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July 2015

#TBT Conversations in Education – Mark Naison (@McFiredogg)

Every Thursday The PRESS Project will share a link to stories that have summarized the challenges and promises faced by parents choosing schools for their child/children.

Today’s link comes from a Brooklyn-based blogger, Professor Mark Naison of Fordham University.

In his post, “The Return of Community History?  Hope and Inspiration at C.A.S.A Middle School in the Bronx”, he describes his visit to Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a school that wants to combine the culture of its community with a college-prep education for middle school students.

Read more at: http://withabrooklynaccent.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-return-of-community-history-hope.html

Also follow Dr. Naison on Twitter: @McFiredogg

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Selling Perfect Schools

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In America, our most prized possession is perfection.  It is the cash crop the country sells to its citizens and people across the globe.  That’s why when you pop a can of Coca-Cola, you “open happiness”.  Growing up, some of us were pushed “to be like Mike” (Michael Jordan), and to immortalize his slam dunk.  Others must perceive us as impeccable, having it all together, and being the best at it all, if we are to convince them of our value.

Perfection might have intrinsic value to the person that aims to cultivate it, but for the most part, it seems to be something we create for others to enjoy.  What if you weren’t “the best” at your job – would that be okay with you?  No, because usually that means professional suicide. Companies thrive (increase sales, dominate industry sectors, outperform the competition) when their employees are “perfect” or “the best”.  So often there are rewards set up for being widgets rather than being people with flaws, who at least try their best.  The result can be vicious competition against one another, to prove oneself more perfect than the other.  No one, however, is perfect in and of themselves.  Human error is bound to occur, whether we like it or not.  The question is what do we do to rectify it.

The question is also what this has to do with education.  In a workshop I led recently with parents, I asked them to look at a chart (see below) and answer the following:  which school would you enroll your child in?

which school chart

Every parent, except one, went for the obvious choice – School C.  After it was revealed that School C was a private school that charged tuition, some parents reluctantly chose School B.  The one exception let’s call her Jaime – was the only parent who stuck with her initial choice – School A. She gave her reason why:

School A is trying its best.  Yes School B might have a higher rating by the DOE, but it’s doing worse than other schools, and the school environment is horrible.  School A is at least trying in school environment by making the school safe and clean for its students.

I revealed that School A was a local charter school, while School B was a local traditional public school.  Parents were shocked that a regular public school could, according to the DOE, be outperforming a charter school overall.  However, the school environment rating was not surprising to them.  “There’s no discipline in these schools nowadays,” one grandmother said.  “Children run the place reckless, but how they gonna actually learn anything in that environment?”

“So many of you said you’d still choose School C, even though it charges tuition.”  I shared with the parents how much the tuition costs.  “How many of you would be able to find the means to pay for this?”

In short, many of the parents wanted the highest performing school, but weren’t fully sure how they’d afford it, and were grieved by this.  But Jaime tried offering some words of encouragement:  “It’s not just about what the school does for your child.  Maybe we need to hold the fire underneath the school, when it’s at least trying, and get them to get better instead of staying where they’re at.  At least if they’re trying.”

Education has become one of those industries in the business of selling perfection.  When it comes to serving communities where people have historically been the working poor and are oppressed politically and economically, most would argue that access to perfect schools is a right earned by these communities.  The school choice model was developed and is designed based on this rallying cry.  Yet schools like School C remain located in neighborhoods most families don’t even imagine stepping foot in, and continue to do way better than any school serving the marginalized.

What can parents, teachers, community members, activists do to rectify this?  We certainly can’t keep perpetuating a narrative of perfection if we’re not delivering it.  That goes for advocates of the charter school system, as well as those stressing the importance of saving our traditional public schools.  I propose this equation:

People aiming to be their best  +  People working with an open heart as a team player  = The best guarantee of perfection.

Instead of pitting ourselves against one another, to fill more seats in one school, or to advertise one school as the best, why don’t we – education professionals and parents alike – work as a team to better ensure all children attend the perfect school any human being can possibly aspire to develop.

About That Bitter/Sweet Taste…

Life. The world’s problems are too heavy to be petty, that’s for sure. It’s common rhetoric to dismiss celebrity news or gossip or anything superficial by saying “there are more important things going on in the world.”  Going a step further, getting up and actually doing something about the world’s problems, though, is always the difficult part.
Harry Belafonte (Mr. “B”) spoke at a Justice League meeting July 15th in NYC, and as usual he spoke poetically about literally dying on the line – about young people and oppressed people willing to starve, lose sleep, get locked up, or pay the ultimate price fighting during the 50s & 60s. Very few are willing to do that today, he pointed out, and I asked him why and how we could change that.

To be transparent, I asked him because I was hurt and upset by some of the parents I work with. Parents who eagerly shared their frustrations and demands for a school system that’s failing their children, but whose enthusiasm began to dwindle. From fervently waiting at the door to get into the center, to peeking their head out their apartment window providing an excuse for why they can’t attend the next workshop.

America’s most vulnerable characteristic, as a nation, is that we pretend to moral for change.
When I heard this, at first I was like “YES, PREACH MR. B!”  But then, I got convicted.  As a young adult who genuinely hates to witness people being taken advantaged of, I, like any other person, like to be comfortable. That’s why I never committed a crime in my life – don’t wanna go to jail, ain’t about that life.  And as much as I know the work it’ll take to bring down great walls of oppression, I do want a life for myself.  I want to get married one day and start a family. I like to get dressed up, go out to parties, see some world, have some fun.  At the very least, I want to have my weekends to myself, sleep in bed all day and watch “Empire”.

The work is plenty, the workers are few, and stress abounds when it comes to fighting the Powers That Be. So it makes sense that we – the coalition builders, the marginalized communities – get caught up in being comfortable, even while people continue to die, get shot at, starve, live in squalor, and are undereducated right before our eyes.

