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Thursday, April 4, 2013
‘American Promise’ and the black student struggle in the nation’s private schools
10:19 am edt
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: Students raise their
pens in their 4th grade class at DC Prep Edgewood Middle Campus on Tuesday March 05, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt
McClain for The Washington Post) (Matt McClain - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Last week, PBS aired “180 Days,” a film that examines one year at DC Met, a school
that serves of The District’s most dispossessed young people- and an institution under scrutiny by local public school
officials because of its scores on the DC CAS. PBS is airing another film that examines black student life in an American
school, which will also be available to see in Washington DC movie theatres this fall. Titled American Promise, it examines
12 years at The Dalton School, one of the most prestigious private schools in the nation.
Free public education is a right in
this country; indeed, Americans are compelled to educate their children. Yet schools serving people of color too often fail
to meet the basic educational goals required for children to become functioning, tax-paying citizens in our post-industrial
society. In “180 Days,” teachers and other staff suggest that the ongoing problem of an educational system that
fails our children is a Civil Rights issue. In “American Promise,” though the middle class boys featured are full
of academic potential, the film asserts that even elite private schools fail our children.
If public education is a Civil Right, then perhaps fair and equitable treatment for all private
school students, regardless of race or gender, is a Personal Right. In “American Promise,” filmmakers Joe Brewster
and Michele Stephenson document the journey of their own son and his best friend at The Dalton School, a New York City independent
institution that Forbes magazine ranked 13th in a 2010 list of the country’s
top 20 prep schools. If “180 Days” asks why the public schools fail so many of our disenfranchised young people,
“American Promise” asks how the private schools fail far too many of our middle class kids.
Scheduled to air on PBS and in Washington movie theatres this October, “American Promise” opens with the image of two smiling, bright-eyed, African American boys. Thrilled to be going to school together,
Idris Brewster, son of the filmmakers, and Oluwaseun “Seun” Summers, Idris’ best friend, run up and down
the sidewalk, excitedly searching for the car that will take them to their first day of kindergarten. Idris is the firstborn
child of a mother who is also a lawyer, with degrees from McGill and Columbia, and a father who is also a Harvard and Stanford
educated psychiatrist. Idris has been tested for giftedness and ranks in the top tier of preschool learners. Seun’s
parents are also both college-educated, with degrees from the State University of New York and fulfilling careers that provide
a middle class lifestyle for their four children.
By the year the boys reach 5th grade
at Dalton, they smile less, appear less engaged, begin to struggle academically. Toward the end of their middle school experience,
Seun’s academic status is in jeopardy, and the audience wonders what happened to the unfulfilled promise of Idris’
The dramatic tension of the film is heart-wrenching,
as audiences root for these beautiful brown boys to overcome the barriers that would prevent them from fulfilling their personal
potential, potential that was so evident when they were both 6. As they grow older, Idris’ and Seun’s disengagement
only renders the boys’ desire to achieve more poignant.
Winner of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Achievement in Filmmaking, “American Promise” focuses on a specific experience at a nationally-ranked prep school, but the lamentations
of these two families will resonate for any African American caregiver with a child attending a majority white school. This
film is important for everyone on your family team, including partners, grandparents, even babysitters, to see. The narrative
offers solutions families can employ to enable their children’s success.
In one scene,
Idris’ and Seun’s parents gather with other African American caregivers that have formed a support group. Over
coffee at the kitchen table, they discuss their experiences and their frustrations, seeking solutions to the specific issues
their children face in school. While this level of networking is certainly helpful during the admissions process, it is essential
once families join a school community.
thinks black families interested in forming their own parent-led support groups should keep them “informal and intimate”
while remaining separate from the school PTA or PAT. In an interview for TheRootDC, Stephenson explained, “They need
to be independent of those structures and be safe spaces to problem solve.”
