Activism is the vehicle for school change

When I moved to Baltimore, in 2010, the prevailing wisdom was that in order to change the public schools, advocates needed to pursue one main course of action: To get more funds from the state. The schools and the city had been neglected and divested from for so many decades (which was certainly true), that the city was in desperate need of funds. Every spring there was a big push to mobilize parents, students, and teachers to ride to the state capitol and demonstrate for funds, lobby legislators, testify at hearings for  increased funding. Even locally within the city, advocates pushed for public and private partnerships and pressured the city to provide more funds for the schools.

Very few people involved in this advocacy work discussed what these funds would be used for, or publicly imagined what school should look like in the city. Maybe people were so busy describing the deplorable conditions to politicians, philanthropists, and the media, that they did not have much energy to imagining possibilities. But in reality, there was a lack of public imagination beyond some well worn, yet not so successful strategies, like expanding charter schools.

Years later, I can say that the landscape has shifted dramatically. The Baltimore Movement of Rank and File Educators (BMORE), a small group of teachers who have been dissatisfied with their union and have decided to organize a group of their own. Inspired by CORE in Chicago and the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, these teachers have both acknowledged that they are union members, but want to differentiate themselves from the traditional union leadership that has fought for bread and butter issues, and have  articulated a serious commitment to racial justice. This is something that we have seen in other teachers’ unions around the country, especially in Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and Los Angeles.  It has taken a while to get a foothold in Baltimore. This small group has grown slowly, but really started to hit their stride this year, and now they have taken off.

The recent crisis around the temperature in Baltimore’s schools has changed the context, and people who have been dissatisfied with the school system for many years have Black teacher matterdecided to get involved, attend meetings, go to events and demonstrations. When the schools had to close in January because there was no heat in many of them, and there was fundraising for space heaters and warm coats for students and classrooms people had had enough. BMORE was right there at the January school board meeting and testified about these unacceptable conditions. They are now working on a legislative agenda at the state level as well as ongoing activism within Baltimore’s schools to ensure that there are more teachers of color, more culturally responsive curricula, and more communication and transparency from the school district about decision-making.

This week BMORE is organizing a week of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, alongside similar events nationwide. Next on their agenda will be pushing for legislation to earmark funding that gets generated from a local casino to go to public schools. The momentum is building to ensure that the public commitment to education has some accountability to local teachers and students. By next year, there will be a new union election at the Baltimore Teachers Union, and BMORE plans to run a slate of teachers to challenge the incumbent leaders who have held office for decades. This is an exciting turn of events in which there is a movement to advance a positive and clear agenda for public schools, not one that simply criticizes. BMORE is working in partnership with the youth at the Baltimore Algebra Project, and has the power to grow much more, and more than anything Baltimore has seen in many years has the power to change public schools in the city.

In the news….

Screenshot 2017-12-18 14.45.22    Recently, I wrote an op-ed in a local online magazine called The Baltimore Brew. I wrote about the state of Maryland’s appointed commission to address education inequity, The Kirwan Commission. Kirwan, as it is known locally, had as its main charge to deal with funding inequity in the state to address disparities between poor and affluent school districts. In Maryland, this comes down to a decision to fully fund Baltimore’s, mostly Black schools. The commission had a year to come up with a new funding plan, and did not. This was disappointing to many, but as I say in the piece, there is not enough political will to pressure the commission into coming up with a solution to this issue.  Rather, we are content to demonize the poorest, and Blackest communities, leaving them without the funding needed to educate and support children.

I was happy to see that a lot of people read my article, and it got me recognized in several other local media outlets. I appeared on Maryland Public Television, debating the issue of school funding as well as the Real News Network, and The Baltimore Sun. I was also able to make the case again that school closings are linked to the problems of funding because the lack of adequate funds have drained the schools of resources for years, causing their inability to meet student needs. What continues to happen in Baltimore is closing of schools that are in the center of Black communities, leaving them without community resources.

Of course, it is great that the local media is picking up this story, but there are still not enough people engaged in the debate and conversation about school funding and school closings. It is a larger conversation about whether we value public education, and for whom we think public education should be available. We need to all invest in this dialogue. Without public education, many young people (mainly Black and Brown) and their families would not have access to food, social services, community space, organized recreational activities, as well as schooling. The time is now to engage so that we can advocate for racial equity in public education.

Reflections on race, school reform, and working in urban education

I will have an article coming out this year in the Urban Review that examines the impact of closing schools in Baltimore. School closings disproportionately impact low income Black communities. The piece was not just another research report on the damaging impact that school reform has on communities of color, however. It uses the frameworks of Critical Race Theory and Decolonizing methodologies to think about not only how this policy plays out to reify racism, but it is also a reflection on my own role as a white researcher. I worked with a community organization to do research on school closings, which was a great experience, but still fraught with the problems of race and power inequity. There is no escaping these issues. I continue to reflect, but also acknowledge that there is no end to racism, just continual recognition, reflection, and attempt to shift power from universities and white faculty to Black organizations and communities.

