If measured by how we treat the most vulnerable of us – charter schools would not do so well..

Amazing things happen in our public school all the time. Teachers who call me at night to discuss a wonderful thing my daughter accomplished, text messages of my children enjoying a group art project, a classroom project about Odetta – the voice of the Civil Rights movement. But there are tough times too, kids who act out or are disruptive in class.

Pic from NYC schools website

There is a recent NYTimes Op-Ed about stats that show children with special needs don’t do well in charter schools like Success Academy. In fact, statistics show that much of the “success” of charter schools is based on the fact that they push out children who can’t survive their “no-excuses” regimes, something that public schools can’t do. And should not do! Read the Op-ed here, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/05/opinion/charter-school-refugees.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=1

And read a great blog post about it here: https://teacherbiz.wordpress.com/2014/04/05/quick-send-your-kids-to-charters-lest-they-be-tossed-in-the-lions-den-with-the-special-needs-student/

It has made me think of a child in particular that our public school has worked with this year and the impact on our children. First, to preface, my girl, is very sensitive and a tad on the anxious side, and other children’s emotional distress has a big impact on her. In the beginning of the year, there was a child who the school was trying to mainstream into our class. I, of course, don’t know all the details of her, or her IEP, but I knew enough to see that she was struggling. Her behavior was disruptive, she was angry in class. The teacher tried hard to work with the child, she also asked the class to try and work with the child. “Let’s all try and help X with his feelings and respect when he is feeling upset and give him space.” I think this was a good thing for my Girl to see, to see grown-ups give attention and caring to another human being who was hard to deal with & to NOT see a child thrown away or discarded.

Unfortunately, in the end, the child was unable to be mainstreamed and was removed from our class and placed in a different class. My children observed this transition, my girl was relieved, because the constant disruptions were hard for her. BUT what was outstanding/miraculous even was that they never learned to stigmatize or blame the child. My children used language that they obviously learned from the school, like “well he needs to learn to deal with his anger more” or “he was moved to a class where there is more support for him.” They learned to have compassion, love, and patience for someone struggling.

Again and again, I see my school treat struggling children with love and compassion. What do children in schools like Success Academy feel learn when their classmates get kicked out of school because they couldn’t follow the strict letter of the law?

Sheltering in Place school drills, DARE dogs, Fallout Shelters and the Monsters under our Beds

My children are learning how to “shelter in place” in school. In Kid’s words, “If someone with a gun comes into the school, they will say a code word on the intercom and we all go into a corner of the classroom, after my teacher locks the door.” At first, I had this moment of mourning for their loss of childhood, etc, but then I stepped back and remembered that kids throughout US history have been practicing drills for different monsters under our collective beds.

In my childhood, it was the War on Drugs and DARE (Drug Abuse and Resistance Education). I still remember the movies – kids on PCP who thought they could fly, kids high on weed who let their baby brother drown, all the while laughing hysterically.  And who can forget the commercial – “This is your brain on drugs” – a sizzling fried egg!~ One of my earliest memories of school is of the DARE bear, or was it a dog? I looked it up, turns out it was a lion?? A policeman and his DARE bear met with us every few months to tell us the dangers of drugs and urge us to turn in our parents if we caught THEM doing drugs. “Just Say No kids!” My kids have heard very little about the dangers of drugs and certainly have never seen a DARE bear. They HAVE learned about the dangers of obesity and Kid #2 always asks, “Am I burning calories? or Is this calories? as she takes a bite of food.” (This DOES NOT come from us, we don’t believe in the body shaming/dieting fad of our culture).

During WWII kids in schools practiced diving under tables in case the Axis powers conducted an air raid. In the 60’s – 80’s the cold war with Russia had us all looking for fallout shelters or building them in our back yard.

I guess my point is that in the moment our fears and anxieties seem very real and terrifying. After Sandy Hook, our schools appear to be nightmares of possible gunmen and murder. According to media, our children all more obese than ever so we should teach our kids about calories. Gunmen in schools, childhood obesity  – these are our children’s monsters under the bed. But in other generations, their monsters also seemed very real and terrifying – drugs, nuclear warfare, German airraids. Today, the monsters of the past look small, even quaint. Or they, themselves, were the actual things we should have feared. The WAR on drugs has arguably done more damage than drugs – the mass incarceration of a whole generation have destroyed families and communities. It also distracted us from what we really should have been fighting – the growing inequality, the failure of trickle down economics, for instance.

My question is  – if this is true, the monsters of the past were just distractions or worse- then maybe our monsters of today aren’t the ACTUAL monsters. Yes, a lone gunman did enter a elementary school and committed a terrifying act and thereby entered all parents’ nightmares. But he was also a child himself, who had long suffered from mental illness and his parents’ hadn’t been able to find him help. Maybe the real monster is the failure of our mental health system. Maybe it is an society that glamorizes violence, guns, and a mean-spiritness that makes it ok for politicians to attack teachers, firefighters, and other public workers as the drains on society.  Yes, obesity and diabetes is on the rise among children. But Maybe the REAL monster is that parents are both working full time (which are 50-60hours a week), jobs don’t give us any time to take care of family, including cooking of healthy meals, parents increasingly rely on empty calories of McD’s dollar menus. Maybe it is the privatizing of our schools and the resulting pressure to produce high testing children and so they don’t have time for physical exercise, art, music, or other creative work.

As a parent, it feels like an exceptionally scary time to be raising children, there is a myth that times were simpler and the monsters tamer in the past. But in truth, children in our society have always been in danger, in capitalism, it’s the most vulnerable that are the least likely to survive. From Black children throughout the US history, to child workers in the factories, and even now children working in our fields, children dying at our borders, it is only the death of certain children that become a national tragedy. Our children are at risk differently, based on race, class, and gender, gender identity, sexual orientation – the fact that we help some children thrive while letting others die – that is the real monster under our collective beds. As poet Audre Lorde said:
“So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive”

But those are not the monsters that our children are being prepared for when they learn to shelter in place. 

