Sunday, November 30, 2014

Choose Carefully! As published in Sunday Eunice News on November 30, 2014

As the holiday season begins, our television stations, movie theaters and sales racks are filled with touching holiday stories that melt the heart, and sometimes, make you think about how you could be a better person.

Already, we're watched our umpteenth rerun of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Charlie Brown's Christmas,” “The Christmas Carol,” and maybe even some of the crazy comedies, “Home Alone,” and “A Nightmare Before Christmas.”

Adults may be watching “The Preacher's Wife,” with Cary Grant as the preacher. I have to admit, I really enjoyed the version with Whitney Houston as the preacher's wife.

All of these movies have a redeeming message – even if there may be a gory moment or two in the story line.

Which brings me to question the current rage for “Hunger Games” books and movies. I've listened to my students describe their class-assigned “Hunger Games” often enough to NOT want to read the book or watch the movie. Students recount their memories as we walk from building to building, but, I hear no redeeming value or myth in this series of young adult fiction. All I hear is: do whatever you have to do to survive. Kill or be killed. Trust no one.

For some reason, the third movie of the “Hunger Games” series was released last weekend – not what you would expect for the start of our Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons. But, how is it possible, at a time when our purpose should be the teaching of human values that helped our first American settlers to survive, that “Hunger Games” grossed the highest earnings of the year?

I finally decided to watch the movies, read the books, and consult with colleagues to determine whether I was too biased to make this claim. But, my colleagues agree with me: “Hunger Games” has no socially redeeming value. The novels and the screenplays are franchises, business entertainment ventures designed to be as depraved as necessary to rake in profits.

“May the odds be always in your favor,” that cynical phrase spoken to young teens who are forced to kill each other if they want to survive, truly epitomizes the “dystopian” future depicted in this story. The story teaches our youth that cooperation, support, interdependence will get you killed. Social manipulation, cunning, ruthlessness, and the willingness to kill first will keep you alive. Worst of all, the books teach our youth that this is the only way you can survive.

The American Thanksgiving legends that we celebrated this week are the healthiest antidote to this sick futuristic vision. Europeans would never have survived their first years in America if they took up the “Hunger Games” mentality.

I come from the state of Pennsylvania, Where William Penn and his wife Hannah established one of the first colonies, embracing the Quaker philosophy of brotherhood and peace-making. We never see adequate portrayals, but, the first Thanksgivings were celebrations with Native Americans who helped Europeans to adapt to their wild, but harsh new surroundings.

As a Philadelphia native, I was raised to believe that cooperation and interdependence are key to survival. Our very own Benjamin Franklin established the nation's first cooperative fire stations, libraries, hospitals, universities, post offices and an insurance company. Ben Franklin not only helped birth the United States of America by signing the Constitution – he helped it survive by teaching us to cooperate, share, and distribute burdens and risks in a way that ensures the survival of all who strive.

These are the stories our children need to be taught during our Thanksgiving holidays, and throughout the year.

But, alas, I am told children do not want to learn about their history. They want gory, futuristic science fiction or dystopian fairy tales.

Really? Then why, when we watch “Frozen,” do our kids watch with apt attention? Why, when the nation is torn apart with racial strive, do our kids watch “Hairspray” and lip-synch to the lyrics? Why, when we sing the Chipmunks “Christmas Time is Here,” do the kids laugh with warmth and the feeling of safety?

No one can force us to read the books or watch the movies, thank goodness, because we do not live in the totalitarian state depicted in “Hunger Games.” But, children really are healthier when they are steered away from this sick, anti-human philosophy of life towards stories that affirm humanity despite its flaws. Because, when we learn how to live cooperatively, despite our flaws, the odds are good that we will not only survive, but we can all thrive together.

