Category Archives: #FightForDyett

Chicago is Everytown, USA


The Chicago Teachers Union took to the picket lines on the morning of April 1 for a one day strike, highlighting the dire financial conditions of their schools because of the state budget impasse caused by Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and contract disputes caused by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.  Teachers and supporters marched in front of public schools before shifting their protests to state universities facing financial catastrophe because of the budget crisis in Springfield.  In typical fashion, no politician took responsibility for the continued stress facing public schools and universities.  Mayor Emanuel protested that he is doing all that he can with what the state government is willing to give, and Governor Rauner issued a boiler plate statement claiming the teachers were victimizing students and their families with a display of “arrogance.”  These statements are rich coming from the mayor who has made closing public schools the centerpiece of education agenda and from the governor who has kept the entire state without a budget for nine months because lawmakers won’t fully endorse his plan to break unions — resulting in a crisis in higher education funding that makes many Illinois families reconsider attending state universities — and whose idea of getting desperately needed funding to urban schools involves “re-purposing” $300 million of special education money for general education funding.

CTU’s action is welcome both for its clarity and for its signal that organized teachers are not going to go along with a governor who holds all of a state hostage to get his anti-labor priorities passed — or with a mayor whose school improvement ideas begin and end with privatization.  The only real question is not why Chicago’s teachers took to the picket lines but rather why a hell of a lot more teachers have not done so across the nation?

President of the Americans Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten said, ““This governor is bankrupting public schools so they won’t effectively function for kids….If you can’t solve things through the normal processes, if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”  Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis tied the strike to larger labor issues across Illinois, “For every single working person in this entire state, somebody’s got to lead the way. It happened to fall to CTU.” She could have easily been talking about several dozen states and the assault on public education that has unfolded across the country.

Let’s review only part of the national roll call:

Attacks on public K-12 and university education are not limited to these examples. Total per pupil funding for elementary and secondary schools remains, adjusted for inflation, below 2008 levels in all but 13 states because of both state aid cuts and loss of local revenue from property taxes.  In 27 states, local funding for K-12 schools rose but could not make up for continued cuts in state aid.  25 states continue to provide less money per pupil today than they did before the Great Recession, and 12 states cut general education funding just in this past year.  Higher education has done no better with all but three states funding their public universities below 2008 levels, both on a percentage of previous funding and on a per pupil basis.  Although 37 states spent more per pupil in the 2014-2015 school year than before, the national average increase was only $268 per student.  Perversely, state schools have had to increase tuition while cutting programs and staff, and now, for the first time, tuition makes up a larger percentage of public university revenue than state grants.  Attacks on teachers’ workplace protections have gone nationwide, hitting courtrooms with dark money funded campaigns where they cannot gain traction among lawmakers, and it appears that only the untimely death of Associate Justice Scalia prevented the Supreme Court from gutting decades of precedent on public union funding.

Once again, the question must be asked:  Why aren’t many, many more teachers across the country joining their sisters and brothers in Chicago in demonstrating that their voices are still there and can speak loudly when they speak together?  It isn’t just the future of their work that is still clearly at stake – it is the future of every child they teach. President Weingarten said, “….if you have exhausted every advocacy avenue in a democracy, you then step it up — and that’s what they’re doing.”

Chicago is Everytown, USA.


Filed under #FightForDyett, Activism, Cami Anderson, charter schools, Chris Christie, Corruption, Dannel Malloy, Funding, One Newark, politics, Social Justice, Unions

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.

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

The Hunger Strike Ended: The #FightForDyett Continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Welcome Class of 2019: What We Owe Your Future Students and Their Parents

Today, I get to meet the next class of students who have entered my university seeking to become high school teachers.  This is always an exciting time in no small respect because being a part of their journey from student to student of teaching to teacher is some of the most rewarding work of my life, and I am consistently grateful for how their energy and optimism help revive my own year after year.

In recent years, that energy and optimism have been even more impressive because the in public battles over education and active disruption of today’s education “reform” have impacted these young people more than their counterparts in previous times.  The morale of their teachers has been dropping during their time in the classroom, and the inherently busy and often confusing world of the classroom has been increasingly stressful to those with whom we entrust our children.  If we accept what I believe is the very valid premise that the choice to become a teacher actually begins during one’s time as a student in teachers’ classrooms, then the students I meet today are among a remarkable group of young people who remain energized by education’s possibilities rather than discouraged by current circumstances.  Nationwide, it is getting harder to find such young people to enter the teacher preparation pipeline.

And I have good news for them – there are excellent reasons to expect growing and vocal support from the parents whose children they will eventually teach, and those reasons should both encourage and inspire them.

