Mercer Island Education Association forum helps keep communication at forefront

In what may be the first of several forums on how to best educate our youth, parents, teachers, a few community members and a newly-minted state legislator came together to discuss the topic, Education: Myths and Realities.

The purpose of the forum was to have an unfiltered conversation about public education and the role it plays. Partially inspired by the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which presents a summary of the public education system and some of its problems, many agreed the movie only presents one point of view regarding solutions and approaches to improve public education.

The Mercer Island Education Association hosted the meeting at West Mercer Elementary on Dec. 8.

Panelists included Mary Kay Woolston, vice-president of legislation for the Mercer Island High School PTA, Margit McGuire, Ph.D., department head of teacher’s education at Seattle University and Tani Lindquist, president of the Mercer Island Education Association.

Lindquist, one of the few in attendance who saw the movie, said the message she came away with was that charter schools were good, and public schools and unions were bad.

“In the end it felt like an attack because not one successful public school district was represented in the film,” Lindquist said.

She said the film offered silver bullet solutions, but it never really talked about the reality of money.

“We don’t even have the money to have a full-time nurse in our schools - that’s the reality of public education,” she said.

McGuire, who penned Storypath, the social studies curriculum used by Washington State elementary schools, said Washington is lucky to not have a shortage of qualified teachers. Charter schools can be successful she said, but they have little oversight and are not obligated to accept all children.

Charter schools claim to be more innovative and creative, but McGuire said we live in a time of more standardization. Creativity and innovation are important, but not at the cost of leaving students behind. McGuire is concerned that there is money to be made by charter schools, which is the direction the powerful want to move.

In open discussion, parents asked the panel about teacher training in Washington. In Washington, all prospective teachers must pass basic skills tests, tests in their subject area and they are assessed while they are in the classroom. There is no such thing as tenure in the public school system. Teachers have a continuing contract, whereas if the teacher is found to be doing a good job, their contract is renewed each academic year. All new teachers are on probation their first two-years on the job.

McGuire, as an educator of future educators, said that they must also exercise “duty of care,” where if they don’t think someone is ready to teach, they make the hard decision.

So, what do parents and teachers recommend for our public school system to be a success? Teacher and parent Ellis Reyes said education has to be more than just dumping information into kids’ heads.

“We have to give them the tools and strategies to be successful,” Reyes said.

Other suggestions included creating an environment where kids are on the same level when they graduate; developing the whole child and teaching kids to think critically.

MIHS teacher Melissa Aaron said she would appreciate more communication with parents. She said parents seem to be more reticent about talking to teachers at the high school level, but she said the teachers need and want the input, otherwise whatever the issue, it ends up dropping into a “black hole.”

Reyes also supports the year-round school concept. What that looks like is 90 days of school, followed by a month off and so forth.

“It gives us solid blocks of time to study,” he said. Also, kids who don’t have much to look forward to over the summer, have less time on their hands. It was also suggested that summer school should be a part of basic education for kids who need it.

But to make Mercer Island schools all charter or even its own independent district is risky, because the schools would lose valuable state revenue.

One idea floated by a parent is a hybrid system, where each kid still gets the $8,200 the state provides for their education, but each district can choose how best to spend that money given their individual needs.

Other conversations included how to give our students the tools to compete globally, and how do we assess that? Are test scores the answer? Should industry give educators feedback on what skills they need from their future employees?

One step forward was made by the Mercer Island School Board, which adopted a program called “2020 Vision: Successfully preparing students for the cognitive, global and digital world, to better equip students to be able to convert information into knowledge, creating innovation solutions for tomorrow’s world.”

Today’s students are going to have to be more creative to succeed in school and to subsequently gain employment. The 38 people who showed up for this forum are engaged in the conversation and willing to help our kids succeed.

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