Future of Schools

Indiana superintendent hoping film will launch an education movement

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
West Lafayette School Corp. Superintendent Rocky Killion promotes his him "Rise Above the Mark," a rallying cry for public schools, at a screening in May at Anderson High School.

Superintendent Rocky Killion, standing on stage in an unfamiliar auditorium at Anderson High School late last month, was trying to galvanize a couple dozen teachers and public school activists.

“You may like this movie,” he said. “You may get mad about this movie. That’s fine. This is not about a political party.”

Killion was introducing a screening of the documentary film “Rise Above the Mark,” a film that says its goal is to expose the “corporate takeover of public schools.”

It was Killion, while serving as superintendent of the affluent, high-performing West Lafayette public schools, who led the film’s creation and then persuaded a tiny foundation attached the district to pay for it.

The movie has taken on a life of its own. The original vision — spending about $40,000 to feature some of the best attributes of West Lafayette schools — has long since been eclipsed.

The movie, narrated by Peter Coyote, who played the key-shaking scientist tracking an alien in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” showcases frustrated teachers, experts and others complaining about recent changes in education funding and other new pressures placed on schools.

The film paints former state Superintendent Tony Bennett as a primary villain. Bennett, ousted by voters in 2012 by teacher champion Glenda Ritz, pushed many of the changes the film opposes.

Awkwardly for Killion and West Lafayette schools, Bennett worked in concert with the state’s then-Gov. Mitch Daniels, who now is president of West Lafayette’s economic lifeblood Purdue University.

Killion is now balancing his day job running the district with cross-country trips to promote an issue-driven documentary with a political bent. The foundation is still spending to promote the film, which it thinks will ultimately cost at least twice the budgeted amount.

“Rise Above the Mark” may have the exact opposite message of the popular 2010 education documentary “Waiting for Superman,” which starred education reform advocates including former Washington D.C. schools leader Michelle Rhee and Bill Gates, but Killion is hoping for the same result — increased attention for a point of view he believes has not been adequately represented.

Through the film, Killion joins an unofficial cadre of high-performing local education superintendents nationwide who often are caught on a delicate political tightrope, balancing leading their districts with advocating for them financially at the state or federal level.

“I have great interest in trying to influence the national conversation about education,” he said.

“Rise Above the Mark” has captured the attention of high-profile opponents of the hottest school reform initiatives being pushed by lawmakers in a host of states — school choice, more testing and greater accountability for schools, teachers and students. It has excited local public school activists who hope to reverse the trend.

But three months after its premiere, questions remain about whether the movie ultimately will make the impact Killion is hoping for in Indiana: a return of trust and funding to public schools like his that are succeeding.

“I haven’t heard one legislator say anything about the film – positive or negative,” said Randy Truitt, R-Lafayette, a lawmaker who at times straddles the fence on touchy Indiana education legislation. He was interviewed for “Rise Above the Mark” but didn’t make the final cut.

“Most of them haven’t seen it,” Truitt said of his legislative colleagues. “I don’t think most of them want to see it, because it’s a topic where there’s so much more to the story than one person or one group can illustrate.”

How, then, did Killion manage to convince West Lafayette school supporters to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an anti-education reform documentary that had a chance at alienating the legislature the school district is financially dependent on?

It all started when the West Lafayette school district faced deep cuts to their award-winning music, fine arts and athletic programs as a result of the state’s funding model.

What follows are the lengths that Killion went to protect his schools — from a referendum to restore West Lafayette’s lost state funding to the rallying cry for public schools that is the film “Rise Above the Mark.”

An unlikely epicenter

The curious thing about West Lafeyette schools becoming an epicenter for revolt against Indiana’s recent changes to its education system is that the city’s children are doing very well.

With 91 percent of students passing ISTEP last year, the district was 18 points higher than the state average.

West Lafayette also isn’t poor, like many of the big urban and small rural districts that have been the most vocal opponents of changes like expanded teacher evaluation, testing and school choice. With only 15 percent of its students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch, West Lafayette has the fourth wealthiest student body in the state behind only Zionsville (5 percent), Carmel (10 percent) and Hamilton Southeastern (14 percent).

But one of the reasons Killion argues that Indiana’s education changes have gone too far is that West Lafayette has suffered despite its success. The core of the district’s trouble was financial.

When state legislators in 2009 removed property tax revenue from school districts’ general funds for tax relief, shifting that responsibility to the state, Killion feared he’d have to gut the award-winning extracurriculars to balance the budget.

