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County Ballot Measures Would Fund Child Care, Early Education

Research that shows early childhood education can profoundly impact the future success of children. But early childhood educators are still chronically underpaid.

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Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma are not the only educators struggling to improve conditions in a profession they say is undervalued.

Alameda County’s low-income child care workers are joining cash-strapped parents in an attempt to raise wages, improve quality and expand access to care in a region where pay has not kept pace with the dramatic increases in housing costs for many families.

They are taking their fight to the ballot on June 5 with Measure A, an initiative to raise approximately $140 million per year to expand preschool and child care access and improve retention of teachers by boosting pay. In neighboring San Francisco, already considered a leader in early childhood education, voters will also have the option to vote for Proposition C, which would expand the number of child care slots and increase wages.

In many ways, child care workers face a steeper climb than newly emboldened red state K-12 teachers. As tough as things may be for school teachers in right-to-work states, there is some consensus that what they do is a necessary public good.

That’s not been so for early childhood educators in spite of research that shows that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops in the first five years of life and that quality child care programs can fuel the future success of children and stabilize families, especially those who are low income.

“Some of it has to do with historical baggage about whether mothers should be working outside the home,” says Marcy Whitebook, an expert on the childcare labor force at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.


The United States lags far behind other developed nations in both preschool funding and enrollment.


Unlike the public schools, which are centralized and government funded, the early childhood education system is decentralized — taking place at a mix of private and public schools, centers and homes — and the funding is fragmented, with parents expected to shoulder the lion’s share of the cost.

Nancy Harvey, a former elementary school teacher, who runs a child care business out of her West Oakland home, feels the consequences of this underinvestment.

She serves a mix of middle and working class families in a diverse neighborhood that she says has been gentrifying. “Every other year, I’m looking for new staff because they get burned out or they need higher wages,” says Harvey. Meanwhile, she says, some of her families have had to leave the state because “between having to pay child care and rent, they simply couldn’t make it.”

Alameda County’s Measure A, a half-cent sales tax, would expand access to child care and preschool for low and middle income families, provide supports for homeless and at-risk children, and raise the wages of child care workers to at least $15 per hour. The scholarships could impact more than 20,000 children as the program ramps up, according to Angie Garling, who heads Alameda County’s Early Childhood Education Office.

In neighboring San Francisco, advocates gathered enough signatures to place Proposition C, a 3.5 percent surtax on commercial rents over $1 million a year on the ballot. The estimated $146 million raised annually would clear a waitlist of families who are in line to receive early child care and education services.

Prop. C would also make quality early child care more affordable for families earning as much as $207,500, and increase wages for child care workers beyond the $15 per hour to be required by the city’s minimum wage law as of July 1. A little over $20 million of the revenue would be set aside for the general fund.

The two local ballot initiatives – in Alameda County and San Francisco – represent a “down-payment” on the kind of investment that only the state and federal government can provide, says Whitebook. And the measures are part of a wave of activism at the local level, according to Margaret Brodkin of Funding the Next Generation, who says other cities and counties plan to include child care measures on their ballots in future elections.

The state has been gradually increasing funding for child care since the end of the Great Recession, after cutting funding for 110,000 child care slots, according to Chris Hoene, executive director of the California Budget and Policy Center. But California is still 67,000 slots short of where it was, he adds. Even a substantial boost in federal child care dollars, recently approved by Congress, will not be enough to address the funding deficit, say advocates.

Those revenue sources help those who meet income eligibility thresholds. The U.S. generally lags behind other industrialized countries when it comes to providing universal preschool. The overall enrollment in preschool of 3-to 5-year-olds in the United States is 67 percent, the lowest of all but two of the 34 countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to an OECD study published last year.

And both measures will also help child care workers, many of whom rely on public assistance, according to a recent UC Berkeley study co-authored by Whitebook. Those who obtain bachelor’s degrees, as required by Head Start and some public pre-K programs, do not usually earn much more for their troubles, according to the study.


In Alameda County, center-based child care exceeds tuition at UC Berkeley and is often a family’s second largest cost after housing.


A child care worker in Alameda County earns $29,000 a year on average, about 79 percent of what it would take for a single person in the county to afford the bare necessities, according to the California Budget and Policy Project. Meanwhile, the cost of center-based care exceeds tuition at UC Berkeley and is often a family’s second largest cost after housing.

These statistics are more than just academic to Morgan Pringle, a child care center substitute teacher who is also pursuing a degree in human development at California State University, East Bay.

While she was growing up, she says her mother, also a child care worker, supplemented her main job with fast food and house cleaning gigs. When the car’s transmission gave out, “we just had to go without a car for a couple of years,” says Pringle, who also recalls stints living with her grandmother and aunts. “The pay of an early childhood educator has never matched the cost of living here in Alameda County,” she adds.

Like Harvey, she’s joined Raising Alameda, a coalition that has brought family day care providers, parents and child care center employees together in support of Measure A. The Service Employees International Union Local 521, which represents child care providers, is a member of the coalition.

Even advocates acknowledge that an increase in sales tax, which is generally considered a regressive tax, is not ideal. Measure A will raise the sales tax in some Alameda County cities to close to 10 percent.

But local governments do not have many progressive funding options since the passage of Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that limited tax increases on real estate, according to Hoene.

Voters who want to expand child care services in San Francisco will be able to vote to levy a surtax on commercial rents. However, they must choose between Proposition C and a rival measure, Proposition D, which would fund housing and supportive services for seniors, the mentally ill and homeless youth. Proposition D, which also would tax commercial rents, is endorsed by the city’s acting mayor and five supervisors, including mayoral candidate London Breed.

Proposition C, an initiative backed by Supervisor Norman Yee and Breed’s rival in the mayor’s race Supervisor Jane Kim, only requires a majority vote, while Proposition D — which was placed on the ballot by a vote of County supervisors — requires a two-thirds vote. However, if they both win, only the one with the most votes will be enacted.

At least one voter has already voiced frustration that the city’s political leaders have pitted the need for affordable housing against the need for child care.

“In my day, we would go into a room with these two competing great ideas and take as much time as we needed, and not come out until we’d resolved them,” former Mayor Art Agnos said at a Board of Supervisors committee meeting earlier this year, according to a report in Mission Local.

Back in Alameda County, Trisha Thomas, who runs a family day care in North Oakland while also selling life insurance and working as a church musician, says she is happy to be raising the visibility of her profession through a ballot campaign that has involved testifying at public meetings and phone banking.

“For many years, people just saw us as babysitters,” says Thomas, who has a bachelor’s degree and plans to pursue a master’s degree. “My kids can do math. My kids can read. My kids are well above the average child starting school.”

“To be viewed as a teacher, it’s important to me,” she says.

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The Hard Work of Diversifying Higher Education in California

In California, where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color, diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority.

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Bill Raden

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UC regents meeting earlier this year. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

USC Professor: “The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate.”


On April 30 Thomas Kanewakeron Gray, 19, and Lloyd Skanahwati Gray, 17, two Native American Mohawk brothers, joined a campus tour of Colorado State University, a sprawling, public research university located just an hour north of Denver. They had scrimped and saved, their mother would later say, to make the seven-hour drive from the family’s home in Santa Cruz, New Mexico to “their dream school.”

The two teens joined the tour somewhat late, provoking one nervous mother, who was white, to call 911 and describe them as “Hispanic” kids “from Mexico” who “joined our tour” yet “weren’t a part of our tour.” The bewildered boys, who had been invited there by the university’s admissions office, quickly found themselves being frisked and questioned by campus police, before they were released. (Colorado State University is nearly 80 percent Caucasian; the senior leading the tour later admitted she hadn’t even noticed the police remove the Grays.)

The brothers’ ordeal illustrates the degree to which higher education’s path to economic security and enlightened citizenship is increasingly crossing a battleground for a broader American promise of equal opportunity called diversification. The Colorado incident is part of a recent minefield of what psychologists label microaggressions — the everyday indignities of racially themed slights, snubs, insults and general indifference whose hurt tends to be invisible to its perpetrators but is experienced by marginalized groups as a very real, if low-level and wearying state of dread. When they occur on a college campus, their impact on degree completion can be profound.


