Feb 122010

Recently, with all of this change coming to Philadelphia schools, in conversation with fellow educators at the Educon conference and some engaging conversation on Twitter and Google Buzz I’ve been thinking about what a good model of school reform would look like.

Many of my colleagues and I agree that expanding the Charter School model would not help, but rather hurt our local school system here in Philadelphia. Charter Schools are like a ‘brain drain’ from the neighborhood schools. They also have the ability to sift out families and students who don’t ‘buy in’ to their philosophy or structure. Which leaves the hardest to teach, most struggling students and families left in the neighborhood schools, which often don’t have the resources to serve such a population.

The new Renaissance School movement in Philadelphia and elsewhere (sometimes by a different name) through which chronically failing schools are closed and reopened under new (sometimes private) management will not fix the problem of failing schools. It is, as they say, a “Band-Aid” solution. The model chosen to take over the school may completely turn the school around, but if it is a Charter model, what happens in the likely occasion that many families are disengaged with their child’s education? Will they be forced out? Where will they go? Back to the neighborhood school.

What I don’t think has been part of the discussion is the structure of the neighborhood school that sets it up to fail.  In Philadelphia, you are required to attend the school that is assigned to your geographic location.  In general, poor neighborhoods are plagued with the typical issues that poverty brings about: broken family units, joblessness, poor health, low levels of literacy and education, violence, drugs as well as parents who work more than one job to support their family.  When a school serves such a community, it has much greater hurdles to surpass than the neighborhood school in a ‘working class’ or affluent neighborhood. I understand I am talking completely in stereotypes and it may be offensive to some of you reading this, but I am speaking from experience.  When I am in a room with Philadelphia teachers from all over the city, I can predict what someone’s daily experience is like just from the part of the city they teach in.  It is a well known fact that the neighborhood you teach in has a direct affect on how involved your parents will be in their child’s education, how many of your students will be suffering from abuse, PTSD, come from foster homes or require special attention due to anger issues or severe learning gaps.

Charter schools break this model by pulling from different parts of the city.  A Charter school taking over a failing school cannot do this due to a stipulation in their takeover contract that they must take over the school and all of its current students according to school boundaries.  I am very curious to see how this stipulation will affect the effectiveness of the model.  I believe that it’s this diversity of student body that helps these kinds of schools succeed (along with their autonomy in school management). When a school pulls from all over the city, its students are exposed to children who don’t look like them, who have different views of the world or even children who come from across the city but share a similar life experience.  In addition, there is less stress on the school’s resources when the student body is more diverse.

I’ve been pondering all this and remembered reading about districts who still bus their students in accordance with Brown vs. Board of Education to desegregate their schools.  The model I read about gave every student entering Kindergarten a chance to choose the school they attended through a lottery system.  Each student provided their top 5 choices of schools to attend, which could include the school closest to their house.  The assignments were given based on available openings and lottery.  The district provided busing for all students, much like how Charters provide busing to their students who come from other parts of the city.

This model would have to be different from the forced busing of the past with the purpose of keeping schools racially balanced.  In the model I am envisioning, students can put the school right down the street as their #1 choice, and students would be allowed entry into the school of their choice based on available openings with no preference for race, academic achievement or socioeconomic status.

Why do I like this model?

  • Giving students and families a choice helps keep them engaged in a child’s education.
  • Choice fosters competition among schools to attract the best students, no matter what neighborhood they are in.
  • Services are more evenly distributed throughout the district since no one school is overwhelmed with high-needs students and families.

Could this ever work in Philadelphia? It would require a huge shift in policy–the end of the boundary system, parent outreach to explain the new system (which wouldn’t be much different from the current system in place that helps parents choose a Charter school for their child), and a plan for how to allocate services to schools, which could be based on the current model that determines the number of Special Education teachers, counselors and support staff.  Even the student ID numbers wouldn’t have to change, or school location numbers.

Ok, ok, I’ll step off my cloud now and come back to Earth.

If you have experienced busing or have an opinion about it, I would love to hear it. Please leave a comment!

For more on the busing debate:
American Law and Legal Library
E-notes.com-Everyday Law Encyclopedia
StateMaster.com-Forced Busing
Inauguration, Racism and Segregation <—one of my previous posts on the topic

Inauguration, Racism and Segregation

 education, reflection, reform  Comments Off on Inauguration, Racism and Segregation
Jan 102009

As Obama’s inauguration approaches, I have been hearing more and more about how racism in the US has ended, is on its way out, or is no longer an issue. This unprecedented event has me thinking a few different thoughts, but not one of them includes the idea that racism is ‘dead.’


The election of a black president to what many consider the most powerful position in the world has inspired many African Americans and I have heard many in the ‘black community’ even stating that ‘we now have no excuses.’ The idea that this election has eradicated racism is a dangerous exaggeration. While racism as we once knew it has disappeared –separate water fountains, black face, denial of rights like voting and education–it has, instead, taken a new form. The racism I see nowadays is systemic. It is not based on individuals mistreating other individuals. It is not spoken out loud.


