Top 10 Things I Want My Students to do During the Coronavirus Quarantine

Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 7.03.55 PM

 

 

 

Dear Students,

 

A schoolteacher without a classroom is kind of like a firefighter without a fire.

 

Or a police officer without crime.

 

But here we are – self-quarantined at home.

 

Our classroom sits empty, and everyday this week we sit here at home wondering what to do.

 

I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about all of you.

 

I hope you’re doing alright during this unprecedented moment in history. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when it first happened.

 

No school for the foreseeable future!

 

The whole thing came together so quickly that our district didn’t even have time to get together work to send home with you. And like most schools throughout the country, many of you don’t have home internet access so we can’t fairly give you on-line lessons, either.

 

So you’ve been at home with little guidance from us. Sure we have free breakfast and lunches available for pick up at the school, but you’re probably growing a bit stir crazy.

 

I know I am. (And I’m sure your folks are, too!)

 

I’m at home with my daughter trying to keep her busy.

 

We’ve been creating Mario Maker boards for each other on our Nintendo 3DS and Switch.

 

We keep trying to stump each other, and me, being a teacher, I keep trying to get her to think outside of the box.

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where you have to get a mushroom through a maze?”

 

Or

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where the walls close in?”
Or

 

“I wonder if you could beat a Thwomp in a race down a pit?”

 

We were having a really good time until I tried to get her to watch a science video. I put on the original Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the early 1980s.

 

My daughter loves looking up at the stars and asking me questions about the constellations. I thought this would be a perfect fit – after all, Sagan was an astronomer and can answer her questions way better than I can.

 

However, the old school effects were simply no match for today’s aesthetic. She revolted after about 20 minutes.

 

Today I won her over though with the new Cosmos series featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. She turned to me after about five minutes and said, “Much better.”

 

We’ve been drawing and reading and playing video games and having a good ol’ time.

 

I hope you have people at home who can help you get through all this, too.

 

I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from your folks.

 

They want to know what they should be doing to help you academically.

 

Whenever this whole thing is over – and it will be over someday soon I hope – they want to make sure you won’t fall too far behind.

 

Let me start with a word of caution.

 

We don’t know how long this self-quarantine will last.

 

We’re trying to stay home to stop the spread of this virus – COVID-19. It can be deadly to some people – even some young people like you.

 

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we wait this thing out so that the hospitals can deal with the people who get sick.

 

Then when the disease has passed, we can continue our normal lives.

 

But no one knows how long that will take. It could be a few more weeks – but more likely months.

 

It is very possible that we will not go back to school again until after the summer.

 

So it’s hard to say exactly what you should do to keep yourself in the best academic shape because we don’t know what you’ll be coming back to.

 

We DO know that we won’t have to make up some or all of the days we missed.

 

And we know we won’t (here in Pennsylvania) have to take the PSSA or Keystone tests this year.

 

But when this is over, what grade will you be in? Will you just move on to the next grade or will there be a bit of mopping up to do first? And if you don’t finish the curriculum, will you be ready for the challenges ahead?

 

We don’t know any of that yet.

 

But here are a few guidelines and some things you might want to do while you’re at home.

 

You don’t have to do all of them, but they’re some things to think about.

 

So here’s my top 10 things for my students to do during quarantine:

 

1) Finish Whatever School Work You Can

 

You may have some outstanding school work with you in your book bag. I know I sent my seventh graders home with their poetry projects. My eighth graders should either be done or have taken their projects home to finish.

 

So if you have work that’s not done, finish it to the best of your ability. You certainly have enough time.

 

2) Read a Book

 

I ask all of may students to have a self-selected book handy for sustained silent reading in class. Hopefully you brought it home. If not, take a look around the house. Maybe you’ve got a dusty tome hanging out in some corner. Or – hey – if you have Internet access, you probably have the ability to get an ebook.

 

Read something – anything you want.

 

It will while away the hours, relax you and maybe get your mind to thinking about things above and beyond how much mac and cheese you’ve got stored in the cupboard.

 

3) Keep a Journal

 

Do you realize you’re living through a moment of history? People will look back on this and wonder how people got through it. You could fill in the blanks for some future researcher. Just a description of your everyday activities, what you’re thinking and feeling, your hopes and dreams – all of it has historical value. Plus, you’ll get some practice expressing yourself in writing. And just think – a simple story about how you survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 could end up being taught in the classrooms of the future!

 

Make it a good one!

4) Take a Break from Video Games

 

I know some of you have built a fort out of sofa cushions, covered it in blankets and are nestled in this hideaway doing nothing but playing Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft with friends on-line. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You go ahead and do that.

 

Just remember to take breaks for more than just food and the bathroom. Getting lost in a fantasy world is great so long as you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back out again.

 

Don’t forget the trail. Don’t forget there’s a world out there that needs you. Set definite limits for how long you spend in there and try really hard to adhere to them.

 

5) Watch Something Educational on TV or the Internet

 

Education isn’t limited to something a teacher told you to do. Find a video or TV show that explains something you never knew before. Youtube is great for this if you know what to look for.

 

I don’t mean to find some rant by your favorite Youtuber. I mean find something about science, history, art, literature, math, etc. Make it something you care about but might not watch just for fun.

 

You’ll be surprised at what you can find out there. The channel CrashCourse with author John Greene (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and his brother Hank is particularly informative, entertaining and far reaching. I also love John Michael Godier for all things astronomy and Composer David Bruce for discussions of music.

 

6) Watch/Read the News

 

There are extraordinary things happening every day. Knowing about them can help you prepare for what’s next and think about what we can and should be doing to make things better.

 

7) Listen to Music/ Draw/ Do Something Creative

 

I know you. You’re a bundle of creative energy bound together waiting to explode. Go do that. Whatever you enjoy doing, create something. Write a song, make a comic book, paste together a collage. Express yourself, and if you’re not in the mood for that – enjoy the expressions of others. Listen to music, read a poem, watch a movie.

 

8) Help Out Your Folks

 

We, adults, can seem like we’ve got it all under control. We don’t. We’re just as anxious, fearful and uncertain as you about this whole self-quarantine thing. None of us were around the last time something like this happened (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). Anything you can do – helping take out the trash, cleaning up messes, even just trying extra hard not to argue with your siblings – can be a big help.

 

9) Talk to Friends and Family about How You’re Feeling

 

No one expects you to be a robot. These are trying times. It’s okay to feel a certain way about that. Share those feelings with someone you trust. And be a sympathetic ear for them to do the same. The best way we can get through all this is with each other’s help.

 

10) Know That You Are Loved

 

My dear precious little students! There are people out there who love you so much. There are people who would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. I know you’re scared and bored and anxious. But remember we’re in this together. And no matter where you are or what you’re doing there’s at least your crazy English teacher who loves you very much and can’t wait to see you all again.

 

Stay safe!

 

89984455_10157624686428860_90771698554503168_n

 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Bernie Sanders Would Be the First Jewish President – What That Means to Me

5e097191240000c81c5a4809

 
Being Jewish is not something I advertise.

