Posts tagged ‘classism’

March 4, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America [Video]

This is why every American who makes a middle class living should care about millionaires’ and billionaires’ dabbling in education reform. Why sequestration is hogwash. Why anyone who tells you there is no money for school buildings or public school teachers or health care or medical benefits is full of it. There is more than enough to go around.

Commence reality check.

January 16, 2012

My Kids Are Too Good for Public School, and Other Messages I Wish Wealthy Parents Wouldn’t Telegraph

My K-6 alma mater

This post was inspired by two pieces – one local, one not – published January 13. Tell me if you don’t see a connection:

1) “Sending Kids to City Schools Still a Concern,” a feature story by Adam Bednar for North Baltimore Patch, and

2) “America’s Dangerously Removed Elite,” an opinion by David Sirota for Salon.com

Read the Baltimore story and you’ll notice a heavy focus on efforts to ameliorate concerns among parents in Mount Washington and Charles Village about the neighborhood public schools. But the narrative begins and ends with the story of one family, the Balchunas, who were priced out of Howard County and bought a home zoned for Roland Park Elementary/Middle School instead.

Like most parents who shop for homes after they have kids, the quality of the neighborhood was a big factor in their purchase.* Despite being zoned for one of the most coveted grade schools in Baltimore, however, the Balchunas are still “wrestling” with their options, to use Bednar’s word. They have submitted an application to the Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, and they could extend their child’s stay at New Century, where their eldest daughter is in pre-kindergarten. Bednar quotes the mom:

“I want to use Roland Park Elementary, but I’m worried it won’t be able to accommodate where my daughter is intellectually,” Balchunas said.

Oof.

Before I go Talmudic in my interpretation of this one quote, I want readers to keep this caveat in mind: The way Bednar couches it, this mom’s statement doesn’t do much to win her any friends. The word “accommodate” in an education context usually rides alongside the words “special needs.” But that’s not what is meant here. The ring of superiority in the second clause rubbed at least one RPEMS mom-acquaintance of mine way wrong. (At least on Facebook.)

To give the message a little more context, New Century is a Montessori-inspired preschool which, according to the school website, offers “complete language immersion in either Spanish or Mandarin Chinese for the toddler classes.” If that’s a parent’s ideal, it’s a safe assumption that the academic program at RPEMS would be a step down. And, to be fair, worrying that a public school is below our children’s intellectual par is something all parents of a certain class do. We’ve been trained to think private equals better. More to the point, we believe our children are really, really bright. You can’t fault Balchunas for believing that. It’s a great thing to believe about one’s own child, which is why almost every other parent I know believes the same thing.

So I hesitate to dismiss Balchunas. I would love to meet her. (In fact, I’m trying to.) She was brave to talk to the press. She’s obviously a good mom. She’s putting her kids first in every decision her family makes.

What jumped out at me about the quote, as Bednar reported it, was the use of the word “use.” “I want to use Roland Park Elementary,” Balchunas says.

Use?

Now the Talmud Torah opens its doors. At the risk of sounding like a pedant, I went to school. (The school I attended through sixth grade was a yeshiva, actually.) I will send my child to school. I want to find him a school he can go to, a school he can walk to. A school is a place, not a thing. It contextualizes a certain kind of activity – namely, learning. That a parent would talk about wanting to “use” her public school – well, that’s how we talk about the public bus, or the city pool. What does it say when parents who can afford a private institution start talking about public ones the way we talk about what is, in Baltimore, the lousiest mode of transportation? The cheapest way to cool off? There goes the neighborhood (by car). And the country with it.

Which leads me to story number 2.

David Sirota’s wrath at the nation’s “dangerously removed elite” – which he trains mainly on Chicago mayor and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and New Jersey governor Chris Christie - comes in reaction to an outcry over the school and home purchase choices of Tom Boasberg, the public school superintendent of Denver, Colo., where, I am led to infer, Sirota lives. Like the president himself, none of these political uber-men sends his children to an urban public school. Denver’s superintendent sends his children to school in Boulder, “one of America’s wealthiest enclaves.” Emanuel and Christie don’t send their children to public school at all.

Before he gets to Emanuel and Christie, Sirota rails against Boasberg thusly:

“From the confines of his distant castle in Boulder, he issues edicts to his low-income fiefdom — decrees demonizing teachers, shutting down neighborhood schools over community objections and promoting privately administered charter schools. Meanwhile, he makes sure his own royal family is insulated in a wealthy district that doesn’t experience his destructive policies.”

