A Call To Uplift Students, Not Tear Them Down

pexels-photo-191100Last month I discussed a few newsworthy changes in the city of Baltimore, where certain schools have started implementing meditation in lieu of detention. This approach is is inspiring and certainly something from which we (those charged with caring for and educating students) can learn. Yet apparently such inspiration has not made its way around the entire city.

This past week a video surfaced of a teacher at a Baltimore Middle School, Harlem Park, berating children, who had apparently not heeded her instruction and were unresponsive to her directives about doing work. The video begins with the woman, who has now been let go by the school, removing a disruptive student from the classroom. By the end of the short clip, the teacher is calling all of the children stupid and telling them they’re the N-words bound to get shot. The teacher was white.

But her race alone is not the most alarming part. Her tone and the way she chose to address these students is most upsetting. To be clear, having worked in education, I understand that students can get rowdy, that some days are not as great as others, and that on those days, some students just won’t listen. That is not ideal but it comes with the territory, and educators should be prepared for dealing with it, especially if their goal is teach in a school or district where the population is historically underserved and impoverished.

Those children, as disrespectful as they are and as nerve racking as they can be, are just that, children. Many are disaffected by the education system because they deal with a world of hell outside of the school’s walls, which may include gun violence, drug abuse, hunger, incarcerated parents, bullying, and yes, racism. As I’ve discussed previously, these experiences can be traumatic, making learning (as well as teaching) difficult.

In turn, these children need the opposite. They need attention and teachers who care, who are willing to give the hard love that may turn them around, and who are able discipline without using profanity and demeaning language. Perhaps meditation is not a possibility for every school or classroom, but compassionate teachers should be.

And maybe this is an example of teachers needing to meditate themselves, or find some other way to care for themselves, to destress and decompress, and this should be encouraged by the schools. The job of being an educator is not easy in anyway, and being responsible for young adult lives, even when it seems like you’re the only one, is draining. Yet many of us have entered the profession, knowing the risks and still rising to the challenge with the hope of changing at least one life. If not that, then what is the purpose?

Why Schools In Baltimore Are Meditating

Leo Pollard's picture of meditation

Young lady meditating

Located just an hour outside of the nation’s capital, Baltimore, Maryland is one of the poorest cities in the United States. However, the entire city isn’t living in squalor; there is, in fact, very noticeable wealth throughout. Yet, as one of the most segregated cities in the country as well, inequality persists in black neighborhoods located in the inner city and western suburbs.

 

Within this cycle of poverty are children for whom issues at home spill over into the school environment, resulting in heightened disciplinary actions and no-tolerance policies from educators and administrators alike. Such actions lead to more aggression from students as well as a sense of apathy regarding the purpose of school, since it so often fails at addressing the needs of those who need more than punishment. Hence, a few schools in Baltimore are trying something new.

 

One such school is the Robert W. Coleman Elementary School. A recent article from Upworthy highlighted the school’s abrogation of detention in exchange for mindful meditation. The benefits of mindfulness include focus, longer attention spans, stress reduction and, probably most helpful, the ability to truly think about one’s actions–it encourages reflection and inspires peace.

 

Mindfulness isn’t new, of course. The practice has been been around for thousands of years. However this particular application is novel in many respects. The inspiration (and partnership) to create a room dedicated to mindfulness, where misbehaving kids are sent instead of the principal’s office, came from the Holistic Life Foundation, which has been offering after school mindfulness and yoga programs for kids, from pre-k to 5th grade.

 

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School has had zero suspensions for the last two years. The school credits the program and its holistic approach with its success. While there has been no formal study on this correlation, we can look at the results from other schools in Baltimore and those developing around the country to see that such policies are impactful.

 

The nature of this work is remarkable and resourceful, especially as Baltimore continues to lose students and millions of dollars in funding, the latter of which creates even worse environments for students with behavioral issues. I’m not sure whether this can be applied elsewhere as easily, without the proper resources and training. But it is something worth researching further to find out how to really make a difference.

