Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Restorative Justice Practices will help us get at the roots.

This is my testimony for the School Reform Commission meeting:

In my time in the District, I've seen clashes between students who come from very different backgrounds. I've also been a part of facilitating cross-cultural dialogues that were incredibly transformative for students and the school community, helping students break stereotypes they held about people of other races and ethnicities, and preventing inter-racial conflict and violence.

The recent attacks on Asian American students at South Philadelphia High School stand as a clear message that a tension exists between students of different backgrounds.

And our response as a District will show what our values are.

We, as educators who are committed to care for all of our students, with you, as adults who are responsible for the development the young people of our city's schools, need to do our jobs. We need to actively intervene, to teach about managing conflict, to guide them in a better way.

If we want these Asian-American students and their peers to be able to attend a school that is safe for them, then we must get to the heart of what true school safety looks like.

A part of school safety is found in holding people accountable for their violent actions, and we can see that the District is taking steps toward this.

However, we at TAG believe that relying solely on punitive interventions -- like enhanced policing, suspensions, and arrests -- only serves to further criminalize students and lock violent behavior into place. This doesn't resolve the fundamental issues at the heart of conflict.

Instead, we believe that we need to show students that because we care about them and their development, we will provide them a path down which to move forward, to find individual transformation and community healing through the basics of talking and listening, learning about each other, validating one another's experiences.

We would like to see the School District establish Restorative Justice Practices to move toward healing in this specific situation of violence, and to get students and faculty at South Philadelphia HS dialoging about race and ethnicity, to explore differences and find points of convergence.

We would like to see resources committed by the District to have professional conflict mediation and prevention programs instituted at South Philadelphia HS, like the programs offered by the International Institute for Restorative Practices that are being used at West Philadelphia HS.

We would like to see the infrastructure provided for the faculty, administration, and student body of South Philadelphia HS to commit themselves to this type of school community transformation, including school-wide training, flexibility in the schedule for community circles, and curriculum for meaningful multicultural understanding.

And, ultimately, we would like to see these practices instituted in every school in the District.

Do not let this be just another story about the failings of some of Philadelphia's toughest schools, let this be an opportunity for the District to meet the needs of these students and provide resources for the principal, teachers, staff and students to move toward a school climate that is safe for everyone. Let us turn from here and say this is when we began to make meaningful change in how our District prevents violence in every school in this city.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From Behind the Fence

“Nothing About Us Without Us” shouted the students, parents, teachers, and community members outside McDaniel Elementary School yesterday as Arne Duncan’s Listening and Learning Tour launched its press-only conference behind closed doors. This event, and the government PR team who staged the whole thing, has shown itself to be a slick show – a spectacle of democracy and good intentions that slapped together a 3-ring circus of politicians (Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich, and Rev Al Sharpton), complete with eye candy (actress LisaRaye McCoy) and the appearance of the local (SDP Superintendent Arlene Ackerman).

The tour Listened and Learned at Mastery Charter School yesterday morning, had an invite-only roundtable with city councilors and limited members of the District, and concluded at McDaniel Elementary eerily inside a classroom without any students or teachers. Strange to not go to a neighborhood high school, maybe one that is slated for “turnaround” as a Renaissance School under the Imagine 2014 plan. Strange to not check out a “consistently underperforming school” that would qualify for Duncan’s Race to the Top funds, which, it should be said, require that at least some of the schools that are “turned around” must have an outside provider come in and take over the running of the school.

“Who are you listening to?” several people asked from behind a heavy wrought-iron fence where we, the uninvited students, teachers, parents, community members, were forced to stand. In this question sits the crux of the issue: If they’re not listening and learning from those most affected by their policy decisions, then how will they ever know what needs to be done?

Inside, videotape shows, the rhetoric was what you would expect. Newt Gingrich gave his interpretation of the Constitution, which showed how god would want us to improve our schools. Al Sharpton talked about how the kids really deserve something good. And Arne Duncan talked about how we’re moving into the future, yadda yadda yadda, we have to transform things, blah blah blah, we have to take what works and replicate it all over.

Vague. Drifting. Something we could all find our own take on, but without any sense of how they really want to shape the next decades of public schooling in the U.S.

Consequently, where did these ideas – that they’re not telling us – get developed? Through a close partnership with business interests, owners of Education and/or Charter Management Organizations (EMOs and CMOs), stockholders in the testing industry who would make huge profits off of standardize testing our nation’s kids to death? Or through talking with students who know what they need to feel like full human beings and engaged learners in their schools; parents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, who may have even gone to the very school where their child now doesn’t get the education she deserves, who recognize the school as the invaluable community institution it is; or teachers who are daily forced by the system of U.S. schooling to compromise their own professional competence and to lose the personal fire that brought them into education to begin with?