The film also examines class issues and the impact of wealthy families’ vast resources on
their children’s level of achievement. For those of us with modest incomes who have promising children in independent
schools, many of these scenes will feel familiar. For example, I remember very distinctly talking to the father of a child
in a private school who shook his head as he recounted his experience with his own son’s seemingly apparent underachievement.
This father said that he knew his child was just as smart as his peers, yet his grades always lagged behind the others. An
epiphany came for him, he said, when he figured out what was really going on – and how connected it all was to money.
First you pay for tuition, he said to me, then they want
you to contribute to fundraising, and then you learn that these other families are paying more money on top of all that money
for private tutors. That was the disconnect for him – that he did not realize supplemental learning in the form of expensive,
one-to-one enrichment was taking place in the homes of the wealthy white children he was sending his child to school with,
to compete with, every day. Of course his child was just as smart, just as capable of success; the other families had simply,
and quietly, given their children an advantage he couldn’t afford.
A very similar scene plays out in “American Promise”, when the black families share this high-priced
secret the wealthier families employ to insure their children’s successes while chatting in the safe space of the support
“For us it was a safety net,’
Stephenson says. “Being able to pick up that phone and brainstorm, even gossip at times, troubleshoot about certain
things our kids were confronting and just share information. I think the most eye opening experience for us was this whole
issue of tutoring for enrichment. Being able to share those experiences with other parents helped us gain a greater
understanding of what the culture of the institution was like for our son and find out what other parents were doing.”
Without that informal group of like-minded parents, many
African American students may have simply slid down an incredibly slippery academic slope. Perhaps more importantly, they
would have figured that they themselves, and not socio-economic forces well beyond their control, were responsible for the
slide. And, most essentially: the parents would have never figured out the game, would have never figured out exactly what
it was going to take to win at this level of highly competitive private schooling.
Stephenson and Brewster feel so strongly about the importance of black family support groups at
majority white, wealthy schools, that they are creating a community engagement campaign. “We are working on helping
parents across the country build these types of parent support clubs for their boys’ educational success,” Stephenson
Get the Kids Together
In a Q&A following a screening of the film, Idris credited an organization
of black students for helping him get through high school. Diversity Awareness Initiative for Students (DAIS), “was founded by the parents of one African American female high school student who wanted to encourage
more socialization among the students of color at independent schools in NYC. Little did they know how important this
organization would end up being for these kids,” Stephenson says.
Stephenson says that DAIS created the same kind of safe space for her son that her parent-led support
group did for her and her husband. Young people of color “across schools” could share their experiences with each
other. Run by the young people themselves, DAIS members decide what their social events will be and identify topics for discussion
at their monthly meetings. The social aspects of membership in DAIS may be most important of all for active members, especially
as the “identity politics,” Stephenson says, that black students at majority white schools experience are complicated
by young peoples’ growing awareness of “cultural, racial, and socio-economic factors.”
Young people in DC and throughout the nation can form an organization like DAIS,
where they cease to be a minority on the margins of the school community and step into the center of a group of kids with
similar school experiences, “somewhat free of having to face implicit bias and stereotypes.” Organizations like
DAIS, Stephenson adds, can be “a bit of a life float for them.”
Hire Black Folks
Promise, an African American teacher leads a class discussion of Ralph Ellison’s classic novel, “Invisible Man.” He challenges all the students, across racial lines, in their use of racialized language; indeed, he challenges the
notion of race itself.
Even more important than the
rich content of their class discussion, Stephenson asserts, may be the presence of a black male authority figure in a majority
white institution. “Diversity benefits us all,” she says. “And the one major thing that having a Black male
in a position of authority over white students does is break through the stereotypes we are all bombarded with day in and
day out. It pierces through theimplicit bias we all internalize. Perhaps white students will think twice about the black male they see walking down the street or
that they meet in a public setting as a result of their experiences at school. The more diverse an experience all students
have with faculty of all colors and nationalities, the less they can rely on cultural biases once they step out that door.
They have encountered and exchanged with human beings not like them and have had to deal with them at a different level.