Success for first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved by hiring more faculty
that look like those students.


“The only way that we’re going to change educational outcomes is if we have faculty that are racially literate,” University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education educational equity professor Estela Mara Bensimon told Capital & Main by phone. “In other words, they have an awareness of how the classroom can be a racialized space, where microaggression or other kinds of circumstances are detrimental to students of color.”

In racially diverse California, those circumstances included last month’s furor over the latest fraternity hijinks at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a California State University campus that holds the distinction of being the least diverse public university in the state. It’s a lack of diversity that tends to play out at Cal Poly fraternities in near-annual rites of disparaging ethnic and racial minorities. The targets of April’s incident, which triggered campus protests when photos turned up on social media of fraternity members in minstrel blackface and dressed as Mexican-American gang members, were African-Americans and Latinos. In 2013, the insult was to women and Native Americans. Last year, it was the idea of diversity itself.

For California, which boasts both the fifth-largest economy in the world, and where 76 percent of its K-12 enrollment is students of color (and still surging), diversifying public colleges and universities is a top priority. Producing the educated workforce needed to continue growing the economy means not only recruiting students of color but also seeing them complete a degree.

Or at least that’s the argument made in a new study by the college-equity advocacy group Campaign for College Opportunity (CCO). Called Left Out: How Exclusion in California’s Colleges and Universities Hurts Our Values, Our Students, and Our Economy, the report found that although systemwide student diversity at California’s public colleges and universities is a robust 69 percent (second only to Hawaii), its faculty and senior leadership tend to often be white and male.

Using data for the 2016-17 academic year for all three segments of the state’s higher education system — University of California (UC); California State University (CSU) and California Community College (CCC) — it found that tenured faculty was at least 32 percent racially diverse, while senior leadership came in at roughly 40 percent diverse and academic senates scored a disappointing 26 percent. Women were significantly underrepresented in college governance, with men making up about two-thirds of the system’s regents, trustees and Community College Board of Governors. The least diversified faculties and leadership were the 10 UC campuses; California’s 114 Community Colleges were the most diverse systemwide — with the exception of its academic senates.

The other wrinkle, says CCO senior vice president Audrey Dowd, were nagging gaps between college access and degree success for minority students. “When we look at completion, that’s where we see a huge disparity in rates of success. So we know that Latinx students, black students and then some subgroups within the Asian American population, are not fairing as well, they are just not completing at the same rate as their white counterparts.”

The findings add to an already well-supported argument that college success for often first-in-their-family college students of color can be dramatically improved merely by hiring more faculty that look like those students.

“Our work looking at faculty of color has found that they’re more likely to employ teaching practices that we know are good for underserved students,” said J. Luke Wood, director of the Doctoral Program in Community College Leadership at San Diego State University. “You have to be exposed to people who look like you at some point, or else it’s hard to envision yourself doing the kinds of things that they’re recommending you do to be successful.”

That’s what Devon Graves, a black third-year Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles and a first-generation college student from Riverside County, said happened to him when he met the popular political science professor Renford Reese while Graves was an undergraduate at Cal Poly Pomona, the 81 percent diversified sister campus to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Reese became his undergraduate adviser.

“He was one of a few African-American tenured professors, but he did play an important role in where I’m at today,” Graves recalled. “I just remember still having a tough time transitioning onto campus, having that impostor syndrome, thinking that I didn’t belong. … If it wasn’t for him, I would have never thought of myself as someone who can pursue a Ph.D. and do the research that I do and see myself as a professor. So seeing someone who looked like me in that position, and who helped mentor me to get to that next level made a world of difference.”

One of the more outstanding exceptions in the CCO report was 60,000-student East L.A. College, whose president, Marvin Martinez, hosted the organization in March when it came to Los Angeles to present the study’s community college findings. With its 67 percent Latinx enrollment, 72 percent diversified faculty and a college leadership that was 80 percent Latinx (and 60 percent Latina), Martinez said that diversity has actually been the school’s most potent recruitment tool.

“It’s one major reason students come to East L.A. college,” he said at the conference. “It’s also a [faculty] recruitment tool, by the way. … I ask them, ‘Why East L.A. College? Why are you interested in this campus?’ And many give me the same response: ‘I feel at home here.’ ‘I like it here.’ ‘I feel that the people know me.’”

But it’s one thing to make the case that a more diversified faculty and administration will lead to greater college completion for minorities that will attract more faculty of color, which will be ultimately good for all Californians — and another to actually get that ball rolling.

Bensimon, who as the director of USC’s Center for Urban Education also teaches diversifying colleges how to “re-script” their hiring processes, pointed out that California has what she calls “a locked system of hiring” that has evolved precisely to preserve power by yielding primarily white candidates.

That’s partly because policies like hiring preferences trickle down from the top in California’s system of public higher education, where the “top” is whoever is sitting behind the governor’s desk. California’s governors appoint the UC regents, the CSU trustees and the CCC board of governors, which is why their complexions tend to mirror the overwhelmingly white, male makeup of the state’s political elite. It’s also why CCO has injected the issue into the governor’s race by hosting three gubernatorial forums on higher education. It is not a done deal.

“It’s really about whiteness as an institutional culture and an institutional practice that most whites are not able to see,” Bensimon reflected. “Unless we begin to make that more transparent and be able to talk about it, I just think it’s really hard to change, to help institutions of higher education be more equity-producing.”


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Investment Banker Named Los Angeles Schools Superintendent

Austin Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of two finalists, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools.

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Bill Raden

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Austin Beutner, center. (Photo: Isidoro Hoyos)

It’s official. On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Unified School District board confirmed what city media outlets had been reporting during the previous 24 hours as likely: Millionaire investment banker Austin Beutner will be the next superintendent of L.A. Unified, the nation’s second-largest public school district.

The school board reportedly negotiated a three-year contract with Beutner prior to Tuesday’s announcement, offering him an annual base salary of $350,000.

The 5-2 vote to ratify the contract (George McKenna and Scott Schmerelson cast the dissenting votes) came at the end of Tuesday’s school board meeting. The vote brought to a close a fast-tracked, three-month nationwide search for a successor to Michelle King. A popular superintendent who had risen through the ranks at LAUSD, King officially stepped down in January after barely two years on the job to concentrate on fighting a cancer diagnosis.

The announcement also capped an impassioned day of public testimony, the vast majority of it opposing Beutner and pleading for the board to hire LAUSD’s current interim superintendent, Vivian Ekchian. The superintendent search had been winnowed to just the two candidates in the final weeks.

The 58-year-old Beutner, who has no background as an educator, was widely seen as the more politically connected of the two, as well as being the prospect most sympathetic to charter schools. He may best be known to Angelenos for his troubled, yearlong tenure as publisher of the Los Angeles Times in 2015, as well as for Vision to Learn, a charity he founded to provide vision screenings and glasses to low-income students. The charity was recently in the headlines for being in breach of a $3 million contract with LAUSD over delivery of services.

Ekchian, also 58, had been overwhelmingly favored by teachers and district insiders and, like King, had spent her entire education career within LAUSD, including 10 years as a classroom teacher. Ekchian had been handpicked by King to fill in during the latter’s sick leave and has been running the district since September; she was officially appointed interim superintendent in January.

Tuesday’s announcement was preceded by a day of public testimony, much of it highly critical of board member Ref Rodriguez over his refusal to recuse himself. Rodriguez, 46, the District 5 member, is facing three felony and 25 misdemeanor counts for allegedly laundering $26,000 in campaign contributions during his 2015 race.

Those charges have cast a long shadow over the search. They were foremost on the minds of the teachers, parents, union officials and at least five former board members, who questioned the legitimacy of Beutner’s selection in often emotional public comments.