Speaking of flawed mythical characters, have you seen “Fred Claus?” I can't imagine a better movie for families who cope with sibling rivalry. Here's to your family friendly viewing!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Leaders Take Care of their People: Commentary Published in Sunday Eunice News on November 16, 2014

Every Veterans Day, I participate in local celebrations to remember and to honor military mentors who taught me how to be a successful Army officer, and later, a successful public school teacher.

The late General John Stanford (retired) is always on my mind during these ceremonies. When I ran a child development center and other family support programs at Oakland Army Base, General Stanford chose to be my mentor. He elevated my education programs as central to the health of our military organization.

General Stanford often gathered his officers in his home, or at the Officers Club, to discuss his philosophy of leadership: take care of your people, and your people will work very hard to accomplish the mission.

When he retired, Stanford became Superintendent of the Seattle Public School District, with the mission to turn this failing school district around. He put his “people first” philosophy into practice, including the same walk-around management style he used to motivate demoralized Army soldiers who suffered from public disrespect and institutional neglect for more than a decade after the Vietnam war.

General Stanford was so successful as an education leader that he gave the 1996 Education Speech at the National Democratic Convention, and he was cited in many textbooks as a model education leader. Shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer, corporate leaders wanted to reward Gen. John Stanford with a $500,000 bonus. Stanford turned down this money, flatly stating: give it to my teachers, put it in education programs.

Evangeline Parish teachers have not received step increases for more than four years. Some of us experienced pay cuts, even though we've taken on extra duties, our student loads were increased, and we raised our student test scores year after year after year. Our band programs have been severely cut, and there were two massive teacher lay-offs after the economy crashed.

When the state imposes its new health plan, all teachers and staff will take another pay cut, as our governor has chosen to dishonestly balance his budget on the backs of teachers, aides, and support staff.

When the pay cuts, lay-offs, and program cuts were necessary for the survival of our school district during harsh economic times, I was more than willing to do my fair share of belt-tightening.

I don't have children, and I put a good chunk of my pay back into my band classroom, in the hope that we can rebuild our music programs in this parish – because music cutbacks in the past six years have really hurt our students, and it is really hard to rebuild a band program once you completely cut it from your budget.

But, now, I am not so sure the pay freeze is necessary. What caused me to change my mind about our status quo?

It was reported that the Evangeline Parish School Board found it in their heart to award our superintendent, Ms. Toni Hamlin, a 3% salary increase – as a reward for our school district's improved performance scores.

Our buck-trending success was not created in a vacuum, that is, in the Superintendent's office. Our scores went up because teachers, aides, cooks, janitors all went the extra mile on a daily basis.
If the board felt it necessary to give Ms. Hamlin, our highest paid executive this increase to cover the “cost of living,” then, the board should do the same for ALL staff members. If rewards are to be dished out, they should be dished out equitably to every person on the staff.

Sadly, coaches, teachers with extra duties are being told there is no money for fair compensation for their extra effort. Yet, the Evangeline Parish School Board Central Office is giving itself raises and new contracts with built-in salary increases.

At this time of turmoil and mistreatment of Louisiana's teachers and support staff, I miss my mentor, General John Stanford. But, on this Veteran's Day, I am vowing to honor his memory by working for fair treatment of all education professionals. The future success of our school district depends on the fair and equitable treatment of all our employees – not just the handful at the top.

I will always be grateful that General John Stanford taught me first hand his first principle of leadership: if you take good care of your people, they will work hard to accomplish the mission.

It's time for the Evangeline Parish School Board to take care of its people. I hope they will choose to do so, because our students' success is at stake.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

"Threat is Real" Published in Sunday Eunice News on October 19, 2014

With constant media coverage of the Ebola virus, you may have missed news reports that the Pentagon released its Climate Change Report, assessing international threats to our security when coastlines, water supplies, floodplains are impacted by sudden climate events.

It's hard to imagine this august Republican institution having the fortitude to admit that climate change is a very real threat to American security – especially before an election.

