Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Hunger Strike Ended: The #FightForDyett Continues

A week ago, the hunger strike by community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago fighting to re-open Dyett High School as an open enrollment, neighborhood school with a focus on global leadership and green technology came to a close.  Two hunger strikers had already dropped their action due to growing health concerns, and the remaining members decided that their victories warranted living to fight on.  They have sent a ringing message about the importance of community schools and community voices. Despite the stubborn refusal of Chicago Public Schools to endorse their years in the making plan which included numerous Chicago institutions and thorough research and despite Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s petty refusal to acknowledge the hunger strikers without being forced, there are genuine victories that can be attributed to these activists.  Before the hunger strike, they forced CPS to commit to reopening the school.  During the hunger strike, CPS announced its idea of a “compromise” to make the school open enrollment but without the focus on global leadership and green technology.

Shortly after the hunger strike ended, Jitu Brown, spoke with Robin Hiller of the Network for Public EducationMr. Brown, who participated in the hunger strike, is a lifelong resident of Chicago’s south side, a long time community organizer with the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, and the national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance.  After briefly describing what must have been the best bowl of soup in his life, Mr. Brown explained to Ms. Hiller what he saw as the strikers’ accomplishments:

“We’re very clear on the accomplishments that have come as the result of, not just the hunger strike, but the work of organized parents and students in Bronzeville. You know, last year we rallied together and we made the district commit to reopening it.  The district tried to run a runaround on us and make it a contract school.  And this year we won that fight, and it will be a public open enrollment neighborhood school. We are in conversation with the district because we will not, we will definitely be part of the infrastructure regarding how that school is developed.  There’s some agreement on using the green technology and global leadership as staples in the curriculum.  So we, at 34 days, as people began to get seriously ill, you had a number of people that had been hospitalized, and the response from the city let us know they would let us rot.  And the fight is bigger than this fight for Dyett High School. We are winning this fight, and we will continue to win it.”

It is important to note that among the dozens of schools closed under Rahm Emanuel’s watch, the Dyett High School campaign is unique in getting a closed school reopened and in preserving it as an open enrollment school governed by the Chicago Public Schools instead of turned over to private contractors seeking to earn profits off of public education.

Mr. Brown was also very clear about the central challenge in the fight for public education — inequity and the glaring examples of it within Chicago that reflect shameful national trends.  While the Bronzeville activists were starving for the sake of an open enrollment school, Mayor Emanuel, who has consistently claimed budget woes while closing schools in predominantly minority communities, unveiled the plans for a $21 million annex to relieve overcrowding at the Abraham Lincoln Elementary School and a $14 million dollar annex at Wildwood World Magnet School — both of which are majority white.  Mr. Brown noted how often it is that the greatest disruption and the greatest deprivation of resources are inflicted upon schools that serve the neediest children – schools that are then deemed failures and turned over to privatized operators:

“There’s a huge fight now that I hope this hunger strike has helped to energize and that is the fight for sustainable community schools not only in Chicago but around the country.  You shouldn’t have cities like New Orleans where the largest base of African American home owners in the United States are labeled as refugees and their city is taken from them. They lose their county hospital. They lose their schools and now virtually every school in New Orleans is run by a private company that makes a profit off of administering what is supposedly a human right.  Children in New Orleans have a perfectly good school across the street but they can’t go because they didn’t win the lottery to go.”

Mr. Brown also expounded upon the challenges that will face the community now that the hunger strike is over and that Chicago Public Schools will move ahead, having signaled they are not open to genuinely listening to the community itself:

“Where we go from here is we sent a message to the district is that you can no longer come into communities and snatch away the institutions that our taxes pay for and that you will respect community voice or you will meet community outrage. What we need to realize now is that the privatization movement needs to die…..There is no such thing as school choice in black communities. This should be a clear illustration of that to everyone. We chose a neighborhood school. We chose global leadership and green technology. And they fought back against it because they are not used to black people practicing self determination. But we have that right as any other community does to say this is what we want for our children.”

This work ahead is going to be difficult.  Already, CPS is signaling that while they moved ahead with Dyett as an open enrollment school, they have no intention of including the community in its operation.  On the 24th, CPS announced that the new principal of the re-opened school will be Bronzeville resident and current principal of Clark Magnet High School, Beulah McLoyd.  While Mr. Brown said that Ms. McLoyd is an excellent educator, he expressed concern that, yet again, the community members who have demonstrated unwavering commitment to the school were not included in any discussions about the school’s leadership.  The Chicago Sun Times also reported that local council elections to run the school will not be held for at least three years, meaning decision making can completely bypass the neighborhood.  As if to drive home this point, CPS held a hearing on the boundaries of the re-opened school, but they held it in the evening on Friday – at their downtown headquarters, almost 7 miles by I-94 from Walter Dyett High School.  From The Sun Times:

“They want to appear with this hearing that they gave the community an opportunity to speak out. But it’s 6 p.m. on a Friday night. This should have been held in the community,” said Bronzeville resident Anthony Travis. “This turnout is what they wanted so they can go back and say, ‘Oh, the community didn’t care.’ But that’s not true. People went on a hunger strike, went to jail for Dyett. I got arrested twice. For them to pull this shenanigan makes no sense.”

The “sense” is sadly the kind of sense all too prevalent in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago and in many cities whose underfunded and sabotaged schools serve students in poverty: the “sense” of community silence where people from outside the community determine what is or is not available.  Mayor Emanuel’s CPS gave just enough to say to the press that they “met” the protestor’s “halfway” but it will shut them out of every other decision making process for as long as possible.