“The man you’re about to choose has no history of success anywhere,” said former school board president Jeff Horton. “What that says to all of the educators that you depend on to deliver your product is, ‘We don’t really care whether a person knows about education. We have other criteria — which are connected with our donors and our backers.’”

Teachers-union members were even more blunt in their opposition: “Let’s be very clear and dispel any notion that the school board majority, representing more than $15 million in political donations from the charter lobby, is here in the best interest of our public schools,” charged United Teachers Los Angeles secretary Arlene Inouye. “It’s clear you want a superintendent in place before criminally indicted board member Ref Rodriguez’s trial, where he faces possible jail time.”

Rodriguez, who was elected to the board in 2015, riding a wave of over $2 million in charter school campaign contributions, effectively held the deciding vote on a board in which pro-charter members hold a 4-3 majority. He has resisted calls for his resignation despite a widening series of scandals that include revelations that in 2014, as head of the charter chain Partnerships to Uplift Communities, Rodriguez had authorized and signed $265,000 in checks to a nonprofit under his control. And, last month, Rodriguez was arrested at a Pasadena restaurant on suspicion of public intoxication, without later being cited or charged.

Rodriguez and his troubles had been the center of a series of public demonstrations leading up to Tuesday’s vote, including Friday’s delivery of a petition to district attorney Jackie Lacey by a group called Concerned Parents of District 5, calling for Rodriquez’s  immediate resignation and speedy trial.

“We’re speaking up and letting the school board know that we want him to resign,” Eagle Rock parent Rocio Rivas said of Rodriguez. “He should not be voting on anything, particularly the superintendent.”

In a separate action on Monday, a rally organized in front of LAUSD’s Beaudry Street headquarters by the East Area Progressive Democrats (EAPD) took the school board to task over the selection process and characterized Rodriguez as being emblematic of the board’s lack of accountability for charter schools.

“What’s so troubling is that it’s not at all clear that Beutner could have earned the votes for superintendent absent strong-arming from the very charter school interests that have thought that they purchased the board majority,” said EAPD president Hans Johnson. “Ref Rodriguez is conspicuously a part of the corruption.” (Rodriguez’s office did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)

Beutner will be the sixth superintendent in a decade for LAUSD, a district that has been plagued with unstable leadership and superintendent tenures far below what a 2016 Brookings report found was a mean of roughly four years for the districts it studied.

As the new superintendent, Beutner will need to deal with the district’s overall lackluster academic performance and a long-term budget deficit that comes at a time of declining enrollment, which itself is being aggravated by increasing charter-school competition.


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A California Public School that Betsy DeVos Wouldn’t Recognize

The Social Justice Humanitas Academy is one of a handful of community schools that have been dramatically closing opportunity and achievement gaps in some of Los Angeles’ toughest neighborhoods.

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All photos by Joanne Kim.

Its successes have led growing numbers of education policymakers to see California’s community schooling movement as a holistic reform that can restore equality of opportunity.


 

It’s a Tuesday morning on the Los Angeles campus of César E. Chávez Learning Academies, and a classroom of upper-level high school students is standing in a large, inward-facing circle. Suddenly a wisp of a girl steps forward and, thrusting out her palms as if halting oncoming traffic, brings the gathering to a hushed silence. “I chose to honor myself this weekend by staying home and spending time with my family,” she declaims confidently before rejoining the circle.

“Did anyone notice what she just did there? That’s how you take command of a room,” principal José Navarro pipes up from his own place in the circle. Then, one by one, the rest of the kids take their turns at an affirmation, each followed by Navarro leading a constructive critique of their delivery.

A Social Justice Humanitas Academy student responds to a question at a biweekly Council.

Welcome to a biweekly Council at Social Justice Humanitas Academy (SJHA) community school, a relatively recent addition to Los Angeles’ educational landscape. Part group therapy, part empathy- and trust-building exercise, the Councils are at the heart of a new, research-supported understanding of the profound role that healthy communities and school cultures play in children’s education.


In seven years of existence, SJHA has raised its graduation rate from 83 percent in its first year to last year’s 99 percent graduation rate.


SJHA is just one of a handful of community schools that have been dramatically closing opportunity and achievement gaps in some of Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) toughest and most reform-resistant, high-poverty neighborhoods. Their successes have led community organizers and a growing number of education policymakers to see California’s fledgling community schooling movement as a holistic, bottom-up reform that can restore equality of opportunity and the democratic promise of the state’s system of universal public education.

There’s good reason for optimism, according to a December Learning Policy Institute meta-analysis of 140 community schooling studies. “[We] came out quite convinced,” report co-author Jeannie Oakes said by phone, “that not only community schools as a whole, but [their] components all made a positive difference in things like student achievement, attendance, behavior and graduation rates.”

Though the concept of community schooling dates back to the turn of the last century and John Dewey’s Progressive Education Movement, its modern form has just really come into focus in the last 20 years. Full-service community schools only became eligible for federal money in 2015 under Title IV of the Obama administration’s Every Student Succeeds Act. The good news is that though Title IV had been targeted for elimination by President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, congress rebuffed the administration by giving a big boost to the block grants in the federal omnibus spending bill signed into law March 23.

Past federal policies, including No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, pushed corporate-styled, top-down reforms such as high-stakes testing and draconian accountability schemes. Meanwhile, state leaders gambled that radical deregulation and competition from privately-managed charter schools would force low-performing, resource-starved neighborhood schools to either put up or shut down. True, charter schools have flourished, but research suggests that privatization merely “creams” gifted students who were already well positioned to succeed, while pushing out kids with the highest needs.

SJHA principal José Navarro.

Social Justice Humanitas launched in 2011 as a “teacher-led” community school in partnership with the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), a Los Angeles education nonprofit that, with the Youth Policy Institute (YPI), Communities in Schools of Los Angeles, and the UCLA Center for Community Schooling, collectively account for 60 of the community schools currently operating in LAUSD. Thanks to a patchwork of foundation grants, partnerships and an on-site YPI community school coordinator, the César Chávez campus has become a hub for community support services, which is one hallmark of community schooling. LAEP also contributed the Humanitas curriculum, which it had developed as an interdisciplinary approach in which English, history, math, science and art lessons are linked around a common social justice theme.

On the same week that Navarro presided over SJHA’s Council, for example, the 10th grade had focused on ethical decision-making and, just upstairs from the Council session, desks in teacher Jael Reboh’s English class were pushed together into small discussion groups during a lesson on the Nazi victory in the German federal election of 1932 through the lens of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The SJHA campus is located on the edge of a gritty, largely Spanish-speaking pocket of the Northeast San Fernando Valley. A mere three traffic lights to the east sits Pacoima’s San Fernando Gardens, the largest public housing project in the San Fernando Valley, which is still remembered for being a gang-infested war zone during the crack epidemic of the ‘90s. Social Justice Humanitas is currently 96 percent Latino, with just over 90 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced lunches.

The neighborhood is also a place where homes typically lack the kind of early learning opportunities and enrichments that kids from more affluent communities take for granted — access to books, museum outings or adults who are able to read to them regularly. (A community scorecard issued the same year as SJHA’s launch gave the city of San Fernando a D for risk and a D for its schools.)

SJHA assistant principal Marike Aguilar at her desk.

In its seven years of existence, SJHA has raised its graduation rate from 83 percent in its first year to last year’s 99 percent graduation rate, with a 98 percent A through G matriculation rate with a C or better. During the same period, LAUSD’s graduation rate went from 67 to 80 percent. SJHA also outperformed the graduation numbers of its fellow pilot schools in the district and has more of its students matriculating into college.

“We’re ranked fourth in the district,” says Jennie Carey Rosenbaum, who joined SJHA as its community school coordinator and is now the school’s social-emotional learning initiatives director. “In a community with great poverty, it’s one thing to say, ‘Yes, yes you should go to college,’ and, ‘This is important’ — [but,] to constantly be saying that is sort of the counternarrative to everything they’ve heard in their lives.”

