Saturday, August 17, 2013

A new standard for ALL schools

I just finished reading Kathleen Nolan’s Police in the Hallways: Discipline in an Urban High Schooland am feeling at the same time encouraged and deflated.

In the text (which I highly recommend to educators in any setting, but especially to administrators - and so-called ‘discipline deans’- in urban schools), Nolan conducts ethnographic research at a large public school in the Bronx.  While she was there, the school was a major focus of Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to “take back the schools” (Bloomberg never mentioned who he intended to take them back from… but I’ll leave symbolic action and hyperbole for another day) with zero tolerance and order maintenance procedures.  As a result, there was a major increase in police presence in the school (and in schools across NYC).  Incidents like dress-code violations, tardiness, and the enigmatic “disrespect”, once school-based disciplinary infractions, now resulted in citations and court summons issued by NYPD officers stationed in the halls. 

I have much more to say about Nolan’s findings in the text and how they epitomize the experiences my students share, but that will have to come later.  What I want to explore is the cause for my conflicted feeling upon finishing the text. 

In her conclusion, she discusses the role that small schools might play in eradicating this type of police state in schools.  Nolan explains:
There is much promise in the creation of small schools, but small schools can succeed only when they avoid replicating the same inequalities and problems found in traditional large public schools and when all small schools receive the resources and freedom to adopt the kinds of educational and disciplinary practices that meet students’ needs. (175)

Later, she builds upon a piece by CUNY’s Michelle Fine about a standard for “social justice” in small schools:
This standard gets ignored in all the talk of standards. It asks, does a school offer a sense of respect and dignity? Such a standard is met through establishment of democratic, collaborative relationships with parents and communities, engaging classroom experiences, and appropriate academic and social supports. When schools meet this standard, violence and disorder are likely to decrease. (175)

Earlier this year, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by Michelle Fine.  Though the focus of the talk was on standardized testing, she took a minute to challenge the audience to imagine, amid all the talk of anti-this and that, the type of schools we’re FOR. This standard of social justice that Fine and Nolan discuss is at the heart of the type of schools I’m for. 

When I think about the conflicts that I’ve had with students in the past year (even in the past month), the majority of them stemmed from what the student or I felt was disrespectful or a challenge to our dignity - whether real or perceived. 

Imagine a school that put at the forefront establishing a sense of respect and dignity for its students, staff, physical space, and learning. 

I’m certainly not na├»ve enough to think that we can just hang a mission statement on the wall and this will happen.  In fact, this is a real challenge, but I really think that it’s a worthwhile endeavor. And here’s the best part: it doesn’t cost a dime. 

Here are some steps to get stared:
 - Stop yelling at students, making empty threats to them, and generalizing and stereotyping them.
 - Stop “putting kids out” of class and school.  If a student needs to leave class (which sometimes happens), the teacher, student, and a 3rd party need to have a conversation about it. 
 - Try “I” statements. For example, “You need to listen” vs. “I need you to listen”  Don’t think it makes a difference?  Think about how often adolescents are told what to do… and don’t misunderstand, it’s not about begging your students, but rather shifting the focus.
 - Use please and thank you with students. Thank them for coming to class. Thank them for their work or attention at the end of class… It’ll rub off.
 - Explain rules/ policies/ decisions to students rather than giving directives. 
            For example: “No more than 3 absences. After 3 you’re dropped.” vs. “Because this course is accelerated, no more than 3 absences. We will be moving at a fast pace and in 3 classes we’ll cover about 9 days worth of material. As a result, if you miss more than 3 classes, you’ll fall too far behind and will have to take the class over”  - Easy enough.
 - Encourage students to speak up and provide a genuine forum for their concerns… then address those concerns.
 -  Give students genuine choices - in the classroom and outside the classroom
 - Remember: not every interaction has to be a confrontation.  Security and “climate” staff would do well to remember this. 

As I was thinking about some of these, I was heartened because I feel like we do a pretty good job of creating a “social justice standard” at my small school.  Certainly there are things to work on, but our students generally feel respected and dignified and it does translate to fewer incidents of violence and disrespect. 

However, as I was generating this list I could hear the naysayers in the back of my mind telling me this is too warm and fuzzy.  It’ll never work with “these kids” (ugh… there’s that phrase).  You have to be tough… no excuses. 

To this, all I have to say is give it a try.  I work with a tough population - 16-21, dropped/ put/ pushed-out of school at least once, 60% involved with juvenile/ adult justice system, 60% pregnant or parenting - and though these tactics certainly aren’t a silver bullet, they rarely hurt.

I’m not a softy who makes excuses for my kids, but I do treat them with respect and dignity…

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The "Crisis" in Philadelphia Schools... or not

On Friday August 9th Philadelphia schools superintendent Dr. William Hite held a press conference proclaiming that unless the district receives $50 million to alleviate the budget crisis by August 15thschools may not be able to open safely on September 9th. With this announcement it became official: Philadelphia schools are in crisis.

