Thursday, March 22, 2012

Report on Charter School Site Visit

Report back to the Community on Charter Site Visit to Los Angeles

On Jan 17, 18 and 19 I visited Los Angeles with a team assembled by Partnerships for Learning. 

WA State Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-37th)  has sponsored legislation that would allow communities to be engaged in creative teaching that has the potential to bring about better outcomes for poor, brown and black children. Public Charter Schools are funded by public education funds. They exist primarily to bring excellence to the education of children living in urban areas the success of these schools require curriculum and methodologies geared to to elevated learning outcomes more hours on task of teaching and learning, data driven adjustments and the engagement of parents makes public charters successful. 

Los Angeles is not Seattle, so it is difficult to compare what is possible there and what is needed here. I have spent considerable time in Seattle school rooms located in SE Seattle. I have seen the best of teaching and some that is lacking. Of all the things that struck me as needed in our traditional schools is:

1. Consistency in excellent instruction
2. Data driven decisions for educating a diverse student body
3. A stated and highly publicized message that the purpose of educating is to prepare all students to meet the requirements and possess the ability to enroll in and complete a four year college education. (Even if they chose not to.)  

Students know that the career of their teachers is linked to their school success and this links them as a team. Nice!

Green Dot Locke High School is a converted from one of the lowest performing in LA Unified School District and created into 7 academies. This is a NY Times Article  about Locke a school that was a prototype of LA school violence,  a safe haven for ineffective teaching to one that is now almost violence free and filled with students who know they are learning for the purpose of going on to college. One young lady in the AP Calculus class said prior to her enrollment in this school, she did not know the existence of college entrance exams such as ACT, PSAT, SAT, she did not know there were such courses as Advanced Placement. No one had ever told they were not part of discussions with her peers. Now she is doing well in AP Calculus and like the other 20 students in the class she knows with an assuredness she is going to do well on her college entrance exams, her AP exams and attend UCLA and graduate.  Nice!  If you read the article about the cost be sure to read the closing paragraph. Is it worth spending two times the average cost to turn around a school that has created blight for an entire neighborhood? I say yes, the people deserve to be rewarded for years of failure dumped upon them by an non caring ineffective drop out factory. 

We visited the highly touted Knowledge is Power (KIPP) charter it was not my favorite, and I am not sure why. There was a stated formula for learning and applying data to what is taught and how it is taught. The students and teachers seemed less relaxed than the other three we visited. Can not quite put my finger on what it was. 

I really liked Aspire College Prep Academy it was much more relaxed and learning seemed more natural, like it was really part of the DNA of the teachers and students. There was a healthy and informed conversation with Dr. Roberta Benjamin, the LA Area Administrator. She and the Ms. Jennifer Garcia the Principal were comfortable in discussing the differences in learning and teaching to Latino and African American students. They knew the differences and were comfortable in the conversation.  Very Nice!

LA Charters do not reflect the kinds of diversity that we have in SE Seattle and Hilltop Tacoma Schools.  I especially wanted to visit a 2nd grade classroom because my reference to Seattle Schools is through curriculum and methods in the primary grades.  I could not perceive a major difference in the curriculum for reading and language arts, or the methods.  The charters we visited were pretty much one race schools, with more than 97% Latino. South Shore K-8 school in SE Seattle has several races and cultures to educate. As a traditional public school is doing as well or better than those visited in Los Angeles. I believe if they became an innovative campus they would perform better than the charters visited.

Yet we have schools in SE Seattle that would benefit from a conversion to a fully funded public charter school an innovative school with creative leadership and teaching team.   

Unlike the schools visited in LA with large majority Latino students,  SE Seattle has major diversity of non white students. Black, Latino and Asian Pacific Island immigrant and refugee populations learn together in one school. Not so easy to teach to this kind of diversity unless you see all the children worthy of an excellent education and differences are integrated into creative teaching. Mercer Middle School and  South Shore K-8 are proving this can be done in our current environment. Very Nice!

All communities must be engaged in the conversation if we are to have charter schools, innovative schools or what ever brings about the kind of radical changes we need to bring equity.  

Synergy Charter School is a co-located school that brings together Latino and African American students at the elementary level. It was started by two former traditional school teachers. This school was started by a husband and wife teacher team and grew out from within an engaged community. 

There are several articles written by anti-charter school thinkers that point to cherry picking for admission. Each of the four distinct public charter schools visited showed us their applications and spoke of their admission policies were to admit all who applied with the capacity of their school. There was no place on the application that would distinguish academic ability.  I was not sure why there were so few African Americans enrolled in these areas that have large African American populations; Compton, South Central L.A.   tWe were assure that every child had to be accepted including special education students had to be provided for.  

