Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Ones Lucky Enough to Be Superkids

In his OP ED column in the New York Times today, Frank Bruni writes about "Today's Exhausted Superkids". These, by and large, are kids in suburban communities whose parents - in the last ten years or so - have completely lost their minds. They sign their kids up for fifteen activities a week, push them to take as many AP courses as possible, talk to them about the athletic scholarship beginning at age seven, and apply so much academic pressure, their kids are sleepless and burnt out by the age of sixteen. Bruni states how kids in these communities feel so much pressure, they cheat, take Adderall, and aren't getting nearly enough sleep they need to develop and grow.

I know what he's talking about because I live in a community like this. Far too many of the kids in my town get whatever they want, have never been told no, are pushed hard by their parents, and by and large, are spoiled rotten. My kids are surrounded by peers who show up for baseball games toting $500.00 dollar bats, and $275.00 dollar gloves. Two kids on my son's freshman baseball team this year made fun of the summer team he was playing on because it wasn't "elite" enough (the team they played on cost $3,000.00 dollars for the summer and that didn't include travel expenses). My niece is going into her senior year of high school, and her parents have been pushing college on her since the day she started eighth grade. She attends a high achieving magnet school, and is very smart, and also hasn't slept properly in years. I recently took her to a concert, and at dinner before the show, she complained to me about how " one sees me for who I am. There's more to me than just the smart kid whose applying to college." I felt terrible for her.

The funny thing is, I live in this world, but teach kids from a completely different world. My students have no idea who they are - or could be. The word potential means nothing to them. This past year, I was telling one of my classes that they all possessed the intelligence to do or be whatever they wanted. One girl looked at me and asked "Why you always gassin' us like that? Why you always tryin' to tell us we're smart?" They honestly didn't know how to respond to being told those words. One day at school, I had a female student confide in me she was pregnant. I had a boy tell me he and his mom were about to become homeless, and one of my favorite students came to school with his jaw wired shut. He told me it was the bi-product of a basketball game, but I knew he was lying. I knew from another student he had been "jumped in" by the local chapter of the Crips. That night I stood in my kitchen crying because I knew three of my students lives were never going to be the same.

On the Daily Show last week host Jon Stewart had President Obama on. The president spoke how the "best education of his life" was when he worked in a poor section of Chicago as a community organizer. He basically said that venturing into a poor, inner-city community was the best education he ever got. My own kids and their peers worry about what college they're going to get into. They live lives that are no different than the student sitting right next to them in class. They put all of these pressures on themselves, and never step out of the world they live in, and enter college with no real grip on the world that's out there. If they really want to know what it's like out there - they should drive ten miles up the road and see kids living in poverty. They should come to my school and meet the boy who was going to be homeless with his mother. They should the boy whose options consisted of joining a gang - not going to college or trying out for an elite travel sports team.

Want to take pressure off of our kids? Have them spend their summers working in an poor community so they learn and understand what's going on out there and also how blessed and lucky they really are.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Summer Streets

As another school year winds down, those of us in urban education are in the midst of experiencing what we call "summer street syndrome". Basically this means that our students (who are mostly black, Hispanic, and poor) are not only preparing to leave school, but preparing to survive on the streets. When school gets out, their safe place is gone - as is their source of breakfast and lunch - as well as the people in their lives who provide love, structure, and discipline (aka "teachers").

When June begins, we shudder. Students who were involved, and committed to their studies throughout the year, suddenly stop studying - or doing any work for that matter. They become angry, hair trigger, and begin fronting. They're putting on a show for the students in school who may be involved in gangs or on the fringe. Some students even begin acting like they're in gangs - even though they're not - and change their posture, attitude, and way of dress. It truly is a metamorphosis - and not a good one.

I have a student who was an "A" student up until around April. Then, it happened. He began coming to school with a sneer on his face, and a new swagger and attitude. The funny thing is, he would pass me in the hallway, when no other students were around, and smile, then shake my hand. An hour or so later he would walk into my classroom, and curse at me. One day I asked him to complete an assignment and he threw the paper in my face and yelled Fu%k you!"