He estimated West Lafayette Schools would lose between $500,000 and $700,000 per year based on the new funding formula, he wrote at the time. The district soon launched a campaign to pass a seven-year tax referendum. Relying on West Lafayette political strategist Steve Klink for guidance, Killion succeeded: the referendum passed by a 2-1 margin.

But already he was thinking about what came next.

“We know that we have a small window of time to prepare ourselves for our future,” Killion wrote after the referendum passed. “If we don’t find additional funding opportunities by the time our referendum ends, we may face the reality other school districts are currently facing.”

The first blueprints for “Rise Above the Mark” were drawn up shortly after, said West Lafayette school board president Alan Karpick.

“I think it’s realistic to say we had hoped that there would be some ability to raise a fair amount of money from (producing a film),” Karpick said. “Did we think it could solve our funding problems? No.”

From promotional film to politics

A local school foundation isn’t usually the sort of organization that financially backs films meant to help fan the flames of a national movement. In West Lafayette, most of the West Lafayette Schools Education Foundation projects pay for backpacks for poor children, school improvements or other supports for teachers and students.

“We’re not a political group,” said Beth Bangs, a school nurse for West Lafayette’s Happy Hollow Elementary School who is a member of the foundation. “We fund the backpack program.”

The film was paid for entirely by donations to the foundation, with gifts anywhere from $50 to $12,000. The foundation’s development director Sally Miller, who also applied for grants to fund the film, declined to release the identity of the organizations who donated.

“We have donors across the political spectrum,” she said. “What’s been interesting is that because people made donations while we were in the process, they didn’t all know how it was going to turn out.”

Miller estimates so far Rise Above the Mark has cost about $72,000 and she expects more spending. They won’t know the final costs until the showings and events die down, she said.

“Rise Above the Mark” did not turn out to be what the foundation’s first leaders expected it to be: a film to promote the district’s schools.

“The idea from the foundation was we wanted to do a video that said, ‘look at our school and what a unique school system this is,’” said Brad Cohen, the foundation’s immediate past president. “Not all public schools are failing. All of a sudden our mission started twisting, or changing. It became a much bigger project.”

As he developed the film, Killion looked to a former partner: Klink, the strategist who helped with the referendum.

Steve Klink became executive producer of “Rise Above the Mark” and his son Jack Klink, a 23-year-old Purdue University student, became the director. Steve’s wife and Jack’s mother, West Lafayette author Angie Klink, wrote the narrative for the film.

The Klinks didn’t mind being at odds over the film with Indiana Republicans, who are driving most of the education reform legislation in Indiana, even though self-proclaimed conservative Steve Klink worked on the reelection campaign for West Lafayette’s Republican Mayor John Dennis and previously served on the Lafayette City Council.

“We didn’t want to hold ourselves back because we were scared,” Jack Klink said. “That’s what so many people are doing. What we wanted to do was point out these issues and provide a platform for others to come forward.”

One potential partner quickly got cold feet.

A Lafayette marketing firm the foundation had sought out to help produce the film backed away because of its blunt tone.

“What we began to realize is this is a politically charged endeavor,” said Miller, the development director. “I mean, like lightning in a bottle.”

Unlikely political bedfellows

So far, the film’s donors seem to be OK with the tone of the film.

“Indiana’s a conservative state, and when you have businesses and chambers of commerce who are rolling in a conservative manner, you’re going to step on some toes,” Miller said. “Nobody so far has withdrawn their support, or demanded their money back.”

“Rise Above the Mark” has the support of Dennis, West Lafayette’s Republican mayor, who described his school corporation as the “crown jewel” of the community.

“When you engage in discussions that challenge things, sometimes the conversation has no choice but to turn political,” Dennis said.

The doesn’t mean everyone in West Lafayette is thrilled with the foundation’s intense focus on producing and marketing the film.

Truitt, the Republican legislator, said he has heard from community members who are upset about the cost of the film.

“A lot of people were trying to figure it out,” Truitt said. “We’re spending 60, 70, 80 thousand on this, and that’s a lot of education scholarships for kids. The proof will be somewhere down the road when it turns into something.”

Cohen said he understands those concerns.

“Can we question the time spent? Sure,” Cohen said. “Did it cost a little more time than we planned? Yes. Is it perfect? No. But I celebrate what we have.”

Some people started feeling anxious about the tone of the film when Daniels, who recruited Bennett and backed his run for state superintendent, became president of the nearby Purdue University a day after he left the governor’s office in 2013.

The West Lafayette school district and Purdue, the largest employer in Tippecanoe County, are inextricably connected. Many of the district’s children have at least one parent who works at the university.

“It could be a little uncomfortable,” Miller acknowledged.

