Author Archives: jtsland

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!

 

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.

White fragility as resistance on university campuses

 

Francis Kendall, who writes about the need to examine white privilege, wrote a semi-autobiographical book about her own privilege which I use in my classes. Often it is eye opening for my students, who are majority white, to surface the ways in which they benefit from privilege. I use the book so that they can begin to understand their own identities, how they are impacted, and how power has been inequitably distributed as a result. They do indeed begin to understand their own privilege, but this sets them on a course of racial identity development which can lead to real road blocks.

I teach at a predominantly white institution, and there are very limited opportunities to address race and racism, until there is an incident of racism. Without these ongoing opportunities to talk about race, race becomes something unusual to discuss– both exciting and taboo. This is not only true in my classes, among students, but with colleagues and administration as well.

Among students, as I said, they are usually animated by the discussion of race, but often express in evaluations that their professor brings a liberal politics that make them uncomfortable.  Among colleagues, a conversation about race is challenging as well. When  our new vice president of diversity addressed our education faculty, she talked about the importance of creating a more tolerant campus, but what people remembered was an off-handed remark she made about her unhappiness with the Trump administration’s influence on the climate on schools and college campuses. Faculty members balked at her being too political.

Another example comes from my own experience of planning a conference on equity and education. The conference will focus on race and the need to address it at all levels of education in order for us to more effectively and equitably educate young people. The focus on race was met with surprise and anxiety from administrators. I was asked numerous times if I was sure this was a good idea to focus so narrowly, if I was sure we should use the terms Black and Brown youth, and if I was sure that the focus would make enough people feel included in the discussion.  One white faculty member was suspicious of the single focus on race, and wondered if it was “promoting an agenda” and was “exclusionary.”  I argued that this was an opportunity to engage directly with race and racism, which has been a major problem since we have not fully grappled with it as faculty or as a society. This was met by silence. The message was clear, there was real resistance to focusing on race and racism.

This year, I had a white colleague call me, at home, out of the blue. Someone with whom I had never really spoken. She told me that she felt that the climate for faculty of color, and anti-racist faculty was inhospitable and they were feeling vulnerable in a time of Trump. This and all of the examples I mention is worrying because we cannot expect our students to be comfortable talking about race if we are not.  It is these set of experiences that cumulatively have shown me how the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that the reproduction of white domination continues, leaving campuses like mine inhospitable to the experiences of Black and Brown students as well as faculty.

If directly confronted, I am sure that white students, teachers, faculty and administrators I know would say that they are interested in dismantling racism on campus. They would reiterate their support for inclusivity and would celebrate diversity. But celebrations will not get us to where we need to be. If we cannot have open discussions about racism, then it is clear the university cannot create a welcoming space. Of course, there is always the possibility that things will improve. The university hired a new administrator to focus exclusively on diversity. She immediately identified the problem of silence around race and racism on campus among faculty. I don’t know how successful she will be, but the alternative is that the campus cannot engage fully in the work of changing its culture.

Still, I cannot shake the worry that white people cannot handle the conversation about race, their fragility and discomfort is problematic at best. I do not have the answer for how to proceed, other than to keep on talking about race and confronting racism when I encounter it.

 

 

 

The Towerlight highlights school closings work

PANELISTS TACKLE RACIAL INJUSTICE, BALTIMORE SCHOOL CLOSINGS

By: Nilo Exar, Staff Writer

Students and guest panelists gathered Monday, March 23 to discuss the potential closings of some Baltimore City Schools and the role of racial inequality in education.

A video, entitled “School’s Out,” was shown before the panel discussion.  The video was co-produced by TU assistant professor Jessica Shiller and her “The Possibilities and Challenges of Reforming Urban Schools” honors college students. The video touched on issues like the lack of a community and city relationship when closing schools, as well as the general racial issues surrounding school closings and the greater racial injustice that the schools closings represented.

After the video, panelists including Johns Hopkins associate professor Lester Spence, Morgan State professor Lawrence Brown, Jamal Jones of the Baltimore Algebra Project and Ryan Good, a doctoral student at Rutgers, discussed both Baltimore and the country’s history of racial discrimination.

According to Spence, many of the cities where many schools are closed have high rates of segregation and removal of black population.

“117 of 188 schools [in Baltimore City] are 99 percent or more Black,” Brown said.

Spence also talked about racial zoning, which refers to the period when African-Americans were restricted from living in certain neighborhoods, as well as redlining, when banks refused to give mortgages to minorities.  He said that this discrimination still occurs in the closing of schools.

