A teenage boy in a black trench coat walks down a school hallway.
A young girl abruptly turns a corner and is about to walk past when she stops and notices an oblong shape in his coat.
He pulls out an AR-15 and points it at her head.
She gasps. He smiles.
“Hold it right there, Patrick.” Says a voice behind him.
“Mr. Callahan?” The boy says starting to bring the barrel around.
‘Uh-uh. Stop right there,” says the voice shoving something in the boy’s back.
“I know what you’re thinking,” the teacher continues. “My homeroom teacher, Mr. Callahan, has a gun in his desk. Did he remember to bring it with him to hall duty? Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being it’s a 500 S&W Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: “Do I feel lucky?” Well, do ya, punk?”
Apparently this is how Doug Mastriano thinks school shootings can best be prevented.
Not gun control. Not stopping teens from buying assault weapons. Not keeping guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Instead, arm the teachers. Arm the principals. Put a piece in the hands of Lunch Lady Doris. Maybe even the custodians will be packing heat with a bucket and mop.
This is not the kind of serious proposal Commonwealth residents deserve from a representative of the legislature or executive branch. It’s not the kind of serious proposal you’d expect from a grown adult. Heck. It’s not what you’d expect from a small child still unable to tie his own shoes.
School shootings are not action movie scenarios. They’re not run-and-gun video games. They’re not cops and robbers. They’re real life.
Lest we forget, there were police officers on both the campuses of Robb Elementary School in Texas and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where shootings cumulatively took the lives of more than 30 students.
According to a 2021 JAMA Network study that looked at 133 school shootings from 1980 to 2019, armed guards did not significantly reduce injuries or deaths during school mass shootings.
In fact, when researchers controlled for location and school characteristic factors, “the rate of deaths was 2.83 times greater in schools with an armed guard present.”
Put simply, school shootings are not rational activities subject to cost benefit analysis from the people contemplating doing them. Would-be shooters do not expect to come out alive. They don’t care if there is armed resistance or not. In fact, the presence of armed resistance only encourages them to bring deadlier weaponry – especially semi-automatic guns.
The few people who thought it was a good idea and said they would gladly bring a gun with them to school are nice people – but they’re the last ones you’d want armed.
Moreover, we have a school resource officer who said he was not in favor of the measure because it would make things tougher for law enforcement responding to a shooting. It would make it that much more unclear who the shooter was and increase the chances of friendly fire.
It’s hardly surprising Mastriano is making such boneheaded proposals.
I try to sleep, I try to rest, but worry and hopelessness settle down on me like a shroud.
If you’re like me, you may need some help getting through it all.
So here’s a list of five things we can do – not just you, but me, too – that hopefully will help us rejuvenate ourselves somewhat in the next few months and set us up for a successful year with our students.
1) Be Present with Friends and Family
Teachers often live in their heads.
We’re always planning a new lesson or thinking about how to help a student or improve something from the year before.
But this is summer break.
It’s time to tune out and turn off.
You’re home and hopefully you can find some time to spend with friends and family.
Just remember to try to be there. Actually be there.
Don’t live in your head. Live in the moment.
Let the present open up in front of you and actually enjoy the things you’re doing.
Our professional lives often demand we sacrifice so much time with our significant others, our kids, and the people we care about. Now is the time to balance the scales and enjoy their company. And nothing else.
This can be easier said than done, but it’s worth a try.
2) Don’t Focus on Things You Can’t Change
There is so much going on in the world, and we’re teachers. We’re problem solvers.
We want to fix broken things, and there is so much broken out there. The news is often not our friend.
I’m not saying to ignore what’s going on. We do so at our peril. But we have to try to put it all in context.
We’re just people – individuals caught in nets of complexity. We can’t solve all these problems ourselves.
It could be a sincerely stupid politician accused with pedophilia and insurrection who thinks taking pot shots at teachers will win him votes from the lowest common denominator.
It could be… so many people.
Take a deep breath and let it go.
You don’t need that baggage weighing you down.
As Nelson Mandela is supposed to have said:
“Having resentment against someone is like drinking poison and thinking it will kill your enemy.”
Leave that behind.
