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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

I've Always Been a Christmas Nut

The headlines in our two dailies were notably different. The Times story ran on the front page, proclaiming “No Child’ school policy is history.” The Tribune put it on page 16, and the boring headline was “Education law revision easily clears the House.” The point, though, could be lost in either one: in December, when few people are paying attention, Congress repealed the Bush administration’s educational experiment of “No Child Left Behind.” Like much Republican philosophy, it was a good slogan with pitifully little thought. The politicians who adopted it have repented, but not so openly that you would know.

Republican Representative John Kline, who led the relevant House-Senate conference committee, said: “Today we turn the page on the failed status quo and turn over to our nation’s parents and our state and local leaders the authority, flexibility, and certainty they need to deliver children an excellent education.” No acknowledgment there that the legislation was adopted in 2002, under Dubya. No acknowledgment that he was following the policy that his big brother Jeb! pushed into place here in Florida.

The lofty and (largely rhetorical) goal was improved academic performance, but the only real recipients of the act’s largesse were testing companies. Instead, children who previously loved school developed stomachaches on the mornings of tests that determined not only their own place in life, but also that of their teachers and their schools. Schools in affluent areas with educated parents easily earned As and were rewarded with more money; those in poor communities of blue-collar families got Fs and their struggling teachers were chastised and fired. Hubby was among the many educators who said at the time that the formula would not work. He made the analogy to his military experience. If one regiment made it to the top of the hill and another still was on the ground and taking losses, any reasonable commander would send reinforcements to those in need. Instead, under this policy, a commander would have to say to those bleeding at the bottom, “Sorry, I’ve got to reward the regiment at the top.”

Teachers could have told politicians that the policy would not work. In fact, they tried hard to do so, and some dropped out of the profession in protest. Among many other problems was that non-tested areas such as art, music, and foreign languages suffered budget cuts, with the result that students motivated by these subjects had less motivation. Teachers were pitted against each other, as some were eligible for bonuses and others were not. Indeed, I have always believed that this was the intent of the Bush administration and its adherents. They themselves were the product of elite private schools and knew nothing personal of public education. Their true aim was to damage teachers’ unions, just as they wanted to damage (and largely succeeded) with unions of any sort. “No Child Left Behind” was another example of political hypocrisy that used a benevolent-sounding slogan to do the very opposite of what voters think is the goal.

Good teachers (and NEA and other organizations they join) know that every child is different and needs a different approach for the best result. Leaving anyone behind is not their goal, but experienced educators understand that no matter how much some students may try, they never will be able to meet the standards of standardized tests. After all, that’s exactly what norms mean: to have an average, some must be below to balance those above. No matter how much teachers may push their students or how many pre-test pep rallies they hold, not everyone can be above average. Nor do they need to be to have a happy life and good self-esteem.

I remember my epiphany on this. I taught classes of teenagers who, in those days, were openly labeled “retarded.” One was a thoroughly sweet boy named Kenny, whose IQ was about 75. This was in Massachusetts, and I was free to create my own tests, which measured what had been taught and what these particular kids were expected to have learned. I was so thrilled when Kenny made 100% on his history test that I asked him if he didn’t want to take it home and show his mother. He shrugged it off as no big deal, adding, “My mother knows I always do the best I can.” That’s what’s important.

* * *

Over a thousand people crowded into the “lawn” at Winthrop Village for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony the first weekend of this month. I had the pleasure of being part of organizing it and greatly enjoyed the interaction with children and their young parents – as well as the occasional grandparent of my age. At least one person of great-grandparent age was there, as Beverly Becker, whose 90th birthday was that day, pushed the big button that lit the tree. A St. Petersburg resident, she is the lovely mother of my good friend Kay Sullivan. Kay and her husband, John Sullivan, have been developing Winthrop Village for more than a decade now. They planned it as a mixed use community, where residents of apartments and homes can walk to shops, restaurants, and even doctors’ offices – everything one normally needs -- without getting into the traffic of south Brandon.

Building a sense of community has been a priority for them, and the tree lighting ceremony now has become a traditional part of that. Starbucks gave out free hot chocolate, and other Winthrop restaurants provided low-cost food to allow people to make picnic baskets. We had participants from Dance Dynamics and Judy’s Dance Academy, as well as musicians from Progress Village and Spoto High School; Brandon Ballet did a nine-minute excerpt from “The Nutcracker.” My favorite part, though, was the table that Winthrop Arts Factory provided for little kids to make ornaments to hang on the huge tree. It was so popular that we ran out of a supply for 200 ornaments. After the ceremony, I walked around and smiled at tots picking out a place on the tree while their families snapped pictures. In the end, it was a funny-looking tree, as the decorations were three or four feet off the ground – as high as the kiddies could reach on a tree at least 30 feet high. Most families then spread out on blankets to watch a screening of the “Christmas Muppet Movie.” That was the hit for adolescents, who saved their spaces early.

I was glad to be part of it and to pay back some of what others did for me when I was a child at the holidays. I have so many memories of these dear now-dead people. Signe Haraldson, who lived nearby in our Norwegian/German Minnesota town, gave us six tangerines in a paper basket one Christmas; they were the first I ever saw. Mrs. Stordahl arranged holiday banquets for us Girl Scouts, which included Christmas-themed games and prizes. Other kind and doubtless frustrated women led us in rehearsal for the pageant that took place every Christmas Eve at our Lutheran church. We went to my grandparents on the 26th for what everyone called “the second day of Christmas.” I suspect now that this extended-family holiday had a name in German. My grandmother had so many grandkids that she didn’t try to buy individual presents. Instead, she had a grab bag each for boys and for girls, and we reached in and pulled something out. If we liked what a cousin got better, we were free to develop our trading skills.

I’ve always been a Christmas nut, taking most of the month of December to shop and wrap, bake and decorate, send cards and plan parties. This year will be different, though, as Hubby will be having open-heart surgery to repair his aortic valve on Christmas Eve. We chose that date because it was the first that the VA could offer and because we hope the hospital will be quieter during the holidays. We want him well by February, when we plan a cruise for our – dare I say it? – 50th anniversary. Yes, I was a child bride. But please think of us on Christmas Eve.

Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
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