When your religious friends and family plan says no to education and learning, well…

“Lack Of Education Leads To Lost Dreams And Low Income For Many Jehovah’s Witnesses”-— NPR/ All Things Considered

http://www.npr.org/2017/02/19/510585965/poor-education-leads-to-lost-dreams-and-low-income-for-many-jehovahs-witnesses?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=npr&utm_term=nprnews&utm_content=20170219

Interesting segment… As a principal I have always done everything in my power to encourage student academic success, while at the same time that I respected their religious convictions-affiliations. One of my proudest awards of the hundreds I have received, is the one (still hanging today on the wall of my study), I received from my SSCHS Muslim students. And that award was in recognition of my creating a space, and an opportunity for them to make daily Salat (obligatory prayer) during the school day; and to also be able to attend Friday Jummah Prayer at a local Masjid (Mosque). It was interesting a few years later when as a superintendent in queens I met with, and visited several Masjids in the community; and even though my former school was in Brooklyn; and I did not publicize my actions; they all knew about my accommodating treatment of my Muslim students. Goes to show, good news can also travel far!

But two full personal disclosures:

(1) I don’t trust any religious movement, or effort that is anti-education. I always feel compelled to ask: What parts of the natural scientific world are you trying to hide from your followers? Why are you seeking the advantage of keeping them ill-and uninformed…is this a control issue? In fact one of the things I really respected about the Nation of Islam (NOI) under the leadership of the Hon. Elijah Muhammad; was the heavy emphasis he placed on the study of formal science and mathematics; even as like most religions the NOI held many “metaphysical beliefs” as sacred!

(2) I had an “uncomfortable” conversation with a Jehovah Witness (JW) official who was discouraging one of my top (AP biology-Physics-honor roll) students from pursuing a STEM college program (This would not be the last time I faced this problem). This was a student who entered high school previously performing below grade level in reading! His academic achievements over 4 years, still remains one of the greatest educational stories of my career. The young man was frustrated and conflicted, and thus the genesis of the conversation with the official. I felt that if I could get the JW official to meet me somewhere in the middle; this young man could collect his waiting full scholarships and college admissions. And for reasons unrelated to academics I needed to get this young man (as with many others); out of NYC and onto a college campus. First, out of respect (and for the first time) I humbled myself by attending a JW service; where my student spoke; it was a very electrifying and exhilarating evening; especially when it was announced from the podium that ________ principal had come to hear him give his talk!

The few days later the discussion with the JW official however, was less joyous, welcoming and electrifying; and although parts of the dialogue could definitely be defined as electrifying, yes they were indeed electrifying, but in a not so good way. Quick description: The conversation did not go well (this is my putting the best spin on it!). And over time as I grew more and more frustrated, with what I thought was his inflexible intransigence (“Couldn’t he join with other JW’s on campus, and they could form an organization to support each other, and thus a further opportunity to share their beliefs with other non-JW students?” I pleaded! … “No!”) I was also disgusted that the JW official seem to have no interest, or understanding of the need to get this young man out of a very “challenging” Brooklyn living situation. And while patiently and respectfully I debated with his “religious line of reasoning”; at some point I lost it. Seeing that he was phenotypically (in appearance) black I desperately appealed to his sense of cultural/historical pride. Sensing the conversation was going nowhere, I finally ask the question: “Do you know for sure that the white folks who run (highest leadership levels) the JW organization (I did my online research home work in preparation for our discussion), don’t allow their kids to pursue a college education? Do we really want to stifle the education of Black children? Are there any “orders” that we could receive as Black men, or as human beings, that could never be questioned, challenged and/or disobeyed? Well, that went over as well as the campus ministry idea.

A great deal of my life’s story starting with my mother; and traditionally administered by many of the many wise and wonderful women I have been blessed to meet in my personal-professional journey, can be summed up in this one phrase: “You had to go there, didn’t you?” “Yes”, I would always confess, in at least the spirit and tone of true contriteness…“Because I couldn’t take it anymore.” Higher education may have been this JW official’s enemy; but that type of thinking always has, and will always be my enemy.

I failed. Because I was up against a family and a powerful religion; and any religion that has the power to “unfriend a member”; (You should see Leah Remini‘s TV program on Scientology to fully appreciate the power of being religiously “shunned” by everyone you are close to in the world!) Most of us who are not part of those types of religions can’t really understand how extremely powerful the act of being “defellowshipped”, even as a threat, truly is.

I lost. The young man never went to college. But somehow I always saw this as just another way that misleaders in power, can act out their dreams, while denying the dreams of their followers. As a professional educator I vowed early in my career to never regret the work I put into a student; even if things seem to turn out badly. The work will forever stand as good work, and besides we really don’t truly know the end of things! And I get the “religious freedom” part; I am just not sure about those freedoms including policies that promote ignorance. Perhaps that’s my small concession and confession to a personal type of religious bias.

