Category Archives: #blacklivesmatter

Mayoral Control And Mayoral Responsibility

New York legislators in Albany wrapped up yet another game of “Will we give Bill De Blasio an extension of mayoral control of New York City’s schools or won’t we?” recently.  In the end, law makers held off until the very last minute, passing a two year extension for the mayor that did not include the provisions favoring charter schools Senate Republicans were insisting on but against which Assembly Democrats drew a line.  The two year extension is a victory for De Blasio who has found out that Albany has trouble entrusting control to mayors not named “Mike,” and the lack of pro-charter school provisions shows that the daylight between De Blasio and Albany does not have to grind cooperation between the City and State to a complete halt.

The drama was also largely staged.  Although interested parties issued dire warnings of what would befall city schools without mayoral control, the bluff played by Senate Republicans was just that, a bluff.  Reverting back to pre-mayoral control school governance with only the months of July and August to figure it out was meant to scare Democrats into giving in on charter schools, but the threat rang hollow.  Governor Cuomo, who has never been shy about humiliating Mayor De Blasio, wanted mayoral control extended.  Even though they kept their mouths shut and did not win hoped for concessions, I would not bet against charter school proponents wishing for mayoral control as well.  After all, Mayor De Blasio will not be mayor forever, and if the next mayor is more like Michael Bloomberg, the charter school sector will once again deal with only one person in control of city schools who is indulgent of their wishes.  Certainly simpler than the complex politics of a city school board representing multiple constituencies and independent governance in 32 different community districts.  And even though the charter school cap remains where it is, backroom deals are allowing 22 charter licenses for schools that had their charters revoked or went unused to be recycled and reissued.

And it is not as if the so-called anti-charter stance of the De Blasio administration is so unwavering that the sector gets nothing from Tweed these days:

So if that is the theater involved in the issue, there remains a central, not often asked, question:  What about mayoral control makes it essential for running the nation’s largest school system?  Prior to the 2002 legislation that placed Michael Bloomberg in near complete control of the city schools, New York City schools were run by the central Board of Education whose members were appointed by the mayor and by the five borough presidents and by elected school boards in each of the city’s 32 community districts – which had much greater power before a 1996 law demoted their role.  Mayoral control legislation placed enormous authority into the mayor’s office who appoints the School Chancellor and the majority of members on the Panel for Educational Policy.  The 32 local school boards were replaced by “Community Education Councils” consisting of parents elected by Parent Associations of elementary and middle schools in the community districts and given even less  authority on school matters within those districts than the 1996 law.

Point of information:  I am a member of the Community Education Council in District 3, having just completed my first two year term and having been elected to a second term.  What I am writing here, however, represents only my views as both a New York City school parent and as a scholar of education – I do not presume to speak for the Council.

Proponents for continuing mayoral control certainly believe the current arrangement is crucial for school success in the Big Apple.  Mayor DeBlasio had dire warnings for law makers that not extending his school control would unleash “chaos.”  Speaking through a spokesperson, he said, ““mayoral control is the only proven governance system. Ending it would roll out the red carpet for corruption and chaos in our school system.”  Governor Cuomo was similarly dire about the need for extending control, but was more critical of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly for holding a tight line on issues like lifting the charter school cap: “For the legislature to leave with one million children returning to what we know was a failed management system is a dereliction of duty.”

I am certainly not prepared to say that the former governance structure for city schools was a marked improvement on what we have today – however, it is also a massive oversimplification to say that the previous governance system could not produce results as studies of Community District 2 by Harvard’s Richard Elmore demonstrate.  Further, while advocates of mayoral control have loved to tout various accomplishments, they are less inclined to entertain nuanced discussion and examination of those accomplishments.  Bloomberg Chancellor Joel Klein loved to boast about how the leadership team assembled in New York made great progress on raising achievement and closing the test-measured gap between white and minority students.  The problem with that claim is that it never stood up to careful analysis, as demonstrated by Teachers College Professor Aaron Pallas in analyses here and here.  While Bloomberg and Klein could boast about modest gains in NYC scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, those gains were not substantially better than in other cities that did not follow the Bloomberg/Klein reform program and their claim about narrowing the achievement gap was simply false:

Looking across ELA and math scores on state exams for New York City students in grades three through eight in 2003, the achievement gap separating black and Latino students from white and Asian students was .74 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the achievement gap was .73 of a standard deviation. This represents a 1 percent reduction in the magnitude of the achievement gap. The careful reader will note that the mayor has thus overstated the cut in the achievement gap by a factor of 50.

What about for NAEP? In 2003, the achievement gap, averaged across reading and math scores in the fourth and eighth grades, was .76 of a standard deviation. In 2011, the gap was .78 of a standard deviation. Far from being cut in half, the achievement gap on the NAEP assessment actually increased by 3 percent between 2003 and 2011.

Mayor Bloomberg said, “We have closed the gap between black and Latino kids and white and Asian kids. We have cut it in half.” But the gap has scarcely budged; it’s shrunk by 1 percent on the New York State tests, and increased by 3 percent on NAEP.

These issues are frustrating, but frankly to be expected as it is the rare politician who is willing to admit that he has spent a decade with unchallenged control of a school system, sought test measured validation of his approach, and came up with belly button lint instead.  However, it also draws attention to another aspect of mayoral control that hasn’t been discussed in the latest Albany spectacle.  Namely, who holds the mayor responsible and over what does the mayor take responsibility in this governance structure?  The Community District School boards were stripped of most of their authority prior to mayoral control, but they retained input on issues like hiring superintendents which, at least nominally, kept that closer to school district parents.  Today, that all flows through the Mayor’s office who appoints the extremely powerful Chancellor and has a majority of seats on the PEP.  The mayor may be subject to election, but it goes without saying that the path to that election does not necessitate a mayor who is attentive to what is going on in every school in every district across the city.  In fact, in his last election in 2009, Michael Bloomberg lost the Bronx to challenger William Thompson by 24.2 percentage points.  I dare say that he lost in most if not all of the 6 Community School Districts in the Bronx, yet he continued to control school governance there.  The people closest to the schools in those districts only have limited say in holding the mayor responsible for what goes on there, and their post-election voices are greatly limited.

This matters even more because the mayor’s office does not always hold itself responsible for the very schools it controls.  Consider charter school policy.  While it is true that the city does not control charter schools (except for the very small number authorized by NYCDOE), it is also true that the amount of daylight between Mayor Bloomberg and charter friendly politicians in Albany was nonexistent.  The Bloomberg years openly welcomed charter school expansion, aided in finding them spaces within city school buildings, and actively encouraged parents to seek educational options outside the control of DOE, setting up an environment where DOE run schools would have to compete not only among themselves but in competition with privately run organizations that were able to fund slick, professional marketing campaigns.  Success Academy alone in 2010 paid over $400,000 to a single marketing firm, Mission Control, Inc., to promote itself in a direct mail campaign to parents, and it continued this campaign in subsequent years, spending on pre-paid postage for application forms mailed directly to homes. Using such professional services, the charter network is able to portray itself as highly desirable and prestigious to prospective families.  And what, exactly, did Mayor Bloomberg, who welcomed the Success Network at every opportunity, do to position the schools directly under his control to compete in THAT environment?

chirp

This problem has continued into the De Blasio administration which, while showing much more willingness to support district schools with programs, has not yet grasped that Superintendents and building Principals are largely left alone to “market” their schools with no specific expertise and only funds that can be raised from parents.