Daniels has not seen the film, according to his spokeswoman Shelley Triol at Purdue.

“The movie is not meant to kick Mitch out or throw Mitch under the bus,” said Cohen, who was a founding director of the foundation. “It’s just meant to spark a conversation and hold our legislators accountable.”

Keeping the movement going

Perhaps the film’s apex came in early March at a showing at Butler University. The 2,000-seat Clowes Hall was mostly full with cheering teachers and others who were sympathetic to the film’s themes. A rollicking panel discussion afterward included education historian Diane Ravitch.

Once a champion of standards, testing and school choice, Ravitch has rejected that ideology and become the chief national voice in opposition to it. She drew wild applause during sometimes sharp exchanges with advocates for educational change.

“I’m opposed to testing and accountability,” she said. “The only thing we learn from testing is which families have the most income and most education and which have the least. Then we punish the children whose families have the least. Teacher evaluation by test scores is junk science.”

But the crowds haven’t maintained that size or energy.

The Anderson premiere panel discussion drew local anti-reform advocates, and a much smaller crowd.

Speaking to a crowd of not more than 30 people, Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson; Justin Oakley of the Just Let Me Teach radio show; and anti-corporate reform “Hoosier School Heist” author Doug Martin, who has been known to bust out his guitar at meetings and sing about how Tony Bennett and other Indiana reformers ruined education, made their case for public schools.

“You’re being duped,” Oakley told the audience. “You’re being bamboozled. Rome is on fire. We’ve got to fight back.”

Austin hasn’t give up hope that legislators will see the film and hear its message.

“I hope we can get a copy for every legislator in the Indiana general assembly,” she said.

Not everyone in attendance was convinced by its message, including Anderson English teacher Elizabeth Knost.

“It’s a little unfair, because legislators are doing the best they know how to do,” Knost told her colleague, fellow teacher Jordan Pridemore, who was more taken with the film’s message.

“Our students hear it,” returned Pridemore, who said she agreed with the film’s negative characterization of Indiana’s school accountability system. “They say things like ‘Oh, we’re a D school.’”

Driving halfway across the state to show the film to a sparse crowd is worth it for those conversations, Killion said. There’s a chance of reaching another voter, another politician, another teacher that can join his cause.

“The future is hard to predict, but I believe this documentary is going to continue to expand and conversation will definitely reach a national level,” he said “Twenty people here, 30 there. That’s what it takes.”

50 years later

A Chalkbeat roundtable: What New York City is still learning from its teacher strikes of 1968

Fifty years ago this fall, the United Federation of Teachers went on strike three times, closing New York City public schools for more than six weeks. The legacy of these strikes continues to reverberate through the city’s schools today.

As Monica Disare detailed in Chalkbeat, the strike was sparked by a telegram in May from the black and Puerto Rican leadership of the Ocean-Hill Brownsville Demonstration District, one of three experiments in “community control” of schools created by the Board of Education. The telegram informed 19 teachers and administrators — 18 white, 1 black — that their employment in the district had been “terminated.” The district’s leaders believed that they had the power to make these decisions. The union believed the action violated their guarantee of due process.

By the fall, the conflict in Brooklyn had engulfed the city. Nearly 57,000 teachers walked picket lines, and over 1 million students were out of school.

New Yorkers have battled over school governance for more than two centuries, and the struggle continues in ongoing debates over mayoral control. The 1968 conflict, however, did not simply transform the school system. It reshaped political alliances, social movements, and labor organizing in the city for decades to come.

The Board of Education abandoned the community control experiment one year after the strikes, but the school system was decentralized by the state legislature into quasi-independent districts with elected community school boards in 1970. This system, in turn, was eliminated in 2002 at the request of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who won control of the city’s schools from the state legislature.

This centralization has not gone unchallenged. Parents regularly demand more democracy and transparency from the city, and state lawmakers now reconsider mayoral control nearly annually. Fifty years on, many of the questions that New Yorkers struggled with in 1968 remain urgent and unresolved.

Who will teach the city’s children and how will they do it? How will the city address persistent racism, segregation, and educational inequality in its schools? Who will be held accountable to the children and parents schools serve, as well as to the teachers employed by the system?

The Gotham Center for New York City History, in partnership with Chalkbeat, asked eight historians and scholars of education to reflect on how this history remains relevant for New York City public schools today. Here’s what they told us.


