Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Ten Commandments of Public Education

I. Public schools are open to everyone. Thou shalt not call charter schools public because they aren't.

  • Charter schools do not have elected boards that answer to the public 
  • Charter schools are not subject to the same laws and regulations as public schools
  • Charter schools can and do cherry pick the best students
  • Through convoluted business deals many charter school operators make enormous sums of money but the schools perform on average, no better than public schools 
  • Education is a right of every citizen in the US. Closing schools, and denying students access to a thorough and efficient education (New Orleans and Newark are 2 recent examples) takes away that right.
  • 'Choice' does not equal 'Access'. A lottery does not guarantee every child who wants to attend a charter will be able to attend—and graduate.

II. Thou shalt not take the name of teachers in vain.

  • No bashing, trashing, demoralizing or name calling
  • We're not greedy, lazy or selfish
  • We're not all inept or incompetent. As in any profession, there are some who are not doing a good job. It's the administrator's job to take all legal steps necessary to help the educator, or file tenure charges.
  • We are not sitting around waiting to collect a pension
  • We are not responsible for the physical, emotional and psychological baggage our students carry with them to school every day
  • We are not responsible for poor parenting
  • We are highly educated taxpayers, neighbors, citizens, voters and productive members of society who deserve to be treated with the same respect as any other profession

III. Keep holy the instructional time, the professional development time and yes, the down time.

  • Our professional development time should be spent developing our craft, collaborating with peers and strategizing for our students—not doing meaningless busy work like data collection
  • Many educators put in 60+ hours a week, so burn out is a real issue. If educators are burned out, they are less effective. With the increased emphasis on testing and test prep, the amount of work educators are now expected to do is simply unrealistic
  • We want to teach to students—not to tests

IV. Honor thy educators

  • We are the solution—not the problem
  • We want a seat at the table
  • Education 'reform' that is done to educators instead of with educators will fail. Just ask Michelle Rhee.
  • Tenure is not a recipe for 'bad teaching'. There is no correlation between tenure and 'failing students'. Tenure means due process—'innocent until proven guilty'. The court of public opinion is not the place to decide the fate of an educator. It should not take years and enormous amounts of money to remove an ineffective educator from the classroom. States have already revised tenure laws to shorten the length of the process. NY and NJ are perfect examples. 

  • Don't sugar coat us with compliments, praise and syrupy-sweet pronouncements, and don't tell the world that educators should be paid more while simultaneously trying to destroy basic job protections and slashing funding which will deter highly qualified and capable graduates from making a career in education. With all those dogs who ate all that homework, our b.s. radar is pretty high.

V. Thou shalt not kill public education

  • Fund public education! Every dollar that is cut is another nail in the coffin. 

VI. Thou shalt not lie cheat on test scores

  • Cheating is cheating. When you do it, everyone suffers—especially students. This goes for public as well as charter schools. 

VII. Thou shalt not steal mine student data 

  • No selling to/sharing with for-profit education companies
  • No selling to/sharing with people and businesses that have no educational experience
  • No selling to/sharing with public media that will use it to attack educators

VIII. Thou shalt not bear false witness against public education

  • The effects of poverty have been proven to impede brain function and a child's ability to learn
  • The US has the second highest child poverty rate in the industrialized world
  • When poverty is factored out, US students rank among the best in the world
  • We do not have 'failing' schools. We have segregated schools in high poverty neighborhoods.
  • We do not have an epidemic of 'bad teachers'. We have many educators who face enormous challenges working in high poverty schools that are underfunded and understaffed.
  • Good prenatal care has been proven to help students perform better in school, yet the US has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the industrialized world
  • We do not have a high school dropout 'crisis'. The US high school graduation rate for students who earn a diploma in four years is almost 80%; it's about 90% for those who earn it in four to six years.
  • Some reasons students take more than four years to earn a diploma: military service, prolonged illness, moving either out of the country or for migratory work, going to work to help support the family
  • Testing does not improve teaching or student learning
  • Testing does not fix chronic poverty 

