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Whitney Told Me the Children are our Future

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I’ve been working in urban public school systems for 14 years.  When my children were ready for kindergarten, 3 years ago, there was no question – they went straight into our neighborhood urban public school, here in New York City.  At my children’s school, there is an active PTA that holds lots of creative and expensive fundraisers.  My kids have music and art and yoga.  Their teachers are beautifully trained in Readers and Writers Workshop.  They have extensive, leveled classroom libraries, they walk to Prospect Park to engage in “tree studies,” and they contribute to an annual school-wide poetry anthology called Pandemonium that’s hundreds of pages long, bound, and printed on really fancy card stock. And one afternoon a year they march down to their school lobby to spend my hard-earned money at the portable Scholastic Book Fair where they stock up on books that I would never buy them myself, but that make them super duper happy.

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Yep.  Public School 321 is a pretty great neighborhood elementary school.  But don’t even think about it for your kids.  Unless you’re rich.  And mostly white.  And happen to live in Park Slope, Brooklyn.  Specifically, in “the zone.”

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The kids I’ve worked for for the last 14 years are high school kids. They went to shitty elementary schools.  They grew up in shitty neighborhoods.  They live “stop and frisk” every day.  They have little access to green spaces.  Some of them have been on welfare their whole lives.  They’ve seen their brothers and cousins and neighbors get shot.  Many of them read at a 4th, 5th or 6th grade reading level.  Many of them can’t add fractions.  They tell me their voices don’t matter.  They’re mostly black.  And Dominican.  And Caribbean.

(left to right) Erika Nicole Kendall, Lily and me chatting big picture education stuff.

(left to right) Erika Nicole Kendall, Lily, me, and Jenn Choi chatting big picture education stuff.

See, New York has the most segregated school system in the country.

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I’m bringing this up because yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Lily Eskelsen García, president-elect of the National Education Association. (Thanks again for arranging that Christine!) In case you were wondering, she’ll be the first female president of the NEA in 20 years.  It’s also worth noting that’s she’s the first Latina president the NEA has ever had.  She was lovely.  She said all the right things about how testing and accountability have created a culture of fear among teachers, and how the Common Core Standards are actually very good (I totally agree) but that standards have been conflated with high stakes tests and we need to find more authentic ways to assess standards.  She talked about how cool it would be to encourage people in the community to become teachers by offering grad school scholarships – a sort of grassroots model of teacher recruitment and retention.  And she talked about the peer evaluation model that the school system in Montgomery County, Maryland has developed to make evaluations opportunities for professional development and collaboration as opposed to “gotchas.”

What she didn’t talk about explicitly was how to close the achievement gap.

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I’ve been doing this work for a long time and I still cry every time I walk into my kids’ elementary school.  All of our children deserve well-trained teachers and schools that are safe.  All of our children should be reading at or above grade level.  All of our children should have the chance to cultivate their curiosity and their desire to learn how to learn.

All of our children should exhibit a growth mindset.

Tackling a segregated school system and all of the inequity that goes along with that in a country that “desegregated” schools in 1954 is not something that Lily Eskelsen Garcia can fix.  At least, not alone.  But I figure it’s an issue worth raising and studying if indeed we believe the children are our future.

3 Responses to Whitney Told Me the Children are our Future
  1. Kateri Von Steal
    August 20, 2014 | 10:44 am

    Great post!

    It’s really wonderful to see the POV of a teacher in NY.

    I live up in Orange County, NY… and I find that similar things are occurring up here, and I just hope that my son doesn’t get caught in the middle. We work with his teachers, and make sure that he is at (or above) where he needs to be. We check HW.. we talk about what he’s learned… we do additional studies on it… To show him that learning is important and fun…

    I feel the common core could be wonderful, if implemented properly.. and up by us, that doesn’t seem to be the case. **SIGHS**

    Great Post. I think it’s wonderful you are bringing awareness to this subject.

  2. HeatherM
    August 20, 2014 | 5:23 pm

    I live in the Chicago area, which is the second most segregated city in the country. We need more voices trying to desegregate our school systems here. One of the challenges we faced recently was the closure of 43 underperforming and low- enrolled (under-funded) schools. Since the majority of the underperforming schools were in low-income Hispanic and African American communities on the South & West sides, many argued the school closings were racist or racially charged. Others argued that it would be racist to ignore the problems and leave the children in their existing underperforming schools. If you have a school system where the majority of underperforming schools teach primarily to non-white children, then any reform can be construed as racist. So how do you overcome this to garner community support in addressing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the school system?

  3. Beth
    September 6, 2014 | 11:04 am

    I’m with you. I am a middle school counselor in a “haves” and “have-nots” school. We have the highest percentage of homeless kids AND the highest percentage of rich kids, with almost no middle class to bring them together (except our staff). It breaks my heart every day, and I fight constantly against the inequities, as I try to help all of my students develop a growth mindset (“You CAN grow your brain! Effort is everything! Don’t give up!”) and head off to high school with everything they need to make it. Sigh.

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