Clarence Taylor: The strikes are a reminder that Black and Latino parents have sought control for generations  — Read More


Richard Kahlenberg: The strikes paved a path for charters — and away from integration — Read More


Jonna Perrillo: Then and now, teachers need popular support to win rights and respect — Read More


Heather Lewis: It’s difficult to make change from the top down. Grassroots activists should lead the way — Read More


Steve Brier: Community control opened CUNY to the people. Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea — Read More


Robyn Spencer and Mary Phillips: Students today are curious about Black Power — Read More


Nelson Flores: Schools are still dealing with the assumption that they alone can solve poverty  — Read More


Sonia Lee: Will Asian Americans join the broader civil-rights struggle? — Read More

 


 

The strikes are a reminder that Black and Latino parents have sought control for generations

By Clarence Taylor

Charles Cogen (center), former president of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, 1966. (AFT Photo Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.)

The 1968 New York City strikes were just one episode in a long history of conflict between black and Latino parents and a school system that prioritized protecting the interests of those who ran the system over properly educating black and brown children.

In 1956, twelve years before the strikes, the Board of Education created a commission to recommend ways to integrate the school system. One year later, a sub-committee recommended that the board transfer experienced teachers to schools on an involuntary basis to ensure that schools in black and Latino communities were not assigned the least experienced teachers.

The New York Teachers Guild, the organization that became the United Federation of Teachers in 1960, campaigned against the policy. In an article titled “Integration Yes! Forced Rotation No!” Charles Cogen, president of the Guild (and later president of the American Federation of Teachers), claimed such a plan would lead to a “transient teaching staff,” lower the quality of education, and antagonize staff whose good will was essential for implementing integration. Cogen argued that “difficult schools” were not a “racial problem.”

Civil rights and civic groups attacked the Guild’s position. The Intergroup Committee on New York City Public Schools, which represented 26 organizations, publicly denounced the Guild’s opposition to the transfer plan. Nonetheless, transfers were never implemented, and the question of whether the city’s black and Latino children will receive the same educational resources as white children — including teachers — persists today.

The Guild’s actions also undermine a major argument among some scholars and commentators, who have argued that the Black Power movement was responsible for the crisis. That contention ignores this earlier history of conflict between teachers and black and Latino activists and parents.

Community control, like the fight for school integration, was an attempt to redefine the relationships in a school system that had marginalized black and Latino parents. Parents wanted to have decision-making power when it came to educating their children. They still do.

Clarence Taylor is a professor emeritus of history at Baruch College, CUNY. He is the author of “Knocking at Our Own Door: Milton A. Galamison and the Struggle to Integrate New York City Schools” and “Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union.” A longer version of this essay appeared online for Jacobin in September.

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The strikes paved a path for charters — and away from integration

By Richard Kahlenberg

When I interviewed people for my 2007 biography of teacher union leader Albert Shanker, no topic raised more intense emotions than the 1968 teacher strikes. They spawned a civil war among New York City liberals, one which continues to be fought over issues such as charter schools, school segregation, and the role of teacher unions.

From the beginning, Shanker had concerns about Mayor John Lindsay’s idea to create a separate school governance structure in Ocean Hill-Brownsville. Shanker marched in Selma with Martin Luther King Jr., and he questioned whether community control of segregated schools – even with the intent of empowering black educators — would provide genuine opportunity for black youth.

Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, architects of King’s 1963 March on Washington, fully supported Shanker’s strikes. Rustin further suggested it was a mistake to embrace segregation, even when the schools would be run by black people.

Today, despite overwhelming evidence that segregated schools are bad for students and that unions provide a valuable voice for educators, the inheritors of the community control movement continue to push nonunionized and segregated charter schools. Ironically, Shanker helped launch the charter movement in 1988 by suggesting the creation of new schools that would be teacher-led, unionized, and economically and racially integrated. But most charter schools today claim that unions are the problem and that segregation doesn’t matter. Thankfully, there are a small number of charter schools — what my colleague Halley Potter and I call “smarter charters” — that are faithful to Shanker’s vision.

Outside the charter debate, liberal opinion continues to diverge on the importance of addressing segregation, even within Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration. The mayor’s first chancellor, Carmen Fariña, at one point suggested that students in segregated schools become “pen pals.”

Fortunately, the new chancellor, Richard Carranza, says it is time for change. Somewhere, Rustin and Shanker are smiling.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is author of “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race, and Democracy” and the coauthor (with Halley Potter) of “A Smarter Charter: Finding What Works for Charters and Public Education.”

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Then and now, teachers need popular support to win rights and respect

By Jonna Perrillo

Colorado teachers protest school funding. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Fifty years ago, teachers shut down the city’s schools in a battle over curricula, student discipline procedures, and teacher hiring and tenure policies. The walkout became one of the most memorable strikes in our nation’s history.