 

Some of my earliest memories are trying to explain to school friends that no, I didn’t kill Jesus – and, yes, I do eat matzo but it isn’t made with baby’s blood – and would they like to come over to my house and play Legos?

 

I’ve been called “yid,” “kike,” “heeb,” even just plain “Jew” with the lips curled and the word hurled at me like a knife.

 

Heck. When I was a kid even the bus driver called me “moneybags,” though my family was far from rich.

 

So it makes sense to me that Bernie Sanders isn’t running for President as a Jew first.

 

He’s running on his policies and experience.

 

But it still hurts when pundits complain that there are now just two white men vying for the democratic nomination.

 

Um. Okay.
 
Sanders IS Jewish. You know that, right? If he were elected, it would not be business as usual. It would be unprecedented.

 

Yet that fact is almost always glossed over because it doesn’t fit the media narrative they’re selling.

 

Sanders is the “crazy socialist,” not the “historic Jew.”

 

This constant erasure is a slap in the face.

 

And I mean MY face, not just Sander’s.

 

I doubt it feels too good to him, either, but it feels personal to me, as well.

 

My family and I live just outside of Pittsburgh, about a half hour away from the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill where just two years ago 17 people were gunned down in perhaps the worst act of violence against Jews in our nation’s history.

 

 

I teach “The Diary of Anne Frank” to middle school children less than 15 minutes away.

 

 

I have relatives who belong to that congregation, though I didn’t know any of the 11 people who died.

 

 

Let me ask – were they white?

 

 

I’ll bet they thought they were, but all it took was an anti-Semite with a gun to challenge that.

 

Like Bernie, I lost my extended family in the Holocaust – great grandparents, great uncles and aunts, cousins,  who I will never meet. I grew up with only the closest of familial relations.

 

 

Before I was old enough to get in to see a PG-13 movie, I knew about mass graves, ghettos, cattle cars and crematoriums.

 

 

Generation upon generation of European Jewry never expected to be singled out for extermination. They probably thought of themselves as regular, everyday people, too – an US not a THEM.

 

Bernie would meet that same standard. Like all of us, he knows we’re white only until someone decides we’re not.

 

 
So when talking heads decide to erase the fact of Bernie’s ancestry, they aren’t just playing politics. They’re engaged in naked prejudice.

 

Let me be clear. I don’t bring this up out of some sense of political tokenism. Bernie shouldn’t be recognized just for appearances sake. He needs to be seen for who and what he is.

 

 

This isn’t about identity politics. It’s about basic truth.

 

 

When some folks complain about the way Bernie speaks or that he yells too much, they’re really showing a xenophobic bigotry.

 

 

Bernie is a Jewish man who grew up in New York.That is how people from there talk.

 

 

I’ve known scores of people who speak like that – often at the dinner table during family gatherings. Just because it isn’t a part of your personal experience doesn’t make it acceptable to dismiss.

 

 

If you belittled someone for speaking with a Spanish accent, it would be called out for what it is – prejudice.

 

 

But by ignoring Bernie’s Judaism, you allow all kinds of discriminatory preconceptions to pass as little more than valid criticisms.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong.

 

 

I don’t think Bernie’s Judaism is the most important thing about him or his campaign.

 

 

I wouldn’t support just any Jew who was running. For example, I wouldn’t back Joe Lieberman or Jared Kushner if they were seeking elected office.

 

 

But it DOES mean something that Bernie is in the hunt for the Democratic nomination and is Jewish.

 

 

For me, he typifies what is best about us.

 

 

He embodies the spirit of doing good for others and trying to make the world a better place. He seeks justice in economic, social, racial, gender and political relationships. He tells truth even when it’s uncomfortable to hear. And that includes the truth about the Israeli government’s reprehensible treatment of the Palestinian people.

 

 

In his 30 years in Congress he passed mountains of bipartisan legislation as the amendment king. He refused to support the Iraq War or cuts to social security. He supports unions, workers, public schools and universal healthcare.

 

 

Being Jewish does not take precedence to those things. But I hope supporting those things will help redefine what people think of when they think of Judaism.

 

 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

There Are No Bernie Bros, Just Diverse Supporters Being Made Into What They’re Not

bernie_sanders_36

 
It’s time to call the whole “Bernie Bros” phenomenon exactly what it is – racist, sexist, homophobic propaganda.

 

 

I don’t mean that Bernie Sanders’ supporters are any of those things.

 

 

I mean that the term used to lump us all together is.

 

 

There is no monolithic group of angry straight men backing the Vermont Senator’s bid for the Democratic nomination for President in 2020. Nor was there in 2016.

 

 
A substantial portion of Sanders’ supporters are female, racially diverse and/or LGBTQ.

 

 

Women under 45 make up a larger share of Sanders’ base than do men of the same age, according to February findings from The Economist.

 

 

Moreover, women have given more money to his campaign than to any other candidate.

 

 
In November, Sanders raised about $17.1 million in itemized contributions, or 40% of his total funds from women, according to Nicole Goodkind of Fortune.

 

 

In particular, that’s more than $13 million in small donations from nearly 280,000 suburban women. And he took in more than $2 million more from suburban women in large donations.

 

 

Women support him just as much as men do, “if not more,” according to a Vox analysis of polling between November 2018 and March 2019.

 

 

But he’s also extremely popular with people of color.

 

 

In fact, the same Vox analysis found that Sanders is more popular among people of color than among white people.

 

 

Heck! Sanders’ polling numbers with black voters were double that of Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) who was also seeking the nomination before dropping out in December, according to a March Morning Consult poll – and Harris actually is a person of color.

 

 

Both The Economist’s latest numbers and Univision Noticias poll found Sanders was the second choice of Latino and Hispanic voters after former front runner Joe Biden. Moreover, 39% of Latinos in California said they prefer Sanders, compared to 21% for Biden and 5% for Warren, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

 

 

Meanwhile, he also has strong support in the LGBTQ community.

 

 

Sanders is the first-choice for 34 percent of Democratic primary voters who identify as LGBTQ, according to the latest Morning Consult poll. That’s more than Elizabeth Warren at 19%, Joe Biden at 18%, Michael Bloomberg at 7%, even Pete Buttigieg at 12% – and Buttigieg is openly gay.

 

 

Sanders has a long record of supporting gay rights. In the 1980s as Burlington mayor, he proclaimed a Gay Pride Day, while during his tenure in the House, he opposed both the Defense of Marriage Act and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – a law that barred gay and lesbian military service members from proclaiming their sexual orientation. And in 2009, Sanders endorsed marriage rights for gay couples — three years before then-Vice President Biden did the same.

 

 
If that’s not enough, the Sanders campaign has women and people of color in prominent leadership positions.

 

 

Two women of color, Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner and San Juan, Puerto Rico Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, are co-chairs of the campaign, along with Indian-American Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) and Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen. Sanders’ campaign manager is longtime progressive activist Faiz Shakir.

 

 

Are all these women and minorities really Bernie Bros?

 

 
The term was coined four years ago by Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer to characterize those backing the Vermont Senator as mansplaining internet trolls – a sexist mob who refused to support Hillary Clinton because of her gender and not her neoliberal policies and anti-progressive history.