I offer this. If your “friends & family” religious plan is to say that education, knowledge and information is the enemy, and by extension places like schools and libraries become enemy territories, then I would check the motives of those “friends and family”. And when your religious friends and family plan says no to education and learning, are they really saying, no to thinking? Now why would a religious leader want a non-thinking flock, I wonder (not really) why…

Now that the Betsy DeVos “show” is over, perhaps we can get to the real work!

The painful truth is this. For many schools in this nation, and no disrespect to a lot of sincere and hard-working friends of mine; not only does it not matter who the secretary of education is, what she knows or does not know. It does not matter who is their governor, state commissioner of education, state Board of Education, local school board, state representative, congressperson, mayor, and even the district superintendent. These schools are essentially “insulated” from the political noise, they are on “on academic achievement automatic”, and locked into their standard effective schools operational model and procedures; with a focus on effective school leadership and quality instructional practices. These schools have also identified the supplementary (to the standard inadequate budget allocation) funding resources that every successful school must have. There is really no need for the parents of these schools to request charter schools or vouchers, because they get everything they need for their children from the public schools their children attend. Who is, or is not an elected or appointed official; has no effect on their school’s high: standards-expectations-achievement and quality work product.

From someone who has actually spent some time thinking and doing something about education:
“The way ESSA was written, it outlines an important federal role, it outlines a state role. It actually prohibits the secretary of education from making a whole set of decisions that are outlined, so regardless of what administration is in Washington, the law really limits the extent of federal involvement.”—Linda Darling-Hammond

That being said, I tried unsuccessfully in an earlier blog post to convince many well-meaning and sincere people, that the entire Betsy DeVos (BDV) “magic show” was a fatal distraction; wisely instigated and managed by the anti-voucher-charter folks for their own political reasons. For sure, neither the pro nor anti sides of this charter-voucher debate, are truly interested in the educational well-being of Black and Latino children; unfortunately they both see students of color as cash machines and/or political props.

I reference a “magic show” because one of the operational objectives of such a show is to distract the audience from the actual execution of the “trick technique”. And as I also stated in an early post, BDV’s performance at the Senate confirmation hearings was frighteningly dreadful. It seems that they could have randomly selected someone to testify who was just walking down the street near the capital, and there was a very good chance that person would have done no worse than the nominee. But there is a 2nd sobering truth. As pedagogically deficient as she was, combined with her lack of professional experience, or even personal contact with public schools, Ms. DeVos as an “existential threat to public education” (one prominent opponent), was a gross exaggeration, given the statutory limited powers of a secretary of education. And given that in many sections of our nation public schools already exist as an existential threat— to the unfortunate children who attend them. Further, the real attributes, knowledge and qualifications (present in a person like: Rudy Crew or Linda Darling-Hammond) needed for the post of secretary of education (SOE) has been tragically missing in past appointments of both Republican and Democrat administrations. The truth is that the “professional qualifications” of some past secretaries of education have been grossly overstated.

I have been at this for a while now, and so I get it. The artificially manufactured and hyped up: “Call your Senator” movement was inspiring and exciting; and it helped people to feel they were actually doing something about public education. After all, it’s not like the “boring” hard work of building an afterschool, Saturday and summer STEM program, or a dynamically successful early childhood program like Little Sun People (http://www.littlesunpeople.com/). Going unnoticed by the national media and the Black public at large, is the very hard expanding opportunity “grunt” work done by people like: Denise M. Lewis at FIRST Robotics; Carl Mack and Anthony Junior putting more children of color into the STEM pipeline, and Donna Y. Ford fighting valiantly to expand the participation of children of color in Gifted and Talented programs. At some point communities of color need to establish a criteria for what (who) is, and is not speaking and acting in the educational interest of their children.

But despite my concerns about the “Stop DeVos” movement I never said anything to oppose this effort because in essence the actions seeking the rejection of Ms. DeVos was both democratically and educationally sound. But historians may look back at this moment and come to a conclusion that the appointment of a right-wing ideologically focused and powerful Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions (he probably goes by “Jeff” to take the confederate edge off!), will turn out to be a greater existential danger to the survival of Black and Brown children, then the theoretically confused and power limited Ms. DeVos. As the dissenting Republican senators so wisely pointed out during the hearings; her greatest impact will be no impact, because for the vast majority of American school children, charter schools or school vouchers are for a lot of reasons, not an option; and she won’t be able to change that reality. While Mr. Sessions will have the power to ignore protecting the civil and human rights of selected American citizens; Ms. DeVos can’t change the statutory (based on law) funding programs; and she is one education official, in a very complex and multilayered power sharing national system. In many school districts across this nation, where Republicans control all three branches of state government, there is an “annual ritual” of charter school proponents presenting a charter school proposal to a local school board, and then having that proposal routinely rejected. “Power” in matters of public education policy and practices; is a very complicated affair. And based on the testimony of Ms. DeVos, it might take her 4 years to fully understand the limitations of official power in the public education arena, a lesson that many of us who ascended to the superintendency, learned rather quickly after taking office!