If these experiences are properly taken advantage of and channeled by a school such as Dalton, the students will come out
of it the wiser and more exposed as global citizens and can have a more complicated view of the world they live in.”
Hire a Director of Diversity
Stephenson says the presence of a head of diversity is “very important --
in fact crucial -- but it cannot be a token position. The students will see right through that both in terms of the respect
they give to the person in that position and in how important they perceive the issue to be for the school.”
Read the Book
Stephenson and Brewster have written a book, scheduled for fall publication by Random House, called
“Promises Kept: How to Help Black Boys Succeed in School and in Life.” “Caregivers will find all kinds of shared stories, experiences, as well as evidence based advice from experts,
from the basics around the impact of nutrition on academic performance, to how to handle issues of implicit bias that a high
schooler may encounter in school and on the street, to a very deep discussion about parenting styles that will make parents
think twice about their relationships with their child as well as reflect on how they themselves were raised,” Stephenson
says. “There will be much for parents and communities to discuss regarding how do we as caregivers of the next
generation want to provide in terms of preparation for the outside world.”
And, Most Importantly, Love Them
During a Q&A following a screening of American Promise, Brewster said that black boys are the most likely of every
demographic in this country to be punished by teachers, by people in their communities - and by their own parents.
Stephenson says that “the bottom line is that our job as parents is to be there for them. That they know they are
loved. It is, of course, crucial that we maintain high expectations, surround our boys with the right positive reinforcement
(it can be hard to be consistent on that one), and stay involved with those who are influencing the opportunities and experiences
our boys are having in school and their wider education.”
Though admission to an independent
school is a privilege, a school culture that honors the potential of each individual child is a right. In schools with pedigrees going back 100 years, to a time when Irish, Italian, and Jewish students, as well as girls, were
often barred from admission, African American students today will likely encounter young people and adults whose only daily
contact with people of color is limited to the handful of non-white people in the school building.
Even in cities as diverse as DC, once lovingly called Chocolate City by the majority
black residents who lived in the district, the problem of segregation has disabled the potential to form enduring, intimate,
organic relationships with black people from a diverse range of personal and professional backgrounds.
There is so much to
overcome, and parents of black children have to take the lead in supporting diversity efforts in wealthy, majority white schools
– public or private. American Promise will help all members of a school community begin the sometimes difficult conversations
that will help institutions respect the specific, individual needs of every young person who arrives on the first day, gleeful,
bright-eager, eager to do well, eager to learn.
Monday, April 1, 2013
Addressing DC's truancy epidemic
10:17 am edt
Link to article
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 05: Christopher Rios, 9,
bottom left, Kenneth Scott, 9, center, stand in line at DC Prep Edgewood Middle Campus on Tuesday March 05, 2013 in Washington,
DC. (Photo by Matt McClain for The Washington Post) (Matt McClain - FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)With DC Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s call this month for educational equity across the District’s divide, there is a great opportunity to address one driver of this
inequity: the high school truancy and chronic absenteeism, especially for students who attend schools east of the Anacostia
The trends are alarming. At 66 percent, the majority of Anacostia High School students have missed over 25 days of school. In fact, the average number of unexcused
absences at Anacostia is 47 days. Throughout the entire District of Columbia, the numbers are devastating, according to the Urban Institute: over 2,500 of DC’s high school students are chronically truant, a trend that starts in middle school. That’s 20 percent of the District’s youth. It’s especially high at Ballou, Anacostia, Spingarn and Roosevelt high schools, where on average 40 percent of studentsmissed at least a month of school last year because of unexcused absences. Compare this with rates of 16 percent in Los Angeles and13 percent in Chicago.
why aren’t the District’s youth attending school? The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention claims that absenteeism is related to school climate and school safety, both of which affect student achievement and
self-esteem. If this is the paramount issue, then, for Anacostia High School, one might think that their newly renovated
facilities should provide sufficient self-esteem and motivation necessary for achievement. The $62 million renovation brought in many new meritorious additions, including a new science computer and lab, a new library, a child care center,
a health and dental clinic, and much else. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Ward 8 Councilmember Marion
Barry Jr. all cheered the much-needed improvements. And yet, among all of DC’s Public Schools, Anacostia
still has the highest truancy rates, a trend which will only exacerbate the District’s growing inequality that Henderson
is keen to close. If we want to close these gaps, it starts here.