“I could have become entirely disinterested, disengaged and kind of weighed down by a lot of my personal life,” Vanessa Diaz agreed by phone. Diaz attended SJHA while in foster care before graduating in 2012 and going on to earn a degree in community and regional development from the University of California, Davis. “I feel like they see and treat students like the very best that they can be,” she said. “The education system right now is just so structured [around] criminalizing to black and brown communities and minorities, that this whole thing just really changed the game for me.”

In some ways, Social Justice Humanitas Academy, with its emphasis on teacher leadership, rather than on a more collaborative decision-making model involving parents, students and community partners, makes it a bit of an outlier in the movement. Yet it does share what most expect from community schooling: restorative justice; “whole-child” and culturally relevant, interdisciplinary teaching; family engagement; expanded learning opportunities; and on-campus wraparound supports that address basic student and community needs, including physical and mental health, financial literacy, housing assistance and legal support.

“No kids get thrown away here,” declared parent Belinda Davenport by phone. “I worked as a volunteer aide in a Spanish class, where this one teacher has like 13 kids on [special education Individualized Education Program] IEPs. … They have kids that are on behavioral IEPs as well as academic, but no kids get suspended, no kid is labeled bad. They find a resource to help that kid be loved and supported.”

The sometimes staggering levels of commitment required for that kind of close attention is why much of the job of a community school coordinator involves taking the load off teachers by finding community partners that can provide the kind of crucial services and resources that more affluent kids get at home.

“Public school teachers have been doing this for so long,” explains LAEP community schools director Gustavo Morales. “They have been the community school coordinator. They have been the resource coordinator. They have been the health and leadership coordinator. This is just relieving some of the pressure that has been put on teachers and really allowing the community to rise up and provide that additional support.”

Still, José Navarro admits that his school had a nearly 40 percent faculty turnover between its first and second year alone. Of the 22 people who were part of the school design team when Humanitas was still a small learning community based at nearby Sylmar High School, a mere seven made the move to the César Chávez campus.

And that’s what worries people like the American Federation of Teachers’ (AFT) Sharon Delugach. (Disclosure: AFT is a financial supporter of this website.) Last summer LAUSD’s board voted to embrace community schooling and Delugach became part of an implementation team currently working with the board to define and systematize a scale-up of community schools within the district.

“They still have a UTLA contract, but they have more autonomies than traditional schools have,” Delugach says of pilot schools like SJHA. “One of the things about pilot schools is that teachers are just responsible for so much at a school site, way beyond their classes. I do know that it takes a toll — sometimes it’s really not sustainable.”

Ultimately the problem comes down to money. The LAUSD implementation team is calling for an initial start-up of 20 district-created community schools. By comparison, Oakland Unified, which has seven percent of LAUSD’s enrollment, operates 35 full service community schools. And New York City, which has a 45.5 percent higher enrollment than LAUSD, last year announced it was adding 69 new community schools, which will bring its citywide count to 215. But California continues to dwell in the cellar of national per-pupil funding — a persistent stinginess that many say has exacerbated an opportunity gap that this year earned the state a C in school finance, a D-plus in K-12 Achievement and a dismal 36th place finish in Education Week’s 2018 Quality Counts national performance report card.

For a high-poverty urban district like LAUSD, where declining birth rates, reduced immigration, gentrification and the expansion of charters have left neighborhood schools scrambling for resources, education researchers believe that community schooling offers the first meaningful bang for its buck in delivering equity for its highest-needs students.

“I used to live in Brentwood [on L.A.’s affluent Westside], right next to Kenter Canyon Elementary,” reflected Jeannie Oakes, “and when you look at that school, with the extra science programs, the after-school stuff and the parent engagement and all that, it looks quite a lot like the community schools that UCLA or the Social Justice Humanitas Academy would have developed just within this structure of a community school.”

“Poverty is not a learning disorder, but it’s real,” Navarro observes. “And it’s debilitating if it goes unmitigated. More money? It would really help. If my teachers were able to grade, plan and meet with students who are failing before they left the building at five, six o’clock, we’d get a better product.”


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Orange County Parents: Change Name of School That Honors Klan Member

There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members — and one elementary school.

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Uncovering a cover-up: Mike Rodriguez (right) and Ben Van Dyk. (Photo: Gustavo Arellano)

All Mike Rodriguez initially knew, when he Googled “William Fanning Elementary Brea” a few years ago, was that it was a good school in the affluent North Orange County city of Brea. He was interested in enrolling his son there after hearing positive things about its music program from his wife’s cousin.

But Rodriguez’s mind changed when the search results showed a photo of a man standing in front of Fanning’s marquee, dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe.

The picture accompanied an OC Weekly article I wrote in 2013 titled “Welcome to Ku Klux Kounty!” that documented streets, parks and schools in Orange County named after local pioneers who belonged to the Invisible Empire during the 1920s. I based my research on the era’s OC Klan membership rolls on file at the Anaheim Heritage Center.

One of the names listed? Fanning, a former Brea teacher and school superintendent.

The revelation left Rodriguez “floored.” He and other parents will protest before the Feb. 26 board meeting of the Brea Olinda Unified School District and demand that trustees rename the elementary school.

For now, Brea Olinda Unified is resisting any Fanning name change. A report on the matter commissioned by school superintendent Brad Mason and obtained by Capital & Main dismisses the parents’ concerns as “editorial commentary.”

But Rodriguez is undeterred. “There was a whole dark side of Brea that was still being hidden,” says the Santa Ana Unified School District teacher. “It’s time to uncover the cover-up.”

In August, Rodriguez and other area residents created the Rename Fanning Committee. They pamphleted outside the school. And they dug further into Brea’s past, both online and through the Lawrence de Graaf Center for Oral and Public History at California State University, Fullerton. Rodriguez learned how the Klan once held a majority of the Brea City Council’s seats. That residents had long admitted Brea used to be a “sundown town,” the name given to municipalities that banned African-Americans from its city limits after sunset. And that current residents downplayed the city’s Klan past by claiming the group wasn’t necessarily racist.

The committee’s actions come at a time when local residents are finally, slowly challenging Orange County Klan and Confederate roots. These go deep: OC seceded from Los Angeles County in 1889 with the help of Assemblymember Henry W. Head, who had belonged to the original KKK under Nathan Bedford Forrest.

There are over a dozen streets, parks or monuments in Orange County named after former Klan members. But last summer, the general manager of the Orange County Cemetery District announced he wanted a Confederate monument removed from the Santa Ana Cemetery in the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy. (It remains standing.) In November, the Anaheim Union High School District voted to remove any Dixie references from Savanna High School, whose nickname is the Rebels and which used a caricatured Johnny Rebel as a mascot and the Confederate battle flag at school events for decades.

Minutes of the Oct. 9 Brea Olinda Unified board meeting state that Superintendent Brad Mason said he’d asked Linda Shay, museum curator at the Brea Museum & Historical Society, to investigate the Recall Fanning Committee’s claims. Mason did not respond to a request for comment; Shay declined to share the report.

The 12-page study claims that modern-day historical “revisionism” inserts a “bias that is out of context…and therefore and quite often inappropriately judgmental in nature” to past events. Shay wrote that the authenticity of the OC Klan membership list at the Heritage Center “cannot be substantiated,” even though academic papers have cited it for decades and it was donated by longtime Orange County historian and former Anaheim City Attorney Leo J. Friis.

Shay also dismissed the multiple oral histories that mentioned Brea was a sundown town because she couldn’t find proof of a formal ordinance on the city’s website. But she did discover an oral history where Fanning’s son denied his father’s Klan ties, and “numerous sources that claimed Mr. Fanning was a selfless, compassionate and dedicated educator.”

Shay’s findings amuse Recall Fanning members, who are gathered at Fanning Elementary one Saturday morning. “Unless you’re a family member, why are you championing his cause?” asks Wendy Dotan, who has lived in Brea in 13 years. “You have to question the motivation for resistance.”

“They say Fanning wasn’t directly involved with racist acts,” Rodriguez adds. “Well, he was never involved with ending them, either.”

