So glad Maryland Morning did this report. These conversations have to happen in public more often. (I only wish I didn’t know all the panelists. Widen my circle of acquaintances, please, WYPR. I don’t know that many people.)
A city mom thinks outside the sandbox.
So glad Maryland Morning did this report. These conversations have to happen in public more often. (I only wish I didn’t know all the panelists. Widen my circle of acquaintances, please, WYPR. I don’t know that many people.)
This is what parent empowerment looks like.
Organized Parents, Organized Teachers – Working together for effective reform in America’s public schools From the Annenberg Institute on Vimeo. To get related resources on parent-teacher collaboration, visit www.realparentpower.com
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.
Won’t Back Down is a new feature film starring Oscar-nominated actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis as two moms, Jaime and Nona, who take over their F-grade public elementary school. The school has a mathematical problem: Eighty percent of graduates can’t read. It’s personal for Jaime, whose 8-year-old daughter, Malia, is a walking statistic. The film opens with Malia’s anguished attempt to sound out a command: “Put the story in order.”
This is the point when real parent organizers will start sharpening their pencils. Because from the looks of it, you need to buy three reams of paper ($15). Make that colored paper, so it looks good on camera (add $3). Copy up some petition forms (200 x $.10). Then take off from your minimum wage receptionist job so you can gather signatures when school lets out at 3 p.m. sharp (at least 8 hours at $8.48 an hour) and lure your new squeeze away from his union with shots of Jack Daniels from the bar where you work nights ($9). Use him to a) convert other teachers to your anti-union cause (his soul), and b) babysit your kid (free) while you and your partner canvass the tenements in your inner city neighborhood in the dark (priceless).
Once you’ve got your petitions signed, stage a rally. Borrow some bullhorns. Call the media. Make sure to have 220 or so custom green T-shirts ($2,200), two bounce houses ($378 plus tax), and a bakery-grade cookie the size of a Frisbee for everyone and his/her mother ($500). Reserve one plate of cookies for the crew in the local news van so they’ll run your story at the top of the hour. Don’t forget the $60 you need to replace your daughter’s backpack, which her classmate broke during an in-classroom cat fight. You’ll also need money for the two buses it takes you to get to the tony private school where the beret-wearing head of the teacher’s union (Holly Hunter) wants to pay your child’s way in a last ditch effort to prevent your becoming the downfall of the American labor movement ($9.50).
By my count, Jaime is out $3262.34 so far. Not that the film ever mentions money. (That is, not until a line item in a proposed budget almost torpedoes the entire enterprise. But I don’t want to spoil the ending.) The question of who’s paying for all this is another math problem the film never solves. For that, one has to look at “actual events.”
“Inspired by actual events” may be the most honest line in Won’t Back Down. Though the city and the cast looked and sounded a lot different. In real life, the first attempt to call “Action!” on the set of a parent trigger law-enabled takeover took place not too far from the sound stages of Hollywood. Printing up forms, canvassing, transporting people to rallies, handling the press – Parent Revolution, a nonprofit with a $1 million budget paid for by corporate philanthropists, took care of all that. (For the skinny, read Parent Trigger: Straight Outta Compton? I wrote it.) Parent Revolution told parents about the trigger and collected their signatures. Just like in the movie, they never asked about a PTA. They even fronted people matching T-shirts. They made them yellow.
Won’t Back Down is unbelievable crap. But it’s also phenomenal as a witless send up of Parent Revolution. The Los Angeles-based equivalent of a production company hammers together Potemkin villages of faux-populist uprising for audiences across America. The ruse, for which Compton was a dress rehearsal, seems designed to convince elites (Democrats for Education Reform, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, Michelle Rhee, etc.) that real people will buy the reform package that their money bought and paid for.
Brilliant. Two thumbs up.
UPDATE: Parent Revolution had a $1 million budget when it was working in Compton, per this article in Mother Jones published April 7, 2011. According to this article, published October 2, 2012 in the Hechinger Report, Parent Revolution’s budget is “roughly $3 million.”
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.
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 Start, Baltimore 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.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 Remington, Bolton 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).
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:
(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.
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.
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“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children. Any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy." – John Dewey, 1900
Authored by Morna McDermott-A blog dedicated to democracy, public education, and the power of the imagination to fight corporate greed--if the truth sounds crazy it is because we have become too accustomed to falsehoods
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