 

 

And that’s really the crux of it.

 

 

The Bernie Bros phenomenon is an attempt to use identity politics to minimize the beliefs of people – to paste over their actual identities as real, live women and men, to erase the opinions of diverse people – to create a fake picture of who these people are.

 

 

But don’t take my word for it. Take that of Barbara Smith, the black feminist author who coined the term “identity politics” and has thrown her support behind Sanders in 2016 and 2020:

 

 

“It was absolutely meaningful for Bernie Sanders or for anyone else to say, ‘No, I’m going to step away from that white-skin privilege, I’m going to interrogate what is going on here around race. And then I’m going to do what most people never do: I’m going to actually put my body on the line and take a stand and work with those whose oppression we are committed to ending,’ That’s what Bernie Sanders did.”

 

 

Bernie’s opponents are trying to weaponize the language of civil rights activism against that very same movement.

 

 

To dismiss his supporters as “Bernie Bros” is just not true.

 

 

It is merely tone policing – an attempt to silence passionate political advocacy because it is too loud, too enthusiastic and – frankly – too nonwhite, lower class and ideologically progressive.

 

 

To be sure there are some belligerent Bernie supporters out there – just as there are for every candidate running.

 

 

But to suggest that Bernie’s supporters are somehow more ill-tempered, rude or unwilling to compromise is to display your own prejudices.

 

 

Clinton is not even running for anything in 2020, yet she misses no opportunity to attack Sanders as unliked and has even said she would not support him if he won the nomination. She repeatedly criticizes him as unsupportive once she locked up the party’s nomination in 2016, yet Sanders relentlessly campaigned for her in the last two months before the election – appearing at 39 rallies in 13 states on her behalf.

 

 

In fact, her supporters tried a similar bit of propaganda back in 2008 when she was running against Barack Obama where Clinton supporter Rebecca Traister ran an article in Salon entitled, “Hey, Obama boys: Back off already!”

 

thumbnail_IMG_9317

 

This is just more establishment propaganda meant to divide progressive voters who actually care about social justice issues so that the big money candidates can more easily get the party’s nomination.

 

 

It is insinuation, libel and slander. It is racist, sexist and anti-LGBTQ.

 

 

And though most of the remaining Democratic candidates are white, Bernie is also a minority. He’s Jewish.

 

 

Their carping on his irritating voice and mannerisms border on the anti-Semitic.

 

 

But no one talks about that – least of all Bernie who is too busy talking about policies that would benefit us alloften in a Jewish Brooklyn accent.

 

 

Moderates complain that regardless of the primary, in the general election we must vote blue no matter who. It is imperative we end the Trump presidency in any way possible.

 

 

Erasing the voices of the most energetic and committed constituency in the election is not the way to accomplish this.

 

 

A significant share of Sanders supporters — myself included — consider Warren their second choice, and if she wins the party’s nomination, would cast a ballot for her with little to no hesitation. And this despite her own foray into bogus accusations of sexism against Sanders that backfired actually increasing his support among women and minorities.

 

 

Sanders’ supporters willingness to consider other nominees besides their top choice will probably depend to a large degree on the fairness with which the primary is conducted.

 

 

As we saw in Iowa, the Democratic Party has not committed itself to ensuring this goal.

 

 

If anything is likely to derail a Democratic victory in 2020, it is that partisanship and incompetence.

 

 

If we want any chance at uniting behind a common candidate – Sanders or otherwise – we need to stop deleting our strongest allies under such a false characterization.

 

 

Let the people decide who they want to represent them against Trump.

 

 

And when they support Sanders, respect that decision without degrading them behind a prejudicial and politically convenient lie.

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-02-08 at 12.42.51 AM

 


Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-3

Did Rosa Parks Really Support Charter Schools?

Screen Shot 2020-01-28 at 8.36.33 PM

 

They say history is written by the victors.

 

But fortunes change, and sometimes you can even reclaim a figure from the past who the last round of winners had cast in an unlikely role.

 

Take Rosa Parks.

 

She is universally hailed as a hero of the civil rights movement because of her part in the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

 

Everyone knows the story. Parks, a black seamstress in Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man on a segregated bus and was arrested. Then working with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other activists, she helped encourage black people throughout the city to stop riding the buses until they were eventually desegregated.

 

But did you know that 40 years later after she had moved to Detroit, Parks tried to open a charter school?

 

It’s true – from a certain point of view.

 

And school privatization cheerleaders are quick to reference her advocacy.

 

President Bill Clinton used the anecdote to sell the charter school concept in a speech to the NAACP in Pittsburgh in 1997.

 

Joe Nathan, one of the authors of the first charter school law, still likes to troll readers of this blog by bringing that factoid up in the comments.

 

Keri Rodrigues, one of the founders of the Walton front group the National Parents Union, uses it like a trump card on Twitter to shut down privatization critics.

 

The facts are somewhat more complicated.

 

CHARTER SCHOOL CRITICISM

 

Charter schools are funded with tax dollars but not bound by the same regulations as authentic public schools including the need to be run by elected school boards. In fact, they are often operated by appointed business interests.

 

Today charter schools are roundly criticized for their limited accountability, lack of local control, tendency to profit off the children they serve, ability to cherry pick students enrolled in them, propensity for draining funding from neighborhood public schools, frequently poor academic records, and inclination to increase racial and economic segregation.

 

Yet lobbyists and industry insiders insist they are civil rights reforms. Being able to tout Parks as a charter pioneer helps them make their case.

 

But did she really do this?

 

I mean Parks went to segregated schools, herself, before Brown v. Board. You’re telling me she actually advocated to start a segregated school in Detroit decades later?

 

THE FACTS

 

Parks did lend her name to a charter school proposal in 1997 that would have opened an institution named for her and her late husband, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Academy for Self Development.

 

However, according to Anna Amato, an education consultant who worked with Parks on the proposal, the Detroit Board of Education put the item on their agenda but took no action.

 

Parks then moved on to other concerns – of which she had many.

 

She spent most of her life fighting the good fight.

 

In 1957 she moved with her husband and mother to Detroit, where from 1965 to 1988 she was a member of the staff of Michigan Congressman John Conyers, Jr. She remained active in the NAACP fighting against housing segregation in the city, traveling to support Selma to Montgomery marches, developed “Pathways to Freedom” bus tours of civil rights sights, served on the Board of Advocates for Planned Parenthood, and many other actions.

 

The proposed charter school wasn’t exactly a highlight. Nor does it seem to fit with her other endeavors.

 

LEGAL BATTLE

 

But the Rosa Parks who was involved in that proposal was a very different lady than the one who refused to give up her bus seat all those years ago.

 

Parks was 84 at the time of the charter school plan and somewhat isolated from close family. When she died in 2005 at the age of 92, her estate was the subject of a bitter legal dispute.

 

The issue wasn’t the money so much as the priceless historical artifacts associated with her life.