This spring, as the Janus case worked its way through the Supreme Court, teachers again caught the public’s attention, staging mass walkouts in five states.

Unlike in the 1960s, union leadership was not at the forefront of the 2018 walkouts. Instead, everyday teachers gathered in state capitols, striking against state education boards and elected officials rather than community stakeholders. These walkouts look almost nothing like the UFT’s 1968 strikes. But contemporary strikes are still connected to the past, raising fundamental questions about professional authority and expertise.

In 1968, teachers believed they deserved uncompromised say over educational decisions. Organized black and Puerto Rican parents, galvanized by an achievement and discipline gap that teachers appeared to exacerbate, disagreed. Teachers won the political battle but they lost public empathy. They were seen by many city residents to be racist, unprofessional, and driven by self-gain. By breaking apart tenuous partnerships between schools and communities during the strikes, teachers made their challenges more profound and success less likely.

Today, too, teachers need to maintain a broad coalition of supporters to advocate for themselves and a range of other conditions — material and political — that make good schools work.

The protests this spring offered unexpected hope. Reports of teachers’ salaries in rural states shocked many Americans. We learned that many districts have adopted four-day school schedules to cut costs. We were appalled by images of broken, aged textbooks that teachers posted on social media. Altogether, the strikes reminded us that undervaluing of teachers is always intimately tied to undervaluing of disenfranchised students and public education itself.

Jonna Perrillo is an education historian and associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso. She is the author of “Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity.

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It’s difficult to make change from the top down. Grassroots activists should lead the way

By Heather Lewis

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville Governing Board and supporters march over the Brooklyn Bridge, March 1969. (Photo courtesy of Heather Lewis)

Half a century ago, activists in New York City’s community control movement fought for quality schooling in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Bedford Stuyvesant, the Lower East Side, Harlem, and the South Bronx. Today, these neighborhoods and their schools have changed significantly. However, poor and working-class residents still suffer from unequal access to quality housing, healthcare, and schools.

For the city to break a 90-year pattern of unequal and segregated schooling, the history of the strikes remains relevant. Recognizing the leadership of grassroots activists remains essential.

The Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers have not organized any commemorations of the events of 1968. For those who celebrate the history of the community-control movement, however, its legacies include the partial realization of black and Hispanic self-determination; the role of women leaders in fostering democratic participation; and the growth of bilingual and multicultural education. Movement activists established and served on locally elected school boards and fought for community access to quality health, housing, and daycare services.

Although the confrontation with the UFT led to the demise of the experimental school districts, activists attempted to keep their ideals alive during the decentralization period that followed. In some cases, their efforts contributed to the spread of bilingual schools and programs, middle school reform, and culturally relevant pedagogy. Their efforts belie the common perception that decentralized schooling was a failure in New York City.

As the mayor and chancellor today respond to calls to address the city’s segregated schools, the lack of historical analysis in the media contributes to calls for simplistic, top-down prescriptions for change. The mayor and chancellor will find it hard to reduce the city’s inequalities with such policies, just as their counterparts did in the 1950s and 60s.

The city’s leaders would be well-served to pay close attention to current grassroots organizers in underserved communities. As John Dewey argued, “The democratic road is the hard one to take … it is the road which places the greatest burden of responsibility on the greatest number of human beings.”

Heather Lewis is professor and acting chair of art and design education at Pratt Institute. She is the author of “New York City Public Schools from Brownsville to Bloomberg: Community Control and its Legacy.”

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Community control opened CUNY to the people. Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea

By Stephen Brier

Black and Puerto Rican students protest for open admissions at City College of New York, 1969. (via PSC-CUNY)

The question of who should control New York City’s schools today is largely a question of how long the occupant of Gracie Mansion will be allowed to play K-12 education’s top dog: one year or longer? The answer currently rests in the clutches of Republican state lawmakers who grudgingly dole out one year of mayoral control at a time.

But half a century ago, control of the city’s public schools was an all-consuming question, roiling the city and dividing thousands of parents of color from teachers and administrators who were predominantly white and Jewish.

The UFT, led by Albert Shanker, went out on strike in 1968, strangling newly-formed community control demonstration districts in their infancy. Set up in Harlem, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and the Lower East Side, the districts were an experiment that gave parents elected to community governing boards a real say in how their neighborhood schools would operate.

Schools in those three communities remained open during the UFT’s strikes. They pioneered new curricula — black history and African culture being among the most important — as well as new, progressive approaches to teaching. Teachers in these schools abandoned the forced discipline and rote recitation that defined much of public schooling in New York City in the previous decades.