Rather than a reactive approach, like ticketing parents
for truancy as cities in California and Florida have tried, let’s look at what stands in the way of a safe space for learning. According to the Urban Institute’s latest report, it appears truancy rates parallel with poverty rates, neighborhood crime, and the high percentages of single-mothers without
high school degrees. To make matters worse, schools often have insufficient supply of school counselors to deal with a student
population traumatized by violence, abuse, and poverty, and are ill-equipped with the staff resources necessary to mediate
conflict or violence when it rears its ugly head, which is often. DC Public Schools’ peer mediation program is nascent,
for example, and the youth rehabilitation services are often criticized for recidivism.
DC Public Schools is trying to change these trends, considering bringing organizations like ACCESS Youth
into several high-truancy schools next month to provide the tools, resources, and space needed to help students find different
ways of dealing with disconcerting emotions and violent behavior.
ACCESS Youth is already helping the Metropolitan Police
Department cope with an influx of youth arrested for simple assault, destruction of property, inciting violence and fighting.
These are juvenile boys and girls, some as young as nine or ten years old. It starts young. And there are hundreds of
cases referred to ACCESS Youth. Whether it’s Facebook drama that leads to full blown group fighting, perceived
disrespect that leads to an assault charge, or something as simple as hair pulling that leads to an arrest, students are choosing
violence as their preferred response to conflict. And whether it’s inspired by society’s tendency to respond
violently to conflict, malnutrition that provokes mood swings and attention deficit, or dysfunctional and defensive communication
styles adopted within Facebook, texting, and Twitter mediums, it’s a problem in need of a nonviolent solution.
80 percent of the cases that the Metropolitan Police Department refers to ACCESS are school fights that result not only in
arrest but also suspension and, in some instances, expulsion. Through referral, and instead of being institutionalized, youth
have an opportunity to reform their ways and move forward without a tarnished record. The students talk through the
incident with trained mediators and, in most cases, have an opportunity to apologize to the victim and make amends with the
community. The offender’s “punishment” is usually a combination of community service, anger management
and life skills training, and a self-reflective written agreement to alter their behavior. The offender is heavily monitored,
with follow-up meetings 30, 60, 90 and 180 days after the initial mediation. This ensures that the commitment is met and that
the kids are being held accountable for their behavioral change.
This MPD-ACCESS partnership and alternative approach is so effective
that the recidivism rate in this program is less than 2 percent, compared with the national mediation recidivism rate of 25
percent. The problem is that ACCESS (and likely similar programs run through the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services), is chronically underfunded. While this organization is producing great results, assembling the necessary scale-up to accommodate
the needs of several high-truancy schools is a daunting undertaking.
What’s the answer, then, more volunteers?
At present, that’s the only way organizations like ACCESS can expand conflict mediation programs in the schools and
victim-offender reconciliation efforts outside the schools. The only upshot of relying on a nearly all-volunteer effort
is that the offending youth may be more inclined to change their ways when they see their community voluntarily spending hours
upon hours in support of their case, and in turn, their wellbeing.
This is no long-term fix, however, although it might
help lower the truancy rates locally. A much bigger commitment is required. Any talk of education reform, or educational
equity, must be willing to tackle more chronic concerns: from eradicating poverty to improving health to modeling nonviolent
alternatives. That’s where the answers lie. And until we tackle that, we’ll continue to see more students
throwing punches, hooking school, and dropping out.