But, climate change is real. Everyone in Louisiana knows this first hand. We lived through terrible storms that destroyed large segments of New Orleans. Our coastal lands are disappearing at an unbelievable rate. Our children carefully assess storm threats to determine whether they should be happy for a weather holiday, or fearful that they might lose their roof or their house. Again.

The Pentagon does not prescribe actions we can take to prevent climate change in its report. It boldly claims the effects of climate change are real, and they are here to stay.

The military is not only worried about the impact of climate change on its overseas bases. It is worried that countries can be overrun with terrorists when climate change destabilizes foreign governments.

This may be hard for Americans to imagine, since our media focused on the hundreds of thousands of humanitarian deeds committed by our citizens who responded to the Hurricane Katrina disaster with compassion and the belief that we owed survivors every effort to restore their communities to their former glory.

But, most of the effects of climate change do not happen with sudden events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Most of the effects are gradual: water sources dry up. Land is swallowed up by the oceans.

Louisiana's coastal land is disappearing at a frightening rate, but, we don't seem to notice it, because it's not happening within a 24 hour news cycle.

Our nation still believes in safety nets and emergency humanitarian response. When communities lose their water, we ship in water and ice. When towns are flooded, we ship in shelter, water, ice, food, and thousands of workers to help get the town back to some semblance of normalcy.

In its report, our Department of Defense claims that most of the 63 or more nations where our military has bases will be completely destabilized and vulnerable to terrorism. Why? Because these countries do not have that same capacity to rush in and save their people from climate change disasters as we do in this country.

When I served at Fort Polk as the first female chaplain in the Second Armed Cavalry Regiment, I learned a lot from the men and women who ran water purification and other basic operations necessary for humans to live in areas where water is contaminated.

There were a couple of huge disasters along the Mississippi River that put our country on notice about the reality of climate change. Our water purifiers chomped at the bit after every disaster, hoping they would be sent up to Minnesota and other northern states to help restore clean water to the region.

Thank goodness, we still believe in the Common Wealth as a nation. Thank goodness, we still believe in working for the Common Good. Because whether or not this nation embraces the Pentagon's Report on Climate Change, disasters will continue to happen in our nation and abroad.

As long as we continue to believe that it is our duty to work to save our people from the impacts of climate change disasters, we won't have to worry about Terrorists taking over our communities.

But, how do we teach the leaders of the 63-plus nations where we have military bases that their first duty as a government is to protect their people, their resources from the very real damage to their nations inflicted by climate change?

How do we pull together as a nation and as a world community, and rise above the foolish politics of climate-change denial, and work proactively to prevent the devastation that comes with disappearing coastal land, contaminated water, flooded towns and cities, and the diseases that happen when our safe water supplies are contaminated?

I would love to hear our politicians and our elected officials address these questions with common sense answers that reflect our highest values as Americans. We deserve nothing less.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Secretary White Bends the AP Facts: Published in Thursday Eunice News on Auguest 16, 2014

   Did you watch John White’s interpretation of Louisiana’s “Advanced Placement” scores on TV last week? Secretary of Education White is claiming a success because Louisiana moved from near bottom to about 38th in the number of high school juniors and seniors taking AP placement courses last year (2013-14).

Sounds like an amazing improvement, except for one thing: The vast majority of Louisiana’s AP test takers fail the test.

Our high schools are forced to enroll students in this commercial, for-profit program on the theory that “rigorous” AP classes will prepare our students for college success. Our school performance score depends on the number of students who take and pass AP classes.

White thinks we should celebrate that our state ranks 38th for participation rate. (The accolade comes from the company that designs and sells the classes to our state.) But, the percentage of students who actually passed the tests declined from 34.1% in 2013 to to 30.3% in 2014.

I solidly believe that human beings learn from failure. But I don’t understand how White is serving our students by forcing them to take classes they are not prepared to pass. Professional educators (White is a Teach for America survivor and a political appointee) would never claim they were successful as teachers if only 30% of their students passed their classes.

