Thursday, April 15, 2010

Board holds a dialog about success with students.....

On Tuesday night, the Board of Education listened to a group of diverse north side students and their parents who have been identified by their teachers and principals as among the many students who are on the path to great success. We asked them to tell us about their road to success and to tell us what more we can do as a district to support them and other students on the road to success. If you didn't attend, you missed a special occasion. Listening to students is, well, fabulous. Every time I do it, I come away enriched with renewed faith in our young people.

Who was in the circle of students to which we listened? Students from a variety of backgrounds, immigrants and children of immigrants (which of course all of us are). Their parents hailed from Vietnam, Somalia and southern Africa. There was an immigrant from Bosnia. There were African Americans, a hispanic family and others.

What did they tell us about their road to success?

The answers will not surprise you, I trust. Students talked about the support that they received from parents. They talked about high expectations at home; they talked about high expectations from their teachers, but above all, they talked about having high expectations for themselves. Several of the students said that they wanted to succeed to set a good example for their younger brothers and sisters. One student wants to be a journalist. Another is headed for St. Thomas in St. Paul where she intends to pursue the path to medical school.

The students talked about "making good choices every day." They said that involves developing good work habits. In some cases, the students developed those good habits themselves. They figured out that if they made good choices, studied first and then chilled, then they could realize their dreams. For other students, their parents were key: one said that mom began each day with a message: make good choices today. One father said, you get your work done, then you have fun. Several parents said that they wanted their children in activities, so that they spent their free time doing productive things. These students had a vision of themselves in the future that said, I can succeed, and the road to success is hard work.

One Mom said that said that she learned early on that staying active in her school was really important. When you know the teachers and the principal, it makes a big difference. She works all day, but she finds time to stay involved in school. She didn't say it, but you could see that the most important thing in her life was making sacrifices to give her children a better future.

Students told us that choosing the right friends made a big difference. One young man told us that in his early secondary years he got himself in trouble a lot. He said that he was hanging out with kids who were making bad choices, and he was making bad choices along with them. But at some point, a light-bulb went off. He recognized that he was on a path to wasting his life. With prodding from the school district, he decided to make better choices. He began to focus on studies, to attend school punctually, and he stopped hanging out with his old friends. Kids on the wrong path can make a choice to choose the right path, so we can't give up on kids. We have to hold them to high standards of behavior, but we need to show them that if they make the right choices, we will get behind them and give them a boost.

A young Somali girl said that her path to success began when she was really young. She said in perfect fluent English that she figured out that if she was going to succeed in America, she was going to need to master English. She didn't want to spend her entire school career getting pulled out for special English classes: she wanted to get into the regular classroom and be with other students, with the same ability to communicate in English.

And finally, a consistent theme was that these young people had an important adult or adults in their lives, usually parents, who supported their success, who took pride in what they were doing. These parents were devoted to their childrens' education. They pursued a no excuses strategy. Get your work done; you can succeed. The parents expected their children to obey the school rules, but they also advocated for them when there were problems. They talked about giving respect to their teachers, but by being motivated also by teachers who respected them in return.

At the end of the session, the moderators allowed members of the audience to meet in small groups and them make comments on what they had heard. One of the adults got up and said that we were all missing the point. He said that we needed to talk about systemic racism as a barrier to success and to education. He talked about the long history of racism and mistreatment of Native Americans, blacks and other minorities in America. He said, why don't you ask these students to tell you about racism in our schools.

And then, one by one, students rose to give their perspective. Eloquently, one student after another said, listen, that's not what we are here for. They said, "the school district is celebrating our success. They want to hear about what we are doing right, so that more students can succeed." The adult argued back, and more students stood up. They know about racism, they said. We can assume that many or most have experienced some form of racism in their lives, perhaps on a regular basis. They didn't deny the existence of racism. But they said, as many of this younger generation does, we don't want to talk about racism today, or all the time. Give us our day to talk about what is important to us, not what is important to you older folks, who seem obsessed with racial issues. Let's focus on what's important to us today, they said, and that is supporting young people who are coming to school every day, doing their homework, making good grades, making the right choices, and, God bless them, getting along with each other.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Progress Comes from Focus on the Future

Today, we have another column (I refer here to the Your-Turn article by CAIR in today's Times) which tries to prove who is at fault for the District's alleged failures to resolve harassment and bullying that undeniably exists in schools. What is singular about this column is that it uses precious print space seeking to justify a complaint to the Department of Education, as if this is the central issue of importance to our community and to our schools. The complaint has been filed; trying to justify the filing of the complaint may make the people who filed it feel better, but it will accomplish little else.