The community control struggles over K-12 schooling inspired other progressive education efforts in the city. Most notably, these included the successful struggle by college students of color and their white allies to force the Board of Higher Education at the City University of New York to implement open admissions for all city high school graduates. Open admissions, a wonderful expression of the idea of community control over education, opened wide access at CUNY to poor and working-class students — white, black, and Puerto Rican — who flocked in record numbers to CUNY in the years after 1970.

However, real community control of the city’s public schools and public university was never given a real chance to work, thanks both to Albert Shanker and to politicians and business leaders responding to the fiscal crisis of 1975. Maybe it’s time to revisit the idea.

Stephen Brier is a professor in the Urban Education PhD program and founder of the Graduate Center’s Interactive Technology & Pedagogy certificate program. He is the coauthor (with Michael Fabricant) of “Austerity Blues: Fighting for the Soul of Public Higher Education,” and is currently working on a study of the fight for community control over New York City’s K-16 public education system in the 1960s.

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Students today are curious about Black Power

By Robyn C. Spencer and Mary Phillips

Rosa Parks, left, visits a classroom at the Oakland Community School. School director Ericka Huggins is at right. (Collection of Ericka Huggins, via IPHP)

When a former Black Panther stood up to speak at CUNY’s Lehman College this spring — 52 years after the organization was founded and half a century since the global uprisings of 1968 led by students — the discussion that followed centered around the Panthers’ Oakland Community School.

Students wanted to know about its legacy. Was it akin to today’s charter schools? How did the school involve parents? What philosophies governed how it was run?

The community control movement was not limited to a single community in Brooklyn. The vision of community-controlled schools emerged from within the broader Black Power movement, in which the Black Panther Party was one of the most visible and influential organizations. The Party’s 10-point platform and program, released in 1967, sought the “power to determine the destiny of our black community” and asserted belief in “an educational system that will give to our people a knowledge of self.” The Black Panther Party, including local chapters in New York City, inspired community control activists and, in some cases, worked alongside them.

The dream of community-controlled education did not die with the “demonstration districts” in 1969, neither in Brooklyn nor across the nation. While some parents and educators sought to realize their goals in the new “decentralized” districts, others formed new independent schools.  Again, the Black Panther Party led the way.

The speaker at Lehman College earlier this year was Ericka Huggins, who served as director of the school from 1973 to 1981. Oakland Community School was an elementary-level institution in Oakland, California that employed an activity-based learning model grounded in critical thinking and was informed by innovative practices such as yoga, meditation, and restorative justice. The school was a reflection of both the organization’s political vision and the practical needs of the community. Similar schools were opened by Black Power organizers across the country in these years, including the Uhuru Sasa Shule (“Freedom Now School,” in Swahili), which was founded by former Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher and community activist Jitu Weusi (formerly Leslie Campbell) in Brooklyn.

Interest in Huggins is part of a reframing of the history of the Black Panther Party, which acknowledges the contributions of women leaders within the movement and grassroots initiatives like the community control struggle in New York City and the Oakland Community School. As founders of the Intersectional Black Panther History Project, we are committed to bringing these stories to the public.

Robyn C. Spencer is a historian of black social protest after World War II, urban and working-class radicalism, and gender. She is a co-founder of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project.

Mary Phillips is a proud native of Detroit, Michigan. She is a scholar-activist and public intellectual who works as an assistant professor in the department of Africana Studies at Lehman College, CUNY. She is a co-founder of the Intersectional Black Panther Party History Project.

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Schools are still dealing with the assumption that they alone can solve poverty

By Nelson Flores

While the 1968 teacher strikes were primarily a black and white conflict, the first Puerto Rican principal in New York City was hired by the Ocean Hill-Brownsville governing board. In 1968, he had developed a bilingual education program to serve the sizeable Puerto Rican population that also resided in the community.

Bilingual education was lauded by community leaders, but a survey of local parents indicated that only 23 percent knew about the program. According to the survey, parents’ top three concerns about the community were housing and slums, robbery and vandalism, and addiction and dope. These challenges had less to do with schools than the overall effects of concentrated poverty and segregation.

A core assumption of the community control experiment was that addressing issues of school governance and curriculum would be sufficient to dismantle the impact of generations of racial oppression. But this assumption was deeply flawed. The board did not have the power or resources to reverse the hyper-segregation and concentrated poverty that afflicted the Ocean Hill-Brownsville community. Instead, its leaders of color were simply included in an existing power structure.