The irony here is both evident and cruel:  mayoral control as exercised by Michael Bloomberg helped put schools serving the most vulnerable children in the city into a situation where they were simultaneously responsible for improving academic outcomes while following accommodation rules that charters are exempted from AND for marketing themselves in an environment where private organizations spend lavishly on direct marketing campaigns and the DOE schools are left to rely on $500 and whatever creativity they have on staff.  With parents bombarded from all directions by everyone except their zoned schools, it is no surprise that DOE schools in certain parts on New York have seen sharp declines in enrollment – which appears to be a feature rather than a bug of the system as set up by Albany law makers and abetted by Tweed under Bloomberg.  In Community District 3 in Manhattan, schools north of 110th Street have seen a decline from 2206 K-5 students in 2006 to 1469 K-5 students in 2015, an enrollment loss of 33% in less than a decade.

D3 Enrollment

However, if Michael Bloomberg accepted no responsibility to help the schools he enthusiastically put into competition actually compete, then his successor, Bill De Blasio has shown no real comprehension of the problem either.  Schools in areas with high charter saturation still rely upon shoestring budgets and ad hoc efforts by community members and school personnel instead of a enjoying a coordinated and funded strategy from the office that has direct control over them.  It is fundamentally unfair to expect that school principals, who have to possess a vast array of skills related to instructional leadership, management leadership, staff development, evaluation, school law, budgeting, and parent relationships, add on marketing and graphic design skill sets that are subject to their own degree programs.  Meanwhile, Tweed approaches maintaining enrollment at schools as if it was still the early 1990s.

Mayor De Blasio fought hard to keep mayoral control.  It is past time for the Mayor’s office to look at the impact of that control on the schools it runs and take mayoral responsibility for the sustainability of fully public schools in New York City.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, charter schools, Corruption, Eva Moskowitz, Funding, politics, schools, Success Academy

Repairing Our Civic Discourse – Teachers’ Role

When I woke up on November 9th, I had to explain to my children, aged 7 and 9, that Donald Trump is going to be the next President of the United States.  They cried.  They cried because they know, at most, a fraction of the horrible things he has said in his campaign and that was enough to convince them that he should not be President.  They cried because although they are young, they believe that America is a country for everyone and that Donald Trump has attacked that ideal.  They cried because they have friends and people they care about who are terrified that a Trump administration will break apart their families.  They cried because we have taught them to value kindness and respect and to abhor bullies.

I cried with them and told them that we would always protect them and that our job now is to make certain if our new President tries to hurt anyone that we protect them.  My children are fortunate, though – their fear quickly subsided probably because they have never personally experienced the injustices promised by the incoming administration, and because as children of white, professional parents they are inclined to believe that they have strength in our society.  Friends of mine who teach in schools with minority, immigrant, and Muslim children had much harder work trying to allay their students’ genuine apprehension about what might be coming.  And my friends are not alone in New York City or elsewhere for that matter.  A teacher in Chicago set up this message for students:

As they are almost always called upon to do, teachers this week have been seeking ways to help anxious and shocked students to cope with circumstances that are both beyond their control and threatening to their well being.  I do not need to reiterate the ways in which a Trump Presidency is poised to harm millions of our students – his campaign promises make that crystal clear as does the bigoted and inflammatory rhetoric with which he made those promises.  His enablers assure us that he intends to be the President for “all” Americans, but many of his supporters appear to have very clear ideas of what his victory means, so even if President Trump takes a softer stance than candidate Trump, he has unleashed some of the ugliest elements of our society and putting that back in the bottle will be an arduous and uncertain task:

While America’s teachers are helping students who fear President Trump, there is also another role for them and for our schools: helping to repair a civic discourse badly damaged by bull dozed norms and lack of mutual understanding typified by the President-elect’s campaign.  Something that was already evident became crystal clear on election night:  Americans do not understand each other very well.  As the returns came in, it was obvious that Donald Trump had successfully energized a demographic that wasn’t weighted properly in the polls because they are not part of most pollsters “likely voter” model — rural whites voted for him in unprecedented numbers, erasing Secretary Clinton’s strengths with urban and wealthier suburban voters.  The election was apparently as much an expression of their grievances at a political system that seeks their vote every few years and then fails to deliver very much as it was an expression of support for Mr. Trump’s most vile rhetoric.  While a discernible portion of his vote did come from genuinely horrible people, quite a lot of it came from a demographic that feels forgotten by our political system.

These voters are not exactly wrong (although I would argue that Mr. Trump is entirely the wrong vehicle – even a dangerous vehicle – for their frustration).  The trends on what has happened to the working class in America has been stark for decades.  Pundits love to talk about the “college wage premium” – the gain in lifetime earnings with a college degree, and that phenomenon is real enough.  However, since the 1980s, the “increase” in that premium has not come because of rising wages for college graduates so much as it has come from the collapse of wages for those without degrees:

SDT-higher-education-02-11-2014-0-03

While both the rural and urban poor have suffered under these trends, Mr. Trump directly appealed to working class whites by blaming globalization and free trade pacts for their plights, an appeal that resonates far more with lower income Americans than with the middle and upper class.  It would be curious to see if Mr. Trump’s economic populism would have resonated more with the urban poor if he had not wrapped it in so many layers of racism, nativism, and other bigotry.

It is also evident that Americans do not actually see how people in different economic circumstances live.  Residential Income Segregation has been rising for decades, so not only do the urban and rural populations not live together, but also people live separately based upon their income.  Wealthy and middle class city dwellers do not live in similar neighborhoods, and wherever you live, you are increasingly likely to live in an area where most of the other people share your economic circumstances.  The consequences of this are destructive.  It is very difficult for the wealthy and upper middle class, constituencies heavily courted by typical politics, to understand much about the lives of those in urban and rural poverty.  Meanwhile, the urban and rural poor, while separated by geography, history, and a presumed cultural divide, certainly vote very differently but actually may have far more in common with each other than is often assumed.  That point is driven home by Saturday Night Live’s pre-election episode of “Black Jeopardy” where Tom Hanks played Doug, a rural Donald Trump supporter whose sentiments often aligned with the other contestants, up until the sketch ends with a deflected confrontation on “Lives that Matter” and the racism that blinds many white Americans like Doug to African American’s shared concerns about law enforcement and justice in America:

None of this is meant to excuse the willingness of Donald Trump’s voters to overlook and even excuse his abhorrent statements about women and minorities, nor is it meant to excuse the behavior of a disturbing number of his supporters who have taken his victory as a signal to unleash hate at groups singled out by his campaign.  And it certainly does not change the real evidence that Donald Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters are animated by bigotry.  But it does complicate my understanding of this phenomenon – some of our barriers to understanding each other in America are real, created by geography and lack of shared experiences.  But some of those barriers are of our own making, created by policies that reject integration and created by a lack of willingness to consider others’ experiences as valid when we have no similar frame of reference.  The result of which is an inability to see our similarities.  Of course, this is too simple:  our mutual blindness is made far more complex by modern media that allows people to cocoon themselves in information bubbles and never hear opposing views.