IX. Thou shalt not covet thy neighborhood public school's best and brightest students

  • Charter schools skim the best students from the top and counsel out or simply do not provide services for the most challenging and therefore most expensive students, who are then sent back to the underfunded public schools

X. Thou shalt not covet thy neighborhood public school's resources

  • Every child who leaves a public school to attend a charter school takes up to 90% of their per-pupil funding with them, but the public school's fixed costs don't decrease. This combined with unprecedented funding cuts to public education depletes valuable resources and renders public schools less able to do their job.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Revel Without a Cause

UPDATE: For more on Christie's too-cozy-for-comfort relationship with NJ's pension funds, see David Sirota's piece in International Business Times, as reported on by Rosi Efthim, editor of Blue Jersey


Christie's big gamble on the Revel Casino comes up snake eyes for NJ citizens and pension funds.

The headline says it all. The gleaming new jewel of Atlantic City, the hoped-for savior of a town that makes its living off of hope, off of worshipping golden—and silver and green—idols will sink slowly into the sunset on September 1, and along with it thousands of jobs, millions in lost tax revenue, and billions in debt.

A stark contrast to the tacky kitsch and schmaltz of casinos like the Trump Taj Mahal, Showboat and Caesars Palace, the sleek, sophisticated Revel was supposed to usher in a new era in Atlantic City's revival and the state's casino gaming experience. An undulating steel blue wave cut by a giant shark fin, the Revel is the perfect metaphor for a pastime that dulls the senses like the beautiful but dangerous jellyfish so the great white can go in for the kill. Only this time the victim is not merely the hapless gambler with their bucket of quarters and free buffet pass; it's the house—the people of New Jersey. 

Along with the closings of the Atlantic Club, Trump Plaza and Showboat this year, Revel will take with it thousands of jobs (albeit low wage, part time jobs), and the hopes and dreams of so many up and down the political and socioeconomic spectrum. And no one in charge knows when or if the bleeding will stop. And what happens when there's blood in the water? The sharks circle:

"We always like to think we know where the bottom is," said Keith Foley, a casino analyst for Moody's Investors Service. "We don't know where the bottom is for Atlantic City." 
The city's unemployment rate—13.1% in June— is likely to further climb, said Joseph Seneca, an economist at Rutgers University. By the fall, the city could face the loss of 8,000 of the 32,000 casino jobs it had last winter. (emphasis mine)
Moody's, the credit-ratings firm, said the closure would hurt the city's finances because Revel contributes about $20 million in property tax revenue. The firm downgraded the city's bond rating to junk status last week and says further action could come. 
[Mayor Guardian] is asking the state for additional aid and trying to cut spending. Mr. Guardian declined to comment beyond a statement issued by the city. (emphasis mine) 
What's the darling of spending cuts these days? My bet's on public education—just what every low income child needs.

Gentrification for 'other people'

Like Camden, Atlantic City's almost 40-year gentrification experiment has mostly benefitted 'other people'. Great shopping, hotels, shows, gambling and conventions are mostly for people who don't live there: 

But the arrival of casinos has not fixed the deep-seated social problems plaguing a city where nearly 30% of residents live below the poverty line. Unemployment remains high, at nearly 18% last year. Gangs roam in low-income neighborhoods, and the crime rate in 2011 was 107.2 incident per 1,000 residents, compared with 39.3 for Atlantic County.
And the very government agency created to help city residents has since changed its focus — to helping casinos attract more gamblers and visitors. (emphasis mine)
"In hindsight yes, one of the things that we learned in Atlantic City, whether it's gambling or other economic development, [is that] economic development in and of itself is not a cure for social problems," said Jim Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who is now a Democratic state senator. (emphasis mine)
"The hardcore unemployed are a social problem. It's not an economic problem," said Whelan, who has taught in Atlantic City's public schools for 35 years. "The help-wanted sign does not solve that problem. People don't have the life skills, the job skills, to function in the workplace." (emphasis mine)

Rolling the dice on the public dime

From the get-go, the casino was drowning in bad timing, terrible tragedy and plain ole bad luck. But with billions already spent, an economy in the tank, and investors jumping ship, Christie rolled the dice on Revel by pledging over $250 million in tax breaks to help finish the struggling project, and with it revive the state's economy and create jobs, albeit many part time jobs that employees would have to reapply for every four years. Nothing screams employee appreciation like making them re-apply, and it's a great way to keep wages low!

