Bio of a Crawfish – Part I

A wise man once asked me (like a few hours ago) what is my story and why am I running for an elective position on BESE. To paraphrase his point, it’s one thing to criticize someone else (especially an easy target like Chas Roemer) but quite another to be worthy of support in your own right, on your own merits, and for reasons people will identify with.

Things have been moving swiftly since I announced and I have gotten a lot of volunteers, positive feedback and even some decent donations that will help me move my campaign forward, but what I have not done as well a job of doing is explaining who I am and what I stand for. (People who read my blog regularly should already have a decent idea based on my hudnreds of posts, but I did not write those in the context of seeking support for an elective office.)

Over the coming months I will do a better job of introducing myself to you as Jason France, the BESE candidate, not simply Crazy Crawfish, the satirical blogger and critic of the status quo of education reform. We have a long journey together, about 16 or 17 months, so I know there will be time for you to come to know me a little better, chat with me if you desire, and see me in action going forward and review what I’ve done in the past.

This is a long story, and very personal, but I think if you read this you will understand why I hold the education beliefs I do, who I am as a person, and why I think I can help improve public education for your family and mine.

For starters let me just say this is all completely new to me. For most of my life I sat around grumbling from the shadows about things are, and how I wished they were different. I come from a the stereotypical humble background all pols probably say they do although in my case it’s actually true.  My dad was a professional Boy Scout (they actually have those) and my mom was a homemaker and occasionally worked as a secretary and administrative assistant when she wasn’t keeping me and my brother out of trouble. I was actually born just outside a Boy Scout camp my dad was running in the state of New York (although I won’t say exactly where for online security question reasons) and the first 10 years of my life I lived in Levittown Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia.

My family moved to Baton Rouge when I was about 11, and boy was that a culture shock! We moved to Shenandoah just as it was being built in the early to mid-eighties. Back then empty roads stretched in every direction and I would ride my bike exploring the crazy misshapen mud piles (seeking my elusive namesake) and barely avoiding the giant snakes that would sometimes curl up in the middle of the road to bask in the midday sun. (And just for the record, snow forts are much better than fire ant mounds.)

In my early years in Pennsylvania I had trouble in school. I was held back in second grade, and my school evaluated me as needing special education services. I spent many hours in what I now know as “pull-out” classes with kids in wheelchairs, arm and leg braces, and with obvious mental incapacities. At the time I just thought my job was to help the kids hitting their heads against the wall and rocking back and forth with their socializing skills, and to make them feel better about themselves (the teachers that worked with me told me as much) not realizing I there for my own reasons.

By fourth grade I was still barely reading at a 1st grade level and could only do simple addition and subtraction. That was the year we moved from Bucks County Levittown to Westchester in Exton Pennsylvania and I met a teacher that literally changed my life forever. The public school was Mary C. Howes, and my teacher’s name was Mrs. Yoder. She was an older teacher than I had had till that point, with eyes that seemed to have a liquidy glow that shared warmth and energy with me and her other students, and she always seemed to be studying me closely. One of the first things she did when she saw my stupid, old, “See Spot Run” text books (they actually had them) my old school had sent with me was to throw them out and find me some books with colorful dragons, daring knights, and mysterious wizards and books about kids my age doing things I could relate to.

When Mrs. Yoder talked to me, (secretly we all caller her Mrs. Yoda – Star Wars was popular and she was a tad on the short side) I could tell she was obviously very disappointed, but not at me. She told me what had happened to me was ridiculous and that she would not allow a remedial student in her class to simply be passed along.

We were going to fix this together.

Every day, for months, she worked with me on her lunch hours to help me with my reading and to improve my math skills. In her class, math became fun with competitive math games the class would play. The more math you knew, the faster you knew it, the longer you could play and the more applause you would get when you finally succumbed to an opponent. I finally learned my multiplication tables (a little bit). By then end of fourth grade I had read every Hardy Boys novel in the school library, had acquired some of my own for my personal collection, and voraciously read everything Hardy Boys novel I could get my hands on (there are well over 100). I might as well have been fixing up my own jalopy, fighting bad guys like a wildcat, and have been friends with Chet in my own right, and for quite a while I wanted to be a “sleuth”.

