rip currents. Schools that succeed must de emphasize letter grades and stress mastery of content. That is, Pass – Fail has outlived its usefulness. Does No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top take precedence over the experience and judgment of parents, teachers and students. Will the test scores tell the story of the growth ( social;-emotional) of the student? Will the test scores tell the story of the child’s ability to be a critical thinker or gage the adaptive intelligence of the child? A high poverty low performing school is a temporary brake on the academic potential of the student but it does not closed the door to unlimited expansion and achievement of the student. Is anyone asking the question ” what is the quality of the student’s life at the school ?’ Nothing is more important than the impact that caring adults can have on a child, particularly a caring principal. Trust is the paramount imperative with a child whose self-esteem has been shaken by savage inequalities and social dislocations. Nothing is so unpardonable as when we knowingly betray ourselves. If we can make the case for radical reform, we expect our leaders to support the community being released from the ” standardized testing tyrant ‘. At a minimum, don’t sabotage needed reform. Much love to the author for this engaging and provocative article.

  4. Amanda says:

    This is an insightful article. Your passion for children and the drive to fulfill their inadequacies speaks volumes. You were one of the few educators that saw a need and filled it. As a parent I know the constructs of testing; I believe the individual development of a student gets sidelined as the educational focus leans towards specific Q&As for state results. It is an unfortunate truth. I wish you much success on your new endeavors and look forward to future articles.

  5. EC says:

    You are one of the best. I applaud and admire you for having the courage to always do what was/is in the best interest of students. You are saying what so many others are afraid to say. The sad part is that this is just the first layer of the onion. So proud to call you a friend and colleague.

  6. Shiny says:

    Absolutely inspired by this article and by your compassion to help children in a way that truly matters! Thank you for being a beacon of light to so many people, especially to the children you have touched. Those that know you are blessed and will never go away empty handed because you always bring positivity, passion, and substance to their lives!

  7. Toron says:

    Great article Kristi. You really captured the intangible and often overlooked duties of a school leader that works in impoverished areas. Many people often forget that not only must one push the instructional gauge on a campus but also must serve as a resource to the community. Continue to use your experiences to advocate for those who need support.

  8. Rachel says:

    An article that truly touched the heart. People need to realize that a shift away from school does not mean a shift away from children. A happy and high-achieving student is not groomed to be that way through numbers and figures. The well-being of a child starts at home, and especially the community. I appreciate you, for all the work you have done and continue to do. You are a true crusader!

  9. J says:

    As an educator, I would have found it to be a privilege to work on your team and support the holistic philosophy and bring hope to the people who really need it. Your dedication has had a life long impact to this community and brings profound inner happiness to those who serve humanity.

  10. Florine Prokop says:

    Fantastic suggestions – I was fascinated by the analysis , Does anyone know where my assistant might be able to get access to a fillable a form example to complete ?

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