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A Special View of Politics in Education

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A view of the front Rotolo Middle School brick sign from within the walls of the middle school on a dreary day in April.

  Upon walking through the grey metal doors of Rotolo Middle School, you are immediately met with a sense of warmth and acceptance. You see the calm, focused faces of a few students going about their daily routines, school spirit plastering the walls, and the secure smiles of the staff at the front desk. It seems every hall has at least one picture of a yellow bulldog meanly grinning, awaiting rivals such as Geneva and St. Charles to dare challenge Batavia schools that they could do better. The smell of gym class and science experiments waft through the empty halls and everything is still for a few moments before the stampede ensues. Finally, the suspense ends as the dull electronic bells go off and the halls are immediately filled with eager teens and preteens excitedly fast walking in order to get to their lockers in time to get the best seats on the school bus or catch an amusing afternoon tv show in the comforts of home. Clutching their Chromebooks and backpacks, some act relaxed in the midst, immune to the chaos.

Standing strong and determined is a statue of Batavia Public School’s mascot the bulldog by the main entrance of Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois.

Among them are the solemn and dominant yet caring and protective adult figures ensuring the young behavior remains tame. Teachers, hall monitors and other adults are watching carefully, making sure no false moves are made. They look dignified, distinguished and respected, it’s as if keeping the middle school peace is their soul purpose in life. One thing Rotolo can pride itself in is having its staff care immensely about the students at hand. Of course, that’s what it’s all about. The kids should be the number one thing on all people’s minds especially in the wake of all the recent and not so recent political happenings.

From controversy about the experience level of new policy makers to guns in schools, American education has been hit with many difficult topics. It’s hard working at a middle school if you wake up everyday and read hundreds of headlines about deadly school shootings. Or if the only opinion pieces you can find are those that accuse all of our leaders of not caring or protecting the country’s education, how insensitive it is to put someone in office who is not qualified. A couple examples of these current issues are the constant controversy over our 11th U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and how she has handled her position; the Parkland high school shooting in Florida on Valentine’s day this year which was marked the deadliest school shooting in American history and sparked a movement for gun control as a reaction from the victim’s immediate response; the recent teacher walkouts in various states in the country as a result of poor funding and school conditions.  All of these things and more are creating tension, but from first look Rotolo doesn’t seem to be letting that negative energy in.

Part of an art installation showing school spirit in the front entrance of Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois.

“Those things at the federal level are so far from us and any policy changes that they’ve made, Betsy DeVos, or anything she’s done, I really don’t feel any impact here. I think part of that is because we’re not in a school that is struggling to embrace differences the way maybe other school districts do.” says 7th grade ELA (English and Language Arts) teacher Rebecca Cain. Cain started teaching 26 years ago and she claims certain issues in the education system have been arising for a long time now but, some things just aren’t affecting Batavia directly. Administrative officer Brad Newkirk agrees. “There have been changes in federal education policy through the implementation of ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) and educational funding changes. While there have been some impacts, the larger force in public education is at the state level,” says Newkirk. Newkirk is one of the head administrators at Batavia Public Schools. “My role is to support staff in learning and growing, including curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional learning for staff.” says Newkirk.

7th grade ELA teacher Rebecca Cain in her classroom in 2016.

7th grade science teacher Barbara Buckley has a somewhat similar outlook on things but with a bit of a different scope. “I feel like the bigger changes happened five, six, seven years ago more so then just recent changes. They’ve been going in this direction anyway. I think, what I’ve noticed here, is what I feel about our kids of color and the immigration thing. As far as the most recent stuff (President Trump’s immigration policies), there’s more of an awareness of skin color and nationality and I’ve heard more comments about immigrants and stuff like that then I’ve hear in a long time.That’s the most recent thing I’ve heard about. I don’t think we’re too worried about current stuff because it’s been happening for a while,” says Buckley.  When asked about how the teachers individually have been affected by somewhat recent changes, her response was, “When these problems started rising, teachers started being looked at as very negative things. I think we are nervous about what’s coming up as far as unions go because Bruce Rauner and Trump will be leaning in that direction too. We have slowly but surely seen the erosion of power of unions in education. When I started here they were pretty powerful and little by little it’s going away.” Buckley has been teaching for 16 years but didn’t start until the age of 40. She’s in it completely for the kids.

Barbara Buckley, a 7th grade science teacher in her colorfully decorated classroom at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois.

In regards to new leadership at the federal level and changes occurring at the state level, 7th grade counselor Julie Neece has somewhat of the same consensus as the other staff. “I think that there’s definitely concern but it started even before that. Just with the laws that are made and what’s focused on and the high amount of emphasis that’s put on standardized testing for example. And kind of just a general frustration that a lot of decisions are made by people who are not teachers. So, that was even before the current administration (in Washington). I noticed, not necessarily from teachers here, but just in general, parents and families concerned about what will this mean? I can’t say that I’ve specifically said well this is an outcome and it’s because of DeVos or because of Trump. I think it’s just been a general difficulty and frustration since I’ve been here about all the laws. You know, it used to be No Child Left Behind about 12 years ago, that was like the big name of it and now it’s changed a little bit. There’s always been these mandates that are dictating what you’re doing and what you’re putting emphasis on in the school and sometimes at the expense of other things that might be just as important.” says Neece.

Julie Neece, the 7th grade counselor at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois sitting happily at her desk in her office awaiting students in need.

