Friday, October 26, 2012

Memoirs of a Teacher

By Tanaya Gable
A recount of my experience as a visiting teacher at a Charter school in Philadelphia during the 2011-2012 school year.

In the few months I have worked as a teacher, my outlook on the operation and foundation of what Charter Schools are has changed completely. Before, I believed Charter schools to be a saving grace from the public school system; brought about by people hoping to revolutionize education and the school system. Growing up in Maryland, a state that is a lot less charter friendly than the city of Philadelphia, I based my ideas about Charter schools on second hand information. Having lots of family from the District of Columbia and hearing how many parents had opted to send their kids to a Charter school to escape the frustrating antics of what the public school system had to offer can be attributed to much of what I believed. Now, just two months after working as an English teacher in a public Charter school in Southwest Philadelphia, a lot of what I once believed has changed.

I must say that in this city, Charter schools are very much a business. In my experience, the agenda is less about revolutionizing the school system and more about protecting reputation as a means to gain funding. In February, I was brought in as a visiting teacher at a reformed public school (whose name I will not disclose), now finishing up its first year as a Charter. I was assigned to teach a senior seminar class; a life skills class designed to prepare seniors for life after high school. In my mind, I imagined teaching this class would be a breeze. I quickly began designing lesson plans, creating surveys and working towards building a solid relationship with my students in order to help them as much as I could.

I quickly realized that my perceptions on what the ideal classroom setting would be were completely incorrect. For the most part, none of the students were where they needed to be academically. From reading skills to writing skills to critical thinking skills – even note taking skills – these students had been deprived of their educational rights. Getting them to understand some of the most very basic skills of the classroom setting in general was a battle. This was only the beginning. I had so much in mind for what I wanted to explore with them. From college applications to resume writing and interviewing skills – all of which were areas I had been psyched to learn about is high school – were of no concern to these students. It was clear that many of the students had been pushed through the school system for 12 years and at the end of their last year in high school, they were unconcerned with being challenged in any way. Many of the students were disrespectful, disruptive and resisted being helped whenever possible. The dynamic was very different than what school was like when I was in 12th grade. Because of this, I struggled with figuring out how I could teach people who didn’t want to be taught.

Apart from finding solutions to helping my students, I was forced to face the harsh realities of the intentions of the administration and the school itself. After having several conversations with different staff members, I quickly learned that the seniors were not on the top of this list when it came to priorities of the school. During PSSA testing, the standardized assessment given to students in public school in Pennsylvania, the truth came out. The 11th graders, being the grade level that tested, were the clear focus. Since the AYP is measured by the reading and math scores of those students who are tested, the seniors – being at the end of their last year and on their way out the door – were of no contribution to the overall progress of the school and the funding it would receive. This fact was no secret.

It became even more evident when I heard stories of the teachers that preceded me. The class I was now teaching had been through a laundry list of teachers throughout the school year, leaving the students with little to no guidance and no structure. When I was brought into the picture, I received no grade book, no roster, and no measure of progress of any of the students in the class. There was no one shadowing me to keep track of the student’s work or progress or grades. When I would ask questions or inquire about how students would be graded, I received cookie cutter answers and often times got no information at all. Because of this rocky road, it was a challenge even getting the students to trust that I would even be around long enough for them to care.

The biggest struggle of my position came with the senior projects. As with any group of graduating seniors, these students were to complete a final research paper on a topic of their choice, which would count as a graduation requirement. I saw requirements for the papers change on every level, from paper length, structure and style to even the due date. The school granted an extra month for students to complete projects on top of the 6 months of preparation they had already been granted. Because the paper counted as a graduation requirement, it made sense that the school would change many of the requirements to keep the numbers of failing seniors from skyrocketing. Large numbers of non graduates would be a bad look for the reputation of the Charter Company. Because this was the first reform year for the school, it was important for everything to look peachy. Teachers in the school informed me that we were basically lying to the students by telling them that not completing the paper would result in non graduation. How could they even think of failing so many students who, for the most part, hadn’t had a steady teacher for more than three months at a time (less than that in some cases)?

There was no accountability on the student’s part at all. During common planning periods, I would hear tales from other teachers about the school’s failure to step in and take the proper disciplinary action. Students could do next to nothing and not be penalized in any real way. These were teachers who had been working in the school for a great deal longer than I had.