If we want Anacostia’s ninth and tenth-graders to be “so well-educated, they’ll be the best educated in the world,” as Mayor Gray envisioned at Anacostia High School’s renovation ribbon-cutting, we’ve got a lot more to
reform and restore. When it comes to truancy, it is much less about getting the lights working in the classroom and much more
about getting along outside of it.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The value of education: What is the true cost of a quality education?
3:49 pm edt
While education reformers struggle
to compete with opponents to make a case for bold and urgent change, parents in Prince George’s County are going to
great lengths to signal how much they value quality education and how urgent quality education is to them.
The stagnant expansion of school
choice in the county has pushed
(Brian Lewis - THE GAZETTE)parents into private schools or new school districts for what they perceive to
be a more quality education. While Prince George’s touts 7 charter schools and a growing Secondary School Reform program,
the demand for charter schools and specialty programs at select county high schools continues to exceed the supply.
rate of displacement from home foreclosures and transfer to private/parochial schoolshas led to traditional school enrollment being down 10 percent, or 13,4000, in the last eight years to approximately 125,000 Meanwhile, in Washington, as charter schools see tremendous increases) in enrollment- about 11 percent- enrollment at traditional schools remain stagnant. The slow exodus from traditional public
schools has consequences. The drop in enrollment has resulted in the closing of 12 Prince George’s County schools and countless economic spillovers into the jobs and housing markets.
is scheduled to close nearly 20 schools as they reconcile lower enrollment in select schools. School districts with lower
enrollment are almost always another district’s gain. Fairfax County has added more than 13,000 students in the past
eight years, reaching anenrollment of 177,606
Montgomery County, the second-largest district in the region, gained more than 7,000 and now has 146,976 students
since 2004. DC and Maryland parents are signaling their priorities with their feet and the pocketbooks.
relationship to the county school system began with his struggle as a local student. James later realized how unprepared
he was as a freshman at Howard University. An honor student in high school, James was surprised to see that his success didn’t
translate to college. James and his wife started their daughter off at a private school where he paid as much for private
school as he paid in tuition fees at Howard. When asked about how he chose the best school system, James shared “I looked
at school rankings in the region.”
When pressed about Maryland’s schools ranking number
one in the country, James was quick to respond: “Maryland may be number one, but Prince George’s definitely isn’t.”
Prince George’s graduation rate ranks second worst in the DC metro region. James and his wife chose to relocate their
7 year-old daughter to Fairfax County with much sacrifice.
For the past four years, James
and his family has deferred moving into a home they could afford in Prince George’s for an apartment in McLean. James
also has to drive a considerable distance to work each day in Maryland since relocating as well. In the end, James and his
wife believe their sacrifice and investment is paying off, as James was proud to share that their daughter, now 11, is “doing
great [in school] has a strong chance of getting into a selective program in a nearby public high school.”
McCoy and her husband moved from Washington to Prince George’s with the best intentions for their family. The McCoy’s
experience in a system without universal pre-K, overcrowded classes, or an emphasis on extra-curricular activities prompted
them to remove their two children from county schools in exchange for a county-based private school. Though private schooling
their children required the McCoy’s to be more conscientious of how and when they spend and save, their private school
also had a program to subsidize tuition for families.
Like the Durham’s, the McCoy’s are pleased with their
investment. Any disappoint about having to move to a private school is overshadowed when McCoy talks about her 12-year-old
son and 6-year-old daughter. McCoy loves to share how much her kids “have seen tremendous spiritual, emotional, and
academic growth at their school.”
Irving H, who asked that his last name not be used, is a single father who worked multiple
jobs to afford his son’s tuition to DeMatha High School, an all-male private school in Prince George’s. The product
of a single parent home himself, Irving never attended college but always instilled its importance to his son.
decision to incur the cost of one of the most prestigious private schools in the region was based on the school’s relative
diversity and storied track record for alumni being awarded college scholarships. The cost of tuition required Irving to generate
more revenue from his rental properties, take on additional work assignments as a home contractor, and take on extra hours
as a Service Technician with a local cable company. Irving shared “[Paying for school] was definitely not easy, if it
took paying a bill late to make sure my son school was paid, I did it.” Irving’s son eventually received a full
scholarship to a four-year college in Pennsylvania.