This story fits neatly into the narrative that Occupy Wall Street (thankfully) shot into the national consciousness. We are a society that is not just divided but split in two. Sirota writes,

“there really are ‘Two Americas,’ as the saying goes — and that’s no accident. It’s the result of a permanent elite that is removing itself from the rest of the nation. Nowhere is this more obvious than in education — a realm in which this elite physically separates itself from us mere serfs.”

I should say right now that I was raised to take my place among the elite. I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. I was schooled through sixth grade at Ramaz – a Jewish house of learning that is by its very nature exclusive – where half the day was spent on Hebrew and Judaic studies and the other half on social studies, math, sciences and language arts, with art class, chorus, gym and recess to boot. By Grade 4, I enjoyed an 8-hour school day. It was rigorous. The English Language Learners spoke Hebrew, so they mopped the floor with the rest of us for half the day. I didn’t have to think about poor people, or black people – unless you count the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia. (Though my outstanding fifth- and sixth-grade Language Arts teacher, Mr. Sandomir, a Queens College graduate who is still teaching, once handed me a fat, worn copy of John Hope Franklin’s From Slavery to Freedom. That’s a moment I often remember, not only on Martin Luther King Day.)

From there, I went to what is arguably the finest independent school in the country, Horace Mann School. Nearly every one of my teachers had a master’s from Teachers College. I learned with African-American and Hispanic and Latino kids for the first time. I also met super rich kids. One named Jordan lived in the Pierre when his parents’ home was being renovated. Another named James played banjo, wore torn jeans and Birkenstocks, and managed my soccer team sophomore year – something students did to get out of gym. He drove me home once (he didn’t take the bus) in a used red Jeep Wrangler with a Steal Your Face sticker on the back window. His last name was Murdoch. I went to bar mitzvahs at the Helmsley Palace and Tavern on the Green. Central Park was my front yard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art – where I think you can still get in for a penny donation – was where I’d hang out on rainy weekends.

Of course someone like me is going to think public schools aren’t good enough, especially when confronted daily with stories of our failing school system. But when you’re part of shaping education policy, you should have to answer for it. That’s one of Sirota’s big gripes:

“In many cases, these aristocrats aren’t even required to publicly explain themselves. (Boasberg, for example, is never hounded by local media about why he refuses to live in Denver.) Worse, on the rare occasions that questions are posed, privacy is the oft-used excuse to not answer, whether it’s Obama defenders dismissing queries about their Sidwell decision, Christie telling a voter his school choices are ‘none of your business’ or Emanuel storming out of a television interview and then citing his ‘private life’ when asked about the issue.

This might be a convincing argument about ordinary citizens’ personal education choices, but it’s an insult coming from public officials. …Pretending this is acceptable or just a ‘private’ decision, then, is to tolerate ancient, ruling-class notions that are no longer sustainable in the 21st century. …”

I would go a step further than Sirota. First off, political leaders are ordinary citizens. Second, ordinary citizens’ personal education choices are public choices, even when those citizens aren’t brave enough to talk about those choices to the local press.

Our decisions as “parents of choice” – as we are labeled by North Avenue – about what neighborhoods to live in and whom to let our children learn with have public effects. If my husband and I choose to send our son to an expensive private school, or to send him to a boutique charter school, or to make the local public school a top choice – those choices get in everybody’s business. That may be especially true in a small town like Baltimore. But it’s no less true in Chicago or New York City or Washington, D.C. We – all of us ordinary citizens with children – can’t say we want our children to grow up in a more just world, one that is more equal, more tolerant, more sustainable, if we keep making choices that reproduce the status quo.

The places Americans create for learning reflect who we are as a people. They shape who our children will become and the context in which they will live. No place more accurately embodies the world we are making for our children than the neighborhood public school. So maybe it’s time for parents who can afford better to stop asking whether they can use the public schools, and start asking how our public schools can use them.

***

For more on the topic of wealthy public figures excluding themselves from the school communities most affected by their policies, see “The Best Posts About Public Officials (& Non-Elected ‘Reformers’) Sending Their Children To Private Schools” on Larry Ferlazzo’s Websites of the Day. For more video showing how Emanuel and Christie have fielded kids’ schooling questions, watch this. As always, comments are welcome.

December 31, 2011

The Thought Evolution of a City Mom: Backstory (2010)

The most important book I read in 2010

I was minding my own business the other day when an African-American man – a critic – tweeted at me about the first line of this post: “‘I hadn’t much thought about the racial dimensions of education reform before October 20, 2011,’” he mocked, “are you serious?”

