reflections on the past

May 11, 1999 my dad Al Garner died, to this day I haven’t really gotten used to that. I don’t talk about him much, if he was alive his pictures and stories of silly things we were doing would be regular posts. So indulge me today as I share about my daddy.

He was only 17 when I was born, but that didn’t keep him from accomplishing so much- he went from being a grocery store bag boy to a Vice President of a chain. In April 1999 he was featured on the cover of a produce industry magazine and was a sought after speaker. He never let being a teenage father be a barrier to a successful life.

Dad 1977

Most of my memories are of things we did together as a family; trips, summers at Crooked Lake, sporting events, holiday time, dance recitals… but the overarching theme was the knowledge of his unconditional love for me and my sister. I never realized I had that until I was an adult, but it continued into my adult life. I always knew that he expected me to do my best and felt safe trying new things because he and my mom  “had my back”. I think that carried over into me getting involved in public service and advocacy for public education. I know it made me a better parent to my own kids. And I have never questioned if he would be proud of me and my sister for who we have become as adults….he always was and always would be.

me and dad
I used to refer to myself as Al’s Kid… he was constantly taking me and my sister to events and things, to show us off and to show us the world, or at least his part of it. On my graduation day from UNCC, I even painted the top of my cap with the words Al’s Kid to make sure he could find me in that sea of people. I wore that title with great pride…still do
He was such a loving grandpa, Papa Al. My girls lit up his life and he gave them that same love he gave us as kids. Even though Mason was born after his death, I see him in my lil man….his spirit, his competitiveness and his image– tall, lanky with curly hair and dark introspective eyes. I deeply wish he could have been here to know Mason, Max and Julia….they would have delighted him.SKMBT_C55010091610381

He said to us not long before his heart attack that he never wanted to get old- this was after being around my grandparents and watching them become more feeble. Ironically a few weeks after that Tanya and I sat in front of my grandparents and had to tell them he had died; I guess he got his wish. He is forever frozen in my mind as this big strong man, with a deep roaring laugh and a twinkle in his eye, sarcastic humor and intense love of life.
Ours was the dad that never shied away from telling us he loved us…..I still can hear the messages he would leave on my answering machine that always ended in “…LUUUUUUV Dad, XOXOXO.” The XOXO was like our family code for I love you always. When he lay in a hospital bed fighting to live, hooked to more machines than most could fathom he couldn’t really talk, so he would hold our hands and with his long thin fingers trace the letters XOXO into our palms. That remains etched into my soul to this day.
Dad, I love you always, XOXOXOXOXO……

dad and grill

Julia’s Gift

JuliaI have often been asked how and why I got involved enough to run for school board. I want to tell you about one of my inspirations, my niece Julia.
My sister adopted 4 year old twins Max and Julia from The Ukraine in 2001. Because of them, I truly saw another side of public education, from the eyes of children who were struggling and not prepared at all with either academic or social skills. Their struggle inspired me…..and still does. So let me tell you about Julia’s gift (and Max’s too)

Julia and Max turned 4 on their “gotcha” day. In the world in international adoption, gotcha day is like a new birthday. But for my niece and nephew it is the same day. My sister was a single woman, a corporate trainer for a Fortune 500 company, who wanted to be a mom and realized that God had already put her children here on earth waiting for her to come and Gotcha them.
julia2002
In the weeks, months and years that followed, my sister Tanya, mom and I all learned about SID (sensory integration dysfunction), learning disabilities and all the manifestations of being raised in an orphanage in the third world country. The twins behavior and developmental delays were predictable for “orphanage babies” but my sister didn’t let that become an excuse. What seemed to happen naturally to my kids and others was completely foreign to the twins….like holding a pencil, cutting with scissors and playing with others. You see they had to protect themselves every day, guard their food and had not experienced any “preschool” type activities in their orphanage. They also had not been held or nurtured much as infants.

