Posts tagged ‘neighborhood schools’

May 23, 2014

Thank you, transformative Baltimore principals!

Thank you for saying this:

“There is widespread belief among teachers and principals that traditional public schools are subsidizing charters. This should trouble parents in traditional schools, especially parents helping school family councils make ends meet during budget season. It should trouble responsible charter parents and staff who do not want to succeed at the expense of children attending a traditional school. Each charter should reflect on its budget, then review the budget of a nearby traditional school — and vice versa — and discern the reasons for the disparity. The Baltimore City Public School System needs budget transparency and an honest conversation about how much it takes to run a great school.”

Read more: http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-school-funding-20140522,0,6687049.story#ixzz32XKlYSyu

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February 21, 2013

Tonight in Hampden: The Neighborhood School Event of My Dreams!

Screen Shot 2013-02-21 at 9.32.26 AM

Not your mama’s PTO meeting.

January 13, 2013

This Week in Baltimore Education News

These are three of the stories that jumped out at me this week. Lots of room to opine, but I am biting my tongue. (Trying my best, anyway). I said I’d spend only an hour a week on this blog. (Trying on that score, too.)

Methadone clinic next to Margaret Brent Elementary/Middle?

Denied. No sooner than it was proposed, the appeal to the zoning board was dismissed because the woman who filed it didn’t show. Big sigh of relief from parents. Adam Bednar from North Baltimore Patch covered the story:

Methadone Clinic Proposed Near Charles Village School, January 7, 2013

Zoning Board Dismisses Methadone Clinic Request, January 8, 2013

My questions: Who represents our public schools in cases like this one? Is it up to school administrators? Where is the school district in all this? And the city, which owns public school buildings? Or is it the sole responsibility of civic organizations and PTOs? Lucky for Charles Village parents, they have a strong neighborhood association and their schools have the complete support of the good people at Greater Homewood Community Corporation. The fact that the applicant didn’t show was a stroke of good luck. But what would have happened if she had?

Michelle Rhee tangos between limelight and hot seat

Michelle Rhee’s career should matter to everyone in Baltimore because it was Harlem Park Elementary/Middle that gave this notorious education reformer her start. Rhee made news this week in two ways, proving yet again her media savvy:

1)  “The Education of Michelle Rhee” aired on PBS’s Frontline, January 8, 2013.

2) The national organization Rhee runs, Students First, put out their 2013 State Policy Report Card.

For coverage and criticism, see:

11 States Get Failing Grades on Public School Policies From Advocacy Group, Motoko Rich, New York Times, January 7, 2013

Michelle Rhee’s new state reform report card, Valerie Strauss, Washington Post, January 7, 2013

RheeFormy Logic & Goofball Rating Schemes: Comments & Analysis on the Students First State Policy Grades, Bruce D. Baker, School Finance 101, January 9, 2013

The Transform Baltimore campaign for 21st century city schools buildings forges ahead

No one who cares about education in Baltimore was watching Frontline on January 8, because something more exciting – and hopeful – was going on down on North Avenue. As BCPS CEO Andres A. Alonso, Ed.D. reported in a mass email:

Tonight, the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners voted to approve the 10-year plan we proposed in November to overhaul and modernize our entire portfolio of school buildings. Over 10 years, this plan will renovate or replace 136 school buildings, vacate 26 school buildings, relocate 12 school programs and close 17 school programs. And when complete, our students will be in the 21st-century learning environments they need and deserve, and that so many of their peers in school districts across the state and nation already enjoy.

For coverage, see:

City school board OKs 10-year facilities plan: it will rely heavily on persuading lawmakers to approve measure, Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, January 8, 2013

The Sun piece reports that Jimmy Gittings, president of Baltimore’s principals union, is not on board with the focus on buildings. He is concerned about the District’s mismanagement of funds. He has given voice before to his concerns about principal firings and the principal turnover rate. (In 2011, the Sun reported that only one quarter of principals remained of those who were in place when Alonso was hired.) Good that the principals’ union isn’t behind new buildings? No. Good that it’s keeping the pressure on about the destabilizing effects of high principal turnover? Yes. (It is really, really hard  to build trust with a public school principal in this climate. Maybe even harder than it is to build a new school.)

That aside, thanks to the good work of a lot of good people, the state of our school buildings is an issue engaged citizens can actually do something about. To take action, check out the new Transform Baltimore website. Buses are heading down to Annapolis for a major rally February 25, 2013. And they need some bodies to fill seats at some meetings between now and then. The website says it all. Do something.

