Leading Community Development and Education

The funny thing about developing a community is that it throws a wrench in the whole “work life balance” conversation.  My job is literally to facilitate the development and growth of a community, at Inspire Academy specifically, a community that grows and learns together.  Guess what happens when you foster the conditions that result in a living, breathing, dreaming community?  Friendships are developed.  Real, deep friendships, focused on a common mission and everyone realizing their full potential.

Do I work with some of my closest friends?  Absolutely.  Were they my closest friends before the work or would we find ourselves in the same place without the work?  Probably not.  One of our staff norms at Inspire Academy is to unite around a shared vision and serve a common purpose. This is what a meaningful life is made of.  So, yes, many of my closest friends are work friends…friends I met through the work of community development and education.  They’re also life friends because we’ve structured our lives around the work and around community.  People are drawn toward community, and I am no exception.  My community brings me joy, friendship, and meaning.

So how do we turn off the work in a situation like this?  Some would say we never do, but that is not entirely accurate.  We make sure that we turn off the parts that drain us, the parts that are taxing, the parts that we just need to get done.  We turn those parts off but continue in the relationships and the joy-giving parts of the community.

We’re all in this together, friends.  Let’s make sure work/life balance is related to setting aside tasks, not people.

 

Assessment and Joy

These two words don’t go together…just ask anyone who works in education.

So how do we bring them together?  Outcomes.

What…outcomes? Aren’t those assessments?  Maybe, but let’s dig a little deeper.

I’ve spent hours recently aligning State Standards (things the State determines every child should learn) with the State assessment (the way the State measures if every child is learning these things) and determining which of these standards our teachers should prioritize with students.  After all, none of us can be good at everything!

As I did this, I got excited. What if our kids could actually do all of this?  What if my standards aren’t too high, but actually reasonable?  High standards ignite hope because they represent belief:  belief that we can prepare kids to reach new heights, belief that teachers can empower students with knowledge and skills, belief that we are more than our critics believe we are.

What if standards, and assessment of how well we’re meeting those standards, could serve as a catalyst of belief and hope instead of a catalyst of condemnation and criticism?  What would this look like?

We need more joy in education.  We need kids to believe that we believe they will lead our world to new accomplishments.  We need teachers to believe that it is possible for kids to break the painful patterns they have inherited.  We need teachers, administrators, and parents to spend time getting to know each other as fellow humans in this journey of life.  What if parents, teachers, and administrators actually became friends and co-conspirators for stronger outcomes together?

Let’s assess progress to ensure that all students have a meaningful path ahead, namely, the tools they need to find their way through this life in a way that brings meaning and joy.

Human Trafficking Exposure

Below is an abridged version of a letter I sent to the Hilton Corporation, as well as other organizations that would have authority to take action, after being exposed to what appeared to be human trafficking in a Hilton hotel.  I have removed identifying information of individuals that I included in the original letter because identifying information is not needed for the purposes of this blog. Modern day slavery is a real nightmare that many live with still today.  May we not be complacent.

I am a School Leader and traveled with a colleague this past week. The recommended hotel was Hilton Doubletree in Silver Spring, MD, so that is where we made our reservation and checked in on Wednesday, December 7, 2016. Several things happened during the course of our short stay that led me to suspect human sex trafficking was happening at the hotel and which led us to call 9-1-1 and leave abruptly in the middle of the night on December 8, 2016 to go to another hotel. Additionally, several of the circumstances suggest that hotel staff could have been aware of this activity or were accustomed to turning a blind eye to it. Below are the concerning details of our stay.

In retrospect, there were several occurrences throughout our stay that serve to buttress our suspicions and which I will reference later. However, I will begin with the disturbance the second night of our stay that led to us leaving the hotel under police escort.

We returned to the hotel around 6:00 p.m. on Thursday, December 8, 2016. After doing some work in our room, we went down to the hotel lobby restaurant and purchased dessert to take to the room. After getting our dessert, we returned to our room, worked for a while, got ready for bed, and went to sleep. Around 1:40 a.m., I awoke to sounds of crying/moaning. I began to listen closely because the sound was disturbing. It was coming from the room adjoined to ours with a locked door. I quietly got up and went closer to the door as the noise continued. I then heard rhythmic thumping and realized that I was likely hearing the sounds of the climax of sexual intercourse next door. I got back in bed. The noise stopped and then started again. However, as the noise repeated, it sounded like crying and whimpering rather than pleasure. The moaning and crying stopped and started again a few times. I got out of bed again and listened through the door to hear people talking and then the moaning/whimpering start again. It sounded like there were several people in the room.

I awoke my colleague and told her that something didn’t sound right next door. She had told me earlier that day that she had heard similar noises on the previous night, December 7, our first night in the hotel. She now confirmed that these noises sounded the same. She also said she had been awakened by similar noises that same evening, 2 hours earlier, at approximately 11:45 p.m. She said that there had been loud conversations both nights that had ended with loud 90’s music playing. People in the hallway had called out goodbyes and, from the sounds of it, had left the adjoining room to go to a room across the hall. She said that within a few minutes of the loud conversations ending, she had heard the repetitive grunts of intercourse. She said there had been some giggling earlier but noted that there was no more laughing now after the repetitive and concerning stopping and starting of climax sounds over the course of two hours. We were again listening to the unpleasant sounds of whimpering and moaning.

The noises did not sound like consensual sex. I called the front desk to report the situation, and I was told that security would look into it. Security never came by but the sex ceased. Men were talking. About 10 minutes passed. The sex started again. It sounded painful. There was groaning, grunts, and whimpers. Someone was being “shushed.” We heard no signs of hotel security. We were whispering and trying to problem solve with one another. With each sound, it was harder and harder to bear and we questioned what would be the best way to handle it since hotel security did not address it. I looked at the clock and noted it was around 2:15 a.m. and said it was a long time until morning, so we couldn’t just wait it out. My colleague replied, “Now, we call 9-1-1.” I made the call to 9-1-1 on my cell phone at 1:57 a.m. and whispered answers to the questions asked of me because I was obviously not confident of my safety at this point. I told them what we were hearing. We began searching for the hotel address as the 9-1-1 operator guided us on places to look. We began to get dressed and pack as I talked to the 9-1-1 operator. At this point, we were concerned for the girl’s safety but also concerned for our own safety. I asked the operator to stay on the phone with me until police arrived. Within seconds of each other, several things happened that led me to believe the people next door were being “tipped off” to the presence of police in the hotel.