Neece has been working at Rotolo for 11 years. Overtime, she has seen things change a bit. Recent general statistics show that stress, anxiety and depression levels in teens and preteens are increasing today. Schools in the Batavia district are coming up with new ways to deal with this.  “One big thing for me, obviously as a counselor, is I see more talk about social, emotional issues and we have a long way to go obviously, but we’re doing a lot of really cool things that other schools are not doing and at least our district is talking about it. So, we’ve had full days that are like institute days, training days where the whole day is devoted to looking at what’s going on with the kids emotionally, socially, looking at trauma and mental health issues and all sorts of things. There’s something called ACE’s now that’s out there. Adverse Childhood Experiences. I think the fact that our district is talking about it is really good. So, I hope we continue to keep on that swing of really being aware of that and really trying to address that with our students. So, that’s a hope and I hear little bits and pieces of just kind of having more of an awareness of that and part of it is just that’s the reality of the students now because in the eleven years that I’ve been here, there’s been a lot more issues with mental health, depression and anxiety, stress levels are huge and the amount of emergency screenings that we’re doing are so much more. You can’t look the other way at that. But, I’m happy there’s more discussion in our building, there’s more discussion as a district.”

Middle school students have a special schedule nowadays. Adults today looking back on their youth in middle school will probably be surprised to hear everything happens to be about standardized testing. Everything in school now is dependent on testing scores and that determines the success that child will obtain. This is why so much standardized testing has started at such a young age. In the end, the goal remains the same, get the kids working to their best ability and keep them going. It’s all about hard work in the long run, but if a kid is struggling individually with their own experience, do you treat them the same and look at testing data or do you base things off of the areas they are still strong in?

All of these and more are the questions the Batavia Public School District is trying to determine currently. Counselors are struggling to keep up with the needs of students and so are teachers. Administrators are struggling to provide the best of resources to everyone in need, but at least these things are being noticed by everyone. Some political happenings aren’t even on the minds of those in charge because there’s no room for it. Other states are dealing with different issues and some of it is purely regional. “I think we are very blessed up here. I think the school shooting thing too is regional, like people in Wyoming have a different view of guns than people in Illinois. So, most of them that either have guns or hunt, guns are a different story.  Me, I’ve never had a gun, I’ve never used a gun and so that seems so horrible. So, that’s part of the reason why we feel differently,” says Buckley.

Inside the halls at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois where the walls have been plastered with encouraging words and colorful designs.

        When two students, 12-year-old Lauren Callahan and 13-year-old Anthony Tonkovich, sat down to talk about the recent political events, they appeared calm, cool, and collected but were still well aware of what has been happening in the country.  Surprisingly, talking openly about how to deal with active shooters in schools was normal for them. In between notes of what their favorite and least favorite subjects were, they discussed openly the horribly morbid subjects explaining how they would personally want to deal with the situation and if they would feel more safe with guns attached at the hip of their teachers and instructors. There was almost a sense of humor surrounding it all.

“When they had that idea of giving teachers guns, that scared the crap out of me. I would be scared to go to school because some of these teachers are young and they might not even know how to hold a gun. Some of them are so tiny the gun might even fire them back if they try to use it. So, I don’t feel like that was the best solution to it but when they were talking about giving teachers mini bats, what are they going to do with those? There needs to be something in the middle. There could be something they give teachers but not guns because I feel like that’s a big stretch.” says Tonkovich. “I wouldn’t want a random teacher to have a gun.” says Callahan. The outrageousness of having to discuss it in the first place is a little comical so imagining things like that actually happening makes the students laugh in bewilderment.

“I feel like most people feel safe in school where they are. Especially when they have a bond with their teacher and they know who their teachers are. I also said earlier I don’t think it’s going to happen to us but, the Florida students had said that too and it tragically happened to them. I feel like this is so protected it wouldn’t even come close to us.” says Tonkovich. “We’re the only middle school in Batavia. If there were a bunch more middle schools I would feel more safe but, there’s only one middle school, one high school so, if they would have a target it would just be one.” says Callahan.

After the Parkland shooting, tensions around the country have been rising surrounding gun control and school safety. These tensions haven’t passed by Rotolo in discussion either. Rotolo even has plans to improve security at the main entrance of the school this summer. Overall, the tensions within the staff surrounding the issue that the whole country is succumbing to isn’t just washing away with time.

“That particular issue is a multifaceted issue. It’s not just about the security measures of the school. It’s also about the welfare of the students within the school because as we know it’s generally somebody who has either gone to school here or is currently at school who is more likely to be the shooter. So, putting security measures in the school is very important, but it’s not as important as having adequate counseling staff and social workers and all those things. So, just making sure that we’re spending money on increasing the availability of those things too, not just whether or not things are locked properly.” says Cain.

“There’s a fear in me that they’re pushing more and more of that responsibility onto us. Sort of leaving us in the open, like now it’s up to you, what you think would work. Cause it used to be we would be in a lockdown, we would close the doors, shut off the light, go hide back there and now it’s more of a your call. Like, assess the situation, and you decide whether you’re gonna run or you’re gonna hunker down or what you should do.” says Buckley.

Overall, these issues that the whole of the United States of America has heard about recently in education, aren’t just being pushed aside. Schools around the country are talking about them, feeling pressure to take action with them, and Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois is no exception.

A model of the solar system in front of the American flag at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, Illinois.

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A Special View of Politics in Education