Archive for ‘Ideas in Action’

April 25, 2012

Tonight in Baltimore: Seeds of a Parent Revolution, Grassroots Style

Tonight at the Village Learning Place in Baltimore’s Charles Village, just a few blocks southeast of the Johns Hopkins University Homewood Campus and a few yards south of Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle School, a group of parents and caregivers will convene to hear about how three neighborhood public schools in Baltimore turned around. (Hint: It didn’t require state intervention or the contracting of outside operators or charter conversions.)

If you’re curious about the power parents have to improve a city school, don’t miss it. Cases under discussion will be Roland Park Elementary/Middle School, The Mt. Washington School, and Federal Hill Prep.

WHEN: TONIGHT! Weds, April 25, 2012.
Doors open at 7 for refreshments and the panel starts talking at 7:30 pm.

WHERE: The Village Learning Place, 2521 St. Paul Street, Baltimore, MD 21218

Check out the invite on the Village Parents website for more details.

Many thanks in advance to the Village Parents for organizing the event and to Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance President Judy Chung O’Brien and others for their participation.

March 18, 2012

If You Give a Kid a Cupcake, or Is Baltimore the New Brooklyn?

Yes, moms and dads, I was thinking of this book when I wrote this post!

The New York Times reported on March 16 on the cupcake wars at a Brooklyn public school. There’s some class conflict stirring up in the gentrifying neighborhood of Sunset Park, where the median income has gone from the mid-$30Ks to around $60K in the last decade. Other neighborhood schools in Brooklyn have similar stories, with some P.T.A.s running auctions that bring in thousands of dollars. Inequality is no good for community relations, even inside public schools. (The idea that P.T.A.s have to raise that kind of money at all is another issue.)

A few months ago on this blog I mentioned a book that changed my thinking about starting a charter school – sociologist Judith de Sena’s Gentrification and Inequality in Brooklyn. In it she reveals some bitterness about the new middle class’ rejection of neighborhood public schools in Greenpoint in favor of charters. What she seems not to appreciate is the resistance of longtime immigrant and working class communities to gentrifiers. The reasons to resist are many, not least of which is the rising costs of living that the gentry bring in their wake. An important site of resistance is the neighborhood public school, over which the old guard may not be eager to relinquish its hold.

The same dynamics are at work in Hampden, the Baltimore neighborhood where I live. The divide between old Hampden and new Hampden is so clear that it pretty much goes unmentioned. Old timers drink at Zissimo’s. Newcomers drink at Golden West, or Holy Frijoles, or 13.5% Wine Bar. Old timers buy coffee at Royal Farms or 7-11. Newcomers buy it at Common Ground or Spro. (There is no Starbucks here. The newcomers value local over corporate enterprise.) Old timers send their children to the local public school or the Catholic school a few blocks away. Newcomers? Historically, they move or pony up for private school. These days, they attempt to start charter schools or enter the charter school lottery. Now a growing group is doing what my husband and I are doing – work to make the neighborhood public school a top choice for every family zoned for it.

About a year ago I sat down on my couch and drew up a mission for an organization that was already beginning to take shape on its own. I called it Wham!, an abbreviated mash-up of Wyman Park and Hampden, two neighborhoods with lots of newcomer parents of infants and toddlers. Our first event was a playground clean-up with the principal. We’ve become regular contributors to our community organizations’ respective newsletters on the school’s behalf. We’ve connected with current parents at the school and catalyzed a move to get every conceivable volunteer opportunity at Hampden Elementary/Middle School #55 loaded up on the Baltimore City Public Schools website. We raised some cash by running a booth at Hampdenfest. We’re putting it toward painting a gigantic U.S. map on the school playground in May. The principal has dubbed us the Pre-P.T.O.

I get lots of “good for yous” and “more power to you” when I talk to people about Wham! It’s encouraging. But we all know that what’s going on in Brooklyn right now presages the kind of friction that could be stirred up here.

We know you can’t make a cupcake without breaking some eggs. If we do this right, though, we might just get some sprinkles to go with it.

November 17, 2011

Neighborhood Public Schools Are Where It’s At

A detail of the mural outside The Barclay School in Charles Village. Photo credit: Adam Bednar, North Baltimore Patch

Here’s some brain food to tide you over between now and the end of Thanksgiving Weekend. (I’m going on vacation.)

