Tag Archives: race

Reflections from an urban education course

Charlotte and Gabriel video

My students once again impressed me with this video, which they created at the end of the urban education course that I teach. This time, they did an artistic interpretation of the themes from the course. While there is much more work to do, this video marks progress on two main fronts: (1) Knowledge of historic and continued persistent school segregation and (2) An understanding of the opportunity gap that results from unequal opportunity.

Where does this work need to go? My students need to develop a deeper understanding of the education debt. Gloria Ladson-Billings explains that the education debt is different than a simple deficit, which refers to difference measured annually in things like test scores. Debt is over the long haul. It is long term inequality, transferred from previous generations and onto future generations. That debt translates quite  literally into lost wages and lost accumulation of wealth. Students who do not get quality educational opportunity lose out financially.

Debt also implies that there is something owed. Although low income students and students of color are the ones that carry the debt, they are not the ones who owe. It is those of us who are privileged who owe, who need to lift the debt burden and provide educational opportunity to all. I want my students to understand that their success is due, in part, to the loss and limited opportunity that low income students and students of color have suffered. We need to go beyond recognition of the debt, to alleviating the debt.

Divided Baltimore: How Did We Get Here, Where Do We Go?

The University of Baltimore is doing a course that is open to students, faculty, and the entire community to understand the issues that Baltimore faces. Called Divided Baltimore, the course addresses issues of race, housing, healthcare, education, and criminal justice. Each week a panel speaks to the class and they engage in an open dialogue about the problems that the city faces. You can read and hear more about it here. I spoke in this class on October 5th, 2015 on desegregation in schools.

Breaking down the school-to-prison pipeline

flyernov9       On November 9, 2015, Towson University hosted a conversation about the school-to-prison pipeline. The panel featured A. Adar Ayria of Associated Black Charities, Jamal Jones, Baltimore Algebra Project, teachers from Matthew Henson Elementary, and Dr. Reginald Thomas, a pastor from Gesthemane Baptist Church, and Pat Welch, the dean of Morgan State University’s college of education. While I moderated the panel and introduced the idea of the school-to-prison pipeline comes from,  each panelist shared a perspective on how we have gotten to where we are with regard to this pipeline. MinorInfractions_5310ca4cab5cf_w1500

Institutional and structural racism was indicted as the culprit behind this process. This was not an academic conversation in which processes were named and research provided. Rather, the institutions, including Towson, were implicated in how it is that we need to be doing better to inform how we educate our future teachers to be aware of their role in contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Using harsh punishments, low expectations, and limiting the access and opportunity for young people of color to rigorous academics, teachers can derail the educational futures of youth. After raising awareness, faculty need to prepare future teachers better to deal with the students they serve culturally, social-emotionally, and academically. This is a paradigm shift for the university and for the schools themselves. The event was meant to kickstart a longer conversation in how teachers can serve the needs of students of color in a more supportive way so that we move away from the pipeline to prison toward a pipeline for further education and agency for young people of color. We take it up again in 2016.

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.

Telling old stories: Recalling the fallout from school closure

Cities change all of the time, but when neighborhoods change, displacement often follows. People have to move out of their homes, and institutions, like schools, close. History gets lost. A piece of history gets left behind, staying on only in the memories of people who lived through that period.Eastern high

Bill Bleisch, longtime teacher from Baltimore, recalls what gets lost when schools get closed, communities of students moved, and institutions get replaced:

“There have been many closings, over many years – not just the recent ones – ever since the student population of the Baltimore City Public Schools became majority Black in the 1970s.

In the 80’s, for example, it was announced that Eastern High School would be closed, as of June, 1985. The official rationale was that there were too few students, citywide, in the high school grades and that Eastern (built with the same architectural design as Douglass, which had by then been renovated) was the city’s oldest un-renovated high school.

They neglected to talk about how part of the land was wanted – and indeed later asphalted – for baseball parking, after the Orioles won the World Series in ’83, and phenomenal traffic came to Waverly, with more expected.

We knew that a certain percentage of our students would end up dropping out, amidst a re-assignment to what would be called Lake Clifton/Eastern, farther away from their homes.

A huge protest was organized. The preparations were heartwarming and highly impressive. Teaching at Eastern at the time, I could go to a teacher and ask, “How would you feel about organizing the cooking of a hundred chickens, so we can feed several hundred students after school before we march to the School Board?” and the answer would be, “No problem!”  The same was true about asking folks to bring in enough materials to make hundreds of posters.

On our march from Eastern to the School Board, after the in-school dinner, a couple of opportunist politicians jumped in front of the march, and pretended they had been organizing and leading the struggle all along.

Outside the School Board, we had perhaps the largest demonstration I had ever seen there, totally surrounding the building while picketing.

Then, inside, we dramatically unrolled hundreds of petitions, taped end-to-end with what must have been thousands of signatures opposing the closing, complemented by our spokespersons.

In the end, we won a little. We succeeded in keeping the school open for one more year, and we won a commitment that Eastern’s business program (teaching office skills, not training students to want to be capitalist exploiters) would be kept alive, long term, at Lake Clifton/Eastern.

At the end of the next and final year of Eastern’s existence, our seniors had their traditional Farewell Assembly, except on this occasion, all of us – not just the seniors – were saying farewell to the school. There was barely a dry eye in the auditorium.

On Eastern’s large, beautiful grounds (only part of which remain), there had been a stone sculpture, by artist Grace Turnbull, showing a shepherd tending a flock of sheep. It was based on a poem called “Tears,” published in 1909 by Lizette Woodworth Reese, who herself had been a Baltimore City Public School teacher for nearly 50 years.

When Eastern closed, this large statue was moved to the Lake Clifton/Eastern campus.

On the occasion of a Lake Clifton/Eastern assembly to acknowledge the statue and its new site, I ended up being the one to say a few words.

Well, I chose – at the assembly – to tell a story about a student of mine who had come on one of the large, three-day, end-of-the-year, camping trips. On that year’s trip, we had learned a lot about revolutionary politics, and had also had a lot of fun but, on the way back home, when we got to this student’s street, he became even happier, smiled broadly, looked with fresh eyes at his block, part of a neighborhood where residents didn’t earn big wages, and – to an outsider – the homes appeared run down, not particularly desirable, and he exclaimed, “Isn’t it beautiful!” expressing the joy of being re-united with the family he loved and the place where they cherished one another, emotions about which Reese had indeed written and Turnbull had chiseled.

Well, after not very many years at Lake, more powerful forces chose to expropriate the Reese/Turnbull statue, move it back to the former Eastern complex, and use it to give a bit of false legitimacy to the now Hopkins-appropriated building on 33rd Street.

Somehow, I don’t think the theme of transcending tears by regaining our losses – as represented through the visual metaphor of sheep being shepherded back home – is quite apt for Johns Hopkins, an institution that has displaced hundreds of families’ from their homes, has a tiny percentage of African American faculty in a majority-Black city, and wouldn’t allow a single Black student into its medical school for the first 70 years of that institution’s inglorious history.”

But that is what happens when schools are closed. Things get moved around. The story changes, and memories fade. We need to remember the story of Eastern and the story of Lake Clifton. We need to remember what these schools meant to students, families, and teachers.