When Kindergarten began,The twins struggled so greatly that after a few weeks, Tanya and I had a meeting at the school….the twins were having melt downs by midmorning and things were at rock bottom. A specific incident occurred with Julia that we later learned is typical orphanage defensive behavior but it got her suspended and led us to the “meeting”.

The comment that has resonated through me since that meeting came from one of the teachers in the room. She commented, “I just don’t know how to teach a child that is so far behind!” In other words, Julia wasn’t a preschool trained typical suburban child and this teacher wasn’t prepared for a student like her in her class. The end result that day was that I would pick the twins up at 10am, after they had the EC work, therapy and a little classroom time and basically I would home school them the rest of the day. And as they became more comfortable we would extend their day. Tanya bought me materials and supplies and I set things up like a small preschool and we started at the beginning….holding pencils, learning how to use scissors, and moved into counting activities and early reading. We sang songs, baked cookies, made art, sorted hot wheel cars by color and searched the house for shapes. I watched them progress daily and before long we had another meeting to discuss extending their time at school.
Tanya and I had collected a portfolio of the twins work at home, including bracelets with chenille sticks and pony beads in different patterns. We brought one for each of the staff present that day. When we handed a bracelet to the teacher who “didn’t know how to teach Julia”, she had a stunned look. I believe my crusade to make sure that every child is given a chance at a great education was crystallized at that moment.
maxandjulia
Fast forward a decade…… the twins still struggle but they are also succeeding. EOG’s are a horrible week for them every year, standardized testing remains an obstacle. Certain subjects are still a big challenge. But they have also made honor roll and when they apply themselves, things work out pretty well. Tanya continues to be their advocate and make sure they get extra tutoring and she pays for them to go to private tutoring still. She has kept their world very structured and orderly and is an amazing engaged mom. I have taken on the role of the silly Aunt and for their 15th birthday last summer I took them on a weekend camping trip to the Brevard area. We hiked, tubed down a river, sang “wagon wheel” around a campfire and ate ice cream twice a day. I cherish moments like those, especially when I reflect back on how far we have all come as a family.

This year for Christmas, the whole family gathered at Nana’s house and exchanged presents and laughter and even a few tears. This year, Julia was very circumspect and talked a lot about how much we all meant to her. She had also told Tanya that she was very grateful to have her family, because if she had not been adopted and come to be a part of her “gotcha” family she would have been put out of the orphanage and be living on the streets at 15 in The Ukraine.(she has studied her native country for school projects and learned a lot about how she came to be a Carolina Girl). Julia had carefully made and picked out gifts for everyone. Then she typed up a note for each person and expressed why she loved them and why they were special to her. She talked of Amanda’s art, Maddie’s smile and Mason’s silliness. And on mine she told me how much fun I am to be around and she could not ask for a better aunt in the world. My Christmas gift from her that morning was placements that say “Love, Live, Laugh”, but the true gift was in the notes she carefully typed for each of us. To realize where she started and how she has become a young woman with such a gracious heart and caring soul….a gift more precious than I can describe.

Its unfathomable to me that a teacher all those years ago thought Julia was “unteachable” had no idea how to deal with her and her delays. I guess she did not understand the power of a mothers love and dedication to the children God placed in her life or the strength that comes when a family unites to help their children succeed. My greatest sadness is that so many other children are like Max and Julia…..unprepared for school, developmentally behind, lacking social skills. And if they are placed in classrooms with teachers who don’t “get” them or care enough to try and don’t have a parent/parents or family to support them how will they ever succeed? Its a daunting task, but one we must rise to meet.

Julia’s true gift to me is her ability to inspire me …..she first gave me that inspiration over a decade ago and she continues giving it to me now. Thank you Julia, for your gift!

graduation

Me and blogging….