The annual PDK/Gallup poll on the public’s beliefs about education was published recently, and while the results should be the subject of much debate and no small amount of disagreement, two messages ring out clearly: First, the public does not buy high stakes standardized testing as the best measurement of what teachers do, and second, the people who know our schools the best are the most positive about those schools.

Every demographic surveyed said that there is too much emphasis on standardized testing by very wide margins.  64% of the national sample and 67% of public school parents believe so as well as 57% of African Americans, 60% of Hispanics, and 65% of whites in the national sample.  Support for opting out of standardized examinations showed more variation, but considering how test refusal was barely an issue a few years ago, the numbers in the survey may very well be surprising.  Nationally, 41% of those surveyed agreed opting out should be allowed, and 47% of public school parents agreed it should be allowed.  Whites agreed with allowing parents to opt out by 44% while 35% of Hispanics thought it should be allowed and 28% of African Americans thought it should be allowed.  This poses a challenge to opt out advocates, certainly, who have made only modest inroads in urban communities so far.

Parents who say they themselves would opt out was as high as 31% of public school parents with similar differences among different ethnic groups.  However, readers should remember that New York State, a national leader in the parental opt out movement, posted a test refusal rate of 20% for the 2015 examinations (which nearly matches the 21% of African American parents who would personally opt their children out), so there is room, given just this year’s support, to grow test refusal by significant numbers in the next year, complicating plans to evaluate teachers using test scores.

Survey respondents might not mind that, however, as they clearly find standardized tests a poor source of information on how teachers teach and how schools perform.  All demographic groups said that student engagement, students’ hopes for the future, and the percentage of students who graduate and go on to further education are vastly more important measures of school effectiveness than standardized test scores.  Similarly, all groups believed that samples of student work, teachers’ written evaluations, and teacher given grades were vastly more important indications of student progress, and all groups believed that teacher quality, expectations, principal leadership, and increased funding were more important tools for school improvement than measurement via standardized testing.  African American parents were most interested in using standardized test scores to compare students with students in other communities, states, and countries, but that support was only 34% saying it was “very important” and overall support at that level was only 22% of all public school parents.

Parents and others similarly disagreed with using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  Nationally, 43% of all those surveyed agreed with using student test scores that way, down from the slight majority who supported it in 2012 and up 5 points from last year’s survey.  Public school parents were most vocal in opposition with only 37% in support and 63% opposed.

The PDK/Gallup poll reaffirms a long term trend in the survey over the years: people tend to think their local schools and the schools their children attend are better than schools nationwide.  Local support for public schools remains robust in this year’s poll with 51% of the national sample giving their local schools a grade of A or B, and with 57% of public school parents saying the same.  Worryingly, only 23% of African Americans and 31% of Hispanics felt similarly, highlighting known discrepancies in our highly segregated schools.  Nationally, when public school parents were asked what grades they would give to the school attended by their oldest child, 70% said an A or a B.  All respondents noted funding as a key issue for schools and quality as well with all demographics citing it as the most important problem facing schools and citing it as very or somewhat important for school improvement.

With trends like these emerging from the polling data, it is not surprising that direct action movements from parents and students to highlight dilemmas facing their schools and to challenge unpopular policies have emerged.  The Opt Out movement is a large, growing, example of parental activism in communities across the country aimed at relieving schools of over testing.

In other communities, activists have come out to support their public schools via direct action as they’ve come under attack.  In Newark, NJ, students of the Newark Student Union have been leading a movement to demand attention for how school “reforms” have harmed them and their community.  Even more inspiring is the story in Chicago, where a dozen parent activists, having tried every possible means to save the last open enrollment high school in their community of Bronzeville, are beginning the third week of a hunger strike to save Dyett High School.  While the press has been slow to notice the story in Bronzeville, it has caught the interest and support of public school advocates across the country.

So as I welcome my new class of future teachers to their first college education classes today, I also have a message for them:  It is tempting, even easy, to spin a story of public education under attack and of those attacks winning, but you must also remember that you have the confidence and trust of parents in communities across the country, parents who understand the value of the work you have committed yourself to learning and doing.  Year after year in polls, their faith and belief in you is clear.  In the growth of Opt Out, their understanding of why the test and punish era of school accountability needs to be rolled back is evident.

And in communities like Newark and Bronzeville, students and parents are putting their very bodies on the line to support the importance of a fully public education.  You owe them nothing less than full reciprocation and your every effort to justify their trust.  Let’s get to work.

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Filed under #FightForDyett, Activism, Newark, Newark Students Union, Opt Out, politics, schools, teacher learning