“14 of the top 20 cities for school closings are in top cities for segregation,” Brown said.

Schools are closed down when they are under a 71 person in the utilization formula, according to Spence. This can mean that schools perform poorly on standardized tests and general academic performance.  However, usually these schools are already being slighted in terms of funding.  Jones, who went through Baltimore City Schools himself, attested to the existence of this.

Another reason city schools can’t succeed is the lack of permanent teachers and administrators at the schools.

“There’s a lot of leaving that happens,” Jones said.  He said that many teachers are brought in through Teach for America, but leave at the end of their time because they are drained, which creates a revolving door for teachers and faculty.

The panelists also looked at outcomes of community-based schools being closed.

“Getting rid of schools perpetuates this other history of not knowing where you’re from,” Jones said.

He said that having deep and truthful conversations about the racial issues behind school closings is the first step to bettering the situation.

Students of Shiller’s seminar class were in attendance at the panel discussion.  Junior exercise science major Daniel Andrades spoke to the value that educating about such issues plays in motivating people to help the cause.

“Before we came to class we had no idea what the policies were about the schools, we had no idea about Jim Crow and how it actually affected what’s happening today,” Andrades said.

“I think this program also really showed the inequalities that go into urban schools, and not just education itself but housing, neighborhoods, [and] the distribution of wealth,” junior psychology and sociology major Maia Williams said.

http://thetowerlight.com/panelists-tackle-racial-injustice-baltimore-school-closings/

Public schools and budget crises

 

bec-for-our-kids

Bake sales are being put on to raise money for buses to get students to and from after school programs. Meanwhile, Baltimore’s school system faces a $130 million dollar deficit, and layoffs are imminent. In a wealthy state, like Maryland, you might say that the school system and the city are being starved for funds. Locally, observers have said the city has mismanaged its own funds or the population loss  over the last ten years  has impacted funding.

Wherever you lay the blame, there is no doubt that the cash-strapped city needs help. As CEO of schools, Sonja Santilisses argues, there needs to be a new funding formula. The city cannot meet the needs of its students with the resources it currently has. Given the impact of  poverty has on students, the city needs more funds to provide the kinds of programming and services that students in poverty need, not the least of which are bus passes that allow them to get to after school programs.

The CEO is running the school system to the best of her ability, given then context, acting swiftly, for example when a city teacher lashed out at her students screaming racial epithets. Yet,  the fact remains is that there is not much in place to support the daily work of school staff. School staff in urban districts are used to working without, but there has never been a time where the need is so great. It is clear from the evidence from Detroit and New Orleans, the needs of Baltimore’s young people will not be resolved through school choice, nor will they be resolved by the school renovations proposed by the 21st century plan.  Children come to city schools hungry, tired, and having experienced trauma caused by the violence of inequity. They need resources wrapped around them.

Yet, states have been reluctant to provide their cities with enough funding to thrive.  In New York, for example, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity has gone to court multiple times to demand that the state legislature give New York City schools the funding that they needed, but have been deflected many times over the last decade and a half when they began their campaign.  In New Jersey, a court decision now known as the Abbott decision  provided low income districts with funding equal to wealthier districts, but ever since wealthy districts have fought the decision and found ways not to equalize funding.

In Maryland, there is the Bridge to Excellence Act, better known as Thornton, which required equity in school funding back in 2002. Still every year, advocates in Baltimore fight for funding from the state for the schools. Thornton has never been fully funded. This raises the question about what would be required for the state to adequately fund public schools so that there would be no annual battle over school funding.

The larger context is important here. The confirmation of Betsy de Vos for Secretary of Education, and the close vote to clear her nomination, suggests that public schools in general may not be a priority more generally. Consequently, those interested in public schools will need to fight hard for funding and for a vision of public education that might compel legislators to think of it as a priority. Public schools are the only institution in the country that serve everyone: youth of all social classes, of all races and ethnicities, and of young people of any immigrant status.  They provide meals, shelter, counseling, and education to young people regardless of who they are. While public schools need to be improved in many ways, limiting their funding is the wrong course of action. It would take away the one resources that many communities have to support their children.