We know what’s happening in our schools. We live it everyday. And we hold the wisdom and the ideas to best determine the reform that needs to happen.

From behind the wrought-iron fence, it is clear who they are not listening to. So, it’s all of our responsibilities to force them to listen. The next months are critical, and all eyes will be on Philly. We’re going to have to keep building a movement from our side of this fence, and hopefully it will be enough to knock it down, cross this gaping divide, and have our power speak back to theirs. So, to students, teachers, parents, community members, and anyone else concerned about the dismantling of public education: Make them listen.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Thoughts on countering the Renaissance Schools plan.

This is adapted from something I wrote for a group of teachers who are organizing in Philly around School Reform. No one has signed onto it, but I wanted to put it out there to see if anyone has any comments on my broad, sweeping gestures about School Autonomy and Student-centered change:

With the passing of the School District’s Imagine 2014 plan, the future direction of Philadelphia’s schools is uncertain. Is the change that’s being imagined one that involves teachers, students, parents, and the wider community taking part in directing their individual schools along a stronger course? Or is the change one that removes the voices of those people who are most affected by their underperforming school buildings, replacing them with outside contractors who don’t have a pre-existing stake in that school’s improvement?

As teachers who are committed to our students’ public education within the School District of Philadelphia, we believe that change is absolutely necessary. Our students and our buildings most assuredly need to see a turn-around. However, the District’s plan to take those schools who are consistently underperforming, shut them down, and turn them over to outside providers as Renaissance Schools holds serious ramifications that we are concerned about.

We believe that total school transformation can be achieved without turning our District-run schools over to outside providers. And we want to be a part of it.

Those targeted schools should have:
• An opportunity to lay-out their specific issues, design a Strategic Action Plan for improvement, and be given District resources to meet their needs.
• More autonomy at the local level to bring together Teachers, Administrators, students, and parents to decide on budgeting, hiring, school culture, curriculum, academic vision, etc.
• The opportunity to demonstrate educational progress through their student body’s meaningful and authentic performance of learning, not merely standardized testing
• A commitment from the District to be given those additional resources necessary for 21st Century teaching and learning

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Imagine Real Community-Centered Planning for Schools

I just made it home from a sometimes-rousing, sometimes-placating Community Meeting about the School District of Philadelphia’s new Strategic Plan, Imagine 2014. Of the hundreds of parents, teachers, students, administrators, and other community members in attendance, I’m sure that most, like myself, walked out feeling like our comments were not necessarily going to be factored into the next draft of the Plan, nor were many of our questions answered.

I, of course, ended up in the building – the gorgeous, new High School of the Future, a multi-million dollar Microsoft/SDP project that stands within miles of several dilapidated, soon-to-be-closed schools, but I, as per usual, digress – until the lights were shut down. As I walked my break-out session facilitator, a well-meaning Higher Up in the SDP bureaucracy, to his car, he told me that Philly just needs to get over our usual down-on-our-selves attitudes, put faith in a plan like this, and attempt to dream. To dream? I explained that it is entirely healthy to have skepticism about a plan that is looking to advance “school choice” through shutting down under-performing schools and turning them over to charters and/or other outside, private providers who are seeking to make a profit from once-public schools. Our skepticism doesn’t mean we don’t know how to dream.

A more exciting and substantive dream is the one held by communities throughout Philadelphia who are having Community Planning Processes right now about how to improve their schools. The problem is that the District is not viewing those processes as valuable and therefore not honoring them with the chance to bolster school performance through being accountable to the wishes of the very communities those schools are trying to serve.

See, under this new plan, the District wants to make a “system of great schools where success is supported, replicated, and rewarded and failure is not tolerated.” Their proposal for how to deal with supporting the high-performing schools and not tolerating the low-performing schools is to create three types of new models for those schools.

1. Vanguard Schools.
Certain high-performing schools, who probably are high-performing due to a history of having resources (human, economic, and ideological), would be able to enter into “autonomy agreements” in order to define their performance targets and future work.

As someone who currently works in a high-performing school where autonomy is one of the most necessary components of furthering our school success and student achievement, I see this as a piece of the School Improvement Puzzle that WAY MORE schools need and deserve in order to be successful.

2. Empowerment Schools
These are “struggling schools” that can get additional supports from the District to help intervene.

As someone who has gone through SDP Professional Development and has received Teacher Supports from the District, I can say that more actual benefit comes out of having time to plan, organize, and coordinate the interworkings of a school than comes out of District top-down interventions. See the thoughts on autonomy above.

3. Renaissance Schools.
This is where it gets shady. Basically, the District wants to shut down failing schools and “embrace bold new educational approaches with proven track records.” What they mean by this is shutting down public schools and opening charters (either in-district or outside providers) or other contracted-out schools (like Educational Management Organizations). The schools that are targeted for this plan will then be given a few options of providers and the “community” will “choose” who will take over their schools.