Well, yes. (Though me not giving something “much thought” is another man’s spending hours in quiet contemplation.) I live in Hampden, a notoriously white neighborhood in Baltimore City, the land of failed desegregation, redlining, and massive white flight. While the principal of my zoned elementary school is African American, when thinking (as I have done a whole lot) about how to make my neighborhood public school more attractive to parents like me – parents who prefer the farmers’ market to Royal Farms – race is not my primary concern. Class is.

Flashback to 2010

I started thinking about all this way before my son – my only child – turned one. It was the year To Kill a Mockingbird celebrated its 50th anniversary. And it was then, as I wondered if it might be easier to attract Hampden’s middle-class white parents to a predominantly poor black school in Charles Village than to our predominantly poor white one, that I made a literary parallel: We were Atticus Finch, enlightened defenders of equal rights under the law. Those other Hampden parents, they were Bob Ewell. Lucky for Atticus, he didn’t have to worry about the Ewell children’s bad habits rubbing off. Because after the first day, those cootie-ridden truants never showed up.

This is a caricature of immense proportions, I know. But when nouveau parents living in Hampden spot their first teenage girl with a cigarette between her fingertips and her adolescent palms around the handlebars of a hand-me-down stroller – time to check the listings in Roland Park. (Am I right?)

Sensing my mindset was warped, I decided to call the principal of Hampden Elementary and see the school for myself. We set up an appointment. I took the first hour of that morning off work. She didn’t show up.

At that point, I had ties to two fledgling parent-led charter start-ups with visions of organic lunches and Reggio Emilia-inspired ateliers. My allegiance was (as you might expect) teetering. I felt the urgency of what we/they were doing. I knew the tide was in our/their favor. But I couldn’t help feeling how selfish it seemed, how precious, how entitled, how gentry.

Determined to persist at Hampden Elementary – by 1) reading the charter school chapters of a high-priced sociology text that my boss had handed to me (pictured), 2) a tenuous email relationship I had struck up with the acting chair of the Hampden Community Council’s Education Committee, and 3) a few conversations with neighborhood parents who were thinking along the same lines I was – I cut ties with the charter efforts. “I’ve decided to take my energy for improving Baltimore schools and commit it to Hampden,” I explained in an email to one founder. That was May 4, 2010. (The other tie would prove a bit more complicated to sever.)

For the rest of the year I ratcheted down my intensity in the school department. I noticed when Diane Ravitch came to town, giving a voice to thoughts I’d had about the charter movement and sparking some new ones. I kept in touch with my new friend at the HCC. I went to some panel discussions at Margaret Brent that parents in Charles Village set up. I held onto my vision of sending my son to the neighborhood public school. A school that kept parents like me in the neighborhood well after their kids turned four. A school he could walk to.

My son started to walk that September. And that was the greatest excitement of 2010.

2011 was a different story…

May 5, 2011

Why I Don’t Want a Charter School in My Backyard (Not just yet. Not so fast.)

On May 2, Roots & Branches Public Charter School announced the end of a short lived effort to open in Hampden’s Florence Crittendon Building for the 2011-12 school year. The school’s intention to open in Hampden was brought before the Hampden Community Council on April 25. Had the plan worked out, the new charter school would have sat five blocks south of Hampden Elementary/Middle #055.

That’s my neighborhood public school. I want to make it a place where every zoned family, including mine, would love to send their children. My son’s not even two. I’ve got time. And I’ve got friends. And I’m making more. And if there’s space, people from other parts of the city can vie for spots. It’s gonna knock your socks off.

It’s in a great location – a pretty 10-minute walk from the Johns Hopkins University Homewood campus and the Baltimore Museum of Art. It’s just around the corner from The Avenue, a street of locally owned shops and restaurants that attracts people from in and around Baltimore. You can gorge here on freshly made soups and sweet potato fries and banh mi. You can get Indian food at a pizza parlor and chocolate from a store that sells shoes. You can buy an original painting and attend a free reading of new fiction in the same place. From east to west you can get your baby-jogger wheels inflated, pick out a longboard, and give cloth diapers a whirl. On your way back you can get an organic haircut and the deftest waxing north (or south) of the equator. (Tell Shannon I sent you.)

This neighborhood isn’t in need of a K-5 charter school. It’s in need of some love for its PK-8 public school. (Head Start included.)

Hampden #055 is already a good school. It has consistently met AYP. The new principal, Dr. Judith Thomas, is doing a lot with a lot less than she ought to have. Walk in and you see orderly classrooms, a decent gym, student artwork on the walls, a mural painted by a parent-artist. You see teachers engaging students in their work. You see an environment where students can learn. Around 75% of students at Hampden #055 qualify for free and reduced meals (FARMS). They were born into poverty. But with all due respect to David Simon and Ed Burns, not all Baltimore City middle schools look like Season 4 of The Wire.