 

Her will left most of the estate to Elaine Steele, a retired Detroit judge and friend of Parks who was also involved in the charter school proposal. She was co-director of Parks’ after-school program, the Raymond and Rosa Parks Institute for Self Development.

 

Parks, who was later diagnosed with dementia, had abruptly stopped giving interviews in 1995 and lived a mostly secluded life from then on.

 

Her family disputed that the will created in July 1998 represented Parks true intentions. They sued to challenge the estate plan, accusing Steele of using undue influence on Parks. After a protracted battle, the courts eventually sided with Steele.

 

But the picture this paints is not a friendly one.

 

We have an octogenarian Parks lending her name to numerous projects all under the direction of consultants.

 

QUESTIONABLE ASSOCIATES, QUESTIONABLE INVOLVEMENT

 
Amato, in particular, seems to have gone on to become a champion of school privatization and education technologies.

 

She made her name in Detroit pushing these policies for decades.

 

In 1994 she founded Edtec Central, an organization that helps launch and run charter schools. At one point the company operated “two specialized strict discipline academies and one alternative high school in Michigan” as well as provided support and consulting services to other local charter schools. However, there is very little current information on the organization. It’s unclear whether it is still in operation.

 

But as of 2017, Amato still was. She wrote an op-ed praising Donald Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called “DeVos Is a Hero to Detroit’s At-Risk Kids.”

 

This appears to be the woman who advised Parks about opening a charter school.

 

How much Parks was involved is hard to say.

 

When The New York Times wrote an article about the proposed charter school in 1997 by Halimah Abdullah, Parks either refused to be interviewed or was left out of it. But Amato, Steele and even Nathan were quoted at length.

 

It’s hard to believe a journalist for the Times could be such a bad writer as just not to include Parks in the article, especially in a piece titled “Rights Hero Presses Plan For School In Detroit.”

 

It’s much more likely that Parks declined to be included or was purposely left out of the loop by her circle of handlers possibly to hide her slow mental deterioration.

 

It’s understandable why Parks may have surrounded herself with consultants and caregivers.

 

In 1994 when she was 81, Parks was robbed and assaulted in her home in central Detroit. The assailant, Joseph Skipper, broke down her door but claimed he had chased away an intruder. He requested a reward and when Parks paid him, he demanded more. Parks refused and he attacked her.

 

Parks was treated for facial injuries and swelling. Though Skipper, a black man, was eventually caught and prosecuted, the incident left Parks shaken and anxious to the degree that she moved from her house to a secure high-rise apartment.

 

Another peak into her personal life was revealed in 2002, when Parks received an eviction notice from her apartment for not paying rent. Both the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church and Little Ceasars owner Mike Ilitch claimed to have paid the bill, but Steele says the eviction notice came in error. Parks family blames the incident on financial mismanagement from caregivers. When NBC news reported the story, the network noted she had been diagnosed with dementia.

 

In total, these events provide a sad look at the last years of a civil rights icon. And it’s during this late period that the charter school project was developed.

 

Was it one of Parks’ passions? It’s impossible to tell. It is at least as likely that an elderly and suggestible Parks was surrounded by people who may have been using her name to get across their own agenda.

 

PARKS ON SEGREGATION

 

Consider how out of character a charter school was to Parks former legacy.

 

In 1995 (just two years before the charter school proposal) Parks did agree to an interview where she talked about the importance of education and reminisced on the evils of school segregation:

 

Interviewer: Was there a teacher that influenced you?

 

Parks: My mother was a teacher and I went to the same school where she was teaching. My very first teacher was Miss Sally Hill, and I liked her very much. In fact, I liked school when I was very young, in spite of the fact that it was a one-room school for students all ages, from the very young to teens, as long as they went to school. It was only a short term for us, five months every year, instead of the regular nine months every year.

 

Interviewer: What was it like in Montgomery when you were growing up?

 

Parks: Back in Montgomery during my growing up there, it was completely legally enforced racial segregation, and of course, I struggled against it for a long time. I felt that it was not right to be deprived of freedom when we were living in the Home of the Brave and Land of the Free.”

 

These do not sound like the words of a woman who two years later would push for a segregated school to be opened in her name.

 

PARKS ON DESEGREGATION

 

Moreover, this flies in the face of her work at the Highlander Folk School in 1955. Before she participated in the bus boycott, she took a two-week workshop entitled “Racial Desegregation: Implementing the Supreme Court Decision.”The idea was to learn how she could encourage youth groups to push for desegregation.

 

The workshop was her first experience of an integrated learning environment. In a 1956 interview she said that she found “for the first time in my adult life that this could be a unified society, that there was such a thing as people of all races and backgrounds meeting and having workshops and living together in peace and harmony… I had heard there was such a place, but I hadn’t been there.”
Parks took copious notes during the sessions, detailing what each speaker said and her reactions to them. In one section she wrote, “Desegregation proves itself by being put in action. Not changing attitudes, attitudes will change.”

 

Her time there was brief but transformative. It led directly to her refusal to give up her seat and subsequent history of activism. To think that someone so committed to the cause of desegregation would willingly engage in its opposite staggers the mind.

 

But a lot can happen in the intervening decades.

 

Maybe she came to think that well resourced segregated charter schools were preferable to poorly resourced integrated public schools. However, she must have realized that when schools are integrated it is harder to withhold resources. Perhaps she gave up on integration in favor of Afrocentric charters, but that would be a fundamental change in her thinking, indeed.

 

IMPORTANCE FOR TODAY

 

If Parks did wholeheartedly support the charter school project proposed in her name during her twilight years, does it make a difference?

 

Not really. After all, lots of people make bad decisions – even civil rights heroes.

 

We remember these people not because of their biggest mistakes, but because of their biggest victories, how they struggled year-after-year in the cause of human dignity.

 

More important might be an analysis of whether Parks would likely support charter schools today if she were still alive and cognitively sound.

 

In truth, it seems unlikely that she would. After all, Parks was active in the NAACP all her life. Along with Black Lives Matter and the Journey for Justice, The NAACP voted almost unanimously just a few years ago to demand a moratorium on all new charter schools because they exploit children of color.

 

It’s easy to imagine Parks leading that charge.

 

But some folks will tell you Parks ideas of segregation were different than the dictionary definition and that she would be on the side of Betsy DeVos, not modern day civil rights activists.

 

MICHIGAN’S CHARTER SCHOOL FAILURES

 

It’s no accident I bring up DeVos.

 

Like Parks, DeVos’ home is in Michigan and she has had a tremendous effect on education throughout the state, in Detroit, and nationwide.

 

When Parks’ charter school proposal was issued, the concept was pretty new. The first charter school law in the nation had only been passed in 1991 in Minnesota. Michigan didn’t jump aboard until three years later.

 

No one knew then exactly what to expect of the policy or what these schools would end up becoming.

 

Now charter schools have been in Michigan for more than a quarter century and the results are in.

 

They are an absolute disaster.

 

A 2016 report from Education Trust-Midwest, a non-partisan research and advocacy organization, found 80 percent of charter schools in Michigan scored below the state average in math and reading proficiency tests.