“This school has shown us nothing but love,” says Ben Van Dyk, a history teacher at Servite High School in Anaheim. His son is a first-grader at Fanning. “The name tarnishes that love. It doesn’t represent that inclusion we’ve found here.”

Rodriguez and Van Dyk’s sons chase after a beach ball across the Fanning parking lot. “See that?” Van Dyk says. “They’ve never met until today, and yet they’re playing. In the 1920s, this would never be allowed.”


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Mentors Under Siege: California’s DACA Teachers

Of California’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

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Bill Raden

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Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

“I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”
— San Bernardino math teacher


 

Students were crying,” says Cristian Aguilar, recalling the Wednesday after Election Day, 2016. “Parents were calling me; there was just a lot of tension, a lot of emotions. … Because whether or not they were born here, they still felt threatened. They knew someone — either their families, their friends or their neighbors — that were [going to be] affected.” The man who had famously launched his candidacy by slurring America’s Latino immigrants was now the president-elect.

Most of all, the students of San Jose’s nearly 80 percent Latino Hoover Middle School were acutely aware that if Donald Trump made good on his threats to revoke DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), Aguilar, their 25-year-old public school teacher, would soon again be living under the murky cloud of deportation. Ironically, he had long made it a point to share his own immigration tale with his kids as a means of inspiring them and to connect with their families.

For a melting pot like California, his story is far from unique. Of the state’s roughly 223,000 DACA recipients, an estimated 5,000 are working teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. But with a March 5 deadline looming, California’s DACA teachers may soon find themselves locked out of jobs and careers.

Trump has lately rejected bipartisan immigration compromises that would have granted eventual citizenship to young immigrants like Aguilar, but which didn’t provide any funding for the president’s proposed border wall, or include White House demands for the termination of the current visa diversity lottery and deep cuts to the country’s traditional family reunification priorities.

“[Trump] wants to decrease legal immigration by about half, which is not something that’s ever been done in our country’s history,” pointed out California Sate University, Los Angeles anthropology professor Beth Baker, who specializes in immigration. “That’s very disconcerting, particularly because immigrants are really the motor of the economy.”

But for California’s DACA educators, losing their right to teach would be a crippling setback to a public school system in the throes of a chronic teacher shortage and in which one in eight school children have an undocumented parent. It would also mark a bitter reversal to what has been a quintessentially American odyssey of immigrant resolve and aspiration. Here are three of those 5,000 DACA teacher stories.


 

The Organizer

Aguilar was 10 when he crossed the border from Mexico with a brother in order to join his parents, who had been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Despite growing up without the legal rights and expectations taken for granted by birthright Americans, he quickly distinguished himself as a math prodigy after a bilingual teacher recognized his ability and tutored him, in Spanish, after school.

“It wasn’t until junior and senior year that I really found out what that meant, being undocumented,” he recalled. “Not being able to drive; not being able to apply for financial aid when it came to college applications. … I started noticing the discrepancies between my peers’ and my education.”

Despite having the grades and being accepted by California State University, Stanford University and the University of California, he settled for De Anza, a two-year community college in neighboring Cupertino. That’s when fate and Sacramento Democrats intervened with the introduction of 2011’s California Dream Act, which extended state financial aid to undocumented students at public universities and colleges. As battle lines formed over the contentious measure, Aguilar threw himself into the political fight, organizing students throughout Northern California as part of a campus immigrant-rights group that also lobbied the legislature.

Though the new law paved his way into UC Berkeley, it was the 2012 implementation of DACA by the Obama administration and Aguilar’s winning of temporary legal status that enabled him to set his sights on giving back to his community: “That’s when I knew I wanted to be there for students, especially other students of color, who have been marginalized and who have been under-represented for so long. Knowing [first-hand] the difficulty of being part of an educational system that really pushed us out — students who ‘don’t belong.'”

The Object Lesson

Ever since being brought from Mexico as a young child to Southern California by a mother determined to leave behind a nightmarish marriage and secure the best possible future for her daughter, Elysa Chavez (her real name has been withheld at her request), a third-year DACA high school math teacher in San Bernardino County, has been preparing for the best but girding for the worst.

“I can’t even believe that this is happening,” Chavez said of the immigration impasse. “The administration talks about getting rid of chain migration and bringing in people based on their merits and degrees, and the basic language — but I have a degree in math, which not a lot of people like. I teach math in a low-income community. I have a master’s degree. I speak the language. I pay my taxes. Everything that Trump is looking for, [DACA teachers] have. I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”

She is not alone. In the months since Donald Trump announced the elimination of DACA and began threatening to abandon its recipients, Chavez has seen a pall of fear fall over her school’s 85 percent Hispanic students, particularly among the freshman and even some sophomores, who were too young to make DACA’s 15-year-old age threshold before it was canceled.

“What I have seen is students that are reluctant to share that they’re undocumented, when a couple of years back it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained.

To offer them hope and encourage them to open up, Chavez tells them her own up-by-her-bootstraps story of attending Cal Poly Pomona at a time when there was no DACA or chance of a teaching career, or even financial aid for undocumented college hopefuls. (Chavez graduated just before DACA came online.)

“It’s tough, but it’s something that can be done,” she asserted. “So whenever they have questions, they come and they ask me. I have a feeling that I comfort them, but they do the opposite for me. They just make me worried, because I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness, what’s going to happen with them, and are they going to see education as something that is valuable?’ Because I have a feeling that they might think, ‘What’s the point of me getting good grades if at the end of the day I might get deported?’”

The Activist

Like many California DACA teachers, 25-year-old Angelica Reyes, who is a first-year Advanced Placement history teacher in South Los Angeles, traces her decision to become an educator to the inspiration provided by her own high school history teacher.

“I grew up in East L.A. and I saw a lot of disparities, both in the education that we were receiving, but also in huge wealth inequity,” she remembered. “This teacher used to engage me in a lot of really interesting conversations and challenged me to go beyond just inquiring, to try to change something in my community. So, I was involved in the project that brought in a grocery store to the community.”

Reyes said this campaign transformed the way that she saw herself and her relationship to the community. “I felt like the best way to make folks feel empowered and like they mattered was through education.”

So, that’s what she did. She was at Pasadena City College when she received DACA protections soon after the program came into being. That enabled her to do what had previously been unthinkable: complete both her undergraduate degree at the University of California, Los Angeles and enter a master’s program in UCLA’s school of education.

“There wasn’t ever a question in my mind of whether I was going to go to college,” she recalled. “I knew that I was going to be more … My mom would always remind me that folks who have an education have more power, more agency and they’re able to better advocate for themselves and for folks like them. Of course, I was worried about not being able to work in the field that I’ve chosen, but that’s still a fear today.”

It hit home in September with Trump’s decision to rescind DACA. Like the other teachers in this story, Reyes came to school that day to find her kids terrified both for her sake and by the specter of the uncertainty and instability it would bring if she were removed as their teacher.

“That day,” she remembered, “it was a lot of validating their existence, their feelings, and also making sure that they understood that DACA in the first place wasn’t something that was granted to us. It’s something that a lot of folks fought for, and that’s where our communities get their power from, from advocacy and from grassroots organizing. I let them know that our federal government is very strong, but our communities are strong, too, when we come together. We can stop deportation.”


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L.A. School Board Set to Rumble Over Charter Schools

The stage has been set for a Tuesday showdown between charter school operators and the Los Angeles Unified School District office charged with charter school oversight.

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Bill Raden

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Photos by Pandora Young

The stage has been set for an apparent showdown between charter school operators and the Los Angeles Unified School District office charged with charter school oversight, when the LAUSD school board votes on an unprecedented 14 recommendations for charter petition denials at Tuesday’s special board meeting.

The meeting had originally been scheduled to consider 34 charter school petitions — including 28 renewals — as part of a routine formality, in which the board signs off on staff recommendations after months of rigorous vetting of the applications by its charter division.