The problem we all live with…

300px-The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwellRecently This American Life did a two part series on school integration. These episodes were  the first time I had heard anyone publicly address the issue of school integration in a long time. School integration, while tried and was successful in some places, has been largely abandoned as a school reform strategy. The first episode deals with a black school district outside of St. Louis, not far from Ferguson, that lost its state accreditation. Families in the district, called Normandy, were offered spots in a nearby white district. When white families heard about the Normandy students coming to their district, they protested. White families went into arguments about worrying about their school district losing accreditation and fears of violence when the new children came into their schools. One white woman even said, “this is not about race,” but clearly it was. What else could it be about? Similar arguments were used in Yonkers to keep blacks from moving in to white sections of town in the 1980’s depicted in David Simon’s Show Me A Hero where whites worried about declining property values.

Today we are more segregated than ever, or what some people have called, hyper-segregated. Living separate lives have led to tremendous misunderstandings, resource inequity, and violence. It’s really time to deal with racial fears that prevent us from improving schools and urban life in general.

So, when people ask me what will improve public schools? Or, how do we reform urban schools? I say we will need to deal with racism in order to improve all of our public schools. That sounds overwhelming or perhaps even dismissive, but it is neither. It is a way of saying that we need to think systemically, and to not blame poor communities of color for failed schools. We need to start with ourselves and begin where #Blacklivesmatter activists demand that we do by admitting our role in racial inequity, reconcile, and move from there.

What is happening in the suburbs? Are they the new cities?

suburban poverty When we think about the suburbs, we think affluence- big houses and lawns, not poverty. But the suburbs are becoming increasingly poor. The Brookings Institute published a report recently that explained how poverty grew by 66% in suburban communities across the country since 2000. They are also increasingly populated by people of color, and before too long whites will be in the minority altogether.

The suburbs did not start out that way, and were founded more as an escape for whites fleeing “urban” people and problems. Starting in the 1980’s, that started to change as people of color started to move to the suburbs in larger numbers and immigrants by-passed cities in favor of suburban communities.

The suburbs did not change to meet this influx of new residents though, leading to serious inequity: unequal access to employment, stable housing, and healthcare. One obvious example is transportation. The suburbs privilege transport by car, low income families who rely on public bus transportation have many more obstacles to accessing services, attending job fairs, going to work or going to school board meetings.

Problems like these do not just require a simple policy shift. They require those with power to share it in order to address the problems that are being created. That will involve spending dollars in a new way. Now that the suburbs are facing problems similar to those of cities, perhaps they can get ahead of the curve. Suburban districts need to build low income housing, health clinics, and new public transportation. Resources may need to be shifted to fund more translation services, social services, and to support bi-lingual programs in schools. These changes won’t come easy but are necessary if there is hope of equity in the ‘burbs.

My new book, The New Reality, coming out in Fall of 2015 will detail how these dynamics are playing out in suburban schools. It contains case studies of middle schools trying to sort out how to meet the needs of the students that they face when the infrastructure of the suburbs does not provide for the students and their families.

Smalltimore

thumb_white_districts Baltimore is not a large city, and one frequently runs into people s/he knows. Because of that, sometimes people in Baltimore refer to the city as Smalltimore.  Andy Ellis, a Baltimore activist and debate coach working with Leaders for a Beautiful Struggle, suggests that Baltimore’s Smalltimore-ness is a

 

Click here to view the map in a new window.

result of racial segregation in the city.  Whites interact with other whites and imagine the city to be small, but in actuality they are only interacting with a small portion of the population.  Here is what he has to say:

Baltimore City is a majority Black city. This should come as no surprise to anyone who lives here or knows anything about the city (even if that knowledge only comes from “The Wire”).

It is however worth discussing for a bit, because as such it is a relative anomaly among cities its size. I think it is important to understand how unique Baltimore is among American cities in this regard, because majority Black political entities are rare in the United States. Even more rare in large cities. Among all cities in the US with over 100,000 population Baltimore ranks 21st in size with ~620,000 residents. It Ranks 7th in Total African American or Black Population with ~399,000 residents.

This city has a long history as a central location for Black life on the east coast and in America. There are plenty of places to learn about this history and how it relates to the present. People jokingly call it “Smalltimore”, and it’s a huge part of its appeal.

I have always had an uneasy reaction to the term “Smalltimore” when used by white folks who moved here as adults (like myself). That being said, I have somewhat embraced some of the potential meanings. “Smalltimore” is a place of “memorable restaurants” where “some of the brightest minds come to this city every day” (emphasis added) to embrace diverse neighborhoods, amazing educational opportunities, and harbor front communities. All in a small setting where you can almost always run into people you know.

But what is “Smalltimore”? Why does it feel so small?

In “Smalltimore,” not only do a large majority of white people live in communities with a larger percentage of white people than the city-wide average, but in fact most live in communities where white people are the majority.

There are 55 neighborhoods in Baltimore. 31 of those neighborhoods have a percentage of African American population higher than the citywide average. These neighborhoods have a total population of 360,000.They are on average 89% black, 8% white, 2% Hispanic, and 1% Asian.