What, then, is the proper role for school in these problems?  It is a tricky one to navigate because while it is not proper for school to require certain political views from students, it is absolutely within school’s historic mission to promote civics and civic-mindedness.  Almost 20 years ago, David Tyack put it this way:

Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: “While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy” (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey’s dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.

Education as essential to Democracy and as a form of Democracy itself goes back to the origins of the common school movement.  Consider Horace Mann’s justification of common schools in the life of a democratic society:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

Mann promoted education that would inspire all not only to vote, but also to vote in a manner that promoted the common good and which reflected sound judgement.  The long festering divisions in our civic life today stand in the way of that, but schools and teachers have tools at their disposal to help students reach for a higher civic ideal.

The first obvious tool is a renewed commitment to information literacy and critical thinking – far beyond the stultifying confines of “critical thinking” curricula aimed at passing a standardized test.  Our heavy emphasis on tested subjects and on preparing students to demonstrate their competency in the narrow skill bands of standardized testing has already damaged the critical thinking skills of one generation of students.  We need to do a lot better, especially in an age where media consumption in new forms requires the sharp critical literacy skills.  Programs like “Deliberating in a Democracy” provide additional space to engage students in critical thinking around core issues in society and internationally.  We need more spaces like this in our curriculum.

Beyond critical thinking, however, is using our curricula to assist all students’ comprehension of experiences beyond their own.  We have nibbled at the edges of this for a long time.  The English curriculum, for example, is an ideal place for literature that expands students’ understanding of others, although for far too long, we’ve merely supplemented the curriculum with a few representatives of lives outside of the majority — it is past time to bring Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Amy Tan some company.  Beyond the book list in English, however, are opportunities to promote contact and dialog among students of many different backgrounds.  Take the premise of the “Black Jeopardy” skit with Tom Hanks and consider what might be different if students with more in common than they know could discuss and listen to each other?  In many locales, it would not be difficult to arrange face to face meetings and discussions among urban, suburban, and rural school students, and technology could facilitate “Sister Schools” arrangements where distances are more difficult.  Research suggests that fairly simple exercises in empathy can reduce racist sentiment – the possibilities of schools promoting genuine contact and discussion among students whose lives are separated by geography and experience seem very hopeful.

We have to think about this.  Promoting civic mindedness is a core function of public education, and it is clearly one that needs our attention.  Too many of our children are watching to see if we adults are interested in making things better.

1 Comment

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice, teaching

What Teachers Owe Tamir Rice

Imagine, for a moment, you are a teacher predominantly of students of color.  Now imagine that one of your students’ siblings is a 12 year old playing in a public park with a toy pellet gun when police, responding to a caller who said that the gun was “probably”fake, pull their cruiser within feet of the child, jump out before the car even stops, and shoot him in the stomach within two seconds.  Or perhaps your student’s father was shopping in a Walmart where he picked up a BB gun from the store shelves, and police officers approached him and shot him without giving him any time at all to respond – despite the fact that what he was carrying was a toy from the store’s own shelves.  Or perhaps your student’s aunt or older sister is driving long distance to begin a job at her alma mater in Texas when she is pulled over for a very minor traffic violation, and during the stop, the officer becomes increasingly hostile to her legitimate questions, threatens her with his taser, violently throws her to the ground and arrests her without ever explaining why – and she is found dead in her jail cell in an alleged suicide that not one of her friends and family believes.

And now imagine that in not one of these cases is a single person even required to stand trial for deaths of young black people simply minding their own business.

Of course, these tragedies – and the infuriating aftermaths that send a chilling message about how black lives can be cut down on the slightest or imagined provocation by state actors with no fear of consequence – do not have to be directly connected to your students’ lives.  All they need to do is watch these events unfold in the news and wonder if it will ever be someone they know and love.  Or they can reflect on their own experiences with discrimination and the gradual toll it takes on their psyche.  The reality is that if you are a teacher of students of color in America, these events impact the children in your care, possibly more deeply than you have ever known.

Very talented authors with far more authentic ties to these experiences of racism and the horrendous messages we send to young people of color have written on the what these outcomes feel like and the dire sense that our society is inherently hostile to black bodies.  Charles Blow’s words upon the death of Tamir Rice are searing.  Brittany Cooper astutely points out how the system does not value black lives. Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote to his teen aged son (in an article adapted from his book) about the reality of life for black people to this day:

“And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body. It does not matter if the destruction is the result of an unfortunate overreaction. It does not matter if it originates in a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction springs from a foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without the proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions.”

Boys and girls touched and confused by tragedies – both personal and national in scale – enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  Young men and women whose consciousness of injustice is flaring brighter than America’s white majority can possibly understand enter teachers’ classrooms every day.  In today’s education environment – where achievement scores matter far more to policy makers than the humanity of those in school – this poses a difficult and possibly contradictory dilemma. As teachers, our responsibilities to children demand that we acknowledge and affirm the lived realities of their lives.  It further demands that we confirm their sense of injustice in the world in real and substantive ways.  Even though most teachers will never experience racism the way their students of color do, it is vital that they work to help those students maintain visions of their futures and how to obtain them as they navigate their lives.

But perhaps most important, and most difficult, is the need for teachers to admit our own culpability in an oppressive social system and to join our students and their communities in actively opposing it.  School is, for better or worse, a social institution, funded and shaped by our collective aspirations – and by our numerous failings.  If our police departments openly engage in racial profiling and use selective enforcement of the law as a revenue stream, and if politically popular policies of mass incarceration leave millions of mostly black and Hispanic men unable to find work, and if the water minority children in cities like Flint drink can be replaced with toxic sources to save money, and if the right to vote itself is subject to constant and organized obstruction aimed at diffusing the impact of minority voting, can we really absolve our schools and ourselves from any responsibility for the injustices that impact so many of our students?

Individually, teachers may bear little responsibility for the school to prison pipeline and the different policies that quickly consign students to low expectations and betrayal of their right to an equitable education – although there can be no honest denial that many teachers either willingly or unthinkingly support questionable and actively harmful disciplinary practices in their schools.  But both individually and collectively, teachers can lend their voices to the public discourse on education and demand that the chief architects of school’s role in devaluing of young people of color be called out.  We can speak out against the deliberate and chronic underfunding of schools for our most vulnerable children.  We can oppose the constant threats of school closures that disproportionately impact black and Hispanic children.  We can demand to know why schools with high proportions of black and Hispanic children are most likely to have police officers who increasingly treat school disciplinary matters like law enforcement on the street.  We can argue for smaller class sizes, improved physical plants, and the replacement of rigid zero tolerance discipline with restorative justice practices.  We can call out politicians and school officials who ignore that schools cannot afford libraries or librarians and have to cut their art and music programs.