The decision to choose private schools over public schools is
no longer limited to the super wealthy. The face of the private school parent is Irving and McCoy. And while working class
Prince Georgians signal how much they value quality education with the financial sacrifices they are making, pubic education
advocates continue to lose a valuable constituency of concerned and engaged parents.
children in private schools or moving to a district with a strong school system is not an answer in and of itself. James and
his wife are the first to say they still work closely with their daughter, and are slow to give all the credit to the system.
Schools are incredibly important, but the value parents place on education can be even more important.
The lengths parents are going
through to give their child the best opportunity to succeed should inspire those fighting for reform to come together now
and create urgency around the bold reforms it will take to compete with neighboring districts. Irving said it best,
“If you can invest in a home or a property, than you can invest in your kid."
How to keep black students out of prison
3:46 pm edt
On Tuesday’s episode of Know-It-All: The ABCs of Education, entitled “No More Kids in Jail: A Holistic Look at Student Discipline,” my guest was David Domenici, executive
director and founder of the Center for Educational Excellence in Alternative Settings (CEEAS.
We talked about modifying school
discipline practices to keep children out of juvenile justice facilities, and he discussed what
In this photo taken Feb. 27, 2009, four teachers
help twenty students to prepare for the upcoming FCAT by giving them reading strategies, in a reading push-in class at Miami
Central Senior High School in Miami. When President Barack Obama and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush stand side by side Friday,
March 4, 2011 at Miami Central, it will be an opportunity for the Democrat to show a bipartisan approach to education reform
while allowing the Republican to push his own nationwide message on the issue. (AP Photo/The Miami Herald, Carl Juste) MAGS
OUT (Carl Juste - AP)education in correctional institutions for children should look like. After hearing the
show, a friend of mine asked me, “Why didn’t you talk about race?” In other words, how could you possibly
have a conversation about student discipline and not talk extensively about race?
And, it's true. Domenici and I didn’t
talk much about race. Even though race and crime and student discipline are braided together and bound by a patterned ribbon
of bias and injustice. And, even though, truthfully, we can never NOT talk about race when we’re talking about student
In November 2011, five-year-old Michael Davis was arrested out of school in California, zip tied at the wrists and ankles, after a police officer’s attempt to scare
him straight didn’t go as planned and Michael, a special needs student, reacted by batting away the officer’s
hand and kicking the officer in the knee. In April last year, six-year-old Salecia Johnson was arrested out of school in Georgia
for throwing a temper tantrum. This past December, seven-year-old Wilson Reyes was arrested out of school in New York for stealing $5 from another student. He spent 6 hours handcuffed at the police
precinct. This month, eight-year-old Jmiyha Rickman, also with special needs, was arrested out of school in Illinois for throwing a temper tantrum. She was handcuffed and shackled
at the wrist and ankles. I could go on.
Somehow, we have allowed and enabled a level of criminality to creep into public education, like a serpent hungry only
for a select few. Black and brown children are arrested for developmentally appropriate behavior and for acting out when they
are emotionally unequipped to speak their trauma, and schools don’t take the time after such incidents to reflect with
students and communities about how to work together better to provide support. Against the frenetic backdrop over school choice, black mothers are arrested for gaming public school attendance zone requirements to send their child to a better school, a game that parents
from all walks of life play.
it's black mothers who have to wear that scarlet letter “C” for choice or for criminal depending on your perspective.
Meanwhile, white parents playing the very same game often play by different rules and are permitted to declare quiet victory
while administrators look the other way, or parents with larger bank accounts simply pay for entry to a better school. As
a civil rights attorney who worked for the Justice Department, I saw inequity play out more times than I care to count..
David Domenici sees the race quotient in his
work but doesn’t have time to dwell. Instead, he spends his days working closely with children society has discarded.