In the face of that, it is remarkable that Mr. Brown and his fellow activists remain positive, but the vision that drives the #FightForDyett is one that can energize an entire movement to maintain our public education system as a public good as well as an individual good.  Near the end of his interview, he said:

“My lived experience working with children – and I’ve worked with African American children, I’ve taught white children, I’ve taught Latino children – my experience is that all children need is consistency, love, and opportunity. And that consistency has to be constant opportunity, constant equity, constant belief that they can be anything. And that is demonstrated by the places we put them in, the opportunities we give them. Every child can excel. There is no group of people who is better than the others. We are different. You know, we have different cultures, but we all bring something…. and we should not stand for inequity.  Because an inequitable school system an inequitable system denies us the joy of knowing each other. It denies us the joy of building a country together. Building a community together. Building a system together. And we have for too long – I mean our white brothers and sisters, but I mean as Americans period — we’ve ignored the racism that flows through this country, that feeds it like food. We’ve ignored it.”

Constant opportunity. Constant equity.  Constant belief.  And a recognition that as a nation we have a long way to go before we can claim to be past the racist legacy of our history.  That’s a set of core beliefs we should all be able to acknowledge if we truly care about all children.


Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Corruption, Social Justice

Ahmed Mohamed’s Clock And Teachers Checking Themselves

Unless you were on an Internet and media blackout this week, you heard about Ahmed Mohamed, the 14 year old high school student in Irving, Texas whose homemade clock got him detained by police and suspended from school for making a “hoax bomb.”  Young Mr. Mohamed is an avid tinkerer and builder who is frequently photographed in a NASA t-shirt and whose fondest wish is apparently to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and his clock was one of his many home projects which he wished to share with his engineering teacher. Unfortunately, another of Mr. Mohamed’s teachers was suspicious of the clock, failing to understand that wires, circuit boards, and LED displays do not explode, called in administrators who called in police, and the result was Mr. Mohamed finding himself detained in handcuffs and then suspended from school:

Unfortunately, Irving Mayor Beth Van Duyne openly defended both the school and the police, and actually voiced  concern that the incident could deter police from investigating potential threats instead of showing the least concern that bright and inquisitive student inventors are already deterred from letting anyone know they love science and inventing.  Then again, Mayor Van Duyne is known for campaigning against imaginary threats of Sharia law, so we should not expect much.

The chief of police in Irving, Larry Boyd, also defended his officers, even while admitting that they determined quickly that the clock was not a bomb.  Given that information, Mr. Mohamed’s detention and suspension are even more outrageous, and the insistence of authorities that those actions were justified because they believed the clock was a “hoax bomb” looks like a pathetically thin cover for a series of prejudiced assumptions.  Mr. Mohamed never said that his clock was a bomb and demonstrated no interest in trying to trick people into thinking it was a bomb.  The school obviously concluded it was not a bomb very quickly since they took no actions to get students to safety.  To believe the “logic” of school officials and the Irving police, you have to believe that the word “hoax” requires only the ignorant assumptions of others rather than any intention to deceive on the part of the accused.

Mr. Mohamed's Next Invention?

Mr. Mohamed’s Next Invention?

From one perspective, Mr. Mohamed’s misfortune has yielded some positive results. As his story circulated, he gained positive feedback from national leaders and figures in technology and innovations.  President Obama’s twitter feed issued an invitation to take the clock to the White House:

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave Mr. Mohamed a standing offer to visit the company headquarters and meet him:

As did Google:

He got a shout out from NASA:

And, perhaps the icing on the cake, an astrophysics professor from MIT invited the young inventor to visit the campus, and said he was the kind of student the institution likes.

So – there’s a bit of lemonade from this.

Which is good because it is disgraceful that it came to a point where any of us have heard of Ahmed Mohamed.  Instead of being given the kudos and encouragement he deserved from those who knew him and were entrusted with his well being, he was humiliated and punished for nothing more than being a curious and inventive student.  Assume for a moment, that his English teacher’s confusion and suspicion of the clock was justified.  I don’t actually want to because it betrays a really staggering amount of STEM illiteracy to look at an LED display, a circuit board, some wiring, and a plug for a wall outlet…

Note the complete lack of explosives.

Note the complete lack of explosives.

…and fail to conclude that it is safe.  But fine, assume the English teacher was not reacting out of absurd and prejudiced impulses.  The entire issue could have been settled in less than a minute with the following conversation:

English Teacher: “Hi, Ahmed.  What’s that thing that beeped?”

Ahmed: “Oh, it’s a clock I made at home and brought to show my engineering teacher.”

English Teacher: “You made a clock at home? Yourself?”

Ahmed: “Uh-huh.”

English Teacher: “That’s pretty cool! Can you show us how it works?  Then maybe make sure it doesn’t interrupt class again, please?”

There, done. “Problem” solved. No national story, here.  Just a kid getting an appropriate level of recognition for doing something cool.   Instead, the sequence of events went like this: His English teacher KEPT the clock (despite claiming it looked like a bomb), Mr. Mohamed was pulled out of a later period by the principal and a police officer, he was queried about trying to make a bomb whereupon he repeated that he had made a clock, taken from school to the police station, handcuffed, fingerprinted, questioned without his parents where he said his last name was brought up repeatedly, and accused of bringing a “hoax bomb” to school with three teachers listed as complainants. The police claimed that Mr. Mohamed was being “passive aggressive” with them, and claimed “We attempted to question the juvenile about what it was and he would simply only say it was a clock. He didn’t offer any explanation as to what it was for, why he created this device, why he brought it to school.”

Here’s a little explanation for the officers: It’s a clock. It tells time.  If Mr. Mohamed made a clock and would “only say it was a clock” it is probably because it. is. a. clock.