Sometimes life gets in the way! Or maybe I should quote Robert Burns and say “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”
I truly planned to blog a few times a week, but it was placed pretty low on my priority list; behind work, motherhood, board work, and personal time. I am going to recommit to blogging about education issues weekly, as a way to share my thoughts, concerns, hopes and ideas for helping move our public school forward and create a culture of academic success.
So here goes!

Thanks for being here!
Rhonda

Graduation 2012

I am half way through my graduation schedule for 2012. It is a little easier this year than in the past 2 years since I have no graduates of my own. But regardless, there is a lump in my throat when I hear the orchestra start “Pomp and Circumstance” and at some point in every ceremony I have attended since being elected, I have to blink back tears.
High School graduation means different things to other vastly diverse students and families. To all who make it to this day, it is a day of celebrating. But the celebrations are as different as the children walking across the various stages around our county. (and no, I am not talking about the cheering or yelling or any of those things).
What I am talking about is what this day means to the kids walking across the stage. To many, it is a celebration of all their accomplishments and then onto college to continue their success. To others, this may be the only time the ever walk across a stage to receive anything, as they prepare to enter the workforce, hopefully prepared from their time at CMS. (But in many cases, CMS has not done enough to get kids career ready, as our Career/Technical programs have taken hard hits in the budget cutbacks. This is an area that I want to push for– giving kids more opportunities for highly skilled job training while still in high school– a subject for an entire blog!) Then there are all those who may start college, then take a different path, or enter our US Armed Forces and serve to protect our democracy. And others I watched who may be the first in their family to finish high school, which seems almost impossible in 2012, but it is their reality.

I couldn’t help but think of those who were missing from the celebration….the kids who don’t graduate with their class, who don’t complete their high school course of work in 4 years. Although 2012 graduation rates aren’t in yet, we know that in our best schools last year only 93% graduated. If you look at that in the way courses are graded then our best only get an A- for getting kids to complete high school in 4 years. In our worst cases, the rates plummet to a mere 54% at the CMS high school that is struggling the most. Yesterday reminded me why we must be BOLD and face these challenges with innovation like Project Lift. And while I philosphically don’t believe that money fixes problems, the privately funded project will be an incubator to try new programs and innovative methods to impact that 54% graduation rate. Project LIFT can’t fix it by itself, it will take a commitment from students and parents in that community and a sense of accountability from all 3 of the keys partners in education: students, parents and staff. All three must be in this to win it!

One of the coolest things about being a school board member, is participating in graduation ceremonies. I have the best view in the house of all the kids coming across stage for their big moment. Its their time to shine. In their faces I see the nerves, the excitement and yes, the future. It is an awesome sight! This year I have watched kids that I have known since they were born get their diplomas and a highlight was being introduced by the Mallard Creek HS Class President, who I have known since he was a baby. Later this week I will attend the graduation of my Alma Mater, South Mecklenburg and in the same venue I graduated on over 3 decades ago. But one of the moments that touched me the most was a young man who looked nervous, but after he was handed his diploma, he reached over the table and hugged the administrator who had helped make this day possible for him….not a little hug, but a bear hug! And as he choked back tears he mouthed “thank you”. I watched as he was overcome with emotion and the tears started flowing……..this day meant something to him that most don’t understand. You see, I found out later he was a “turn around” student, one who was headed to dropout and instead became a graduate.
I want to make more of those…those turn around students here at CMS. I will buy the tissues for more teary moments!
Congratulation to the Class of 2012. I wish you all the success that life has to offer.