The students at Locke said they did experience many suspensions.  At Aspire, we were shown a Reflection Center where students having a bad time in a classroom was sent to another classroom to sit at the Reflection Center where they could write out their feelings, look at pictures or just sit and reflect.  

The Schools had panels of students,  eager and well able to answer our questions with enthusiasm and candor.  In general the students presented themselves as self assured, confident and they knew education was their road to a four year degree. 

WEA will not support Charter schools for Washington, and the Democrats are not going to support what WEA does not want. 

Poor, Brown and Black students are much more school dependent learners than their white and privileged peer group. They need longer school days and a longer school year. They need consistency without the intermittent short weeks, and half days that the SEA has built into the school year.  They need a teacher union that allows its members to experience the creativity and joy of educating the students they want badly to prove they can teach. Charter Schools in L.A. can form a collective bargaining unit with 51% of teachers in a school voting for this.  Green Dot was a union school (Charters teachers have formed their own union.)   SEA teacher union has historically been successful in blocking what is needed to move our schools to higher ground for non white, non middle class children.  No to charter schools. No to Teach for America. No to outcome based evaluations that does not encumber huge amounts of time taken away from a principal's ability to support the entire school.

No, no no!  Organized labor with such a high disregard for their members need and desire for pride of product is unusual.  Teacher support consistency in learning for their students. An effective teacher has great angst about sending their children they have elevated to a teacher they know will create a loss of ground for the very same student.  

The Teamsters, Autoworkers and Machinists are tough unions yet, planes are not falling out of the sky on a regular basis, an improperly made car is recalled and fixed, and a driver who has any accident,  is automatically taken from behind the wheel and grieves their way back into the cab.  Imagine the education of every child being as important as the safety of every car, plane or truck on the road.   What if not being able to teach to each child in your class was an automatic with a need for a negotiated return to this place of trust. What if the state provided  a pay rate that would support high levels of teaching and classroom management? That would be very nice!

The SE Seattle Community is well engaged with many initiatives to make our schools more adaptive to student excellence. These initiatives are attracting community involvement. Rainier Beach is on a course to become an International Baccalaureate School. This is a difficult and worthwhile undertaking.  There is though riff between those who should be working together. School reformers can not deliver charter schools without a buy in of non white communities understanding what they are and clamoring for them. Their is a neutrality about charter schools within the African American community.  The African American community is much more cohesive than what appears to the majority population and they are much more capable of knowing what is in their best interest and who is in their best interest than it might appear.  There have been many mistakes made by those who propose to speak for communities of color, to know the best solutions. It is so much easier to gain trust than to recoup it once lost.  

Charter Schools are not the be and end all of solving the education mess that Washington public education presents for our diverse student population. A recent MIT study tells us that Charter Schools have their best outcomes in urban areas and not so good in school districts outside of urban areas.  Since the majority of our parents have children in private schools or areas that are not part of the urban core, what would be their interest in charter schools?  How are they convinced that what is good for students of color is likewise good for their children. There are no images coming across the media of charter schools with large numbers of white students. This translates to them not serving the needs of poor children, just non white children.  Washingtonians can not engage in conversations or race based solutions to any of its problems. The reformers will need to have that conversation with those they need to vote for charter schools. 

Charters schools will not pass a Democratic controlled legislature if the reformists fail to put into place effective strategies for community education, outreach and organizing. They must get beyond the few people of color they feel most comfortable with and expand their knowledge of the people they propose to help. The questions posed by Trish Millines Dziko have not yet been answered. There will be no movement within communities of color until they are answered because she is trusted and heard on issues of education institution building.  

Unfortunately,  some of the best and most respected community and parent organizers are found lacking by those who want charter schools the most. This difference between what make the school reformers comfortable and who is respected and heard in communities they want to address is a major set back for many reform measures. 

It is in the hard and consistent work on real problems,  best solutions, and parent and community engagement that comes from with the community that attracts the bulk of my attention and energy.  I owe this to those who are doing the heavy lifting from the ground up. They have accepted the baton that has been passed from generation to generation for as long as there has been oppression and inequity present among us.  

Rest in Peace Charles Rolland, Anthony Matlock, and Trayvon Martin.  

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why are our School Systems Failing African American Children?

The answer to this question is complex but let me share  insight gained from living long. 

The failure of African American children comes from multiple directions. I will speak to a few of them.

