An Open Letter to the ISD 77 School Board and Others who Can Make Change
I’ve been struggling for a long time now. Going back and forth in my mind about whether or not to say something. There is great risk. Risk in being thrown under the bus. Risk of being treated differently. But I’ve reached my breaking point. I cannot stay silent any longer. We’re spinning in circles and it is extremely exhausting to wake up every day and feel as though you are not successful. Everyone is so afraid to talk about this. But growth and change come from acknowledging that we can do better. And we can. It’s time to talk about this. I have nothing left to lose…. because I already feel as though I am losing, and worst of all, it’s the children who are suffering. If you feel the courage to stand with me, I ask you to please share your perspective, so you can advocate for change, even if it is anonymously. If you do not feel you can do so publicly, I ask for your prayers and support silently. It’s terrifying to publicly advocate for something that seems so big, but the consequences are far worse. If my job is to advocate for children, then I would be failing them by not standing up for them. If my job is to advocate for teachers, then I would be failing them by not advocating for the support they need. If my role is to lead and I stay silent, then my silence to me, is failure. Our community is amazing, We have a school system that is supportive, but we can do better. Everyone can always do better. If we aren’t willing to continually take a look at how we can improve, then why are we even here?
May 6, 2017
Members of the Mankato Public School Board and others who have the capacity to make change,
I write this on a Saturday. It is 12:31pm and my family is at the campground. My husband is out running errands and I am supposed to be out at garage sales because we are short on spare 4T and 5T clothes at Here We Grow. But I’m not. I’m not because as I was driving, I couldn’t even focus on what I was doing. I became overwhelmed with a feeling of panic, a sense of urgency. Normally I would apologize for not following the proper steps and procedures for reaching out to you; but I can’t bring myself to do it. I’ve tried the proper channels, I’ve tried reaching out, but recently I’ve reached the point where I have nothing to lose. You see I’m already losing. Every day I wake up, sometimes at 2am, sometimes at 5am, and sometimes I just don’t sleep until 1am. The problem isn’t my sleep cycle, it’s anxiety. It’s the sheer panic and fear of going into my own place of business, my own early childhood center, because when I walk through that door I always feel like I’m losing.
You see, we have children and families who need resources. For a variety of reasons and for privacy purposes I will not disclose them. My job is to advocate for families…. for children… for my teachers. The stakes are high and no one is winning. I have the most amazing, talented, patient teachers, but they have limits. When the process and system for helping connect a family to the resources they need the most is slow or delayed, I am faced with an overwhelming feeling. If I choose to wait out the process, it could be up to 60 days. That is 60 days of trying everything we have in our toolkit to try and best help the family and children as well as one another as teachers. Our ratios are purposefully lower, some of our teachers hold Masters degrees, Bachelors degrees, and many years of experience but we are not formally trained in early intervention strategies in some areas. We can only do so much. So you see, I’m faced with a choice. I can help with resources while waiting for proper IEP, BIPs and required legal jargon to get wrapped up and do what is best for the child – Win – but while doing so my teachers could very well burn out – Lose. Or I could ask the family to leave and not help that child – Lose – but prevent my teachers from burning out- Win. Do you see my dilemma?
As a 4 Star Parent aware rated center, we are fortunate to now have a partnership with Go Therapy through a Parent Aware Grant. But that is a small piece of the puzzle as they have limited time with us as well. Let’s say I wait out the process, and we have, every time. The expulsion rate in PK is nearly 13 times that of K-12 schools in Minnesota, and to the best of my ability, I will not be a part of that statistic. Let’s say we completed the process and now have an IEP in place. In all honesty, what happens next is again a no-win situation. The best-case scenario is a teacher being assigned to come once a week for 20 minutes and possibly with the addition of an OT or PT; the worst-case scenario is a teacher being assigned to come every other week for 20 minutes with no OT or PT. Have you seen this model in action? First, the teacher who is assigned, is no longer involved in the assessment. They write an IEP from paper documents and assessment data along with one meeting with the family, teachers, those who did the assessment, and a district rep without having seen the child. Would you feel comfortable going into surgery after having a pre-op with a different surgeon when the one cutting you open has only read about you on paper? That is what this is like. There is a host of evidence regarding neural pruning and the best years for early intervention and we’re underutilizing that time frame.
Now let’s talk about the Early Intervention Teachers. My heart is so full because of everything they do for us, but my heart also hurts for them. You see, they are also not winning. I watch them run into our building, literally run, because they must get in, get out, and get to their next location which is often across town. They are stressed out, and they are burned out. They are not winning either.
So, what am I to do? I can hope for the best, but over the course of the last 4 years I have seen it worsen. Teachers who write the IEP being taken out of the assessment process is simply not working. It is also extremely discouraging and quite frankly aggravating to have a policy in place that does not allow a para to be assigned to our facility because we are not a “Preschool” due to our hours and programming description. However, other programs which may not have a 4 Star Parent Aware Rating but meet the time requirements of a “Preschool”, have a para assigned to that site, and children receiving services ride a bus to these programs. This can be challenging when some of our children already struggle with transition. We are a 4 Star Parent Aware rated center and we absolutely are a quality early learning environment. What happened to the Least Restrictive Environment? And more so, you cannot have it both ways. One cannot both expect children to be Ready for Kindergarten when they attend what is referred to as a “daycare only” while also expecting the teachers within the “daycare only” setting to provide and follow through on Early Intervention Services with only 20 minutes of support a week, and that is only if the child remains in our setting and is not transported to an “actual Preschool”. So when that child returns for the afternoon we do not have any knowledge of what strategies or supports were used. There is no consistency. And let’s not forget that there is a collaboration week for teachers, which I believe they need, but once a month during that week there is no support.
So, what are we to do? There are a total of 28 licensed child care centers in the Mankato Public School District. I have not yet looked up the data on the MDE website about the amount of funding that is provided for Early Intervention Services to come up with a fiscally based alternative, however I do know this, there has to be a change. I have ideas for how we might do that which I why I am hoping to hear from you. As we tend to use data to inform decisions perhaps we can start there. What does the data tell us? Are children who receive Early Intervention Services making improvements consistently? Are the number of children who are still receiving those services in K-3 grade increasing or decreasing, when they have had birth-five services? What does the employee mental health data for personal leave or leave in general within the district tell us? Do Early Intervention staff feel that they are successful?
I don’t have that data or those answers on hand, but you do. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to have a conversation with anyone who would be willing to listen and help make change. Our families, are not winning. Our teachers, are not winning. But most of all, it is the children who are losing.
We have an opportunity as a community, to create a model that others can learn from. Early Childhood is Birth through Eight Years. You have the ability to make change and I am pleading with you to do so.
I took a great risk in writing this. The stakes are high, but for me the risk is worth it because there’s nothing left to lose. We need to do what is best for the children, families, and educators within our community.
Elizabeth Bangert, MS