Saturday, April 26, 2008

Tempe City Council and What I Want Out of My City

This post is all about the upcoming run-off election for the Tempe city council happening on May 20th. I did about one hour's worth of research when I voted for the city council in the first election, but surprisingly came up with some pretty strong and even emotional attachments with the folks I voted for. Two of those three are running again in the run-off election. Mark Mitchell was the only candidate to win enough votes to win on the first attempt. One of the persons I voted for, Rhett Wilson, did not win enough to qualify.

Mark Mitchell, for those of you who don't know, is the son of our beloved Congressman Harry Mitchell, a fixture in Tempe, who was gracious enough to knock off the blustering incumbent and Bush apologist, J.D. Hayworth in the 2006 election. Harry Mitchell was a high school teacher at Tempe High for decades, and later won as mayor of Tempe, after that, ousted a former Bishopric member of mine for the state legislature, and is now our Congressman. There is also a statue in downtown Tempe in his honor. I suspect being his son helped Mark Mitchell win the race. His signs were even identical to Harry's.

On Thursday night, I tried to watch the two hour debate streaming on-line from Tempe Channel 11. I say tried because I was also trying to watch my kids while my wife was out for the evening. So, I really wish I could have paid more attention because it was pretty riveting, all four candidates seemed pretty well qualified, accomplished, and aware of the issues. Also, I was surprised by how much the decisions of the council (and the mayor of course) can affect my life. Perhaps they were inflating their own importance in the debate, but if they were, I was fooled.

First of all, I want to give you my run-down of the candidates. Each of them has a website, all linked from here, and most of them containing an almost formulaic list of issues they support: how much they love Tempe and its schools and how much they hate crime and blight. But if you read what they say carefully, do some googling on each candidate, read as much about them as you can possibly find (the Arizona Republic in its Tempe section is providing space on the candidates at an almost daily basis), you get a fairly interesting overview of each candidate. In that vain, here is my take on each. Also, I want to finish this post with a quick rundown of what I want from the city I live in.

Hut Hutson
He's the old guy of the group, the incumbent. He's lived in Tempe forever, been a member of a number of fraternal and community organizations, an apparent leader in the community. In the debate he seemed to have the best grasp of the issues. He seemed to give the most technical, detailed explanations. For example, when asked about the tall buildings coming into the Tempe's downtown, and what the city should do to limit size and height so as to blend in with the surrounding neighborhoods. He described Tempe's current approach by using the tent analogy. The tallest building will act as the center pole of the tent, and everything comes down on each side of this "pole" from there. With the effect that building's size blends gradually down toward the size of the single level homes in the surrounding neighborhoods. He was most excited about the prospect of Michael Crow, ASU's president, building a bunch of new student housing which should decrease the rental demand in Tempe's neighborhoods, injecting our city with an influx of affordable homes that hopefully people will buy and not rent. The high percentage of rentals in Tempe is a major issue for this city council. Let's call Hutt Hutson the John McCain of the group (I'm simple, he's the old just like McCain is old).

Joel Navarro
Joel Navarro is a fireman but has a degree in education. I think I remember his parents were also educators. He grew up in Tempe and his parents still live here, and as a result shows a sincere passion for the city. He uses his experience as a fireman, validly I believe, as evidence for his deep knowledge and appreciation for public safety. Both he and Corey Woods were the two candidates who opposed dropping the property tax rates (a huge issue as property valuations appear to be on the verge of a major increase). Instead he is in favor of getting bond elections passed so that the city government can make the many improvements the city needs. Of the four, I came away the least impressed with him in regard to his knowledge about city issues, but this is just a general impression not fully backed up by a lot of supporting evidence.

Corey Woods
Corey Woods is the youngest of the four candidates. Young, single, and full of energy at age 28. This is also his second attempt running for city council. He is not only a current ASU student pursuing a masters degree in education, but also an active member and leader in a number of organizations. He stated, humorously, that sleep isn't something he really needs. He was also the first to declare formally his intentions to run, well before anyone else. He reminds me the most of Barack Obama (I guess his race has something to do with this), but he just has so much youthful energy and passion. He was the strongest proponent of the environment, of public transportation, of supporting eclectic small businesses and promoting destinations places in the city in the vein of Changing Hands/Trader Joes/WildFlower strip mall on the Guadalupe/McClintock corner.

