“Whose Schools? OUR Schools” is a rallying cry among public school students, families and teachers across US cities most often heard in protest against neighborhood school closings or to oppose authoritarian takeovers like mayoral control. Closures of valued public school anchors in often poor black and brown neighborhoods and abrupt usurping of basic democratic institutions are two of the most overt, in your face, examples of the assault on urban public education. Many writers have discussed privatization, attacks on public education and implications for our schools thoroughly and can be accessed for more background.
Whose Schools In Rochester?
Rochester is no different from any other large US city in which profit-driven market-worshipping propaganda succeeded years ago in convincing policy makers to elevate a consumerist “choice” framework over an insistence on equitable high quality education for ALL students. I think it is worth noting that the public education system itself has and continues to function to ensure that the majority of the public, including well meaning, “liberal,” local elected officials, are completely unprepared to assess and challenge the audacious consolidation of wealth and power that continues to march forward. The “one percent” dresses its education agenda in good-looking clothes, throwing slickly packaged trinkets to those who can scramble the fastest or who shamelessly push aside whoever is a bit slower or weaker at the moment.
Let’s get specific about whose schools we are talking about. It is well known that many affluent , predominantly but not exclusively white, families simply do not live in the city, even while extracting revenue from businesses, properties and institutions in the city. Of those affluent families who do live in the city, many simply pay for private education. Home schooling is becoming more common in middle class neighborhoods. What about families who could afford to flee, or who have co-op home schooling as a back-up plan, but who persist in expecting and valuing education as a public good? What about families without the means to move out or pay private or orchestrate home schooling? In the absence of a strong movement to counter the socially destructive forces of extreme individualism and “market” solutions, we find ourselves in a downward spiral of increasing inequality and miseducation.
The public school system belongs to the entire city and ideally the interests of the city as a whole and of public school families would be congruent. I believe they would be generally aligned if the interests of the city as a whole were community-driven rather than controlled by a relatively few who are more interested in wealth and power accumulation than in better conditions for all. But the reality is we are in a hostile environment for achieving equity – racial or economic or social. The only chance for interrupting that dynamic is to name the sources of hostility and to counter them with ground level democratic demands and movement-building.
Given the reality that public schools currently serve a subset of families in Rochester, through a combination of self-selection and default, I prioritize my representation as a publicly elected board member to the interests of current and potential future RCSD families, and will continue to do so.
What Should Our Schools Look Like and Why Aren’t They Better?
A friend recently asked why can’t all RCSD schools be like World of Inquiry. Then people wouldn’t have to struggle and stress about “placement.” We parents are not asking for too much to expect decent high quality education for all of our community’s children. In order to achieve this very modest and reasonable goal, resources must be expended intentionally, with the sole purpose of educating children equitably. There have never been more “extraneous” mandated draws on educational dollars than there are now, diverting resources from potential investments like intensive and comprehensive early childhood education or smaller class sizes. Add in austerity hysteria with decreasing public education resources plus the poison of profiteering on everything from testing to real estate and you get what we have – increasing inequality. World of Inquiry is for the “lucky” (lottery) and struggling schools for the rest who are “unlucky.” This is not to disparage the work going on among school staffs, students and their families inside of our most under-resourced schools – there are examples of heroic work going on inside of each school, but systemic , imposed, inequalities cannot be denied.
There are signs of life in Rochester – for example the community in SW Rochester came together to protest the imminent closing of School 16 and is sustaining a long term effort to ensure the school returns as a model neighborhood community school after its temporary displacement for building repairs. And the fruits of School 2’s organizing effort over a year ago are evident in the thriving project-based, community service orientation of school based community agriculture on Reynolds Street.
In the Northeast, NEAD’s Freedom School proves that educating black and brown children with educators who are qualified to do so, and who are prepared to support their students fully, is effective. The absence of support for Freedom School* and the resistance to bringing intensive high quality similar approaches into our majority black and brown public schools speaks volumes. The institutional statement that these schools are not your schools comes through loud and clear to thousands of RCSD students daily.