Years later I would learn that the notes teachers passed on from year to year, the grades and performance passed down from year to year at my first school probably set me up for what could have been a lifetime of failure based on data and reports, not my actual abilities or unique challenges that that someone interacting with me on a human level would be able to recognize, tap into and inspire. Because of what teachers read about me, they pegged as an underachiever and they treated me as such. I recall at the beginning of each year my teachers would invariably pull me aside and tell me how they would give me “special” work assignments.

When I finally got to start over with a new teacher and a new school I flourished. This is one of the many reasons I believe using metrics, longitudinal data and predicative formulae is so very wrong for children and wrong for education. A good, involved and experienced teacher can never be replaced by an algorithm, database or report.

I’ve witnessed the overreliance and misapplication of data over experience first- hand as a public student and secondly as a Louisiana Department of Education employee in the Planning Analysis and Reporting division, and finally as a public school parent and education blogger. I also realized that class size and personal attention was very important. I had transferred from a poor school to a relatively much wealthier district with what I believe were much smaller class sizes and more resources. In my previous elementary school there were always about 5 Jason’s in my classes. At Mary C Howes there was just 2; me and the other Jason. Smaller Class sizes, experienced teachers, and resources do matter. I am living proof.

We moved to Louisiana towards then end of my 5th grade year and I attended Magnolia Woods Magnet school.  By this time I was able to keep up and even do better than most of the class. I loved that school and loved learning. However because we moved so late in the year and didn’t know how schools worked in Baton Rouge, we didn’t know the difference between Magnet schools and non-magnet schools although we were hearing things. . .

My mom took me to get evaluated for Gifted and Talented programs (which seemed ridiculous to me since I was called a “retard” most of the earlier elementary years.) and I did pretty well, but fell a few points shy of being “Gifted.” Therefore I could not get into the GT program at McKinley Middle Magnet (which at the time was considered the best public middle school in EBR) and instead went to South East middle school. My 6th grade year I got straight A’s and I could not have been more proud. I don’t think I ever smiled more in my life!

Instead of being called a “retard” I was being called a brain or a “nerd.”

By the end of 5th grade I was already reading on the 11th or 12th grade level reading books like The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy. The difference was not the quality of schools but my actual quantum leap from See Spot Run at the beginning of 4th grade to The Hobbit at the end of 5th. (I kept a dictionary by my bed and read every single night for hours once I learned how awesome books were.) Education needs to be fun and tailored to each child’s interests and fictional writing is a powerful way to engage and inspire children and adults. When you really connect with children and inspire them to enjoy learning and to learn on their own miracles can happen.
I do not believe the Common Core emphasis more non-fictional texts will create anything more than yawns and apathy.

In 7th grade I learned what is was like to be bullied for doing too well. I had no idea this happened! I was used to kids throwing stones at me for being the class “retard” but I thought the bright kids had it so easy. I loved school and I was so happy at the beginning of 7th grade. . .until kids started kicking me and tripping me in the halls, stealing my books, spitting on me, pulling my gym shorts down, and playing punching games in the locker room. Kids that I thought were my friends started doing this too, because they learned if they bullied others, they were less likely to get bullied themselves. My teachers were the only people that protected me, when they could. If the lights went out in class (as they did a few times) kids would take that opportunity to run across the room and box my ears, throw pencils at me, or kick me while I was sitting in my chair. This taught me to play dumb, my grades dropped and I started bragging about my C’s and D’s because that was more acceptable to my classmates and they would pick on other kids then. Sometimes I would pile on other kids myself, throwing an insult I didn’t mean but had heard used at me before to save myself from becoming the focus.

Toward the end of 7th grade my parents filed for bankruptcy, got divorced and we lost our house, our mini-van and most of our possessions. It was the mid-eighties in Louisiana, the economy was legendarily bad, and my dad’s company went under. I was used to being dirt poor so it didn’t bother me too much at first, until the bullying started anew for being poor. In the eighties at South East middle if you didn’t have the newest shoes, the fanciest shoelaces, the best jeans rolled up, and more polo shirts than days of the week you were routinely singled out and targeted for being poor.