April 29, 2012

Ten Things You Should’ve Read About Education This Week (in case you haven’t already)

Illustration from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. Original caption: Fig. 1.–Fruit of the pine-apple (”Ananas sativa”), consisting of numerous flowers and bracts united together so as to form a collective or anthocarpous fruit.

This is one of those weeks where there was too much going on to reflect. So, I collect:

1. Housing Policy and Educational Opportunity: Some Notes, Rachel Levy, All Things Education blog, April 24, 2012

If you’re interested in the questions that come up in the debates around zoned versus citywide elementary schools – issues about access and prohibitive housing costs and the importance of socioeconomic diversity to student achievement – this is chock full of important links. (Loosely related to this was a piece in the New York Times about a housing fight in Texas. Then there’s this, on political discussions in Washington, D.C., about whether charters schools can be neighborhood schools. (I don’t have time to connect the dots at the moment.)

2. Believing in City Schools, Adam Bednar, North Baltimore Patch, April 26, 2012

The Village Parents have been models of active citizenship when it comes to informing the community about the public school options in Charles Village. This week they brought a panel of parents from Roland Park, Mt. Washington, and Federal Hill – attractive neighborhoods with zoned elementary schools that have managed to lure scores of middle and upper-middle class families into their classrooms – to tell their stories. It was a great small event. Glad Adam Bednar was there to cover it. (There are obvious connections between this story and the housing concerns in the previous post, but I’ll leave that for another day.)

3. As school facilities crumble, executive suites get remodeled, Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, April 26, 2012

After the heady effects of the Village Parents event, this story was a downer. The District spent $500,000 on renovations to the central office, half of which went to spruce up the executive suite of the chief of information technology. This story comes against the backdrop of a push to raise $1.2 billion – a fraction of the total needed – to fix crumbling public schools. City Schools CEO Andres Alonso chalked it up to “a bad judgment call.” Right. The story makes me question my willingness to work within a system whose leaders’ have their priorities so crooked. I’m sure I’m not alone.

UPDATE: BCPSS Chief of Information Technology Jerome Olberton resigned his post in January 2013 and took a $185,000 chief-of-staff position in the Dallas public school system.

4. Critics seek more oversight of renovations at school district headquarters, Erica L. Green, Baltimore Sun, April 27, 2012.

City Schools advocates who have to fight for funding in Annapolis have more to be disappointed about than I do. The choicest part of this follow-up piece is where the chief information officer, Jerome Olberton, explains himself by claiming that the reason he needs to improve his department’s work space is to attract more highly qualified applicants. Um, to ask the obvious, how about upgrading school facilities to attract highly qualified teachers?

5. The suite life on North Ave., Sun editorial, Baltimore Sun, April 29, 2012

As a follow-up to Erica Green’s breaking news story, the editorial board weighed in with their view on why the allocations were “more than just bad judgment.”

6. Politics and Education Don’t Mix, P.D. Thomas, The Atlantic, April 26, 2012

News of the crazy renovation expenditures for North Avenue got my mind singing a refrain that’s been in the back of my head for a long time. It goes like this: “It’s the Bureaucracy, Stupid.” I have yet to write that post. Thomas’s opinion sort of takes care of it for me.

7. PD, Jess Gartner, jessgartner.com, April 22, 2012

The newest voice in Baltimore education blogging belongs to Jess Gartner, a teacher who has way more than the average level of commitment to her students. She took on Professional Development a week ago. Ms. Gartner is optimistic about the potential of the Common Core Standards to give teachers more autonomy. She is also far more positive than I am about the potential of the free market to solve problems that I would argue are of the free market’s own making. I commented with a note on Pearson, the educational content powerhouse that is making the kind of tailored instruction that Jess Gartner imagines a difficult dream to realize. She commented back. More on that below.

8. Mass Localism for Improving America’s Education, Yong Zhao, April 24, 2012

I think Jess Gartner would like this post. God knows I do. It talks about creativity, about autocratic rule, about radical localization of decision making. It should be required reading for anyone who works at North Avenue. Especially the ones at the top who moved here from New York and Boston and Atlanta via the Dallas/Fort Worth area and… you catch my drift. Is it me, or is Baltimore run by out-of-towners?

9. A Very Pricey Pineapple, Gail Collins, New York Times, April 27, 2012

Picking up on that Pearson thread I brought up earlier was Gail Collins, who uses a pineapple as a juicy pretext for talking about privatization of public schools. The topic is a yawner otherwise, isn’t it?