Julie Jakubek
Finally, Julie Jakubek is a successful businesswoman and neighborhood activist, the only one living in the heart of Tempe (in my view), in the Maple-Ash district near the city center. She was the president of the Maple/Ash neighborhood association, owns her own business winning businesswoman of the year recently. She also won beautification awards for the re-modeling work she has done on her house. In the debate, she was quick to tout her business experience, and that because of it she would be ready to balance the books on day one. Maybe she will also have a 3am phone call commercial, so on that note we'll have to call her the Hillary Clinton of the group.

So, for this election, we get to vote for two candidates. I actually think all four seem really qualified to win, but in my eyes, two stand out: Corey Woods and Julie Jakubek.

Corey Woods: He just has the most energy of the group, that much was clear in the debates. He is also the most vocal of all candidates to express views on issues I care most about, transportation, support for small, locally owned businesses, destination places in Tempe. I think his youth and his connection to ASU is an asset. ASU is a major fixture in Tempe, and our city government needs to have a strong relationship with it.

Julie Jakubek: Personally, I think the Maple/Ash neighborhood is part of the heart and soul of Tempe. It is one of its oldest neighborhoods with an obvious geographic connection to the downtown area. Someone who not only lives there, but has been a neighborhood activist there would inevitably be a strong and important resource in the city council. She expresses a strong desire for city and neighborhood beautification which is also an issue very important to me.

I struggled over Hut Hutson. I think his age, experience and knowledge are extremely important, and would hate to lose that. But, I just think the two other candidates bring more relevant perspectives.

Joel Navarro also seems like another good candidate. I didn't get the sense that his grasp of the issues were as deep as the others, but again, I just felt like the Jakubek and Woods have more to offer. Finally, both Jakubek and Woods were endorsed by the Arizona Republic, which definitely has had an influence on me.

I want to conclude this post with a quick summary of what I want out of my city. This view is heavily influenced by Richard Florida's book, The Rise of the Creative Class . In this book, Florida describes the cities that are thriving as those that can attract the knowledge workers that make up the creative class: the artists, poets, and writers are obvious members. But the group includes software developers, businesspeople, finance. Anyone whose job requires high levels of creativity and self-autonomy. His point is that creative people tend to congregate in cities that accommodate the things creative people seek.

Primary examples of creative class cities are San Fransisco (which can include San Jose), New York City, Boston, and Austin. These cities tend to have really good universities, are ultra-tolerant, have a vibrant downtown and an active and deep arts and music scene. In regards to the tolerance issue, Florida has created what he calls the gay index. Mapping the gay population correlates closely to the creative hubs in our country. This fact has a lot to do with tolerance factor. The homosexual population will simply congregate toward tolerant locations. This attitude of tolerance is important for everyone because it provides all types of people low barriers of entry, where they can jump in and instantly contribute.

Creative class cities also are cities with vibrant downtowns, downtowns that have vibrant high brow (world class symphonies, ballets, and art museums) and low brow (the local gallery, local theater productions). In our valley, Phoenix is the city with the most happening and the most potential. It has the largest downtown with a lot of history, the best art museums, the most art. The first Friday's art walk are the closest we have to New York City style energy. I love how we are close to opening a light rail that will connect Tempe's downtown with Phoenix's. I also love that Tempe's downtown is growing up, promoting more density and hopefully more pedestrian traffic, which will also hopefully encourage a vibrant array of businesses and activities. I'm saddened though that so many of the coolest stores have either moved out of downtown or have closed up altogether, and that so much of downtown has become so trendy and generic.

All in all, though, I love Tempe, I love its botanical gardens, its parks, its library. We just opened up the Tempe Marketplace, which is as generica America as a place can get complete with a wide assortment of uninteresting chain stores. But even still, the southwest Shakespeare company are right now in the midst of doing a five day straight dramatic reading of every single one of Shakespeare's plays right in the midle of the "District" section of Tempe Marketplace. This is the kind of thing that happens all the time in NYC. I cannot tell you how happy I get when something like this happens here. I dragged my kids there yesterday evening to hear a small portion of Hamlet. It was tremendously cool. Especially seeing these 12 or 13 year old kids with copies of Hamlet in hand reading along. Very cool.