Like every other traditional public school in Baltimore City, Hampden #055 is suffering from budget cuts. It’s also suffering from the insidious notion that traditional city public schools aren’t places where parents who can afford not to would send their kid. The issue isn’t race. It’s class. It’s just that Hampden is the only neighborhood where people are race-blind enough to see it. Because Hampden isn’t just poor. It’s white.

I founded a group to help out with our neighborhood school revival not two months ago – during what President Obama called “Education Month at the White House.” So I was not an objective party when I heard the news about Roots & Branches’ proposal to the Hampden Community Council. I immediately emailed my principal who called me 120 seconds later. I wrote emails to our city councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke and the executive director of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement, Michael Sarbanes. By 4:00 pm I was sitting in a child-sized chair at a child-sized lunch table in the #055 cafeteria ready to say my piece at a meeting of the Hampden Education Collaborative – a consortium of leaders from the many schools that currently operate here and of representatives of the Hampden Village Merchants’ Association, Hampden Family Center, and other neighborhood stakeholder groups. From BCPS, Tammie Knights of the Office of New Initiatives was in attendance, as was Julia Baez, a representative of the Office of Partnerships, Communications and Community Engagement. Mary Pat was there. So was a new friend who will send her son to Hampden next year, and a woman from the Village Parents who raised enough money to buy uniforms for every student at Margaret Brent Elementary – a school on the other side of Homewood Campus that’s got the same parent movement going for it that we have here.

I took the lead voicing concerns.

Why should a neighborhood with a critical mass of parental support for revitalizing a neighborhood school support a charter school, when the charter school has the potential to “cream” off the most engaged parents? What would happen to enrollment at Hampden – which is low – if a new charter school opened five blocks away? Charter schools and “traditional” public schools are funded per pupil. Fewer students means less money. What would happen to the budget? Why should homeowners support a local charter school when working to enhance the appeal of the neighborhood school has a greater shot at boosting home prices?

It’s not paranoid to think that charter schools are no friend to traditional public schools. The Maryland Charter Network Founders’ Manual – a 191 page handbook masquerading as a deterrent to initiating a charter school effort – advises founders to write annual appeal fundraising letters thusly:

Open with a story about a child who didn’t thrive in traditional public schools but has been (or could be) helped by your school or a similar school. Then describe the school and its education vision. Close with a specific request and action, such as “Please donate $25. Use the form provided or donate on our website, http://www.nameofcharterschool.org.” (emphasis added)

Why would a parent who supports her neighborhood school want that kind of solicitation going on in her school’s backyard?

Then there’s this cautionary word:

Be careful to describe the need [for funding] as the community’s need, rather than the school’s need. For example, if requesting funding for an after-school program be sure to discuss the community’s lack of appropriate safe places for children to go after school, as well as describing unique local threats such as gangs, drugs, crime, etc. that unsupervised children might face.

Deny that you have any interest in helping the students in your own school. Profess that you are helping the community, which desperately needs the services only you can provide. What the MCSN manual leaves out is the question of whether or not the community in which you ultimately locate really needs you there in the first place. (If this sounds to readers who remember The Closing of the American Mind like the moral relativist argument against colonialism, it should.)

The truth is, Roots & Branches wouldn’t have opened here. The location is tucked into a residential area with one lane, two way side streets. The person who wanted to lease them the property didn’t officially own it yet. And they came to the community two weeks prior to their deadline for securing a building. That’s not nearly enough time to get buy-in from their immediate neighbors and other stakeholders. It’s no wonder their motion was withdrawn before the HCC ever had a chance to vote.

But the whole fiasco begs the question of who charter schools actually serve. Is it the parent-founders who spend years on these efforts so their children can be guaranteed a spot? Is it the directors who are banking on salaries? Is it real estate developers who want to pay off mortgages or a school system that wants to relieve some of its financial burden?

It didn’t take long for me to realize that we could have leveraged the charter school’s circumstances for mutual benefit. But making a deal with a charter school can’t be the only route to improving a neighborhood public school. There’s gotta be another way. We just need a couple of years to work it out.

In the meantime, thank you, but no, to the opportunity to open a charter school in our backyard. Not until we get a chance to fix up the one out front.

Related Posts:

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Baltimore City Charter Schools

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love (Sort of) My Neighborhood Public School

A Little Change from the Bottom Up

 

 

 

 

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