 

Schools continue to close in Baltimore…

renaissance_academy_will_remain_closed_w_0_27422622_ver1-0_640_480    Recently the CEO of Baltimore schools declared that Renaissance High School would close. Baltimore has been suffering with school closure for the past few years as the implementation of the 21st century plan to improve school buildings gets put into practice. The plan, initiated in 2012, was meant to renovate all city school buildings, many of which are old and falling apart. Money from the state of Maryland was provided for this endeavor on the condition that the city school system agreed to close its most under-utilized schools. To gain the funding for renovation, the city schools agreed and the process of school closure began in earnest in 2013. Several schools have closed including Langston Hughes Elementary school, a recently renovated building in the Park Heights neighborhood of the city. The school had air conditioning and was in great condition, but it was under-enrolled. It was built for over 300 students and only had 176 when it closed. The announcement of the school closing produced an exodus from the school, local activists argued, not the other way around.

Under the 21st century plan, 26 schools in total are going to close. The students attending closed schools are sent to existing school buildings, merging the two small schools, and swelling their numbers. Two schools that combined recently, Westside Elementary and John Eager Howard Elementary now have over 400 students, for instance. This causes challenges in terms of school climate. The students do not know each other, the staff does not know all of the students, and the larger environment is not conducive to personalization. There are misunderstandings, fights, and little time to resolve conflict and build positive school culture. Still, we know from research that personalization helps students, especially low income students, learn because it allows for the teacher-student relationship to thrive, to pinpoint academic and social emotional needs that students bring to the classroom, and to build the connection that students have to school.

Consequently, this is a situation in which policy is colliding with what research says is best for children. Since over 80% of Baltimore’s public school students are low income, it would make sense to provide environments that allow for personalization to exist. Even the CEO of Baltimore schools agreed that there needs to be more attention to  improving school climate. Yet, the school system is unable to provide those small school environments because of  two key constraints. One is financial. It is expensive to maintain school buildings, and with school budgets being slashed every year, it is even more difficult. The ACLU of Maryland is one organization that works to ensure that the city schools receive the funding that they are due. Sometimes it works and sometimes it does not work as well, but pushing for overall increased funds is certainly an organizing effort in which everyone who connects with city schools should be engaged.

The second is that the city promised the state that it would reduce the number of schools.  This is also an important argument. The city must hold its side of the agreement with the state. Yet, there were real unintended consequences with closing schools, not the least of which are the school climate issues mentioned above. Just the process alone of informing communities that their schools are closing has caused an uproar in every school community facing a closing. Merging schools In the case of Renaissance High School, the school was slated for closure some time ago. In 2015 Renaissance was on the closure list, but was taken off when there was pushback from the school community. The city school board has been sensitive to some of the concerns expressed by community members since the uprising following the death of Freddie Gray, a young Black man who died in police custody in April 2015. At that time, thousands of city residents, including young people, took to the streets protesting police brutality and the conditions that have produced limited opportunities and police violence in Black communities for decades. Even the federal government has felt some sympathy with Baltimore’s communities and Renaissance specifically. Following a stabbing at the school, the US Department of Education gave a grant to Renaissance in September of this year to “recover and to re-establish safe learning environments where all children can focus on getting a great education.” A couple of months later, the CEO announced that the school would close unless it could be relocated. This has posed a new set of problems to resolve.

In many ways this is an example of why urban school reform is so difficult. The policy does not emerge from research and the research does not matter when it comes to decisions that need to be made quickly and with limited resources.  That said, strong relationships and trust are central to school success. In so many of the school board hearings about closing schools, students, teachers, and parents have testified how the school is like a family to them and that they have very special relationships within the school community. While some might dismiss this testimony as nothing more than sentimentality, their pleas have been about salvaging the very elements that make school places that work for communities.

What should be done? What is a cash-strapped city to do to create school environments that support students and communities? The first order of business could be to deal with the issues openly and honestly.  Explaining the conundrum that the city is in and the role that the 21st century plan plays is important for everyone to understand. Another step could be to have a process for working out what happens to schools when they need to close and/or merge and to have an open and transparent process for decision making, and a set of supports and procedures in place so that schools are not on their own to sort out the climate issues that come from absorbing hundreds of new students. I have seen this first hand and it is very challenging for schools. One idea would be to have smaller academies within the larger schools and teams of teachers (and community partners) that work together to support those students very directly. This would require the central office (along with community partners) to focus much of its efforts on helping school staff do this, but if Baltimore’s schools are going to move forward positively from its school closure dilemma, they may not have a choice.

 

What do schools do post presidential election?