But while those tax breaks weren't supposed to kick in until Revel turned a certain profit (which it didn't), public pension money was invested with no such strings attached:

Canyon Capital Advisors, a California-based firm, is among a group of funds that stepped in and helped rescue the half-completed Revel when Morgan Stanley walked away from its $1.3 billion investment in 2010. 
New Jersey began investing in Canyon Capital in 2007 with a $75 million commitment. In July 2011, the state Investment Council approved putting an additional $100 million in Canyon Capital, about five months after the hedge fund made its bet on Revel, and in the same month the state approved an incentive package to jump-start the project. 
[Treasury Department Spokesperson Andy] Pratt rejected any suggestion that the timing of the investment was significant. He said the council was unaware of the hedge-fund involvement in Revel, and added that the decision was based on Canyon’s track record, which included a 31 percent return on the state’s 2007 investment. 
Gaming Enforcement records show nine hedge funds, including Canyon Capital, have provided $304 million in financing for Revel in exchange for a hefty 12 percent rate of return and the power to assume up to 90 percent ownership of the casino after three years. Records from the state agency show the group was also given two seats on the casino’s five-member board.
The $304 million investment in Revel carries a high reward for the hedge funds, but significant risk as well. According to public documents, the hedge funds are considered second-lien debt, meaning they would be among the last to get repaid if the casino filed for bankruptcy or liquidated its assets. (emphasis mine)

I am not an economist, but I was scratching my head when I first read about this deal. Yes, sometimes riskier investments do pay heftier returns, and in the middle of the recession with the pension fund already greatly underfunded, those in charge decided to roll the dice because, according to this same report, the risk to the fund is supposed to be minimal:
Andy Pratt said the investment in Revel posed little threat to retirees and the $69.9 billion pension fund. He said the $200 million from the hedge fund represents less than 1 percent of the state’s total investment portfolio, and that the funds were sufficiently positioned to absorb any Revel loss. 
The exposure to retirees from Revel is nearly impossible to determine from public records because hedge funds are not required to divulge their investments, and the state signed non-disclosure agreements with the firms. (emphasis mine)
"Even in a worst-case scenario, the risk exposure is minuscule," Pratt said. 

But the fact is that the state pension fund is losing money on this and there is absolutely no way to determine how much! For the past 20 years, the fund has been pillaged—not by police, firefighters, education professionals, state office or hospital employees who've been dutifully making their required contributions—but by Republican and Democratic elected officials alike. And yet, under Christie's watch, the state takes a huge gamble and loses, but he travels the state this summer on a 'No Pain, No Gain' tour blaming, threatening, excoriating public employees for our 'entitlement' largess. His hypocrisy knows no bounds. 

Whose Pain? Whose Gain? 

When most reasonable people who've watched their paychecks shrink or be eliminated have to choose between paying their bills or playing craps, they'll pay their bills. Our state economy is still in the toilet, our roads and bridges are falling apart, our schools are falling down around students, and we could certainly use another commuter artery into Manhattan, so why are we investing in gambling as a way to boost the economy?

This is not rocket science, folks. The fact that four casinos are closing this year should be a huge red flag that many people simply don't have that kind of disposable income anymore. Investing in the expansion of places of business that rely heavily on people losing disposable income in a down economy just doesn't seem logical. And who suffers? Who always suffers when Gov. Christie puts his needs and the needs of his wealthy supporters first? Here's a recap:
  • The Poor—Gambling hasn't done much to help end poverty in Atlantic City. As Sen. Whelan pointed out, poverty is a social problem, one that gambling has never been able to fix.
  • Workers—Atlantic City is going to lose thousands of jobs by year's end. 
  • Schools (potentially)—Mayor Guardian says spending cuts are imminent, and schools are an easy target.
  • NJ Taxpayers—By continuing to give tax breaks to big corporations, we lose. Although Revel never hit their profit goal to benefit from those tax breaks, this is another example of Christie putting the needs of a corporation before the needs of real, flesh and blood citizens. 
  • Commuters—By propping up a struggling casino instead of investing in badly needed state infrastructure repairs that will stand the test of time and economic trends, they lose. Flat tires, broken axles and wheel misalignments all cost money. And if we have another winter like the last one, things will only get worse. 
  • Pension Funds—Because of non-disclosure agreements there is no way to determine exactly how much of a hit the funds are taking. It could be a little, or it could be a lot.

