I sent this letter to national newspapers.  

Posted by Wayne Bretski in

A school district in Phoenix that includes infamous landmarks in recent national stories (see: Joe Arpaio's pink-clad prisoners picking trash on 40th St. and McDowell, protesters gathering at Pruitt's furniture on 36th and Thomas) has become the first in the state of Arizona to exercise the option of adding 20 days to their school calendar.

A 12-year old state law allows extra funds for districts that move to a 200-day schedule; so far no public schools have done so. Confronting social and political realities that include Mr. Arpaio's vigorous para-military border patrol, state-mandated Structured English Immersion classes that amount to de facto segregation (whites and blacks in one class, Hispanics in another, African refugees in a third), and schools with over 90% free- and reduced-lunch, Balsz District has made a bold move to reduce the learning disparity between students above and below the poverty line. While time off for wealthier students often includes extra-curricular learning activies, structured sports leagues, and overnight summer camps, lower income students face starker choices: trips to parks and pools (supervised or not), going to school campuses for pick-up soccer or to tag the walls with graffiti, walking for 45 minutes crossing 6 lanes of traffic to get to the library or just playing that video game again.

The schools of the Balsz District are more than reading, writing and arithmetic. They are sources of education from pre-school to adulthood, offering free services ranging from English lessons for anyone in the community to informal assistance with translating and creating resumes. Kids stay at school for a wide variety of activities despite budget cuts that left the district with no formal sports teams or public funding. They come back at night and on weekends for open gym activities or just to play on the playgrounds, and they bring their relatives and neighbors to campus for award-winning Family Night programs.

Unfortunately, even with far-sighted leadership and extra state funds for the project, Balsz District is still unable to make basic, common-sense choices about staffing due to cuts in the state budget. With no money to make new hires, great young teachers are being left at the bottom of the seniority ladder, becoming the first casulties of Reduction in Force letters and being asked to move campuses and grades with no regard for grade-level team communities or quality of instruction. Thanks to a partnership with Arizona State University, terrific young interns and student teachers have been funneled into areas of need, where they frequently come to stay. However, as ASU's skyrocketing tuition and dramatic changes based on state funding are implemented, fewer up and coming teachers will be aware of the small district in the crosshairs of poverty and community, latent racism and acceptance of new cultures, and hurricanes of transience that swirl chaotically around a hub of families that resist the pull of gangs, drugs, and the culture of cynicism and anarchy.

The 20 extra days of school in this environment will ultimately provide an extra year of instruction for students who manage who stay in Balsz schools from kindergarten to 8th grade. At the margins and in aggregate, this move is working for the benefit of the constituents who make Balsz School District a viable entity; a small, lean, innovative district in a culture of large, bureaucratic management of education.

Balsz District is an example for school districts nationwide who are looking to improve, not only the test scores of their students, but the lives and futures of their students and their community, and we feel that we are worthy and deserving of local and national attention for our efforts in the face of distressing financial news. Schools do not get earmarks; we don't have the bully pulpit of pocketed Senators and Congressmen looking to inject money into our swelling coffers. Schools are eking out an existence writing grants for services that should be provided by the state, every year glancing with trepidation at the latest news of budgets, attendance data, override elections. Will we be able to provide art, music, counseling, a full-time nurse, planning time for our teachers? Will we be able to staff our schools with two full-time, accredited administrators? The answers to these questions over the past few years, for Balsz and many other districts, has been resoundingly negative. We at Balsz are proud of having succeeded (4 of 5 schools are Performing according to state standards) in the face of tremendously difficult circumstances. If the money is there (guaranteed by the state, but who knows what that means) the teachers of Balsz District will be teaching a month after all the other schools have closed their doors, working to close the gap between the education Haves and Have-Nots. It is our hope that publicity for our situation and for our choice to extend the school year will help to persuade the politicians that there are schools making good choices, choices that benefit the students rather than serving the interests of the teachers. No longer can the joke be made here that the three best things about teaching are June, July, and August. If the money is produced, the doors at Balsz District will be open for at least one week of instruction in every month of the year.

Bret Sikkink
Balsz Elementary School
Special Education teacher
Autism Spectrum Disorder, self-contained
(515) 210-4540

Arizona Republic front-page story about the district
Balsz School District home page
Attached is a labeled satellite image of the district


Post a Comment

Recent Comments