Louisiana Senate Bill 432: Saving Face, Not Saving Schools

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The City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina

August 2005 changed the city of New Orleans forever. In the wake of the infamous and deadly Hurricane Katrina, one of America’s most beloved cities was devastated by the natural disaster, and further ravaged by a lack of response from both the federal and local governments, and inadequate levee system, which critics heralded as one of the greatest engineering disasters in nearly 20 years. The result, in addition to nearly 1,500 deaths, was mass displacement and lasting devastation, which has yet to be fully rectified, more than a decade later. Yet, though officials were slow to assist those need at the time of the event, what followed was unwanted oversight and control of the city’s most vulnerable population, under the guise of education reform.

pencil-918449_960_720Following the storm, the city of New Orleans adopted a public charter school system over the traditional public school system, and the change was in no way subtle. Instead, some 77 charter schools exist in the city today, compared to just 6 public schools. Hence, more than 90 percent of the students attend the former. The problem: these schools, though open to the public, with the word contained in their title, are independently run, resulting in a dramatic and wholly undemocratic shift in the schooling process.

Speaking on the changes in a post New Orleans Katrina, National Geographic described the system as “the single-most transformed institution in the city.” Nowhere else in the country has such a transformation taken place, even in cities like the nation’s capital, which has had its own history of troubles, questionable leadership, and considered one of the worst systems in the country, based on factors as such as dropout rate and college preparedness. To be clear, since the shift, New Orleans has increased graduation and proficiency in certain subjects for many of the students. However, even after more 10 years, the system lacks perfect results, and contains a spate of issues persist over which locals and stakeholders with the most to lose, students and their parents, have no say.

senior-middle-school-993886_960_720So, earlier this month, when the Washington Post released news that the governor of Louisiana, John Bel Edwards, might sign a bill that would return school oversight and power to the locals–a democratically elected school board–many saw the move as a victory, a sign of restitution. Yet, upon further inspection, there’s a caveat. The board would still be left out of decisions regarding hiring, curriculum and instruction, and as I previously discussed, unions. Hence, the move is really just placation, a cover to quell the voiced anger of the constituency, which, it should be noted, is majority black, impoverished and historically underserved.

The danger in such is the precedent this system sets for the rest of the country, where the voices of communities are increasingly silenced. It is a threat to our democracy, and more, it is experimenting with something of vast importance, which will have lasting consequences, that will be near impossible to undo. To me and the people who are rightfully rallying against these proposals, this is about power and control than about truly seeking to help or better the community. And that is simply unacceptable.

Charting The Wrong Path

orphan-1139042_960_720School should be a place of promise and hope, where children come to learn, imagine, and be endowed with skills which will enable them to not only exist but excel in their desired career paths and future livelihood. For many black students across the country, that idea of school is wholly unfamiliar and seemingly nonexistent. Black children are more likely to be expelled from schools and disciplined more harshly for behaviors exhibited by other students, even as early as preschool. Multiple studies have revealed this bias, which correlates with a lack of educators and administrators of color, and since, some efforts have been made to correct these disparities, including programs from the federal government, like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.

Likewise, charter schools are a development that has grown in popularity in recent years, and touted as a true alternative to the spate of problems faced by public schools. Charters maintain freedom from many laws governing traditional public schools and are run independently, though public charters are, by law, open to all children and don’t enforce special requirements for entrance.

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Photo Credit: cybrarian77 on Flickr

Within the last 20 or so years, charters have rapidly expanded throughout the United States and generated support from public and private parties alike, which espouse its high test scores and noticeably different organizational culture. In comparison to traditional public schools, charters have been deemed as more valuable and better suited to address the needs of America’s declining education system.

children's swingsThis has resulted in the shuttering of public schools across the country, most remarkably in areas that are also marred by socioeconomic inequality like, Philadelphia, Detroit, and my city, New Orleans, where nearly all schools in the city are charter schools, as a result of reform following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The problems resulting from this shift become more acute when the philosophies of charters are studied with a more critical eye. Recent research from UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies revealed that the argument of the exceptional charter school is built on harsh disciplinary practices which target black children, and discrimination against children with disabilities. A quarter of all students at more than 300 charter schools were suspended during the academic year, a large number of them black. And for students with disabilities, the rate of suspension is an incredible 10 times higher than those without.

a pile of pencilsPerhaps this issue could be overlooked if it was isolated, but with over 1,000 schools in the study carrying out these same practices, it appears to be intrinsic to the operations and philosophy of this alleged alternative. What we have is hundreds of kids being excluded from the opportunities promised to them as not just students, but the future of our country and increasingly global society. Instead of preparing children in the most vulnerable parts of our communities with tools for success, we’re removing them entirely and exacerbating the issues of our lopsided system. It is not only unfair, it is dangerous, and we all must work to find real solutions to rectify this growing epidemic of an ill-prepared and unnurtured populace.