Public Education is Not a Consumer Product

School has started and with it a clash of cultures and anguished kindergarten parents who are gnashing their teeth because our cafeteria doesn’t provide quinoa. On the other side, long time working class parents from the neighborhood watch as full-on gentrification comes to our school. As I mentioned in previous posts, our little neighborhood public school is ground zero for the relentless displacement that has happened in Williamsburg.

This year, the school has tipped. With an extra pre-k class and several new kindergarten classes. The kindergarten population has gone from being primarily low-income students of color to white, middle class, and heavily tattooed. The problem with this is myriad and complicated, but a big thing I have noticed is how this new crop of parents seem to view education as just another consumer item.

Because they see public education as something that they are somehow purchasing or acquiring, they want it to be the “best” product for their individual child. They don’t see or acknowledge that our school is a community or a social responsibility to each other.

 They don’t understand that our school provides free breakfast and lunch to its students because many of our children won’t eat without it, and who gives a flying f*ck” about quinoa.

 They don’t understand that through our collective efforts, now all the children of the neighborhood will be able to have access to a rooftop greenhouse- and not just the kids who can afford it. And the very least they can do, since they are here paying outrageous rents and buying boutique clothes, is contribute to the education of all the children in the neighborhood and not just their own.

 They don’t understand that much of the benefit of public school for their children isn’t about i-pads and the latest fads, but about their children spending time and learning from kids from different race and economic backgrounds.

 Studies have shown that we can’t educate our children out of poverty. Poverty and racism have systemic roots and can’t all be addressed by our public schools. But certainly schools can be a place where community resources and money can be redistributed to benefit all the children in the neighborhood instead of hoarding it for just the affluent.

And of course there is ton of stuff to say here about class privilege and white privilege. Some parents have already threatened to leave the school (week 3!!) if they don’t get their way – the epitome of entitlement & privilege.

 But it hit me the other day, that another way to see this is that they are treating their individual child’s education as a commodity/a consumer product, rather than a collective effort. To them – teachers are just employees and the cafeteria food is something to complain about. They just don’t see the interdependent web of parents, aunties, grandmothers, teachers, cooks, janitors, school safety people, administrative staff, that makes this all possible. And that is a damn shame.

World Teacher Day, Thanks Chicago Teachers! (and having to hold your pee)

Today is World Teacher’s Day and so I wanted to share an amazing story about my son’s wonderful teacher.  Last year, during the beginning of Occupy Wall street, we did what any civic-minded parent would do – we took the children. We joined the union/community support march for Occupy. It was a Wednesday night.  Our twins had a great time with whistles and chanting, we are the 99%.. We got home late, so we didn’t get the chance to do our homework.

The next morning, as the kids lined up on the school blacktop, I told Alejandro’s teacher that we were unable to finish our homework because we were at the Occupy march. She replied – that’s great, I will Alejandro talk about his experience in class today.

This wonderful teacher did even more than that – she had Alejandro share his experience. Then she read to them some poems by Pablo Neruda, the inspiring poet from Chile. She told the kids about how he fought for the rights of miners in Chile. Then she encouraged the children to discuss what they needed in school to learn and they made signs and marched inside the school!  Alejandro’s sign said: “we need more money for books. “

I was absolutely amazed and so thankful to have a wonderful teacher who changed her teaching plan that day because she saw a real teachable moment.  There has been so much teacher-bashing this last decade. Make no mistake, bashing teacher unions is ALSO teacher-bashing because it attacks teachers’ right to retiring with a decent pension, their medical benefits and their right to democracy in the workplace.

We entrust teachers with our CHILDREN and with their education. How is that we stand for so much hatred aimed at them and their work?   I think that much of it comes from male politicians who see teachers as an easy mark – a primarily female workforce doing “women’s work” which is easily disrespected. After all, our entire culture disparages the hard work of child raising. People think its not actual work.

People rarely stop to consider the actual work conditions of teachers. My kids’ describe the work conditions – “Susan put gum in Jose’s hair today and Jose cried”, “Alicia threw up in class today.”  Imagine being surrounded my children all day, with never a moment of quiet? Not to mention the lice outbreaks! If you are not a parent who spends a good chuck of time with kids’ you would never actually know how hard it is to spend hours and hours with our “little angels” My guess is that most of these politicians have not spent a lot of time with their own children or anyone else’s for that matter.

Another thing – teachers have to hold their bladder all day! The DOE laid off most of the teacher’s aides (called paraprofessionals now) throughout the city. Our teachers in our schools have no paraprofessional, which means that they can’t go to the bathroom until they kids leave for lunch or another program. Those of us who work in an office, can’t imagine what it be like to lose the autonomy to pee whenever we like.  Why would any smart, professional person chose this work?

My guess is – because a majority of them they really do love the children and prize their own sense of personal reward at really seeing children grown and learn under their wings. But it is certainly not for the money or the sense of respect they get in society any more. In the Philippines, where education is prized, teachers still don’t make a lot of money but they are certainly respected. They are always referred to as “mam” or “sir” whether you see them in school or not.

I for one, feel like it is time that we stop the teacher bashing . Let’s give them all our support, which includes supporting their right to have democracy in the workplace through unions, good pensions, good raises, affordable health care and opportunity to continuing education.

And special shout out to the Chicago teachers for being so courageous in this atmosphere of worker and teacher hatred. We all learned a lot from you and your president Karen Lewis.