Look, running a school is a difficult and uncertain business, constantly fraught with circumstances you never expected.  One of my favorite stories illustrating how hard it is to be school principal is from some years back when an elementary school in Montana had to make a new rule for show and tell after a student’s mother brought a dead bat in a shoe box — and 90 kids had to get rabies shots.  Imagine the poor school principal having to revamp the school rules in the wake of that.  The school probably had anticipated various things not appropriate for show and tell, but I am betting nobody had ever thought of a “please do not bring in diseased infested carrion you found in your barn”.  That’s the sort of thing that makes running a school and a classroom so unusual – you can think of every possible circumstance imaginable, but 25 kids and their parents and guardians can almost always confound your imagination.

So schools are charged with keeping everyone safe within their walls, and we live in an age where schools have tried to respond to real and imagined threats with especially harsh rules that have ugly consequences.  But what happened to Ahmed Mohamed had nothing to do with keeping the school safe. His teacher suggested the clock looked like a bomb despite what he told her, but she kept it instead of immediately evacuating the classroom. Mr. Mohamed was questioned by the principal and the police that the administration had summoned without asking for a bomb disposal specialist.  Mr. Mohamed repeatedly said to his teacher, to the administration, and to the police that he had made a clock, and yet he was finally accused of making a “hoax bomb” despite trying to to tell everyone and anyone who would listen that it was a clock – which it is – making the “hoax” accusation laughable.

At every stage of this disaster, the adults who had authority over Ahmed Mohamed and who had professional and ethical obligations to care for his rights and well being could have stepped back and stopped, but they did not.

It is impossible to escape looking at the very real likelihood that he was suspected of mischief because of prejudice against his name and his religion. None of the adults gave him the benefit of the doubt, and even though they had to have quickly concluded that the clock was entirely safe, they still could not entertain the notion that he had made it and brought it to school for the understandable reason that he wanted to show off what he could do for a teacher he hoped to impress.  Instead of backing off, they doubled down on their initial errors, compounding them with new ones.  Instead of acting to keep their students safe, they invented an entirely bogus reason to justify their initial prejudice, and violated the rights and trust of a young man who ought to have impressed them.

Teachers and administrators are not perfect people.  We have prejudices and irrational impulses, and it is impossible to banish all of them from our actions every single day.  But it is absolutely vital to pause and check yourself.  Ahmed Mohamed’s English teacher could have settled this with a simple and quick conversation.  If that teacher insisted on clearing that impression with an administrator, that person should have quickly recognized the innocuous nature of the clock and returned it.  At worst, the principal could have had a simple conversation with the young man and logically understood that when someone keeps calling a clock a clock, it is ridiculous to assume he intends to trick people into thinking it is a bomb.  Ideally, the educators involved should have been embarrassed by their initial assumptions and fears and what spawned them, but at a minimum, they should have recognized their responsibility to Ahmed Mohamed as soon as it was obvious that he had a clock.

Unchecked prejudices lead to unfounded fears, and in this case, they led to far worse.  Every teacher has to be aware of her or his personal flaws and prejudices, and has to constantly check her or his actions against them to strive for fair and ethical treatment of every student.  Nobody did that for Ahmed Mohamed.


Filed under Media, racism, Social Justice, teaching

Announcing the iSchool, or Something

Apple CEO Steve Jobs was not known as a philanthropist during his lifetime, but his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, had a significant track record in philanthropic endeavors by the time of his death in 2011.  Educated with a Stanford MBA and with experience as a trader in Goldman Sachs, Ms. Powell Jobs has an extensive record in philanthropic activities since at least 1997, and education appears to be a specific interest. Beginning with a mentoring program for first time minority college attendees, she now sits on the boards of a number of familiar organizations such as Teach for America, New Schools Venture Fund, and Stand for Children.  According to her “Inside Philanthropy” profile, Ms. Powell Jobs is interested in education reforms that are “results driven” which is education philanthropy speak for “raises test scores”.  Hardly surprising, since her board memberships are groups that contribute to the deprofessionalization of teaching (TFA), raise capital for charter school ventures and advocate legislatures to allow charter school teacher training “academies” (New Schools Venture Fund), and which consistently attack teachers’ workplace protections and advocate for increasing the role of test scores in education and teacher evaluation (Stand For Children).

It should not, therefore, be a great surprise when The New York Times announced that she would donate $50 million towards a new education venture “to rethink high school.”  The effort is called “XQ: The Super School Project” and Ms. Powell Jobs said in an interview, “The system was created for the work force we needed 100 years ago. Things are not working the way we want it to be working. We’ve seen a lot of incremental changes over the last several years, but we’re saying, ‘Start from scratch.’ ”  This “from scratch” take on the American High School essentially looks like a grant program from the pot of $50 million that will eventually be distributed to 5 to 10 grantees sometime in the next year.

I know they are serious about this.  They’re advertising on bus kiosks in Manhattan:

super schools

The project website tells you precious little about the values of the project itself, which might be a good sign if they are serious about soliciting widely for actual, community based, ideas for school experimentation instead of just opening the doors for a bunch of ready made “disruptors” already at work tearing down public education.  The composition of her core team as reported in The Times is not encouraging. There is a consultant named Keith Yamashita who has worked apparently mainly in technology and start ups.  Russlynn H. Ali is the former undersecretary of education for civil rights under Secretary Arne Duncan and has been working with Ms. Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective.  More troubling is the presence of former senior adviser to New York City Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, Michelle Cahill.