Can you imagine being forced to put a certain kind of roofing on your house, and then, after the first rain, you discover only 30.3% of your roof works to prevent water damage? Secretary White forced you to put that roof on your house, and he claims success, because at least, your shed is still dry.

Can you imagine being forced to buy a certain brand of Thailand crawfish, only to find that 69% of the product is not consumable? Metaphorically speaking, Secretary White is forcing you to buy that product, and he claims he did a good thing because his corporate backers told him Thailand crawfish is a better crawfish than our own home-grown products.

Why did news outlets participate in White’s deception about our rankings? Why did the media fail to check the facts before giving this con man free press? We may rank 38th in the number of students taxpayers subsidized for AP classes, but we are 49th in passing rate.

White is hiding data and facts from the public. Data that should be on the state website is missing.

Every week, I check the Louisiana Department of Education website to see if White has the courage to post real information about our school and district performance on state LEAP, End of Course tests, and college preparatory ACT and Advanced Placement (AP) tests.

Alas, when you go the state website, you can only find clear, honest data for the school years prior to White’s takeover of the Louisiana Department of Education.

Google helped me track down the real facts from the College Board, facts printed as a table by The Times Picayune. The passing rate for all those taking the AP test in Louisiana was down four percent; women passing declined by 3 percent, African Americans by almost 1 percent.

If White would give us the true data, parents and teachers could work together to fix the problems that contribute to our declining scores.

If AP courses are necessary for the neighborhood schools to survive, for example, they need to be run properly. All AP instructors would need to be exempt from White’s mandatory “COMPASS” teacher evaluation system.   I was trained by the lead AP Music Theory test designer. He insisted that students could only pass the music test if they engaged in rigorous drill and kill. When I explained his teaching methods would get us fired as Louisiana public school teachers, he had a few choice words to describe the foolish COMPASS rubric that is dragging down our achievement scores.

AP classes need to be run as full-year classes. Louisiana high schools embraced the one-semester block program, making it impossible for teachers to do adequate instruction and review before the tests are administered in the spring.

Our Secretary of Education may have forced all these conflicting changes on our public schools with good intentions, but, in every instance, the outcome has been disastrous.

Our children’s future is at stake. We cannot afford to put them in situations where 70% fail because of bad policies and bad financial investments.

It’s time for the media to stop re-telling John’s Big White Lie.

For more information you can google these sites:

Sunday, October 5, 2014

No thanks, Bill Gates!

Bill Gates was on MSNBC's “Morning Joe,” and in his efforts to promote the “Common Core,” he proved that corporate billionaires are as qualified to run our nation's public schools as donkeys are qualified to design his Microsoft software.

Gates insisted that until US schools embrace “Common Core” we will always lag behind twenty or more countries in our scores on a test that is wrongly used to generate education policy in the United States.  The test is “Trends in International Mathematics and Science.”

Then, Mr. Gates proceeded to contradict himself by insisting that American education needed to copy the Korean, Singapore and Peoples Republic of China school designs – because he does NOT believe America has the right teaching strategies for academic success.

How did Bill Gates contradict himself?

Gates spent hundreds of millions of dollars to campaign  vigorously to impose “Common Core”  teaching methods on US teachers.   Bill Gates wants to walk into any classroom in the United States and see it filled with sharply focused eager children who work independently, inventing new math ideas without any direct instruction from teachers.

As if every child were a Baby Bill Gates, or a Baby Beethoven, or a Baby Einstein,  Common Core proponents believe our children will “invent” new mathematics with no time spent learning math facts. Or, they will write symphonies without learning to read music.  Or, they will become astronauts with endless hands-on lab experiences, and very little time spent acquiring foundational knowledge.

There's no doubt in my mind that every teacher in Louisiana WOULD embrace the “Common Core” discovery teaching methods if our schools were wealthy like the private schools where Bill Gates sends his children.  If American schools were run like Finland's public schools where every student is given exactly the same amount of classroom materials, computers and teachers, we could probably replace Finland as the top scoring nation.

