The day after an election presents some unenviable responsibilities for teachers, principals, and families. A tough job on any given day comes with particular challenges for teachers the day after a Presidential election. One of the biggest questions teachers grapple with is what to tell the students. I think the most important thing you can tell them is that you love them, that nothing has changed in terms of your love and commitment to them, and that above all, remind them you will be there for them, you will keep them safe, and you will remain a steady, loving force in their lives. For many children, school is a place of security, a safe haven, and school represents an important symbol of continuity in their lives. The continuity and care that you provide means everything to a child, sometimes, more than you even know on the surface. Remind them that America is a great nation and it was built to survive great change and the peaceful change of power during election periods, and as President Obama said last night, remind them that no matter what, “the sun will rise tomorrow”. Do lean on our Marva Collins Creed and our great Character Education program and other teachable moments today and always to continue to teach kindness, love, tolerance and respect. We are one great nation built on hopes and dreams and the idea that everyone can be successful and has the right to pursue happiness and freedom. My heart is with every single teacher today and with every single child. Through our own living examples of love and kindness, we will continue to change the world for our children and families we serve!
In the spirit of National Adoption Day, I am sharing a short story of our family’s adoption journey with our daughter, Annabelle. It also happens to be the anniversary of Annabelle’s “gotcha day” this Thanksgiving Day, the day we brought our “forever girl” home from Russia. We have many plans on Thanksgiving to celebrate her arrival and to bring just a small part of that rich and old culture to Annabelle for her special day.
Over a period of 12 months, we experienced the many challenges and joys of adopting a child from Russia. We were so fortunate to bring Annabelle home before that country’s leader, Vladimir Putin, closed the doors for the foreseeable future to would be forever families from America. We made 4 trips to Russia before we brought her home. We knew it would be the journey of a lifetime in so many ways, from the first moment we met Annabelle and fell in love with her, to “springing her free” from her rural orphanage for children with disabilities, the only home she ever new since birth, right up to her arrival on American soil.
After several months of waiting, in May of 2010 we received a referral for a forever daughter. All we had was a photograph and a one page medical description, indicating Annabelle had some medical concerns, including congenital ptosis of the eye (a droopy eyelid), a misshapen kidney, and birth complications including hypoxia, from lack of oxygen to the brain. We learned her birth mother never took her home from the hospital, and after a few weeks, Lyudmila (her Russian name, meaning, “of the people”), was transferred from the hospital to a rural orphanage for babies with disabilities in Konakovo, about an hour outside the city of Tver where she was born. We learned we would be visiting her there in June. We had two weeks to procure a flight and prepare for our first trip to Russia.
We were so busy preparing for travel and making proper arrangements for our biological 4-year old son to be home in our absence, the time passed quickly. The day for travel to Russia arrived and we boarded a plane at JFK. After a long flight to Moscow, we landed, and we waited nervously in an unfamiliar airport for a half an hour for our driver to arrive. We were eventually found by two male strangers holding a sign with our name on it and taken to a small car. We were driven for a few hours to a German operated hotel in the old Russian city of Tver. Along the way, we drove past a two story high statue of Lenin in the Tver town square, (the first of many similar statues of Lenin we would see in many Russian towns, large and small), and oceans of tenement style buildings one after the other, completely identical, not unlike those I’d seen in other parts of Europe and New York. We drove past ancient white forests, beautiful rivers, and past several military “parks” and government buildings tended by elderly women with brooms. Eventually, we found our hotel which stood out as a shiny new structure with a small patch of grass in the front, unusual, because no other house or building seemed to have grass. It was surrounded by old houses and buildings and a boarded up synagogue across the street. The streets were empty, save for a few dogs. We settled into our hotel room, Skyped with our dear 4 year old boy we left at home with his grandparents, and anxiously awaited meeting our sweet girl the next day.
Early in the morning, one of the drivers retrieved us from the hotel accompanied by an english translator, and they drove us an hour out into the countryside along the Volga River to a small town, called Konakovo, to meet our future daughter.
Upon arrival, we found the orphanage surrounded by dozens more tenement style buildings. I remember the stuffed animals in the trees outside the front door, greeting guests and children who lived there. As we entered, they asked us to cover our feet with foot coverings they provided to prevent the spread of germs and dirt.The orphanage itself was very clean, albeit somewhat sparse. The orphanage was full of sights and sounds of many women tending to about 100 small children and babies in adjoining cribs. They sat us in an empty room with a few chairs and some toys behind locked cabinets. It was 97 degrees. Smoke filled what little breeze there was (there had been a terrible heatwave and peat/bog forest fires that burned all summer, causing smoke to fill the air for hundreds of miles).