There was a video posted on Youtube a few weeks ago of a New Jersey teacher getting beaten up by a student. The teacher had taken the boy's phone, and the student proceeds to throw the man on the floor. Watch the video, and make sure you watch the students. Not a single student moves to help the teacher. At the very end, you finally hear a voice off camera ask "Should I get security?" The reason no one helps the man is because they're afraid of the consequences after school. The streets come into the classroom.

Teaching inner city kids is tough - and teachers who sign up to do it know that. But this time of the year is the toughest of all. When other teachers begin relaxing a bit, and wrapping it up, those of us in urban classrooms go on high alert.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Joe Pundit

Here we go again.

On the Saturday evening when Washington's political, media, and entertainment elite got together for the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, the city of Baltimore (about 40 miles away) was erupting into violent protest. CNN decided to cover what was happening on the Dinner's red carpet, and ask their fellow twenty-four hour news anchors questions like "What celebrity are you most excited to see?", while the city of Baltimore was getting ready to boil over. John Stewart did a critical, and sadly funny, bit on the April 27th installment of The Daily Show. It not only showed how out of touch our media is, but also how out of touch we are.

This was all in response to what has become the next chapter in the on-going saga that is America's police vs. black men. This time a young black man, while being taken into police custody, had his spinal chord severely injured and died later. Of course in the aftermath, the police are saying "It's not our fault!" and the inner-city youth most affected by these things are saying "This is our life on a daily basis." Yet again, the latest incident has taken place in a city that is mired in crime, violence, and (of course) poverty. West Baltimore served as inspiration for HBO's The Wire and was also where the book "The Corner" took place. This community is not unlike Ferguson, Missouri, or East St. Louis Missouri, or Newark, New Jersey, or the south side of Chicago, or,,,you get the idea.

Sunday night, West Baltimore erupted into full scale violence. There was looting, burning of stores, and (of course) violent clashes with police. And (of course) there were the voices in media asking why "the people" of this community think burning the place down is going to make things better. They shrug their shoulders in confusion, and shake their heads in disgust while trying to act concerned. My question to them is: Where was this confusion, concern, and disgust while cities like West Baltimore were rotting on the vine for the last, oh I don't know, thirty years? Why aren't media pundits and/or politicians questioning why American cities, and their citizens, are allowed to erode into a third world country existence? Where was Joe Pundit when the number of people living below the poverty line in West Baltimore went below the national average? Where was Joe Pundit when the Ferguson Police were arresting and fining its citizens for "violations" like walking the wrong way down the street? Where was Joe Pundit when the young men on the south side of Chicago started calling their community Chiraq because of the violence and poverty?

The smoke has cleared from Baltimore and the ashes are swept up and the he police involved in the death of the young man who died have been arrested and charged with murder. The funny thing, the police will have the support of a strong fraternal community to turn to. Other departments around the country will have that community teach them new tactics and implement new protocols. They will receive help and guidance, and, hopefully, be taught how to change. Many community police departments have already done this (body cameras) and continue to do so. In other words: the police will have help in changing and evolving. What will happen to West Baltimore? How is change going to come to that community? The community (like the others mentioned) is dysfunctional and lacks true resources to implement any significant change. I beg Joe Pundit to go back to West Baltimore in three years and see what, if anything, has changed.

I think we all know the answer.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Follow The Money

The Washington Post issued its list of "America's Most Challenging High Schools"two days ago and, of course, an inordinate number of charter schools made the cut.

Let me state that I am in favor of what charter schools stand for: more choice in education. I believe that not all children learn the same, and I have taught - and continue to teach - in a wide scope of schools serving vast populations of students (I currently teach in an all special and alternative ed. district and teach autistic children, children with physical disabilities, and at risk inner city students). I know from experience that the more choices provided for kids to learn, the better off they'll be. And while charter schools started out as something to bolster that choice, they have since become something completely different: investment opportunities.