By now the election of 2016 is over. Donald Trump is the president elect of the United States. Leading up to the election, the country was engaged– or at least glued to social media– as this election was like no other. There were personal attacks, accusations of law-breaking, tampering to gain the advantage, and grandiose promises. Comedians took this and ran. Saturday Night Live may have had its most-watched series of episodes as it lampooned the debates between the candidates.  As adults were consumed with every move that Trump and Clinton made this fall, young people were as well. In response, schools across the country held discussions, civics lessons, and mock elections. It was a great time to be a teacher of English and social studies as it was an incredible opportunity to teach debate, rhetoric, government, and the electoral process.

However, this election was also filled with discrimination and hate. There was talk of inner cities as “hell,” banning Muslims from entering the country, and objectifying and belittling of women. The election also elevated talk of law and order in response to police brutality and immigrants as dangerous.  For the most part, Trump grabbed the headlines for making these insulting remarks about race, class, and gender, and young people were listening . For schools, it was an opportunity for all teachers to discuss systemic oppression as well as tolerance  with their students in the classroom.

controvery-in-classroom

As a teacher educator and partner to public schools, I saw teachers engage in dialogue  about civics and debate as well we tolerance and hate.  There were resources flying around the internet and discussions about how to teach the election. Some teachers shared their own feelings with students to open up the classroom dialogue, to make discussions less abstract, and more personal about the country’s current state and its future. As the election ended, however, things become more tense. In my blue state of Maryland, many teachers were very surprised that Trump would be elected. Many students were too, and came to school on November 9, 2016 with tears, questions, and fear as well. Teachers were tasked with helping students as young as 5 with discussing the election. In my own children’s schools, there were amazing discussions about feeling about the election, how the electoral college works, how Trump won, and implications of his presidency. With so many students and teachers who felt the same way about the election, the classrooms were by and large peaceful, safe spaces for children and teachers to share their perspectives. There were many schools that fell into this category.

In other schools I visited, however, there were different things going on. In a number of schools I was in, Latino students reported students– of all other races– saying things like, “bye, bye” and “guess I won’t be seeing you anymore.” There were reports of this around the country. From California to Michigan to my own context in Baltimore, there were reports of this kind of hatred, from micro-agressions to hate speech and attacks. There were also reports of similar incidents regarding Muslim students. On the other side, there were also calls for tolerance and unity. Teachers largely took that stand in the schools I visited, letting students know that they were safe in the school and that as a school community they should all try to get along.

Of course tolerance and unity is a positive message to send to young people, but with the teachers I spoke with, it was often a defensive posture rather than a rallying cry. It was a way to avoid talking about conflict and racism. I spoke to teachers who were not sure of what to say when students in their class made racist remarks. They were not sure how to keep their Latino or Muslim or other targeted students safe. Rather than engage, one teacher told me that she spent 10 minutes letting students discuss the election and then it was onto math! There is a long history of teachers avoiding conflict. Diane Hess, professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has written:

“Even when teachers believe a topic is a controversial issue, they do not necessarily include it in their curricula. When talking with a group of high school teachers about what Supreme Court cases they think deserve attention in high schools, I encountered an example of avoidance: virtually all of them said they did not teach Roe v. Wade (1973) though they acknowledged it was a landmark case and that abortion rights were still an important controversial issue in the United States. Their reasons for avoiding this controversy fell into two categories. First, some teachers were afraid that the very mention of abortion in the classroom would cause uproar in the community. More prevalent, however, was the influence of the teachers’ own views.Thus, these teachers avoided including issues in the curriculum not because they thought it was an insignificant issue, but for precisely the opposite reason: Their strong views about the issue prevented them from teaching their students about it in the pedagogically neutral fashion they assumed was possible,”(Hess, 2004).

This is interesting. For teachers avoiding the topic of racism in their classroom, it may be because of uproar, conflict, or upset parents calling the school. It also could be because they are worried that their own views may be racist or considered racist. If that is true, then we need to be really concerned as people who teach teachers and for those who supervise them once they are in the classroom. What can we do to help teachers feel comfortable with controversy in the classroom? What can we do so that they can really be allies to students who are targets of aggression and prejudice? How can they make their classroom spaces that are free for students to feel like they can express themselves without worry? There is much to say about these questions, including research and great work being done to show teachers how they might lead discussions about difficult topics. But all of it starts with a willingness to do it. Teachers, and all of us, need not to avoid conflict and always keep the peace. We actually need to actually dig into conflict and controversy and be willing to be wrong, to make mistakes, and to be uncomfortable. That will help students develop civic capacities that would assist them, as adults, in engaging in healthy political debate, which is what we need now more than ever.

 

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