To my brother and sister lawyers at CAIR, let me say this. Our school district has adopted a "continuous progress" model of reform fostered by the National School Boards Association. The idea behind continuous progress is that progress comes from acknowledging problems and focusing on the change that is needed, rather than focusing on who is to blame for the problem. This is hard for lawyers to do, because we lawyers are so used to winning cases by proving who is at fault. A lawsuit is about proving who ran a red light, not about how to make sure people don't run red lights in the future.

One of the problems with focusing on fault, is that it causes people to be defensive and resistant to change. Listen. We have fantastic dedicated teachers. They want students to be welcomed. They are doing everything they can think of to do to create an environment that assures every student an orderly safe positive school environment. I believe in our teachers and I believe in our schools. Trying to convince them that they are the problem is going down the wrong road. Frankly, the vast majority of our teachers are saying, if there is something more I can do to contribute to creating a welcoming environment for all children, let me know. This idea of trying to prove that our teachers and administrators are at fault is a losing strategy, because its not going to bring about change, and its going to send us down the road of recrimination and division.

So when we focus on proving who is wrong--on who caused the problem--instead of what we want to improve, we create a defensive atmosphere that paralyzes the organization and forces it to justify the past. The District adopted a continuous progress model because, at the leadership level, we know that public education needs to make change. This focus on who is at fault is going to lead to nothing positive. I am constantly hearing from a small segment of the parents of white students that they believe that Somali students have special privileges. They complain about the attitude of some Somali boys towards women. Some believe that there is a dual system of justice that treats minority students better than majority students. I hear as well from some parents of minority students that they believe exactly the opposite. That there is a dual system of justice that treats majority students better. Focusing on blame encourages this debate and causes people to resist change, because they see change as involving a confession of error.

The continuous progress model says, look, our district is run by humans. Humans are not perfect. We make mistakes. We learn from our mistakes. We can always do better. You don't have to prove that we are incompetent to convince us to make change. Let's talk about what needs to be done in the future, not who is to blame for the past. Let's spend our time trying to make the future better than focusing on who is at fault for the past. The Irish Catholics and Protestants spent centuries in a cycle of recrimination about who was more at fault for the atrocities committed by Protestant and Catholic extremists. They overcame these divisions when they cancelled the debate about the past and began to work together to make a better future.

Anybody who lives here in St. Cloud, knows that we have a lot of work to do in building understanding between our new Somali neighbors and those of us who immigrated here a few decades earlier. We know that there is a vast gap in understanding about our respective beliefs and practices. We have not integrated as a community in the sense of having the broad universal mutual respect and understanding that we need. To get there, it is going to take lots of work on the part of Somali leadership and non-Somali leadership. If there are things we can do better in schools, we need to do them.

This community does need to acknowledge that it is all too frequent for people who seem different from the majority to be taunted, humiliated, or shunned. Many who live in the so-called majority community have no idea, and indeed would be appalled to learn, that such humiliations are a frequent occurrence for minority families. These acts are not committed by the vast majority of citizens, but by too many. Too many folks in St. Cloud begin a dialog about immigrants in ways that don't lead to understanding and respect. More of us need to recognize that the vast majority of Somalis came to this community to realize the American dream--to get a good job, to work hard to earn a living, to see their kids succeed through education. We need to see Somalis as an asset to this community, families who believe in hard work and education as the road to success. We're not going to get there, however, by trying to prove who is at fault for the failure to understand each other. Change comes from focusing on the future, not the past.

There are things that we can do in the schools to create a more positive environment. But the idea that we have just begun, is well, frankly, blarney. These issues are not new to St. Cloud, and the efforts to address them are not new either. The work to promote understanding and tolerance, and a welcoming environment, long predates the letters sent by CAIR.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

"Not a Clue"

I woke up this morning to discover that, evidently, I have failed the "Tripp-test" for having a clue about education issues in St. Cloud. I've gotten on the wrong side of some of the self-appointed civil rights spokespersons in St. Cloud because I don't believe that constantly focusing on race and racism is a productive strategy for transforming public education. I'm not going to shrink from my opinions on this. I'm not arguing that we don't need to combat racism in our community, when it does exist. I just don't happen to believe that the "racism is the cause" strategy is effective, or for that matter accurate.

