District rejects community efforts to help Celesta – (part 3)

Jun 23, 2011 by

I’ve been writing about Celesta, a high school student who was carrying a 3.6 GPA, who passed her math tests, got As in her math classes, was placed into honors pre-calculus, and who – like many of her classmates – suddenly found out she was missing multiple critical skills in elementary math. She was struggling to pass her honors math class. She also has few skills in grammar.

I’ve been trying to figure out a way to help Celesta and her classmates.

The best way to help the students:

Go back in time and teach the students the grammar and the six years of math skills the district refused to give them. I need a time machine to do that, and no one has invented one – not that they’ve told me, anyway.

The second best way to help the students:

Someone at their school could work with the students and bring them up to grade level. But when I called around to all of Spokane’s middle and high schools a few weeks ago to find out how to help students like Celesta, most had no remedial programs for students who are NOT special education. Nearly all wanted to test Celesta for learning disabilities. Several expressed doubt about the veracity of her story. One suggested she might have brain damage. Few expressed interest in community members coming into the school to help with skills; almost all referred that idea to central-office administration.

Additionally, Celesta said the “homework center” at her school isn’t for remedial skills. Kids view it as detention, not help, she said. She also was denied access to remedial algebra classes, she said. As an honors student, she said, she was told she can’t go backward. She must march forward to Statistics, ready or not.

Celesta’s situation reflects the sheer depth and magnitude of the problem. She is smart, articulate, and dedicated to her schoolwork. She is considered to be an honors student. Because of her achievements in math, she was placed into honors pre-calculus, which – with a great deal of effort – she passed, with a C. But I know what she doesn’t know in basic math, and it’s devastating.

Now, imagine all of the students who DIDN’T pass their math tests, and who AREN’T getting As. Just 38.9% of Spokane’s 10th graders passed the 2010 state math test, on which they needed just 56.9% to pass. That 38.9% pass rate includes Celesta. It also includes students who receive supplementation from outside the district. Take those students out of the data, and where would the pass rates be then? By itself, does the district math program get anyone to actual proficiency in real mathematics?

The complete picture is barely imaginable. Folks, in K-12 mathematics, it’s a smoking wreckage out there. This is a completely preventable tragedy. It’s persistently pushed and pressed on teachers, parents and students by an ineffective, self-interested, obstructive leadership.

How district administrators and board directors can look at themselves in the mirror is beyond me. How they can accept plaques, awards and raises – well, I couldn’t do it. I would feel ill to be rewarded and praised for such abject failure. But the people who built this failing program are still employed at the district, most received raises last summer, and the superintendent’s contract was extended last night to July 31, approved unanimously by the four board directors present. (Approval of a new contract was delayed until July.)

The school board can fire just one person – the superintendent. Nancy Stowell received nearly a quarter-of-a-million taxpayer dollars last year as she stubbornly maintained a failing academic program and did not fire these incompetent administrators.

Meanwhile, various people in the district have accused parents and community members of blaming the district while refusing to help it. That’s hilarious. I’ve tried to help; they keep saying no.

The third best way to help these students:

The community can step in and tutor these students in basic arithmetic. I have asked the district repeatedly to work with me on developing such programs. On May 11, 2011, I again asked Nancy Stowell, our superintendent, if community members could work with the district on developing a free tutoring program. This is her reply (quoted verbatim – just cut and pasted):

“Good Morning Laurie,

“I have looked into your request, but I don’t believe we have a structure in place to support community designed tutoring proggram. The only way we have for working with volunteers in through our Volunteer Program. That program, as you know, operates thruough our individual schools, but it really isn’t set up to host specific tutoring programs designed by community members. In our Volunteer Program it is up to principals to idenfity the work of the volunteers. If volunteers do work on academic progjects in the schools it is under the supervision of a certificated staff member. If community members want to set up a tutoring program, they might be able to work through the community centers or perhaps the libraries.

“Thank you for your interest. I do understand that you have a huge commitment to our students and their academic success.


I asked Dr. Stowell if she would build a “structure” for offering free tutoring to the students. I received no reply. On June 13, I asked her again, noting that school was almost out. I received no reply.

Dr. Stowell’s response isn’t the first “no” I’ve gotten. A few years ago, I asked an elementary principal about helping students in math skills. I was told I would have to use the district curriculum, I would have to include all types of learners, and I would have to include language arts along with math. Well, that sounds like the failing district program to me.

I took my request to the school board. I was told it’s an issue with collective bargaining, and that, to get around it, I would have to rent the school.

In January 2011, I tried again. I wrote to a new principal to say this:

“As you probably recall, I asked you a few days after school began last September about beginning a free tutoring program in basic math skills for students in the … program. You said you would think it over. I have reminded you about it a few times since then, in September, October, and November.

“Each time I met with you, I explained the situation with Spokane’s K-8 math program, about Spokane’s high remedial rates, high dropout rates, and weak passing scores on state math tests. I noted that the tutoring would take time and dedication to fill in the large number of gaps in the students’ math knowledge. I said it doesn’t have to be me who does it, that the point is to get the students the basic skills they need if they are to succeed in algebra and geometry.

“I am following up with you to find out what is happening on this.

“Thanks very much,

“Laurie Rogers”

This was the principal’s response (quoted verbatim – just cut and pasted):


“Thanks for your email. Like we talked about in December, I am working with our teachers on identifying what our specific students’ needs are how to best address them.

“Hope you have a great weekend.”

Oh, sure. Have a great weekend. I hope they all have a great weekend. I hope Celesta and her classmates are having a great weekend. Want to bet that the next time we turn around, the district will again blame us for all problems in math?

The fourth best way to help the students:

The community can build its own program for helping the students. This takes organization, money, student maturity, an iron will, and careful scheduling. It isn’t easy. We must find a building and supplies. We must track down students and convince them to come in on their own time to work on the subject that drove them half crazy during the school year. We must get permissions, background checks, and supervisors.

I’ve found that it takes about two months, an hour per day, five days per week, to move a student one grade level in elementary math. High school students would need to find an extra five hours a week for an entire year. What are the odds this would work? These are children. They have other responsibilities and interests. And many have given up on math.

Spokane’s central-office administrators are accomplished at deflecting blame – onto teachers, principals, students, a fake lack of money, societal issues, and poverty. They’re good at giving themselves raises. They’re good at protecting their administrative turf, and they’re good at staying employed in this district in the face of absolute failure. They are NOT good at doing what they’re paid to do: Build an effective academic program. For that, they should be fired. But who will do that?

When it’s time for you to vote for a replacement for board directors, please keep this in mind: A vote for the status quo will be a vote for failure – for the children, for the community, for you, the taxpayer, and for this country. When you vote, please vote for someone who will hold the superintendent accountable, who understands the math problem, who will push for real math instruction and for real transparency in decision-making and finances. Vote for someone who has the will, the integrity, and the backbone to stand up for the children, who will vote “nay” to wrong things, and who won’t just “go along to get along.”

And please also have a great weekend.

Laurie H. Rogers
Author of “Betrayed: How the Education Establishment Has Betrayed America
and What You Can Do about it”
and “Betrayed” – a blog on education
and Member of the Executive Committee for Where’s the Math?

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