The number one school on the Post list is BASIS, Oro Valley in Oro Valley, Arizona. The BASIS Schools are a national charter network owned and operated by Michael and Olga Block. Their schools are set up as a not-for-profit, but the Blocks have their privately held for profit company running the school. Mr. and Mrs. Block work for that company - not the school. Here is the best part: The state of Arizona can only audit the charter school - not  the company that runs it. So even though BASIC receives state funds, the state can't examine their financials. This essentially means that schools like BASIC can take state funds (as well as money from private donors) and hire/pay private companies and/or people on the local school board. They can even hire/pay their own privately held company to do work for the schools; have those companies provide supplies and other contracts, and they're not required to report any of that information. I have written before about the weird state of charter school money and outside investment. It stinks, and it's turning the education of kids into a business. That's not what education is. Like I said yesterday: Education is a journey of self discovery. Also remember that charter schools are not under the same rules and laws as public schools. That means it's easier for them to throw or kick students out. Ultimately, the kids being thrown out of charter schools go back into the public school system and, in many cases, the charter school still keeps the state money received for those students. When I taught in Newark public schools, we had more than one student show up in the middle of the year who was out of control - disrespectful and a behavioral nightmare. When asked what school they came from the answer was almost always "I was kicked out of a charter school." In addition, charters are not required to admit/educate a population of students with special needs. In the case of Archimedean Upper Conservatory in Miami, Florida (#16 on the list) that means not admit any students with special needs.

When a list like the one in the Post shows up, everyone sings the praises of charter schools and, in many cases, this is deserved. But when you begin to look into the money trail for a lot of them, they begin to resemble some kind of shadow corporation or, worse yet, the money politicians receive to fund their campaigns. I never thought I'd use the term "dark money" when speaking about the education of our kids, but it has become that.

I don't understand the privatization of schools. The greatest thing about the American public school system is its obligation to educate all kids - not just those who are going to improve test scores, bolster data, and increase the size of pocketbooks.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Combat Pay

Last week in Hempstead, Long Island, a middle school math teacher, - whose been teaching more than twenty years - was choked until unconscious by a student's mother. Once out cold, the teacher was kicked repeatedly by students. Earlier in the day, she had broken up a violent fight. The mother claimed the teacher had "laid hands" on her daughter in the process. It should be noted that Hempstead teachers have been complaining for months how they feel "unsafe" in their schools. Students have also expressed this, but obviously, nothing was done.

In the same week, at my old school in Newark, New Jersey, a teacher also broke up a fight. As the students were calming down one of them turned and slapped the teacher across the face. When asked why he did it, the student said "Because I can and there's nothing anyone can do about it." A parent, who witnessed the whole thing, claimed the student did it "by accident".

Both of the communities mentioned above have many things in common: They are poor, urban communities; are infested with gang related violence; and both are within a short drive (or walk) of upper middle class suburban communities. Hempstead is so bad, it sounds and looks like something out HBO's The Wire. Newark is no better. We are barely four months into 2015, and it has already seen 22 people killed by gunfire.

What's scary is how the violence from the street is now making its way into the schools. The alternative high school where I teach is made up of students coming from inner-city at risk backgrounds. Gang signs are flashed daily, and students openly discuss gang related topics in the hallways. A fight a few weeks ago left a teacher injured after he was struck with a pool cue. Kids who were good students in September have morphed into individuals who could care less about their studies. I recently confronted a student on his academic slide and he said "I'm more concerned about the target on my back than my school work." A few days later, I sat a group of boys down to speak with them about what was going on. I asked how they were doing and reminded them that, we, the teachers cared. I talked to them about Starbucks' announcement regarding how they will pay employees college tuition. I also told them about programs at the local community college and technical school that would give them loans and/or grants. When I finished talking, one boy looked me square in the eye and said "College? I ain't gonna make it to seventeen mister. Why you talkin' to me about college?"

Our inner-cities are a mess. We have people living what can and should be classified as a third world existence, and they're doing this not too far from you. Currently, the United States ranks sixth in the world in children living in poverty. Number five is Mexico. Think about the images that come into your head when you hear the word "Mexico". Now consider the fact that our kids are living a similar existence. That's awful.

Often times I find myself sad and depressed when thinking about my students. I leave classes on the verge of tears - and not because I am threatened or scared. Rather, I am upset when I think about their future. The boy who told me he has a "target on his back" is a bright, sensitive kid who needs to realize his potential. I remind him every day and I hope it's getting through.

A child's education is supposed to be a journey of self discovery. It's about finding out who you are, what you're good at, and what interests you. Youth is not supposed to be about survival and schools certainly are not supposed to be places of violence. Students should not go to school anxious or scared and teachers shouldn't qualify for combat pay. These things need to be addressed sooner than later. Remember, the kids growing up - and being educated - in our inner-city schools are not minority kids, urban kids, or ghetto kids. They're American kids and need to be educated as such. 