There will be plenty more next year.
4) Don’t Expect Too Much of Yourself
Often our harshest critic is ourselves.
We try so hard to be kind to everyone all year. This summer, be kind to yourself.
It’s break time. You don’t have to clean the whole house top to bottom. You don’t have to finally rearrange the utility drawer or any of a million other things that have been waiting around for you to get to them.
By all means, make those doctor’s appointments you’ve been waiting on. Buy a new pair of shoes. Cut the grass.
But if something doesn’t get done, don’t feel like it’s a failure.
You are allowed to simply do nothing.
Sometimes that’s the best thing we can do.
Be as productive as you want. Sometimes that helps alleviate stress, too – the satisfaction of getting things accomplished.
However, this break is not all about crossing things off your TO DO list.
Alabama, New Mexico, and Mississippi have already boosted teacher pay, with Florida, Iowa and Kentucky potentially set to do the same. Meanwhile, even US Congress could pass a nationwide measure to heighten teacher salary and encourage educators to stay in the classroom.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And that’s on top of already losing 250,000 school employees during the recession of 2008-09 most of whom were never replaced. All while enrollment increased by 800,000 students.
The more impoverished the school where teachers work, the higher the tax credit available to increase their salaries. The bill would also double the educator tax deduction to offset the cost of school supplies, and expand eligibility to early childhood educators.
The bill was introduced by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff (D-CA), Jahana Hayes (D-CT), John Larson (D-CT), and Mark Takano (D-CA). It is supported by a broad coalition of organizations including the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA).
Thankfully, Congressional proposals aren’t the only attempt to make teaching more attractive.
Some states have already taken action.
The Alabama Senate passed a budget that would raise minimum salaries for teachers with nine or more years experience. The raises would range from 5% to nearly 21%, depending on years of experience.
A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and 20 years of experience would see their salary rise from $51,810 to $57,214. A teacher with a master’s degree and 25 years experience would see their pay rise from $61,987 to $69,151.
In New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill that would increase base salary levels by an average of 20 percent. This advances minimum salary tiers for educators by $10,000 to $50,000, $60,000 and $70,000.
In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves signed off on an average increase of $5,100 that will raise educator salaries by more than 10 percent.
According to Politico, both Republican and Democratic Governors are proposing teacher salary increases or one-time bonuses as part of budget proposals and legislative priorities.
Such measures are even being proposed in Pennsylvania. Sen. Judith Schwank (D-Berks) recently introduced Senate Bill 1211 to boost starting pay for teachers from the current minimum of $18,500 listed in state law. She proposes increasing it to $45,000 a year. However, the bill sent to the Senate Education Committee has several Democratic co-sponsors but no Republicans, making it doubtful it will progress anytime soon.
Beginning in 2011, enrollment in such programs and new education certifications in Pennsylvania — my home state— started to decline. Today, only about a third as many students are enrolled in teacher prep programs in the Commonwealth as there were 10 years ago. And state records show new certifications are down by two-thirds over that period.
And it’s not just classroom teachers – substitutes are even harder to find.
Last June almost a third of working educators expressed a desire to leave the profession.
According to a survey in June of 2,690 members of the National Education Association, 32% said the pandemic was likely to make them leave the profession earlier than expected. So we don’t have enough teachers now and one in three educators we do have are ready to walk out the door.
A survey by the RAND Corp. reported that the pandemic has increased teacher attrition, burnout and stress. In fact, educators were almost twice as likely as other adult workers to have frequent job-related stress and almost three times more likely to experience depression.
However, the RAND survey went even deeper pinpointing several causes of stressful working conditions. These were (1) a mismatch between actual and preferred mode of instruction, (2) lack of administrator and technical support, (3) technical issues with remote teaching, and (4) lack of implementation of COVID-19 safety measures.
It’s a problem of exploitation and normalization.
Exploitation is when you treat someone unfairly for your own benefit.
We piled on so many extra duties – online teaching, hybrid learning, ever changing safety precautions – these became the proverbial straw that broke educators’ backs.