We waited nervously for the meeting we had been anticipating for many months. But first, we had to wait for another American couple to see their child. They had flown in on the plane with us from JFK to Moscow, and they were staying in our hotel. This was their second trip to Russia for their forever boy, Alex. Alex was brought out to greet his new parents in what appeared to be a Russian version of adorable lederhosen, and he was carrying a bright yellow balloon. He appeared to be about 15 months old, and needed some help to walk to his new parents. Reunited with their forever boy, they cried and Alex fell into their arms and they cried some more. I was overwhelmed.
I wondered if this is what it would be like for us. I wondered if Ludmila would look like the picture they sent us. I wondered if she would love me, if she would love Clint, if she would be shy, if she would be sleepy (we were told they were waking her because we arrived at nap time). I wondered if we would bond right away, and if we did, how I would feel leaving her here and going back to America in a few short days. I wondered how many trips it would take to bring her home. I wondered if she would like the toys I realized I was clutching with a death grip because I was so nervous. I wondered how much the orphanage staff would be observing our interactions and if they would approve of us as parents. We were told they would testify in court on a future visit about their observations.
We were led to another small, but clean visiting room with a few wooden chairs, some thin, white curtains covering the doorway and the open windows. The curtains were barely moving in the hot, smoky air. I was sweating. They asked us to leave the bag of brand new clothes and toys we brought with us from the United States somewhere in the room, as well as a carefully wrapped gift for the orphanage director we brought with us all the way from home. I placed them on a small wooden chair next to me, not knowing what else to do with them.
We were left alone in the room only for a few minutes when our translator returned with a baby girl in her arms. The baby was dressed in a hat, a small green dress and socks. She handed the baby to me and promptly left us alone with her.
It was love at first sight. My heart melted when she placed Lyudmila in my arms. I knew she was mine. I knew she was Clint’s. I knew she was meant to be with our family. After I recovered from the physical outpouring of nearly overwhelming emotions in my body, not at all unlike the intense love a mother feels immediately after the experience of giving birth (happily without all the physical suffering and exhaustion), my first thought was how small she was, how little she weighed. I had held 5 other babies of my own in my lifetime. She did not feel like an 11 month old child. She was a feather. She was small and flimsy and thin and floppy, and the experience was far more like holding a 6 month old child.
She had numbers stitched into her dress and her socks. She was beautiful and amazing. She cocked her head back to help her affected eye see us a little bit better. She was sizing us up as we were admiring her. We hugged her, and she smiled.
Within 10 minutes, our translator returned. She asked, “Is she the right child for you? Do you want a different child?” I clung to the baby tighter and said, “Absolutely not, she’s ours, she’s mine. We’ve bonded, no one is taking her”. That settled, we were asked to name her on the spot. Annabelle Lyudmila it was. Though we Americanized her middle name to Ludmila.
Three more trips ensued, however, before we were able to bring our Annabelle Ludmila home to America. Ultimately, she would not come home until Thanksgiving Day, five months after that first meeting and our growing love that started the minute we laid eyes on her. Each trip home after each visit, I would cry nearly the entire 10 hour flight from Moscow to JFK. The flames burned deep in the ground in Russia all that summer, the smoky filled rooms in the buildings lingered, and the heat, the unbearable record setting heat with no air conditioning, never relented. The kind, but overworked “babushkas” that served in the orphanages who watched us sternly at each visit, the faces of all the dozens of other babies and toddlers in the orphanage, the international families that visited the orphanage, new teeth that we noticed in Annabelle at each new visit, so much ran through my mind that summer. Annabelle had suffered from a pesky MRSA infection, and this resulted in a surgical procedure to remove the infection. She bears those scars today.
Meanwhile, the politics were brewing and threats had begun to end the program for American families. In fact, one of our many requirements on one of our 4 trips was to visit a Russian mental health hospital and undergo an evaluation from a Russian psychiatrist with our translator. Among many other things, we were probed as to whether we would ever consider “sending Annabelle back to Russia on a plane and disrupting the adoption”, similar to the mother in Tennessee who had recently sent her school age son back to Russia after adopting him through another agency. This caused an international incident. We explained we had no relation to that mother, and of course we would never commit such an unthinkable act. We were also asked to produce a menu for the child, because “Americans are too inclined to feed their children corn dogs and we might make her fat.” They wanted to see vegetables and fruits and meats all laid out in a healthy weekly meal plan. We were sure to put broccoli on that list.
