Lessons Learned: Idaho Educators Spend Much of The Summer Preparing for Fall 

BW has been listening to teachers who have unbridled enthusiasm for their students, but more than a few concerns for adequate funding, politically charged debates at the Statehouse and something called tiered licensure.

4 a.m.

"Yes, that's my alarm setting," said Janet Cherry with a Cheshire smile. "What can I say? I like a little bit of that quiet time."

"Yes, that's about right," said Tara Coe. "My alarm will be set for 4:30 a.m."

Thousands of alarm clocks are set to erupt a lot earlier Monday, Aug. 25--some a lot earlier than others--as more than 26,000 students, 1,600 teachers and 87 principals and assistant principals begin yet another fall semester across the Boise Independent School District.

For Cherry and Coe, Aug. 25 can't come soon enough. They're both veteran educators--Cherry began her career in the Boise School District in 1997, Coe began in 1994--and they have seen more than their share of "firsts." But come Aug. 25, they'll begin their first assignments as the district's newest principals: Cherry is in charge at West Junior High School while Coe takes the helm of White Pine Elementary.

They're not alone. As many as 35 administrative changes have been made in the Boise School District, both at district headquarters on Victory Road and in schools throughout the district.

"We've been fortunate to have a lot of stability over the years, but just like any public or private agency, we're seeing quite a bit of change," district spokesman Dan Hollar told Boise Weekly.

And "change" is the watchword this year, both in and out of the classroom. In preparation for the new semester, BW has been listening to educators from throughout Idaho who have unbridled enthusiasm for their students, a new commitment to even more technology in their classrooms, but more than a few concerns for adequate funding, politically charged debates at the Statehouse and something called tiered licensure.

'It's a Whip, not a tool'

When Boise Weekly sat down with Penny Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, representing thousands of educators in every corner of the Gem State, we asked what was at the forefront of the union's concerns: Idaho Core? Technology in the classroom? The upcoming election of a new state superintendent of instruction? Yes, those are all grist for the mill. But we were a bit surprised at Cyr's response to what tops the list.

"You should be paying attention to tiered licensure," said Cyr, without hesitation.

When Idaho Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's special task force on education unveiled a list of 20 proposals to reform Idaho education in 2013, there was ample media coverage of a number of the recommendations, particularly Idaho Core Standards, restoration of operational funding, and technology devices and wireless infrastructure. But No. 14 on the list, "Tiered Licensure," has received limited coverage in spite of the amount of grief it's causing inside the teachers' union.

"They're demonizing teachers again, by tying a teacher's license to a local evaluation," Cyr told BW. "The consequence could be a black mark and it's a whip, not a tool."

To date, something called the Idaho Professional Standards Commission, made up of teachers, administrators and school board members, has acted as the "gatekeeper" when an Idaho teacher's ethics are challenged. Simply put, the ethics committee decides whether a teacher's certification ought to be revoked.

BW readers may remember the 2013 case of a Dietrich teacher who was confronted by four parents when he explained the biology of an orgasm and included the word "vagina" during his lesson on the human reproductive system in a 10th-grade biology course. A formal complaint was filed with the state commission. When they saw that the teacher had referred "straight out of the textbook," and that every student had the option not to attend the class during lessons on the reproductive system, the teacher was cleared by the commission.

That could dramatically change in a tiered licensure world, where one local administrator could challenge a teacher's license and livelihood.

"We hope, in this day and age, those things don't happen, but yes, it could turn into a conflict of personalities," said Cyr.

A short time later, IEA members gathered to talk about the licensure issue, and other matters that have become political hot potatoes.

"But nobody ever went into teaching to be a political activist," said James Conlon, organizational specialist with the National Education Association. "But the reality is that public education has never been so politicized."

Matt Compton, public policy director for the IEA, said more citizens needed to get engaged on the specific issue of tiered licensure.

"We're going to call for open forums on this," he said. "It's being desperately pushed by Tom Luna [the soon-to-retire superintendent of public instruction]. Apparently, this is what he wants his legacy to be."

On Aug. 8, Compton and Conlon led a spirited discussion in a workshop session that they called From the Classroom to the Capitol, engaging teachers from throughout the state to share their own experiences in and around the Idaho Statehouse.

"In my mind, as a citizen, it's my duty to tell legislators why education is so important," said Meridian educator Sam Perez. "If it's not us, then who? That's why this past spring, I stood before the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee and, boy, I was nervous as all get out. But it was important to fight for adequate funding."

Compton said there were still Idaho lawmakers who had the false impression that teachers were part-timers, just like Idaho legislators.

"There are legislators who think you only go to work in the fall and work 9 to 3," said Compton, to a room full of laughter. "And they think you have your summers off." That line got an even bigger laugh, as educators were spending a good chunk of their summer at training sessions on everything from technology to Idaho Core to workshops on tolerance and the ever-changing social landscape.

"Some legislators don't have a clue, but that's truly what their perception is," he said.

Then a hand went up from the back of the room. It was Tina Williams, who shared one of the most interesting education/political stories in recent memory.

"I need to tell you about Scott Bedke," she said as the room full of educators shifted in their chairs to listen to her in the back of the room.

Simply put, Bedke is one of the most powerful men in Idaho. Bedke has been in the Idaho House of Representatives for more than a decade, representing Minidoka and Cassia counties in Idaho House District 27. He was elected as House speaker in 2012 and he isn't leaving that post anytime soon. While soft spoken, Bedke should never be underestimated.