Dinner with Heath

Well to start, I won’t call it dinner with Heath…..since he grabbed a snack on the way here so he could focus his time on meeting all the parents and leaders assembled. I owe my guests a bit of anonymity, so I won’t reveal their names, but I will say that I was pleased that it was an eclectic group of people who had both positive and negative things to say about CMS.
I have read some of the comments by the usual naysayers who spend their days commenting on websites and blogs about CMS. They joked that I must be serving “Chamberaide”, as in the koolaid of the Charlotte Chamber- hate to disappoint but the only “chamber” person there was from the LKN Chamber up here in the north county. (And is the CLT Chamber such a bad thing? Really– they do have a little to do with bringing businesses into our town and helping lobby for us at state and national level.) Another frequent naysayer comment was that I hand picked a perky bunch of parents. Or the best one (from a man who hasn’t met Heath yet) who bashed everything about him and then said, “oh but I am trying to stay openminded” Yea right! LOL! The usual suspects will always be naysayers….and I even invited one of them who declined first because it was a “conflict of interest” which it was not and then because of a schedule conflict. Oh well….I tried!

Here is a little of what I watched happen in my little cottage in the woods.
I did invite a limited amount of people (ended up well over 50!)since my place is only about 1700 sq feet and thankfully has a large deck. The kids played ping pong in my basement, ran through the woods and then had a fierce game of kickball going in the yard.
Some of the people were long time friends, some I met as they walked in, some I had communicated with by phone or email while serving on the BOE. They were from Mountain Island overto Highland Creek and up to Davidson,and all points in between. Every high school in D1 was represented, and most middle schools, and about half of my elementary schools. There were also parents with kids in magnet schools who live in D1.
Heath and I had not discussed the evening or scripted anything. I had just sent him a list of who had RSVPed and said I was looking forward to him meeting them.
Everyone brought sides or desserts, coolers of water and soda and myself and 2 other families pitched in for a bunch of lancasters BBQ. Other than the soon to be Superintendent being there, it was very much of a typical potluck party. Honestly, I saw that Heath had a Friday night open on his visit and asked to have dinner with him, it evolved over a couple days to this meet and greet. And no taxpayer monies were used for this event.

When Heath arrived, people were already mingling and eating so he made his way around the group. Some of my best memories are his interaction with a 4th grade girl who couldn’t seem to respond with anything but a giggle, the discussions about college choices w a HS junior, talking to another boy about the origin of his unique name. You can tell when a person is good with kids when you watch them…he is good with kids.
Heath took time to talk with each family and I stayed back and just watched….and listened. I heard topics like: Allocation of resources, over-crowding, bad attendance boundaries, teacher turnover, athletic field lights, bell schedules, offering enough opportunities for above avg and high achievers. While Heath made no promises about things, he listened, acknowledged and connected. And I saw him absorbing not only the actual comments, but the passion and concerns of the parents.
SOme of the comments that were shared with me:
One mom said, “I have tears in my eyes–I just spoke to a real teacher who gets it, I watched him talk to my daughter and she was completely engaged. I have so much hope!”
“got to meet new CMS Super. Dr. Heath Morrison & he is SUPER! Genuine, focused, hardworking (off the charts). Has a clear grasp of this district and a vision for taking learning to the top unlike any other I met.”
“deep issues were raised & met with thoughtful, enthusiastic response. He appears to be a straight forward leader/problem solver/motivator who doesn’t toss catch phrases high above one’s head (though he certainly is well-versed in the “in vogue” vocabulary & processes).”
“I came here slightly skeptical, thinking he was just another Gorman, but now that I met him he is nothing like Gorman. We are lucky we got him”
“I am not sure he canaccomplish all he wants to, but if anyone can I think its him. And I am going to be a supporter and encourager”

So friends and readers……..which group are you going to join? I am inviting you to join the group of supporters and encouragers. The group that looks for the positive with a pragmatic eye on the reality. No rose colored glasses, but a clear vision of the hard work we need to do to make our schools better for all kids. Come join me!

This entry was posted on May 30, 2012. 3 Comments

Welcome!

I am embarking on the world of blogging to share my thoughts and ideas about things happening in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools.  I would like my constituents to know more about the rationale behind my votes, the things I am working on and a deeper dive into my thoughts and perspectives on issues facing our public schools.

I hope you will follow the blog and mostly I hope you will get involved to help keep our schools strong.

Blessings………….R