Katie Noonan, a science teacher at Oakland High School, puts national education politics into a local context.
I heard about President Obama’s Educate to Innovate science initiative yesterday while driving 13 tired students back from a four-day intensive workshop in geospatial technology in Sacramento.
My students gave up four days of their Thanksgiving vacation, slept on the floor in classrooms, ate cheap food we cooked ourselves, and put in 15-hour days in the field and computer lab to develop real science technology skills. They collected GPS waypoints and created a computerized map of River City High School. They produced seasonal climate maps of U.S. cities from data they collected on the Internet — original products that took up to eight hours to complete.
They did not receive payment for their effort. In fact, except for the teachers involved, who also donated their time, few people will even know about the trip. They will not be formally recognized.
Geographic Information Systems are used in all of the scientific fields that President Obama described as needing innovators. I sure hope some of the president’s promised support reaches my students in Oakland High School, a public school in inner-city Oakland, Calif.
I went online to compare Oakland High with the high schools honored in President Obama’s presentation: Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia, Herndon High School in Herndon, Virginia and Washington Mathematics Science and Technology Public Charter High School in Washington, D.C.
I found stark contrasts in English learner percentages, median family incomes, class sizes and funding per pupil. Oakland High has 20 percent English language learners, compared to 8 percent or less in the other schools. We have 70 percent needing reduced or free lunch to their 25 percent or less, and a median family income of $40,000 to their $85,000 and up.
Unlike the Washington D.C. charter school, we cannot select or dismiss our students for disciplinary and academic reasons. We average 22 students per teacher, compared to 11 students per teacher there! Both Virginia high schools report over $13,000 spent per pupil, compared to Oakland’s $9,300.
For the past three years, our school district’s school-to-career summer internship program has been cut. There are no funds for next summer. My students are eager to explore science careers, and local scientists are willing to mentor young people interested in science, but we have been consistently and systematically denied administrative and community support.
I can’t help but wonder how my students will fare in the “Race to the Top”, and why they might be considered less deserving than the Oakton robotics team or the WSMT Charter School students. To me, they are the tops. President Obama, Arne Duncan and Steven Chu will have to “show me the money” before I hail their science education initiative as a program for all and not another bail-out for the elite.