In short, we can demand, loudly and continuously, that all of our students have the schools that the most privileged in society take for granted.  For three decades now, we have replaced calls for equity and justice in schools with calls for accountability and consequences in much the same way that we have made policing and our prisons rougher and more concerned with numbers than with justice.  Those policies have failed us as a nation, and they have been catastrophic for our most vulnerable children.  Millions of children are told that the only choices they have are between chronically underfunded and decaying zoned schools or a privately operated charter school that may work to push them out of the school or whose discipline policies favor total control of behavior rather than fostering leadership. This horrendous dichotomy cannot be the best a society with 17 trillion dollar GDP can deliver.  If it is so, it is because we choose to let it be so.

Schools themselves cannot transform society, but if millions of public school teachers can demand the tools and resources we need to truly transform schools into models of social justice that fully affirm the lives of students, perhaps we can lead the way for the rest of our critical institutions.  Perhaps we can gain the moral authority to demand it.

We owe it to the children to try.

5 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice

Being Thankful

It is easy when writing a blog to get caught up in negativity.  In a strange way, it can be a form of fun.  You sharpen your instincts for sarcasm while deploying your skills skewering policies and people actively causing harm to a topic near and dear to your heart.  In today’s public education battles, with billions of dollars being deployed to reshape one of our core democratic institutions without the public’s input, it is almost always easier to state what I am against than what I am for.  Sometimes that is intensely necessary as getting past catchy slogans and plans not backed with research requires taking claims apart with deliberation and focus.  But it is not enough. It fails to highlight the real good being done by pro-public education activists every day.

So I’d like to take this appropriate time of the year to consider for what and for whom I am thankful in addition to my family, my friends, and my community.  Every single group or event for which I am thankful has made significant strides to keep public education public and mindful of its core missions in an age when powerful forces are trying to bend it away from them without bothering to convince the public.

I am thankful for the Opt Out movement.  I am not against the prudent use of very limited and minimally disruptive standardized testing for very limited purposes.  We have gotten far from that in the age of test-based accountability, and the real consequences for the quality of education are well known.  Despite the evident dangers of test-based accountability, the federal government and the states, spurred by intense lobbying by private foundations, actually made the situation worse since the 2008 election, making teachers’ livelihoods tied to statistical uses of standardized test data that is not even supported by the American Statistical Association.

Parents, after watching a decade of standardized testing slowly taking over every aspect of education, are finally saying “enough” and demanding that education regain its sanity.  They are tired of being ignored and rolled over.  They are tired of being told the schools they cherish are failures.  They are tired of seeing test preparation pushing aside genuine learning.  They have been insulted by the Secretary of Education as spoiled complainers.  They’ve been implicitly called union pawns and openly compared to anti-vaxxers by the powerful Chancellor of the New York Board of Regents.  They’ve been threatened if their districts don’t somehow manage to convince and/or force them to test their children.

And it hasn’t deterred them one iota.  20% of New York state’s eligible children refused the state standardized tests in 2015, and there is little to suggest that number will go down.  The message is being heard broadly.  President Obama dedicated time to voice concern about over-testing, although the substance of his actual remarks was not impressive.  More impressive?  A report in The New York Times indicating that Governor Andrew Cuomo may be on the verge of throwing in the towel on test based evaluations of New York’s teachers.  This is the same governor who a year ago declared that the evaluation system he had pushed for himself was “baloney” and declared his intention to make student test scores 50% of teacher evaluations – which he got through the state budget process.

For Governor Cuomo to be considering, as reported by Kate Taylor of The Times, reducing the role of testing in teacher evaluation – and even contemplating removing it altogether – is tremendous.  It is not merely blinking; it is a flat out collapse, and I suspect the governor’s allies at Students First and other reform outfits will be howling their protests soon enough.  But for now, this development can be entirely chalked up to Opt Out’s relentless focus and refusal to fold under pressure.  Of course, history shows that Cuomo cannot be trusted, and he is probably calculating that if he can mollify suburban voters by relieving some of the testing frenzy, then he and his allies can regroup and focus upon taking away local control from urban districts and converting as many of their schools into charters as possible.  In fact, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute already laid out this strategy in 2014 – saying that reformers had overplayed their hands by saying that even suburban public schools were failures and should instead focus as much as possible on getting no-excuses charter schools into place in urban school systems on the false premise that the test prep factories really represent “excellence”.

So the challenge for Opt Out in the future will be to recognize the progress it has made and to keep fighting so that all children are given schools freed from testing mania and full of enriching and empowering curricula.  I think they can do it.

I am thankful for the Badass Teachers. True grassroots movements are incredible to watch.  They are the result of hard work and organizing, usually spreading because a small group of people kept talking to others until a large group is formed around common principles.  It cannot be faked.  It cannot be bought with foundation money buying splashy web pages and getting “commitment” in return for funding.  It is born out of genuine, lived, passions.

That’s the Badass Teachers Association, or BATs, in a nutshell.  This organization of classroom teachers and allies was born out of teachers who were increasingly frustrated by the efforts of reformers to blame them for all of the problems that land in school but for which society at large accepts no responsibility.  In short order, it has grown to tens of 1000s of members across the country, and it is a vibrant presence in social media and, increasingly, the wider public discourse on our national educational commons.

And they have had an amazing impact already, influencing both national union leaders and legislation in our nation’s capitol.  Because they are a true grassroots organization, BATs leadership and BAT members are in constant and close proximity to each other, and real conversations about real teachers and classrooms are ongoing.  That led to genuine concern over the number of teachers speaking about workplace stress increasing under current reforms, leading even to recent suicides.  Members of the Badass Teachers contacted the American Federation of Teachers which led to direct conversations with AFT President Randi Weingarten.  President Weingarten lent AFT assistance to the BATs in putting together a first of its kind teacher workplace survey which went live in April of this year.  In a mere ten days, over 31 THOUSAND classroom teachers responded.  The team of teachers who wrote the 80 question survey were told to expect maybe 1000 responses.

The initial results are available online here.  On its own, such a survey highlighting the impacts of today’s education environment would be incredible, but the influence is much more far reaching.  The survey results gave the AFT enough information to convince Senators Corey Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado to author an amendment to Title II of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act legislation directing the federal DOE to examine workplace stress among teachers.  In a conversation with me, President Weingarten of the AFT expressed her enthusiasm for the work the BATs group did.  “This time the process was as important as the product,” she said, “Because the process empowered people.”

To witness the impacts of influence flowing up from the real grassroots – that is empowering and it is potentially very long lasting.  I cannot wait to see what the BATs do in the upcoming years.