Late last week, however, 12 of the 14 denials that were posted on the school board’s website were revealed to have been triggered after four defiant charter operators had refused to include mandated regulatory language in their petitions. The action, which consisted of the charters essentially writing in their own diluted versions of district rules, was widely seen as a signal of charter-industry impatience to get regulatory relief from the recently elected pro-charter board majority, after that industry had spent $9.7 million on the most expensive campaign in LAUSD board history.

“We have known that seeking better policies could cause complications for our petitions,” the schools’ CEOs admitted in a joint statement released Wednesday. “This is a risk we have been willing to take. We remain hopeful that the LAUSD board on November 7th will do the right thing for students, make decisions based on the academic, fiscal and governance quality of our schools, and approve our petitions.”

The gambit puts at risk eight schools from the district’s largest charter management organization (CMO), the 25-school Alliance College-Ready Public Schools franchise, and two schools from the mid-range Magnolia Public Schools group. Petitions for a new Equitas Academy charter and a new STEM Preparatory Elementary also triggered rejections.

Those CMOs are part of a larger, 17-member coalition known as the Los Angeles Advocacy Council that had been negotiating over the past year with the district to roll back so-called District Required Language (DRL). The boilerplate contract provisions, which are required by most charter authorizers, have been developed over the past 20 years by the district as a way to ensure that charter petitioners conform to both state and federal education codes, while providing a measure of transparency to stakeholders. The language covers everything from admissions policies to expulsion and disciplinary procedures, to compliance with state rules governing English language learners and special education guarantees.

The charters contend that recommendations by district staff are inconsistent with site visits made by the charter division and that the district’s Office of Inspector General exercises too much authority in charter school investigations that lack transparency, go on too long and too often result in technical “material revision denials” of otherwise academically sound programs. But the dispute also echoes a more fundamental philosophical conflict between the communitarian values of public schools and the corporate management style of charters.

Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are legally held to a far higher degree of accountability under the law in exchange for freedom from many of the rules that govern the operation of public schools. Charters are thus required to renew their petitions —which serve as both a kind of school constitution and bill of rights — every three or five years to show that they not only meet state-mandated minimum criteria for academic achievement but also demonstrate significant performance gains in student achievement. But because charters typically tend to see test scores as the only metric that matters to a renewal or revocation, whereas districts have a legal responsibility to weigh competing measures of financial and educational viability and social equity, authorizers and the authorized often find themselves at odds.

The present controversy was dramatically foreshadowed in September when pro-charter board member Ref Rodriguez was forced to resign the school board presidency after being charged with three felony counts connected to his alleged laundering of $24,000 of his own money in donations to his 2015 campaign.

Though the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has closed the complaint until the criminal charges are resolved, Rodriguez’s refusal to step down from the board leaves his fellow majority members in a hazy ethical light. A board reversal of the denial recommendations, which the pro-public school minority would presumably oppose, would require the tie-breaking vote of an accused felon to pass.

In a district that rarely rejects charter petitions, and whose 277 active charter schools makes LAUSD the largest district charter authorizer in the nation, risking rejection is probably a safe gamble for a charter. Should the board choose to stand by its charter division staff, the schools would simply appeal to the State Board of Education in Sacramento or the politically appointed Los Angeles County Office of Education, where only last year Magnolia received reversals after the previous LAUSD board rejected three renewals over financial improprieties arising from the chain’s ties to an alleged immigration fraud ring run by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Regardless of how the board’s new majority passes this first significant test of its mettle, the charter division is standing firm.

“We must ensure that the independent charters we oversee are safe, publically accountable and provide learning environments that support student success,” a district spokesperson said in a written statement on Thursday. “While we cannot speculate on what will happen at Tuesday’s board meeting, we remain committed to providing options for our students and families.”

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Branding Irony: OC High School Students Rebel Against Confederate Mascot

Co-published by The Daily Beast

Will an Orange County high school drive Old Dixie down and replace its Confederate-soldier mascot of 50 years?

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Charles Davis

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Whistling Dixie: Savanna High School’s football-team version of its mascot.

An Orange County icon
of white supremacy
is being challenged.


Co-published by The Daily Beast

Savanna High School has a Confederate soldier for a mascot, and defenders of  “Johnny Rebel” — chosen by the student body back during the civil rights movement — argue that the branding is part of their heritage. However, Savanna High School is not in the Deep South, where one might expect such a controversy, but in Southern California’s Orange County, a few miles from Disneyland.

Savanna High School's Johnny Rebel mascot.

Savanna High School’s Johnny Rebel mascot.

Lay-Onna Clark, 15, didn’t give it much thought until she and some friends formed a black student union last August, the start of her junior year. It was when they started designing T-shirts that it really hit them: “The mascot supports white supremacy — that one race is superior to another,” she said in an interview. Indeed, it literally represents one race fighting to enslave another.

According to a flier handed out by anti-mascot activists at a Thursday, November 2 meeting of the Anaheim Union High School District Board of Trustees, the predominantly white students in the class of 1967 who chose to be represented by Johnny Rebel — a term for a Confederate soldier, and the stage name of a prominent white supremacist musician — did so to send “a clear message that people of color were not welcome at Savanna High School or in Anaheim.”

Savanna H.S. Alumnus:
“1999 is when the Confederate flag became a problem. I was in the basketball program… and we hosted Compton High School.”

A lot has changed in 50 years. Whites now make up less than 10 percent of the student body at Savanna and, as of the 2010 Census, are but a slim majority in Anaheim. But a lot of things haven’t changed, too. The election of President Donald Trump, and subsequent displays of explicit white supremacy in the streets of cities like Charlottesville, Virginia (and a 2016 Ku Klux Klan rally in Anaheim), have served as a reminder of that, driving home what “heritage” means with respect to the Confederacy.

Clark said realizing the meaning of Johnny Rebel — depicted on a large quilt hung behind the board of trustees as a soldier clad in gray, charging with rifle in hand — led her and three friends to campaign for its removal. They approached the school board last fall with their concerns, and the board has responded by initiating a process that seems likely to see Savanna’s mascot at the very least rebranded.

On October 25 the Orange County Register reported that 56 percent of students had voted to “rebrand” Johnny Rebel, with another 18 percent expressing support for doing away with the mascot altogether; 26 percent sided with the status quo. The vote came eight years after the school tore down an old, dilapidated statue of the Confederate mascot, the paper noted.

The non-binding vote came after a student-led forum on the issue, and after the school devoted a week to raising “awareness and understanding” of the mascot’s place in history.

“I believe this could be a teachable moment for the entire country,” Superintendent Michael Matsuda said ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

Gabriel San Román graduated from Savanna in 2000. A staff writer for OC Weekly, he’s written about how, when he was there, the school still featured the battle flag of the pro-slavery South at its pep rallies. In an interview, he recalled how the school’s “rebel” theme used to be even more explicitly tied to white supremacy, and how that required changing.

“Nineteen ninety-nine is when the Confederate flag became a problem. I was in the basketball program… and we hosted Compton High School.” With many black students expected to attend the game, the schools’ respective principals decided something should probably be done about the large symbol of white supremacy in the gymnasium. “So what they had the cheerleaders do is make a bunch of signs, and those signs were awkwardly placed… to cover the shame of the Confederate flag during that game.”

After that, the school began quietly phasing out the Confederacy.

“I think it’s happening now because Anaheim has changed, demographically, and with that so has the political makeup of the school board,” San Román said of the latest controversy. As the city has become less white, it’s become more liberal.

A Johnny Rebel supporter warned of a slippery slope where we “remove all the things in the history books that offend people.”

 

But change should be not overstated. Since she began campaigning against her school’s mascot, Clark said she’s discovered that white supremacy still lurks in the halls.

Social media — “Snapchat and Instagram” — is where the abuse is most brazen. “They were calling us niggers and all kinds of stuff, saying they were going to jump me after school,” she said. She no longer takes the bus home from school; instead, she waits in the principal’s office for her mother to pick her up.