  • The 9-1-1 operator told me police arrived on the scene and asked me if I was in my room and safe.
  • Someone walked through the hall with loud music blaring the same late 90’s music.
  • Men were talking loudly in the hallway.
  • The woman next door screamed during the extremely loud music.
  • The music ceased as quickly as it started.
  • I told the operator I was in my room but that I did not know if I was safe.

The operator kept asking if I felt safe, presumably to get a different answer, and asked if we could get off the phone now that police had arrived. I told the operator I needed her to stay on the phone, especially now that the response to police coming to the hotel had begun to feel very “orchestrated.” There was a knock at our door. I looked through the peep hole and saw police. I cracked the door and briefly told them that we were concerned about what we were hearing next door. I stated that we wanted to leave the hotel. Again, the operator asked if we could hang up now. I told her I wanted her to stay on the line until we were escorted out safely by police.

I closed the door. The police knocked on the door of the adjoining room. All was quiet; no one answered. The police knocked again and said, “police.” We then heard the man and police speak to each other. My colleague heard the police ask the girl if she was safe and the girl say yes. I heard her laugh loudly, unnaturally, and very different than she had sounded only minutes before. She said something like, “Oh my goodness, are you serious?” It sounded like a response to being told that a neighboring room had called the police. The police did not search the room nor confirm that there were only two people in it.

The door next to us closed. There was another knock at our door. I looked through the peep hole again and saw the police laughing. I commented to my colleague that they didn’t believe us and were smirking. I opened the door. They said, “They’re just having a good time.” They seemed to want to shut the door and say, “Have a good night.” I still had the 9-1-1 operator on the line with me. I said that we did not feel safe, especially now that the neighboring room and hotel management knew we had called the police. I requested that we be escorted to the lobby of the hotel and asked if there were any other hotels nearby. The police said there was a hotel across the street, so we followed them into the hall and I hung up with the 9-1-1 operator. They acquiesced to our request to escort us downstairs. The elevators had a note that said they were both closed for cleaning. The police said there was another elevator and took us into those elevators. My colleague and I both shared with each other later that we had not been comfortable getting into the elevator with two male police officers who were treating us like paranoid ladies.

On the elevator, I noted that what they heard upon entry and what we heard were two different things. The police officer said, “I’m sure they were.” He then paused and said, “She didn’t have any bruises or anything.” I had not suspected there would be any bruises, but I just said something like, “good.” My colleague asked if there were only two people in the room, and he replied, “yes, only two.” She was confident that more than two people had been involved in what was going on in the room.

We arrived on the lobby level and walked out of the elevator. The police stopped right there and were done engaging with us. No one offered to walk with us to the nearby hotel even though it was now between 2:00 and 2:40 a.m. My colleague and I exchanged glances trying to decide what to do next. I wanted to get out as quickly as possible but felt that we were not safe with the hotel staff or out on the sidewalks and streets at this time of night as two females with suitcases. My colleague encouraged me to go to the front desk and say we were checking out. She mentioned she felt they should know and expected them to help us deal with the situation. No one was at the front desk. A man was watching TV in the lobby, watching us look for a front desk person. He nodded his head toward the front desk person as he arrived. The two officers were joined by a third at the elevators, and they engaged in jovial conversation. The person behind the desk nonchalantly indicated it was okay for us to leave. There was also a man sitting outside the other elevator with tools. We had no other interactions with the police. We walked across the street by ourselves.

While this situation had been awful in itself, several other things had happened at the hotel that now began to appear as a pattern rather than unrelated. After the first night in the hotel, around 6:45 a.m. on the morning of December 8, I had gone to the fitness center to work out. I entered the door with my hotel key and walked toward the elliptical machines when I was startled to find a man sleeping on the floor, awakened by my presence. I said, “I’m sorry. Am I disturbing you?” He said I was not. I was unsure how to proceed because I did not want to be rude if a homeless individual had simply found a safe, warm place to sleep. However, either way it was a safety concern. The individual didn’t look disheveled or poorly dressed as if he did not have a home. He was a well-dressed man in slightly sagged jeans, a shirt, and a flat cap tilted down over his eyes as he rested. I stalled at the machine, deciding whether to workout with a strange man sleeping behind me or walk out abruptly. Neither choice felt particularly safe as he could clearly follow me if I left. Thankfully, the man stood up and walked out the door near which he was sleeping. I took this opportunity to quickly exit out a different door and noticed on my way out that he left his keys on the floor and would be back. I went to my room as quickly as possible and my colleague remarked how quickly I was back. I told her what had happened and then called the front desk to alert them. The female who answered the phone said she would notify security.

When we had arrived early the first evening, December 7, a pleasant young lady checked us in. She was welcoming and helpful. She asked if we were Hilton Honors customers and I explained that our family had previously had a Hilton Honors account but that I did not have the number with me. While I would never have the chance to ask the other professional educators if they experienced anything like our visit, it occurred to me that perhaps most had not been housed on the floor on which this sexual violence was taking place.