It's Not Gone

We just marked the 50th Anniversary of the march on Selma, Alabama, and we reflect at a good time. We've heard from pundits and commentators lately on how racism is "no longer a problem" in the United States. Many choose to believe that we live in a "post-racial" society. To bolster this theory, the Supreme Court repealed part of the Voting Rights Act of 1964. Apparently, we as country have moved on.

Well that was proven wrong.

As the President marked the anniversary of Selma by marching across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the Department of Justice released a report on the Ferguson, Missouri police department. It turns out the Ferguson PD has been engaged in blatant race based practices for years. In fact, they treated their African American community as a source of revenue rather than citizens. The African American community makes up 67% of the Ferguson population, but accounted for 93% of arrests from 2012-2014. The DOJ report included stories of black citizens routinely charged with petty crimes and subsequent fines. Often these started out as "mere" $100 dollar fines but soon escalated into thousands of dollars, jail time, or both. In addition, FPD officers spoke down to and/or hassled African American citizens it would seem "just because".

On top of the Ferguson report yet another unarmed black male was shot and killed by police in Madison, Wisconsin, and finally, a short video emerged of an Oklahoma University fraternity singing a disgusting racial slur laced song on a bus trip. Perhaps the post-racial society theory is a bunch of B.S.

Despite what some choose to believe, we still have a LOT of race issues in this country. In the wake of the Michael Brown shooting, grand statements were made like "This is not Birmingham in 1965". Based on the DOJ report, it actually is. When a municipality treats a populace of its citizens like objects and not as humans, that's a problem. In addition to the racially based fines and/or arrests, the DOJ report also showed racist emails amongst the Ferguson police and town officials. Megyn Kelly on Fox News defended this by saying "There are very few companies in America [where] won't find racist emails". Mind you, she didn't follow that up by saying "...and that's a problem" or "...this shows that racism is not exclusive to one police department." Nope. She chose to essentially defend the problem.

Frankly I find it shameful that we still need to have these discussions. I don't understand how and why people look within our urban and/or inner-city communities and see the residents as them. I teach at an alternative High School whose population is made up of at risk inner-city kids. My students are around 60% African-American, 40% Hispanic/Latino. They look at themselves as separate from everyone else. I don't think this is a coincidence. I feel terrible for many of them because I know they're going to graduate high school and enter the world - be it as a college student, in the military, or in a job - at a disadvantage. I say this not in a hyperbolic sense but as fact. Too many of my students live in poverty, are coming from dysfunctional communities or both. Their lives are dominated less by regular living and more by survival.

As the marchers came across the bridge that day in Selma they were greeted as an "enemy" and not as citizens. We need to end this separation between "us" and "them" and look at each other as who we are: Americans.

Sunday, February 15, 2015


I'm tired of reading about parents messing things up for children. I say this as a response to many things, but primarily because of what happened recently to the Jackie Robinson West Little League team out of Chicago. If you don't know, that team won the National Title this past summer in the Little League World Series. This was significant because they were the first all black team to ever do so. Sadly, they have now been stripped of that title because the adults involved with the team cheated. They recruited players from outside designated boundaries in order to create a better team.

The worst part for me is that the Title represented so much more than baseball. Chicago is a city mired in serious gun violence and last summer's victory for those kids stood for something very significant. It meant that despite their surroundings, and if given an opportunity, with hard work and commitment you could accomplish something spectacular. It sent a great message to other kids within that community. Now, it's gone.

Before the adults involved in this nonsense moved forward with their scheme, why didn't they bother to think about the consequences? In addition, truly accomplishing what they did with integrity would have been inspirational to so many other inner-city kids. The adults had to realize that doing what they did would have terrible results. But apparently they didn't care. They basked in the moment and enjoyed all of its perks (the kids and their coaches got to go to Washington and meet President Obama) all the while knowing it was wrong. The kids are just innocent bystanders in this whole mess. They did what they were supposed to do: stay true to something and perform at a high level. Again, they did this despite some tough surroundings.

Of course there are questions now. Were the other teams scrutinized as much as the Chicago team? Were they held to tougher standards? Maybe it's the Chicago adults who should be questioning their standards. Those standards, or any for that matter, sure as hell weren't there when those decisions were being made.