In addition to this, I battled with accountability of students versus the social and cultural realities that many of them were facing. The neighborhood in which this particular school is located is not the best. Students who come from communities like this one – rich in crime, violence, drug activity and poverty in general – are mere products of their environment. Many of the homes that these students come from are dysfunctional. There is little to no guidance, no positive role model, and no reinforcement for progression or success. How can one expect children coming from environments plagued by so much negativity to thrive in a classroom; especially considering the racial structure of many school systems that group kids towards failure. The problem stretches farther than this one school.

The reality of the situation is that every day, people of color in this country are being robbed of their constitutional rights. By not being afforded the best possible education and educators, they have been stripped of any hope to succeed. When you encounter high school seniors – some 19 and 20 – who have no idea how to send emails, could care less about obtaining jobs or attending college, or students who can’t even write papers, you find a generation that is academically handicapped.

Although I am no longer working as a teacher at this school, my time there provided much insight for the work I hope to do in the future. Because so much of what I plan to do focuses on connecting community and literacy, I think that it was almost destiny to be granted this particular experience. Although the journey was challenging, it was rewarding as well. I learned to be less judgmental in interpreting the attitudes of young people (in this city especially) and was challenged to tackle personal goals like patience, will power, determination and leadership.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Amazing Prince George's County Parents!

In Reach, Inc., Celebrates
Prince George’s County, Maryland Amazing Parents

On April 27, 2012, In Reach, Inc., held its first Annual Celebrating Amazing Prince George’s County Parents Awards Program, an event honoring the outstanding work of parents with children currently enrolled in a Prince George’s County Public School.

 “While most of our work centers on students, I wanted to do something that recognized the least celebrated group of people – the parents. Our parents are, and could, undoubtedly, use more support and encouragement.  And that is what this event was meant to do – show appreciation for all that our parents do,” said executive director Ms. Toni Smith.

Congratulations again to our three final Amazing Parent Award recipients:

Ms. Jaminah Wortham, recipient of the Ingrid M. Turner Amazing Parent Award for demonstrating a strong sense of community as a volunteer, coach and mentor.

Ms. Kristan Hayes, recipient of the Parks and Recreation Amazing Parent Award for being an awesome and dedicated bridge builder in the lives of children.

Mr. Abiodun Babayemi, recipient of the In Reach, Inc. Amazing Parent Award for being a selfless individual, active volunteer in the school and community, and an awesome husband and father.

A special thank you to Council Member Ingrid M. Turner (District 4), an active and dedicated advocate for children and families; the Prince George’s Department of Parks and Recreation, our guest speaker Mr. Jaracus Copes, president and CEO of New Destiny LLC, who delivered an inspirational message on “success parenting,” In Reach Board of Directors and our sponsors for making our Awards program a successful and memorable event, we could not have done this without your support. 

In Reach would also like to thank all the 2012 nominees: Mr. Abiodun Babayemi, Mrs. Angela Crocker Brown, Ms. Wendy Graham, Ms. Kristan Hayes, Ms. Akilah Jefferson, Mrs. Valencia Brooks-Jones, Mrs. Cynthia Proctor, Ms. Rajistrue Ramsammy, Mr. William E. Rogers Jr., Ms. D'Vorolyn M. Talley, Ms. Ruth Tazanu, Mr. Ronald A. Williams, and Ms. Jaminah Wortham.

In Reach is looking forward to holding this signature event next year and is putting finishing touches on its Parent Project which focuses on engaging parents in activities that increase their knowledge about post-secondary education and the many opportunities available to their children.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

About the Maryland State Assessments (MSA)

Compiled by Tanaya Gable

Maryland State Asessement (MSA) Reading and Mathematics Test  Administration
Grades 3 – 8 in Reading and Mathematics:  March 12-21, 2012; 
(Make-up Testing) March 22-28, 2012 

The early years of a child’s education are very crucial. These years of education are geared towards building a solid ground of educational understanding. As children advance to middle school they are then prepared for the more rigorous work ahead in high school. If you are a parent or educator, the term MSA (Maryland School Assessment) is probably not foreign to you. Every student will take Maryland School Assessments (MSAs) as part of the elementary and middle school experience. These statewide assessments are one of the many measures to gage how well a child is learning. The MSAs, paired with other measures (like homework, class work, quizzes, and projects), provide parents and educators with information about students’ academic progress so that every student has the adequate support and opportunity to succeed.