"I got no clue, no idea."

Now what?

So, what will Gov. Christie do now that Atlantic City is sinking faster than the Titanic? In the words of casino attorney, Lloyd Levinson when asked about Revel's future, "I got no clue, no idea." 

But when all else fails, he falls back to his social safety net: attacking and blaming others.

Closing thoughts

One of the other headlines in that Star Ledger image above reads: "Study says NJ benefits are among the costliest." Instead of threatening the hard-earned and contractually obligated benefits of middle class public employees on his 'No Pain, No Gain' summer tour, why isn't the governor talking about how he's going to sit down with the insurance companies to negotiate for lower health insurance premiums. I mean, he loves to to negotiate, right? 

Christie says that unlike Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, he “loves” collective bargaining. 
“Let me at them. Get me out of the cage and let me go,” Christie promises the crowds at his town hall meetings.

Whether a state employee association or an insurance company, negotiation is negotiation. Could some of those insurance execs be political donors? I can't imagine...

Adding: Be sure to read regular Blue Jersey contributing blogger, Bill Orr's 2 part series on the birth and death of Atlantic City here and here

Thursday, August 14, 2014

The gentrification of Camden's schools Part II: Love is all you need

gentrification—noun 1. the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

In Part I of my interview with Camden educator, Keith Benson we talked about his views on the state takeover, what his students face on a daily basis, and whether he thinks the charters coming into the city can truly address the needs of children living in chronically high poverty. Part II is at the end of this post.

Camden has been in the news a lot lately. Earlier this week on her show, Radio Times, Marty Moss-Coane of Philadelphia's public broadcasting station, WHYY, interviewed David Sciarra, Executive Director of NJ's Education Law Center, Stephen Danley, Assistant Professor of Public Policy and Administration at Rutgers University, who also writes the Local Knowledge blog, and Carmen Crespo, parent activist and member of the grassroots pro-public education group Save Our Schools NJ about the separate and unequal state takeover of Camden's public schools. Last month she interviewed Camden Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard, the TFA alum and former Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer of Newark Public Schools. 

The public outcry against the decimation of public education in the poorest, most dangerous city in the country has been well documented here, herehere, here and here. There is much more, and I encourage readers to search for themselves.

Notice that all but the WHYY link are to blogs, and there are more blog links below. Apartheid is alive and well in NJ and around the country as scores of black and brown children living in high poverty are being discriminated against, their schools closed, their neighborhoods up-ended, and their voices silenced. And yet the mainstream media is perfectly content to ignore it while rolling out the red carpet for Campbell Brown. And if you're reading this and still have no idea who she is and what she's up to, start here.

But I digress. When last we left Keith, we were just starting to talk about Bing Howell and his 'portfolio management' plan for Camden's schools, which Keith calls "racist, insulting and exploitative".

Who is Bing Howell?

Yea, because shaking up is just what kids in high poverty districts need.
Kevin Shelly of the Courier-Post describes* the former Broadie, former NJDOE 'reformer', and architect of the Camden School District's 'Renaissance' thusly:

Howell serves as a liaison to Camden for the creation of four Urban Hope Act charter schools. He reports directly to the deputy commissioner of education, Andy Smerick. Howell’s proposal suggests that he oversee the intervention through portfolio management — providing a range of school options with the state, not the district, overseeing the options. He would be assisted by Rochelle Sinclair, another DOE employee. Both Howell and Sinclair are fellows of the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation.** (emphasis mine)

