Principal Jamaal Bowman from CASA Middle School in the Bronx opened the October 17th conference The Call to Educational Justice.
As armed conflicts proliferate, natural resources dwindle, and economies struggle to stay afloat, people across the globe have become used to enduring hardship, injustice, and the rough hand of the corporate state. But inevitably, there arrives a breaking point. When it comes to their children, the patience of parents ends and communities begin to rise up. In Chicago over the past several weeks a group of activists has taken the radical step of engaging in a hunger strike to protect a beloved school from closure by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). The hunger strike, now in its 4th week, is approaching a very dangerous stage. Only recently, after the strikers had gone 23 days without solid food, did Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS take the strike seriously enough to engage face to face with the community and the activists.
I spoke to one of the activists, Jitu Brown, at the Network for Public Education Conference in Chicago last April. He told me this tragic story about the destruction of the two neighborhood schools, one a “school of distinction,” through a CPS rezoning that violated community wishes. Regarding parents’ subsequent flight from the schools, Brown took umbrage with how CPS framed the narrative. “[They said], ‘Parents are voting with their feet.’ No! Parents are leaving because YOU threw a grenade in the school.” That tale echoes in stories unfolding across the country, wherever parents and communities desperately struggle to protect their schools from the chaos and annihilation that comes from above. In so many cases community voices are silenced, the needs of children swept aside and money and politics take over.
Jitu Brown and the Chicago activists have taken the fight to a new level. They insist that Chicago Public Schools engage with the communities they are there to serve. If CPS undertakes any further uncollaborative action, it risks not only a symbolic, but an actual, devastating response.
Co-authored by Kemala Karmen
Deputy Director, Co-Founder NYCpublic.org
In the sturm und drang leading up to last week’s New York State budget vote, countless letters were written, phone calls made, and backroom deals negotiated regarding the new education policies Governor Andrew Cuomo had tied to approval of his financial plans. Much of that talk revolved around a new teacher evaluation law and the role high-stakes standardized testing should play in assessing teacher accountability. Should a full 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation, as the governor proposed, be based on the test-score “growth” of his or her students? Would, as critics countered, such an emphasis lead to a diminution of social studies, science, foreign language, and arts instruction since those subjects are not regularly covered by the tests the state administers?
These questions are certainly worthy of debate; after all, there is no consensus as to the validity of the “value-added measurement” theory that underlies the governor’s proposals — and notable detractors include the American Statistical Association and the National Science Foundation. However, I have to wonder if, by virtue of this narrow focus, Albany has somehow lost track of what really matters for the children who attend our schools.
Certainly, schools must be places where the transmission of academic knowledge occurs, but a good school offers so much more than that; it becomes a home away from home, it is a place where students thrive because they feel safe and seen and valued, and are given opportunities to grow. Likewise, the best teachers do more than simply inform students of the facts and theories of their disciplines. The acquisition of those facts and theories might, imperfectly, be measured by tests. But that is so tiny in the scheme of things. What matters is that the best teachers care. They inspire. They forge relationships that acknowledge that children are complex beings; they see and address students’ needs and possibilities.
Recently, I had a tangible and powerful reminder of these truths. I was watching Jamaal Bowman conduct the weekly “community circle” at C.A.S.A. Middle School in the Bronx. I’d “met” Jamaal, C.A.S.A.’s principal, in a very modern way; knowing that I was looking to film public school experiences, he’d tweeted, “Come tell our story” at me and included a link to a wonderful YouTube video called 7 Habits. It wasn’t long after, that I grabbed my camera and headed to the Bronx. In the community circle, students gave all kinds of testimony: shout-outs to teachers who helped them or pushed them that week, apologies for mistakes or lack of effort, and affirmations for the joyfulness of the school. Jamaal conducted the meeting with the inspiration of a revival and the musical skill of a hip-hop DJ.
As I stared into the faces of these 12-, 13- and 14-year-old children, I saw immense joy. It was clear to me that these students learn and share in an atmosphere of understanding. It is an environment where their voices count, and their adversities are shared, validated, and communicated. What was truly remarkable was how the students worked with each other. As each child rose to give thanks or share regret, there was great respect and restraint shown. When the situation called for it, they were buoyant, enthusiastic, and boisterous. At other times, they grew quiet and focused intently on every word. These were middle school kids, but they were not posturing or sizing each other up or feigning boredom! They were in the moment, and as inspired as I was by the potential that existed in this world of school.
I recorded many of the student testimonies given on that initial trip to C.A.S.A., but for me the testimony of Sanise Lebron, an 8th grade student, best revealed the depth and power of what is happening at this Bronx middle school. She shared her story with her entire school. They watched her deliver the anguish in her life with such grace and beauty. Jamaal and his staff, and the students themselves, have created a compassionate space for children, fully aware that real learning cannot happen in the absence of empathy.
Sanise’s favorite class is Humanities and she hopes to be a lawyer when she grows up, to help transform her community. She is a winning member on the debate team, a huge contributor to the basketball team, and plays softball outside of school. Her best friends are Makala, Angelina, China, and Rebecca, whom Sanise describes as smart, fun, and always there for each other. Although her father isn’t around, she has an amazing mother, uncle, and grandmother who provide her with outstanding love and support. She identifies Ms. De Los Santos, Mrs. Doria, and Ms. Walton as her favorite teachers because they continue to push her and nurture her academically and emotionally.
So, Legislators of New York State, can a standardized test put a value on this?
Source: Michael Elliot
On a weekend in December, I took a borrowed camera and lights and headed out to Montclair, New Jersey. All weekend long, one after another, public school parents and students tromped down the basement stairs in the home of an MCAS member. She and her fellow parent activists had assembled a diverse collection of urban and suburbanites, so that I could record their testimony. They wanted to talk about the changes that they were witnessing in their schools and in their children, changes which they believed emanated directly from corporate education reforms, and in particular, the upcoming PARCC Standardized Tests. (PARCC, an acronym for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, is a multi-state consortium that has engaged the testing and publishing behemoth Pearson to create the Common Core-aligned computer-based standardized tests.)
Parents and students talked about the dramatic changes in curriculum and a flood of test prep in classes and homework. Some spoke about the massive expenditures for technology and testing materials, as hands-on instructional time declined. Parents of children with special education needs and individualized education plans (IEPs), found the implications of these changes particularly troubling. Many were concerned that the test-obsessed curriculum would undermine their community’s focus on equity and desegregation. Most devastating, parent after parent described an insidious slide in the engagement of their children with school. They were all deeply frustrated and fed up with being ignored by policy makers and the media.
Getting their story out of the basement and into the larger world is what we did with my borrowed equipment on that cold December weekend.