I had overcome being bullied for being a “retard”, finally mastered being dumb, and now I had to deal with distraught parents and daily harassment for being poor, and for actually being poor. We never went on food stamps or applied for free lunches, but we more than qualified since my dad wasn’t working at first and my mom was working part time as a secretary.

I know this time had to suck for her, she was always crying, but she always scrounged up enough nickels and pennies for us to get hot school lunches and I loved her for trying so hard to provide the bare necessities. I knew I had to do better in school to make her proud, but I didn’t want to get bullied, so I would study and not turn in all my work so I would get lower grades. I didn’t really tell her about my days at school or the extent of the bullying because I didn’t want her to cry. My teachers listened to me though, but there were limits to what they could do.

One day my mom did have to take me to the hospital for a head injury I had sustained. I was waiting patiently to hit a volleyball back over the net during PE when a kid who usually harassed me every day on the bus jumped me from behind and threw me to the concrete for refusing to answer his taunts about being a “fag” or a “homo.” (Those were very popular taunts in the eighties even though homosexuals were not something popular culture had a lot of exposure to. It was still the ultimate insult you could hit someone with, but I refused to bite and that had to have pissed him off. He rammed my head against the ground and gave me a mild concussion and a giant knot on the side of my head.) That bully got a few days of suspension and the principal made him apologize to me when he returned to school, but eventually he harassed me again, because i was still poor or too nerdy for his liking. I learned from other kids that he came from an abusive home and his father beat him regularly, then I started noticing the bruises, broken arms, busted lips and I forgave him – and even let him get a rise out of me occasionally so he would feel better. School uniforms are a great idea for leveling the playing field related to poverty, and I just wish they had those universally ugly things in my day. I’ve since learned that a lot of times bullies act out for a reason and that this can be learned behavior.

As you might imagine my grades suffered some more, this time for real. I was getting depressed, disengaging, and contemplating suicide occasionally – or least not wanting to be alive because every day was just so miserable. Education reformers believe student test scores and student performance should be tied to teachers as if teachers are the chief factor in a child’s life that determines their success, and should be punished when children fail to succeed.  They are a very significant part of the school experience, but not the most determinant factor in a child’s life by far.

I speak from experience, there was very little my teachers could have done to prevent my decline or to improve my performance and they were not responsible for my decline. However VAM or the Value Added Modeling many states, including Louisiana, use determines which teachers get fired or compensated based on what kids performances were for a given year. My meteoric rise in performance really happened after the year Mrs. Yoder put me on the right track and taught me the most valuable and untestable lessons I ever learned, to believe in myself and to enjoy learning for its own sake. The teachers that had me during the bullying, divorce, family bankruptcy and poverty had no responsibility for that, but the VAM tests we use now in Louisiana and plan to use in the future would have punished them for my parent’s divorce, for my depression. VAM is crap and I will never support it to evaluate teachers. Never.
Without my teachers I would have had no one, and I might have actually died.

The least I can do is protect our teachers and children like me with a part of my life.

I have more story and reasons to share but I don’t want to bore you too much on what may be our first introduction.

 

I feel it’s important you understand who you are entrusting your kids to. Do you feel like you understand your current BESE members this well?

I am not running for office to make money (it’s a part time position with no salary.) I am not running because it will look good on my resume, or because billionaires and testing companies put me up to it or because I can secure cushy contracts for my organization. I am not running because I come from politically connected Louisiana family. I am running for office because I believe I am the best candidate to understand the issues our children are going through. If you can honestly think of a more qualified or caring candidate than me, I urge you to vote for them. I understand the what its like to be a public school student in Louisiana and the challenges our students face more than just about anyone I know.  I believe those experiences will help me define, address and solve our problems in a way Ivy League education reformers could never even begin to comprehend.  If you want to learn more about how to support me, please go here:

www.jasonfrance4la.com

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Jason France