There’s a lot of good stuff on the problems with top-down education reform in Dana Goldstein‘s extended essay on Occupy Wall Street and public education, published yesterday in The Awl. Here’s the choicest bit:

… the 1-percent education reformers must truly grasp, deep in their bones, that we need to provide every child with a decent education—not just the ones who attend charter schools, or choice schools, or whose parents can afford to move to the suburbs or live in Tribeca. This means we should focus reform efforts on traditional neighborhood schools

I actually don’t care whether the one percent grasp it or not. But it’s time for what there is of Baltimore’s middle and aspiring classes to realize that neighborhood schools are where it’s at. (I’m for dropping the “traditional” label, so entrepreneurially trained bureaucrats might begin to admit that neighborhood schools can innovate.) The more people get riled up to support their zoned schools, the better. Especially if those people might actually send their children to those schools.

Speaking of not giving up on neighborhood schools, did you see the Charles Village schools piece Adam Bednar wrote for North Baltimore Patch? It’s about the Village Parents’ efforts to draw middle class families to Margaret Brent and Barclay. Check this out:

“A big part of the challenge is to get people that live in the neighborhood to come through the door,” said [Melanie] Cornelisse, a former teacher who runs the elementary school’s Story Pals and Math Matches volunteer programs.

…Cornelisse, who has a son in a Margaret Brent pre-kindergarten class, said the group is still trying to figure out which parents are most likely to send their kids to public schools.

While Charles Village is a middle-class neighborhood, Cornelisse pointed out that 94 percent of Margaret Brent’s students receive free or reduced meals. That would indicate a substantial number of families are sending their children to private or charter schools.

But in doing so, those parents may be missing out on the benefits of attending a neighborhood public school, she said.

If you live in Charles Village or RemingtonBolton Hill, or Hampden/Wyman Park, and you think you might become one of “those parents,” click the relevant link and find some good people who are rallying around your neighborhood school(s). Parents in Federal Hill are on the neighborhood school tip, too. There are probably other groups out there that I don’t know about. You can always dial your zoned school directly to find out if there are ways to help out. Use the school locator on Baltimore City Public Schools website and give your school a call. Talk to someone. Take a look. And get involved (before the 1-percenters do it for you).

October 29, 2011

Speak Out to Raise $2.8 Billion for Baltimore City Public Schools

Scene from a Baltimore City Public School via Transform Baltimore's Flickr Gallery

The Transform Baltimore campaign is organizing a Speak Out, where teams representing any Baltimore City Public School can tell the powers that be about the state of their school buildings. The purpose is to inspire the political will to raise $2.8 billion through creative bond financing. Get in touch with the campaign if you’d like to get a team from your school a five-minute slot on the docket.

Lead in the water, windows painted shut, classrooms too hot in the summer and below zero in the winter – these are all good points to bring to the mic. Speak.

DATE: Thursday, November 3, 2011
TIME: 4:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
PLACE: War Memorial Building, across from City Hall
CONTACT: 410.889.8550 x 123 or transform.bmore@gmail.com

September 27, 2011

Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton?

You can buy an N.W.A.-inspired Straight Outta Compton cap today from Zazzle.com. Word.

Two stories of class ventriloquism jumped out at me last week. You probably heard about Mitt Romney’s delusions of middle class brotherhood. Romney, who has a net worth of at least $190 million, called himself one of “us.” (Which was, if you think about it, a nice acknowledgment that you ought to be if you’re going to attempt to represent “us.”)

Then there’s a story of political inauthenticity you may not have heard. It’s about an experiment in Compton, California, with a piece of legislation called the parent trigger. Here’s the story: ‘Parent Trigger’ Law to Reform Schools Faces Challenges.

Here’s some background, organized as a sort of Q & A.

What’s the “parent trigger”?

It’s a California law that “empowers” public school parents to do one of four things:

  1. Allow a charter school nearby that is “doing better” than the local school to take it over. That’s called a charter school conversion.
  2. Have half the staff fired, bring in new leadership, and get more local community control over making changes. That’s called turnaround.
  3. Force the school district to find a new principal and make a few other small fixes. That’s called transformation.
  4. Gain “collective bargaining rights” by collecting names on petitions.

(If this is raising questions in your mind about the person firing people, finding new leadership, and granting community control – or why you need a law to create a petition – we’re in the same boat. Grab a paddle.)

How do parents get their finger on the “trigger”?

First they find out if they’re school is failing. (Apparently, they might not know that.) Next, they organize more parents. “Parents” may be current parents, future parents zoned for the school, and parents whose children are set to feed into that school. Who calculates the total, I don’t know, but if 51 percent signs a petition demanding one of the four prefab options that the authors of the law built into it, bang. They’ve pulled the trigger.

Who drafted the parent trigger law, and who got it passed in California?