I am thankful for the Dyett Hunger Strikers.   We live in a time when school privatizers have wrapped themselves in the language of the civil rights struggle and have claimed that their efforts to wrest control of our public schools away from democracy is a civil rights matter.  Given the history of local and state control fighting integration and racial justice, it is not entirely surprising that they have allies among traditional civil rights organizations on matters like testing and accountability.

But the overall package has little to do with civil rights, and while suburban parent constituencies have been angered recently by the impacts of over testing and loss of local input into schooling, urban communities of color have been experiencing that loss of voice for years now.  Dr. Denisha Jones of Howard University makes it very clear how school reform efforts aimed at privatization of public schools are not civil rights advances: privatization is unaccountable and refuses to serve all children as public schools do; school choice leads more to schools choosing the children they want rather than families choosing the schools they want; privatized schools employs huge percentages of novice teachers who they burn out and replace with more novices in short order – experienced teachers are, ironically, reserved for the fully public schools in suburban communities while privatized schools in urban communities get well intentioned do gooders with no experience.  In school privatization, wealthy communities retain full control of their schools while poorer communities are given “choices” — but only those the more powerful deign to give them.

With that in mind, it was incredibly powerful when a group of parent and community activists in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago did something astonishing.  They went on a hunger strike to demand that the Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Rahm Emanuel listen to what the community had been advocating for and planning for over several years: a fully public, open enrollment high school with a green technology and global leadership focus that had been carefully planned for within the community. The strike continued for an agonizing 34 days during which Mayor Emanuel pettily refused to acknowledge the strikers but during which CPS gave ground in slow dribs and drabs. The strikers won not only the reopening of their community’s high school, but also the commitment that it will be an open enrollment, public school not handed over to an outside contractor.  And while CPS would not commit to their specific plan, there will be elements of the green technology and global leadership focus in the school.

The strikers, however, did more than win some concessions on one school.  They put a dramatic spotlight on the inequities of how “reform” plays out in impoverished communities in our country.  While they were starving themselves for a fully public school, CPS, which had claimed budget woes in efforts to close 50 schools in predominantly African American and Hispanic neighborhoods, unveiled plans for multimillion dollar annexes in schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.  Jitu Brown, a lifelong community activist in Chicago, made this discrepancy in education reform crystal clear:

“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’s fellow hunger striker, April Stogner, spoke on this with John Hockenberry of Public Radio International:

“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 was a fight that refused to cede the moral high ground to school reformers and put a clear spotlight on how little community voices matter to the people who claim to be acting on their behalf.  The fight for Dyett High School was a powerful message that while the civil rights movement has made great strides using federal power for equality, that does not mean that school privatizers can claim that mantle by grabbing power from afar and then steamrolling communities.  Mr. Brown went on to say:

“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.”

In a time when one of the most important discussions we are having as a nation is the one prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and its insistence that we face the systemic inequalities built upon racism  permeating our society still, it is incredibly powerful for a community to rise up and insist that their SCHOOLS matter as well.  It is absolutely shameful that people had to put their very bodies on the line for more than a month to make that message completely clear, but it is inspiring that they did so.  I hope to hear much more from them in the coming years.

1 Comment

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, #FightForDyett, Activism, Cory Booker, Opt Out, politics, racism, schools, Social Justice, Unions

Spring Valley High School Assault: When “Moderation” is Violence

On Monday afternoon, video footage showing a School Resource Officer (SRO) in Columbia, South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School flipping over a seated female student and hurling her across the room began to go viral.  The video, of which there are now several versions from different classmates, shows the officer, Ben Fields, approaching the seated student, talking to her briefly, and then flipping her backwards in her desk before hurling her across the room while classmates and a school administrator look on passively:

Officer Fields, who has been the subject of lawsuits for excessive force and discrimination, has been fired according to Sheriff Leon Lott, and the federal Department of Justice has begun its own investigation.  Initial reports that the young woman is orphaned appear to be false, but her status in the foster care system is still in question.  Classmate Niya Kenny was arrested along with the other student and told local media that she was trying to stand up for her schoolmate:

“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny explained. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl. I’m talking about she’s like 5’6″.”

The story, as we know it now, unfolded when the young woman’s teacher caught her with her cell phone out and ended up requesting that she leave class.  When she did not, an administrator was brought in who called in Officer Fields.  There is no indication that the young woman did anything other than passively remain in the classroom when asked to leave. Another classmate, who took one of the videos currently circulating, said that the girl was apologetic about having her phone out and about not leaving.  He said the situation turned violent when the girl told Officer Fields that she did not know who he was:

“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson said. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid.”

“That was wrong. There was no justifiable reason for why he did that to that girl.”

I am going to start with some premises that I consider to be undeniable.  I know that some people will deny them anyway, but in my mind, as an educator, as a parent, and as a citizen, these are not up for negotiation:

  • First: The grown ups in this classroom utterly failed this child.  Regardless of her behavior (or more accurately, her lack of behavior), the adults in the room are acting in loco parentis and have legal and moral obligations to treat every child in the room with the utmost care as if they were their own.  There were tools for deescalation that both the teacher and the administrator could have used before ever calling in Officer Fields.  If those had not worked, Officer Fields’ inexcusably went almost immediately to violent assault.
  • Second:  There is no excuse, no justification, no set of circumstances, no words spoken that can ever justify the level of violence that was inflicted upon this girl and the terror she and her classmates must have experienced as a result.  She was seated.  She was passive.  There was no threat of violence or harm to anyone in the room that warranted a physical response of any kind.  Officer Fields was not placing himself between fighting students to prevent harm to themselves or to others.  He flung a child across the room solely because she did not comply with an order.
  • Third: Whether or not the young woman in question is orphaned, in foster care, or not is entirely beside the point. Our desires to find good kid versus bad kid narratives is part of our misplaced desire to sympathize with an entirely innocent, pure, victim of brutality when the fact is that we should sympathize with any victim of brutality.  It clouds our judgement and distracts from the inexcusable choices made by the adults in the classroom.  Trayvon Martin was posthumously defamed for the “sin” of not being a “perfect victim.”  Eric Garner was blamed for his own death.  Ultimately, the demand for victims of institutionalized brutality to be “perfect” is a demand to rationalize their deaths and wounds as deserved and a demand to clear our own consciences for systems that benefit us and brutalize others.

As is typical in the age of social media, there is now a steady stream of fault finders declaring that the young woman deserved her treatment and looking frame by frame at her being hauled backwards in her desk for evidence that she “caused” the assault.  I have no time or patience for that, and I readily chalk it up to racism.  But there is also a call from many that I have seen to be “cautious,” to assess the girl’s behavior, and to “wait for all the facts” as if there is some hidden information that might balance to blame assessment.