 

Moreover, the state leads the nation in for-profit charter schools, according to research by Western Michigan University professor Gary Miron. Grand Rapids-based National Heritage Academies, alone, operates almost 50 for-profit charters throughout the state.

 

After an intensive investigation, in 2014 the Detroit Free Press criticized these kinds of schools for their lack of financial transparency and excessive overhead costs.

 

Maybe it’s my own lack of imagination, but I find it difficult to imagine Parks championing schools that get so much worse academic results than traditional public schools. I find it nearly impossible to imagine her fighting for the right to segregate black children into “separate but equal” schools.

 

 

INCONSISTENCIES

 

 

Charter school apologists will lump Parks in with Trump and DeVos. Not with the Rev. William Barber II, Jitu Brown, Ibram X. Kendi, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Yohuru Williams, Denisha Jones, and other prominent black people who oppose school privatization.

 

They tell us that Parks name on an application to start a charter school (her signature does not appear on the document) is enough to prove her support for the concept.

 

Yet never once that I can find did Parks ever speak out on what was allegedly her own proposal. Others spoke out on her behalf, but she declined to be interviewed when the media came calling and didn’t use her iconic status to get the publicity needed to bring it to completion.

 

Can you imagine a celebrity today opening a charter school named after themselves without even releasing a statement, not to mention a press conference and media blitz? And this wasn’t in the distant past. It was only 1997.

 

But the school privatization lobby tells us that this is so. And moreover that Parks – who worked her entire life battling the forces of segregation whether it be in our schools, housing or elsewhere – somehow turned against this aim in her last years to open this school.

 

It’s quite a story they’re telling.

 

However, the possibility that a declining Parks was convinced to put her name to a project she didn’t fully understand or support is at least as consistent with the facts as the privatization narrative – in fact, more so because it clarifies many inconsistencies.

 

 

SYMBOLISM VS FACTS

 

In any case, this is all conjecture.

 

Parks’ opinion – whatever it was – only has symbolic value.

 

The true measure of charter schools are the facts about how they operate and the results they get for students.

 

They have failed generations of children across the country.

 

They truly are a civil rights issue – but not the one the school privatization lobby thinks.

 

Every child has a right to be freed from charter schools and not subjected to them.

 

Nothing would be more in keeping with the spirit of Rosa Parks than a boycott of charter schools – just like today’s civil rights organization are demanding.

 

It’s time we as a nation refuse to give up our seats in the public schools and boycott the forces of privatization and profit.

 

The only way forward is together – not through segregation and exclusion hoping that at least some of us will make it.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

book-1

Robots Will Never Replace Teachers. They Can Only Displace Us

Screen Shot 2020-01-09 at 8.29.17 PM

 
My favorite movie of all time is “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

 

 

And my favorite character is the computer HAL 9000.

 

In the future (now past) of the movie, HAL is paradoxically the most human personality. Tasked with running the day-to-day operations of a spaceship, HAL becomes strained to the breaking point when he’s given a command to lie about the mission’s true objectives. He ends up having a psychotic break and killing most of the people he was supposed to protect.

 

It’s heartbreaking finally when Dave Bowman slowly turns off the higher functions of HAL’s brain and the supercomputer regresses in intelligence while singing “A Bicycle Built for Two” – one of the first things he was programmed to do.

 

I’m gonna’ be honest here – I cry like a baby at that point.

 

But once I clean up my face and blow my nose, I realize this is science fiction – emphasis on the fiction.

 

 

 

I am well aware that today’s calendar reads 2020, yet our efforts at artificial intelligence are not nearly as advanced as HAL and may never be.

 

That hasn’t stopped supposedly serious publications like Education Week – “The American Education News Site of Record” – from continuously pretending HAL is right around the corner and ready to take over my classroom.

 

 
What’s worse, this isn’t fear mongering – beware the coming robo-apocalypse. It’s an invitation!

 

A few days ago, the on-line periodical published an article called “Teachers, the Robots Are Coming. But That’s Not a Bad Thing” by Kevin Bushweller.

 

It was truly one of the dumbest things I’ve read in a long time.

 

Bushweller, an assistant managing editor at Education Week and Executive Editor at both the Ed Tech Leader and Ed Week’s Market Brief, seems to think it is inevitable that robots will replace classroom teachers.

 

This is especially true for educators he describes as “chronically low-performing.”

 

And we all know what he means by that!

 

These are teachers whose students get low scores on high stakes standardized tests.

 

Which students are these? Mostly poor and minority children.

 

These are kids without all the advantages of wealth and class, kids with fewer books in the home and fewer native English speakers as role models, kids suffering from food, housing and healthcare insecurity, kids navigating the immigration system and fearing they or someone they love could be deported, kids faced with institutional racism, kids who’ve lost parents, friends and family to the for-profit prison industry and the inequitable justice system.

 

And what does our society do to help these kids catch up with their more privileged peers? It underfunds their schools, subjects them to increased segregation, narrows their curriculum, offers them as prey to charter school charlatans – in short, it adds to their hurtles more than removes them.

 

So “chronically low-performing” teachers would be those who can’t overcome all these obstacles for their students by just teaching more good.

 

I can’t imagine why such educators can’t get the same results as their colleagues who teach richer, whiter kids without all these issues. It’s almost like teachers can’t do it all, themselves, — and the solution? Robots.

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-09 at 7.46.28 PM

 
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

 
Bushweller suggests we fire all the human beings who work in the most impoverished and segregated schools and replace them… with an army of robots.

 

 

Yeah.

 

 

Seriously.

 

Black and brown kids won’t get interactions with real adult human beings. Instead they can connect with the ed tech version of Siri programmed to drill and kill every aspect of the federally mandated standardized test.

 

Shakespeare’s Miranda famously exclaimed:

 

“O brave new world, That has such people in’t!”

 

But the future envisioned by technophiles like Bushweller has NO such people in’t – only robots ensuring the school-to-prison pipeline remains intact for generations to come.

 

In such a techo-utopia, there will be two tiers of education. The rich will get human teachers and the poor and minorities will get Bluetooth connected voice services like Alexa.

 

But when people like me complain, Bushweller gas lights us away as being narrow-minded.
 

He says:

 

“It makes sense that teachers might think that machines would be even worse than bad human educators. And just the idea of a human teacher being replaced by a robot is likely too much for many of us, and especially educators, to believe at this point.”

 
The solution, he says, isn’t to resist being replaced but to actually help train our mechanistic successors:

 

“…educators should not be putting their heads in the sand and hoping they never get replaced by an AI-powered robot. They need to play a big role in the development of these technologies so that whatever is produced is ethical and unbiased, improves student learning, and helps teachers spend more time inspiring students, building strong relationships with them, and focusing on the priorities that matter most. If designed with educator input, these technologies could free up teachers to do what they do best: inspire students to learn and coach them along the way.”

 

To me this sounds very similar to a corporate drone rhapsodizing on the merits of downsizing: Sure your job is being sent overseas, but you get to train your replacement!

 

Forgive me if I am not sufficiently grateful for that privilege.