The other 24 neighborhoods, with a percentage of black population below the city average, comprise a total population of 256,000 people. This grouping of neighborhoods is on average 28% black, 60% white, 5%Asian, 8% Hispanic, 1% Native American, and 2% other. The last time Baltimore was as small as “Smalltimore” was between the 1860 and 1870 Census. Even then, Baltimore had the largest free Black population in the nation. Then as now, “Smalltimore” is not a monolith, it is a place of “diverse neighborhoods.” 24, to be exact.

Race is an important component of understanding Baltimore. The construction of Smalltimore is based on establishing and defending a series of white spaces on top of a Black City. What is interesting to me is why white people find comfort in white spaces, seemingly without the ability to see those spaces as white.

Bringing wisdom from D. Watkins

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I teach a course focused on urban education and racial equity at Towson University. I have mostly white students, and so I try to embed them in the experience of working in Baltimore’s schools, which are mainly Black. Another thing that we do is read from multiple perspectives and hear from Black authors, community organizers, and teachers. Yesterday we were lucky to have D. Watkins visit our classroom. We also invited middle and high school students that we work with to attend this session as well. The collective conversation was amazing to watch, but mostly we listened and learned. Watch some of the video here:

 

 

Envisioning equity

Screenshot 2017-10-20 15.00.25 The idea of equity is something that I have been hearing a of people talking about in schools and at the university.  With the failure of policies like No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and Race to the Top to “fix schools” and solve intractable problems like the achievement gap, now educators have turned to equity as a possibility.  Education leaders and educators themselves have begun to realize that academic achievement will not be resolved by curriculum or testing fixes, but what do we mean when we talk about equity?

Equity is different than equality. Equality is providing everyone the same thing. Equity is acknowledging the differences between people, and providing what they need to succeed.  Equity is harder work, and forces us to examine historical and institutional nature of inequality.  Once we engage in that process, we have to go along the journey of continually checking ourselves around the ways in which we contribute to and enact inequity in our every day so  that we can interrupt it.  Those of us who are white have an important role to play because so much of what we do reifies inequity. We are blind to it often, and until we go down the road of deep self-reflection, we cannot notice how we are contributing to inequity.

For the first time, my university, a predominantly white institution, began to open up a space for dialogue and reflection around equity in education. They spent the day on October 7th listening and learning about how to apply a racial equity lens.  The whole day, which we entitled Envisioning Equity, allowed educators at public schools, universities, non-profits, community centers, to start to explore what equity can look like in classrooms, in whole schools, as part of discipline practices, in access to the arts. Here is a video one of my students made about the day. It is optimistic because they are hopeful about equity. I am a little more realistic in that I think this will take hard work, and some people will not be up for it, but I do believe it’s a start.

Helping suburban schools understand equity

Lots of people are talking now about how to “do equity” in their schools. It is gaining traction because of a failure of schools over decades to meet the needs of students of color in schools, but equity is not easy. Equity is not a program to be implemented or a best practice to be mimicked in classrooms. It is a lens through which all school practices can be seen and worked on. From classroom teaching to analyzing school-wide data to implementing just and fair discipline practices, equity is a stance that educators can take to move away from the usual practices of implementing curriculum or complying with state mandates to thinking about what is good for children and what will best meet their needs. To that end, I gave a presentation to social studies teachers in suburban Maryland about how to think about this equity lens. Teachers in suburban schools especially need to understand the notion of equity well because their demographics are changing rapidly, and given that most teachers are white, they need shift their practice to do what is right for their students.

The complications of university-community partnerships: Uneven power

This spring I wrote an article describing a university-community partnership sponsored by a university office of civic engagement that tried to be conscious of the challenges of power inequities, differing goals, ways of operating. The university-community partnership described moved through these issues together, making differences explicit yet still remaining committed to a larger project and their collaboration. You can read  the article, due out in Spring 2018 in the Journal of Community Engagement and Higher Education, here: Community partnership.

Free Minds, Free People

IMG_0916   Free Minds Free People, or FMFP, is a space where youth and adults can converge to discuss social justice and education for liberation. This year it was in Baltimore at Loyola University. FMFP is a space like no other, where folks come together to discuss praxis, the blending of theory and practice. Folks discussed the decolonization of schools and universities, ethnic studies, youth-led movements, and emancipatory teaching.

I was proud to be a member of the planning team and a presenter. But it was the youth of the Baltimore Algebra Project, who led the charge. Without them, the conference would not have come together. It was an impressive effort that should be a model for any conference on social justice. There were vegan meals, childcare, and safe spaces for members of the LGBTQ community.  There was art, music, and poetry.  And there was a march in solidarity with immigrant communities facing raids and deportation by ICE.

IMG_0918   My presentation was about how teachers are working in a classroom in the time of the Trump administration. It was a great collaboration between faculty and teachers. The well-attended workshop was an example of how folks can come together to reimagine educational spaces as well as form networks of support in a climate in which people committed to social justice are being targeted.

Kudos to the Algebra Project, and look out for Free Minds Free People 2019!

 

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