Education blogger, author, and Louisiana teacher Mercedes Schneider once dubbed Chancellor Klein as “The Man From Whom Nothing Good Comes,” and I’d daresay he earned the title.  Certainly, the Klein Chancellor’s office unleashed a fair deal of havoc on Newark when Mark Zuckerberg’s 100 million dollar grant to remake the city’s schools was announced.  Former Klein insider, Chris Cerf, created a consulting firm that hoovered up a fair amount of the available cash, and Cerf himself moved in 2010 to the New Jersey State Commissioner’s office, meaning he was now overseeing the district. Klein’s NYC department of education also provided Newark with Superintendent Cami Anderson, whose disastrous tenure is chronicled by retired Star Ledger journalist Bob Braun.  Cerf and Anderson are most directly responsible for turning the Zuckerberg donation into the “One Newark” system, and Mark Webber helps fill in the holes in the most recent accounts of how that has turned out – especially in regards to Brick City’s charter sector.  Short version: Joel Klein’s office provided a significant portion of the reform “talent” that spent lavishly on consultants and threw the city’s schools into an incompetently and callously managed mess that has benefited the biggest charter operators most of all.

So let’s just say that the presence of another member of Joel Klein’s inner circle in a grant program to “rethink” schools requires serious skepticism.  At least the amount of money being spent is only half of a Zuckerberg, and it will be spread around rather than dropped into a single school district with the intention of blowing the entire kit and caboodle up.

However, I’d like the challenge two premises of the entire endeavor.  The first premise is that we still have the high school we created “for the workforce 100 years ago.”  In some respects this is actually true.  The school model based upon a set of discrete subjects taught in Carnegie units with students moving from subject to subject during the day was an organizational choice of the early 20th century.  Similarly, the comprehensive high school and extra curricular activities and sports with which we are familiar were choices incubated in the Progressive Era — none of these came down with Moses on Mt. Sinai.  However, to suggest that the school structure you recognize as school is somehow rooted in place, unchanging and incapable of meeting more modern needs, is not supported by evidence.

For example, that same school structure that Ms. Powell Jobs says was created for the workforce “100 years ago” has also graduated the workforces of the 1950s and 1960s as well as the workforces of the 1980s and 1990s – all economic periods vastly different than 1915. If one were to cite threats to the workforce in 2015, one would have to look at falling union membership, declines in wages for recent college graduates, a young work force burdened by mounting debt, corporate hoarding, unmet infrastructure needs, and taxation policies that have abetted income inequality before looking at how most ninth graders will study English for 50 minutes before moving on the their Algebra class.  Schools contribute to the shaping of the workforce, but they do not create the economic demands for workers that necessitate that workforce on their own.  And the reality is that the American economy has grown leaps and bounds with this same school system.  In fact, from 1929 to 2015 “real” Gross Domestic Product in 2009 dollars (opens in Excel) grew from 1056.6 billion dollars to 16,324.3 billion dollars — all with that school system lamented as being designed for the workforce of 1915.  Not bad.

Further, schools have changed in the past century, in meaningful and significant ways.  The landmark report, 120 Years of American Education: A Statistical Portrait from the Department of Education’s Center for Education Statistics details a school system that has made vast developments in both the reach and equity of the system over time.  From the general formation of the comprehensive high school, the institution has continued to expand both the population it includes and the services it provides within its walls, reflecting major changes in how society views the reach of the political franchise.  Consider these two charts:

Total School Enrollments 5-19 year olds

Total high school completion by race

Similar progress and change can be seen in statistics relating to the educational attainment of women and to the number of children with disabilities being accommodated within public schools.  And these statistics on increased participation, completion, and services provided do not account for changes in subject matter content over time as well. The fact is that there are many things about our high schools that have been significantly dynamic over the past 100 years.

The second premise that needs to be challenged is that the schools we need should represent a “start from scratch” approach.  There are powerful ideas for change that many districts could implement with very little difficulty.  In their historical study Tinkering Toward Utopia: a Century of Public School Reform, scholars David Tyack and Larry Cuban demonstrated that many “big ideas” for school reform tended to be changed by school as much as they changed school, but that certain little ideas can have substantial impact.  For example, a simple offset of classroom walls creating niches changed the way teachers used their space substantially.  So while the XQ little marquee questions “What if we take our desks outside?” “What if learning is a game?” “What if we knock down these walls?” – I am left wondering “what more will you get with $50 million than 5-10 boutique programs that may not be scalable while you could be trying to leverage more meaningful changes within the existing system that already serves almost 15 million high school students?”

The fact is that we have some pretty good ideas already about what would leverage substantial change in our schools. Some of these ideas are larger than others and would require significantly more political capital to achieve.  However, if Ms. Powell Jobs is actually serious about our schools being “the great equalizers they were meant to be,” she should shake off the “disruptive start up” mentality of the XQ project and put her talents to work on some of the following ideas that never seem to make it into education reform’s portfolio of strategies:

  • Integration: It matters, for both the majority and minority populations that are integrated, and we have historic evidence to demonstrate this.  The decrease in achievement gaps between white and black students as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress closed rapidly and for a sustained period of time in the 1970s and early1980s before the cumulative impacts of white flight and abandonment of fair housing and integration policies stalled progress.  Since then, racial and economic segregation have increased vastly, to the great detriment of our students and their schools which saw an initial, large, burst of the gap closing after NCLB only to see it stall again.  While the issue of the achievement gap is extremely multifaceted and overlaps with declines and rises in child poverty, integration of our communities and schools remains an important and currently unutilized tool in school improvement.
  • Fair Funding: Advocates of current reforms like to scoff at school funding, but the reality is we maintain a perversely unfair and inadequate system of school finance that all but guarantees wealthy communities can fund the schools that they want while the rest of the system struggles to get sufficient state and federal aid to plug the holes in their budgets.  Resources and policies the reduce inequality cost money, and the reluctance to fund those resources and policies is one of the greatest stumbling blocks to educational improvement.
  • Class Size Reductions: Among the policies that can cost more money that politicians are reluctant to spend is class size reduction. It works.  It works well.  It works even better for poor and minority students. Increasing class sizes causes real and long term harm.
  • Teacher Retention and Development: This will come as a surprise to the organizations on whose boards Ms. Powell Jobs sits, but experienced teachers are better than newcomers.  The exuberance of youth is fantastic and necessary in the ongoing work of school, but it is best paired with experienced teachers who know what they are doing and who are willing to mentor their younger colleagues. If we want to improve schools, we should be looking at improving teacher retention, starting with a hard look at working conditions.
  • Reverse High Stakes Testing’s Detrimental Impacts: We’ve increased the amount of testing.  We’ve increased the stakes on testing.  To the surprise of nobody who understands policy incentives that means we’ve increased the amount of time spent teaching to the test and to test preparation, to the detriment of a rich curriculum and especially to the detriment of students attending majority minority schools threatened with closures and other punitive measures due to test scores.  The narrowing of the curriculum also has a detrimental impact on the very skills so-called education reformers claim our students need the most in the 21st century.  If Ms. Powell-Jobs really wants to improve high school, she could do a lot worse than to imitate her late husband’s business practices and to try very hard to kill off something that Bill Gates has worked to promote: high stakes testing in teacher evaluation.

$50 million is going to buy the XQ project a handful of high schools that may or may not be innovative and which may or may not be able to be scaled.  Or it could begin the process of lobbying policy makers to endorse what we actually knows works in education.  It would certainly be a lot better to see on the side of a bus kiosk.


Filed under Funding, Newark, schools, standards, Testing

#FightForDyett: What Would YOU Sacrifice for a Fully Supported, Fully Public School?

The hunger strike by 12 parents and community activists in Chicago fighting for an open enrollment, fully public, high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood will soon pass the one month mark.  Ten days ago, Chicago Public Schools announced a “compromise” that would have Dyett re-open as an open enrollment school but with an arts based focus instead of the as the Global Leadership and Green Technology school that was submitted by the Coalition to Save Dyett.  That school proposal, developed over the course of years with assistance from the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, Teachers for Social Justice, Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council, Blacks in Green, the Chicago Botanic Garden, and the Annenberg Institute, was submitted earlier in the year when CPS solicited proposals to re-open the Dyett campus.  The announcement of an arts based school was done suddenly and with no discussion with community members who have been fighting for years to keep a fully public high school open in Bronzeville.

And so the hunger strike continues, including continued public pressure on CPS and elected officials, and candlelight vigils outside the Obama family home:

Pressure has perhaps increased with national media picking up on the story in outlets such as The New York Times, Slate Magazine, Essence Magazine,  and Public Radio International.  The Takeaway’s John Hockenberry spoke with hunger striker and grandmother of three, April Stogner, for nearly 7 minutes on the 25th day of the hunger strike.

Mr. Hockenberry asked her why the hunger strike was continuing when the city had agreed to an open enrollment school:

“…the decision to re-open Dyett as an open enrollment school we already had that decision last year to re-open it. What we’ve been fighting for is to have it as the global leadership school. What they’re trying to give us is not what the community asked for.  They never brought us to the table to make this decision. Many people think that it’s a win for us, but we don’t see it as that. We don’t feel that that’s victorious, and for that reason, that’s why we’re in day 25 of the hunger strike.”

Peter Greene of Curmudgucation made an excellent point about this on his blog shortly after the CPS decision was announced:

Emanuel faced an ever-growing mess, and he had to decide what to save, what absolutely could not be sacrificed in salvaging some sort of end to the public hunger strike. And he decided the one thing that he absolutely could not give up was the policy of keeping community voices silent. Okay, let them have open enrollment. But don’t let them speak. Don’t let them have a say in making any decisions about the school. And just to make it clear, don’t use their years of research and planning for the school design– because that’ll make it clear who’s still in complete control of what happens in their school.

This effort to run around the community activists – the very people who have been in Bronzeville trying to make Dyett a success despite the continuous history of being undermined by Chicago Public Schools from day one — allows Mayor Rahm Emanuel to claim he met the protestors “part way” and made a “compromise” while entirely ignoring their voices. The move was for public relations, not for the community and their goals.

And what are their goals?  Ms. Stogner explained that to Mr. Hockenberry as well:

“I would envision Dyett being a school that’s connected to the other schools in the community, the grammar schools. You’re talking about a school that has a beautiful garden, a rooftop where you can have a garden. Everything is geared toward green technology where our kids would be ensured to have a future in green technology and be sure that they’ll have jobs. Yes, we like arts and all that.  That’s fine and dandy.  But our kids can do more than dance and sing and jump around…..It’s crazy when I was listening to the statement that you played from the mayor and they always say that they want to do what’s best for the children. This is not what’s best for our children. When you talk about community, the community should be involved in the decisions, and we were not involved. We submitted this plan. We’ve been working on this plan for well over five years, so it’s funny that he said you’re doing what’s best for our community. You don’t know what’s best for our community, or we wouldn’t have had 49 schools closing at one time. Tell the truth and say what it is.  They just want to make money off the backs of our children, and they feel like they can just come into our community and take what they want. But we’re not having that anymore.”

