A Tale of Two Districts: A Teacher Reflects on the Disparities Harming WI Schools

Susan Howe, FACE teacher, Monona Grove High School, WI

This guest blog post is from Susan Howe, a longtime teacher in Wisconsin and a passionate advocate for the rights of all children to a fair and substantive opportunity to learn. 

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For some reason, my family seems to have produced more than its share of teachers. I don't remember anyone encouraging us or discouraging us, but somehow we ended up with nine teachers in our extended family, including my husband and myself.

For many years, we were proud to be in this profession. Then Scott Walker was elected. Up to that point, I had not realized to what extent public schools across the nation were being undermined and that teachers had become targets. Governor Walker’s election opened my eyes and awakened a political activist. The recall election did not go as we planned and hoped. After much disappointment and discussion, my husband and I realized that the most important cause on which to focus our efforts was supporting strong public schools and emphasizing the benefits they give to all people in the state and nation. This led us to the Opportunity To Learn Campaign.

Through the OTL Campaign, I hope to inform others about the plight of public schools and the inequalities between districts. To that end, here are two stories about teachers in my family, the districts that employ them and how the inequalities in those districts have affected their students.

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District #1

My niece, Mary, pursued a teaching degree in music and landed a job in a rural town in the central part of Wisconsin. She was thrilled to find that the district, although small, still considered music to be an integral part of their curriculum and she embraced the job wholeheartedly. She signed a contract that had no salary listed on it because the district was in the middle of establishing their handbook and salary schedule. Excited to have found a job, she signed anyway and prepared to find an apartment.

It was soon apparent that the job was unsustainable. Mary was a beginning teacher in a district without any established mentor program. She was expected to travel between three buildings, teach both middle school and high school classes, and teach a guitar class, an instrument she had never learned to play. She worked her tail off, but there was never enough time, support or positive response to help alleviate the work expectations. She resigned after one year–the third music teacher in five years for that district.

The district and its school board could not understand, or perhaps could not afford to understand, the complexity of the life of a beginning teacher and how continued nonsupport leads to teacher turnover, which in turn leads to continual adjustment for students and a high learning curve for new teachers.

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District #2

It is with trepidation and pride that my husband and I welcome our oldest son, Alex, to the teaching profession this year. He completed an undergraduate degree several years ago and then joined the business world before deciding to pursue a degree in education. He earned his teaching certificate by attending an accelerated program that focused on second career adults while accommodating their work schedules.

Alex was just hired by a surrounding district in the Madison area. This is a district with a very low rate of student poverty. District officials tell Alex not to buy any classroom supplies as they have lots of money for that sort of thing. Each classroom has a smart board that was not purchased by fundraising. The average class size is 24 students. There is an active mentor program in place and time allowed for new teachers like Alex to observe other teachers during the day. He has been told money is not an issue in this district. He is a lucky young teacher and his students will benefit from the adequate funding their district has.

The principal who hired our son was previously an administrator in Madsion Public Schools where they had to "rub two nickels together" to come up with enough funds.

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The children in each of these districts do not have equal access to education. The two district are so different in what they can offer students that although these are both public schools, they are incredibly unequal. Sadly, overcrowding, lack of funds, a lack of technology and support, both philosophical and financial, are becoming the norm in Wisconsin.

Disparities like these are what brought me to the Opportunity To Learn Campaign. Until we can ensure ALL our children have access to an equal playing field, then students and society will continue to lose. Smaller districts lose talented beginning teachers due to lack of support and funding, districts with dysfunctional administrators and school boards will lose experienced teachers or have staff members with low morale. Suburban districts that ring metropolitan areas, while financially well supported, lose a chance for the students to interact with others who may not come from the same background but have loads of experiences to add to a classroom. These are experiences that may help future generations understand each other better as demographics change in our society.

The Opportunity To Learn Campaign proposes that all students be given access to the components of an excellent education, regardless of where they live, and I hope to help further the cause.

The education of the children of Wisconsin is the responsibility of every citizen. It is time to ask how we can put every district on a level playing field.

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