Author Archives: Lynne Graziano

On National Special Education Day, I Remember My Sister-in-Law Laurie

When I married my husband John in 1987, I said “I do” to three people: John, his mother Sophie, and his sister Laurie. John was the caregiver, household manager, driver, and grocery purveyor for his mother, who had several health issues at the age of 68, and his younger sister, who was born with Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissue resulting in a host of physical challenges. Laurie also experienced oxygen deprivation at birth. As a result, she never cognitively developed past the age of 7 or 8.

photo courtesy the author

Neither Laurie or Sophie are with us today, but in honor of National Special Education Day, I want to elevate Laurie’s education story, however fragmented it was. Laurie was provided transportation to an elementary school building starting in kindergarten, but there was no grade designation, no Individualized Education Program (IEP), and no social supports. She learned some very rudimentary skills, like how to count from 1 to 10 and write her first name. We know very little of what she experienced at school, but my husband remembers the taunts of “retard” thrown her way by neighborhood and school bullies. By middle school, she no longer attended school.

Like most parents, neither Sophie nor her husband were prepared for a child with special needs. Sophie was very private, but I gathered a few pieces of her story over the years we lived together. A child of Polish immigrants, Sophie’s education didn’t advance much past middle school. During the Great Depression, kids did whatever they could to keep their families from starving, and while she shared very few Depression-era memories, standing in bread lines was often her job. I regret not knowing her full story — she held many secrets — but the best we could cobble together was that her teen years were akin to sooty Cinderella, providing domestic labor until she met her real-life prince in the form of John’s father, the appliance repairman she married.

The fact that they advocated for any schooling, including transportation services, for Laurie is a tribute to the doggedness of their own backgrounds. The gaps in Laurie’s education were representative of that era, and I am glad we have moved to a point where we recognize National Special Education Day and the importance of serving all students. 

People often tell me how much they admire what John and I did, caring for Laurie and Sophie in our home as we raised our own family. But Sophie deserves the credit for standing up for her daughter in an era when mothers were shamed for having a special needs child. And Laurie faced many of her physical and cognitive challenges as an adult: She eventually learned to read with Hooked on Phonics, and learned to laugh again, thanks to the antics of her two nieces and one nephew. 

So much has improved in the special education field since Laurie’s experience in the 1960s, but there is still more to be done. These experiences tie me closely to Bellwether’s mission, and remind me of our commitment to improving education and life outcomes for underserved students, including those in special education.

Denver Voters Just “Flipped” the School Board

The votes in Denver have been counted. Tuesday’s election of Tay Anderson, Scott Baldermann, and Brad Laurvick to Denver Public School’s board signals a seismic shift away from the education reforms made over the last fourteen years. Long known as one of the country’s most reform-friendly elected school boards, all three of the new members were supported by the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), the local teachers’ union.

headshot of newly elected Denver school board member Tay Anderson wearing a bright red tshirt with DCTA, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

photo of Tay Anderson courtesy his Facebook page

For the first time in over a decade, the balance of power on the board has shifted towards people supporting more traditional, union-friendly policies. This may signal that changes to Denver Public Schools (DPS) lacked durable support from the community. DCTA mobilized voters in response to a feeling that “for too long, change in Denver’s school system was done to — instead of in partnership with — local communities,” as my colleague Alex wrote on Monday.

Beginning in 2005, DPS began to grant more autonomy to schools, establish charter-friendly policies, and create a standardized performance management tool for all schools, resulting in student achievement gains and an increased graduation rate. As profiled on our Eight Cities website, DPS offers a mixture of school choices to students, including charter, district, and innovation options — and a unified enrollment system that allows families, at least in theory, to select the best school for their students. 

These policy changes were enabled by the composition of the district’s school board, with at least four of seven members aligned with education reform from 2009 to 2018. Four of those years (2013 – 2017) even saw unanimous support.

Yet reforms included closures of popular neighborhood schools. Newly elected board member Tay Anderson, a 21-year-old DPS graduate, experienced a school closure firsthand, inspiring him to become an advocate for Denver’s students. His platform includes building a teaching force more representative of local student demographics.

Some parents struggled to navigate the school performance management and unified enrollment systems, often defaulting to the neighborhood school based on proximity. Some objected to the expansion of charter schools, which DPS welcomed to meet rising enrollment in the 2000s. Teachers pushed back against the merit-pay system, culminating in a strike earlier this year. Other critics of reform efforts point out that despite the gains, the district has struggled to close achievement gaps between students of color and white students.

