Teaching Opinion

We Need a Strong Alliance for Schools

By Deborah Meier — May 22, 2014 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Mike Klonsky today.

Dear Mike,

You’ve got it more right than wrong. I’m just as concerned about the relationship between a school and its community, but I’ve been paid to think about what can be done for the particular families and children I serve in school. So my creative, social, and intellectual energy has gone into exploring what schools could be if they served those most likely to be without a voice or power within our democracy as it is.

After a year subbing in Chicago, my teaching experience was in a school across the street from my home in Chicago, where my kids went to school, which predominantly served African-American families.

I fell in love with teaching 4- and 5-year-olds, and the parents and grandparents who came along with them were an added joy. The richest and poorest kids were African-American—and constituted three-fourths of the student body. Since I was active in the community (battling an urban renewal plan being pushed by the University of Chicago) the schooling and community issues often crossed over.

When I worked in Central and East Harlem, while living in what was—at that time—a somewhat integrated West side, my situation shifted. (Except for the four years in the early 1970s when I was an elected school board member for the district, which covered both the West side and much of central Harlem, I stayed out of local school politics.)

In Central Harlem I only taught morning kindergarten, and thus had time to get to know the kids and their families—but as a teacher, not a fellow community member. When working in East Harlem I took a similar stance, maybe in part as a “bargain” with the local superintendent who was doing remarkable work and probably didn’t need (or want) my presence at school board meetings.

I viewed myself as a “technician” who promised to bring the 250 children and their families the best I knew how to give, with their support. There were tensions between what we thought best (as professionals) and what some families might have liked. Being a public school with districtwide choice alleviated some of this tension, but we counted on our success as educators to overcome some doubts. It worked—and still does. Lucky us.

In Boston, 20 years later, we had the chance to develop a formal structure of democracy that helped bring both together. Politico recently wrote about a study on “Teacher-Powered Schools” that featured Mission Hill. As Politico put it:

Teacher Take the Reins: At Mission Hill K-8 School....the principal and teachers make decisions together about curriculum, staffing and the school schedule. A governing board....of parents, faculty, students and community members ensures that the teacher-led team makes decisions in the students' best interest.

I think, Mike, we’ve both avoided looking at the picture as it plays out in smaller towns and rural areas. Choice and community partnerships are easier to work together in dense urban areas, for example. It also depends on which comes first—the community organizing or the school. With charters, of course, neither comes first in the way it has been played out. (With exceptions).

In both East Harlem and Roxbury we were also able to have integrated schools. The East Harlem district school board wanted this because it brought in additional federal funds (in the early 1970s), and in Boston there was still a largely nonfunctional judicially ordered integration plan, with racial quotas. We were one of the few integrated schools since no mandate can integrate if few white families use the public system. But in both cases some middle-class white and black families opted into these two schools (Central Park East and Mission Hill), together constituting between 20 percent to 35 percent of their population.

What’s happening in Newark and Chicago—re. mayor and teachers’ union—will be interesting to watch. Add to this the change of union leadership in Los Angeles, and maybe Bill DeBlasio’s election in New York City. We will see. But you are right that it will take a very strong alliance to pull it off, and there are a lot of powerful forces who will try to split us apart. I’m not sure it worked out as we hoped in D.C., Mike.

Yes, re. Newark: While the “new reformers” spent eight times as much, they lost! Organized human beings can make democracy work well—or maybe at all. But it requires more than an electoral alliance to make a long-term difference, above all as states are making it easier to hand over our schools to private interests or providing money to existing private schools. In both cases who gets in is decided by the privatizers, not the families—sometimes in a straightforward manner and sometimes more subtly.

Making our cities “laboratories of democracy” may be a bit too hopeful, but it’s a grand aspiration that we both can sign onto. Maybe part of the experiment can include getting some of the like-minded charters to opt into the public system—when and as the public system changes.


P.S. Competition is sometimes good. I got this down to 833 words just to “show you” I could.

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