The rise of bilingual education demonstrates how this dynamic played out. As bilingual education became professionalized, it became removed from the day-to-day struggles of low-income immigrants. As a result, upwardly mobile community leaders were able to increase their professional standing while doing little to transform the lives of those relegated to segregated, high-poverty communities. One troubling lesson of Ocean Hill-Brownsville may be that the efforts of educators of color to transform the system may have instead contributed to, rather than relieved, the marginalization of the community’s residents.

Today, schools are still grappling with the unrealistic expectation that they can alone resolve the legacy of generations of racial oppression. Instead, programs like bilingual education should be seen as a complement to a much broader effort to reverse longstanding inequities.

Nelson Flores is an associate professor in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

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Do Asian Americans want to join the broader civil-rights struggle?

By Sonia Lee

Black and Puerto Rican parents meet at a United Bronx Parents’ gathering, 1970s. (United Bronx Parents Records, Centro de Studios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College, CUNY.)

The history of the community control movement in Ocean Hill-Brownsville is a reminder that creating a shared, culturally pluralistic humanity takes time and hard work – but it is possible. And this informs the current debate around admissions to New York City’s elite public high schools. At stake is more than the number of seats that will be assigned to Asian American, white, black, or Latino students.

Today, many Americans consider “blacks” and “Latinos” to be naturally unified as “people of color,” while Asian Americans stand outside this rainbow coalition as “ambiguous allies” or “honorary whites.” In the postwar era, however, African Americans and Puerto Ricans did not necessarily see each other as political allies.

This changed in the 1960s, when Puerto Rican parents decided that it would be more beneficial to join black parents’ fight to promote their children’s education than to pretend that their children were getting a fair education. By joining the school boycott of 1964 in large numbers, they publicized their political identification with African Americans in a highly visible way. And when the legislators sought to dismantle the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration district, 55 Puerto Rican parents wrote to the city’s board of education, proclaiming that “Ocean Hill-Brownsville is the only place in the city of New York” where “something meaningful has been done for Puerto Rican children and Puerto Rican teachers.”

Puerto Rican parents and educators recognized that the civil rights struggle was not a narrow fight to protect the rights of African Americans exclusively, but a fight to build a society that would value all people.

Asian American New Yorkers who oppose Mayor de Blasio’s new proposal could argue that this history of black-Puerto Rican coalitions is irrelevant. But Asian American students face many of the same battles that black and Latino students do. The entire public school system suffers from underfunding, overcrowding, high turnover rates of teachers, and over-testing. Instead of fighting battles that advantage one group over another, Asian Americans would do better to forge a broad coalition of citizens who can demand a quality education for all young people.

Sonia Lee is an associate professor in the department of American Studies and Latino Studies Program at Indiana University. She is the author of “Building a Latino Civil Rights Movement: Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and the Pursuit of Racial Justice in New York City.”

 

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First Person

We’re a middle-class black family. Here’s why we’ve skipped our local schools for now.

PHOTO: Saratu Ghartey

When we bought our two-family brownstone in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn over 10 years ago, we were childless professionals unconcerned with the state of the area’s schools. Today we have an almost-4-year-old son eligible for pre-kindergarten and school options are a daily worry.

Our neighborhood is rapidly gentrifying, but the public schools lag behind, with no obviously good choices available. While some newcomers — mostly white parents — seem willing to take a chance on these works-in-progress schools, we feel we have little room for error. After all, we are raising a little black boy in America.

Our school district has been in a state of neglect for years — its version of a school board was defunct until recently; student enrollment has dropped significantly, with many schools under-enrolled; and the students perform in the bottom 10 percent of the entire state on exams. The parents have voted with their feet — less than a quarter of Bed-Stuy’s children actually attend their zoned school. The students that do remain in-district mostly attend the newer charter schools, which have made inroads by focusing on a back-to-basics, traditional curriculum.

Young families like ours who have invested in Bed-Stuy’s homes are now facing the challenge of finding a suitable school. Private schools seem like an easy answer, but tuition can begin as high as $40,000, if spots are even available. So the new wave of local parents began to organize, a group formed, and a plan emerged to adopt one or two neighborhood schools in order to advance them from within. Then tensions grew — black vs. white, old timers vs. new timers, middle class vs. lower income, progressive vs. traditional — and the movement fairly quickly hit some pretty big rocks. Long-time neighborhood leaders and civic organizations felt the new group was ignorant of their own efforts regarding the schools and did not value them as partners. Some even felt the newcomers were out of line by naming the group after the neighborhood, especially since they were viewed as only wanting to fix the schools “for their kids.” And the newbies made some unfortunate tongue-slips, both privately and in public, further feeding the resentment.