There are things we can do to alleviate this situation – reducing nonessential tasks, eliminating unnecessary paperwork, refraining from excess staff meetings, forgoing new initiatives, letting teachers work from home on professional development days – anything to give them a break and an opportunity to heal from the years of overburdening.
But we also have to start paying teachers more.
Thankfully our lawmakers are taking this matter to heart and actually getting some results.
Hopefully this trend will continue until every teacher in the nation is adequately, equitably and sustainably compensated for the work done in the classroom.
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My 8th grade students approach the climax and resolution with equal parts dread and delight.
But it doesn’t always start that way.
No book I teach has gone through a greater change in cultural opinion than “Mockingbird.”
It used to be considered a bastion of anti-racism. Now some folks actually consider it to be racist.
The story is about Scout and her brother Jem as they grow up in Alabama during the Great Depression. Most of the drama centers on their father, Atticus, who defends a black man, Tom Robinson, in court against trumped up charges of raping a white woman.
Ever since its publication in 1960, people have tried to ban the book from school libraries and from school curriculum.
And that’s still true today. However, this used to be the work of the far right. Today there are almost as many objections from the far left – though for very different reasons.
For 50 years, the biggest complaints came from conservatives about the book’s strong language, discussion of sexuality, rape, and use of the n-word. Though today you’ll find almost as many on the left proclaiming that the book actually perpetuates the racial intolerance it purports to be against.
Republicans have become more extreme than ever. They see any discussion of race as “Critical Race Theory” – a conflation of a legal framework not actually taught in K-12 schools with any substantive discussion of racial inequality. It’s really just a simple dog whistle to try and shut down any discussion of the racial status quo.
On the other side of the coin are people on the other pole of the political spectrum. Writers like Kristian Wilson Colyard don’t object to a discussion of racism and prejudice. They think “Mockingbird” doesn’t go far enough – or at least that the discussion it has is framed incorrectly.
Colyard doesn’t think the book should be banned or removed from libraries, but instead insists it isn’t a good teaching tool.
Oppression, after all, is relational. It takes both the experience of the oppressed and the oppressor to fully understand it. And if we want to help end the cycle, it makes sense to show the oppressor how to bring that about.
Moreover, the book sneaks up on its themes. There’s very little about outright intolerance on the first page or even the first few chapters. The idea creeps up on you as the narrator slowly becomes aware of the prejudices around her and the trial comes deeper into focus.
As to the question of white saviorism, I think this is more often a buzzword than a legitimate criticism. White people are not heroes for attempting to put right something they put wrong. It is their responsibility, and seeing someone do that in fiction is a really powerful thing.
Atticus doesn’t think he’s saving his client Tom Robinson. He doesn’t think he’s special for doing so. He’s doing what he thinks is right. Now Scout certainly views this through rose-colored glasses and lionizes him for it, but that’s a character’s point of view. It’s up to the reader to look at all this critically and come to your own judgement about it.
Frankly, I think that’s one of the real values of the book. It provides a deep narrative, well told, for readers to examine and discuss very complex issues.
If you think Atticus is given too much credit for what he does, that’s something you can discuss with other readers. I don’t see how doing so cheapens or hurts the cause of antiracism.
In addition, the problem of centering the story on the white people is rectified by reading more widely in the literature. “Mockingbird” shouldn’t be the only book on the topic you read. To be well-rounded, you should read more from the point of view of people of color subjected to white people’s intolerance. And there are so many wonderful books to choose from – Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man,” Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” etc.
However, teachers shouldn’t be made to feel like they’ve wasted an opportunity by using “Mockingbird” in the classroom – even if it’s the only book that year they read on this topic. There must be more opportunities in years to come. Racism and prejudice should not be a one-and-done topic in US schools. It is too important for that.
In my classroom, this book is far from our first discussion of the issue.
We talk about Fred Hampton and the Black Panther Party. We talk about the 1968 Olympics Black power fist. We talk about Black cowboys like Bass Reeves. We talk about Bessie Coleman, Angela Davis, James Baldwin, and so many others.
When we read S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders,” – a book that almost entirely eschews the topic – I make sure to point out that the narrative takes place in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, and we discuss Black Wall Street and the massacre of Black people perpetrated by their White neighbors.