 

Maybe I should be relieved that he at least admits robots may not be able to replace EVERYTHING teachers do. At least, not yet. In the meantime, he expects robots could become co-teachers or effective tools in the classroom to improve student learning by taking over administrative tasks, grading, and classroom management.

 

And this is the kind of nonsense teachers often get from administrators who’ve fallen under the spell of the Next Big Thing – iPads, software packages, data management systems, etc.

 

However, classroom teachers know the truth. This stuff is more often than not overhyped bells and whistles. It’s stuff that CAN be used to improve learning but rarely with more clarity and efficiency than the way we’re already doing it. And the use of edtech opens up so many dangers to students – loss of privacy, susceptibility to being data mined, exposure to unsafe and untried programs, unscrupulous advertising, etc.

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-09 at 7.47.03 PM

Bushweller cites a plethora of examples of how robots are used in other parts of the world to improve learning that are of just this type – gimmicky and shallow.

 

It reminds me of IBM’s Watson computing system that in 2011 famously beat Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, some of the best players, at the game show Jeopardy.

 

 

What is overhyped bullcrap, Alex?

 

Now that Watson has been applied to the medical field diagnosing cancer patients, doctors are seeing that the emperor has no clothes. Its diagnoses have been dangerous and incorrect – for instance recommending medication that can cause increased bleeding to a hypothetical patient who already suffered from intense bleeding.

 

Do we really want to apply the same kind of artificial intelligence to children’s learning?

 

AI will never be able to replace human beings. They can only displace us.

 

What I mean by that is this: We can put an AI system in the same position as a human being but it will never be of the same high quality.

 

It is a displacement, a disruption, but not an authentic replacement of equal or greater value.

 

In his paper “The Rhetoric and Reality of Anthropomorphism in Artificial Intelligence,” David Watson explains why.

 

Watson (no relation to IBM’s supercomputer) of the Oxford Internet Institute and the Alan Touring Institute, writes that AI do not think in the same way humans do – if what they do can even accurately be described as thinking at all.

 

These are algorithms, not minds. They are sets of rules not contemplations.

 

 

An algorithm of a smile would specify which muscles to move and when. But it wouldn’t be anything a live human being would mistake for an authentic expression of a person’s emotion. At best it would be a parabola, at worst a rictus.

 

 

Screen Shot 2020-01-09 at 7.59.43 PM
Picture of an actual Japanese robot teacher in use.

 

In his recent paper in Minds and Machines, Watson outlines three main ways deep neural networks (DNNs) like the ones we’re considering here “think” and “learn” differently from humans.

 

1) DNN’s are easily fooled. While both humans and AIs can recognize things like a picture of an apple, computers are much more easily led astray. Computers are more likely to misconstrue part of the background and foreground, for instance, while human beings naturally comprehend this difference. As a result, humans are less distracted by background noise.

 

2) DNN’s need much more information to learn than human beings. People need relatively fewer examples of a concept like “apple” to be able to recognize one. DNN’s need thousands of examples to be able to do the same thing. Human toddlers demonstrate a much easier capacity for learning than the most advanced AI.

 

3) DNN’s are much more focused on details and less on the bigger picture. For example, a DNN could successfully label a picture of Diane Ravitch as a woman, a historian, and an author. However, switching the position of her mouth and one of her eyes could end up improving the confidence of the DNN’s prediction. The computer wouldn’t see anything wrong with the image though to human eyes there definitely was something glaring incorrect.

 

“It would be a mistake to say that these algorithms recreate human intelligence,” Watson says. “Instead, they introduce some new mode of inference that outperforms us in some ways and falls short in others.”

 

Obviously the technology may improve and change, but it seems more likely that AI’s will always be different. In fact, that’s kind of what we want from them – to outperform human minds in some ways.

 

However, the gap between humanity and AI should never be glossed over.

 

I think that’s what technophiles like Bushweller are doing when they suggest robots could adequately replace teachers. Robots will never do that. They can only be tools.

 

For instance, only the most lonely people frequently have long conversations with SIRI or Alexa. After all, we know there is no one else really there. These wireless Internet voice services are just a trick – an illusion of another person. We turn to them for information but not friendship.

 

The same with teachers. Most of the time, we WANT to be taught by a real human person. If we fear judgment, we may want to look up discrete facts on a device. But if we want guidance, encouragement, direction or feedback, we need a person. AI’s can imitate such things but never as well as the real thing.

 

So we can displace teachers with these subpar imitations. But once the novelty wears off – and it does – we’re left with a lower quality instructor and a subpar education.

 

The computer HAL is not real. To borrow a phrase from science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Artificial intelligence is not yet “more human than human.”
 
Maybe it never will be.

 

The problem is not narrow minded teachers unwilling to sacrifice their jobs for some nebulous techno-utopia. The problem is market based solutions that ignore the human cost of steam rolling over educators and students for the sake of profits.

 

As a society, we must commit ourselves to a renewed ethic of humanity. We must value people more than things.

 

And that includes a commitment to never even attempting to forgo human teachers as guides for the most precious things in our lives – our children.

 

“Algorithms are not ‘just like us’… by anthropomorphizing a statistical model, we implicitly grant it a degree of agency that not only overstates its true abilities, but robs us of our own autonomy… It is always humans who choose whether or not to abdicate this authority, to empower some piece of technology to intervene on our behalf. It would be a mistake to presume that this transfer of authority involves a simultaneous absolution of responsibility. It does not.”

David Watson

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Economists Ate My School – Why Defining Teaching as a Transaction is Destroying Our Society

Screen Shot 2020-01-04 at 11.02.28 AM

 

 

Teaching is one of the most misunderstood interactions in the world.

 

 

Some people see it as a mere transaction, a job: you do this, I’ll pay you that.

 

 

The input is your salary. The output is learning.

 

 
These are distinctly measurable phenomena. One is calculated in dollars and cents. The other in academic outcomes, usually standardized test scores. The higher the salary, the more valued the teacher. The higher the test scores, the better the job she has done.

 

 

But that’s not all.

 

 
If the whole is defined in terms of buying and selling, each individual interaction can be, too.

 

 

It makes society nothing but a boss and the teacher nothing but an employee. The student is a mere thing that is passively acted on – molded like clay into whatever shape the bosses deem appropriate.

 

 
In this framework, the teacher has no autonomy, no right to think for herself. Her only responsibility is to bring about the outcomes demanded by her employer. The wants and needs of her students are completely irrelevant. We determine what they will become, where they will fit into the burgeoning economy. And any sense of curiosity or creativity is merely an expedient to make children into the machinery of industry and drive the gross domestic product higher to benefit our stock portfolios and lower corporate taxes.

 

 
And since this education system is merely a business agreement, it must obey the rules of an ironclad contract. And since we’re trying to seek our own advantage here, it’s incumbent on us to contain our workforce as much as possible. This cannot be a negotiation among equals. We must keep each individual cog – each teacher – separate so that they can’t unionize together in common causeand equal our power. We must bend and subject them to our will so that we pay the absolute minimum and they’re forced to give the absolute maximum.

 

 

That’s just good business sense. It’s the best way to establish this relationship.