Our schools should look different from each other, as determined by students, families and neighborhood where each is located, but each should exemplify fundamental child-focused features. There should be a collective insistence on meeting each child’s needs from the earliest stage, which may well require all day pre-K for 4 year olds plus half day and full day options for 3 year olds where love of learning is instilled and gaps in readiness are addressed. Our current pre-K programs are effective, but they are nowhere near accessible or expansive enough. The first place educational leaders should look to invest in “extended learning” opportunities is in early childhood education. This should include what I just described but also an expansion of programs like nurse-family partnerships to reach back even prenatally to ensure comprehensive wellness and learning readiness. All families and children can benefit together with easily accessible and convenient early childhood education where there is a commitment to “move together.” It is no coincidence that the Rochester Preschool Parent Program successfully instills both real parent advocacy and an ethic of collective and enjoyable educational experience in Pre-kindergarten.
As children advance from preschool into primary grades, their school communities should continue to be shaped by the dual forces of strong, welcomed parent advocacy plus an emphasis on collective, enjoyable interests which can flow under intentional conditions. In schools where leadership and all staff have committed themselves to learning what their students know, what they and their families want them to know and be able to do, and how they want to see themselves in the world, it is evident that essential learning can be accomplished at a much deeper and more meaningful level. Each of our schools will look different, but all will belong to the community of students who attend and will be accountable for competent teaching in terms of univeral standards and unique student needs and interests . Students will be less likely to check out mentally at an early age and parents will not be forced to seek “escape” options from their child’s school.
The same principles apply for secondary schools, with an increased role for students themselves becoming meaningful advocates and agents of educational improvement along with their parents, neighbors and school communities. There are good examples of authentic student leadership in schools. Students skilled in mediation from Monroe H.S. are dedicating their expertise to assist peers at Wilson Commencement to expand a program with Partners in Restorative Initiatives. Students at both schools decided that they want to learn and apply peace-making skills — these young people have decided they want to be characterized by restorative practices rather than as recipients of institutional punishment or cycles of retaliative violence. Our schools would better reflect community aspirations if conditions were created to encourage a prevalence, rather than notable pockets, of this type of student leadership and intentional acquisition of valued knowledge and relevant skills.
What Will It Take?
I started off this post referencing the historical forces that explain how our educational system mirrors the inequities and consequences of policies driven by greed, racism and power consolidation that characterize every corner of our 21st century lives. I am also acutely aware that some of my thoughts about what “our schools” should be like would seem like pie in the sky to some readers who are working daily under tightly prescribed circumstances or who have been banging their heads against a wall for years trying to help schools improve or simply get basic needs met for their children. State regulations, federal funding prescriptions and leaders who fear institutional consequences for noncompliance are all powerful deterrants to needed changes. Make no mistake, our educational system has been changing – driven by opportunists who thrive off of the underlying crises in a system that is outdated and continues to reproduce racial and economic inequalities. The current “educational reform” movement is characterized by privatization and profiteering — exacerbating and solidifying inequality. Clearly what it will take to build strong schools for all is a strong enough movement to challenge the “one percent.”
In the mean time, and as part of building that movement, we must work like our lives depend on it to improve our children’s schools from the bottom up. This may mean volunteering when — if this were a just system – you should be paid; this may mean going off script to teach as an expert educator when — if this were a just system — you would be judged as exceptional instead of risking a poor evaluation; this may mean seeming “intrusive” in your child’s school when — if this were a just system — you would be uniformly integrated and appreciated; this may mean finding the good in a disrespectful parent when — if this were a just system — he or she would hold you in high esteem for your choice to teach. There is tremendous pressure to get out or give up, but our children and our future depend on our ability to fight this fight. For many of our childrent there is no “out” and what we see currently is a mass “giving up” among those families who have no “out.” The public education system is ours, and it’s high time we claim it and repair it rather than allow it to be dismantled and pillaged.
*The board passed a resolution on March 29, 2012 directing the implementation of a freedom school model program at East High, but the realization of that directive has required an exorbitant amount of persistent follow up by board members and remains in question at the time of this writing.