A traditional public school system is complex with funding sources that reward schools failing to educate with equity.  What would it be like if those who make up the public school systems were passionate and intentional about educating African American children?  What if we had a society that really believed that diversity was key to our longevity as a leader nation?  I saw recent footage of an interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when asked about the elements that drove his movement for nonviolence he said that it took passion and intentionality. Intentionality means to be informed by intention and to act on it toward a specific end. When teaching parent classes I use the example of bonsai to bring this point home. Most get it. 

I live an intentional life committed to an excellent education for children our public schools policies cheat and have been cheating for decades.  What we offer our children does not have to be filled with gimmicks or even fancy.  It just needs to be an education offering that allows a child to know the joy of reading, writing and problem solving.  

We look but can not find the level of intention and passion modeled by Dr. King, in the reversing the wrong of a failed system we know as public education. No creative thought, no responsibility for multiple generations of failure, that have locked whole families into sustained poverty.  Chattel Slavery was a system that lasted for 400 years. Can America sustain as a world leader without freeing children and their teacher to learn what is easily teachable. Reading, writing, mathematics and problem solving? Of course we can and we should not need a civil war and emancipation proclamation to do this. 

Though complex, the public school system is one that parents must learn. Even bad systems will work for those who become familiar with the "work arounds."  This ability to work around what is not working in a system is the reason why the same system failing a child at Van Asselt is educating children at View Ridge. First of all, the populations of white and privileged parents dictate what goes into the system, they are the primary users. Parents, teachers and principals of brown, black and poor children have to learn and understand a system for which they are at best tertiary users.  Intentionality will create the work arounds. Unfortunately as soon as the system is learned, it is again changed and again fixes and new systems are not put in place to favor those who need most a system of education geared toward equity and excellence for all children. 

it is a learnable system and little expectation should be placed upon teachers to anything other than teach. They are not hired to apply skills learned or to practice for proficiency. They are not a constant relationship for children parents and families are and families are the greatest determinant of whether a child will grow to be a successful contributing adult in society.  That is not a race based assertion it is true for all children in all parts of the world. 

Children learn from other children and model up only a few years. So the children your children play with make a difference. I knew that the children in our neighborhood who could walk to the store alone and cross Rainier without an adult before they were two digits, were on a slippery slope toward mediocrity other indicators were sure indicators of total failure and yes in two instances early death. Then there was the one child in a terribly functioning family who has done well among the many.  When asking this now 30 year old man why? He tells me, she was not my real mother, and that he knew his father who did not raise him but talked with him about things the other children did not hear from their mother or father.  I found that quite interesting and I observe him to be a devoted father. So all not visibly present to others can be very present to a child. 

Back to education of African American children and even others who are cheated of what it takes to function well in society, any society.  Time on task is missing in too many homes. We have all witnessed the baby who is said to be turned around, they are awake all night and sleep all day. This is how so many parents are. They seem to be turned around doing things backwards with their children, even though doing things more to the norm would be easier.  A child who reads is much easier to manage than one who does not read or one who watches television of hours without interruption.  Reading calms and television agitates. A child who understands numbers, learns to see the complex as less complex because they learn the art of problem solving.  

Okay, I make it sound as if it is easy, it is. And as my friend Josie always says "Dawn, you surely are not a social worker." Meaning, I can not hear the excuses, though I am empathetic and a good support system for many. Why help a person be less than God intended. In a nation where it is said the average person is using only 10% of their brain's ability, why help a person use 5%. How harmful could a push to 15% be?

I write a blog now because I used to share these ideas with a broad spectrum of people. I was surprised by those who found it bothersome and almost an insult to receive these "long messages."  Long? I thought they were short given I used to write snail mail letters that were multiple pages and receive the same from people. I am old enough to hold on to communicating in full words and sentences. By the time the world is speaking only in abbreviated phrases I will be blind, old and babbling and maybe not. One of the great possessions I preserve from my time as a Legislator is a letter from constituent, Iola Davis, in the letter she wrote and mailed she told me she is 92 years old, and proud of to see one of us doing so well." It was a two page letter I guess it should be in a museum.  She lived to be 101 and I attended her 100 birthday party.  

So within families and communities comes the push for excellence. In an Essence interview with President Barack Obama when asked about education and poor families, after saying his daughters do not watch television on school nights, he responded "A poor parent can turn off a television."  

Here is an article written by a parent in 1984 it continues to guide me in my work helping parents learn new skills. Just like with anything it takes many times doing something to change a habit or pattern of behavior.