On the first morning, December 8, after encountering the man in the fitness facility and then getting ready for the day, my colleague and I went to the hotel lobby to await the school bus for the seminar. We got on the bus and participated in the agenda of the day. During the seminar, at 11:29 a.m., I received a text from (xxx) xxx-xxxx that said, “Just checking in—how is your stay going so far? Feel free to reply back with a 1-10 (10 being excellent). Have a great day! [female name]” I responded back with a “4.” In response, I received another text that said, “I am so sorry to hear of your poor experience. What could we do to make sure your experience is excellent?” I responded, “Safety in the fitness center. Discount for lack of safe use of fitness center. I walked in to an individual sleeping on the floor this morning who woke up to my presence.” In response, I received the following text, “Dear Mr. Draper, I sincerely apologize for the incident. This will be address to our security department. We can definitely apply a discount on your rate for the inconvenience. [different female name]” We never received a discount nor did I hear any more from the hotel staff.

After having left around 2:00-2:40 on the morning of December 9, the hotel we arrived at was a Hampton with a buzzer and locked front door through which we had to be buzzed in. We were politely greeted by a door attendant and a desk attendant, both male. I was relieved it was a Hampton because I knew about their 100% satisfaction guarantee. I then saw the Hilton Honors sign on the front desk next to the Hampton sign and immediately felt afraid that the two hotels were connected and shared personnel. The attendant stated a wrong name, assuming us to be a different guest checking in late. My colleague nervously pointed to the Hilton Honors affiliate sign.

The desk attendant apologized multiple times for what we had gone through so far that night. He expressed surprise when I relayed the information about the man sleeping in the fitness center. He said that the Hilton had been sending guests across the street as recently as the day before with communication that their fitness center was under construction. I clearly stated that it was definitely not under construction on that day.

We got to our new room around 2:40 a.m. My colleague and I began debriefing, and she emailed her husband everything just in case something more happened. I called my husband at 2:38 a.m. but didn’t get an answer, so texted at 2:40 a.m., “Sorry to bother you. I think I am safe but just switched hotels due to the situation in other hotel. If you awake and get this, I wouldn’t mind being checked on.” Neither my colleague nor I felt ready to sleep, so we climbed in bed with the lights on and rested until we finally fell asleep. We woke up to my colleague’s alarm at 6:15 a.m. followed by my husband’s return phone call at 6:16 a.m. I was relieved to be awakened and learn that I had indeed fallen asleep and awakened again in the morning with no other interruption.

We got ready and went downstairs for breakfast. The same attendants were on duty at the front desk and front door as the night before. Both seemed to smile sympathetically at us as they greeted us pleasantly. We waited in the Hampton until it was close enough to 8:00 a.m. that other professional educators would be in the lobby of the Hilton, awaiting the bus.

Upon arriving back at the Hilton, no one seemed to notice that we had checked out and arrived again. We went to the front desk because we needed our receipt. The attendant was a young woman. I asked who we would contact if we didn’t want to pay for the previous night. She stated that we could contact the hotel manager. The attendant had no expression, but made a comment about “being sure the manager knows” with the intonation of a question. I told her we had notified the staff after hearing non-consensual sex happening in the adjoining room but that nothing had been done. I told her that I did not feel comfortable contacting hotel staff about the situation and that I wanted a central number. She said that I could just call Hilton but made no expression of surprise at my report, nor did she offer an apology. She made some simple noise of acknowledgement at my experience.

I noted to my colleague that the desk attendant did not seem surprised. I felt concerned for the safety of the female desk attendant this morning and from the night before. My colleague wondered if they were trained that it was normal and to just dismiss it. My colleague then noted a young woman sitting in the corner, clearly not one of the professional educators. I had not noticed her on my own, but as soon as my colleague pointed her out, I thought, “That could be her.” Both my colleague and I wondered if that was the girl we had heard in the adjoining room the night before. She was young and underweight. She wore her hood up and kept her head down, focused on her phone.  I would guess in her twenties. Her jeans were very torn up in the way trendy jeans are fashioned. She wore rings on her fingers. She was alone and seemed out of place. She had on socks with black slides.

My colleague was feeling compelled to ask if she was okay or needed help. I felt that approaching her could be offensive if we were just profiling and she was not the girl, but something told me that she was. My colleague kept asking if we should talk to her. I kept holding back. As our bus arrived, we found ourselves hanging to the back of the group, buying time to make a decision. I kept looking at her and briefly met her gaze a few times, and then we would both quickly look away. My colleague walked up to her and said something like, “Excuse me, miss, but, I feel compelled to ask you if you are okay… are you safe?” She inhaled/laughed and said, “of course, ma’am. My… boyfriend’s just bringing the car around.” She paused before the word boyfriend, as though she wasn’t sure what to call him for a split second. My colleague said okay and walked away. After I got on the bus, I saw a large male walk to the hotel door and open it. She walked out with him. He looked to be in his forties. Our bus left at 8:00am.

Later that day, we left our conference thirty minutes early, feeling emotionally drained and physically tired from the night’s events. Although our flight didn’t leave until 10 pm we headed to the airport…unable to site see, mingle, or enjoy much of anything. When arriving to the terminal, we saw there was an earlier flight home. We paid the $150 to book an earlier flight and get home to our families earlier than planned.

During the ride to the airport and the wait in the terminal, I did some brief Google searches about human sex trafficking in Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring specifically. There had been recent arrests for trafficking in another hotel in Silver Spring. Knowing that human trafficking was an issue in the area, I was all the more frustrated that police did not take our report seriously. The arrests had been of individuals just like the people we saw in the lobby of the Hilton Doubletree that morning, not my stereotype of who I had previously envisioned being caught up in human trafficking.

We later found out our 10 pm flight ended up being cancelled and were so very thankful to have caught the earlier flight and not have to navigate another night in the area, not knowing which hotels were safe and which were not. As I adjust to life back at home, I continue to feel distressed by what we heard and saw at the Hilton Doubletree in Silver Spring, MD. In many ways, it feels like experiencing secondary trauma after witnessing sexual violence. While I am taking the time to heal and process, I realize that a fire has been lit under me to ensure that the appropriate parties know about what is going on in this hotel. I hope that Hilton will take the initiative to encourage an investigation into the hotel for potential human trafficking.

I am sending this to you and to several organizations who work to combat human trafficking or work to represent victims of human trafficking. Thank you for making this a priority. Change will come only when these atrocities are clearly addressed.