The language in the Plan and the rhetoric flying off the mic tonight makes it sound like this will be a very community-centered process. However, for clarity’s sake, here are some main issues:

“Anyone” can enter their plan for how a new school will operate in the RFP process. However, the criteria for “proven track record” and the lack of supports for plan development makes it seem pretty unlikely that a group of committed community members, students and educators could create something with the same scope and polish as that of a Franchise Charter with paid staff and pre-made templates.

The District won’t release the names of the 10 Renaissance Schools until very close to the due date for plan submissions. So, even if a community did want to mobilize and create a blueprint for their school, they wouldn’t even have the appropriate time to do so.

And, wasn’t the whole point of the Charter School movement initially to reclaim education by communities who were feeling their children’s educational needs weren’t being met? This process, with its lack of transparency and intentionality, completely undermines the original philosophy and co-opts the model as yet another means toward privatizing public education.

The thing is, community groups all over the city – from Kensington to West Philly – already have community planning processes and blueprints for over-hauling their public schools in their hands. They are READY for the change that the District is hinting at, and they can spell out what they want their public schools to look like. They don’t need to have their schools shut down and charterized in order to pretend to have their best interests in mind. They already do.

My response to the District, to the Imagine 2014 crew who feels like Philadelphians aren’t dreaming well enough, is to envision public education that was responsive to the actual communities where each school was functioning. You could have a dozen plans on your desks by Monday. And you don’t have to hand over your public duties or privatize anything in order to do so.

You don’t have to dream it; you just have to listen.

Imagine that.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bringing Fire -- Original Student Production in Philadelphia

Bringing Fire
By the SLA Student Playwrights

After a new and eccentric neighbor -- who may or may not be a superhero -- moves into the community, changes start to take place. When the Mayor tries to take away the newcomer's home in order to start building a casino, the community responds. Bringing Fire explores family, love, and justice, and asks the audience to consider: Who is a hero?

Opening night is almost here! The hard work put in by over 35 students (approximately 10% of the student body at my school) is paying off. And we're in connection with Casino Free Philly, as we're using the play as an opportunity to get more Philadelphians plugged-in to the fight for community -oriented and -controlled development.

Also, our show got a shout-out in the city-wide Art Contest against the casinos.

Come see the show:

Friday, March 6th at 7pm
Saturday, March 7th at 2pm (with post-show Q&A with the Playwrights)
Saturday, March 7th at 7pm

$3 for students
$5 for general admission
Free for children under 10

Science Leadership Academy
55 N. 22nd St.
Philadelphia PA

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Representation beyond the Brand

On Tuesday Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. Across the country and around the world, millions watched the “People’s” Pomp and Circumstance. In Philly, the streets were eerily without the usual noontime bustle, cafes received no customers for that half an hour, and the internet nearly collapsed under the weight of the impatient and cable-less who kept trying the refresh button in order to watch the proceedings streaming live on cnn.com.

I actually walked with my 10th graders down to the tallest Center City sky scraper, the Comcast Center. Inside this colossal building made from slick glass and a sizable tax abatement (wherein the city doesn’t receive $4.6 million a year in property tax from the developers, while the Branch library system is under assault due to “budget restraints” – but I digress) there were 4 jumbo high definition screens broadcasting the Inaugural program. Beneath these screens, in this private corporate space, the public gathered. There were over 1000 Philadelphians there – little kids sitting on their classroom pads, ladies on their lunchbreaks, tall men who didn’t seem to notice the space they were taking up, older women swaying to Aretha with tears in their eyes, and my students giving their full attention over to the moment.

Walking back, after the babbling hypocrisy of homophobe Rick Warren, the rousing words of the war-ready President, and the unfortunately scheduled anti-climatic poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, I spoke with my students about their reflections. Many were pumped that they were old enough to witness this moment and actually understand what was going on in the speeches and proceedings, as well as how the day fit into the larger context of U.S. history.

Others were explaining that they felt a personal victory in Obama in that the historical inequity of racism would no longer be thrust upon them to try to cause them shame about their identities. My brain would normally rush to explain the countless pieces of analysis on how Obama’s ascendancy into the Presidency does not mean that racism is over, but that his role serves to insidiously cover the fundamental institutional racism of this country by allowing the white American imaginary to believe that racism is over. But in that moment, I wanted to really take in the power of what these teenagers were telling me they were feeling. And I was not about to take away their personal experience just because I somehow “understood” the interworkings of racism in this country more than they did. My study of the structural analyses of macro-sociological questions does not trump their lived experience. An important lesson for those of us who tend towards intellectualizing beyond our own lives.

And then I overheard something that I had overheard many times before – and decided to intellectualize beyond my own life. It was the familiar chorus of “Call me Sasha!” and “No! He’s my husband!” that has echoed in the classroom or has been posted as someone’s ichat headline. A bunch of the African American girls I work with engage in this fantasy where they actually become members of the First Family.

