First Person

Remembering Manning Marable

The scholarly world was shocked earlier this month by the death of Manning Marable, a mere three days before his life’s work was to finally come out. Others have done a far better job than I ever could of explaining Dr. Marable’s importance as a scholar, activist, and teacher. My hope here is to recount just a little bit of the effect he had on me as my teacher and mentor. More of these stories can be read here.

There have been a number of times in my life where I felt like a fraud. Quite frequently, I wonder if everything that feels like success in my classroom are mere surface victories, hiding more fatal failures beneath them. But never have I felt like more of a fraud than when I began my master’s degree studies at IRAAS: the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.

There were maybe seven of us starting the program together in the fall of 2005 when all the professors came out to greet us at our first meeting. Each was introduced in turn by Dr. Steven Gregory, the graduate student adviser. The final introduction was of the man sitting in the corner. All the other students seemed star-struck by him, and I looked forward to finding out who he was. But Dr. Gregory merely pointed to him and said, “And of course, he needs no introduction.” Too embarrassed to ask, I had to wait until I got home that night to find out that the man was Manning Marable, and that I had no idea who he was.

Throughout the year, I would learn that I had been welcomed into the presence of one of the most important historians of the black experience in the United States, and undoubtedly one of the top three black historians in the country. But moreover, Dr. Marable was a man deeply rooted in the community and its history, counting amongst his friends not only scholars like Cornell West and Eric Foner, but also activists like Amiri Baraka and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers. I knew I was lucky to have ended up at IRAAS (and it would turn out to be one of the most important experiences in my life). But as a white boy from Ohio entering a Black Studies program in Harlem, I felt a tad out of place at first, and the fact that I didn’t even know the giant of the field made me feel completely unworthy.

None of that ever mattered to Dr. Marable though. He quickly took an interest in me, my work, and the research project I wanted to undertake, especially after I discovered two archives in Charleston, S.C., that had never been used by historians. He became my thesis adviser, and saved countless hours for me in his office, to discuss the challenges of writing the history of people who left behind few documents. Dr. Marable had spent his life proving one of his professor’s wrong when he was told as a student that “Africa has no history” because it lacked a written record. He helped me assemble the story from a wide variety of sources of two remarkable teachers, Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, who created a system of adult literacy Citizenship Schools throughout the south in the 1950s and 60s that would eventually prove to be the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. I am honored that he saw fit to include part of this story in what will be the final book that he edited, “The New Black History,” coming out later this year.

When I started the program, I thought my time teaching history was behind me and that my future would be in English classrooms. After my experiences teaching in Virginia, I questioned the importance of teaching history, particularly for students with low reading and writing skills. Dr. Marable made me realize the value of teaching history though, particularly for students of color in the United States. His view of a Living Black History, both as a narrative and a historiographical approach, fundamentally affirms the daily lived experiences of a people whose history is perhaps the foundational story of America, though is rarely seen or taught that way. Dr. Marable’s work showed that black history is not merely something to be recognized one month out of the year, but rather as the core thread of the American experience. More importantly, along with a generation of scholars, he developed a methodology that allowed stories that were often “forgotten” to be reclaimed and shared with wider audiences. He fundamentally changed the value I thought history had for my students, and gave me the reason, vision, and purpose I needed to return to the history classroom. He taught me how to think historically, and I hope I have been able to share those lessons with the five years of students I have taught since.

On Friday evening, IRAAS held a “family” gathering for Dr. Marable’s current and former students and colleagues. The stories people shared were all fundamentally the same: Dr. Marable had made every single one of us feel unique and special when he shined the light of his attention on us. He made us see the best version of ourselves as scholars and activists, and for many, helped us realize not only what we were capable of, but that we weren’t the frauds many of us feared we were. Although the world will remember Dr. Marable as a historian and scholar, for those of us gathered on Friday, he was first and foremost our teacher. As a teacher myself, I can only dream and pray that I will have one percent of the impact on my students that Dr. Marable had on his.

Dr. Marable used to tell us the story of the turning point in his life. When he was a teenager in Ohio in 1968, his mother put him on a bus to go to Martin Luther King’s funeral. He talked about that both as the moment when he realized he was part of a people and their history, and that it would be his life’s work to document the history of his people’s struggle for freedom. There will be a public memorial service for Dr. Marable on May 26 at Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall-Roone Arledge Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. I will be bringing some of my students for whom I hope this might be a similar experience, and I would encourage other teachers in the area to do the same with theirs.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.