 

2020 and Clear Vision

A lot of people are talking about 2020 as the year of clear vision, and I like it.  I want to see clearly this year.  Easier said than done.  Am I the only one who can hear the voice of my biggest critic louder than my supporters?

Seriously, there could be 10 people telling me that they appreciate me, that they love my work, and that they are thankful for various initiatives I’ve led, and I will feel appreciated in the moment but replay the opposite feedback in my head…over and over and over.  I think it comes down to this for me…

It is an important value of mine to treat all people with respect and equitable care.  So when that critic raises concerns, I truly want to listen.  I also truly want them to see that I am not an ass, when maybe I should just focus on making sure they feel appreciated and valued while letting their opinions go.  Valuing the person while disagreeing with their perspectives is hard.  Really hard.  Isn’t easier to just write the person off altogether, or work to win their approval?  What will it look like to value the person while letting their hurtful words fall like snowflakes on warm ground, disappearing as if they never existed?

That is what it will take for me to have clear vision in 2020.

Evening in Missoula: A Sabbath Reflection

A week and a half into our Sabbath Year grand finale trip, we ran into a curveball. We had planned to drive up the east side of Glacier National Park and camp on the east side before driving west through the park on our way to Seattle. As we began more detailed planning, we found out that only vehicles much smaller than our beloved skoolie are allowed on Going-to-the Sun Road, the only road through Glacier National Park, so we began looking at a route further west to take us from Yellowstone to Glacier on the west side of the park. This would enable us to explore the western areas of the park that our bus can handle. While looking at the map to reroute our trip, I noticed a city named Missoula within reach.

As most of you know, I’m a tea drinker, specifically herbals. One of my favorite teas is “Evening in Missoula.” I hoped that my tea was named after the Missoula I found on the map because any city with a tea named after it has to be magical. I decided to spend an evening in Missoula because, if nothing else, being able to say I spent an evening in Missoula would be enough to bring me joy.

Honoring the cycle of Sabbath is about taking time to pause, be in the moment, and enjoy rest.

So off we headed to Missoula. This is typical Sabbath Year behavior for me…some people call it “whimsy.” Following the breezes, following the heart, pursuing joy and restoration. We pulled in late at night, parked the skoolie, and went to sleep. It was too late to officially count as spending an evening in Missoula, so we planned to stay through the next day so that I could satisfactorily check an evening in Missoula off my list.

As we awoke the next morning, Andrew asked me what I wanted to do. My list was pretty simple: find a teashop and spend an evening in Missoula. Well, Missoula did not let us down. We found multiple teashops, breweries, and distilleries, along with a downtown arts and music night complete with over a dozen food trucks.

Missoula was not perfect; it had a visible homelessness problem, and the city’s punitive approach to the problem was also quite visible. But for me, this was a helpful reminder that there is work to be done in every city…even a city with an herbal tea named after it!

We started our morning at some beautiful, riverfront playgrounds and parks. We rode on a carousel that was constructed by a man with a dream who rallied community members to raise funds and donate volunteer hours to make it happen. School children raised over a million pennies toward the project. All the horses on the carousel were hand carved by volunteers. This is, indeed, a city where dreams are valued. We watched people get in their wet suits and go surfing on the rapids in the ice, cold river. (Surely, this is more dangerous than surfing in the ocean, as rapids in a river are caused by rocks, right?!?) We took our dogs with us to all the parks, something we couldn’t do in the national parks.

By early afternoon, we decided it was time to put the dogs back in the skoolie and pursue lunch at a local place. We found a brewery, and it was already past 3:00, so we enjoyed wings and a ridiculously large portion of loaded nachos at happy hour prices.

Next, we walked to what looked like the best teashop within walking distance, Liquid Planet. Surely, if this is the right Missoula, they would have my tea, “Evening in Missoula.” Oh. My. Goodness. Liquid Planet was amazing!  They had oodles of varieties of bulk teas and bulk ingredients to make your own teas. They had so many wines, including some local, sulfite-free, organic wines. They had bulk hot cocoas…a spicy and a mild. They had all the things, so we bought our boys some coffee drinks (a rare treat for them), and I took my time enjoying all the things to kick off my evening in Missoula.

Next we went to a distillery. God bless the Wild West, where we can enjoy wineries, breweries, and distilleries with kids in tow. (It felt like being back in Europe, in an odd kind of way. Random fact: did you know that alcoholism rates are higher in places with historical Puritan prohibition values than in places where alcohol has always been an accepted part of the culture?)   It was here at the distillery that we all sat and talked and laughed and realized that we prefer the urban life to the rural life, even though the national parks are beautiful.

After the distillery, we headed to the park with the outdoor music and food trucks, the same park as the carousel. In only a few short minutes, we decided that summer in Missoula is quite different than summer in Muncie and headed back to the bus for some extra layers. It wasn’t long before we were back in the park, bundled up for a summer evening in Missoula and enjoying music and good food.

 I didn’t find any gluten free, warm desserts in the food trucks, so we made one more stop at Masala, an Indian restaurant, for some delicious rice and coconut fudge with saffron to take back to the bus.

After a cold walk in the rain (Ya’ll, the northwest is fun to visit, but I could not live in a place where summer is this cold and rainy!), we drove the skoolie to the Cabela’s parking lot, turned on our fireplace, and settled in for the night, calling our evening in Missoula complete.

I needed that evening in Missoula before I was ready for more wilderness adventures. May each of you follow the breezes more, follow your hearts more, and pursue joy and restoration more. I know I hope to do more of this during the weekly Sabbath cycle that continues beyond the Sabbath Year. A little bit of rest, a little bit of “whimsy,” provides the energy and sustainability for the adventures of our life work.

On a Consistent Ethic of Valuing Life

One friend described me saying, “Leslie’s a pacifist, but she’s a fighter.”  I kind of like that description!  When people hear the term pacifist, they often think of passivity, but the reality is that I am far from passive, and my journey into pacifism is a result of this.