Please take a moment to peruse the intervention proposal, aka: 'portfolio management' plan. Nowhere does it say anything about how to address individual students' needs. Nowhere does it say anything about addressing poverty, post traumatic stress disorder, hunger, homelessness, lead poisoning, fetal alcohol syndrome, autism, dyslexia, language barriers, physical and mental abuse, and all the other issues children living in chronically high poverty endure. Nowhere does it address the crumbling infrastructure in some of Camden's schools. But it does say plenty about decreasing the number of 'seats' in traditional public schools and increasing the number of 'seats' in charters and nonpublic schools: 
Numbers don't lie. They don't want to improve public education; they want to improve 'choice', aka 'options'. But as we've seen time and again in one high poverty city after another, in one charter school after another, 'choice' ≠ 'access'. Oh there can be choices, and parents can have access to those choices as in, they can mark an 'X' on an application to several schools and hope they get in to one, or hope they hold the winning lottery ticket to the shiny new charter school (can I buy one at the corner store?), but the chances their child will actually gain access to that charter, will actually step foot inside and remain there until graduation are dependent on a whole host of criteria way down in the fine print that's printed with invisible ink.

And here's what Keith has to say about it all:

The new state-appointed superintendent, Paymon Rouhanifard, has just completed his first full school year at the helm. What changes did you notice under his leadership?

I know the superintendent pretty well. He's a very smart and likable man. Having said that, I don't know whether he has direct control over the direction the Renaissance Schools and that process are heading. I don't know if it's a reflection of what he, specifically, would like to have done. That was put into motion well before he got here with the Urban Hope Act and the portfolio management plan that was laid out in 2011 by Bing Howell, who is now in Tennessee.
The plan is insulting, racist, exploitative and marginalizing. The community has been shut out, and it's not going to benefit students one bit. When you look at some of the curriculum and pedagogy that they've put online, some of it is absolutely dreadful. And I would never have my child in a school that does any of those things. They're not creative, they're rote, they're 'no excuses', there are no opportunities for students to develop their own individual self interests. And you combine that with the fact that the 3 charter operators can open up to 5 schools each, that affects a lot of students. 
I find it insulting that, out of all the excellent graduate schools of education in the state, they're handing over our professional development to Relay, which was started by the founders of KIPP and Uncommon, and which has absolutely no experience in dealing with our population of students. The fact that they can give professional development to public school educators shows just how much of a foothold these private, charter operators have gained in our district—a district where the public has been silenced and pushed aside for years. The citizens have no way to address their grievances concerning this. 

For more on the new professional development plan, see this post by blogger Ani McHugh (aka. TeacherBiz).

Does the board still hold public meetings? Are parents and community member still going to meetings and speaking out? 

Yes. It's been increasingly contentious. It's unfortunate, but that's what happens when you have a board of education that is completely beholden to the mayor's and superintendent's agenda. There are no checks and balances which exist in other school districts with elected boards. And that's what I find particularly disturbing. In mostly wealthy, mostly white, suburban districts the community has a lot of input into how their schools are run, but because we are poor and minority, we aren't afforded that same right. That screams racism. And some folks find that practice acceptable.  

Now that these charters are scheduled to open in the fall, what cuts have you seen in the public schools?

Our budget has been cut by $72 million and coincidentally $72 million has been allocated to the charter schools. So, our district's budget has been decimated and educators laid off, and at the same time, the charter budget has exploded. It's not hard to connect the dots.

How is your association working with all of these changes? Is the central office staff listening to the concerns of the educators?