Many of my colleagues have short, or self-erased memories, (and the public is not aware) concerning the tremendous amount of disappointment, anger and sense of betrayal that was directed toward Mr. Obama’s appointee Arne Duncan. Mr. Obama gave Secretary Duncan “cover”; and so a great deal of the “on record” comments were muted and/or mildly critical. But the “off the record” comments were much less kind. For his tenure was seen by many of us as a historic and monumental lost opportunity to fundamentally change the nation’s thinking about educating its children. “Place holding” (a chronic Democratic ailment), is not a place from which real change can occur.

Although the amount of “damage” Ms. DeVos can inflict is greatly overstated; not knowing what to do is not a neutral act; not knowing what to do, or if the SOE is a “one trick pony” (charters and vouchers), the children who will receive the most harm are children of color, and poor children of any color. I have never been a fan of the “silver lining” theory. Permanent bad and damaging things can and will happen to people who are both good and innocent. It is left then for those of us who are struggling to be good, to resist evil and insist that our actions are the meaningful efforts in the defense and restoration of those human personalities evil people are seeking to destroy. Perhaps this terrible triangle (POTUS, House of Representatives and the Senate) of ill-gotten and evil power, acquired by way of Russian intervention; and soon to be a four-headed monster with the control of the Supreme Court; can push the good people of America, and in particular the most forgotten and disenfranchised members of our nation into self-affirming and self-depending action.

The greatest mistake, the mistake we keep making in seeking educational justice and quality for our children is waiting for: a “superman our woman”, some magical piece of legislation, the no professional educational training or experience required like strategies, the new “hot” educational theory or leader of the month, a “corporate model”, “military model”, or any silly model will do. The truth is (and all professional-experienced educators know this); at this point we pretty much know how to teach students how to read, to do math, successfully engage STEM and other subject areas, and to get them to graduate; all that is missing is leadership with the political independence and political will to make a successful educational experience true for all children. For example they could start with small courageous acts like the easy and simple “task” of pushing for the expansion of the number of gifted and talented programs (and provide special training for administrators and teachers) into communities that are presently gifted and talented deserts. There is no G&T “sacred text” that determines the number, geography and admission requirements for establishing gifted and talented programs. And these politicians can do this without running the risk of offending their white voters, since you are not reducing their programs. But even as we push our political, civic and civil rights leadership to understand that their children-constituent’s education should be the sole focus of their interest and efforts; we should not be overconfident and rely solely on them, knowing their complicated funding and political alliances.

Parents: if it is to be, it must start with you!

There is nothing to stop parents of color and communities of color from asserting their role and responsibility for the education of their children. This must be a “three front” campaign, one the before mentioned political action. The second should be personal-parenting, and the third community institution building action. No one can stop a parent from nurturing and empowering their own child’s education through the engagement with the many “informal” educational institutions, programs and activities. Professional educators have known for years (and utilize it with their own children), that high academic achievement is very often related to the quality and quantity of the child’s engagement with the informal educational experience.

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The “educational win” odds increases tremendously for any child with the employment of the formula: Student Success = A rich informal out-of-school learning experience that is supplemental to, and supportive of, a rich formal in-school educational experience.

There are Museums, public libraries, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, science and other children related educational magazines, dance-instrumental music-art-etc. out of school classes, educational toys, non-stereotypical sports activities (fencing, gymnastics, archery, tennis, etc.) educational games, computers and fun learning software programs, puzzles, kits, and most importantly access to books for independent-fun reading; all of these efforts are crucial complementary learning activities for the “formal” learning that takes place inside of schools.

Betsy DeVos can’t go into every Black and Latino home and stop parents from insisting on: independent reading time, serious attention to homework and study, on time everyday attendance, and making sure that students behave in school and bring home good grades. No SOE can start or stop communities of color from setting up afternoon, weekend, school breaks and summers: homework-study, chess clubs, test prep, STEM, art, music, dance, reading and creative writing centers. As we learned in Brooklyn (Science Skills Center) not only are these communities rich with professional talent who are more than willing to donate their time; there are also many public, corporate and private institutions who are led by people of good and sensitive character, who are anxious to help with the cause of expanding educational opportunity for children of color. Parents who select to Homeschool their children should form local learning networks (see who’s better at teaching what), and also take advantage of the huge amount of informational resources that exist in the ranks of retired teachers and school administrators in their communities (And as retired public school educators we must be ready to assist Homeschool educators when our assistance is requested). As a superintendent I invited both Homeschooling parent/teachers and charter school teachers to our professional development activities; why not in other places?

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Parents and communities of color must “lower their buckets where they are”, seeking educational opportunities for their children into the rich resource streams of their own efforts, and the efforts of those who sincerely care about their children.

The worst thing to happen is not a Republican SOE, no matter the ideological propensities, or the dearth of professional knowledge and experience. The worst thing that can happen is that we deceive ourselves into thinking that educational outcomes will significantly change for the better, when, and if our nation survives long enough to one day have a Democratic SOE. And to tip my hat to my high school ELA teachers; waiting for an educational savior, is like waiting for Godot!

“The general sentiment of mankind is that a man who will not fight for himself, when he has the means of doing so, is not worth being fought for by others, and this sentiment is just.” — (The real not Trumpian version of) Frederick Douglass