As a Christian, I believe it is wrong to take the life of another human being.  I am a pacifist.

All throughout my upbringing, I was taught that abortion was murder, and therefore, wrong.  I believed it, and to the dismay of some of my liberal friends, I still do.  I don’t believe abortion justly falls under the umbrella of women’s rights.  I believe the fetus is an incredibly vulnerable human life that deserves protection, just like it does out of the uterus.

But here’s where I moved from traditional “pro-life” (aka – anti-abortion) to a consistent ethic of valuing human life.  In Sunday School one day, I raised the subject of just war and abortion.  I don’t remember how I framed the question, as it was decades ago now, but I was never satisfied with anyone’s answer.  If we as Christians believe that abortion is the unjust killing of a vulnerable human life, wouldn’t the rates of abortions justify the bombing of abortion clinics?  No one said yes, and yet they all believed in just war theory…arguably any war theory.  In my experience in American White Evangelicalism, cultural rules and boundaries are equal influencers in life decisions as Scripture, though no one would frame it this way.  Basically, it was culturally obvious that bombing an abortion was a ludicrous thing to do, but culturally obvious that nationally sanctioned bombings of other nations was respectable.

Basically, in my teen years, I came to the conclusion that, to be consistent, I either had to be a pacifist or join the ranks of defending abortion bombers as equally justified alongside World War II bombers.  The pragmatist in me decided that being a pacifist was the safer bet, and as I’ve grown and matured, I absolutely embrace the ideals of true pacifism.  I believe that genocide is wrong.  I believe that abortion is wrong.  I believe that euthanasia is wrong.  I believe that the death penalty is morally wrong, never mind horrendously archaic and carelessly sentenced.  I have told my family in writing that, if I am ever murdered, I do not want my murderer put to death.  I believe that war is wrong, and I do not think that Christians should serve in the military.  I do not keep weapons in my house, but my dogs will do a number on you, so don’t get any ideas!

I chose to write a blog entry on this topic because someone put the following comment in response to my support of a Christian Democrat running for presidential office:  “Anyone who supports abortion is not demonstrating the Christian faith. I do not respect this man.”  Ouch!  Comments like this are spiritual abuse and manipulation, and I will not vote for a man with the complete disregard for human dignity and human life shown by our current president.  I will not succumb.  I have good friends who have had abortions, and many times, it happens due to male manipulation and pressure.  Based on our current president’s sexual lifestyle, I would be very surprised if he hasn’t paid for abortions.  I don’t care what supreme court judge he nominates, to call our current president pro-life is a disgrace.  I wouldn’t even call him anti-abortion.

You see, there is not a single presidential candidate that demonstrates a consistent ethic of valuing human life to the extreme that I believe it should be valued.  A president’s job includes authorizing the killing of human life.  It just does.  (One of many reasons why I would never run for president…my religious views would prohibit me from doing the job.)  I believe that it is important to vote.  I believe democracy is important.  While our system is very flawed, and we have a long way to go in improving equal access and representation in our voting system, I still believe it is important to participate in the process and exercise our right to vote.

I am not a Republican, and I am not a Democrat.  I believe both parties have strengths in various areas, and I believe that various voices are needed at the table to make the decisions that are best for our nation.  I sift through the candidates, and I consider who has the most consistent value for all human life, in speech, in deed, and in policy.

A few other thoughts on abortion specifically:

The number of abortions in the US has consistently been going down every year.  There are much more effective ways to reduce abortion rates than voting for Republican presidents who, to date, have not proven effective at changing abortion law.  Services to women and children have been proven more effective in reducing abortion rates, and as a general rule, Democrats tend to pass budgets and policies that support more of those services.  Even if a Republican president did indirectly change abortion law through the appointment of very conservative supreme court justices (unlikely), it would simply return the power to each state.  Very few states would actually criminalize abortion, and for those that did, the result would simply be that women travel to neighboring states for procedures.  The best protection this would provide for unborn children is cutting back on impulsive abortions of convenience, which, admittedly, is something, but not much.

We need to be careful how we talk about abortion.  When people talk about abortion politically, they are often horribly under-informed on the vast array of procedures that initiate doctors to click the abortion box on paperwork.  I have friends who have had pregnancies terminate of natural causes that were still marked abortions.  I have had friends who have made the hard decision to terminate a pregnancy because choosing to let the pregnancy take its natural course would have ended the lives of both the mother and the developing fetus.  I have also had friends and family choose life who were advised to otherwise, and sometimes it turns out beautifully (for instance, my husband is alive and affirming value in the lives around him) and other times it turns out incredibly painfully (saying goodbye to a child within minutes or months or years).  If you choose to vote based on this one issue, please be incredibly careful with your words.  As Scripture says, “The tongue can bring death or life.”

I, Too, Have Put My Life on the Line for This Country

I often feel like people say they served to protect our country as a way to stop voices of dissent, and dare I say, revolution.  This gravely concerns me because I believe that one of America’s most important freedoms that we need to protect is the freedom to question those in leadership.  Leadership is hard.  I’m a leader; I get it.  But the populous must be free to question the decisions and belief systems of voted, public leaders.  If I ever run for office, I know that I will be signing up for public scrutiny and questions.  It’s not easy, it’s not comfortable, but it needs to be part of a healthy, free democratic society.  I am always under-impressed when a public official acts offended at this questioning and accountability.

I am a pacifist, so I don’t carry a weapon, but this doesn’t mean I’m a wimp or naive and entitled.  (Don’t worry – I won’t run for president as a pacifist.  I recognize that my religious beliefs would interfere with my ability to do the job.) . I put my life on the line for this country 180 days a year for 5 years and continue to do so many days each year on an ongoing basis.  You see, I am a public educator, and one who opened a school six short months after the Sandy Hook shooting.  What I didn’t know at the time was that this would become an alarmingly frequent pattern in our country.  I am here to protect and to serve our students, our next generation of voters, the same people that military personnel sign up to protect and serve.  More specifically, I am the top office in a public school building.  This means it is my responsibility to put myself in harm’s way to protect the lives of staff and children if a gunman walks into the building that I am in charge of protecting and serving.

