Friday, August 21, 2015

Hearty August

The Utah State Charter School Board, after a lengthy battle, has decided to close Alianza Academy. Parents now have to scramble to try and enroll their kids elsewhere. Parents and staff all got the news at the same time--the email was sent out at 11 pm Wednesday night. Most of us found out on Thursday morning. As of Monday, August 22nd, I will be unemployed.

Thursday was both the second day of school, and the second to last day of school.

I witnessed every variation of every stage of grief. One teacher spent the day blasting music and handing out chocolate milk. Another teacher spent the morning sobbing. I've seen tears shed by parents, teachers, and students alike. I've allowed a mother of three young children to hold my hand and pray for me and for everyone at the school. I had one parent take all their frustration and anger out on me over the phone.

One of the hardest things is trying to explain to the kids WHY we're closing. How do you explain to a 9-year-old the complexities of educational organization? How do you explain enrollment requirements and per capita spending and politics and appeal processes? You can't. You just have to say, "The state of Utah decided to close our school."

It's strange...I felt so scattered on Thursday. Normally, I'm so clear-headed at work, but all day I found myself thinking, "Wait...what was I going to do?" I would open a drawer and couldn't remember what I was looking for. Even writing this felt scattered. I held back tears all day, came home for a good cry and found I didn't have it in me. I took a three-hour nap instead.

I feel like someone's taken a book away from me and closed it, long before I was finished reading.

It's bizarre to try to balance the logistics and emotions of all of this. I need to call Lifetouch and cancel our school pictures appointment. I need to hug this student who is sobbing in the hallway. I need to finish drafting this list of recommended charter schools. I need to counsel this parent on what comes next for their kids. And what do I do with all of these files? Do I start taking things down from the walls? What will happen to all the paper and staplers and colored pencils?

I've never had a close family member pass away. Not someone I've known deeply. So I have no idea if this is an apt comparison. But that's what the closing of Alianza feels like. Like the death of a loved one. And in many ways it is.

Alianza was something special. I knew it the first moment I stepped foot inside. Over half of our students came from low-income families. Many of them have learning disabilities. Many of them are minorities. Many of them struggle with behavior and academics. For so many students, Alianza was a last attempt at schooling. I fear that these students will fall through the cracks in other schools...they've got to just hold on to the confidence we've tried to give them.

They learned at their own pace. They did Shakespeare. They did music. They went on field trips to ballet performances and hands-on science museums. They did meditation. They engineered problem-solving inventions. They made films and took photos. They organized activities and made them happen. They created and choreographed modern dance numbers. And the oldest among them was only 14.

I have witnessed students go from volatile and hostile to soft-hearted and quick to smile. I have watched kids who hated reading and struggled through every word grow into avid readers, eager to find out what happens next, and working out definitions on their own. Students that would be eaten alive at any other middle school found that they could make friends easily at Alianza.

Alianza did so much for so many, but I think its strongest legacy is one of belonging. That's what Alianza gave students and teachers and staff and families. That's what Alianza gave me. Alianza Academy gave those who were part of it a sense of belonging. It was this family. Last school year, our campus had about 12 staff members and a little over 100 students. Every teacher knew every student's name and disposition. It's small for a school...small enough to feel like a family. Like any family, we had hard days and good days. We cried and laughed and got frustrated and were inspired by each other. We learned to read each other like family members do--when so-and-so needed space, and when so-and-so needed a candy bar.

I think that's why this is so hard. It's watching this family get broken up. This family that brought out the best in every one of its members, and that gave each of its members a place to belong.

So maybe that's the legacy that each of these family members can carry into the rest of the world. They can reach out and help others find belonging. On Thursday, one sweet parent said to me, "I'm thinking of a garden. Right now, all you can see is the dirt, but with time, it will be full of fruits and vegetables and flowers. Remember that this change can lead you to better things."

That's what I keep trying to hold on to. The reminder that sometimes a big shift like this can open your life up to something else amazing. That, in the words of Aunt Eller, the sweet and tender in life come as you're hearty through the tough times.

So Alianza, thank you for everything. Thank you for helping me grow into a better, more mindful, more patient, and more caring person. Thank you for introducing me to every student, every teacher, every parent. You are all extraordinary star stuff.

all photos via Deseret News

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