I get the temptation.  As teachers, we are frequently called upon to moderate opposing sides, and we are trained to look for multiple points of view on a range of contentious issues.  The good teacher will sometimes have to defend a point of view that he or she disagrees with if it is unpopular and is being dismissed without consideration by our students.  But this is simply not one of those cases – a seated child, passively resisting an order to leave the classroom, and who poses no threat to anyone, simply cannot be hurled across a room, and it is not “moderation” to call for more information, or to call to see both sides, or to insist that the young woman’s behavior must occupy our attention as well.  It is, intentional or not, the perpetuation of violence.  It draws our attention away from the failures of the adults in the classroom to find a peaceful solution to a peaceful problem.

Writing for The New York Times, Roxane Grey asked, pointedly, “Where Are Black Children Safe?”

Time and again, in such situations, black people are asked, why don’t we mind our place? To be black in America is to exist with the presumption of guilt, burdened by an implacable demand to prove our innocence. We are asked impossible questions by people who completely ignore a reality where so many of the rules we are supposed to follow are expressly designed to subjugate and work against our best interests. We ignore the reality that we cannot just follow the rules and find our way to acceptance, equality or justice. Respectability politics are a delusion.

Far too little attention is being given to who the young girl is, or that, according to the lawyer representing her, she is in foster care. When that officer saw her, sitting quietly, defiantly, she was not allowed to be human. She was not allowed to have a complex story. She was held to a standard of absolute obedience. She was not given the opportunity to explain the why of her defiance because she was a black body that needed to be disciplined by any means necessary.

This reality, that so many children of color cannot even find refuge in school and are subjected to detrimental policies that we have long known do not work, strikes at the very heart of our moral responsibilities as teachers.  If students in our care face institutional violence, it is a massive failure of our role as stewards, and we must resist it on their behalf.  Allowing ourselves to become distracted by calls for “moderation” of viewpoint in response to that is another failure, and it makes us accomplices in a system that makes it impossible for a young person of color to ever not be at fault when assaulted.

I am reminded of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who wrote this in his Letter From a Birmingham Jail:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.

More than half a century later, even with the tangible progress that has been made in America, that same impulse to call for “moderation” and “balance” when presented with abject injustice is still with us.  It is a call that comes most frequently from a place of comfort and privilege that apparently cannot tolerate being made uncomfortable.  It is a call that shields enfranchised people from examining their own privilege and causes them to vote for leaders and policies that subject others far from them to injustice and violence.

And it is one of the most intractable problems that we face.

6 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

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.

2 Comments

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

#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.

1 Comment

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

#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.

Leave a comment

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

“The Fierce Urgency Of Now” – Social Justice Must Be Educators’ Mission

On June 17th, 2015, the 21 year-old Dylann Storm Roof, entered the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The church, led by the Reverend Clementa Pickney who, in addition to his pulpit, was a state senator, is the oldest traditionally Black Church in the South and has long been a fixture of the struggle for emancipation and civil rights during its almost 200 year history.  According to witnesses, Roof sat down with the dozen people participating in weekly Bible study for nearly an hour before he stood up, took out his pistol and began shooting.  Before he was done, he had reloaded multiple times and left 9 people dead, including Reverend Pickney.  Survivors quickly reported that when his victims implored him to stop, Roof told them, “I have to do it.  You rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

Roof’s victims are Tywanza Sanders, 26, who stood between Roof and his elderly aunt to try to convince him to put away his gun, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, a school speech therapist and girls track and field coach, Cynthia Hurd, 54, a librarian for over 3 decades, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, admissions coordinator for Southern Wesleyan University, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, a sexton at Emanuel Church who had worked there for over 30 years, Susie Jackson, 87, Mr. Sanders’ aunt and longtime attendee at Emanuel Church, Myra Thompson, 59, a visitor from Holy Trinity Episcopal Church who had joined the evening’s Bible study, Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74, also a visitor to Emanuel Church, and Reverend Clementa Pickney, 41, senior pastor of Emanuel Church and state senator in South Carolina.

The victims of Wednesday's racist terrorist attack.

The victims of Wednesday’s racist terrorist attack.

Dylann Roof, who is white, was captured by police on Thursday. Pieces of his story are emerging, but it was evident early in the case that deeply rooted racial hatred motivated him.  The survivors’ statements make that clear.  His selection of one of the most historic icons of the struggle to abolish slavery and to reach legal equality for African Americans makes it clear.  His own profile picture on Facebook where he is displaying the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Colonial Rhodesia, both nations where minority white populations governed to the exclusion of the black majority, makes that clear:

Roof Racist

And yet, the next morning, when enough of the story was directly in our faces to know that racism and a desire to instill racial terror was front and center, a national media outlet and some political figures were attempting to obfuscate that truth.  South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, the first woman elected to the governor’s office in South Carolina, and one of only two women of color elected to a governor’s office in American history, issued a statement stating “we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”

Haley

South Carolina Senator and candidate for the Republican nomination for President, Lindsey Graham, when asked if the shooting was a hate crime or an act of mental illness, responded saying “Probably both. There are real people out there that are organized to kill people in religion and based on race. This guy is just whacked out…But it’s 2015, there are people out there looking for Christians to kill them.”  Senator Graham also defended the Confederate Battle Flag which, due to a quirk of South Carolina law, flies over a memorial adjacent to the state capitol and is the only flag not flying at half mast today.

As the story unfolded, more Republican candidates obfuscated Roof’s obvious intentions.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush initially danced around the question of whether or not Roof was motivated by racial hatred.  Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum declared the killings an “assault on our religious liberties” without apparently mentioning the racial component of the crime.  Former Texas Governor Rick Perry was more willing to attribute Roof’s murders to psychiatric drugs than to racial hatred.

On Thursday morning, Fox’s morning show, Fox & Friends, went out of its way to portray the murders as an attack on Christianity, deliberately setting aside the nature of the church that was attacked and what the survivors were already reporting.  Co-host Elisabeth Hasselbeck even went so far as to comment about how “we’re not safe in our own churches” as if Roof’s intention were not perfectly clear and he could have just as easily murdered people in Hasselbeck’s church.

Is someone confused here?

Is someone confused here?

The Wall Street Journal, in an editorial where they said that Roof’s murders were caused by “a problem that defies explanation” went on to state, categorically, that the institutional racism of the 1950s and 1960s that allowed acts of racist terrorism to go unprosecuted no longer exists.  While it is fair to say that the overt White Supremacy of the past is greatly diminished and the influence the Klan once held over elected officials and judicial proceedings is basically no more, it is a horrendous dismissal of reality to say institutional racism no longer exists, and to claim that Dylann Roof’s professed White Supremacist motivations have no explanation.  The disparate impact of policing policies of the past three decades on African Americans is not disputable, and we know that when individuals bring their racial prejudices into positions of institutional authority, that can lead to serious economic discrimination.  And in a very embarrassing example of the power that racism still holds, Earl Holt, the president of the Conservative Citizens Council, whose website apparently helped to radicalize Dylann Roof until he pledged himself to starting a race war, has been a generous donor to Republican politicians — many of whom are now returning his money or donating it to charity.

To their credit, many of the Presidential candidates who have waffled on Roof’s motivation, have now joined Governor Nikki Haley in stating that it is time for the Confederate Battle Flag to be taken down from the memorial adjacent to the state capitol building.