We worried that the politics might unduly extend our chances to bring her home in a timely manner, or at all. But we stuffed those thoughts well in the back of our minds always and pressed on and complied with everything that was asked. Sometimes, it was leaving a carefully purchased and wrapped gift in the chair of a courtroom or the back of a car for the driver, who we understood later served two roles–that of driver and that of assistant to the judge who reviewed our case. We were asked to bring plenty of new (never used) clothes, toys, all items still bearing tags on every visit to the orphanage based on clearly defined lists and the needs of the day.
After several court appearances and three trips, Clint flew back to Moscow alone for the last time to bring our sweet girl home. I stayed with our 4-year old who needed his mommy after so many previous trips and so much time away from him. We kissed daddy goodbye at the airport, and asked him to call us and Skype with us the minute he had Annabelle in his arms.
Clint sent us this picture above from his Moscow hotel room, just a few hours after she was officially handed over to him at the orphanage. Jake and I were consumed with joy, absolutely thrilled to see her. We both cried with happiness that daddy had her safe and in his care at last. Clint captured Annabelle in the picture above, just a few hours in a moment where he sort of propped her up for a second before she sat back down. She was 14 months old, she was so flimsy she could not yet walk on her own. Jake and I Skyped with her and Clint later that night, and Jake sang her to sleep with a sweet lullaby I usually sang to him.
Turns out she had also passed out earlier in the day, shortly after arriving at the hotel, exhausted from her first ever car ride from Konakovo, the only home she ever knew, and after the long drive to a Moscow hotel, where many more procedures, visits and paperwork awaited her and Clint for a few more days–a pediatrician visit to the hotel room clearing her to travel internationally, a trip to the passport office, and more. Just days prior, Clint noticed a large scab on her upper arm where she had received an old fashioned vaccine like we used to get in America. She still has that scar, and she will forever test positive for TB, because she was over vaccinated and must carry a special card. At the orphanage, they had also given her a fancy “bowl” haircut for her passport photo and for the trip.
A few days later, Jake and I received this picture when Clint and Annabelle landed safely in New York. Annabelle was now officially an American citizen.
On the flight home, Clint remarked that she had never been used to falling asleep in someone’s arms. She had only ever been put to bed, left to comfort herself and fall asleep with the noises of all the babies around her in (literally) adjoining cribs. He remarked that the first bath in the hotel room she shrieked so loudly, you thought someone murdered her dog. Her fear of water was beyond terror. Back at home we had to start with just pouring tiny amounts of water from a cup on her feet in the kitchen sink to get her used to water at all.
Today, Annabelle is a happy, well adjusted child. This Thanksgiving, we have so much to be thankful for. We are thankful for her birth mother who chose to give her life. We are thankful we were able to bring her home before the Russian government closed the door to American parents. We had friends who were not as fortunate; they never brought their children home.
In addition to the traditional American Thanksgiving meal on Thanksgiving, we will also celebrate Annabelle’s “gotcha day”. We will have traditional foods many Russian children grow up with, including Russian “blinis” (thin pancakes) for breakfast, cheese filled pirogies and cold apple soup with vanilla cookies for lunch. We also have a special treat prepared–cookies in the shape of Russian Matryoshka dolls. We think it is important to celebrate her rich Russian heritage by providing some typical dishes the children might experience in Russia.
Our Russian heritage cookbooks also help keep Annabelle’s Russian heritage alive by providing her with traditional Russian children’s dishes throughout the year and on the anniversary of her “gotcha day”.
We also have a few traditional Russian toys to give her we hope she will enjoy opening up tomorrow on gotcha day:
There is so much more of the story to tell, but this is a snapshot of her story. The rest she will be told within the family. In the meantime, she still is supposed to notify the Russian consulate should she move to another state, and until she is 21, must travel on a Russian passport should she ever travel back to Russia. Also at 21, she must choose a single citizenship-Russian or American. Until then, Annabelle has dual citizenship and remains a daughter of both countries.
As the Founder of Performance Academies representing 13 successful charter schools in Ohio and Michigan, we work with some these states’ academically neediest students. Our 10 Ohio schools educate 2600 students alone who are 89% low income, 87% minority, and 23% special education. Yet our students consistently demonstrate academic progress and achievement. Six of our Ohio schools received an A or B in value added growth on the new state report card. Our Toledo school was a top performer on the 3rd grade OAA in the Toledo area, and nearly all of our schools had few or no students retained in 3rd grade under the new Third Grade Reading Guarantee. Sixty-nine of our Columbus area middle school students were accepted into top performing high schools last year, including Cristo Rey, the Graham School, Metro High School, the Charles School, and the prestigious Columbus Academy. Significantly, our internal data shows that the longer students are enrolled in our schools, the higher their academic performance becomes.