 

 

Moreover, since we see education in terms of pure capital – human financial units flowing through a systemic framework – the same rules that govern business will govern our schools.

 

 

We can pit one student against another, one school against another, one district against another, one race, one gender – anything quantifiable can and should be placed in competition. Because that’s how you maximize outputs.

 

 

We can initiate hostile takeovers, engage in vulture capitalism where the loser schools are stripped of resources and to the victor go the spoils.

 

 

But who is the victor?

 

 

It’s getting confusing here. Do we give the plunder to the students at the schools with the highest outcomes? That’s illogical. After all, this whole process isn’t about what’s best for the students, per se. It’s about the system of profit and loss. So any profit squeezed from the defeated should go to the winners – the investor class who put forward the capital to start this whole process.

 

 

But that’s not how public school is organized. There are rules and regulations you have to follow – outdated legislation that doesn’t define the process in terms of economics.

 

 

We have to redefine those laws, rewrite them so that our goals are aligned. So we can enshrine virtues like choice and disruption over anything as old fashioned and pedestrian as the good of the child.

 

 

Thus we invent charter schools – institutions funded with tax dollars but not necessarily subjected to any other regulations – not run by elected school boards, not accountable to the public for how they spend that money or educate the children under their authority. They are subject only to the rules of the free market. The invisible hand guides all.

 

 

Thus we invent school vouchers – take that tax money and give it directly to the customer – the parents – to spend however they wish. If they squander it or are fooled by unscrupulous school systems and education purveyors, that is their fault. And, in fact, we will ensure that there are multiple pitfalls, deathtraps, blind alleys and snake oil salesmen in their way. Because competition maximizes profits.

 

 

Caveat emptor is the only rule.

 

 

Because, you see, the hidden premise in all this nonsense is that you are not the boss.

 

 

The community is not in control of this system – the business world is. Everyday people who might be parents or taxpayers or voters or concerned citizens – at best we are just consumers. It’s not our role to do anything but choose the simple, watered down options presented to us. If we try to exercise our rights through collective action – including our right to vote – that’s unfair and will be met with the rule of capital as speech until we’re drowned in it – in fact, drowned out.

 

 

This is how many people today envision teaching.

 

 

This is what has become of our schools.

 

 

This is what is being done to our children.

 

 

It’s obvious in the ways our laws are structured, the ways the media covers our schools and the ways our students are mistreated.

 

 

And it is mistreatment.

 

 

Because teaching is none of those things.

 

 

Teaching is not a transaction. It is relational.

 

 

Teaching is not about inputs and outputs. It’s about curiosity and knowledge.

 

 

It shouldn’t be governed by market forces that dehumanize all those involved into mere widgets to be manipulated in a systemic framework. Teaching should be governed by empathy, art and science.

 

 

The driving force behind any education system must be what’s best for the child. And that “best” ultimately must be defined by parents and children.

 

 

The goal of education can never be to prepare kids for a career. It must be to eradicate ignorance, to quench curiosity, to aid self-expression and guide students toward becoming whatever it is they want to become.

 

 

Measuring learning outcomes by standardized test scores can never achieve this goal. That’s like trying to monetize a rainbow or putting the ocean in a cage.

 

 
School privatization can never achieve this goal. That’s like treating human beings like cash, like thinking the rules of football can govern architecture.

 

 

And treating teachers like worker drones can never achieve this goal. You can’t entrust a whole class of people with the most precious thing you have – your children – and then treat them like dirt.

 

 

Teaching is hard to define.

 

 

It is messy and unruly and doesn’t fit into many of our society’s preconceptions.

 

 
But it is optimism made real.

 

 

It is an investment in the future. A mark of value and love.

 

 
It is the most vital and important thing a society can do.

 

 

And we’re messing it up – big time.

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

 

book-1

The Stink of Segregation Needs to End in Steel Valley Schools

ygateau_npred_borders1-c4f22c33fac1a9806e5df963b8b11ae67e707927-s800-c85

 
I am a teacher at Steel Valley Schools.

 

I am also an education blogger.

 

In order to belong to both worlds, I’ve had to abide by one ironclad rule that I’m about to break:

 

Never write about my home district.

 

Oh, I write about issues affecting my district. I write about charter schools, standardized testing, child poverty, etc. But I rarely mention how these things directly impact my school, my classroom, or my students.

 

I change the names to protect the innocent or gloss over the specifics with ambiguity.

 

In six years, it’s a maxim I’ve disregarded maybe once before – when writing specifically about how charter schools are gobbling up Steel Valley.

 

Today I’ll set it aside once more – specifically to talk about the insidious school segregation at work in Steel Valley elementary schools.

 
But let me be clear about one thing – I do this not because I want to needlessly agitate school board members, administrators or community members.

 

I do it because the district has specifically asked for input from stakeholders – and for the first time in years, teachers (even those living outside district boundaries) have been included in that designation.

 

School directors held a town hall meeting in October where 246 people crowded into the high school auditorium to present their views.

 

Last week there was a meeting with teachers and administrators to discuss the same matter.

 

I didn’t say anything at either gathering though I had many thoughts circling my head.

 

Instead I have decided to commit them here to my blog.

 

Maybe no one will read them.

 

Maybe that would even be best. I know that no matter what invitations are publicly presented, in private what I write could be used against me.

 

Yet I feel compelled to say it anyway.

 

So here goes.

 

Something stinks in Steel Valley School District.

 

It’s not the smell of excrement or body odor.

 

It’s a metaphysical stink like crime or poverty.

 

But it’s neither of those.

 

It’s school segregation.

 

To put it bluntly, we have two elementary schools – one mostly for white kids and one mostly for black kids.

 

Our district is located on a steep hill with Barrett Elementary at the bottom and the other schools – Park Elementary, the middle and high school – at the top.

 

The student population at Barrett Elementary in Homestead is 78% black. The student population at Park Elementary in Munhall is 84% white.

 

These schools serve students from K-4th grade. By 5th grade they are integrated once again when they all come to the middle school and then the high school. There the mix is about 40% black to 60% white.

 

But having each group start their education in distinctly segregated fashion has long lasting effects.

 

By and large, black students don’t do as well academically as white students. This is due partially to how we assess academic achievement – through flawed and biased standardized tests. But even if we look solely at classroom grades and graduation rates, black kids don’t do as well as the white ones.

 

Maybe it has something to do with the differences in services we provide at each elementary school. Maybe it has to do with the resources we allocate to each school. Maybe it has something to do with how modern each building is, how new the textbooks, the prevalence of extracurricular activities, tutoring and support each school provides.

 

But it also has to do with the communities these kids come from and the needs they bring with them to school. It has something to do with the increasing need for special education services especially for children growing up in poverty. It has something to do with the need for structure lacking in home environments, the need for safety, for counseling, for proper nutrition and medical services.

 

No one group has a monopoly on need. But one group has greater numbers in need and deeper hurts that require healing. And that group is the poor.

 

According to 2017 Census data, around 27% of our Steel Valley children live in poverty – much more than the Allegheny County average of 17% or the Pennsylvania average of 18%.