When MSNBC interviewers asked Bill Gates if he wanted the US to follow the Finnish model of public education to improve our science and math scores, he flatly said “No!”  

Bill Gates wants American public schools to become more like Singapore, South Korea and People's Republic of China public schools.

His incredulous host asked why, and Bill Gates gave these answers:  1) they have better school demographics, 2) their schools are cheaper to run because they pack 40 to 50 students in a classroom.  

Singapore, South Korea and China do not embrace the Common Core in any way.  In fact, these countries use very rigid rote memorization models.  If you've ever been to South Korea or the People's Republic of China to observe their schools, you would know firsthand that the mass majority of students engage in memorization, vocabulary building, mastery of the written English language, and strict adherence to traditional mathematics methods.   There is no diversity in their schools.  Students with disabilities are put in orphanages.

Children in these countries DO NOT spend hours a day in the gym or on the football fields after school.  They DO NOT spend weeks preparing for homecoming, proms, all night basketball tournaments, school day golf matches, etc.  Instead, students with college potential have NO free time.  NO social time.  Early in the morning, they walk to private academic tutors.  After school, until six or seven p.m. students walk to private academic tutors to ensure they mastered materials required for university entrance exams.

The South Korean birth rate is the lowest in the world.  Policy analysts attribute this fact to the agony families go through once their children enter the public school grind of tutoring, testing, memorizing, testing some more.  The South Korean government is discouraging college education, because the country already has too many college graduates who cannot find jobs.

Obsessive focus on teaching math, English and science will not guarantee academic success in our children, nor will it improve the American economy.

Why would Gates preach “Common Core,” and then, contradict himself by rejecting Finland's success model and instead, pushing for standardized tests, large class sizes, and Korean-style drill-and-kill instruction?   Well, Finland does not believe in high stakes tests.  There's no market in Finland for Bill Gates to “monetize” education for his own personal gain.

But, Americans have to decide for themselves.  Do we want our children to be educated the Chinese way?  The Korean way?  The Finnish way? Or, the American way?  If we believe in the American public education model with its traditional wealth of art, music, dance, sports, vocation and industrial arts classes, we must fight to save it.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Bomb Threats Are Not Jokes - Published in Sunday Eunice News on September 28, 2014

A plague recently invaded Louisiana. Teenagers have been making bomb threats in our public schools at an alarming rate across the nation.  In the past few weeks, we've had four bomb threats in Rapides Parish. Other threats were made in Baton Rouge, Slidell, and most recently, Mamou.

Not surprisingly, the threats have typically been naïve hoaxes. Students left notes, drawings, email messages or phone calls to convey an impending threat to the school on a beautiful sunny afternoon, knowing full well that our buildings would be evacuated.

Or, they conspired with their friends to call in threats from some remote location.

In their teenage minds, the scares were only meant to guarantee free social time with their friends for a few hours until buildings, lockers, cars, and individuals are screened by professional bomb squads. In their thoughtless minds, creating a bomb scare was easier than taking that weekly quiz in French or Physics.

Fortunately, in every recent Louisiana bomb scare, the bomb threats proved to be pranks. No one was physically harmed. But, no one can afford to treat these stunts as if they are “normal teenage pranks.”

In the moment, no one does. Administrators, teachers, police, fire departments, state and federal agencies all work swiftly to move our children to safety, and to scour the premises for any trace of weapons that can hurt our students.

Parents converge outside safety zones to pick up their children when they get word that schools are under lock down.

But, when these scares are over, the real work begins: investigations to figure out who made the threats. Then, criminal prosecution of the prankster “to the full extent of the law.” The Louisiana penal code prescribes the following punishments for bomb threats:

  1. Whoever willfully communicates or causes to be communicated such a threat thereby causing either the evacuation or serious disruption of a school, school related event, school transportation, or a dwelling, building, place of assembly, facility or public transport, or an aircraft, ship or common carrier, or willfully communicates or causes serious public inconvenience or alarm, shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not less than 3 years nor more than 20 years or imprisonment in the house of correction for not less than 6 months nor more than 21/2 years, or by fine of not less than $1,000 nor more than $50,000, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Our children need to be taught the difference between a harmless prank and a serious crime. It is up to our parents and guardians to set limits on their children's sense of humor. It is up to our parents and guardians to teach their children right from wrong.