In Michigan, we are seeing similar positive results. Three years ago the State of Michigan created a recovery school district, the Education Achievement Authority, which assumed control of the 15 lowest performing public schools in Michigan—all, not surprisingly, in Detroit. Performance Academies submitted and won a RFP to convert three of these campuses to charter schools. Proficiency rates at these campuses were at 0% in reading and math. Violence was high, attendance was low, and learning was nonexistent. Yet in two short years we have been moving these campuses out of failing status, pulling one out of priority status in the first year in the nation’s worst zip code for crime and violence, and all 3 are among the 3 highest performing K-8 campuses within the 15-school group.
While Performance Academies has its own unique story, Performance Academies is not unique in that, like many other Ohio and Michigan charter schools, the charters serve an urban and largely at-risk population of students.
One of the biggest and oldest canards about charter schools is that they “cream the best students.” I saw this statement repeated just last week in the Huffington Post. They said, “With few exceptions, charters cherry-pick their students, admitting only those students who do well on tests,” This was written by Frank Breslin, a retired New Jersey school teacher with a regular column there. The truth couldn’t be any more different.
Kids enroll in charter schools more often than not because they have had a bad experience elsewhere. They’ve been bullied, ignored, or unsuccessful for some other reason. Think about it . . . why would a family leave a school if they were happy with it and were successful behaviorally and academically? They wouldn’t. They don’t. It’s the bad experiences and the unhappiness that drive families to charters. In most cases, this unhappiness is reflected in low student performance data.
Yet at a charter school, these students thrive. They thrive because our charters offer a safe, secure learning environment where students get their needs met, where parents matter, where parents have real opportunities to be involved, where principals and teachers respond and communicate and listen to their concerns, where staff know their children, and most importantly, where student needs are put first, not the needs of the grown ups.
And so, who is responsible for turning around the academic lives of these students? Our teachers. They know this, and, like charters more broadly, charter school teachers are on the front lines of closing student achievement gaps—reaching out to these previously academically or behaviorally unsuccessful students and giving them a fresh start in learning. Given the strong connection between K-12 learning and future life expectations, it is not too much say that our teachers give these students, who’ve not been successful elsewhere, a fresh start at life.
In 2001, when the Ohio charter school movement was still in its infancy, the Ohio Federation of Teachers, along with 17 other education organizations covering teachers, principals, superintendents, elected school boards, treasurers, and custodians filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of our schools—threatening the very existence of the program. For three years, we battled this juggernaut all the way to the Ohio Supreme Court, ultimately vindicating the program. Charter schools were preserved as an important educational option for Ohio’s students and families, allowing kids to attend a quality, tuition free school where they were otherwise trapped in a failing school because of their zip code.
While the State of Ohio did its part in defending the Department of Education, Ohio’s charter schools themselves stepped up and did what was necessary to protect their interests. My husband, Clint, and I led the effort to rally our young movement in our own defense—both in the courts and in the public. Clint, then director of the Ohio Community School Center, coordinated the legal defense project and was its fiscal agent. I, then the Executive Director of the Education Resource Center in Dayton, helped rally the Southern Ohio area charter schools to the cause and helped fundraise. With long-time charter school attorney Amy Borman, Constellation Schools president Rick Lukich, and others, Clint and I directed the legal effort, brilliantly led by Jones Day partner and Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools (OAPCS) Chairman, Chad Readler.
Back in 2001, Ohio had 96 charter schools with barely 25,000 students enrolled. Yet we were able to raise $650,000 in project support from several charter operators. Constellation, White Hat, Horizon, Summit Academies and independent schools alike supported the effort. Together with other fundraising efforts, the project accumulated over $1 million dollars.
While much of this fund paid the costs related to the legal battle, some was used to support PR efforts that included:
Relevant research highlighting performance and funding issues
Brochures and pamphlets supporting the program
Radio spots and direct mail pieces
Grassroots support for then State Rep. Jon Husted’s charter improvement bill, HB 364
Coordination of legislative testimony, statehouse events, and public rallies
Ultimately, the case was won. HB 364 passed (barely). In Ohio, we still operate under the rules established by that landmark bill. And since then, for more than a decade, many of us have attended many more school choice and charter school rallies, legislative hearings, and more. Many have battled in newspapers and most have worked hard to keep staff, families, and the students we serve informed of the real truths about charter schooling. One might argue on some levels that the existential threats to our program have been kept at bay. But they have not. Those threats have not been kept at bay, not at all.