 

And of those poor children, many more are children of color.

 

Integrating our schools, alone, won’t solve this problem.

 

Putting children under one roof is an important step, but we have to ensure they get what they need under that roof. Money and resources that flow to white schools can almost as easily be diverted to white classes in the same building. Equity and need must be addressed together.

 

However, we must recognize that one of those things our children need is each other.

 

Integration isn’t good just because it raises test scores. It’s good because it teaches our children from an early age what the world really looks like. It teaches them that we’re all human. It teaches tolerance, acceptance and love of all people – and that’s a lesson the white kids need perhaps more than the black kids need help with academics.

 

I say this from experience.

 

I grew up in nearby McKeesport – a district very similar to Steel Valley economically, racially and culturally.

 

I am the product of integrated schools and have benefited greatly from that experience. My daughter goes to McKeesport and likewise benefits from growing up in that inclusive environment.

 

I could have enrolled her elsewhere. But I didn’t because I value integration.

 

So when Mary Niederberger wrote her bombshell article in Public Source about the segregated Steel Valley elementary schools, I was embarrassed like everyone else.

 

But I wasn’t shocked.

 
To be frank, none of us were shocked.

 

We all knew about the segregation problem at the elementaries. Anyone who had been to them and can see knew about it.

 

In fact, to the district’s credit, Steel Valley had already tried a partial remedy. The elementaries used to house K-5th grade. We moved the 5th grade students from each elementary up to the middle school thereby at least reducing the years in which our students were segregated.

 

The result was state penalty.

 

Moving Barrett kids who got low test scores up to the middle school – which had some of the best test scores in the district – tipped the scales. The state penalized both Barrett and the middle school for low test scores and required that students in each school be allowed to take their per pupil funding as a tax voucher and use it toward tuition at a private or parochial schoolas if there was any evidence doing so would help them academically.

 

Not exactly an encouragement to increase the program.

 

But school segregation has a certain smell that’s hard to ignore.

 

If you’ll allow me a brief diversion, it reminds me of a historical analogue of which you’ve probably never heard – the Great Stink of 1858.

 

Let me take you back to London, England, in Victorian times.

 

The British had been using the Thames River to wash away their garbage and sewage for centuries, but the river being a tidal body wasn’t able to keep up with the mess.

 

Moreover, getting your drinking water from the same place you use to wash away your sewage isn’t exactly a healthy way to live.

 

But people ignored it and went on with their lives as they always did (if they didn’t die of periodic cholera outbreaks) until 1858.

 

That year was a particularly dry and hot one and the Thames nearly evaporated into a dung-colored slime.

 

It stunk.

 

People from miles away could smell it.

 

There’s a funny story of Queen Victoria traveling by barge down the river with a bouquet of flowers shoved in her face so she could breathe. Charles Dickens and others made humorous remarks.

 

But the politicians of the time refused to do anything to fix the problem. They sprayed lime on the curtains. They even sprayed it onto the fecal water – all to no avail.

 

Finally, when they had exhausted every other option, they did what needed to be done. They spent 4.2 million pounds to build a more than 1,000 mile modern sewage system under London.

 

It took two decades but they did it right and almost immediately the cholera outbreaks stopped.

 

They calculated how big a sewage system would have to be constructed for the contemporary population and then made it twice as big. And the result is still working today!

 

Scientists estimate if they hadn’t doubled the size it would have given out by the 1950s.

 

This seems to be an especially important bit of history – even for Americans more than a continent and a century distant.

 

It seems to me an apt metaphor for what we’re experiencing here in Steel Valley.

 

Everyone knows what’s causing the stink in our district – school segregation.

 

Likewise, we know what needs to be done to fix it.

 

We need a new elementary complex for all students K-4. (I’d actually like to see 5th grade there, too.) And we need busing to get these kids to school regardless of where they live.

 

The excuse for having two segregated elementary schools has typically been our segregated communities and lack of adequate public transportation.

 

We’re just a school district. We can’t fix the complex web of economic, social and racial issues behind where people live (though these are matters our local, state and federal governments can and should address). However, we can take steps to minimize their impact at least so far as education is concerned.

 

But this requires busing – something leaders decades ago decided against in favor of additional funding in the classroom.

 

In short, our kids have always walked to school. Kids at the bottom of the hill in Homestead and West Homestead walk to Barrett. Kids at the top in Munhall walk to Park. But we never required elementary kids to traverse that hill up to the middle and high school until they were at least 10 years old.

 

We didn’t think it fair to ask young kids to walk all the way up the hill. Neighborhood schools reduced the distance – but kept the races mostly separate.

 

We need busing to remove this excuse.

 

I’ve heard many people deny both propositions. They say we can jury rig a solution where certain grades go to certain schools that already exist just not on a segregated basis. Maybe K-2 could go to Park and 3-4 could go to Barrett.

 

It wouldn’t work. The existent buildings will not accommodate all the children we have. Frankly, the facilities at Barrett just aren’t up to standard. Even Park has seen better days.

 

We could renovate and build new wings onto existing schools, but it just makes more sense to build a new school.

 

After all, we want a solution that will last for years to come. We don’t want a Band-Aid that only lasts for a few years.

 

Some complain that this is impossible – that there just isn’t enough money to get this done.

 

And I do sympathize with this position. After all, as Superintendent Ed Wehrer said, the district is still paying off construction of the high school, which was built in the 1970s.

 

But solutions do exist – even for financial problems.

 

My home district of McKeesport is very similar to Steel Valley and in the last decade has built a new 6th grade wing to Founders Hall Middle School and Twin Rivers, a new K-4 school on the old Cornell site.

 

I’m sure McKeesport administrators and school board members along with those at other neighboring districts could provide Steel Valley with the expertise we need to get this done. I’m sure we could find the political will to help us get this done.

 

And that’s really my point: our problem is less about what needs to happen than how to do it.

 

We should at least try to do this right!

 

We can’t just give up before we’ve even begun.

 

Debates can and should be had about where to build the new school, how extensive to have the busing and other details. But the main plan is obvious.

 

I truly believe this is doable.

 

I believe we can integrate Steel Valley elementary schools. And I believe we can – and MUST – do so without any staff furloughs.

 

We’re already running our classes with a skeleton crew. We can ensure the help and participation of teachers by making them this promise.

 

That’s what true leaders would do.

 

Sure, some fools will complain about sending their little white kids to class with black kids. We heard similar comments at the town hall meeting. But – frankly – who cares what people like that think? The best thing we could do for their children would be to integrate the schools so that parental prejudices come smack into conflict with the realities of life.

 

 

And if doing so makes them pull out of Steel Valley, good riddance. You never need to justify doing the right thing.

 

 
Again this will not solve all of our problems. We will still need to work to meet all student needs in their buildings. We will have to continue to fight the charter school parasites sucking at our district tax revenues.

 

But this is the right thing to do.

 

It is the only way to clear the air and remove the stink of decades of segregation.

 

 
So let’s do it.

 

 
Let’s join together and get it done.

 

Who’s with me?

 

 


 

Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249