Tuesday, December 17, 2013

0 Boston Truth’s Light Shines for Public Education

At a time when our public school students are continuously taking high-stakes standardized tests which are used to judge our public schools, students and teachers as "failing" by the results of those tests; which most often lead to the closing of said "failing" schools and the handing over of that same school facility and funds from the local public school district's budget to "school management corporations" that re-open the schools as "in-district public charter schools”; or alternately are utilized to deny a student a diploma; while supposedly showcasing the "success" of corporate backed charter schools who do not take all students while taking funds from the local school district at 2-3 times the amount allocated for per-pupil costs of students staying at the district public schools; a time when here in the United States foundations like The Walton Foundation (Walmart)The Gates Foundation (Bill and Melinda), and The Broad Foundation (Eli and Edythe) finance the attack upon public education throughout the nation, the recent National Day of Action to Reclaim the Promise of Public Education on Monday, December 9, 2013, was a breathe of fresh air. 

Well, maybe not so much to the privatization peddlers who hawk their wares and policies through fear, intimidation and multi-million dollar sponsored "research" and "news articles." But for those of us who never bought the lies; who dug into the raw data behind the manufactured "proof" and reports; have been fighting for and defending public education for decades; educators, youth, families, advocates and community members pushing for investment in our public schools to ensure all students access to a quality education beyond how to take a test, for us, this was a wonderful day! 

The Boston Education Truth Coalition (BETC or Boston Truth), a youth-led coalition made up of students, educators, families and other community members who are directly affected by public education, which officially formed this past summer, sponsored the Boston event, The Future of BPS: A Town Hall to Transform the Public Education Agenda for Boston, which was held in Cardinal Hall at Madison Park High School in Roxbury. 

The town hall agenda was preceded by dinner and an opportunity for interactive activities including: a photo-booth to share why public education is important to you; art activities where you could draw or write what you would see inside your dream school, what a quality school looks like, and a complete the sentence "On our way to better schools...", which could then become part of the ongoing "school bus" and "the school all students deserve" art projects which the coalition plans to have at all future events.  

Despite it being a cold and crummy night, over 250 attendees came out from every neighborhood of Boston, which further substantiates what became evident during the recent elections: the right of all students to a high quality public education is the civil rights issue of our time as it affects the majority of people nationwide. The diversity of Boston was clearly evident among the youth, families, educators, community and labor (union) members who attended along with those in charge of public education, such as Boston Public Schools Interim Superintendent, John McDonough, elected officials and their representatives and Fran Lawrence, the Executive Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) (a sponsor of the Reclaim the Promise campaign). 

The formal agenda started with a video clip of the 1990 visit to Madison Park High School of Nelson Mandela, in honor of his accomplishments and life-long emphasis on the importance of education. 

"Education is the most powerful weapon which we can use in order to prepare our youth for their role as leaders of tomorrow." Nelson Mandela states to the crowd filling the MPHS auditorium in 1990. This comment, along with Nelson Mandela's other remarks regarding students dropping out and his charge to the youth to take it upon themselves to ensure that they receive the highest education possible, seemed to affect attendees just as strongly today as it did those who attended the 1990 event, as these issues are just as relevant today.

After a moment of reflection the official event got under way with, appropriately for a youth-led coalition, Alex Roman, a member of Boston Truth and the Boston-area Youth Organizing Project (BYOP), getting everyone to chant along with him:

"Everywhere we go - people want to know
why we're here - so we tell them,
we are the *students/parents/teachers - the mighty mighty students/parents/teachers
fighting for justice - and an education"
*each separately

Alex definitely brought everyone together - even our city leaders were chanting along with Alex! This fabulous "ice-breaker" was followed by introductions of a few representatives of the diverse coalition membership: Melonie Griffiths, a BPS parent and Jobs With Justice (JWJ) Organizer; myself as a BPS parent and Boston Parent Union (BPU) representative; and Jessica Tang, a Boston Teachers Union (BTU) representative. Each representative had a role which included acknowledging politicians and education leaders, the introduction of a video of interviews of some of the coalition members, and the introduction of Fran Lawrence, AFT EVP, who spoke about the nationwide fight to reclaim the promise of public education while standing united together. 

Carlos Rojas, another youth member of Boston Truth as well as the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM)Youth on Board (YOB), and the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), then gave a brief overview of the history of the Boston Education Truth Coalition and the "Principles That Unite Us" which were created through multiple community meetings over the past couple of years, sometimes utilizing the increasingly popular charrette process which ensures all voices are heard.  It should also be noted that the principles have been and will continue to be an evolving document through future meetings, town halls and other discussions, such as those that took place Monday night. 

Each one of the eight principles was introduced by student and youth members, who had posters stating the principle, which they read along with a brief description of it, and also spoke individually about what that particular principle meant to them personally. All of them did a great job in front of a huge audience, which is daunting enough, especially when sharing your personal feelings - they truly are the "mighty mighty students!" 