10. New York’s Bargain Basement Tests, Diane Ravitch, Diane Ravitch’s blog, April 28, 2012

Diane Ravitch started her own personal blog this week. In this post, she explains the appearance of said pineapple in a test item on a New York state test that Pearson had produced, originally for Texas. Pearson seems to be the goose that laid the golden pineapple.

SPECIAL BONUS: The Common Core: The Technocracts Re-engineer Learning, Anthony Cody, Education Week Teachers’ “Living in Dialogue” blog, April 27, 2012

Like everyone else who reads opinions online, I gravitate toward those that articulate what I already believe. I try to do more than that – to read people I disagree with, to argue with people I wish I agreed with, to question my own positions, which are highly flexible on all but my worst days. This piece articulated all my misgivings about the Common Core. It also made me want to move to Nebraska, a state that held out against No Child Left Behind because its education commissioner values local-level initiative. Just like me. (Not that I have anything against imported fruit.)

February 18, 2012

Three Pro-Public School Posts to Make You Smile


A parent-artist painted this mural in my neighborhood public school. What have you done for your public school lately?

“If progressives want to improve schools, we shouldn’t empty them out. We ought to flood them with our kids, and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

These are the concluding lines of Dana Goldstein’s inspection of the progressive credentials of politically liberal homeschoolers in Slate (Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids, February 16, 2012). While there’s a lot to argue about in that piece, right now I’m content to praise it for promoting public schooling as a political virtue. Which it is.

Here are two more pro-public school pieces that brought a smile to my face this week:

I also like this last one, though only tenuously connected to schooling, because it recognizes a trend that will only help neighborhood public schools thrive (with your help, of course):

Happy reading! And if you live in Baltimore, register to volunteer in a Baltimore City Public School today!


February 8, 2012

Four Hyperactive Parenting Trends and the Fight of the Shrinking Middle Class

Buy this book.

More and more parents of at-least-modest means are taking their children’s education into their own hands. Without further ado, four trends:

1. Homeschooling (a.k.a. “DIY Education”)

In Why Urban, Educated Parents Are Turning to DIY Education (Newsweek/Daily Beast, January 30, 2012), education writer Linda Perlstein interviews homeschooling moms – only moms – who answer the “why” of the article’s title in highly personal ways. None talks about finances. Linda (I know Linda, or I’d call her Perlstein) mentions that some homeschooling parents work full-time or take on part-time gigs. But I have a hunch you’ve got to have a pretty conventional family dynamic – married, with male parent winning the bread – to pull this off. Maybe I’m wrong. But someone needs to pay for health insurance, cover the mortgage and clothes and food, maybe make a car payment and put some money away for college.

What about household finances? Securing high-quality childcare and school options, especially if a couple has more than one child, often costs more than a second income could bring in. That has to be a factor – at least one among the many others – in a middle class family’s decision to homeschool. Now, I know there are stay-at-home dads. But why is it so often the moms who are staying home? Could the choice be more forced – not only by finance, but also by persistent gender discrimination in the workplace – than we’d like to think? The labor market still favors men. So it would make sense to wonder whether homeschooling moms are giving anything up by becoming their children’s educators. Professors Cynthia S. Levine and Nicole Stephens at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern have been looking into it. They published an article this summer called “Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality.” (Read the press release.)

2. Co-operative and Community Supported Education

Did you catch mom Soni Sangha’s The Pre-K Underground (New York Times, December 16, 2011) on illegal parent co-ops in New York City? This is what it looks like when middle class parents are forced to get creative because the public schools can’t offer them what they need and private school tuition is impossibly out of reach.

I would also lump into this category of “trend” community-supported education. In “Can a Community Support Education?” (Cooperative Catalyst, January 29, 2012), Donna Mikkelsen introduces a private, community-based school called The Garden Road School, which she founded. The school’s story sounds very much like that of a private school in Baltimore called The Greenmount School, and I’m sure there are others like it in cities across the country. These schools are started by parents and represent an affordable independent school option for parents who want an alternative to both the high-anxiety world of upper-crust prep schools – with the endless homework and drive to perform – and the welfare-state interventions of soul-crushing testing dished up by the public schools.

3. Neighborhood School Renaissances

Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland’s How to Walk to School: A Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009) is an account of the transformation of a public school in Chicago called Nettlehorst. The book includes a foreword by Arne Duncan and a short essay by Rahm Emanuel. It’s a story of what can happen when the grit of mostly not-full-time-employed urban gentry moms meets the unstoppable force of a principal extremely open to change.

