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.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

They're All Our Kids

At the end of the DVD for the Tom Hanks film "Captain Phillips" there are the added bonus features that accompany most releases today. In one segment, the film's technical advisor talks about when he consulted with the US Navy Seals. The Seals, when speaking of Somali pirates, told the man that the "...pirates aren't the problem. What's happening on the Somali mainland is the problem." The Seals were speaking of the fact that Somalia is a rogue state mired in poverty, corruption, gangs, and violence. These things force its people to go out onto the sea and perhaps do something they don't really want to do.

When the shooting of Michael Brown first occurred, I wrote a post asking the question "would you?" I explained how Ferguson's population has over 20% living below the poverty line ($23,492.00/year for a family of four).  In addition, the unemployment rate amongst black men is 50%. The Brookings Institute points out that in America's 100 largest metro areas, the number of suburban neighborhoods with more than 20% below the poverty line doubled between 2008-2012. In addition, 2011 census data revealed the average net worth of black owned households in America is $6,314.00 dollars. The average value of white owned households: $110,500.00 dollars. We now boast a worse race related income gap than South Africa did during apartheid. Also, a black male is 25 times more likely to get shot by a cop than a white male. Five times the number of whites use drugs than African Americans, yet African Americans go to prison for drug offenses ten times more. Our black communities are the equivalent of a failed state, like Somalia, except these states border America.

There are other problems facing our inner-city communities, and I know this because I spent a year teaching at an inner-city school in Newark and then two years mentoring young men at the school. Now I teach at a High School for at risk inner-city kids where the population is all black and hispanic. The young men tell the same story as those in Newark: lack of a positive male influence in their lives. I am not dumb and know this factor plays a significant role in what's going on in urban communities. But instead of pointing a finger and shaking our heads, or driving by (quickly) with the windows up, or driving through on the way to somewhere else; maybe it's time to look at urban communities more like our cities and less like theirs. We look from the outside in and then have the audacity to claim there is a prevalence of white racism. No better example of this, then Ted Nugent's asinine post-Ferguson rants. A friend of mine who is a New York City policeman, and has a unique perspective on this recent mess, wrote a note to me saying Michael Brown "...completely scripted his own death".

Michael Brown didn't write his script. That script was written a long time ago when our inner-cities began rotting on the vine in the 60's and 70's. Brown was just the latest character in this tragic scene. My male students tell me stories all the time how they are followed by police or stopped. The boys constantly talk of the struggle they have with doing the right thing as opposed to falling into the narrative that has been written. They don't realize they can write their own narrative and this is largely because they're living a life mired in poverty, crime, violence, and lack a strong male to help build a sense of self expectation.

The one question no one has asked in this whole mess: How do you think Michael Brown viewed himself? Here was a kid who had graduated high school and was on his way to college. Was he an angel? No. But he was about to embark on a path that would have allowed the penning of a new script. Instead, he fell into his old part. We look at him and ask why. The fact is his story is not unique, it's constant (If you want to read a great example, check out the book by Jeff Hobbs which tells the story of Robert Peace from Newark. It will blow your mind). That's the problem here. We look at Michael Brown and shake our heads. We'll forget about him until the next one happens (there will be a next one), and then the same questions, accusations, and assumptions will be made. Here's an idea: Let's not wait. Let's do something to fix this problem because it's no longer a their problem. When young kids are dying in the streets either at their own hand or someone else's, it's time to take a step back and ask Why is this happening to OUR kids?

One of the most upsetting things about these incidents is too many people turn to the fact that black men kill black men more than cops do. Instead of constantly leaning on this, why don't we change it? Instead of looking at the young black men dying on our impoverished, dysfunctional inner-city streets and saying "it's their problem" why don't we take a step back and look at the big picture: This nonsense is happening in American communities. This is the greatest country in the world and, yet, young men and women with hopes and dreams never get a chance to realize them. Think of Michael Brown not as a "black", "minority", or "inner-city" kid. Think of him as what he really was: an American kid just like yours and mine.