Bedke is also a staunch conservative, and Williams said when she first met him, he said, "You always put candidates against me." But that political chill began to thaw when Williams traveled to the Capitol and asked to talk to Bedke in person:

"He came off the floor and talked with me at length. And then six words changed everything. I asked him, 'What can I do for you?' He said, 'What?' I said, 'What can I do for you?' He was stunned and then he said, 'You get me a meeting with teachers.'"

Indeed, come the first week of December 2014, Williams said she'll host a sit-down--there will be plenty of coffee, punch and pie--at Connor's Cafe in the town of Heyburn.

"Hey, I would love to be there. Tell me when it is," said one teacher, which began a cascade of other educators saying they would love to share some pie with Bedke as well.

Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives

Just down the hall from the Classroom to the Capitol discussion on Aug. 8, another workshop--titled Survival Kit for Teachers Stranded on the Desert Island of Technology--was being held with a different type of enthusiasm.

"One of my father's favorite sayings is, 'You have digital immigrants and digital natives,'" said Allison Gordon.

The daughter of two veteran Boise teachers, Gordon is the new breed of educator; she's about to begin her fourth year in the Boise School District (even her brother and sister-in-law are teachers). After spending the past two school years as a librarian at Lowell Elementary, she's taking on the district-wide role of Library Media and Tech Support, providing technical wizardry throughout the city.

"Yes, the older generation are the digital immigrants. Change is hard and I've had a couple of teachers... Well, I could barely get them on the computer. But if you give them a helping hand, they'll embrace it," said Gordon. "And the younger generation? Well, they're natives. They grew up with computers and smartphones and resources are easy."

Gordon was excited to share what she called "amazing resources" with teachers from throughout the state. Above all, she said the best part was that many of them were free.

"Let me show you my favorite. It's called 'Animoto,' and they allow free accounts for teachers," said Gordon. "I've had a number of third-graders use Animoto. They adore it."

Animoto allows a student to put together a school project along with animated pictures and music and publish it to a web page, where it can be universally shared.

"I had a third-grader come into school one day and she was so excited. She said, 'My grandmother in Minnesota just saw my Animoto book report and she was so proud,'" said Gordon. "You know, even when schools are struggling for funding, they still have the Internet. So those kids who can't necessarily afford to have a desktop or laptop at home come into school early in the morning to use the PCs. Lunchtime and after-school time, too. Somehow they always manage to find the time."

Meanwhile, back at the headquarters of the Boise School District, new principals Cherry and Coe couldn't be more excited about technology in the classroom. Gone are the days of teachers confiscating smartphone or tablets. Instead, the devices are part of the solution, not the problem.

"It can be a great resource," said Cherry. "Why wouldn't we let a student type their homework into their device and use their smartphone as a calendar? We all do that. Why wouldn't they? It's a great asset and a great tool."

Cherry quickly added that technology in the classroom is the same as in public places: It's all about responsibility and etiquette.

"It's not just students. All of us have experienced when you're sitting in a meeting and someone's cellphone goes off. Or you're at dinner and someone is talking really loud into their cellphone at the next table," she said. "It's about education and using technology for the right reasons. It's wrong to say that we don't want that in the classroom. What if we had said that about word processors or computers?"

The Core

Boise School District officials said they were ahead of the curve instituting Idaho Core, the Gem State's new method of introducing critical thinking into practically every element of a student's learning process.

"We recognized early on that there might be a lot of questions," said district spokesman Hollar. "So, very early on, we put together brochures for our parents and a video about critical reading and writing--we tried to be very proactive. For us, it's always been about raising the bar for our students."

In fact, Cherry said Idaho Core isn't really new to her and many of her colleagues.

"When you look at Idaho Core, it wasn't pushing everything out the door and bringing in this new thing," she said. "Idaho Core includes good teaching practices that our teachers have been doing for years. Now we're putting a name to it. That's the biggest misnomer, that it's some new magical thing."

Each of the educators that BW spoke with regarding Idaho Core still had questions regarding the testing associated with the reform. Last spring, Idaho school children underwent what was billed as "pre-test" or a "test of a test," where students got a taste of how the Idaho Core standards would be measured.

"The so-called 'test of the test?' The jury is still out on that, frankly," said Cyr. "This past spring, some Idaho teachers thought it went OK, but quite frankly, it's a very long test and intensive. How will it fit into the Idaho classroom? We still need to figure that out."

Coe and Cherry agreed that the test's endurance is still a challenge.

"Can a third-grader take a sustained test for a long amount of time?" asked Coe. "Hopefully we can continue to work on that. We need to talk about the length of the tests and what ages are most appropriate."

"The time of the test is the big thing. It takes a good amount of time. Yes, we want those assessments, but we need to find a balance," said Cherry. "Last spring, we had the ISATs, the AP tests and then the Idaho Core tests. It was almost a month of testing. Teachers were asking, 'When do I get my students back?'"

Day One

Coe said she's still hoping to keep her calendar free for Aug. 25.

"My goal for the first day of school is I don't want to be land-locked," she said. "I want to be out and see the kids coming in the door, in their classes, at recess, at lunch, I want to be in all of that."

"I 100 percent concur," said Cherry. "I want to be there for all of it, helping that new student so that they're not lost. That first day can be terrifying for them. And that first day sets the tone for the rest of the year. It can make or break that first impression."

But students will be checking out Cherry and Coe, too. After all, they'll also be new kids on the block as they begin their first assignments as Boise's newest principals.

"I almost wish tomorrow was the first day," said Cherry.

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