But “it’s not about feeling safe,” Clark said. “I think the mascot is more about people feeling comfortable being themselves.” She’s not sure what should replace it — “maybe a bird?” — but she wants one “that will make everybody feel equal. Not just for the African-American community, also for the Latino community, the Korean community, Pacific-Islanders. The majority of people in this district. It’s not just African-American and white. It’s not that type of battle.”

Yet it’s not a battle without resistance. At the November 2 board meeting, several people, including one man from out of town who said he read about the debate in a local paper, spoke in favor of keeping Johnny Rebel.

And Jeanne Tenno, of the class of 1976, said she is “proud to be a Savanna Rebel,” and warned of a slippery slope where we “remove all the things in the history books that offend people — the bad history.”

“Let’s correct the historical record,” she continued. “Give back the American Indians their land; the land that belonged to Mexico; the kingdom of Hawaii. And let’s return the land that was stolen from the interned Japanese. Because that’s what this is becoming.”

A decision on whether to head down that road could come as soon as today, November 6, when the Savanna school board will host a special forum with students at the high school.


 

Update: Anaheim’s school district voted Nov. 6 to rebrand Savanna High School’s mascot — shedding the Confederate image and name of Johnny Rebel, but retaining the school’s  “rebel” identity.

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Diane Ravitch: ‘Public Education Is in a Fight for Survival’

The 25-year experiment with charter schools has been a failure, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said this week at the annual conference of the Network for Public Education.

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Bill Raden

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The 25-year national gamble on charter schools has been a losing bet, resulting in a series of missed opportunities and creating a tragic distraction from what most education researchers agree are the real inequities underlying the so-called achievement gap, former Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch said this week.

Something of a patron saint and unifying voice for battle-fatigued public school teachers across the country, Ravitch was in Oakland for the fourth annual conference of the Network for Public Education (NPE), the largest gathering of education reformers opposed to the corporate-styled privatization of the “school choice” movement.

Ravitch, NPE president and co-founder, told the conference that reformers’ first goal “is to stop privatization because privatization will end public education. Public education is in a fight for survival. Our mission is to awaken every citizen to the threat to take away what belongs to all of us.”

Organizers estimated that about 500 researchers, parent and teacher activists, district officials, union leaders and education writers attended the conference. Thousands more live-streamed the weekend’s 42 workshops and panels on NPE’s Facebook page.

Afterwards, Ravitch, 79, told Capital & Main that privatization has undermined an institution that is foundational to our democracy.

“What the privatizers are doing is they keep selling the same snake oil, school choice, as the answer to the problem,” said Ravitch, research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “School choice doesn’t answer any problem. The biggest correlation in education is between poverty and test scores. If you think the test scores are too low, go to the root causes.”

The root causes, Ravitch said, “are people can’t feed their kids, people live in violent neighborhoods. When the kids go to charter schools and charter schools take the same kids, they get the same results. Sometimes they get worse results.”

Now in its fourth year, NPE’s membership has swollen into the thousands, boosted by the election of Donald Trump and widespread dismay over his appointment of libertarian extremist and avowed public school opponent Betsy DeVos as his secretary of education. In some sense the organization is a logical extension of Ravitch’s highly influential education blog, her widely followed Twitter feed and her body of writing. That writing includes The Death and Life of the Great American School System, the surprise 2010 bestseller in which she detailed her intellectual journey from being an early supporter of charters to the dawning realization that market-based education reform isn’t a reform at all.

Reforms, Ravitch said, always ask, “How we can make the public schools better? Do we need more teacher training? Do we need better tests? Do we need smaller classes? Do we need more funding? Do we need desegregation?

“I mean, these are the questions that you ask if you’re a reformer. What is now called reform is, ‘How can we replace the public schools with private management?’ And that is not reform; that is privatization.”

But if ending privatization is their objective, Ravitch and her network have their work cut out. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have passed charter school laws since Minnesota wrote the first charter bill in 1991. Over the past decade alone, charter enrollment has nearly tripled to an estimated 3.1 million nationwide (with over 600,000 students, California’s charter population is the nation’s largest; Los Angeles’ 156,263 charter students is the highest district enrollment in the country).

And although charters enroll only 5 percent of America’s K-12 students, to the cash-strapped, high-poverty urban districts that have been targeted for charter expansions, that number represents a shift of roughly $38.7 billion per year in lost tax dollars and mass closings of neighborhood schools.

Complicating matters, hard-hit districts and demoralized teachers looking for legislative relief have only found themselves stymied by prominent, putatively liberal Democrats in high places. Governors in some of the bluest states in the union, notably California’s Jerry Brown, have consistently blocked common sense attempts to slow the growth of charters or get them to play by the same accountability and transparency rules that govern public schools.

Obama education secretary Arne Duncan is still bitterly remembered for 2009’s Race to the Top, a coercive, $5 billion “doubling down” on the disastrous legacy of punitive, high-stakes testing and charter school expansion bequeathed by George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

“This was a degree of federal intervention at the local level that was unprecedented,” Ravitch said. “And we can look back now and [ask], ‘Did it succeed?’ And the answer is, ‘No, it failed.’ So I’ve often asked myself, because I could go through chapter and verse of why it failed, and why the new emphasis on testing? It failed because every part of it was based on no evidence at all.”

With the ascension of DeVos to the country’s top education job, however, history may finally again be in public education’s corner. Ravitch announced in Oakland that NPE Action, the group’s political arm, will challenge any candidate caught climbing into bed with any part of the Trump/DeVos agenda. It backed up that vow in last summer’s Virginia gubernatorial primary when NPE volunteers helped to widen the margin of victory for “moderate” Democrat Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam over Tom Perriello, a self-described “progressive” backed by the pro-charter PAC Democrats for Education Reform.

“There have been many instances where we have been able to make a difference,” Ravitz said. “When Texas was considering vouchers, we were able to get thousands of our members who live in Texas to talk to their legislators and to email and to visit them. A lot of what we try to do is expose malfeasance and show where the money’s coming from. We keep people abreast of the emerging research consensus [that] charters are not better than public schools, and they’re very often much worse.”

Ravitch doesn’t see NPE’s network-building activism decisively turning the charter tide any time soon, certainly not as long as Trump remains in the White House. But when asked what that success will look like, she quickly ticks off four features:

  • Education decisions will be based on evidence, not the whims of billionaires.
  • The public will recognize that high-stakes testing has failed and that we need to rethink our idea of “accountability.” Tests should be used only for diagnostic purposes, not to rank and rate students, teachers, or schools. Standardized tests should be used sparingly, not annually.
  • A consensus will have emerged that a great nation must have a great system of public schools, not a patchwork of privatization and school choice.
  • We will have reached agreement that the root causes of student success are in the socioeconomic status of the family — family income and education. Long-term, we must stop blaming teachers and schools and start taking action to reduce income inequality and poverty.

“Success is when the billionaires realize that they are actually harming schools and ruining the teaching profession,” she said. “When they stop trying to tell teachers how to teach and stop trying to turn education into a business, they will do something truly useful, like opening medical clinics in every school or turning their philanthropy to other endeavors where they no longer do harm.”

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Baby Money: Can Cash Allowances Help Young Brains Grow?

Higher income has been found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.

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Photo: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Co-published by The American Prospect

Ever since the election of a Republican majority in Congress in 1994, the trend in assistance to the poor has been to reduce it. Work requirements for recipients, time limits on assistance and stricter eligibility conditions to receive food stamps were all part of the 1996 welfare reform overhaul signed by President Bill Clinton. The result was fewer kids receiving aid, and those who did received less money. In 2015, while 15 million American children, or about 21 percent, grow up in homes with incomes below the official poverty line—which many children’s policy experts maintain is set far too low—just 2.3 million of them received welfare benefits, down from a peak of 9.5 million in 1993. (The poverty rate was even higher in California.)