Aspects of the Test:
  • Multiple-choice questions and questions requiring written responses.
  • Measures basic as well as higher level skills
  • Students test for approximately 90 minutes each day. There are four days of testing––two days for reading and two days for math.
  • The testing vendor send scores for individual students to local school systems. The school systems then distribute the scores to parents
The MSA scores show how well students learned the reading and mathematics skills in the State Curriculum. (A "norm-referenced" score is also provided to show how students performed compared to other students across the nation.)


The reading section takes place over two days with 90 minute sections per day. Each testing session withing is broken into smaller time blocks. Tests for all grades evaluate general, informational, and literary reading processes.

The Reading section of the MSA has 2 types of questions:
  • Selected Response Items (SR) -- offers students (usually) four answer choices
  • Brief Constructed Response Items (BCR) -- requires students to write answers consisting of a sentences or paragraphs


As with the reading test, the math test takes place over two days. Testing takes approximately 90 minutes each day; each testing session being broken into smaller time blocks.

And as with the reading test, the math sections have various kinds of questions. In addition to the Selected Response Items and the Brief Constructed Response Items that all students receive, the math section poses additional forms of questions to students depending on the grade level being tested. Students in grades 5 through 8 also get Extended Constructed Response Items (ECR) that require students to write a longer, more complete answer. 7th and 8th graders will have Student-Produced Responses (SPR) which require them to record all answers on a grid by shading in the circles that correspond to the numbers of their answers.

The state provides calculators for students, though some sections allow the use of calculators and others do not. The state also provides scrap paper, graph paper and a dual scale ruler (or two separate rulers) for all grades 3 through 8, a protractor for grades 5 through 8, and a compass for grades 7 and 8.


The federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires that every state measure reading, math, and science achievement at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Maryland fulfills NCLB by reporting MSA and HSA scores to the U.S. Department of Education. For more information about NCLB, go to  

Statewide tests are useful for:
  • guiding school-wide curriculum development efforts
  • creating or modifying classroom lesson plans
  • understanding a child’s academic progress
  • developing individualized strategies for that child
  • providing information on where a child may need extra support.


How will I know how my child did on an assessment?  All parents receive a Home Report with their child’s scores. Contact your child’s school or the Local Accountability Coordinator for the local school system to find out when your child's Home Report will be sent. For a list of local school system websites, go to
Where can I find out how my child’s school is doing on statewide assessments? Information about the progress of particular schools, counties, and the state are doing is printed in an annual “report card” (the Maryland School Performance Report). This online report provides an Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) chart for each school that demonstrates whether or not a school made all of its performance goals. To find your child’s school information, go to  and use the navigation bar at the top.

Note: Parents are sent a Home Report with their child’s MSA scores from the local school system. Reading and math scores are made available over the summer. Science scores are available the following September. For more information about the MSAs go to or  


The Take 15 for the Family and Take 15 for the Health of It initiatives are just one way MSDE helps families become more engaged in education. Daily tips and ideas of activities to do at home, as well as tips on how to talk to your child about a variety of health-related topics can be found online at Check out for other helpful sources and updates.

Ready at Five, in partnership with MSDE, has an online series called Parent Tips that has information about how parents can help build a child’s skills and abilities, which can be found at  Maryland’s Early Childhood Curriculum Project provides information and resources to child care and other nonpublic early childhood programs for disabilities, birth through 6 years old. For information about materials and how you can be assured that your child is learning
the skills needed to start kindergarten on the right foot, go to

The Maryland Model for School Readiness (MMSR) includes a kindergarten-level assessment, which teachers complete for each student, as well as a set of indicators of what children should know and be able to do. The information collected allows teachers to plan instruction that will help develop the skills, behaviors, and abilities necessary to meet kindergarten expectations and move on to the first grade. For more information about the MMSR, go to

For more information about MSDE’s various programs, go to  
For information about specific programs and initiatives in place locally, contact your local school system or your child’s school. A list of local school system websites can be found at  
Additional information about parent involvement can be found at  or


Friday, February 24, 2012

Generational Illiteracy Part II | Poverty and Illiteracy: Old Friends

“The new data on illiteracy rates is a cry out for help to our school systems, policymakers, funders, and community members. Nothing short of a very strong investment in literacy through funding, diverse community partnerships, grassroots efforts, additional recruitment of qualified faculty, volunteerism, and allocation of other resources will help turn these numbers around in Prince George’s County." 
-Tony Johnson, Executive Director of the Literacy Council of Prince George’s County, Maryland

By Tanaya Gable

What You Probably Didn't Know

More than one-third of American children enter kindergarten without the basic language skills they will need to learn to read. Those critical early literacy skills include recognizing the letters of the alphabet, understanding that books move from left to right, and being able to understand and tell stories. Despite the billions of dollars Americans have invested in remedial reading programs, those millions of children who enter school unprepared are highly likely to never catch up. In fact, 88% of first graders who are below grade level in reading will continue to read below grade level in fourth grade (Juel, 1988). In addition, reading difficulty contributes to school failure, which increases the risk of absenteeism, drop outs, juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy - all of which perpetuate the cycles of poverty and dependency.