I wish to be very clear here.  What the hosts and producers at Fox & Friends did, and, to a lesser degree, what Senator Graham and Governor Haley, did is an act of erasure.  There is no doubt about what motivated Dylann Roof’s terrorism.  There was no doubt on Thursday morning even though the production team of a major morning program mightily tried to remove it from their “discussion.”  Hasselbeck said the attack happened at a “historic church” rather than a “historic BLACK church” and that omission could not have been more deliberate or more outrageous.  The 200 year history of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is wrapped inextricably to the struggles and triumphs of the African American community in the South, and they did nothing less than try to erase that entire history out of some perverse desire to not name racist terrorism inspired by the very worst in our national heritage for what it is.

I do not know the true motivation behind those who cannot bring themselves to unequivocally state that racial hatred and White Supremacy is what drove Dylann Roof to his actions.  Perhaps they are racists themselves and sympathize with Roof’s seething hatred and fear of black people.  Perhaps they are cynical and see more political utility to casting this as an unknowable act of barbarity or as part of a larger script about religion being under attack.  Perhaps they know that a minor but potent part of the constituency and audience are sympathetic to Roof’s motives if not his actions and will respond negatively in the polls or ratings if they hear White Supremacy called out in public.  Whatever the reason, there is nothing admirable in failing to call Dylann Roof exactly what he is: a White Supremacist who deliberately chose one of the most iconic symbols of the African American community for an act of terrorism as devastating as any in the 1950s and 1960s.

Jon Stewart, setting aside his normal comedic monologue in favor of more sober reflection perhaps summed up that phenomenon perfectly:

I heard someone on the news say “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was a racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know, so the idea that — you know, I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There’s no nuance here.

And we’re going to keep pretending like, “I don’t get it. What happened? This one guy lost his mind.” But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it, and I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. In South Carolina, the roads that black people drive on are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep black people from being able to drive freely on that road. That’s insanity. That’s racial wallpaper. That’s — that’s — you can’t allow that, you know.

Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some kind of civil war. The Confederate flag flies over South Carolina, and the roads are named for Confederate generals, and the white guy’s the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, all those guys, ISIS, they’re not s— compared to the damage that we can apparently do to ourselves on a regular basis.

And this is where the role of educators has to be considered very seriously.  The victims of Dylann Roof are the latest in a long history of attacks against crucial landmarks in the lives of our African American countrymen and women and against their very lives themselves.  The Black Church has been a cornerstone of African American community and activism for centuries, and its role has subjected it to repeated and vicious attacks from the original Klu Klux Klan of Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, through the rise of the Second Klan in the 1920s and the waves of riots and violence inflicted upon African American communities across the country, to the waves of violence against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  White Supremacy and Apartheid always defended itself through violence and terrorism, and while the struggles of the mid-20th Century may have legislatively defeated those institutions, we did not stamp them out of existence.  Roof’s attack on a historic Black Church was the first deadly attack since the 1963 Alabama bombing and 1964 murder of civil rights workers, but it was by no means the only attack on a Black Church in the past 52 years.

Americans may like to imagine that we left White Supremacy behind with the 1960s, but it is clear that the hatred still seethes within many of our countrymen, and it is very clear that it boiled over in Dylann Roof spurring him to annihilate members of the Charleston black community as they studied the Bible in one of the cornerstone institutions of that community.  And it happened in a state where a sitting United States Senator and Presidential candidate still feels the need to defend the state sponsored flying of a flag that led 100s of 1000s of men into battle to keep blacks in bondage.  There is no ambiguity here.  Roof is a vicious racist inspired to act by the still present legacies of White Supremacy which we refuse to confront boldly and bluntly.  He apparently self radicalized by immersing himself in an online world where White Power advocates work collectively to stir up racial hatred and to advocate for race war — an advocacy that Roof took to its next logical step.

The result is an act of abject terrorism meant to make people feel unsafe in their most precious institutions, which deprives the black community in Charleston of beloved mentors and family members, and which deprives the state of South Carolina of a remarkable, young spiritual and political leader whose potential for good seemed limitless a few days ago:

As a scholar, as an educator, and as a member of a community still seeking racial justice, it is my obligation to passionately denounce not merely Roof’s act of racist terrorism, but also to denounce those who want to strip it of its historical and social contexts and leave it “merely” as the act of one, lone, troubled young man for which none of the rest of us have any responsibility.  That is a lie.  And it can only be confronted by a passionate and genuine commitment to social justice and for speaking out in defense of social justice.  We cannot allow either the media or our leaders to murder both history and the truth when speaking about Charleston without hearing from us.

The martyrs in Charleston — The Honorable Clementa Pickney, 41, Tywanza Sanders, 26, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, Cynthia Hurd, 54, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, Ethel Lee Lance, 70, Susie Jackson, 87,  Myra Thompson, 59, and Reverend Daniel Lee Simmons, Sr., 74 — deserve our resolve and our dedication to social justice.

6 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, racism, Social Justice

Explaining Eric Garner to My Children

Very often, I encounter people who wonder how to explain very difficult and supposedly adult matters to young children.  Readers should know that I am not an early childhood expert; mostly, I am a parent of young children whose professional work and studies for the past 21 years has significant overlap and contact with the work of experts in early childhood development.  That gives me a slight advantage, but I would not claim expertise in this subject area.  This is how my wife and I approached explaining to our very young children, Eric Garner and the problems too many of our fellow New Yorkers have with the police department.

Our first premise from a very early age has been to be honest with our children but to seek framing that is within their actual experiences.  Cultural conservatives often seem convinced that same sex relationships and families are fully beyond the understanding of young children, but that seems far more tied to their unwillingness to call such families, well, families.  This was easy for us;  my uncle and his husband are raising three of our children’s cousins, and we traveled to Vermont for their wedding.  For several years, the apartment next door to ours was home to a gay couple raising three children.  It was simple enough to explain to our children that some families have a mommy and a daddy like ours while other families have a daddy and a daddy and others have a mommy and a mommy.  Other families may have a mommy or a daddy, and others still have grandparents, aunties and uncles helping — there are all sorts of families.  When our daughter was old enough to want to know where babies come from, we added that understanding to our explanation of families.  Not so difficult.

Explaining death was actually harder.  When our daughter was almost 4, my wife’s grandmother died.  Unsure of what our daughter could comprehend on the subject, we decided that she had to know, but that we would rely upon the wisdom of Sesame Street whose production team decided to take the death of actor Will Lee to teach children about death through the eyes of Big Bird.  In the scene, the adults have to explain to Big Bird that Mr. Hooper had died and that he could never come back.  They assured Big Bird that the other grown ups would still be there to take care of him, that they were lucky to have known and loved their friend, and when Big Bird demanded to know why things have to be this way, Gordon tells him “Because.”  We talked in terms very much like these to our daughter to explain to her that her great grandmother had just died.  At first, we were not sure if she had understood, but the next day, she took the large stuffed toy goose that her great grandmother had made for her when she was born and carried it with her for the next week.  She understood.