However, after months of controversy over the legality of the move, at last night’s special meeting, the board voted to let him go FOR REAL.
Holtzman has accepted a new position at Beaver Area School District, approximately 50 miles northwest of McKeesport.
His last day is June 30. Assistant Superintendent Dr. Tia Wanzo will serve as Acting Superintendent immediately upon his departure.
The controversy stems from a move last year by the outgoing board to retain Hotlzman in McKeesport when he had been poised to accept a new superintendents position at Kiski Area School District. He resigned and was rehired at MASD in order to secure him a new contract with a competitive salary and years of service.
But this didn’t sit well with three board members (Steven Kondrosky, James Brown and Mindy Sturgess) who walked out of the meeting before it was officially called to order.
Lawyer William C. Andrews wrote a letter stating that the measure could be viewed as circumventing the intent of the Pennsylvania school code. The law does not allow such contracts to be extended with more than a year left before they expire. Holtzman still had two years left on his contract.
Holtzman’s own legal council, Mark E. Scott, wrote that the move was, in fact, legal and that it was common practice at other districts.
At a February board meeting where letters from both lawyers were read into the record, Holtzman offered to resign, then and there:
“I will clearly state if they want me to move on, and I’ve said it to them in private, I want a year’s salary and benefits and I will resign tonight. This witch hunt and issue is over, overdone, overstated and we need to move on and once I’m compensated for my attorney fees.”
At the time, it was unclear whether the board could move forward with Holtzman at the head of the district or not.
Apparently Holtzman couldn’t continue to work with them.
A mere three months later, he put in his current resignation.
Holtzman’s tenure at McKeesport was fraught with controversy from the beginning.
Before this, he had been dean of discipline at McKeesport’s vocational department for two years before taking a similar role at West Mifflin Area High School. However, he was mostly known in MASD for his years on the high school football team when he had been a student there (he graduated in 1997) and then at Syracuse University.
The district offered a cyber option for students whose parents wanted to keep them safely at home during the worst of the pandemic. Many districts were able to provide live teachers from the child’s grade level to instruct through on-line services like Zoom. However, MASD used the corporate Edmentum program to provide academics. The problem is it wasn’t created for that purpose. It was created for credit recovery, not robust academics. As a result, the district cyber program was developmentally inappropriate, and full of typos and inaccuracies.
We’re told that gun control is useless because new laws will just be pieces of paper that criminals will ignore. However, by the same logic, why have any laws at all? Congress should just pack it in, the courts should close up. Criminals will do what they please.
We may never be able to stop all gun violence, but we can take steps to make it more unlikely. We can at least make it more difficult for people to die by firearm. And this doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all guns. Just regulate them.
We don’t want the mentally ill to be able to buy guns. We don’t want suspected terrorists to be able to purchase guns. We don’t want convicted criminals to be able to buy guns. We want mandatory background checks for private sales at gun shows.
Yet our lawmakers stand by helpless whenever these tragedies occur because they are at the mercy of their donors. The gun industry owns too many elected officials.
In short, we need lawmakers willing to make laws. We need legislators who will represent the overwhelming majority of the public and take sensible action to protect the people of this country.
What we need is real gun control legislation. We need an assault weapons ban. We need to close the gun show loophole. We need buyback programs to get the mountains of firearms off the streets and out of the arsenals of a handful of paranoid “survivalists”.
We don’t need anyone’s thoughts and prayers.
We need action.
And we need it yesterday.
At this point there is simply no excuse.
If you don’t support gun control, you support school shootings.
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Moreover, there’s an incredible amount of pressure on teachers to not just instruct but to closely observe every student’s behavior and constantly give positive reinforcement to those doing what should be the norm.
And that’s not even mentioning the frequent disruptions necessary to reward those children who can best navigate the system.
But that’s only one way of addressing the problem of bad behavior.
When I heard my school board was considering a proposed district budget for 2022-23 without a tax increase, I wanted to take a look at it. So I went to the district Website and there was a link labelled:
“The Board of Directors of the McKeesport Area School District has prepared a Preliminary Budget in the amount of funds that will be required by the School District for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2022. The Proposed Budget is on file in the Office of the Business Manager/Board Secretary, and is available for public inspection in the McKeesport Area School District Administration Building…” [Emphasis mine.]
