First Person

Symposium strives to erase hate from schools

EdNews Parent attended part of a civic identity and safe schools symposium last week sponsored by the Matthew Shepard Foundation and an organization called Facing History and Ourselves. Here are some highlights from the event, held at Johnson & Wales University:

One Colorado fights bullying of LGBT students

Erin Yourtz, safe schools coordinator for One Colorado, a group advocating equal rights for people regardless of sexual orientation, talked about the anti-bullying legislation now being discussed in Denver. Yourtz said legislation to stop bullying is key, but that the first version will likely not fly because it is packed with too many mandates and no money for districts to implement it.

Acording to One Colorado, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning youth face special challenges growing up and coming out. A 2009 National School Climate Survey conducted by GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, found that nearly nine of 10 LGBT students were victims of harassment within the last school year. More than four in 10 LGBT students reported being physically harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Students who stand up to hate – often straight-identified allies – are also victims of harassment, as they can be perceived as LGBT. According to GLSEN, three in 10 LGBT students reported missing a class – or even a whole day of school – because they felt unsafe. Students who were frequently harassed because of their sexual orientation or gender identity reported grade point averages that were nearly half a grade lower than students who were less frequently harassed. LGBT youth are more likely to turn to substances, face depression, run away from home – and even commit suicide. (Read this EdNews Parent story).

Yourtz said to be effective, an anti-bullying bill needs to have very specific language. For instance, it needs to spell out that it’s wrong to say “that’s gay” or call someone a faggot.

She said parents and advocates should track the legislation (see video above), push their school to conduct annual climate surveys and be persistent about sharing the findings and addressing problem areas. She also said parents should demand that school board members and the superintendent “model inclusive and welcoming behavior thoughout the district.”

Yourtz said school officials and politicians are often reluctant to highlight LGBT issues because they can spark controversy. She said the focus needs to continue to shift toward bullying prevention vs. response. She said the societal effects of bullying are bad for everyone, including the bullies. She noted that schoolyard bullies are more likely to end up in jail than students who don’t bully.

Betty DeGeneres, more than a famous comedian’s mother

Betty DeGeneres, who shares the same dry wit as her daughter Ellen, became an activist and advocate for LGBT people after her famous daughter came out of the closet and watched her career nose dive. (It’s since Betty DeGeneresbeen resurrected). DeGeneres said she had known about her daughter’s sexual orientation for years, but played the same game as her daughter and hid it from the public. Ellen “came out” when she was 20 on a family trip to Mississippi. Mother and daughter were walking on the beach when Ellen began to cry, and said, “I’m gay.”

“I can definitely say I was not prepared for this. I had all these thoughts running through my head. I hugged her, and wondered how this “girl next door” daughter of mine was suddenly going to be the object of bigotry and discrimination.” She admitted that a sillier thought popped into her head: that her daughter and her chosen partner’s photos would not be in the local newspaper if they became engaged.

DeGeneres recalled meeting President Bill Clinton and how she embraced his comment that all of America loses when any American is denied or forced out of a job due to his or her sexual orientation.

DeGeneres said she equates some of the rhetoric around gays today to puritanism or the Salem witch hunts. One educator in the audience said it’s common for staff and teachers in Colorado schools to be encouraged to keep their sexual orientation private. DeGeneres encouraged them to get the support they need and make sure their civil rights are being protected.

For parents dealing with a child coming out of the closet, she recommended  Family Acceptance and PFLAG.

Rachel’s Challenge

Most of you from Colorado already know the name Rachel Scott. She was the first casualty in the 1999Rachel Scott massacre at Columbine High School. She was shot in the chest as she ate lunch outside on a beautiful spring day with a friend. Since then, her family and their supporters created an organization to share Rachel’s remarkably mature code of ethics with the world. She often wrote in her journal about the importance of simple acts of kindness and how far they can spread.

Program presenter Sarah Branion shared some of Rachel’s writings, illuminating the teen’s belief that “compassion is the greatest form of love humans have to offer.” For parents and kids alike, Rachel’s challenge is one to embrace. Here are key pieces of it:

  • Eliminate the prejudice we all have toward people who are different. Rachel’s brother Craig was next to two friends in the library on that fateful day. Both were killed. One, Isaiah Shoels, was tormented in his final moments because of his race. Branion encouraged members of the audience to give people three chances before passing judgment. Look people in the eyes, and look for the best in them.
  • Dare to dream. Write down your dreams and goals. Keep a journal by your bed. Write a little bit every day and remember what makes you tick and gives meaning to your life.
  • Choose positive influences. Rachel made it her mission to reach out to people who might be struggling – new kids at school, students with special needs, kids who were being bullied. They will always remember her for reaching out when no one else would.

Since the founding of Rachel’s Challenge, the organization reports that it has given presentations at thousands of primary and secondary schools, along with much bigger events, in 50 states and six countries reaching 11 million people.

The Rachel’s Challenge website reports that the educational program has averted seven school shootings or acts of violence and stopped hundreds of suicides. Of course, it is impossible to verify these claims, but it’s hard to argue with the message.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.