NEA President Salutes Florida Educators For Focusing on the Whole Child

The Florida Education Association (FEA) served as host to NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, who traveled to the Sunshine State as part of the Association’s Back-to-School tour, where she visited schools in Miami and Osceola County. The journey took a telescopic look at public education, showcasing the herculean efforts of dedicated educators who focus on the needs of the whole student. They have also created school-community partnerships that enhance learning experiences despite existing challenges, such as Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Toxic Testing At Its Worst

“No one has it tougher than Florida,” said Eskelsen García during a meeting with local Association members. “When you have your teacher of the year being judged by students she never taught, it becomes us versus stupid,” referring to a lawsuit filed by NEA and FEA challenging the evaluation of teachers based on the standardized test scores of students they don’t teach or based on subjects they don’t teach.

Worse yet, take Ethan Rediske. At age three, he entered the Orange County Public School system in Florida. By the time he hit the equivalency of third grade, he was required to take an adaptive version of the FCAT, which is used to test disabled students.

“Ethan suffered brain damage at birth,” says his mom, Andrea. “He was cortically blind, didn’t make any purposeful movement, had to be fed through a G-tube, had epilepsy, and a host of other medical issues.”

When she discovered her son had to take the standardized test she thought it was a joke, questioning the school district’s decision to test a child who couldn’t speak, see, or move.

For two years, Rediske was obligated to take the adaptive test. Questions on the test asked the boy, who had to be fed through a tube, about eating food. It asked the wheelchair-bound student about walking and playing outside. His teachers had thought he would respond well to color, light, and touch. Instead, he was asked to look at black and white line pictures, which he could not see or process.

“The questions were entirely inappropriate for his level of ability,” says Andrea, who jumped through district hurdles to get a waiver that she expected would apply this school year.

Seven months ago, Rediske died. Before his death, school officials were asking his family to show proof that he was too sick to take the standardized test. Andrea didn’t take it well, saying they were more concerned about their paperwork and policy then the needs of a dying child and his family. She decided to go public and share her family’s story.

Jennifer Rose, the boy’s teacher, believes something has changed in the way severely cognitive impaired students are assessed, stripping the teachers’ professional judgment to rely on standardized tests.

Rose says, in the past, she had the ability to tell school officials if a student was too sick to test. “Up until 2010, they would not question our ability at a school level to make those decisions…but… those things changed with mandates and funding,” explaining that waivers to not take the test are extremely hard to get.

So instead of listening to music, painting, or peppering glitter everywhere—activities Rediske loved—his family’s experience with the school district was overshadowed by a mandated test and his teacher’s “dream job” ceased to exist.

“Testing was supposed to guide our instruction,” García said last week. “Now, it’s like a factory and we’re test technicians…but more and more teachers are seriously questioning these exams and saying, ‘forget the test; we’re going to teach.’”

Tour Highlights Innovation

During the tour, schools showcased the great work happening despite the state test. In Miami-Dade, for example, García began her day by taking to the skies via the Flying Classroom. Imagine the Magic School Bus, except with wings.  García and the United Teachers of Dade President Fedrick Ingram soared above Miami with Capt. Barrington Irving, a pilot who writes a blog and hosts a virtual classroom for thousands of students across the country.  His work, supported by UTD and NEA, provides needed STEM instruction and hands-on learning to under-resourced schools in hopes of sparking an interest in young students’ minds, many of whom live in a zip code that is home to the other 1 percent—the poorest 1 percent in the country.  For them, the interest in science offered via this program, may be just the thing to help reverse the trend of the school to prison pipeline that has plagued their community.

“He builds his own planes and helps students dream big,” says García. “No toxic test can measure that!”

Plans for the program are underway to launch an exploration on Sep. 23. It’s scheduled to lasts nine weeks and includes 16 expeditions between North America, Asia, Indonesia, and Australia. Students from select schools will have an opportunity to follow the flight route and communicate in real time with Irving.

Allapattah Middle School, which was one of the stops on the tour, is on the list of schools scheduled to work with Flying Classrooms. Here, educators work toward reducing the school-to-prison pipeline, a national trend that has police patrolling hallways and disciplinary problems handled by suspension and arrest, not counseling and detention.

Other school visits included, Hialeah Senior High School, where school leaders underscored the importance of a well-rounded education with classes, such as drama, health science, constitutional law, and AP American history. While visiting Alfredo Granada’s philosophy class, García asked students what they would ask President Barack Obama for to help improve their school and education. Without pause, a student shouted, “More Granadas,” referring to having more incredible educators.

“Students know what they want with their education,” said Ingram. “They want an investment in quality and opportunities to learn.”

Aside from rich academic programs, the tour featured the wraparound services of Westside K-12 in Kissimmee. The school houses several services that meet the needs of the whole child. The Osceola County Education Association (OCEA) in many cases brokered deals to bring in vision and dental care for students. Additionally, the school sends backpacks filled with enough food to feed a family of four each week. Westside serves the largest population of transient students in the district, with more than 300 students and their families living in dilapidated hotels that once housed Disney World tourists.

Highlands Elementary School was the last school visit in the Sunshine State. After several classroom stops, García sat with dual-language kindergarten students to eat lunch. The school has a 49 percent Hispanic population and many students speak only Spanish. The program lets educators instruct students in their native language in the morning and then English in the afternoon. Valerie Rivera, an ESOL compliance specialist for the district, oversees the program. She says that for students to succeed in learning English “they must be fluent in their first language. From there, students can transition into English a lot quicker.”

“These are the types of opportunities students miss when standardized tests become the focus of education,” says García, referring to the loving, caring educators she met along the way and the innovative programs she saw firsthand. She adds, “Every place I’ve gone it’s the union that asks ‘What do our kids need?’ Of course we advocate for the profession, but there’s a balance to our union. Nothing will stop us until we succeed.”