What the heck!?
Why not just post the preliminary budget on the Internet!? Why make me go all the way to the administration building (during business hours) to see a copy?
If I want to know how my district proposes to spend the community’s tax dollars next year, I need to either go to the school board meeting or go to the administration office and look at a copy. Will I be able to take a copy with me to peruse at my leisure? Maybe or maybe not.
The problem is how too many public school directors meet these obligations.
MASD, for example, makes its proposed budget available – but not in the most convenient way that it could.
Let’s be honest. It wouldn’t take much to improve this.
Posting the full budget online would take just a few seconds. In fact, it’s actually more trouble to have it available in the administration building and task a secretary with presenting it to anyone who comes in-person and asks for it.
I’ve gone to a lot of school board meetings in my life. A LOT.
And almost every board put unnecessary or onerous restrictions on public comments.
Residents could come to the meetings and address the board but they often had to sign in before-hand. They couldn’t just show up and speak. They had to let the board know days in advance that they were coming and the subject they planning to speak on.
If something came up during the meeting unplanned, technically residents weren’t allowed to comment – though I admit I’ve never seen a school board hold to such a policy in the case of unexpected events.
Also there are almost always time limits on public comments.
Limiting people to two minutes of public comment in a month or even a two-week period is ridiculous.
Then we have the issue of audio visuals at board meetings.
Many school boards have microphones for people to speak into during the proceedings. This is supposed to allow everyone present to hear what is being said. However, the equipment is often so bad that it actually ends up blurring the speaker’s voice until its incomprehensible or board members who don’t want to be heard simply don’t speak into the microphone.
Sure – the entire proceedings are being taken down by hand by an administrator for an official written copy of the minutes. But this isn’t even available to the public until a month later when the board votes on last month’s minutes document. The public can’t get a copy of this material until more than a month has passed from it taking place. And it probably isn’t available on-line.
Finally, we have recordings of the meetings.
Many school boards now video tape their meetings and stream them live on YouTube, Facebook or some other social media site.
This is a nice improvement from when community groups had to do this, themselves. And, in fact, it’s really a response to that phenomenon to gain control over what becomes public record. School boards began recording the meetings to discourage others from doing it so the district would have control over this material. And in most cases it worked.
However, these recordings are almost always of exceedingly poor quality.
Cameras (and microphones) are placed so far away that it is almost impossible to tell what is happening, what is being said or who said it.
Any teenager with a smart phone and a YouTube channel could do a better job.
Moreover, these videos often don’t stay posted online for very long. They could easily remain posted so anyone could rewatch them and catch up with what happened at a school board meeting they were unable to attend in-person. But school boards make the express decision to take these videos down so that record is not available.
Very few of these are accidents. In most cases these are intentional to push the public away at the exact time when they should be inviting them in.
These are just some examples of how school boards comply with transparency requirements but do so in ways that are inconvenient, onerous or antagonistic.
It is so unnecessary.
Things don’t have to be this way.
School boards should welcome transparency. They should embrace public participation in the process.
“Daddy, are gay people not allowed to get married?”
My daughter was looking at me in confusion as we sat together on the couch watching an old episode of “Top Chef.”
In Season 6, episode two, the chefs were asked to cook for a bachelor party. One of the contestants, Ashley, was indignant that she had to participate in a challenge centered on marriage when she, herself, couldn’t marry another woman.
I was surprised.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the show was so old. It first aired in 2009. Was that really so long ago?
We’ve only had marriage equality in all 50 states since 2015. That’s just seven years ago.
So I explained to my daughter that gay people can marry today, but that it wasn’t always the case.
My 13-year-old thought the idea that people couldn’t marry whoever they wanted to was just too crazy to be believed. And I agreed.
Did I just sleep through a monologue by Rod Serling?
I’m still seeing things in color but they’re starting to feel very black and white.
These are issues of settled law.
Roe v. Wade is older than I am. Women have been able to terminate unwanted pregnancies for my entire life and the world hasn’t come to an end. In fact, if you read about what life was like before this decision, things have improved.