The parent trigger law was introduced by Gloria Romero, a former California state senator. She is now the director of the California branch of Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER. Ben Austin drafted the law. Austin is a former deputy mayor of Los Angeles and a policy consultant at Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school operator. Austin has a seat on the Los Angeles school board – California governor Jerry Brown dismissed him from the state education board – and he is the executive director of a nonprofit called Parent Revolution.

What’s DFER? And why should I care?

DFER is a political action committee run by hedge-fund managers and investment bankers. Closely tied to KIPP charter schools and Teach for America (the single largest donor to which is now the Walton Family Foundation), DFER’s aim is to close the “achievement gap” between students in poor black Harlem and their peers in rich white Scarsdale. To that end, the PAC raises money for Democrats who push an education agenda that includes the closure of “failing” public schools and the proliferation of charter schools. It’s an agenda shared by the Obama administration, and it’s being pushed by their education reform competition, Race to the Top.

In Baltimore, DFER has supported two candidates for public office (that I know of). One is Bill Ferguson, a Teach for America alumnus who worked for Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Andres Alonso before running for state senate. (You can watch him tell the story of how he got elected here. It’s cool.) He put forward a version of the parent trigger law called “The Parent Empowerment Act” this year. (You can see Senator Ferguson’s legislative agenda from February on his Facebook page.) It didn’t pass. DFER also backed mayoral candidate Otis Rolley, whose platform included mayoral control of the public school system, making charter laws more amenable to outside operators, and providing means-tested vouchers to children in the lowest performing middle schools. He didn’t win.

What’s remarkable about DFER is less its political track record than its rhetorical strategy. DFER presents its interests as the interests of children. (In effect, its spokespeople have appointed themselves spokespeople for America’s mainly urban, mainly black and brown public school children.) DFER pits the interests of these children against the interests of unionized teachers, who are, in the DFER narrative, ultimately responsible for high dropout rates and abysmal performance on high-stakes standardized tests. DFER does not admit that lack of school funding or poverty is an important determinant of academic performance, citing academic outcomes at KIPP and Harlem Children’s Zone as evidence of what great instruction can do. DFER’s critics point out that the PAC has a stake in undermining the pull of teachers’ unions, the largest single source of funding for the Democratic Party, in order to wrest power and political influence in its favor. Many on the right support their aims. Indeed, their agenda was effectively authored by George W. Bush.

What’s the deal with Parent Revolution?

When Diane Ravitch warned her Twitter followers to watch out for “astroturf” parent groups, I bristled. How can anyone question the authenticity of parents who are organizing on behalf of their own children? But I didn’t understand what she meant by “astroturf” – a group that adopts the populist guise of a grassroots organization in the interests of parties that are neither populist nor grassroots. Independent bloggers at Solidaridad have been calling Parent Revolution “astroturf” for years. This story in a March 2011 article in Mother Jones magazine is more mainstream, explaining the group’s corporate ties.

Parent Revolution operates on a $1 million budget, funded primarily by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wasserman Foundation, the Eli and Edyth Broad Foundation, the Hewlett Foundation, and the Walton Family Foundation. Education historian Diane Ravitch argues that the Gates, Walton Family, and the Broad Foundation combined invest far more funding in education reform than any foundations before them, with unchecked power to expand charters, vouchers, and other business-inspired reforms.

In Compton, Parent Revolution paid organizers from outside the community to gather signatures in support of a charter school conversion at McKinley Elementary School. Their second-in-command allegedly invented a group called “McKinley Parents for Change” and claimed on its behalf a desire to open under new management. The group never told the P.T.A. at McKinley that they were circulating a petition.

Volumes of news stories and opinions have already been published on the battles over the parent trigger law and its expansion across the country. (I particularly like California community organizer-turned-teacher Larry Ferlazzo’s take.) Ben Austin’s summary of the Compton results in that story I mentioned from the Times shows a level of awareness that ought to lead to a major course correction:

We came in with a prepackaged solution of a charter school and didn’t have enough of a deep buy-in from enough parents, and we didn’t develop enough leadership,” Mr. Austin said.

This year, he said, the organization will rely on the local parents’ unions to ask for the specific changes they want. In some cases, it may be as simple as more consultation from school leaders.

Now what?

DFER and Parent Revolution continue to organize “parent unions” across the country from the top down. The rhetoric pitting teachers against “kids” drones on. Billionaire philanthropists keep throwing money at a problem that they argue a shift of wealth from the top can’t fix. And Diane Ravitch keeps tweeting her fingertips ablister to keep concerned citizens up to date on the latest expressions of all this misguided reform.

Meanwhile, off the national radar, middle class parents like me are taking notes on cautionary tales like the one from Compton. We’re trying to learn how to breathe new life into local public schools that already have lives of their own.

Please share your own suggestions and cautionary tales in the comments section.