I find this interesting because I wonder if it typifies the magnitude of how Obama’s campaign and presidential win has caused an unprecedented level of enfranchisement among people who have not felt included and/or haven’t wanted to be included in the political system of the United States – mired as it is in racism, elitism, and carefully orchestrated disenfranchisement.

I wonder if this level of identifying with a man who is now the president could even be possible if this man were just another old white man? If the family were just another WASPy portrait of the burbs?

I mean, I don’t remember in my midwestern teenage years of the 90’s any of my friends ever saying, “Isn’t my fiancĂ©, Bill, just a stud?” Or “I will only respond to Chelsea from now on.” Or “No! Hilary’s my mom.” No one fantasized about living in the White House as that first family, even if somewhere, some of us dreamed of walking a presidential pup across the lawn, or making elaborate speeches to the American public, or holding the ultimate decision-making power as the country’s leader. For us white kids, we may have been able to see ourselves within the power, but I don’t think it was ever so specifically embodied in wanting to take the place of the actual people.

So what is this?

I could just chalk it up to the Barack Obama Rockstar/Celebrity Presidency, but I think that it is a deeper phenomenon than that. This is about looking at someone who is now the president and seeing one’s self, or at least being able to locate one’s self somewhere within him.

My hope for my students who see themselves in their new president is for them to then see themselves in themselves. See their power in their power. Don’t allow Obama to be the finish line. And, if they feel represented by him, that they force him to actually represent them as their elected official, working on behalf of their futures with real progressive change. Not just branding.

My students don’t need any more branding. None of us do.

Monday, January 19, 2009

On the Image of Jews during the recent Israeli military assault

This past week, my friend sent me the link to Max Blumenthal’s video documenting the NYC Pro-Israel Rally on January 11th, 2009. If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out; it was attended by all types of supporters, among them Senator Chuck Schumer and Governor David Paterson.

My reflections sparked me to enter into dialogue with a bunch of non-Jewish people about perception, truth, and history.

And those exchanges prompted me to start this blog, here, with you today. (How 2.0 of me.)

After watching Max Blumenthal's video, I was DEEPLY disturbed. In Philly, where I live, there are small girls dressed in blue and white, facepainted, twirling Israeli flags. They run up to the counter protesters -- who stand against the crimes being done by Israel against Palestinians -- and these little white Jewish girls dance aggressively at us while their moms and their grandmothers spit and call us ugly and tell us that Hashem (god) Does Not Love Us Today. I want to vomit.

How can any Jewish person dance in the streets of New York, Philadelphia, Tel Aviv, when 1200+ are dead in Gaza? When this level of state terrorism and violence and asymmetrical warfare is happening? Where does this frenzied support come from? And for what?

It reminds me of the old principle of Passover: May Our Singing Never Again Be Their Wailing. No one on this earth deserves to make gains on the backs of someone else's destruction -- not since the days of Exodus when, as the story goes, god crashed the waters of the Red Sea down on Pharaoh's army, killing many as a trade off for Jewish freedom. And certainly not now, from the continued assaults of the zionist plan for Palestinian extermination. This is what Judaism has taught me. And it is why (among so many other things) this imperialist project of creating a nation state for the Jews to find, what, safety(?), runs absolutely counter to Jewish teachings.

And then I look in my inbox to see my friend’s posting of this video on a list of, from my judgment after a quick look, mostly non-jewish people of color – many of whom are Arab-American, some of whom are Palestinian. And it makes me scared. Makes me have to confront, again, the worst of U.S. Jewish culture. A culture borne out of the legacy of diaspora, homelessness, genocide, trauma, the cycle of abuse. Of assimilation into whiteness (for those of us who are whiteskinned), economic ascendancy, a loss of teachings.

And I imagine all of the recipients on that email list watching these pompous, ignorant, bloodlusting, violent-seeming people, who, themselves, have been fed lies and pro-Israel propaganda for their whole lives, for generations. I wonder what this group of readers all think watching these scary, uncritical people dance and sing and say racist and violent things about Jews kicking ass and wiping out Muslims and the Palestinian cancer.

I wonder: Is this what Jewish means now? Is this another confirmation of why Jews are an acceptable target? Will this just keep fueling antisemitism? And isn't that the point?

I remember that Jews have always been scapegoats (like so many groups of people who are enough outside the dominant group to be seen as The Problem). And this is just another moment of the same:
Make Israel -- a vital piece of the profitable military industrial complex and a foothold of western/European hegemonic dominance and control in the region -- make it all about the Jews and their Arab-hating, not about the U.S.'s plans for empire nor about the legacy of British colonization. Just make it about the Jews, and let the Jews take the fall when it comes.

And it is coming.