This vision is incredibly powerful because it is not simply about what kinds of schools are available for the children in Bronzeville, but also it is about whether or not the community itself will be heard when it plainly makes clear what is desired. It is also about pointing out that when communities are called upon to “sacrifice” during times of economic crisis, the bulk of that sacrifice comes from communities that are disproportionately black, brown, and poor:

Julian Vasquez Heilig makes this abundantly clear in one of his recent posts about the Dyett hunger strikers.  Chicago Public Schools spends $13,433 per pupil.  How does that compare to wealthy, suburban communities uneffected by school closures or the need to go on a hunger strike to highlight the plight of their schools?  Seneca Township spends $25,289 per pupil.  Sunset Ridge spends $22,683.  Evanston Township, $21,428.  Ms. Stogner is keenly aware of this:

“The mayor — he’s one of the biggest gangsters I’ve seen in a long time.  Yes, anyone who doesn’t value our kids that already speaks to what kind of person our mayor is. Anyone who closes schools — those are community institutions. Where else would our children have to go?  What schools need is to be invested in, not disinvested in. It’s easy to take away all the resources from these children and these schools and say that they’re failing. But what did you do to make sure that they were excelling?  You took everything.  They don’t have libraries. No resources. You take out all of our black and brown teachers, people who love and care about our kids, who can teach them their history. That’s not what you want, but you have money for charters, turnaround schools.  I have a problem with that. Everybody should have a problem with that.”

The perversity of this is abundantly clear:  we task public education with offering opportunity to those willing to take it in our society, and to ensure that such opportunity is equitably available, we charge truly public schools with taking and accommodating all the students who arrive at their door, regardless of circumstances. It is one of the most truly democratic exercises in our society and it has historically expanded its reach as we have expanded the political and social franchise as well.  But there is one glaring obstacle to it truly functioning that way: the same economic inequality that infuses and segregates our society along race and class similarly segregates our schools into institutions offering astonishing opportunities and institutions struggling to keep up with the needs that arrive every day without equitable funding.  That term, equitable, is important because when a school has a high concentration of students with needs that must be accommodated, the appropriate per pupil funding will almost certainly be greater than in communities where almost all children come from comfortable homes with abundant family resources.

And yet, instead of that promise, they are given closed schools, fired teachers, unaccountable charters, and blighted neighborhoods; so the hunger strike continues.

The #Dyett12 require all of us to ask just what would we sacrifice for the principals of democratic education and community voices in our own schools?  I have to confess that I have been entirely lucky in my life in this question.  I grew up in a suburban Massachusetts town with well resourced schools.  My own children are growing up in a neighborhood of New York City where we have never had to question if they would have access to excellent public schools. My children go through their lives never knowing what it is like to be suspected of wrong doing simply for the color of their skin. Residents of our borough who live a mere two miles from us are not so lucky and live with injustices we can read about but will never experience.  That in the city of Chicago in 2015 there are people who have been on hunger strike for nearly a month to simply have what their peers in the suburbs never even question – an excellent, fully public school – is heart breaking and infuriating at the same time.

Ms. Stogner and her fellow hunger strikers offer a glimpse of a potential shifting of our education debate in this country to one that listens to the voices from the ground up instead of imposing solutions from above that more often than not hurt rather than help. When asked about her family, Ms. Stogner said:

“My grandson, I brought him out with me yesterday for the first time because I felt like he needed to know why when they’re at home eating, and grandma is just drinking water, why she isn’t eating. I need him to understand that you are important, you do matter. I don’t want him to believe that people can just come in his neighborhood and tell him he’s not good enough to have s school to go to up the street from him, a good community school, a great community school, a world class community school. He needs to know whatever you believe in, you stand up and you fight for it by any means necessary.”

We should all be teaching lessons so valuable to our children.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, charter schools, Corruption

“The best anti-poverty program around is….” a strong union.

Source: “The best anti-poverty program around is….” a strong union.

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NYSED’s Incoherent Opt Out Muddle

Pity those poor zealots of standardized testing in Albany.

No matter what they do, no matter what tactic they employ those pesky parents who are sick and tired of standardized testing consuming their children’s education won’t come around to see the error of their ways.

First, Governor Andrew Cuomo, perhaps taking an anticipatory victory lap days before his November re-election, unleashed a torrent of bad ideas upon his favorite punching bag – New York’s unionized public school teachers.  He vowed to “break up” the “public monopoly” of our free public school system which dates back to the formation of the New York Free School Society in 1805.  Governor Cuomo’s preferred method of “breaking” public education is the use of standardized test scores and growth models to designate schools and teachers as failures ripe for state take over and firing.

Then New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch and Governor Cuomo took up the role of pen pals after the election, declaring the need for much tougher teacher evaluation and tenure rules using, you guessed it, an even greater role for growth measures based on standardized test scores.  Governor Cuomo followed that communication by vetoing a bill he himself had proposed that would have given teachers and principals a two year grace period from professional consequences as a result of the still new Common Core aligned state examination, and then quickly announced a punishing agenda that led to 50% of teachers’ evaluations being tied to growth measures on the state examinations.

Dr. Tisch, for her part, attempted to take on the role of the velvet glove with a prepared speech to the New York State  Council of School Superintendents in March where she lamented the Opt Out movement in New York and compared it to the anti-vaccination movement:

Why on earth would you not want to know whether your child is on track for success in the fifth grade or success in college?  Why would you not want to know how your child and your school are doing compared to other children in district, region, and State?  Why would you not want to know the progress of our multi-billion dollar investment in education?  Why would you not want to know whether all students are making progress, not just the lucky few?

I do not pretend that test results are the only way to know, but they are an important piece of information.  They are the only common measure of progress we have.