I remember having a similar moment of cognitive dissonance as my daughter did when I was in high school.
I read the book “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser and was shocked at what life was like in the 1920s before women had such freedoms. In the book, a couple get pregnant and have to choose between an unwanted marriage while raising an unwanted child or a black market abortion and the freedom to move on. When they can’t agree, the protagonist, Clyde, murders the poor woman.
At the time, the whole situation seemed entirely quaint. It was a series of arguments, examples, and counter examples on an issue that had been decided long ago.
That anyone could think differently struck me as absurd.
In my high school public speaking class, we debated the issue. I argued in favor of reproductive rights, and a girl I had a crush on argued against them.
Let’s cut to the chase. None of this really is about stopping abortions. (If that was the concern, we’d be talking about free birth control, neonatal care and making a better world to raise children in.) Nor is it about safeguarding marriage between a man and a woman – or a white man and a white woman.
It’s about strengthening white supremacy. It’s about bolstering the patriarchy.
The Covid-19 pandemic on top of years of corporate sabotage and propaganda have obscured what public education really means and why it is absolutely necessary to the functioning of our society and any possibility of social, racial or economic justice.
Let’s begin by looking at how the current disaster exacerbated an already difficult situation and then consider why we should care enough to fix the mess.
The Pandemic Effect
Public schools got a bloody nose from the Coronavirus crisis.
In fact, it was the failure of federal, state and even local municipal governments that often made public schools the de facto legislators of last resort. And this is something they were never meant to be.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 567,000 fewer educators in our public schools today than there were before the pandemic. And finding replacements has been difficult. Nationwide, an average of one educator is hired for every two jobs available.
This has left us with a weakened system suffering from more problems than before the pandemic hit.
Why Are Public Schools Important?
Because of what they are and what they represent.
We hear about public education so often – usually in deprecating terms – that we forget exactly what the term signifies.
It is a school where any child can go to get an education.
You don’t have to pay tuition. You don’t have to have a special ability or qualification. You don’t have to be neurotypical, a certain race, ethnicity, belong to a certain faith or socioeconomic status. If you’re living in the US – even if you’re here illegally – you get to go there.
That may seem simple, but it is vitally important and really quite special.
Not all nations have robust systems of public education like we do in the US.
This country has a commitment to every single child regardless of what their parents can afford to pay, regardless of their access to transportation, regardless of whether they can afford uniforms, lunch or even if they have a home.
Perhaps even more significant is our commitment to children with special needs.
We have developed a special education system to help children at the edges that many other countries just can’t touch. In some nations these students are simply excluded. In others they are institutionalized. In some countries it’s up to parents to find ways to pay for special services. The United States is one of the only countries where these children are not only included and offered full and free access, but the schools go above and beyond to teach these children well beyond their 12th academic year.
In every authentic public school in the United States these students are included. In math, reading, science and social studies, they benefit from instruction with the rest of the class. And this, in turn, benefits even our neurotypical students who gain lessons in empathy and experience the full range of human abilities.
That isn’t to say the system has ever been perfect. Far from it.
Moreover, any school that attracts a surplus of students can choose which ones its wants to enroll. The choice becomes the school’s – not the parents’ or students’. In fact, administrators can turn away students for any reason – race, religion, behavior, special needs, how difficult it would be to teach him or her. This is much different from authentic public schools. There, any student who lives in the district may attend regardless of factors such as how easy or difficult he or she is to educate.
But you may luck out. Every privatized school isn’t a scam. Just most of them. So if you have found a charter, cyber or voucher school that is working for your child and doesn’t self-destruct in the time your child is enrolled, you may wonder why you should worry about the rest of us – the kids caught up in a web of privatized predation and neglect?
You have to live in this society. Do you really want to live in a country with a large population of undereducated citizens who cannot figure out how to vote in their own interests? Do you really want to live in a society where crime is a better career choice for those who were not properly educated?
That’s why we can’t let public education disappear.
Many people are upset with what local boards did during the pandemic, but the way to solve this isn’t to flee to schools without democratic principles. It is to seize those principles and make them work for you and your community.