Monday, June 13, 2011

SRC Testimony -- Asking the hard Questions

This week I was one of the 2300 or so teachers and staff members laid off from the School District of Philadelphia. I’ve taught for 5 years in this district, at Science Leadership Academy and Kensington Urban Education high school. I’ve given countless hours and dollars to do my best to teach hundreds and hundreds of students to be creative and critical thinkers, able to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.

But I still got laid off.

Indeed, I am just one casualty in the increased attack on teachers, and the state’s prioritization of prisons and fracking over public education.

2300 staff members gone. That’s hard to wrap your brain around. But let’s just say that each of those 2300 people affected 30 students each. That’s 69,000 students who will be forced to learn in even more over-crowded classes, who will no longer have their favorite teacher, NTA, or counselor. That’s 69,000 families who have lost connection with another adult who played a crucial role in their child’s life. That’s 69,000 future citizens of our city who have just been stripped of a relationship that could have been the difference between graduation and getting pushed out of school.

I know what you’re going to say. “It’s a budget crisis. It’s out of our hands. Don’t blame us. Blame the governor and his State Budget.”

But we do blame you.  

The truth is, this is a time when there are choices to be made and you are making choices. You are making the choice to lay-off teachers, to give over schools to private companies, to create a tiered system of schools in our city, and dismantle instead of fix public education. You are making those choices rather than taking a real and committed stand for the children and families of our city. Rather than listening to the students, parents, and teachers, who have been eager to share another vision for positive school transformation not based in test scores and scripted curriculum, but in real student-centered, engaging and participatory learning. Rather than joining the growing collaboration of community members who are demanding money be put not into prisons and policing, but into our education system. In fact, there are places to get money. And your choices show priorities.

So then, Commissioners and Superintendent Ackerman, if your priority actually is with creating the best possible public education system, I want to ask you directly: what are you willing to do about it?

Indeed, these are people’s very lives we’re talking about. 2300 staff members today. 69,000 students next year. The ripple effect of your decisions will have a massive impact on our city for decades to come.

So, let me ask you all sitting here before me again, with the urgency that this question demands: What are you willing to do about it?

In fact, I want to ask everyone in this room: What are WE willing to do about this? What risks are we willing to take to get our city back on track without selling out our students, teachers, and communities to the highest bidder?

For anyone who still has a job in this District, how are you going to overcome the absolute Culture of Fear that pervades our schools and forces so many of us into silence? How are you going to speak out for what’s right for your students?

For anyone who still is a student in a District school, what are you going to do to organize with your fellow students to change the way the schools are being run to criminalize you and give you a sub-standard education?

For anyone who still has a child in the District, who are you going to pressure so that your child isn’t treated like a prisoner, isn’t stripped of their right to a free, quality public education?

From the middle east to Wisconsin, we’ve seen communities come together to move mountains, change the structure of society, end unfair legislation, and try to deliver justice to their communities. 

We are facing a crisis, Philadelphia, a crisis caused by the priorities which have thus far dominated our way of living, and it is up to all of us, parents, students, teachers and citizens, to work together with a common vision to change our schools so that they serve and prepare all of our young people for their lives today and tomorrow, and prepare them to build a future which prioritizes human dignity over corporate greed. A future where the suggestion of selling out our communities to balance our budget will never again be on the table.

So I ask us all again: what are we going to do?

This piece was written with the help of Dana Barnett and Hanako Franz, TAG members

Monday, June 6, 2011

Doing the job of an educator: life in the midst of lay-offs.

Today I was laid off from the School District of Philadelphia.

Upon hearing the news, I made a quick, distracting joke: “And they didn’t even have the consideration to print the pink slip out on pink paper.”

8:52am and I needed to map out a gameplan for my life, make some decisions for my next career steps, start strategizing for the media campaign our organization needs to roll out in response to the dissolution of public education, and schedule an appointment at the optometrist before my health insurance runs out next month.

However, I still had copies to make for my classes, and the second hand of the clock was continuing its persistent swoop.

In the copy room, my colleagues gave me hugs, told me they “love my spirit,” and lamented the short amount of time we had together.

I carried my books and copies and computer up the three flights of stairs; as I ascended, the heat rose by 20 degrees and my morale drooped to an unaccustomed low.

This is the reality of working for a highly-centralized bureaucratic institution. Someone who has never met me, never sat in on one of my classes, never asked Daysha Gregory her opinion about mainstream media’s portrayal of teenagers, never asked Delilah Vazquez to read them her poetry about the complexities of life, just hacked away at a list and circled my name as one of the goners.

And it feels bad. It just feels bad. The countless hours and dollars I’ve spent in this District trying to do my best to teach hundreds and hundreds of students to be creative and critical thinkers, able to solve the problems of the world they’re inheriting.

They don’t really care.

Pink Slipped.

The School District of Philadelphia doesn’t really care.

But that isn’t even the worst part.

Today, I lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, and the worst part had nothing to do with my paycheck, my 403(b), my health insurance, or the imminent scramble to figure out what to do next.

The worst part was the tears streaming down my students’ faces when they said: “But we fought! We organized! We went to Harrisburg and DC and the District. We marched and protested and doorknocked. And we lost. The state is still not giving us the money, and we’re still losing our teachers. I can’t believe we fought so hard, but lost anyway.”

And just before the dreaded “what’s the point?” could even fall from their mouths, I interrupted: “We’re going against a huge machine. It’s got money, and politicians, and slick PR. But we’ve got people power. And, for real, we’re going to win. We just have to organize more broadly and effectively.”

“But we lost.”

“And you’ll probably lose again. You’re going to win and lose countless times.”

“We were going to build a better school – one where the city could see that a neighborhood school CAN be great. But we’re losing all of our teachers, they’re severing our relationships, the class size is going up, and all they’re giving us is more security cameras. We’ll never build a great school now.”

“Listen: Life is long and the universe is expansive. If you wake up in the morning and believe that the world can be a better place, then you’re an organizer. And you’re going to figure out an improved strategy to win. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to lay down and watch everything crumble. Is that what you want?”


“OK. Then be sad today. That’s fine. But tomorrow, you better wake up believing that the world can be transformed. I will be here to help you think through how.”

And with that, they cried some more; I gave them all hugs and told them that we’d make a video on Tuesday that we could send out about the impact of teacher layoffs on students.

Hopefully they haven’t already lost all hope in movement-building.

Today I may have lost my job in the School District of Philadelphia, but I did my job as an educator.