June 5, 2011

A Little Change from the Bottom Up

WHAM! Parents organized a meet-up-and-clean-up at the Hampden Elementary/Middle School playground on Saturday morning. At about 10:00 a.m. we put on some gloves and set to picking cigarette butts and Hershey kisses tags from the grass like chimps picking nits from their babies’ fur. Our principal – who was right there with us on what turned out to be a gorgeous weekend morning – coined a term for our crew. She calls us “the Pre-T.O.”

My souvenirs: rainbow-glittered spin art and a lucky penny. Sweet.

If you’re interested in learning more about WHAM! Parents, stay tuned. A little website is in the works.

UPDATE! On September 10, 2011, just in time for Hampdenfest, the Wham! Parent Co-op website was born! Click to welcome it into the World (Wide Web).

April 26, 2011

“Roots & Branches”

I’d originally intended to tell a different story under this headline – a story about how I went to an organizational meeting for a new charter school in Baltimore and wound up naming it. (I’m a writer for an agency that does marketing for educational institutions. I couldn’t help it.) This was one in a number of charter school founders’ meetings that turned me on to working with my neighborhood public school. But here’s another twist.

Last night, Roots & Branches founder Jennifer Shaud presented a proposal to open the charter school in a building on 32nd Street between Elm and Chestnut – five blocks south of my neighborhood public school.

My fellow WHAM! Parent Co-op founder Diana Shea, who attended last night’s meeting of the Hampden Community Council, reports:

ROOTS & BRANCHES – Jen Shaud, Exec Dir of Roots & Branches introduced her school to the community and her interest in occupying the Florence Crittendon building. The community’s first reaction was negative due to parking and traffic congestion issues in that area (32nd between Chestnut and Elm). The Abell Foundation had promised to build Roots & Branches a new building, but broke the deal a week ago. Jen has to propose her building plans to the School Board on May 10 so she is under the gun to find new space that she can occupy almost immediately in order to be ready for Fall. The building is being sold soon (date?), new owner was present and really wants her as the tenant. Mary Pat Clarke was in attendance and seemed to be motivated to help Jen make this happen.

Stay tuned.

April 17, 2011

Lessons from the Bronx

If you’re interested in improving your neighborhood public school, Jonathan Mahler’s cover story in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine is a provocative read. It’s about a principal named Ramón González and his relative success at the helm of Middle School 223 in the Bronx. And it’s about how the “forces of reform” that you’d think would be supporting him are working against him.

Principal González has a visionary goal: to make his school a place where he’d want to send his own kids.

Here are his circumstances: His school is in the heart of the poorest Congressional district in the nation. Many of the young teachers who come to him through Teach for America are useless the first year and great in the third, but they often leave after the second – at the end of their commitment. The U.F.T. contract allows teachers to miss 10 days of every school year and requires a majority vote each year to start the school day 10 minutes early. Parents are indifferent at best. Like all other public schools, M.S. 223 is responsible for educating the students that no other school – neither charter, nor parochial, nor private – wants to touch. What’s more, an estimated 20 percent of his students need glasses.

Then there’s this:

…The ever-growing number of charter schools, often privately subsidized and rarely bound by union rules, that Klein unleashed on the city skims off the neighborhood’s more ambitious, motivated families. And every year, as failing schools are shut down around González, a steady stream of children with poor intellectual habits and little family support continues to arrive at 223. González wouldn’t want it any other way — he takes pride in his school’s duty to educate all comers — but the endless flow of underperforming students drags down test scores, demoralizes teachers and makes the already daunting challenge of transforming 223 into a successful school, not just a relatively successful one, that much more difficult.

The folks running the reform movement from the top – from President Obama to Arne Duncan to school-system chancellors nationwide – want principals to think like CEOs. Which makes it all the more inspiring that González sees himself as a community activist.

Here is a man so committed to his neighborhood that he returned to it after a great escape – to a boarding school in Boston and then to college at Cornell. He’s committed to turning his school into a neighborhood school. And it makes sense. If the American education system is meant to prepare young people for citizenship in a democratic republic, don’t we need to commit to strengthening the communities in which the value of citizenship takes root?

You’d think. But the movement for reform sees neighborhood ties as a throwback. “His vision for 223 is in some respects anachronistic in the era of school reform,” writes Mahler. And I’ve had the same thought about my flickering fire for making my neighborhood school a top pick for every zoned family.

Like González, I want to make my neighborhood school a place where I’d want to send my own child. But the forces of reform – charters, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, “better” tests, budget cuts – are stifling. Am I trying to hold on to a past that everyone else has let go of? Or am I actually doing the progressive thing?

I have to believe the latter. What do you think?

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