I don’t carry a gun because I don’t believe that “good guys” killing people is better than “bad guys” killing people.  (As a matter of fact, I don’t believe there are “good guys” and “bad guys” at all, and I strive to dismantle these mentalities in staff, students, and families.)  I don’t carry a gun because I believe that choosing when to end a human life is God’s decision, not mine, but that doesn’t mean I’m not a fighter.  As one friend described me, “Leslie’s a pacifist, but she’s a fighter.”  I have no problem asserting my authority and making people leave the premises as needed.  I have no problem grabbing the nearest chair or desk and using it to knock an armed intruder unconscious or break his knees.  I am trained in restraint and am comfortable incapacitating someone until help arrives.  I believe in protecting people.  I believe in protecting our rights.

And I believe in standing up to a bully in the highest office.  I have been a school leader under two different presidents, and I can tell you that the way the president behaves impacts the way students behave, as well as the systems that impact their existence.

I am incredibly thankful to live in a country where I can speak up when I see a leader harming our country.  I am also comfortable living and working together with those who believe differently than I do, including those who believe it is in the best interest of some human beings to kill other human beings.  That being said, I expect people to respect that I protect and serve the American people every day, not with a gun, but with my mind, my words, and my actions.

I Found My Categorical Placement!

My entire life, I have felt like I don’t quite fit into the categories people create to define each other. In truth, this has brought me a lot of pride, to be indefinable, and a lot of frustration, as people just never quite “get” me. As I was exercising on my bike this morning…that is propped on an indoor stand between my bed and my closet, with my “Happy Light” shining on me and listening to a TedTalk  (just trying to paint a picture of my oddities for you)…I was introduced to myself. I learned from this TedTalk that there is a category of people labeled “originals.”

I am an “original.”

Many of you will respond like my husband, “Yes, you are!”

But really, it’s a thing!  While being categorically labeled as an original doesn’t feel very original, I’m super excited to discover why the things that drive everyone crazy about me are also the things that help me make a visible impact on society.

Below is the TedTalk:

 

If you took the time to listen to the whole TedTalk, you now understand me and how my brain works a little bit better. Fast to start, slow to finish, pauses to think a lot in between, and yes, I use Google Chrome!

Through sabbath rest, reflection, reading, conversations, counseling, and the current status of my career journey, I am learning to trust my own expertise.  In counseling one day, I mentioned in passing how I used to think all the people in high positions in public education knew way more than me but that I have figured out no one truly knows what they’re doing and everyone is just finding their way and doing their best.  In similar passing fashion, my counselor said, “We call that Imposter’s Syndrome.”  We move on.  I thought she was saying that everyone pretends to know what they’re doing, but no one really does.  A few weeks go by, we’re talking again…this time about whether all the pressure I feel is coming from the inside or outside, and I shared an example about an advisor of mine who I respect highly and holds an MAE from Harvard.  I was expressing how hard it is to sift through his advice, taking some pieces and leaving others, without feeling the pressure to follow everything he says because he’s super smart (don’t know if I said smarter than me…may have) and knows his stuff.  She quickly replied, “on paper.”  I suddenly thought, “She thinks I’m really smart and know my stuff.”  Mind blown.  So I decided to Google “imposter’s syndrome” after that session to see what she was really saying in her brief comment a few weeks prior, and I found this:  themuse.com/advice/5-different-types-of-imposters-symdrome-and-5-ways-to-battle-each-one.  Wait a second!  After just the introduction to the article, I realized this therapist (with a PhD) was saying I was underestimating my own expertise, not overestimating others’ expertise.  (For those of you who read the article, I’m probably a combo of “The Superwoman” and “The Expert” in the article.) Again, mind blown!

I guess I’m a smart, competent, successful “original.”  Who knew?!?

We doubt our ideas, not our value as a person.  We fear failure, but we fear failure to try even more.  There are many of us out there, and apparently, we are the people that really change the world, which is the scariest, most exciting outcome I could dream of!

Here’s to trusting my own expertise in the coming months and years and continuing to generate a high volume of ideas worth trying, to find the ones that will truly make a difference in our society.

First Annual State of the School Address

Madame Interim School Leader, Honored Board Members, Faculty, and Staff:

Inspire Academy is a place of belonging, a place where we unite around a shared mission and work to ensure all students are empowered to achieve more than they dream possible. We are now in our sixth year of providing gifted education to everyone and aiming to empower students on the margins to be at the center of the educational endeavor in this country. We started this school to provide an inquiry-based option in contrast to the prevailing educational norms, which often seek to conform all students to a uniform way of learning, to iron out diversity.

We have faced many challenges over the years. Many assumed that another educational option would never open in Muncie, that a grassroots organization with a shoe-string budget and big dreams could never make a genuine impact in the educational climate of our community, that a diverse body of educators and students would not rise to the challenge of exceeding expectations and sowing seeds of hope. However, in every challenge, whether in regard to facilities, enrollment, staffing, finances, or leadership, we have not only risen to the challenge but we have exceeded expectations. The same is true for this transitional season right now. We are so thankful to Bridget Duggleby for her leadership during this season and to all of you for your commitment to this mission. We are not going anywhere. We are re-upping our commitment to this unique and important mission.

Inspire Academy has never been stronger than we are right now. I have watched Inspire Academy grow over the past year from feeling dependent on one person to mobilizing independently and steadily, able to weather the storms of life. As a team, we have increased our student retention rate from 62% to 80%. Our ability to keep students with us longer is foundational to our students’ academic success, as our approach is aiming at long-term improvement, not quick fixes, and I congratulate all of you who have worked hard to improve this retention rate through improved family communications and higher quality educational practices.