I can't speak to how much or if the superintendent's office is listening, I can just comment that, based on our board of ed meetings, when members of the superintendent's staff are there, they are 'hearing' us, but it doesn't appear they are really 'listening'. We take the time to make meaningful comments and we just get these blank stares back. I'm really not sure what happens when our association leaders speak with them in private, but that's what happens in public. I know our association president is trying to work with Rouhanifard, and at the same time also trying to save jobs. It's a delicate dance and I don't think our association—and the NJEA for that matter—are doing enough to address this emergency. Public education in Camden is dying, and the hands of the Camden Education Association are kind of tied because the NJEA endorsed the Urban Hope Act. Unfortunately that leaves our educators and our schools on an island where no one is really in a position to defend us, so we kind of have to do whatever we think we can to save our students.
Note: While the NJEA originally supported the Urban Hope Act because it was going to be a pilot program with one experimental school that would be part of Cooper Medical Center, the program exploded, and it soon became clear that the charter schools were discriminating against students who are the most challenging, and therefore most expensive, to educate. In response to recent proposed changes to the act, which greatly expand the scale and scope of the charter schools, President Wendall Steinhauer issued a strongly worded statement including this:
“The original legislation enacted in 2012 was never intended to give private operators a blank check to take over buildings, skim off higher-achieving students and drain the resources of the Camden schools in the process,” he said. “Passage of this legislation expands the existing law, enabling the massive corporate takeover of the Camden Public Schools.”
NJEA opposed the latest legislation, which passed both houses of the Legislature in late June, because it would greatly expand the scope of the 2012 law.  It would open the door to Mastery and Uncommon, which, in other cities, have siphoned off scarce resources from the public schools. The governor’s conditional veto would eliminate an early retirement incentive in the bill, which would have mitigated the impact of school closures on Camden school employees and their families. Hundreds of teachers and staff have already been laid off as the district expands the number of charter schools. 

Play armchair superintendent: If you were running the school district, what would you do to help the students in Camden get the best educational experience they possibly can? 

A pedagogy of care and love is of utmost import. I would stress the need for our educators to have a very close and loving relationship with their students, to go out of their way to show students they care because until a student believes you care about them, your message isn't going to get through to them. The substantive learning can take place after that. 
I would also put additional money into the supplemental wrap-around services that we discussed earlier. Making sure students are getting the counseling, the food, the extra support to help alleviate the blocks that make attending school difficult. More social services—a lot more social services, things that focus on the whole child—not just the student. 
And then there would be a lot less testing, because we test kids here like you wouldn't believe. We have end-of-unit testing every quarter. We have MAP testing twice a year. In addition to juniors and seniors taking the HSPA. And now there will be more with the PARCC testing starting this school year. There is so much testing that the classes get fragmented because you get into a groove in teaching and learning then suddenly you have to stop for testing. Things happen in fits and starts, and that's not the way classrooms are supposed to operate. It's disruptive to the learning process. 
I would also encourage, and beg and implore the community to be authentically involved in the direction of the district. The kids represent the city. They are part of the city. They live here, so without parental and community input, you're not engaging the constituency you're here to serve.  
Love, care, community involvement and supplemental services: if you take care of those things, it's a lot easier to educate. We have to treat students as people first. 

Exactly. You have to build up the infrastructure first. When the US goes into poor or war-ravaged countries and helps to rebuild them, we don't start at the top and work our way down; we start with the foundations, the infrastructure, the roots, and build people and communities up. When we build schools in those countries, we don't implement relentless testing, and exclude students. It continually amazes me that 'reformers' refuse to see that high poverty students need so much more than a test or sitting in a straight row or keeping their shirt tucked in to help them succeed.

Absolutely, because if we're being really honest, this education 'reform' movement is not about helping students succeed, it's about helping private corporations get access to public dollars. And this has been an effort that has been underway since the 1980's. And they've finally figured out a way to get it done. This is not about improving education.

We have buildings like Trenton High School that are literally falling down around students, that are unsafe and impede their ability to learn, and we have no money to fix them, yet we can pull funding from these school districts to give to charter schools. What's the infrastructure like in Camden's school buildings? 

I don't know... sometimes I think I've become immune to all the problems. I just don't see them anymore. Many of our buildings, like Woodrow Wilson and Camden High, were built in the early 1900's so you expect certain things need fixing. There are certainly some issues here, and I believe there are plans to address them in the future. It remains to be seen what will happen.

Any parting thoughts?