We are not going to force kids to take tests.  That’s not the New York way.  But, we are going to continue to help students and parents understand that it is a terrible mistake to refuse the right to know.

We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up.  Most of us don’t refuse to get a vaccination.

Did you get that?  Standardized testing is as good for curing problems in education as vaccines are for preventing polio.

Dr. Tisch dug herself deeper in later comments, first trying to claim that the new teacher evaluation system over which Governor Cuomo held long overdue state aid hostage did not necessarily mean teachers would be evaluated 50% by student test scores, and then she publicly suggested that communities with histories of high test scores (i.e. wealthy, white communities) might be excused from the new evaluations – leaving a lot of African American and Hispanic teachers who teach predominantly in urban poverty on the hook and sparing their white peers.

When Commissioner John King, in a spectacular case of failing upward, left the NYSED to join Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in Washington, D.C., his replacement, MaryEllen Elia, formerly Superintendent of Florida’s sprawling Hillsborough district, was already known as a major fan of the Common Core standards, standardized testing, and evaluating teachers based on those tests.  Commissioner Elia immediately embarked upon a “goodwill tour” of sorts to listen to and to speak with stakeholders across the state.  The new commissioner did not waiver in her support for high stakes testing or in her opposition to opting children out of those exams, telling one audience that “Life is one big test.”

Then the opt out numbers came in with the results of the tests themselves, and New York’s rate of test refusal in 2015 jumped to 20% of all testable students, a huge leap from the previous year’s numbers.  And the charm offensive was over, with Commissioner Elia declaring to reporters that her office was in communication with the Secretary of Education in Washington over the potential “consequences” at hand for districts and schools where parental opt outs meant that fewer than 95% of students were tested as required by the No Child Left Behind act.  In other statements, she declared that opting out of the state tests was unreasonable and called school personnel who encouraged it unethical.

And almost as quickly as that was said, the backpedaling began.  Chancellor Tisch reported that the her office was told by the federal DOE weeks earlier that financial consequences were up to the state and that NYSED had no plans to do anything, saying, “I think when you withdraw money from a school district, what you’re doing is you’re hurting the kids in the school district. So I don’t think that’s an effective way to deal with it.”  The King of Test-Based Punishment, Andrew Cuomo, also declared that the state had no intentions of withholding money from communities that failed to reach 95% of students tested.  Commissioner Elia bid a hasty retreat from her earlier threats, first pivoting away from punishment to saying she planned to spend the next year trying to convince parents not to opt out of the exams and then saying that parents have a right to opt their children out of the state examinations.

The quick retreat from talk of punishment is no doubt tied to the dreadful politics that would be involved of playing games with funding, given that the funding in question is federal Title I money intended for districts with high percentages of children in poverty.  Withholding those moneys from the smaller number of districts and schools with high poverty and high opt outs while leaving affluent communities with high opt out numbers untouched would be a political firestorm, not to mention it is highly questionable whether NCLB was ever intended to punish schools and districts because of the actions of their parents.

The 2015 round goes to Opt Out:

mic drop

The future is, of course, murkier.  There is no chance at all that Commissioner Elia, Chancellor Tisch, and Governor Cuomo intend to back away from the central role of standardized testing in education policy for New York just as there is no indication that they really understand the multitude of reasons why parents are opting out.  Commissioner Elia’s “tool kit” for convincing parents to test their children will be an object of some interest, and there can be little doubt that significant pressure will be placed upon superintendents and principals to reign in their parents where Opt Out is strong or to block it from being established where it is not.

If Opt Out in New York grows by similar numbers for the 2016 examinations, the entire system will be on the verge of collapse, but it would be wrong to assume those numbers will materialize.  2015 was a particularly turbulent year with Governor Cuomo aggressively pursuing an agenda that made test and punish the centerpiece of New York schooling.  Further, the Opt Out movement’s future growth will also depend upon making inroads in urban and minority communities where support has been slower to grow than in the suburbs.  Nationally, African American and Hispanic parents are less likely to support opting out and less likely to say they would do so for their children than white parents (although they, like white parents, also value demonstrations of their children’s learning that are not based on standardized tests far more than they value the tests).  Given the civil rights history of the United States, it is not hard to understand and to appreciate why these parents might be more inclined to seek accountability for states and municipalities to take care of their children.  If Opt Out is to grow, it will need to listen to those concerns and articulate a compelling vision that addresses them.  Goodness knows, we can expect Commissioner Elia to tell them the test is the only way to hold schools accountable.

There are, of course, strong arguments to make for parents concerned about the historic failures of states and cities to hold themselves accountable for children of color.  The trends that harm education overall when standardized testing becomes a goal in and of itself hurts minority and urban communities even worse.  School closures, unaccountable charter schools, and the loss of non-tested subjects are trends that take their biggest bite out of those communities.  Further, contrary to the claims of testing advocates that only mass standardized testing can be used for accountability, districts and schools can use low stakes sampling to monitor the system and individual teachers can use small scale, formative assessment systems to track student progress.  The massively disruptive tests that replace the curriculum are not necessary.  Further, as Julian Vasquez-Heilig demonstrates, local accountability models not only exist, they are promising to bring communities back into how schools are held accountable.  These arguments need to be made more and more in public because we can count on NYSED to claim they are simply impossible.

For now, however, Opt Out has momentum on its side, and the bullies in Albany have backed down in a major way.