In fact, the opponents of charter schools have not given up. Today, charter opponents have been working harder than ever to cripple the program through other means—and they are succeeding. While we have, at best, been dabbling at a 1970’s PR campaign, our opponents have rolled out a 21st century campaign against charter schools, heavily funded, well organized, and with a strong purpose—to end charter schooling in Ohio.
Let’s review the current Ohio charter landscape:
First, charter school opponents have created a new and grossly misleading website devoted to highlighting charter schools’ supposed performance failures and supposed excessive funding. They are spending thousands to push this website tool into parents’ Facebook pages, to other social media connections and more. The inaccuracies on this site are deplorable. We checked our 10 Ohio schools on their site, and I can tell you nearly every one of our school’s data are grossly inaccurate. Charter schools must define themselves. We must tell our own story.
Second, legislative reforms are underway behind closed doors to “revamp” Ohio’s charter school law. Major “reforms” will indeed happen this spring. While we might all agree that the law could stand some improvement, and though we have a few friends on the working group, gone are the days of Sally Perz or Jon Husted. Gone are the days of having powerful charter school champions in the Statehouse, and many who used to be friends of choice and charters and are now more interested in reforming the program instead of supporting it. Charters, for better and worse, have been lumped into the accountability and reform movement while at the same time much of the intent and heart of parent initiated school choice is being threatened. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
Third, the press now in Ohio falls into two camps: 1) those openly hostile to charter schools who simultaneously release carefully orchestrated charter school propaganda on the same day and, 2) those who are eager to pounce on the latest self-proclaimed “scandal.” Media understanding of, and sympathy to, charter schools is at an all time low. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
Fourth, charter opponents are quietly working to have charter school operators, board members, teachers and principals declared “public officers,” subject to open records, audits, and ethics laws. A case dealing with this issue for charter school operators currently sits before the Ohio Supreme Court. Several efforts have been made to fix this issue legislatively, though without success. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
Fifth, Ohio’s new accountability system is creating new challenges for charter schools (and traditional public schools alike). No longer do reporters or legislators look at passage rates or index scores. Instead, they focus on the D’s and F’s in a single subgroup or another. This misleads the public and fuels inaccurate claims that the charter program is either failing or in need of reform. In our case, 6 of our schools received an A or a B in the value added category. No one published that story or frankly any other of our charter schools’ success stories. These report cards are emboldening enemies and turning supporters into reformers. With new tests on the horizon, I am fearful of what the media spin on those results will be. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
And lastly, after years of working to overcome the image, Ohio is once again viewed as the “Wild West” of the national charter school movement, in need of reform, in need of more closures, and in need of more oversight. Closing bad charter schools should happen, but it won’t stop the opponents, and it won’t make failing traditional public schools suddenly accountable for their academic disasters. Failing districts will sally forth with few or no consequences. Truly, every academically “lackluster” charter school could be closed tomorrow and the opponents will continuously and relentlessly pursue a soft underbelly and surely seek something new to attack. We must define ourselves. We must tell our story.
These examples highlight three important aspects of our current situation. First, these are all things that are happening to us right now. Second, the response from the charter school community in Ohio has been uncoordinated and inadequate. And third, if we do nothing things are going to get much, much, worse. This needs to change.
So here’s what Ohio charter schools need to preserve the program for tomorrow’s families:
1. We need an organized response to those who seek to stamp out the movement.
2. We need to give those supporters that we have real time data they can use in their efforts.
3. We need positive press releases, social media campaigns, meetings with editorial boards, and more. If the program is to have reform, we need as many seats at the table as possible.
4. We need research that provides true apples-to-apple comparisons between charter schools and demographically similar district schools.
5. We need to promote our successes while having a strong, consistent response to negative news stories—both real and fabricated.
The best way we can do that right now is to support the efforts of this organization under the leadership of its new CEO and President, Dr. Darlene Chambers. Many of you know, Clint and I began an initiative last year to create a viable PR campaign. Some of you attended initial meetings and shared your thoughts and helped us vet PR firms. But, the proper place for this really is with OAPCS. As such, with a new leader at the helm, OAPCS is taking immediate steps to address the public relations crisis in Ohio. I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to support this effort. I know that we each engage in our own advertising efforts as we recruit students. Those efforts, however, do not help us in the press, nor in the Statehouse, nor in the Governor’s Office.
Once again, we need to step up as a community to share our success stories, promote our data, and have a voice in our own destiny. We need to tell our story. If some of us continue to fly under the radar, if this is our PR strategy, if this is our plan, we will fail. Charters have nothing to gain by flying under the radar. As for me, I’m not afraid. It’s funny, once you’ve been knocked around a little bit, it’s quite empowering. I hope you’ll agree.