So, I love Tempe, I'm excited by some of the things Michael Crow is trying to do with ASU, trying to make it a world class university. Back to the "Creative Class", I think I read that the GDP of companies spawned from MIT would rival most of the countries in the world. World class universities do a lot to spawn a cool, vibrant, an economically strong city.

I also think this city has a ton of diversity and tolerance, some of which inevitably comes from the university of course. When we were first looking for a house, we tried hard to find something near downtown Phoenix. Tempe was our fall back option, but it has been quite a nice place to fall back into. I am also heartened by the quality of candidates running for our city council.

Finally, in the debate Julie Jakubek talked about how approximately 160,000 people live in Tempe, but in the first city council election only about 16,000 people voted, and that election included the mayor. The run-off will probably only attract around 10,000 voters. Here's hoping this post encourages a few more people to cast their votes. One thing is for sure, what our city government does has a direct influence on our quality of life, our local economy, our tax rates, and our families. We owe it to ourselves to get involved.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Corona High School

I know most of you aren't immediately affected by this news, but it's absolutely astounding. Basically, there's a high school in the city I live in, Tempe, AZ, that because of poorly designed ventilation system has four times the levels of carbon dioxide of what is considered safe. As a result, there have been documented cases of asthma and even brain tumors and cancers...

You would think that such a thing would prompt direct action by the government, but no, they are still trying to get funding for the repairs:

"But last week the board voted unanimously to accept a judge's decision to uphold the board's 2007 decision to deny the funds. Tempe Union High School District officials estimate it will cost $11 million to $12 million to finish upgrading the ventilation system."

So, just think, we as a society are willing to shell out the bucks for bigger vehicles, bigger houses, even bigger barbecue grills so that we can show off how much more we have than our neighbors, but we are unwilling to spend the money on our infrastructure at expense of our health.

But more than that, an economist has recently pegged the current cost of the Iraq war at $3 trillion. That's money that's largely been flushed down the toilet. If you don't think our current economic troubles are not directly a result of this war, you're wrong. Just think what we could have done with that money.

Here's the article:

A postscript: My wife was nice enough to let me attend the parents meeting to discuss this problem. Here are my insights from that meeting. The details are a little murky:

1) First of all, driving down to the meeting (located in a library
right next to the high school), I was reminded that this area of
Tempe is relatively affluent. Driving by the high school, I was struck by how
new and modern it looked from the outside.

2) The school is apparently pretty high achieving. The kids that
go there do really well and score pretty high in achievement tests
especially compared to other kids. They talked about this fact as
to why it would be difficult to prove statistically the health
effects causing problems in the kids. Because even with this, they
still show up and achieve.

3) Many of the parents were frustrated. The study was done in
2006, but many of the parents only heard about it recently. They
were angry because by law the administration were supposed to inform
the parents of this issue, especially parents with asthmatic kids.
(I'm a little fuzy about the legal details here).

4) The problem is inherintly a problem with the design. As a
result of a bad design, the ventillation is poor. As a result, they
were concerned with mold and CO2.

5) Also, there has not been follow up studies since, almost as if
the district has been, for all intense and purposes ignoring this
issue. Som parents wanted to sue the school over it.

I'm not clear on all the details, but there were some definite
strong feelings. I just want to say, though, I'm sure there are
similar problems (and worse) that occur in low income/minority
schools that aren't getting the publicity or the parent activism.

I left the meeting thinking, ok, I will support their efforts, even
though I don't have kids in that area. But will they lend their support to lower income communities that have even more severe problems? Somehow I doubted

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Why We are Homeschooling

Not too many people would agree with me, but I do have a rebellious spirit inside of me. It's wildly constrained by fear, but I do rebel. I like to turn against the status quo at times, to do something unique only to me, swim against the tide, establish my own identity. But I just don't rebel for random reasons, I have to have really, really good reasons. I need to have a great story to explain my rebellion, so that I can justify it to others. Maybe, so that I may even get someone else to join me...

Also, if I cannot think of a really, really good reason, than I not only don't rebel, I actually conform extremely. During high school, I was terrified to dress up for Halloween, way too risky. I remember church dances in junior high and high school, agonizing over what I should wear so I wouldn't stand out. I remember one night, I came without a tie when one was required, and I was humiliated and my night was ruined. So I guess, my natural urge has been to conform, to fit in, but every now and again, I have a need to rebel, and for me, my biggest regrets have been when I haven't, either out of fear or laziness or both.