If you didn't read the story, my comments in the Times about the actions of one particular self-described leader of Somalis was interpreted as proof that I don't have a clue about racial issues in St. Cloud. My comments resulted from the fact that the leader in question had agreed to a meeting to discuss solutions and then over the weekend scheduled the demonstration for the exact same time as the meeting. I saw this as regrettable and wrong. I don't think that it makes you a racist, or ignorant, just because you disagree with someone who claims to be speaking on the topic of race. I'm not going to be bashful about speaking my mind, just because someone might write a Your Turn against me. The stakes are too high here. The subject is our children and their education and future.

One of the sad things about the level of dialog in this community on race is that many people on both sides of this issue think that if you don't agree with their point of view that you "don't have a clue." The result of this approach, which is all too common, for dialog here around the issue of race, is that we have trouble actually getting the community mobilized to do the hard work that is necessary to make systemic change.

My background and belief system may well differ from that of Mr. Tripp; I can't say, because he's never bothered to give me a call to find out what I think. I was a civil rights worker in Mississippi in 1964-1965 when racism kept black adults from voting and black students from going to decent schools. I have a masters in teaching with specialization in teaching disadvantaged students. In 1968, I helped found an upward bound program in Washington, D.C., a program designed to give minority students a boost into College. I taught high school in the D.C. public schools and in New York, before attending law school, after which I worked six years in legal services for the disadvantaged in the District of Columbia and then here in Minnesota. I try to read extensively on issues relating to the achievement gap, on school reform, and on best practices. My background causes me to see the educational crisis quite differently from Mr. Tripp. Respectfully, I think that the right strategy begins with high expectations.

Listen. The fact that you disagree with Luke Tripp, or anyone else for that matter, doesn't mean that you don't have a clue. It just means that you believe in following a different path.

Here is what I believe. I believe that constantly focusing on the racial divide that allegedly exists in this community will make it worse, not better. I believe in dialog, not invective. I believe in building bridges of understanding, not rehashing old grievances. I believe that the truly great civil rights leaders of the Martin Luther King era, some of whom I knew, were peacemakers not rabble-rousers. They counted their success based on the amount of healing that they did, not the amount of division that they created.

I believe that the keys to maintaining a strong public education system are the same for white and black students. They don't begin with focusing on class or racism. They begin with a consistent message of high expectations. The high expectations message begins in the home. It begins with a message of "you can do it." It begins with a consistent message that hard work paves the road to success. It begins with turning off the television and creating a common time for reading and study. It begins with reading to your children daily, and creating an environment of respect for the hard work that education requires.

I believe too that creating a welcoming harassment-free environment is important to creating the conditions for success. I just don't believe that you do that by constantly focusing on race and racism. Kids bully other kids because the bully feels insecure and channels that insecurity by trying to put someone down. Kids pick on kids that they believe are vulnerable--who they think their peers will let them bully. For some kids race is an opportunity to bully. For others it is a disability, or gender, or an age difference. Bullies are all the same; insecure cowards who pick on kids who they believe are vulnerable. Inflaming this issue with race does not, in my opinion, stop bullying. Maybe you disagree: if you do, I won't say that you don't have a clue; I'll just say, I respectfully disagree.

I believe that raising expectations for parents, students and teachers is fundamental to improving education for disadvantaged students. If Mr. Tripp would bother to take a look, our district is aggressively working on programs to implement best practices that provide opportunities for all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or income.

Earlier this year, a former civil rights veteran of my era authored a song called "Pants on the Ground." Maybe you saw it. It went viral. In a humorous way, the song was speaking to the very issue I am talking about. He was saying, listen, some of us risked our lives in the 1960's--some of us lost our lives--to transform this country to provide better opportunities for children of color. We haven't driven out racism completely, and we need to work on that, of course. But, I believe he was saying, look at the opportunities that you now have, as the result of the sacrifices of King, Schwerner, Goodman, Cheney, the church bombings, the cross burnings, and the beatings and brutality. Stop focusing on excuses: get to work. The opportunities are there. Study hard. Get to work. Overcome.

The road to better education in St. Cloud right now does not begin with demonstrations or anti-racism invective. It begins with mobilizing parents to become involved in their public schools. It begins with encouraging parents to become involved in their children's education. It begins with supporting teachers and schools. If you don't agree with that, well ok. But that is my "clue": for making things better.