I credit Edelberg’s book talk of January 19, 2011 at the Enoch Pratt Library with reigniting my passion for working with my neighborhood public school. A number of parent groups in Baltimore are hopping on this train. I think it’s fantastic and – like all the other tactics listed here – fraught with complexity. Freelance writer Amy Landsman interviewed me and several other parents for “School Choice: Options for City Parents” (Baltimore’s Child, October 2011) at the request of the editors there, one of whom is my neighbor. The article also features Judy Chung O’Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and a mom at a traditional public school called Federal Hill Prep. Parents are organizing themselves around schools in Charles Village, Hampden, Bolton Hill. Speaking for myself, if I didn’t feel some serious financial pressure to make my neighborhood public school work for my family this blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have founded a parent group. It’s more complicated than that, sure. But why not admit money is a driver? A savvy District could do great things for schools now that the housing market downturn will force middle class families with young children to stay in Baltimore City.

4. Parent-Spawned Charter Schools

It’s impossible to talk about charter schools in Baltimore without talking about Bobbi Macdonald and City Neighbors. (In fact, the day after I wrote this sentence, yet another post came out singing its praises.) City Neighbors Public Charter School, which now has two campuses and a high school, has become a shining utopia in what is otherwise painted as an apocalyptic public school landscape. It’s worth remembering that what spawned its founding wasn’t just love but money, or lack of it. The City Paper piece reported by Anna Ditkoff (Late StartBaltimore City Paper, May 12, 2004) starts where the school did, with Macdonald’s wish to find a great school for her eldest daughter. When she couldn’t find one that she loved – and could afford – she started her own, with public funds and pro bono legal services from DLA Piper.

City Neighbors is not the only parent-founded charter school in Baltimore. As far as I know, Patterson Park Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Montessori Public Charter School, and Roots & Branches have similar stories, as does the charter-school-in-progress Creative City. The Green School was founded by teachers and a strong cohort of parents. Midtown Academy predates the charter law but is now a charter school, and it includes many parents on its board. I have met parents from every one of these schools. I know some of them very well. We all agree that the charter school model is not an unqualified good – just like every other approach on this list. Though I think the charter school trend represents a social and political menace that none of the others do. (Read this blog.)

What’s It All Mean?

These “trends” – or maybe it would be better to call them “tactics” –  are each a kind of reaction to anxiety among parents who aren’t poor enough to benefit from social services nor rich enough to sniff at the cost of child care and excellent schools. We are the monkeys in the middle. We are often outsiders, new to the communities in which we live, wary of membership in the traditional institutions that used to offer middle class families support. For those of us doing well, affordable childcare and free public schooling add immeasurably to our quality of life. For those not doing as well as our parents did, the anxiety of our kids’ slipping further downward in the class ranks is too much to bear. So we are taking up arms – some alone, some together. We are not going down without a fight.

If I didn’t have a full-time job – a job I truly love, but also very much need – I would write a book.

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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…

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).

July 12, 2011

A Taste of Cherry Picking

Michael Winerip’s piece in the New York Times this Sunday, “Message From a Charter School: Thrive or Transfer,” tells the story of a mother whose bright but sometimes unruly son – age 5 – was counseled out of Harlem Success Academy 3. He was placed in Public School 75, where he is “thriving.”

Matthew’s story raises perhaps the most critical question in the debate about charter schools: do they cherry-pick students, if not by gaming the admissions process, then by counseling out children who might be more expensive or difficult to educate — and who could bring down their test scores, graduation rates and safety records?

This story plays right into the hands of the education reform backlash because it points to a very real difference between charter schools and public schools – the difference between schools that are exclusive and those that are inclusive. It’s exclusivity, if that’s the right word, that is part of charter schools’ appeal to parents who worry about the effects of sending their children to the default school – the one that’s open to everyone (or, rather, anyone) in a delineated area on a city map.

Of course charter schools filter. That’s why they’re perceived to have better climates than regular public schools. And it’s the climate – not test scores or teacher quality or track records – that leads to oversubscription, and the lotteries that make getting into a charter school seem like more of a treat than it might prove itself to be.

Exclusive versus inclusive is one way to frame the difference between charters and “traditional” publics. But it’s not the only lesson to be gleaned from this story.

Another is the lesson of the benefits of individual attention. While statistics might show that Harlem Success Academy – a chain of schools – raises performance levels on tests of reading and math, each child is unique. Some cherries are bigger than others. Some riper. Some slower to mature. Some easier to bruise and faster to spoil.

One size does not fit all. 

That’s an argument for differentiating instruction within a classroom. Whether or not it’s a winning argument for public school choice – the turning of public school systems into a marketplace of schools representing an array of educational philosophies – is a separate question.

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