Except calling this a crisis - whether educational, budget, or something else - ignores the bigger picture and completely misses the point. 

A crisis is a sudden, unexpected, or rare moment of devastation or struggle. Hurricane Katrina was a crisis. As was the tragic collapse of the Salvation Army thrift store at 21st  & Market a few months ago.  Wildfires ravaging California or Colorado could also be called a crisis. Though in hindsight there may have been warning signs, these events were relatively sudden, unexpected, and rare.

The current state of affairs in the School District of Philadelphia, while devastating, hardly meets the definition of a crisis.  It was not sudden - it is the culmination of recent funding cuts at the state and federal levels, attempts at short-term solutions and reforms, and decades of poor financial management. It was not unexpected - anyone who didn’t see this financial “crisis” coming was either naive or blissfully ignorant. It is hardly rare - large urban districts across the country are experiencing their own versions of this same “crisis” (look to Chicago, New York, Detroit, LA to name a few).   

So if not a crisis, then what? 
 - A call to action?
 - Business as usual?
 - An opportunity to break unions?
 - An open door for corporate reform?
 - A supreme injustice?
Perhaps all of the above…

The new normal?
In their text The Art of Critical Pedagogy (2008), Jeffrey Duncan-Andrade and Ernest Morrell argue that even though they have alarmingly high dropout rates, excessive teacher attrition, and low test scores, it is inaccurate to say that urban schools are failing. In the face of concentrated poverty, under-funding, and under-resourceing, urban public schools are doing exactly what they are designed to do - fail. 

It’s possible that what’s happening before our very eyes is the next step in the already existing, to borrow Kozel’s term, system of Apartheid schooling. Cities will have two classes of schools. Those who are willing and able will migrate toward private, charter, and magnet schools, while under-resourced public schools will remain warehouses for an underclass of students, those who couldn’t get in or couldn’t make it in the “real” schools.  In this way, we can still claim to have a democratic education system, though that is hardly the case. 

An open door for reform?
Philadelphia has 84 charter schools, the new face of school reform.  One of the hallmarks of these silver bullets, is the absence of unionized employees (Note: Teachers at 4 Philadelphia charters are unionized, the remainder are not).  Charter operators claim that operating outside of the union allows for more innovation and flexibility among teachers. It also affords administration the ability to hire and fire at-will.

It’s easy to see why charter operators (whether they’re non-profits or for-profits) wouldn’t want a unionized workforce.  For better or worse, it gives them more control and flexibility.  That doesn’t mean that it’s all-bad - after speaking with teachers at several different non-union charters I am the first to admit that there are some great perks.  However, as someone who is not a union member (my school is managed by a non-profit and we are not unionized) the lack of a clear contract or collective bargaining power can easily result in a high degree of uncertainty and bullying, particularly around time and job responsibilities. 

…Or union busting?
The most recent developments in this so-called “crisis” have underscored the goal here is not to create strong schools, but rather to push a particular brand of school reform. The benevolent Governor Corbett, no friend to organized workers, said he’d give Philadelphia schools $45 million, but later attached the caveat that in order to get the money unions must make concessions. 
Initially Dr. Hite supported the PFT and rejected Corbett’s demand, encouraging the masses that perhaps we finally had a superintendent who actually supported educators.  Last night, however, Hite reminded us that he was a product of the corporate reform-y Broad Leadership Academy when he called on the SRC to suspend the state school code and eliminate seniority in rehire decisions. This crucial step, which may or may not be taken later this afternoon, would effectively negate union contracts and render them powerless.

But just like in the movies, the conditions and public opinion have to be right to take such a step… and perhaps that’s where we are.  People are frustrated with the schools and have bought in to the rhetoric of lazy, greedy, overpaid teachers. In the face of schools not opening, they’re anxious of any action - unjust or not.

But it’s a “crisis”, what can you do?
 - Eliminate property-tax based school funding.
 - Reinstate local control over schools.
 - Collect delinquent taxes and revisit city tax codes re: non-profits and corporations.
 - Create leadership opportunities for teachers
 - Address overhead/ administrative costs within the district.
 - Create small schools (see upcoming post on this concept)
 - Sell vacant schools.
 - Relocate central office into “under-utilized” schools and sell 440 N. Broad… school staff should be in schools!
 - Work with the PFT to create contract and pension plan that allows for long-term success (realize this is not the same as “demand concessions from”).
 - Stop quitting on “failing” schools and contracting them out to charters. 

These are just a few quick thoughts… but of course, these would all require rational discussion, long-term planning, and the desire to maintain a strong, equitable public education system.