He educates children who have been locked away in detention facilities and correctional institutions, hidden away from plain
view. He devises strategies for engaging families sometimes separated from their incarcerated children by hundreds of miles.
He re-ignites flames in children long ago extinguished by society’s expectations and fears.
Many times school discipline practices send children on a
direct path to institutional detention. As a civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice, I used to investigate schools’
contributions to the social inequities we see. I have been and am still righteously indignant about the way we treat black
and brown children in school.
But I have to remember the nuance. Reminders come all the time, like in this heart-wrenching video of seven-year-old Wilson Reyes’s bullying victim, Seth Acevedo, who is nine years old. Race is always there, an
ooze that covers everything in this country. It sticks in our clothes, in our hair, in our speech, tangling our feet. As we
grapple with race, we also have to come up for air from time to time to examine the crevices of this reality we’ve built
to make sure we haven’t neglected other things that have nothing to do with race.
Student discipline is one of those crevices and is filled with other things, several
of which Domenici and I discussed. He extolled the virtues of positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) and promised
that rewarding good behavior and loudly and publicly celebrating students’ achievements works well, even with older
children. He said that educators have to establish high expectations for their students and must believe in those expectations
themselves so that children will live up to them. Schools must communicate with parents when their children are doing well.
Together, high academic achievement and pro-social behavior are a recipe for success for any child.
School discipline cannot include handcuffing seven-year-old
children for 10 hours for stealing $5. Children act out for a variety of reasons, and we have to focus on creating environments
where children’s insecurities are exposed and eliminated in a healthy and loving way so that they will not mistreat
others. Domenici said that he cannot have a conversation with a 17-year-old student who reads below grade level about that
student’s reading ability until he has connected with the student in an authentic way. Children, maybe more than adults,
are sensitive to judgment and low expectations.
Domenici explained that, while discipline should be used to remove students from situations in which they may be of harm
to themselves and others, discipline is also an opportunity to continue to build trust and for children to know that, even
when they act out, we are here to catch them because we love them and value them.
Domenici does talk about race, but mostly he just talks about his students, with
energy and passion. And he is doing everything in his power to make us all see them the way he does, bringing the children
who reside in the darkness of our minds into the light, letting their voices be heard. One of the tools he and his colleagues
at CEEAS are using is Words Unlocked, a month-long initiative beginning in April that will publish and celebrate the poetry of incarcerated youth. Would that
we could all be so progressive.
Wednesday, February 6, 2013
Blacks disproportionately disciplined in the nation’s schools: Students respond
9:10 am est
Link to article
When the Department of Education released a study last March submitting that black students were
on the receiving end of the harshest discipline in America’s public schools, it was hardly a revelation for most educators
who work with this particular student population.
For decades, as a teacher and school administrator, I have borne witness to troubling behavior on behalf of African
American kids in schools. Therefore, not only did I agree with the study’s findings, I advocated for even stricter discipline
The study seemed to
only confirm what many have known for years. The disrespectful, confrontational behavior of our students in school must be
But that is only
part of the story.
When I reported
on the nationwide school survey in a June column, it garnered significant feedback from the public. However, it was not until English
teachers at James Hubert Blake High School in Montgomery County decided to introduce the story as a department-wide student
assignment that the true impact of the article began to come to light.
A little more than a month ago, I was contacted by the English department chair to speak to her
students and offer some clarification, as my article apparently had a “dramatic effect” on her students.
I was forewarned that many of them were
angry because they felt castigated, unfairly maligned and mischaracterized by my story. My conversation with the students
in early January was, at times, tense and direct. The underlying resentment was palpable as nearly every hand in the room
went up — students firing off questions in rapid succession.
“Why would you write something like that? Do you honestly think this is going to make a difference?
Did you really mean everything you said? I was appalled; do you hate us? Why did you just focus on black kids? Do you think
your criticism is fair? What would make you say such things about us?”
And there it was.
