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 work 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. 

BASIS 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's the best part: The state of Arizona can only audit the charter school - not  the company that runs it. So even though BASIS receives state funds, the state can't examine their financials. This essentially means that schools like BASIS 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 and/or 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. Education is a journey of self discovery and has nothing to do with turning a profit. 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 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." 

Also remember that many 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 admitting 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 "dark 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's 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]...you 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.