So, that is what home schooling is for me, in the end, my rebellion, and my kids get to pay for it. But I do have really good reasons for this rebellion. Darn good ones. The number one reason for this particular rebellion, is that one of my biggest hopes and dreams for my children is that they will grow up as much better rebels than me. So in that spirit, I want my kids to join me in my rebellion. And what better way to rebel than through home schooling.

It's like we're taking a middle finger to all of society and saying, forget you, you suck, we can do it better. But it's more than that. Think of all the rock and roll songs from the 1980's. There were so many anti-school ones: "Schools out for the Summer. Schools out forever." One of my funnest experiences is to commiserate with a youth about how home work sucks and why can't you get all the school work done while you're at school anyway.

My bad feelings for public school runs pretty deep. For one, I am bitter about how little school prepared me for the real-world. Granted, that responsibility should belong to the parents, but my parents, unfortunately, were not prepared for the real world themselves, and suffered for it all of their lives. So, they did what they could, but largely they had to rely upon the public school system. And you would think that if you spend seven to eight hours a day, five days a week for twelve solid years before you graduate from high school, school should have done a little more for me than it did. In fact, I probably spent more time at school than I did at home. And public schooling just did not live up to my own high expectations for it. Remember too, I was a good student, a really good student, graduating number three in my high school class. And I was not prepared.

Sure, I was able to go to college, graduate in a reasonable amount of time, find a good job out of college at a major company, and I have been gainfully employed ever since. But consider, that company, Motorola is now almost gone. I worked for ten years there, and largely, the work I did went down the toilet. My first project was a government boondoggle that cost Motorola and later General Dynamics and of course the government far more money to develop it than what they got in return. I had another project that ended in complete failure and a cancellation. My last project there was successful, but I had already been working in industry for ten years before I experienced success.

But the problem wasn't the failures, the problem was the only place I really felt safe, the only place I was really able to get a job was at a large defense company that had a lot of room to blow money. There was very little risk there. And yes, I blame public school for that because I graduated from high school without a clue how I wanted to pursue a career. Check out my earlier blog post to get the full, gory details. Bottom line, what's the use of school, if you can't both build a foundation for learning and find some direction for your career and for the rest of your life. College didn't even really help me with that, in fact college is not even designed for that, especially the engineering department. They kind of already assume you have made your career decisions and then offer you resources to help you achieve your goals. I hadn't really made an informed decision, so I was not prepared to take full advantage of my university experience.

So back to homeschooling.

I remember reading the first article that started swaying me toward the home schooling path. The article described our school system as a left over from the industrial age. During this time, our economy shifted toward very labor intensive factory work. A large number of workers were required to work in the factories. These workers had to be able to follow orders, show up on time, and adhere to a schedule. So, the school system's primary job, at the time, was to produce a large number of people who were able to do just that.

That sort of argument resonated with me. What was my school life like? It was very authoritative. A teacher as the monarch of the classroom and the source of all knowledge. School work completely laid out for me with an assigned schedule. And school was boring most of the time. The textbooks were terrible.

My turning point came, though, when I read The Arizona Republic which has this arts section in its Sunday morning paper, and in it there is always a book review section. Early in our marriage I came across a review of the Well Educated Mind. Well, the author of that book, also wrote The Well Trained Mind, and this is the book I gave to my wife for her birthday. I can't remember why I did this exactly, but it has largely changed our lives. The book is all about home schooling, and it provides a very detailed description on how to do it for each grade all the way through high school. The book describes schooling in a way that made me wish I could have had an experience like that. Complete with Latin and foreign language studies. In high school, the student creates a Junior and Senior year projects that allow the student to focus in on an area of interest. The program is a classical education approach, where the student goes through three stages of learning, the grammar stage, the logic stage, and the rhetoric stage. The student also learns in a historically linear fashion, learning science, history, and literature in lockstep historically when we has human beings learned them. Very cool, because of the focus on the inter-relationships of subjects, the reiteration of material, and the challenge of it.

But more than that, it offered an appealing alternative, another approach, a new way.

