Adios, 9-R – A ‘Jet Blue’ exit but without the slide

After nearly 10 years, Monday was my last day in education. I took a different kind of job in a different kind of state and will be hitting the road with my understanding and adventurous family any day now.

In the lead up to my departure, my students had a lot of questions about why I chose to leave, which I have always answered with some version of, “It has nothing to with you guys. It’s time for a change.” This is accurate: I love being around teenagers and teaching them history. But it’s evasive, and kids know when you are keeping something from them. So now seems like a good time explain myself with an example that typifies the otherworldly nonsense of the educational bureaucracy in our corner of paradise.

On May 2, Durango High School held its final pep assembly of the year to celebrate the work of students and teachers to earn the school a “No Place for Hate” designation. The highlight of the assembly was the introduction of our Special Olympics student-athletes and their teachers, paraprofessional staff and peer coaches. These kids all came in to the gym with raucous music playing, a slide show of them at the Special Olympics, and wild, enthusiastic applause from their classmates. Then everyone – teachers, staff and the entire student body – came down to the gym floor and did the Harlem Shake.

Completely awesome, right?

Well, it was awesome for everyone except for the teachers and paraprofessionals who work with our severe needs and affective education students – the students being celebrated that morning – because about an hour earlier, they were all informed by building and district leaders that their programs were being cut by District 9-R and none of them had jobs anymore.

There are so many things wrong with this, so let’s just start with some basic etiquette. You don’t need to be Emily Post to know that it’s wrong to lay someone off an hour before they are supposed to appear in front of a thousand people who have gathered to celebrate them. But timing is the least of the issues.

These two programs being cut by District 9-R, called the LIFE program and the Affective Ed. (AE) program, serve two particular groups of students: kids with severe physical and intellectual needs and kids with significant emotional needs that can hinder their performance without intensive interventions. At DHS, these programs have been taught and run by three specialized teachers and paraprofessionals. The goal is simple: Give students every opportunity to live as happily, productively and independently as possible. Most of the students spend much of their day in general education classrooms, assisted by paraprofessionals or peer mentors.

Some of their day, however, has been spent learning important life skills. AE students spend class time learning anger-management and coping skills, and practicing social behavioral norms. Students in the LIFE class often learn things such as how to cross the street safely, how to manage personal-hygiene issues and how to safely operate household appliances. Some of these students are non-verbal. Some have frequent seizures. Some need to wear diapers.

At a recent DHS staff meeting called to announce these changes, administrators were asked how these students will be served now that these two programs are gone. The staff was told: “We’re still working out the details” but that remaining staff would need to “get more passionate” about these students. I won’t go on about how insulting it is to question teachers’ passion; that’s self-evident. I will say, however, “getting more passionate” doesn’t answer who will make sure these kids can cross the street safely or handle a conflict appropriately. Should I, as a history teacher, be teaching crosswalk safety? I’d be happy to, but who will teach my other 25 kids about the French Revolution in the meantime?

When asked about how long this cut has been planned, administrators responded “years.” Really? If they had years to plan it, why can’t they explain how the remaining staff – now with 15 fewer people – will meet their highly specialized needs? If they had “years” to plan it, why were these 15 people given only a month notice that their jobs were ending? If they had “years” to plan something, why didn’t they do just that – plan something?

When asked how it would be guaranteed these high-needs kids didn’t end up all in the same Small Learning Community, administrators responded that it won’t be guaranteed. In other words, one SLC (Atlas) will continue to have almost zero special-education students, while the other SLCs, DA VINCI and Basecamp, will serve this entire population. That’s not inclusion; that’s segregation.

This awful, insane and maybe illegal decision is not why I left. It took years of similarly bad decisions to push me to it. There’s too much work, too many unrealistic responsibilities, too little support, too little time, too little pay.

On my last day, a class suggested that I “pull a Jet Blue,” meaning that I go out like a flight attendant from Jet Blue, who quit by going on a wild rant, downing a beer from the beverage cart and exiting the plane on the inflatable escape slide. So here’s to you, seventh period: I took care of the beer when I got home Monday night, and this is my rant. Too bad there’s no inflatable slide.

Elizabeth Collins taught social studies at Durango High School.

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