If your child turns out to be the prankster, it will be too late to argue to the judge “this was just normal teenage behavior.” Your child will do the time if they did the crime.

Bomb threats are NOT jokes. Bomb threats are acts of terrorism. To paraphrase Willy Nelson, “Mama don't let your children grow up to be terrorists.”

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Curbside Recycling - Published in Eunice Sunday News on Sunday, September 20, 2014

Our schools do a great job of teaching students the importance of recycling.  By sixth grade, my students often make suggestions about how to “reduce, reuse, and recycle.”

Our state Department of Environmental Quality encourages recycling at home, in the office, in schools and in the community.  It has many suggestions for products that can be donated to charities, and suggestions for composting to give a second life to our yard clippings and other organic materials that could enrich our garden soil.

I’ve often wondered why we have two trash pick-ups per week in Eunice, but, no curbside recycling.  To recycle, we have to haul our recycled glass, paper, plastic and electronic items to the recycling center.

Don’t get me wrong.  Our trash pickup service is wonderful, and very dependable.  And, I am always amazed when I see tree limb piles picked up after storms, regular as clockwork.

And, our St. Landry Recycling Centers are beautiful sites – sparkling clean, very well- organized.  But, their hours of operation are not compatible with work schedules for many adults.  To use these centers, I have to store my recycled bins for months at a time until that rare day comes along when I am off before the Center is closed.

Curbside recycling benefit s most of our working families, and it can be handled in different ways.  Some towns provide two or three bins to each home.  On designated days, residents set out their sorted recycle products for pick up.   This model is known to increase recycling participation, and to reduce the use of landfills.

There is a town in Pennsylvania that makes it even easier for families to recycle.  Residents are given one bin per household.  All the family’s recycle products are placed in that one bin, then, sorted at the town’s recycling centers by paid staff.  This town’s financial manager proved that this model of curbside pickup of single bins with sorting at the recycle center was actually more cost effective. But, it also encouraged more people to use the program, saving the town landfill costs.

There are other ways for us to reduce our trash volume, perhaps making it easier for the town to switch to curbside recycling collection days.

To encourage reduced purchase of unnecessary packaging and disposable products, the town of Vineyard Haven used to sell $2 tickets for each trash can they emptied.  We could recycle all we wanted for free, but, for trash destined for the landfill, we had to pay $2 per can.  No ticket, no pickup.

At first I thought this was ridiculous, and I was sure it would be more expensive for the home owner than the old fashioned monthly fee that we were charged for water and sewage. 

But, paying by the can to dispose trash proved to be quite effective in changing the habits of home dwellers.  Even though I moved away decades ago, I still limit trash accumulation by avoiding unnecessary packaging, and by using reusable containers, dishware, etc.

Some towns make it easy to dispose of toxic waste and electronics by having special curbside pickup of these materials on designated days each year.    And, of course, Eunice and every other town has thrift stores where we can drop off our “gently used” reusable clothes and furniture.

Why am I raising this concern for your consideration?  Because soon, we will be voting for City Council members and other elected officials.

A few years ago, a politician knocked on my door one day to ask for my vote for City Council.  I told him I would vote for him if he would support curbside recycling.  It hasn’t happened yet, but, there is an election coming up.

I’d go to council meetings to make proposals myself, but, I would like to know if this idea would benefit your family.  If you support the idea of curbside recycling, please tell your candidates.  And, I hope you will send me an email at    If there is enough interest, I will do my own fair share of advocating for this practical change to our Eunice Recycling programs.