After all of the above took place, attendees took part in facilitated discussions regarding the principles and each person was asked to give input on what was needed to help BPS ensure a quality education for all students. The goal was to continue to add to the principles with what was shared as well as synthesizing all the comments for presentation at a public hearing being held the next night at English High School by Mayor-Elect Walsh's Education Transition Committee. Over the next hour each group discussed their thoughts on three questions:

What is BPS doing well?
Where does BPS fall short?
What do we want to propose to BPS?

The small group discussions were facilitated by youth members of the coalition while other coalition members took extensive notes. Looking around it was clear to see that the level of engagement was high as animated conversations were taking place at every table. At the end of the hour allotted for these discussions, a few of the facilitators reported back regarding what their group felt were the main issues to be shared with the coalition, BPS leadership, all legislators, and of course, Mayor-Elect Walsh's Education Transition Committee the next night. 

Attendees then volunteered to come up and share their reflections on the night, ideas and comments. 

The event came to a close with Alex, Jessica, Melonie and myself thanking all who attended, explaining the next steps, and urging all attendees to continue to speak up, share their suggestions, get involved with their schools and the district, their local representatives, community and elected leaders and the coalition and/or its member groups.

Though there were many adult "big-wigs" in attendance, I believe the event was such a success primarily because it was our ultimate stakeholders, the students and youth who attend our schools, who are leading the movement here in Boston. The parents, families, educators, community and labor members, though important in their own right, can never give the same perspective as our students who have the experience of being the guinea pigs of corporate education reform and are already paying the price daily.

One thing that I found concerning: not one of our Boston School Committee (BSC) members attended the event. The members were personally invited via hand-delivery by Deross Jordan, BSAC/YOUNG member, in conjunction with his verbal invitation and the opportunity to dine with him if they came a little early. I was fairly certain a couple of them would not attend, but am disappointed in all of the BSC members , because this was an opportunity for them to hear from so many of the stakeholders of BPS and have some truly meaningful conversations with many who will probably never attend a BSC meeting. Hmmm, maybe that exact prospect is why they failed to show up?

Since the formation of Boston Truth, and especially since Monday night, I have heard from a couple of people I know that they believe the principles are dictated by the BTU, AFT and other educator and union based groups. Though the unions and others are in agreement with the principles, and indeed did have a voice in developing them, the assumption that the principles are dictated by them is false, and to continue to promote that fallacy dismisses the voices of thousands of invested students, parents, families and other community members and the time they gave to develop them. Those who continue to believe that the principles are dictated by the AFT, BTU, et al; that members and supporters of Boston Truth, and other groups like it across the country are "just union sympathizers," may never believe otherwise no matter how much of the truth is shared with them. 

Take heart though! Since Monday night I have heard from so many people who wanted to share how wonderful the event was and how it inspired them, inclusive of BPS administrators and politicians. All week I have continued to see the affects of the event as, through email and social media, new voices are joining with us. At Tuesday evening's public hearing, and Saturday's Town Hall, both held by Mayor-Elect Walsh, the majority of voices continued to speak up to reclaim the promise here in the birthplace of public education. The tide has turned, and will continue to gain strength and momentum as each day more people become involved and sign onto the principles that unite us. They join in to reclaim not only the promise of public education, but also promises made by our elected leaders. We are united across the city, state and country, and unlike those who would dismiss us, our numbers grow daily.

I was personally most inspired by the youth whose voices were evident throughout the principles as well as the night. As I said during the acknowledgements: "If it weren't for our students, our youth, none of us would be here." I have watched the youth groups and movement in Boston flourish over the years, but having the opportunity to work with them as part of the coalition, and spend a lot of time with them thanks to my own daughter getting very involved with BSAC, I see that they are no longer being ignored as they once were (speaking from experience); that those in positions of power are starting to listen and work with them, at least the smart ones are!

Over the 20 years I have been a BPS parent, I have been actively involved with some of the most dynamic groups around: each of my children's school parent and site councils; especially the original Boston Special Needs Parent Advisory Council (SNPAC) and the Citywide Parent Council (CPC). I have to admit that, other than when lobbying at both the state and federal level regarding special education laws and, in 2002, fighting to retain funding for all the citywide PACs as Chair of SNPAC, Monday night's event was truly one of the most inspiring and empowering events I have attended!

I urge those who read this, no matter your role in the community, to at the very least sign the Boston Truth petition to our elected officials and get involved with your local school and community group. If you want to become involved with Boston Truth, please sign up for the email group or feel free to contact me directly.

Event slideshow: beginning to end! 

Have questions or just want to see what I am working on? Feel free to email me at karen.kastmcbride@gmail.com or follow me via Twitter: @BPSNightmare. 


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