Filed under Activism, MaryEllen Elia, New York Board of Regents, Opt Out, Testing

#FightForDyett Puts Parents’ Actual Bodies on the Line for Fully Public Education

On August 17th, a group of 12 parents and community activists in the historic Bronzeville section of Chicago began a hunger strike to preserve the last open enrollment high school in their community.  Their fast, where they have consumed nothing but water and light liquids such as broth, is now in its third week, and even though they managed to get Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to meet briefly with them after a contentious town hall style budget meeting yesterday, no commitments were made that satisfied their needs.  So they continue their hunger strike, despite the adverse effects on their health, and a public plea from a coalition of health professionals urging the Mayor to taking action on the strikers’ issues to prevent a tragedy.

Despite the insulting tone argument that The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn recently offered, chiding the Dyett hunger strikers for their tactics, this action is not taken rashly and is the result of a true community coalition being rebuffed at every turn.  The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is one of America’s most historic African American communities and was a major destination for African Americans seeking a better life during the Great Migration.  In 2012, Chicago Public Schools announced it would “phase out” and close Dyett High School which is the last open enrollment high school for Bronzeville, and this year the CPS accepted three proposals for a new school in the building, two from outside organizations and a proposal for a “Global Leadership and Green Technology” school submitted by the Coalition to Revitalize Walter H. Dyett High School.  The coalition, which has been advocating all along to keep the school open and to transform it into the leadership and green technology school based in the community, has played by every rule and procedure put in front of it by Mayor Emanuel’s school department, seeking to keep their voices and the voices of their neighbors heard.

The process, however, has been repeatedly delayed, most recently with an August meeting pushed out to September, which precipitated the decision to begin a hunger strike:

And the strikers remain there, outside a shuttered high school that, as Peter Greene rightfully points out, was actually improving before the central office decided to abandon it and where an entirely community based proposal for its future remains ignored and stalled by a city bureaucracy more interested in opportunities to gentrify than in building up communities. They are now in their third week without solid food, waiting for the city to answer them.

Especially significant is for what the Dyett hunger strikers have put their bodies on the line. Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig details a timeline for Dyett High School since 1999 when it was converted from a middle school that seemed almost intentionally to court failure.  Nearby King High School was turned into a selective enrollment school, and CPS converted Dyett into a high school that opened with only 7 books in its library and unequipped science labs.  Community members worked to build up the school which is where students who do not qualify for King go, and then in 2006, CPS closed Englewood High School, sending an additional 125 students to Dyett with no additional resources.  Despite this, the community continued to invest in Dyett and its future and then in 2012, CPS announced plans to phase out and close the school.  At every point, community organizations and parents have worked together to help develop a school community within Dyett, and at every point, authorities outside of Bronzeville have hurled wrenches into those efforts.

If Walter H. Dyett remains closed or if it is replaced with schools that do not have open enrollment, there will be no high school in Bronzeville that is truly the responsibility of the entire community.  While education reform touts parental “choice” as a cure-all for urban education, it is far too often comprised of “any choice but a democratically organized and locally comprised school.”  The ideal of an open enrollment, neighborhood, school is not merely an organizational choice for school departments.  It is a profound expression of the democratic ideal and of communities’ investments in themselves.  A truly public school is open to everyone who lives in its zone with no exceptions, and it is bound by law and by professional morality to do its utmost for every child regardless of race, socioeconomic circumstances, or special needs.  Public schools cannot counsel out or harass students with special needs until they give up and transfer somewhere else, and while it would be incorrect to assert that our urban and predominantly minority public schools have always lived up to these ideals, when properly supported and given investments in facilities, staff development, and surrounding community development, they remain one of the truest expressions of democratic equality in our society and are bedrock for their neighborhoods.  Consider the stunning investment in architecture that was once expressed in Chicago’s public schools for a nice visual understanding of how important these ideals were and wonder at what children must have thought when brought to the doors of these buildings.

The point is not lost to note that as neighborhoods became more and more minority over decades such grand investment vanished.  Organizer and now hunger striker Jitu Brown expressed this eloquently last year as he questioned CPS’ plans for Dyett:

Why can’t we have public schools? Why do low-income minority students need to have their schools run by private contractors? We want this school to anchor the community for the next 75 years. We’re not interested in a short-term contract that can be broken.

And there may be more at stake than the consequences to Bronzeville if Dyett is not allowed to reopen as an open enrollment school.  Chicago teacher and activist Michelle Gunderson notes:

For those of us who have witnessed the privatization of our school systems, we know all too well what is at stake if Dyett High School no longer is in the hands of the community. Once we have one neighborhood without an open enrollment high school it will be all too easy for subsequent parts of our city to fall like dominoes, creating a system of privatized schools.

Perhaps that goal makes sense to people who only envision disruption and competition as vehicles of improvement over investment and cooperation, but to lose all fully public schools is to lose far more than a system of governance.  It is to lose community identity, shared responsibility for community youth, and institutions purposed for democratic equality.  Hunger striker Monique Smith told The Washington Post, ““This is really about the privatization of education, it’s about having sustainable community schools in every neighborhood…This is a much larger struggle.”

That this should happen in Bronzeville — which Eve Ewing reminds us is historically significant for its role in The Great Migration and for the African American intellectual, literary, and political leaders who have called it home — is an even more significant blow in a time when black activists have organized to highlight the violence state sanctioned actions have inflicted against their bodies.  It is not an exaggeration to observe that the deliberate neglect and subsequent closing of Walter H. Dyett High School is an act of state sanctioned violence against the community body of Bronzeville.

And now 12 brave activists have called upon a long tradition of direct action and placed their actual bodies on the line for the sake of their community and whether or not it will be deprived of a core democratic institution.  If you believe that Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools are long overdue to respond to that injustice, call (773) 533-1500 to leave a message for CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.  It is week three.  Enough is enough.

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Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, charter schools, Social Justice