Our students continue to create complex, authentic products for authentic audiences. Within the past year, we have seen students create stationary, informational pamphlets, seed packets, public service announcements, and representations of real-world data, to name a few. Our students continue to engage in meaningful work, work they will encounter in the professional world, work that fans the flame of their natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure.

We have implemented several systems to facilitate continuous improvement of the educational programming at our school. We have added Kickboard, a program that holds us as adults accountable to give more positive feedback than negative feedback to students. The evidence and research are clear – instances of affirmative feedback must outnumber instances of corrective feedback if we are going to be able to hear the corrective feedback and be able to translate it into positive improvement. This is true of adults and children alike! With data from Kickboard, we are learning how to use more positive feedback for improvement.

We have implemented the EL Curriculum and Literacy Block, both foundational to our students becoming effective readers, writers, and researchers who can contribute to a better world through expeditions, projects, and products. We are meeting learners where they are in their literacy journey and prioritizing time and space for students to receive the literacy support they need, with learners of various ages. We have implemented Bridges in Mathematics, a more user-friendly curriculum for elementary. We have identified Power Standards, standards that, if focused on regularly and prioritized, have the power to move student outcomes both on standardized tests and high quality work.

And most recently, but certainly not most insignificantly, we have added the Apex Virtual Learning platform in middle school, a platform that will facilitate students becoming leaders of their own learning through core curriculum with the support of teachers as guides in the learning and exploration process. The system provides immediate feedback in the form of grades and progress monitoring for teachers, students, and parents…a much needed piece for students to grow and make visible academic gains. We have also very recently added event coordinating as a separate duty, with additional compensation, to ensure that family and social activities continue to grow as a priority to build a sense of community and belonging as students get older and are looking for more school events.

The work we have chosen is not easy work, and there are challenges that lie ahead. We are committed to solving problems that our nation has never solved – namely that we have a public education system that values all young citizens having access to a free education while often not disrupting patterns of marginalization and the prioritization of some students over others. These are not easy problems to solve, but I know that we are up for the challenge. My goals for Inspire Academy for the coming years are simple but not easy:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond.
  2. We will increase test scores until we are above average.
  3. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work.

How we accomplish these goals is anything but simple:

  1. We will fill our school to capacity and beyond. Elements of our school that increase enrollment must be prioritized. Enrollment is our bread and butter, as well as the way we reach more students with our mission. Financially speaking, at about $7,000 per student, we cannot afford another year of low enrollment. Missionally speaking, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are well beyond 50 more students in Muncie who would do better at Inspire than elsewhere. Prioritizing enrollment will include:
  • Consistent communication of events and achievements
  • Improving and expanding our sports and arts programming
  • Adding predictable cycles of fieldwork and summer adventure trips that make kids yearn to participate
  • More social family events
  • Decisions based on the felt needs of families and students
  • Flexible class sizes

We must become an organization built with systems and structures that do not change based on who is in the organization in a given year. As a people-centered organization, we have taken a lot of hits as people come and go. Life is hard, mobility is regular part of the technological age, and people are fickle. (Sometimes we need to just jump in a bus-turned-RV and drive away for our own sanity!) In the following months, we will create and adjust positions and structures to meet the needs of students rather than the needs of adults. Then, we will find adults who want to plug into those positions and structures, and we are hoping that all of the adults in this room choose to do just that!

  1. We will increase test scores until we are above average. Leadership structures must improve. The addition of an Executive Director position was a good start to increase efficacy and sustainability, but additional shifts need to be made.

What will this look like?

  • When hiring a replacement for our Interim School Leader, we will change the title to Principal and limit the duties of the position to those more typical associated with a principal position, directed and guided closely by our Executive Director.
  • We will dissolve what was previously called “School Leadership Team,” a team that is unclear on its role and, as a result, tries to fit too much into short, limited meetings. We will replace SLT with two different teams, an Executive Advisory Team and a group of Professional Learning Community (PLC) Team Leads. Members of the Executive Advisory Team will be appointed by the Executive Director for one year, renewable terms. This team will serve as a sounding board for big picture decisions and shifts made by the Executive Director of the organization. PLC Team Leads will be appointed jointly by the Executive Director and Principal (Interim School Leader for now) for one year, renewable terms based on academic outcomes as measured by standardized tests and/or student portfolios of work. This team will lead the work of instructional improvement in classrooms.

In order to meet our goal of increasing test scores until we are above average, we must also codify and improve our multi-tiered systems of support. This is a large part of our work plan this year and will continue into next year. Bridget and I have mapped out a 30-week process for deep implementation of academic support and intervention to ensure all students meet growth targets. Through PLCs, led by PLC Team Leads who follow a focused calendar of planning and implementation, we will spend 30 weeks improving our multi-tiered systems of support and making sure we do it well.

  1. We will ensure that every student has a user-friendly portfolio that is filled with complex, authentic work. In order to ensure students are achieving at competitive levels academically, identifying agreed upon standards of academic outcomes is necessary. In an organization that is working toward educational reform and continuing to pushback on standardized tests as the definition of all student achievement, we often fail to define what we will honor as accurate and reliable measurements of student achievement. We need to define clear expectations for complexity, craftsmanship, and authenticity as a supplemental measurement to standardized test data. Replacing a mono-dimensional measurement of student achievement with no measurement of student achievement is not in the best interest of kids. We must define these things, and we must ensure teachers achieve measurable outcomes with students.

Empowering a diverse body of students with an internationally competitive education by fostering students’ natural inclination toward curiosity, discovery, and adventure is a monstrous mission, a mission we believe is tremendously important for the success of our students, the health of our city, and the progress of our world. We have been doing this hard work for several years now, and the growth is evident.