Instantly, it became crystal clear: Our students don’t even know how bad the problem has become. Yet, it is their
overall behavior and attitude toward learning that have been at the core of higher suspensions, expulsions and the much-hyped
achievement gap that exists between black students and all other kids in public schools.
The fact is black students rank dead last in every academic measurement.
Irrespective of the type of assessment, as a subgroup, our students routinely score significantly lower than others. The performance
gap is real whether on the Maryland High School Assessment, the Virginia Standards of Learning, the District’s comprehensive
assessment, the SAT or ACT.
was so surprising was that they appeared to be authentically, legitimately startled to learn of their status when compared
with other students, regarding both discipline and academic performance.
While I stood there presenting data, endeavoring to answer their questions, I was continually vexed
by nagging internal queries. Why do we refuse to tell our kids the truth? Are we afraid that we might find out that they can’t
compete after all? Is it that we don’t want to destroy their self-esteem? Are we scared that it might cause them to
shut down academically?
irrational apprehensions continue to jeopardize and undermine the talents of our best and brightest students. Therefore, while
I went to Blake to enlighten them about their scholastic proclivities, it was I who walked away with the education, one that
African American parents would be well-advised to heed.
The bottom line is that our kids are resilient and won’t break; nor will they flinch in the
face of the truth.
the real problem?
educators may tell you privately that it is a dangerous minefield for teachers, principals and even school superintendents
to inform black parents of academic, social or behavioral problems among their children. Inevitably, race becomes a factor
in conversations surrounding black student behavior and performance.
Even African Americans teachers who dare to broach this subject invariably become a “sellout”
or an “Uncle Tom.”
too many teachers, the prospect of a loud confrontation with parents, or worse, just isn’t worth it.
Therefore, the larger question is: Have black
parents unconsciously created an environment of anxiety and intimidation that has led to teachers refraining from helping
our children due to fear of reprisal?
After receiving more than 60 responses from students after our discussion, what is clear is that their outlook can
be radically altered by simply speaking the truth. They deserve an honest assessment and the opportunity to think critically
about their performance and concomitant behavior.
By doing so, the achievement gap may well fade to a distant memory. The evidence can be found in the comments I received
from the students themselves.
Mr. Porter your article and presentation were great overall, but there was one piece of it I did not like the ‘out negro’
each other. I felt like that was not true and stupid, but as you explained further, it started to make sense but was still
(In my June
column, I define students’ attempt to “out-Negro” as to demonstrate to others that they are authentically
black. To act out in school and reject opportunity somehow epitomizes what being black represents.)
“When he came
to talk to the class, I liked how he explained his article. I agree with EVERYTHING he said. Everyday I see this happening
especially the ‘out-negroing.’ I see black people at my school trying to act ‘black’ or ‘ghetto’
and it’s just them resorting to stereotypes.”
“In person meeting Mr. Porter he explained it more to me to think he didn’t really
try to seem racist to his own race but what black kids have been doing for years he has been working with schooling.”
“I think it was clever for you to
use the phrase ‘out negro’ each other because it caught our attention”
“Your presentation made a lot more sense than your article.
I thought you were being ignorant to your own kind. I agree that black kids need to apply themselves more. I believe that
secretly we are lazy. I can do the work. I’m a bright person and there is really no excuse why I shouldn’t be
held to higher expectations. So now I’m on a mission.”
“When I read your article, I felt that you didn’t care for the black students, but
after your presentation, it was obvious that you just want us to do better.”
“I know many people didn’t agree with your article but once
you came in with the statistical proof, people started to awaken and think otherwise. Personally, I agree with the article
because I have seen this behavior with my own eyes.”
Over the course of one class period, hearts and minds were changed. We owe our children the truth;
it will set them free at long last.
In the end, it is not innate cognition but a lack of effective effort and poor behavior that continues to hamstring
our bright African American students.
Our refusal to be
honest is harmful to their long term prospects; and worse, we quickly disavow anyone else who will. The result manifests in
a cruel hoax upon entering the real world believing that they are prepared.
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