So What's the Connection?

There is a correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Statistics show that on both a national and global level, nations with the lowest literacy levels are also the poorest. Poverty leaves many households struggling to stay afloat. In worst case scenarios, children of those struggling households are forced to drop out of school to work and help support the family. This, unfortunately, keeps many illiterate people stuck at the lowest levels of the work force and thus they remain in poverty. Through this cycle, illiteracy reinforces poverty, and poverty is cyclical in families.

Growing Statistics in the County and State

According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, the basic literacy rate in Prince George’s County, MD for adults (parents) jumped from 12 percent to 22 percent between the early 1990s and  early 2000s making Prince George's County home to the largest number of adults in the state and the metropolitan area who are unable to perform simple and everyday literacy activities. The January 2009 report puts the below basic literacy rates for Washington, D.C., Arlington County, VA, Baltimore City, MD and Montgomery County, MD at 19, 17, 16, and 11 percent respectively.

A study conducted at the end of 2011 by the Census Bureau confirmed that Maryland hit a poverty rate of 10.8 percent, the highest in nearly two decades. While these statistics are well below the national rate of about 15 percent, the state’s poverty rate increased 12.5 percent from 2009 to 2010 and continued to rise in 2011. In December 2010, Maryland was named the wealthiest state by the Census Bureau. However, research shows that pockets of suburban wealth help to conceal the rural and urban poverty that really exist in the state thus putting a blinder on the reality of state-wide poverty. A regional study from early 2011 showed more than 7 percent of Prince George’s County residents were living in poverty, the most of any Washington-area suburb.

A combination of a rapidly growing foreign-born population in Prince George’s County, decreasing graduation rates for African American and Latino students in county schools, and insufficient educational resources likely contributed to these growing rates.

County Poverty by Race

What is also interesting is the growing percentages of poverty among individual races. Take Hispanics for example, who make up a dynamic portion of the county and state population. For the first time since these statistics have been gathered, there are more Hispanic children in America living in poverty than white children. In the DC area, about 130,000 young people live in poverty, with blacks accounting for half of those numbers and Hispanics about a quarter, but moving up quickly. That number amounts to nearly 40,000 young people in the DC region. Thirty percent of poor children in Prince George's County are Latino, about the same number as in Montgomery County, MD, Fairfax, VA and Prince William, VA. Statistics are even worse in Arlington County, VA, where 40 percent of poor kids are Hispanic.

Prince George’s County Council member and Chair, Andrea Harrison (District 5) of Springdale has said that the county is very much aware of the statistics of poverty within the region. In her opinion, county reps should be stressing that more be done to equip non-profits that provide social services. In an economy that has shifted greatly from manufacturing to service, businesses cannot find the secretaries, clerks, bank tellers, and other entry-level employees they need because too many applicants cannot read, write or add well enough.

Poverty is, in most cases, generational as well. Adults who felt forced to drop out of school are less likely to reinforce the value of an education in their own children, who probably face the same economic and educational hardships as they did. As a result, these individuals may not value the importance of academia, scholarship and literacy, and are often less likely to flourish. Children whose parents consistently set high standards work harder and do better in school.  

Current education and literacy programs in Prince George's County – like Prince George’s Community College and community-based organizations like Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church of Suitland, United Communities Against Poverty of Capitol Heights, and Glenarden Apartments – only scratch the surface of the problem.

Before any change can come, we have to have a collective understanding of how damaging illiteracy can and has been for people all over the world, even those who are not illiterate themselves. The problem affects everyone. Becoming literate is not a direct path from illiterate to semi-literate to literate, but a messy process of acquiring skills without formal and consecutive learning. However, with the efforts of parents, educators, community organizers and even someone like you, who is simply reading this blog, illiteracy can be overcome.

Coming in March, Part III and the final installment of the Generational Illiteracy series.  