But what if mothers in poverty received a cash handout every month, beginning shortly after they gave birth—no questions asked? And what if, by enabling those moms to buy toys or books, move to a different neighborhood, afford better childcare, attend continuing education classes, or just reduce the amount of stress they experience from not having to worry about money all the time, those extra funds resulted in their children’s brains growing more than they would have without the money?

That’s the idea behind a groundbreaking study conceived by Greg J. Duncan, an economist at University of California, Irvine who studies the relationship between family income and children’s achievement and attainment as adults. Already five years in to the work, Duncan and the team of three social scientists and one neuroscientist he has assembled hope to begin recruiting subjects next year.

“Politically, the question is very important,” said Katherine Magnuson, an associate director of the Institution for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and one of the designers of the study. “People in Washington talk about the pluses and minuses of programs that put money in people’s pockets or take it out, and we need to understand the consequences of their decisions in terms of children.”

Evidence that poverty manifests in children’s development has been building for years. “Childhood socioeconomic status is strongly associated with IQ, graduation rates and test scores,” said Kimberly G. Noble, MD Ph.D., the team’s neuroscientist and a pediatrician and associate professor of neuroscience and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The gap emerges early and widens through the elementary school years. Children who score poorly relative to other students on intelligence assessment but come from families of high socioeconomic status—which combines income, parent education level, parent occupation and occupational prestige—see their scores go up, relative to other kids, over time; kids who score high early on but are in low socioeconomic-status families see their scores fall.

Early in her career, Noble wanted to know which particular cognitive skills were associated with socioeconomic status. A 2007 paper she and colleagues published in Developmental Science showed that the greatest differences were in language, memory and executive function (the ability to plan and focus). Just the skills, in other words, most needed in a 21st century economy.

Exposure to violence has been shown to effectively age children prematurely, according to research published in 2012.

That led Noble to more questions: “How do differences in cognitive skill relate to differences in brain structure?” In 2012, she and colleagues found that higher family income is associated with a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain believed to govern memory and emotion. Income was also found to correlate with larger surface area of the brain, especially in those parts associated with executive function and language.

In 2015, Noble published data that extended this finding to the cerebral cortex. Four labs, independently of one another, have since replicated this research. While it wouldn’t be possible to predict a kid’s brain size from his parents’ income—plenty of kids from well-off homes had smaller surface areas to their brains than some of the kids in poorer homes—Noble’s paper showed the effect was strongest among the most disadvantaged children. “The proportional differences in income were associated with greater differences in brain structure among the worst-off kids,” she said.

Media trumpeted the research with headlines like, “How Poverty Changes the Brain.” But Noble knew that her results were only associational. “We can say differences in family income are associated with differences in brain structure but we can’t say what’s causing what,” she said. “Is it other things, meaning that changing income might not make a difference?”

Then, several years ago, fate intervened. Noble met with a graduate student whom Columbia had randomly matched her with to mentor, and they got to chit-chatting. The student asked about her research, and after Noble answered, she recalls, the student mentioned that her father does similar work, but as an economist. “Well, there’s like one economist in the world, maybe two, who fits that description,” Noble said. “So I looked at her ID badge and said, ‘Wait—is your dad Greg Duncan?’”

It was, and he happened to be in New York at the time. So the two professors had lunch.

“I’d always wanted to meet her,” Duncan said of Noble. He knew that a $4,000 increase in annual income prenatally to age 2 can mean a 19 percent increase in the child’s earnings as an adult. He told her of an idea of his: What if they could do an experiment that alleviates poverty and test causally the effects on child development? “She knew what the problem was with non-experiential data,” Duncan said. “A lot of neuroscientists in this area take the work and say ‘poverty destroys brains,’ but she understood the value of random assignment.” Noble told Duncan that if he ever developed this idea into an experiment, count her in.

Duncan soon spoke to some social scientists he had worked with before and assembled a team with the right combination of skills necessary to pull off a study to measure the effects of income on the developing brain during the first three years of life. They would need to find subjects, evaluate parent stress and parent involvement, and—Noble’s specialty—measure brain activity.

Their study will recruit mothers who are in hospitals to give birth, with incomes no greater than the federal poverty threshold, and randomly assign them to one of two groups: Members of the treatment group will receive $333 per month as an automatic deposit on a debit card. Mothers in the control group will receive $20 per month. The researchers plan to recruit 250 new moms at each of four sites, chosen to represent a diversity of state benefits offered and of racial or ethnic composition, among other things. After they secure agreements to participate, researchers will interview the moms for 20 minutes. “You’d be surprised at how hard it is to give away money,” said Magnuson, who is a former student of Duncan’s. Special legislation had to be passed in Nebraska and Minnesota, two of the study sites, so the income would not threaten participants’ eligibility for public benefits and thereby negate the “treatment.”

Poor neighborhoods can have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of DNA sequences that protect infant chromosomes.

At 12 months, researchers will conduct a longer interview by telephone. When the children reach age 2, the researchers will conduct home visits and collect hair and saliva samples to test them for cortisol levels, an indicator of stress that has been shown to damage the developing brain. Researchers will also videotape the mothers’ interactions with their children during a standardized play task; the videos will be coded for different aspects of parent sensitivity such as perceiving gestures from their children and picking up and responding to them. “We expect to see more sensitive reciprocal interaction in the parents in the treatment group,” Duncan said. At age 3, the families will be brought into the lab to measure cognition and brain development in detail, using EEGs.

Noble would have liked to begin the study prenatally, but that would have risked missing women who weren’t receiving prenatal care. “Almost everyone in the U.S. gives birth in a hospital, but the degree to which mothers receive prenatal care varies quite a bit,” she said. Walking up to women with big bellies on the street wouldn’t have been practical. “If there was a way to get everyone prenatally, for sure we would have loved to try that,” Noble said.

Another limitation of the study will be the use of EEG instead of MRI data—or, better yet, examining the brains directly, which you can do with monkeys but not humans. Older kids can be relied upon to sit still in the noisy, dark MRI tubes, but 3 year olds not so much. An EEG scan involves a series of electrodes fitted into a cap that is placed on the child’s head. “Most kids don’t mind it,” Noble said. “They can sit on their caretaker’s lap. It gives a pretty good window into the electric brain function.”

Children who grow up in more well-off families have vastly different experiences than  those in poverty today. Living in a poor neighborhood has been shown to have physiological effects: A mother’s address at pregnancy predicted cortisol response and length of telomeres, DNA sequences that protect chromosomes, in their children at 12 months. The poor tend to live in more polluted areas, increasing exposure to toxins, and in more crowded and less stable housing environments, which can cause stress. They may live in violent neighborhoods; exposure to violence has been shown to affect the length of children’s telomeres, effectively aging them prematurely, according to research published in 2012 in Molecular Psychiatry. Poor moms have higher rates of psychological distress and depression, which can affect how they interact with their children. They tend to be in lower-quality childcare if they are in childcare, and to have less stable family relationships.

“None of this is to say poor children don’t often live in incredibly loving and warm families who do their best to support their children,” Magnuson emphasized. “But it’s hard to be the parent of a young child in our country—there are very few supports for it—and incredibly hard to do it with very limited financial resources.”

The debit cards will show how participants are spending the money, but not what they spend it on; researchers will need to rely on surveys for that information. They are trusting that families are “able to optimize and understand their own needs,” Magnuson said. Some moms might put their kids in better quality childcare; others might spend the money on ESL classes. Some may decide to move into an apartment in a safer neighborhood; others may calculate they can afford to delay returning to work and thereby spend more time with their infant. The money is expected to just generally reduce mothers’ stress. “If they’re less depressed maybe they’ll have more bandwidth to talk more to their children, or take them to the library,” Magnuson suggested. “Anything that’s going to reduce the child’s experience of stress could very likely improve their brain development.” The surveys, physiological samples and videotaped interactions should provide such data.

“Greg and I have been studying child poverty for a lot of years, particularly Greg,” Magnuson said. “We come from the perspective of wanting to know if something is causal or not, because you want to know how much money really does matter. We’re not here to find something that doesn’t exist. Then I’ll think of other ways to help children.”


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