According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, racism is:

1 : a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race 2 : racial prejudice or discrimination.


The belief described in the first definition often comes from a lack of knowledge. Most often, people form stereotypes and believe these stereotypes to be true when they have little knowledge of the actual person being stereotyped. This is what scares me about racism today. Stereotypes occur across racial lines, and are not always based on race (i.e. I am from New York originally. When I tell people this, they raise an eyebrow and say, “Oh, you’re a New Yorker, huh?”). It is natural for humans to create false conceptions about people they don’t know or have never met. Think of the stereotype Americans have abroad, or the stereotypes that Irish or Italians have in this country.


So what does all of this have to do with racism and the inauguration?


While Obama’s presidency is proof that we as a country have evolved and moved forward substantially over the last 50 years, it is not the ‘end of racism.’ The racism I see today is in a system that continually overlooks the underprivileged and under-represented people. As a teacher, the system with which I am most familiar is, of course the education system. The photos I put in this blog are part of a larger problem. These kinds of conditions would be considered an outrage in a different socio-economic neighborhood. In that case, race is not an issue, but rather economics. However, it just so happens that my school is 99% African American. In that case, race becomes an issue. I have not yet decided whether it is or is not racism, but it is a sign of the “racial discrimination” described in the definition above.


Now here is where segregation comes in. On November 14, 1960 Ruby Bridges walked through the doors of an all-white elementary school and made history. No longer would black students be forced to attend black-only schools. No longer would white students be kept apart from their black peers. Rather, they would have to learn to accept them, whether or not they respected them. I assume that many of these white students did not have any black friends, nor did they associated with black people in general. Neighborhoods were segregated, too. In this way, each ‘side’ created their own image of each other based on appearances, impressions and stereotypes. The only way to break down the hatred was to give each ‘side’ a chance to interact with one another.


Desegregation did not end racism. However, it did open up avenues for change.


What has happened in the last decade or so has frightened me. I have seen the end of mandatory bussing (a system set up to aid in desegregating schools), the re-segregation of neighborhoods, and the re-segregation of schools. As a result, schools in poor communities tend to be neglected and receive little support because the community in which they live is also neglected and receives little support. With poor performing schools, how can students in poor neighborhoods ‘make it?’ It puts them immediately at a disadvantage. Were schools to be intentionally desegregated, it would increase the range of influence of a school across racial and economic lines and create, perhaps, more equal opportunities. I’m not sure if bussing is the answer, but what is happening in many neighborhoods in Philadelphia reminds me of how neighborhoods were set up during segregation. It’s almost like we’re moving backwards again. This racial segregation and discrimination through poor education is where racism lies today.


In addition, as I mentioned above, my students go to a school that is 99% African American because they live in a neighborhood that is 99% African American. For many them, their teachers are the only white or non-black people with whom they interact. For that reason, they have many false stereotypes about white people and white culture based on what they see on television, in movies and on what they hear from others. On the other hand, there are schools elsewhere (many of them also in poor neighborhoods) in which students never come across a person of color, and therefore have their own stereotypes as well. This is how hatred and racism start. Through sheer ignorance. This effect is easy to see when I show my students a picture of children who are from another state (Eeww! They’re ugly!) or another country (Hah hah! Look what they’re wearing!) who do not look like my students. It’s frightening. While our world gets smaller and smaller, it is important that these future adult citizens accept others and be able to respect those who do not resemble them in culture, color or language.


I’m not sure what the solution is to these issues, and I don’t pretend to have any. However, I hope that Obama’s presidency will serve as a catalyst for young African Americans to dream big, put down guns and pick up books. This cannot happen, however, without a focus on the problems surrounding our failing schools and a failing education system. Without education, many poor children are left empty-handed and turn to guns, violence and crime. The decrepit and dysfunctional schools that exist in poor communities is a form of systemic racism as well as fuel for the fires of hatred, ignorance and misunderstanding.


Click here and here for photos of my school.

This is What a 21st Century School Looks Like

 education, reform  Comments Off on This is What a 21st Century School Looks Like
Dec 232008

Let’s take a look at a 21st Century School….

These are the conditions in the school my students attend every day. What does this tell them about how their education is valued?


Water damage in the South stairwell, between the 1st and 2nd floors.











Water damage in the South stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floors.

Water damage in the South stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floors.












Water damage in the North stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floors that was 'fixed' by putting a layer of unpainted plaster over it.

Water damage in the North stairwell between the 2nd and 3rd floors that was ‘fixed’ by putting a layer of unpainted plaster over











Walls in my classroom.

Walls in my classroom.











Walls in my classroom.

Walls in my classroom.

Walls in my classroom.

Walls in my classroom.