By Amanda Litvinov
Ms. A goes to Washington
Megan Allen came to Washington with a story to tell. It’s the story of the gains the children who attend her high-needs elementary school have made, thanks in large part to the extra supports provided by federal funding for Title I and special education services and other programs.
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But it’s a story whose ending is yet unwritten. On February 21, fifth-grade teacher Megan Allen testified before a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives to explain how across-the-board sequester cuts set to go into effect one week from today could literally end dreams for students like hers at Shaw Elementary School in Tampa.
“My students live in poverty and have special needs that federal funding helps meet—for example, keeping class sizes manageable so teachers can provide individual attention and support,” said Allen in her testimony. “For my students, a low student-to-teacher ratio is a dream lifter and life changer—essential if they are to realize their full potential.”
Those students rely on Ms. A, as they call her, not only to get them up to speed academically, but to help connect them with the social supports the school offers—a lunch group for girls with low self-esteem, translators who help teachers communicate with families and school psychologists.
And whether they realize it or not, these students’ are depending on Ms. A to fight against the budget cuts that could take supports like these away.
Megan Allen talks about what school means to one of her students.
Right now, despite all of the challenges they face, Shaw students are winning county science fairs and earning top grades on the Florida report card. But that success is unsustainable without funding for the federal programs that make it possible. And that’s why educators like Allen are speaking out.
“The impact will be harshest on students like mine,” Allen told EducationVotes. “As educators we cannot sit back and let things be done to us and our students. We have to step forward and advocate for our kids, especially with the political climate the way it is and the impact it has on the students in our classrooms right now.”
A mother’s legacy
Megan Allen never expected to end up a witness in a Congressional hearing testifying on behalf of students and educators. In fact, for many years she never even expected to be an educator.
“My mother was a science teacher, and being the teenager that I was, I would never even consider going into education,” said Allen. “We were two stubborn, red-headed women living in one house.”
So she went to college to study engineering, and ended up changing her major six times before graduating with a degree in international trade and Spanish. She had no shortage of ambition; it was finding her true passion that proved difficult.
Her deepest period of soul searching had yet to begin. She was in law school when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and given only a short time to live.
“I got the chance to interact with former students were coming to visit her, some of whom had her as their teacher 20 years before and still remembered my mom’s 8th-grade science class,” Allen recalled. “I received letters and cards from them and I had an awakening, this moment where I realized the lifelong impact beyond just academics–the impact that educators have on people and society.”
“I knew I wanted to teach. Now I can’t imagine doing anything else—it’s the best job in the world.”
Allen, who is now in her 9th year of teaching, has already earned National Board certification and was named the 2010 Florida Teacher of the Year.
Ms. A’s mission: To learn and to teach
“One of the reasons I love to share stories about my students is because I learn so much from them,” said Allen. “Working in a high-poverty school, these kids are dealing with some issues that we as adults would struggle with, and they do it with a resilience that we can all learn from.”
About 90 percent of the 600 students who attend Shaw Elementary qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. As Allen shared in her statement before the House committee, she has students who are afraid of the violence in their neighborhoods, some who go hungry over the weekend, and others who are victims of abuse. She has a girl who misses school every Thursday to visit her mother in jail, and two of her boys, who are not yet 12 years old, have arrest records.
But she knows that every single one of them has dreams, and she’s on a mission to help them hold on to those “beautiful goals.”
“I realize that as teachers, we might be the main people showing a child support and telling them that they are loved. I want them to know they are appreciated, so as they go out the door I say, “Thank you for giving learning your best today, be safe, and remember that I love you.”
Last year, many of the children responded in kind, but never Michael (not his real name). He was the child that other teachers came to warn Allen about, the one who talked during quiet time and stayed silent during discussions. He usually did the opposite of what was asked of him.
“There were days I had to dig down deep to keep showing and telling him how much he meant to me, but I found it and I meant it,” Allen said.
It took time, but Michael “morphed from being a child who was very angry at the world and felt unsuccessful at school to someone who was on sports teams and the school patrol. To see that transformation in your classroom is a beautiful thing,” Allen beamed.
On the last day of school, when Ms. A. began to tear up watching her students exit her classroom for the last time, it was Michael who stayed behind, “to make sure I was OK,” Allen remembers. “That was the day he said, ‘Thanks, Ms. A., have a good summer and remember that I love you.’”
What lawmakers don’t know can hurt us all
For Allen and educators across the country, “sequester” has become a very scary word.
In Hillsborough County, where Allen teaches, 142 schools stand to lose $3 million in Title I funding. The cuts would also slash $2 million for special education, meaning a cost equivalent to educating 1,500 students with disabilities will be shifted from the federal government to the state.
“When I think about losing more funding for education, I think about all the academic supports we’ll lose—the teachers’ aides, the smaller class sizes, the reading coaches and academic intervention specialists and counselors,” said Allen.
“Simply put, I think about the 36 kids sitting in my classroom.”
The national numbers are astounding, with looming cuts of more than $3 billion reducing or stopping services for more than 7.4 million of the nation’s most vulnerable students, including those struggling with poverty, language acquisition and a range of disabilities and mental health issues.
“Additional deep, arbitrary cuts to discretionary programs will be devastating to the programs and services that ordinary Americans depend on and inflict tremendous, irreversible harm on our nation’s 50 million students, particularly those with the greatest needs,” said Dennis Van Roekel, an Arizona math teacher and president of the National Education Association.
Lawmakers have a choice: To work together to find a balanced approach that will end the fiscal standoff in Washington, or watch millions of school children and working families suffer the consequences.
Megan Allen asked Congress to think about the millions of students just like hers across the country and stop the sequester. And she asks you to share your story about how further cuts will hurt your school community.
“Some say we cannot afford to keep spending as much on education. I say we cannot afford to spend a cent less,” Allen said as she concluded her testimony. “In fact, we should be spending more. We owe it to our youngest dreamers. Our learners. Economic recovery begins in our classrooms. Investing in education is investing in the future of America. The children of today are the leaders of tomorrow—our living legacy.”