With the results of this election, the seven-person board now has five union-aligned members. If Tuesday’s results indicate dramatic changes to come in Denver’s school policies, it’s a district to watch.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.

Lessons in Managing the Gut-Wrenching Process of School Closures

“I’ve never felt that way before, walking into a room and just being in total knots and also knowing the right thing to do.” That’s how former Denver Public Schools board member Mary Seawell recalls the night she and the majority of the board voted to close Montbello, an academically failing but popular neighborhood high school. As we interviewed district and community leaders for our Eight Cities project, the subject of school closures elicited a nearly universal response: emotionally draining and gut-wrenching angst.

photo of Mary Seawell, former Denver Public Schools board member, by Alexander Drecun — from EightCities.org

Photo of Mary Seawell by Alexander Drecun, via EightCities.org

While the superintendents and community leaders we spoke to acknowledged school closure as a painful but necessary tool, our interviews also reflected a culture shift: Some districts are no longer forcing closures of low-performing schools in the absence of quality alternatives. Instead many districts have started more carefully planning closures to minimize disruption and prioritize student success. Two recently released reports reinforce the need for districts to mitigate the pain of school closures by ensuring better alternatives already exist. Continue reading

Honoring Rebecca Lee Crumpler, The First Black Female Doctor, During Black History Month

“Surely if women ask no questions of the doctors, no answers will be given.” When Rebecca Lee Crumpler wrote this sentence in her book in 1883, most doctors were male, and few were men of color. Crumpler was the first female African-American doctor, earning her M.D. degree in 1864 from the New England Female Medical College (NEFMC).

Cover of A Book of Medical Discourses by Rebecca Lee Crumpler

Hers was an era when women often didn’t speak if not addressed directly. And while a lot has changed, the idea of self-advocacy in medical care and medical education seems as important today as it did then: look no further than the way Serena Williams had to fight to get the care she needed when faced with life-threatening complications post-delivery.

For these reasons and more, it’s a shame that few know the name Rebecca Crumpler while Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the United States, graduating in 1849, is well known in the history of medicine. Racism and sexism constitute a one-two blow to black women in medicine and in medical education settings. Continue reading

Why This School Founder Symbolizes the Best of the Eight Cities Project

via @StokesSchool on Twitter

Last month I saw a tweet that Ms. Linda Moore’s famous Kindergarten tea parties had resumed at the Elsie Whitlow Stokes School Brookland* campus. In an instant I was transported back to our interview with Moore, who founded and named the school after her mother. We captured her voice in our Eight Cities project.  To be honest, I felt a little left out that I didn’t get to attend either her school or one of her tea parties. In all the cities we visited to research stories of dramatic educational gains, we interviewed many inspirational school leaders and educators, but Moore was one of my favorites. Leaders like her are the foundation that enables change — after all, systemic reform means nothing if kids don’t have a good school to attend.

On an almost-balmy March day last year, my colleague Tanya Paperny and I climbed the daunting hill leading to the Stokes Brookland campus. It is a modern, high-ceilinged former seminary housing over 300 pre-Kindergarten to fifth grade students. We both broke a sweat by the time we entered a small conference room, yet it was nothing compared to the warmth we felt when Moore (known to her students as Ms. Moore) entered the room.

Our conversation was less an interview, and more a travelogue of the journey she embarked on two decades ago, when she made the decision to start a dual-language school for students in her D.C. neighborhood. Moore recognized that “having schools that were founded by local people makes a difference to the people in our city.” Indeed, part of Washington D.C.’s secret sauce is the large percentage of charter schools opened by local residents, a contrast from cities like Camden, where transformation came with help from national charter networks. Moore’s idea to teach students in either French and English or Spanish and English seemed almost crazy at the time; thankfully, she persevered.

While our eightcities.org site is named for the places we profiled and their ability to get more students into better schools faster, it is really about the people who believe every child can learn and succeed. (We hope our site’s use of original photo portraiture made this obvious.) I got to meet people like Jamar McKneely in New Orleans, Chief Executive Officer at InspireNOLA charter schools. While two of their schools are “A” rated, McKneely pledges that they “will not stop until all our schools have reached their highest potential.” In Denver, Allegra “Happy” Haynes inspired us with her career-long commitment to the city and its students. Early in her Denver Public Schools career, she was tasked with telling parents how the system was failing them and their kids. Today, as the district continues to improve, Haynes believes a key lever was empowering “schools to be the real unit of change.” Supporting and improving school leadership is central to driving student achievement gains. Continue reading