I really think it's telling that if improving education is the goal, why aren't education practitioners involved? How come we aren't consulted as to what schools and students need? Even education researchers are not consulted. Business people are. And these people along with those who run the charters make a whole lot of money.  
If you wanted to improve the educational outcomes of students in this area, how would it make sense to bring in the most inexperienced people to teach our students? In no other profession or industry would that exist. If I have a medical issue, I wouldn't want the most inexperienced doctor to work on me. I don't think anyone would. We want the most experienced doctors. Why isn't it the same when we talk about educating our children?   

The answer is very simple, folks. In a town that has seen so much hate, educators know that this is what students need to truly be able to learn, and it doesn't cost a penny...

Many thanks to all the incredible bloggers and activists who continue to shine a light on the racist and discriminatory practices of ed 'reform'. Those whose work I linked into this post include (in no particular order): Ani McHugh (aka TeacherBiz), Jersey Jazzman, Diane Ravitch, Stephen Danley, Education Law Center, Julia Sass-Rubin, Save Our Schools, EduShyster, Anthony Cody and Blue Jersey. Links to all their blogs, and many other excellent ones, are on the right. Please check them out and keep spreading the word.

* Note: The original link to Shelly's Courier-Post piece is down. The link above is to a post from Jersey Jazzman who quotes extensively from it. 
** Howell left that post at NJDOE to work for 5 months as HR director of the Camden-based Regional Achievement Center (RAC). He then left for a position in the Tennessee DOE's Office of School Improvement.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Gentrification of Camden's Schools Part I

gentrification—noun 1. the buying and renovation of houses and stores in deteriorated urban neighborhoods by upper- or middle-income families or individuals, thus improving property values but often displacing low-income families and small businesses.

Since public educators have been largely excluded from the education 'reform' agenda, it's up to bloggers and others on social media to tell our side of the story. And that story cannot be told without including the socioeconomic and developmental impacts on children living in poverty. Nowhere in the United States exemplifies this like Camden. 

The bitingly witty Massachusetts ed blogger EduShyster recently posted a guest blog by Camden educator, Keith Benson, on how the gentrification of that city is really for 'other people'. Please be sure to read it. This quote sums up what Keith lives every day:

It’s as if the city so desperately needs people with disposal income that those who have it are catered to relentlessly. And underneath such puzzling interactions is a deep frustration that much of Camden is not designed for its residents because of their low incomes…The message to local residents is clear: The nice things here aren’t for you. We need other people.

That post inspired me to write this companion piece about how elected and appointed officials from every political stripe continue to hammer nails into Camden's coffin in the name of education 'reform' and economic development. 

It's a story that must continue to be told because in the most dangerous city in the country, the only strength people really have is their collective voice. So I sat down with Keith, a doctoral student at Rutgers University and a Camden High School social studies educator with 10 years in the district, to talk about what it's like to work in a high-poverty district, the obstacles he and his coworkers face, and what he thinks is the best way to help his students succeed.

This is Part I of what will be at least a 2 part interview.

Prior to the state takeover, what was your overall opinion of the administration in the school district? Were they supportive? Were they getting the job done? Or was it a train heading for derailment?

I've taught at Woodrow Wilson, MetEast and Camden High Schools, and I've had a very good relationship with all my administrators. Every administrator I've worked for was very passionate about their role in educating students, and their expectations of students and staff. 
As far as district administration, in my eyes, they came across as aloof at times, disaffected, having their heads in the sand. But that might just be perception based, and not really what was taking place. Early on in my career I was more focused on what was going on in my classroom, so I didn't have a lot of dealings with the district administration.

(Note: The tenures of previous Superintendents Bessie LeFra Young and Annette Knox were marred by controversy, including a cheating scandal. See here and here.)

Prior to the state takeover, did you have enough supplies and resources to do your job? Was the money getting into the classrooms or did you think it was being spent on other things?

Based on what I saw and experienced, I do believe the money had been spent relatively well. I'm not aware of any spending improprieties. I'm not saying that didn't happen; I'm just saying I'm not aware of it. I believe the previous administrations had the best intentions with some of the initiatives, but sometimes the best plans go awry. I had a lot of support from previous administrations, and I think the perceptions some people have about them are misplaced. (emphasis mine)
(Note: See here for information about financial mismanagement in the district.)

Why do you think the state came in and took over?