Reading this book, I was, for the first time, legitimately excited about homeschooling. At the time, I wished I could stay home to do it, while Sara went out to work. By the way, it was essential that Sara has wanted to home school for her entire life. The real reason we are homeschooling is because she wants to do it. Homeschooling is more than a full time job, and since I have to work, I am not much more than a homeschooling cheerleader and very part-time assistant to my wife.

But reading this book started on our journey of homeschooling exploration, and now we have begun, our oldest daughter taking kindergarten in our home.

But homeschooling is a rebellion, despite the fact that many more people are engaging in it than in the past. It is a rebellion because when parents take this journey, they are saying we will take our children down a completely individualized and specialized educational path. We will prepare our children in the way we see fit. True, we may take advantage of resources out in the community, but in the end, we decide which resource to partake in.

Before I was married, I was taking a martial arts class, and I remember the teacher saying (I don't remember the context) that religious pursuit is an individual path. I agree. I also think that education is an individual path. That for each of us there is an individually right time to learn something. Consider this quote from the essay "Why you should blog":

Often I'll get discouraged because I feel like I'm writing about things that have already been discussed into the ground by others. The thing I have to remember is that there's a "right time" to learn something, and it's different for everyone. For example, many universities teach the Scheme programming language to undergrads, in the sort of desperate hope that the students will understand why they're learning it. Most of them don't, and I was no exception. Some people don't get it for years, and some people never get it. I had to spend almost two decades writing over a million lines of production code in twenty-odd programming languages before I finally got it. It just wasn't "time" for me yet. Now understanding Scheme and its peers are my own personal quest, but I shouldn't expect it to be that way for everyone.

And that, in essence is the source of my frustration with the way our school system works. I remember feeling bouts of panic because maybe I didn't fully internalize some concept in school, and feeling like it was everlastingly too late now and that I was destined never to get anything else on that topic because I never mastered the foundational stuff. This is a real fear because so many kids fall behind and can never catch up because our school system is just not designed to accommodate individual learning tracks.

How much better our society would be if parents partnered with the school system and with their children were able to chart an individualized path of learning for the child, at least until the child was old enough to chart their own path.

I heard this thought expressed in a different way in an interview I listened to several years back with V.S. Naipul shortly after he won the nobel prize for literature in 2001. He said that to understand works of Shakespeare or other great literature you have to have already experienced pain yourself. Because of that requirement, it is impossible for a high school kid to get it, and that the only utility for exposing a teenager to these works is for exposure...

Interesting idea, but important too that we engage in a quest of life long learning, and that quest is individual. Instead our school system is set up to fail a child because he doesn't get a concept at the exact time it is presented, or to put on a pedestal another child who may be lucky enough to be ready for the information when it is presented.

But back to rebellion. This is something I want my children to learn how to do. But I don't want my kids to rebel just to rebel, or to do it out of anger or spite. That sort of rebellion is not honest. I want them to do it in the spirit of Bob Dylan: if "you live outside the law, you must be honest". Sometimes a rebellious path will look to the outsider like conformity, but often it will look just as it is. Because ultimately, a rebel is someone who is true to themselves, someone not afraid to go down the path that only they can walk down. The book, "Girls Gone Mild" , in my mind describes a much deeper sort of rebellion than those of the "Girls Gone Wild" genre. In fact, the latter group are conforming in the deepest most tragic sense. Giving themselves away to the pleasure of others who have no clue who these girls are.

I still remember the description my college student ward bishop gave regarding the scripture Luke 22:31. Here, Jesus tells Peter that Satan would like to sift him as wheat. My Bishop, if I remember correctly, described this desire of Satan to make Peter ordinary and just like everyone else. But to be extraordinary, is to adhere to our internal voice, something that is uniquely us, and since we are all children of God, our true identify will be discovered only as we draw closer to God.

So true rebellion only exists as we rebel from the influences of the world in favor of a path that leads us to God. Ironically enough.

Looking back, I wish I was more prepared for this sort of rebellion. It takes almost a supernatural self-confidence to do so. The modern day rebels I admire in my industry, are those young kids who right after getting their computer science degrees, move to San Jose to try their hands at a startup. Coming up with new industries, new business models, new ways to change the world, coming up with the next Facebook or the next YouTube, or the next Google.

Becoming a rebel is my lifelong quest. Through homeschooling, I hope that my kids can get there more quickly.