And that’s exactly what the Establishment wants, for us to get so comfortable that we forget about the cycle, the trap they’ve fortified to keep us in one place.

I asked Mr. B what was the solution to this, and to be frank, I didn’t get a straight answer. Other members at the meeting shared their thoughts with me and offered their generous support, but in the end the best thing I heard was “You asked a great question.”

I’m not mad at that, at all. This is just a little ranting and self-reflection as I try to reconcile my anger against injustice with my desire to be comfortable.  Perhaps, as a community, the bitter pill we have to take is knowing that we don’t have the luxury to be comfortable. I don’t know what kind of honey we need to drizzle on that to make it easier to swallow.

Bitter/Sweet

You do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.  This statement, one of the longest surviving words-of-wisdom, has proved itself to be true many of times.  The trick to its success, though, is remembering one thing:  every fly (person) has its honey.

For most people, their honey is a kind word.  For others, the honey can’t just be a word – it has to be the right kind of words.  Think politics.  “Border control”, “sanctity of marriage” and “pro-life”, for example, is honey to a far-right conservative’s lips.  “Pro-choice”, “marriage equality” and “DREAM Act” is much sweeter to the liberal tongue.

Today, in the midst of church bombings and police brutality, people are searching for the right words to say about race in America.  If removing the Confederate flag from South Carolina’s statehouse with the support of Republicans like Mitt Romney is any indication, it seems that anyone saying anything against symbols of racial oppression has the honey in most demand.  And today, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ words on race in America have caught the attention of many who are praising and sharing quotes such as this:

Addressing the moral failings of black people while ignoring the centuries-old failings of their governments amounts to a bait and switch.

Unfortunately, America may still be far away from the moment Martin Luther King, Jr. hoped to see, when children and adults alike would be judged “by the content of their character”, with skin color being irrelevant.  Americans of any and all races still see skin color as a means to assessing character.  We know someone before we know them, for his or her skin color tells us so.  Still, fair skin seems to equate to superiority, and any shade darker is either mediocre or subpar.

Coates’ quote above is definitely validated when we look at education in America.  A black man can graduate from Harvard University, and yet his chances of getting hired after college aren’t any better than white students attending less prestigious schools. It also rings true when white children continually have greater access to high quality schools, while schools with predominately African American students fight to give children an adequate (if not outstanding) education.  As Coates hints, the “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” rhetoric, sweet and savory to some, is vinegar thrown at the centuries-old wounds still healing in the African American community.  However, vinegar has its medicinal benefits.  Shaming the black community does not change the historical marginalization that has trapped many African Americans in a cycle of poverty (economically and socially).  Nevertheless, one can’t help but imagine what it would be like to relive the spiritual vitality with which blacks marched with one another, built schools with and for one another, and made a resounding noise with one another through tireless coalition and strategizing.

It may be too soon to celebrate that honey now tastes like speaking out against racial oppression in the United States.  Tides rise and wane, and what was once sweet can become bitter just as people are fickle.  Perhaps the better prescription for moments like these is to take one’s vinegar with one’s honey, or be brave enough to swallow the bitter pill straight up when necessary.  In other words, let’s celebrate the advances towards open dialogue and frankness in the race dialogue, a conversation that holds both white and black Americans accountable for their role in greater justice on behalf of our nation’s future – our nation’s children.

About Arne Duncan’s #PTChat…

The teacher always offered to help, but when I started asking why this or why that, or when I told her what I really wanted to know, that I wanted to find out how things were really going in the school for my son, then she didn’t like it…1

In Brooklyn, New York, and the entire United States, there are many people telling parents what we should do about education. TPPNY never wants to tell parents or anyone else what should be done. Instead, we’d rather show you what could be done.

When parents become META – or when they know what they know and what they don’t know about decision-making in education – they tend to ask questions. When they ask questions, a transparent conversation tends to unfold. Only then will parents begin to see what could be done, and what’s not being done, in educating children in America.

The Parental Engagement Twitter Chat (or #PTChat) hosted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan2 would have been the ideal moment to witness this.

Duncan’s goal was to engage parents in a conversation about what’s concerning them about the education system. As you comb through the tweets from yesterday’s discussion, you see many Twitter handles that clearly belong to policymakers, teachers, and organizations meant to help parents…very few parents were available to share their point of view.

Rarely will TPPNY give opinions, because we strive to be a neutral platform for parents to express themselves. But without question, events like the #PTChat need to result in more META parents, especially when conversations like these involve language like “parents as adult learners”, or “EMO* customers”. We need to know parents’ reactions to this language, and whether or not parents are okay with such labels or the intention behind the labels.

Without comments starting with “I am a parent, and this is what I think/experienced”, there is no way of knowing for sure if any policy or practice reflects what parents want or need. Parents have the most to lose when all things aren’t considered. Let’s do better in making decisions with parents, not for parents.

Some highlights from #PTChat:

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  1. Parent quote taken from Pablo Jasis’ “Latino Families Challenging Exclusion in a Middle School: A Story from the Trenches” (School Community Journal, 2013, Vol. 23, No. 1).
  1. For those who want to understand his role the Secretary of Education (SOE) at the federal level (i.e. working from Washington, D.C.) is not elected but put in his/her position by the president of the U.S. President Obama nominated Duncan as SOE in 2009 for the job that includes deciding how the federal government funds education programs across America, and providing Americans with information on how programs and initiatives across the country are affecting how teachers teach, students learn, and how schools are run. There’s a lot more to the SOE job than this quick summary – that’s why TPPNY continues to host parent workshops on topics like this.

For more information, visit our “Our Workshops” link: https://tppny.org/our-workshops/.

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