This is a multifaceted answer. I want to first stress that Mayor Dana Redd requested that Camden be taken over by the state. That's important because she's had very little relationship with the Camden public schools. Even though she's from here, she never attended any of these schools, she never taught in any of these schools, so she has no substantive knowledge of what takes place in them, what they need, and what they need to improve. I think her motivation came about from looking at QSAC scores and test results, which I believe give the state much more incentive to charterize and privatize urban districts.
I think she has a far reaching plan to gentrify the schools. She believes that people are not choosing to live in Camden because of the school system. Forget about all the other issues the city of Camden has, in her mind it's not infrastructure, it's not safety, it's not poverty. She's convinced that schools are the reason why people aren't living here. So in her mind, the public schools have to be pretty much done away with in order to have a different population. So, the state takeover was orchestrated by her and, I'm pretty sure, some of the political bosses she works with.
At every turn the mayor has alienated and compromised community input. Not only has the state taken over and put in the superintendent they chose, she appoints the board of education members. This is where education and politics intertwine because 4 or 5 of the board members are Camden County Democratic Committee people as well. So our board of education is really an operating arm of the political machine down here. So, these are not education-based decisions; these decisions are very political. We as educators look at what's best for children whereas they look at what's best for politics—what's best for their political friends and donors. 

That's pretty powerful. We see what happens to the poor when neighborhoods are gentrified, but when you're talking about 'gentrification' of the schools, you're really talking about getting rid of students who have learning disabilities, speak a different language or have psychological or developmental delays that make them more difficult and expensive to educate. That's a terrible blow to their self esteem. What are some of the challenges your students face? What do they come to school with every day? And are the strict discipline policies of the charter schools that are opening—Uncommon, KIPP and Mastery—good for students?

The charters are pretty test heavy, very 'no excuses'. This is their model. I've taught students who attended a city charter school and were put out because their behavior was deemed to be too disruptive. You have to ask yourself what that does to a student when you're rejecting them? 'This school is for these kids, you're not cut out for it. You have to go back to the public school that's the dumping ground.' What does that do to a child's self esteem? 
When you're dealing with children who live in concentrated poverty and a lot of violence, there are a lot of residual effects. I'm not saying that learning isn't foremost in students' minds, but as a teacher, there are a lot of other things that need to be addressed. There have been many studies that show that students who live in high poverty/high violence areas suffer from post traumatic stress disorder at even higher rates than some soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. And that's something that's given very little regard by 'reformers' but it's a very big hurdle in the educative process between teacher and student. So a lot of what we're doing is building up students as individuals; showing love and care. And until we do those things, teaching content is a waste of time. So, we spend a lot of time just showing and telling students, "I care about you. I love you. You mean a lot to me. This is a place where you can come and feel safe" before you even get into the reading, writing and arithmetic. 
Some of these violent occurrences are in students' families or their social network, so they bring those stories, that pain, that hurt into the classroom. What does that do to a child's perspective on the future when people they care about have been seriously hurt or killed or incarcerated? The value of education then takes on a different meaning. Their concerns tend to be a lot more immediate than long range because the lifestyles these kids are raised in, unfortunately, can and do change immediately.
Does your district have enough staff and resources to deal with the challenges your students face? Do you have enough social workers, guidance counselors and child study team members? Are teachers given enough training?

Each school is different, but the district did a pretty decent job providing that supplemental support students need should they decide to avail themselves of it. The supports are there, but I don't think you can ever have enough, especially in a high school.

You're absolutely right. Sometimes the biggest accomplishment for a special needs child or one who suffers from PTSD as many of your students do, is getting them to actually stay in the classroom for half the day. Will the 'no excuses' charter school format help them?

In my opinion, no. These children are scared and hurting. We have to ask ourselves what exactly do these kids need to be successful? There's a lot more than just getting good grades or moving on to the next education level. I personally know several college graduates who are unemployed. And these kids see a lot of that in their environments, so we have to show them there is something else.


In Part II we talk about Bing Howell's plans to 'reform' Camden's schools which Keith calls "racist, insulting and exploitative".