One example of this growth is the story of Kara Baugues. She joined the Inspire Crew as a parent on day one of year one, and then she joined us as a staff member for year two. She saw in our school an opportunity for her children to receive an education they can receive nowhere else in Muncie, one that honors critical thinking and deep discussion, one that honors growth regardless of disability, one that teaches habits along with facts, and one that values all students as equals in deed, not just words. As a parent, Kara now has her oldest earning a 4.0 at one of the most esteemed high schools in Muncie and 3 girls developing into young ladies who can read and write with impact. As a staff member, Kara has gone from managing a room well (she has always had a knack for this piece) to doing it with confidence and fewer self-doubts. She has gone from focusing primarily on behavior to focusing primarily on academic outcomes, and her students’ are benefitting from this shift, surpassing average growth targets on NWEA and moving toward closing achievement gaps.

Another example of the growth and impact of our organization can be seen in the Pickett family. Brittany Pickett joined our organization months before opening this great school as my administrative assistant..formerly a bank teller. Brittany and I were the ONLY administrative positions – imagine running a school not much smaller than it is today with just Brittany and Bridget – no Paul, no Emily, no Emilie, no ED. As you can imagine, she and I both grew very quickly in this sink or swim environment! Over the years, Brittany’s responsibilities and leadership have grown, and her title and position have followed. Her family has also grown in size and in mission. By year 3, Harry Pickett joined the team as a TA while working on a degree in education, becoming a Teacher Fellow by year 5. The mission is contagious. Also in year 5, the little guy who had been at our ankles when we opened was now coming to Inspire in uniform for his big kindergarten debut and has been thriving here ever since.

The list could go on simply from families represented in our staff – the Oldfields, the Carpenters, the Stouts, the Drapers, the Dugglebys, Julie and her kiddo and Veronica and her kiddo joining us recently – each of these families will testify of belonging, of the foundational difference in thinking that our children have gained from their time here at Inspire, time that we wouldn’t trade for the world! And there are all the examples of kids and families not in this room – from a student who came with an IEP with an accommodation of “not requiring him to speak” and Inspire shattering those low expectations, paving the way for that same student becoming a presenter in front of a large audience of strangers before he left us – to the student who has grown from the 2nd percentile to the 25th percentile in reading over the course of his years here. These students exemplify Inspire’s journey – we’ve come a mighty long way…and we have a long road ahead if we are truly going to shatter glass ceilings for our students!

Join with me today and into the coming years! We must be unified. We must up our commitment to ensuring our students achieve more than we dream possible…or we must change professions. This means hard work. This means confronting improvements head on and not gossiping about challenges. This means long hours. This means non-profit pay scale. This means planning a lifestyle of healthy habits to keep ourselves at our best for the sake of those we serve. And this means doing it all joyfully because we chose this work!

This also means making a tangible difference in the lives of families and children. This also means having a role in dismantling systems within public education that devalue those with less privilege. This also means going home every night knowing you’ve done all in your power to make the world a better place. This work also means great feelings of pride when you see a child share meaningful content in a professional way at Exhibition Night. This work means being involved in student projects that restore the natural world. This means being an advocate and an ally. This means you get to speak into people’s lives and watch them grow and achieve more than they dreamt was possible.

Lives are at stake…the lives of the children we serve, and we cannot let them down. I hope each and every one of you will rally around these next steps in continuing the momentum and upping the quality of this important work. We are Inspire. We have high expectations, and those high expectations with adequate supports in place to meet those expectations are what will propel our students forward to experience deeper and broader success. Thank you for your service, and thank you for being fully present this afternoon. We will now open the floor for questions. Please text your questions to Emily Franks. She will take your texts and organize them into consolidated questions in the interest of covering as much as possible in the time available.

Raise Your Voice!

There’s one more vote tomorrow by our County Council to approve or deny our County Commissioners’ funding request for the proposed incarceration expansion.  While it feels like a losing battle right now, below is what I wrote to our County Council as one last effort to raise my voice.  I encourage you to do the same.  County Council emails are:

lbledsoe3@gmail.com
jpiper@co.delaware.in.us
councilmanscott@comcast.net
mcouncil3@sbcglobal.net
jlasater@co.delaware.in.us
rqdlctydist2@yahoo.com
cmatchett@co.delaware.in.us

Dear County Council Members,

It is my understanding that there will be a vote on the funds for the jail expansion plan at tomorrow’s County Council meeting.  I want to reach out one last time and implore you to walk in your authority to approve or deny funds and not just view this responsibility as a formality.  It is very concerning that our County Commissioners are proposing an expansion of incarceration in a county that is not expanding in population.  The fact that we have an overflowing jail in a county with a shrinking population is an indicator of problems that need a solution, not a holding cell.
  1. We need to think more creatively for solutions to improve jail conditions without expanding incarceration.
  2. Recidivism rates indicate that jails fix nothing – they are more of an expensive “time-out” for adults.
  3. We cannot commit well over 45 million dollars of public funds that are intended for community development to expand incarceration.  This is an unethical allocation of tax dollars.
  4. If there are an abundance of county tax dollars available for expenditure, let’s look at the following use of over 45 million (never mind the millions in interest):
    1. Expanding facilities funding to public charter schools, which receive zero local tax dollars, and thus run on budgets that are hundreds of thousands of dollars less per year than their district counterparts.  1 million dollars would pay off Inspire Academy’s facility and repair its roof.
    2. Improve facilities for our local school district: 10 million (1 million per school)
    3. Build a state-of-the-art addiction treatment center:  10 million
    4. Pay for inmates to be housed elsewhere during jail renovations and improvements: 3 million
    5. Jail renovations: 20 million
    6. Investment into city and county business development:  1 million
Why can we find a way to invest 45 million dollars in a school building after it is closed down and repurposed for incarceration when we can’t find a way to invest more money in schools that are open and educating young citizens?  45 million dollars can go a long way on the right projects. The jail expansion proposal that you are going to vote on tomorrow is not an ethical use of funds, and it will further our national trend of incarcerating at higher rates than any other free, developed, and democratic nation.  Voting yes tomorrow will create a stain on our county’s history books.  Please have the strength to vote no to this unethical proposal.
Sincerely,
Leslie Draper