I paid attention to the little movement, marveling at these mostly white parents who would send their kids to schools with dreadful scores in the middle of what was not so long ago a rough neighborhood, schools where their kid would likely be the only “other” in the room. Most of the middle-class black parents I knew were not willing to take that risk. It is all well and good to say that you will send your kid to a majority low-income, low-scoring school because you believe in public schools, and you are not a snob, but the stakes are higher for black kids. Disparities in academic achievement begin early for black children, and they persist.

And then there is the slippery issue of school culture, which begins to matter around the third grade, when kids start to decide what their values are, who they want to be like, what is “cool.” Many middle-class black parents are concerned that their children will fall into the wrong crowd, lose focus on academics, and begin to veer off the path their parents followed to success. This is a terrifying preposition for these parents, who may have seen firsthand the results when promising cousins failed to graduate high school, or dropped out of college, or made a wrong turn into the criminal justice system.

For all these reasons, many black middle-class parents seek financial aid at prestigious prep schools, or squeeze into small apartments in better school districts, or move to mostly-white suburbs to benefit from the school systems there.  We, however, wanted to see if we could keep our son in the diversity of New York City, in a quality public school. We were willing to consider the improve-your-school movement, but we also wanted to check out the more established Brooklyn public schools.

We visited seven pre-K options in total (four within our district) and it was illuminating. At some schools, we saw troubling things — signs declaring that children not picked up on time would be taken to the local police precinct, a principal who consistently used improper grammar during an open house, tour guides who explained that the kids sometimes watched videos rather than going outside at recess. Some schools simply suffered from a general air of tiredness.

But we found other schools more encouraging. At an established progressive school that prioritized low-income kids in its admissions, the library was bursting with books, there was robotics lab, and the teachers were seasoned and passionate about their social studies curriculum, which took an in-depth look at a different country each year. A “Unicorn” school just a neighborhood away was defying the odds and producing academically strong students while maintaining its majority black enrollment, with an unspoken theme of “black excellence.” I found an old law school classmate of mine serving as PTA president there, and many of our professional black friends have children enrolled.

We also observed big differences in schools’ priorities that seemed to map to what kinds of students they served. In New York City as in many places, Hispanic, African Americans and Asians apply to progressive schools at lower rates than whites, partially because there is a concern that progressive education does not work for black kids. On the tours we noticed that the majority-black schools were focused on “college readiness” and literacy “basics,” while “whiter” schools were heavy on progressive elements — project-based learning and child-led inquiries.

We also discovered that in more affluent neighborhoods after-school care options can be nonexistent. None of the pre-K centers by my workplace in lower Manhattan offered onsite after-school programs. This is not very tenable for a two-income home like ours.

And of course, we saw evidence of the segregation that has been so well documented in the city’s public schools. As soon as we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, there were many fewer black and brown faces.

In the end we put the Unicorn school and the well-established progressive school as our top two choices on our lottery application.  The Bed-Stuy options just felt like too much of a gamble — the movement too new, some of the schools a bit too far gone, and a few of the locations rather dodgy.

The lottery ultimately assigned us our fifth choice, an in-district school with a young principal who has a lot of energy and ideas. But the school has a long way to go academically, and we were nervous, especially after our attempts to find other families attending the program failed. By August we were stressed out waiting for the waitlists to move, and I began calling the schools to check on where we stood. When I learned there was an open spot in one of the lower Manhattan programs by my office — a lovely little program in the same building as a new school on the waterfront — I snatched the spot. We had visited the site but ultimately not listed it high because of the commute and because it was only a one-year option (the pre-K spot does not lead to any priority preference for kindergarten in that school or district). Now, however, we felt it was a better backup while we waited for Unicorn school to come through. It never did. There were 200 kids on the waitlist for pre-K, and no one gave up a slot.

This month our son started pre-K at the program in lower Manhattan. It’s early days but we are impressed so far. The teachers and administrators are warm, professional and prepared. We receive regular communications from the program — starting in the weeks leading up to the first day of class. The other families are racially diverse — white, black, Asian, South American, multiracial —although I cannot yet tell how socioeconomically diverse they are (the neighborhood is fairly affluent but there are some “commuters” like us). The important part is everyone is friendly. And of course, all the 4-year-olds are adorable.

So in the end, I guess we chickened out on the neighborhood school experiment, at least for pre-K. We have friends who did enroll in the “adopted” schools, and we are watching carefully. Kindergarten is a whole new application process, and our son likely cannot stay in lower Manhattan because he does not live in the school’s zone. So we will be back in the game shortly.

Saratu Ghartey is an attorney who lives in Brooklyn.