Helpful Websites:
ProLiteracy Worldwide
Eldis Literacy,
World Education
First Book
International Reading Association (IRA)
Joining Forces
National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)
National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL)
Raising Readers
Reading Is Fundamental (RIF)


Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Generational Illiteracy: Part I

Understanding the Problem: the Truth behind the Secret

By Tanaya Gable

If you would have approached me with the topic of generational illiteracy back when I was in high school, I probably would have had a harder time understanding it. For as long as I can remember, literacy has been a focal point in my life. I recognized my desire to be a writer as early as 5th grade, and understood quickly, the importance of academics, vocabulary and literacy, as a whole. It wasn’t until I went away to college and began to take interest in new things that I really started to understand the harsh reality of illiteracy. If you are reading this blog there’s a good chance that you’re no stranger to literacy. You probably read every day, both for work and enjoyment. You, more than likely, retain new information from a host of sources, regularly, and understand the importance of words and how they enrich our world.

That probably makes it harder to imagine the large numbers of children and adults who are only semi-literate, drowning in a world they can't process the way you and I can. The first summer after I received my B.S. in Journalism and English Liberal Arts, I spent several months teaching a Journalism course at a nonprofit in Philadelphia. My class was a small group of about 15 high school students, ranging from freshmen to seniors.  In order to assess their skill levels and writing potential, I assigned a short essay asking each student what they hoped to gain from the Journalism program. That night, as I was going over the students’ work, I could hardly believe it. About half of the students, if not more, were writing on elementary school levels. In time, I found that many of the students had little to no understanding of some of the very novice rules of language arts, reading and writing. This was only the beginning. Soon after, I was faced with meeting the parents of many of the students, (those who I could persuade to meet with me) and I found that many of them were dealing with same literacy struggles.

In 2002, before the Subcommittee on Education Reform Committee on Education and the Workforce, United States House of Representatives, actor James Earl Jones testified:

"92 million Americans have low or very low literacy skills - they cannot read above the 6th grade level. To be illiterate in America - or anywhere for that matter - is to be unsafe, uncomfortable and unprotected. For the illiterate, despair and defeat serve as daily fare. Can any of us who do know how to read really understand the sadness that is associated with the inability to read? Can we truly relate to the silent humiliation, the quiet desperation that can't be expressed, the hundreds of ways that those who cannot read struggle in shame to keep their secret? The struggle out of illiteracy ... is still a part of the story of America."

Today, our nation faces an epidemic that is destructive to our overall progression and our future. Functional illiteracy has become a disease. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it has overtaken one-third of America's children as early as the fourth grade. This percentage includes two-thirds of African-American students and almost half of all children living in the inner cities. Beyond the basic definitions, there is significance in the shocking statistics about the functionally illiterate.

Think about all of our day-to-day tasks that require a level of literacy. Things like reading the directions on a medicine bottle, reading a bill, finding and keeping a job, or reading to a child. Things that are very routine to you or I can be a struggle for someone with weak literacy skills.

For a long time, many educators, politicians and even parents viewed illiteracy as social and educational issue - someone else's problem. However, more recently we have come to understand the economic consequences of the lack of literacy skills for America, Americans and American business.

Illiteracy has a significant impact on the economy as well. 15 million adults holding jobs today are functionally illiterate. The American Council of Life Insurance reports that three quarters of the Fortune 500 companies provide some level of remedial training for their workers. Yes, Fortune 500 companies! And, a study done by the Northeast Midwest Institute and The Center for Regional Policy found that business losses attributed to basic skill deficiencies run into the hundreds of millions of dollars because of low productivity, errors and accidents.

In the late 1980s, one-half of all adults in federal and state correctional institutions could not read or write at all. About one-third of those in prison today have completed high school. Evidence indicates that the problem begins at home. Illiteracy is an inter-generational problem, arising from a parent-child pattern. Poor academic achievement and high school dropout rates are far too common among children of illiterate parents.

The adult non-reader may have left school early, had a physical or emotional disability, had incompetent teachers or simply may have been unready to learn at the time reading instruction began. Because they are unable to help their children learn, parents who can't read often perpetuate the inter-generational cycle of illiteracy. Without books, newspapers or magazines in the home and a parent who reads to serve as a role model, many children grow up with severe literacy deficiencies. There is no single cause of illiteracy.

Consider some of the major issues in our communities and our nation; family dysfunction, drugs, AIDS, homelessness, poverty – all of which could be better if more people could read, write and understand.

Now is the time to start devising a plan that can help illiteracy become a part of our past, not our present.

Stay posted for Generational Illiteracy: Part II - Attacking Poverty through Literacy.

National Center for Educational Statistics
Education and the Workforce Committee