So there is a principle at work here — when faced with difficult situations and concepts that may be hard to comprehend even as adults, talk with very young children honestly and in terms they can comprehend within their own experiences.

The news of the past two weeks has provided another opportunity.  With protests against the grand jury decisions in both the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases continuing, our children, now in early elementary school, have encountered another difficult to understand situation regarding justice and racial profiling.  Both my wife and I are contemplating whether planned marches this upcoming weekend are events we want to go to as a family (my wife already went to a protest at Foley Square on the second day of protests).  And on Sunday, I was walking the children home from having gotten haircuts when we saw this:

I fumbled a bit as I tried to explain why that small group of people were singing hymns as they walked up the sidewalk — and why there were 3 police cruisers tailing what was likely a group of Unitarians who had just gotten out of church as several religious leaders across New York City had pledged to do.  So we sat the four members of our family, myself, my wife, our older daughter, and younger son, around our dining room table to discuss the situation.  I did not keep a verbatim record, so this is from memory.

I began by asking my daughter if she remembered anything about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from her MLK Day class last year.  She thought for a moment, and she told us that he had fought to change bad laws and that he wanted all people to be able to sit “at the front of the bus” so he organized people to not use the buses anymore until that changed.  We told her that she was correct, and that that was the Montgomery bus boycott which was part of a whole movement to change laws that were unfair to people.

The next part of the conversation was difficult.  Our children go to public school in New York City, and they have classmates who are African American, but while we have told them about Dr. King and his work, we never framed it as an issue of racism.  To break down their “innocence” on the existence of racism was hard to do, and I was reminded of the characters of Scout and Jem from “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming to realize that they lived in an unjust society.  I’ve always liked Atticus Finch, so I jumped in.

“Honey, what we’ve never told you is why Dr. King had to do what he did.  Have you ever noticed that some people you know have darker skin and others have lighter skin?”

They both said yes.

“The laws Dr. King fought against were ones that said that if you had dark skin, you had to sit in the back of the bus, or you could not go to the same schools as other children, or go to the same hospital, or shop at the same stores.  A lot of people back then thought that people with dark skin were bad and should not be able to live with people with light skin, and they passed laws to force people to live like that.  And a lot of people came together and fought those laws and changed them, and that’s why we honor Dr. King today — because he worked so hard to make our country a more just place.”

Our daughter asked if certain classmates of hers might have skin dark enough to be treated badly by those laws.  We told her that was probably true — but then warned her she could not talk to them about it because it was up to their families to explain this to them when they think they were ready.  We also explained that people whose ancestors came from European countries were often called “white” and that people whose ancestors came from Africa were often called “black.”  Our son was perplexed by this and held up  cup of milk and said “But THIS is white!” Pointing to his own skin, he said “This is kind of peach.”  My wife very lovingly affirmed his observation, but tried to explain that was how people talked even if it wasn’t exactly accurate.

We still had to explain the march we had just seen, however.  “Even though Dr. King changed a lot, everything isn’t all better.  Last summer, there was a man named Eric Garner — you should remember his name, kids.  He was approached by some police officers because they thought he was doing something he should not have done.”  Our kids asked what that was.  “They say he was selling cigarettes on the street, and you aren’t allowed to sell cigarettes unless you are a store, and he wasn’t allowed to do that.  The police wanted to arrest him, but they were too rough with him, they used too much force, and this is very sad, kids, but Mr. Garner died even though he wasn’t fighting the police.  And a lot of people, a lot of people, think the police should not have done that, and your mommy and daddy agree with them.”

At this point, our daughter began to look very sad, but we kept explaining.

“And just this week, it was decided that the police who were there when Mr. Garner died won’t have to have a trial in court to answer for what happened to him.  And that’s made a lot of people even more upset and angry, and they have been protesting this all over the city.”  I felt like I was stumbling, but decided to explain why this case was so difficult for so many people.  “The reason why this is all related to Dr. King is that a lot of times, some police are not very nice to the people with darker skin that they meet.  In neighborhoods were a lot of black people live, some police are too rough and stop a lot of people who are just going about their day and that’s wrong.  So people are saying that those police need to change, and that it isn’t good that a lot of people feel like they cannot trust the police.  Do you remember how we’ve always told you that if you are lost or in trouble you can go into a store or up to a police officer and ask for help?  Well, you still can, but there are a lot of parents in this city and all over the country who wonder if they can because they don’t think the police will help them.  We need that to change.”

I could tell that our daughter was wondering if any friends of hers were affected by this.  Our son was dumbfounded.  He told us that “Some police officers have dark skin. How can they treat people with dark skin badly?”

My wife affirmed his observation, and she agreed with him that it “didn’t make sense.”  She also told both of them that most police “are good people who took the job because they wanted to help people, and they do help people every day. But some of them do the wrong thing and we should not let them do that, so it is important to say something when wrong things happen.”

I also told the children that it was okay for them to still trust police, and that they should trust police and listen to them.  But at the same time they had to understand that “not everyone is going to have the same experiences that you have.  You have to know that because you live in the same city and the same country as people who really do wonder when they can trust that police will protect them.  And we should all make certain that we do whatever we can so people aren’t treated badly because of their skin color.”

Our daughter agreed and said that the mayor should do something about it.  My wife agreed with her, and explained that he was trying to do something about it.  “Did you know the mayor’s wife is black, so their children have dark skin.  The mayor was talking to the city about how he and his wife have had to talk to their children about what to do if a police officer ever treats them badly, and there are a lot of other parents in the city who have the same talk with their children.  All the protesters this week are saying it shouldn’t be that way — no parents should have to have that conversation with their children.”

So our children have their blinders to racism removed, and time will tell just how much it impacts their thinking, but we cannot pretend they are innocent of it anymore.  And while it is painful as a parent to feel obligated to do so, it is far, far more painful for the 100s of 1000s of children of color in this city who grow up not knowing if they can trust the police to protect them or to persecute them…and for their parents who have to teach them the world is thus.  We discussed it with our children so that they can begin to understand the unjust differences between their expectations in life and the expectations of their schoolmates.  We discussed it because this cartoon by Ben Sargent describes those differences far too well:

still two americas

And if our children are going to ever help change that, they need to know about it.  They can understand it.  We need to know how to talk to them about it.

Which is a lesson, as a teacher educator, I need to be more active in promoting among my own students who will some day be teachers and whose practice of good stewardship will be vital for their future students.  Thinking about their own experiences, how they differ from so many of the young people in their care, and preparing to stand up for the dignity of those students inside and outside of school?  I have read many over the years who argue this is not the job of teachers, much like many argue young children cannot understand such complex issues.  Young children can — and teachers’ defense of their students is one of the most important tasks they can undertake.  It is all vital, and it is all related.

4 Comments

Filed under #blacklivesmatter, Activism, politics, Social Justice, Stories