Saturday, September 7, 2013

Because NDRD matters and I'm proud to have @yohuruwilliams as a colleague

Over the summer, Dr. Yohuru Williams invited me to attend and recruit for the National Dialogue on Race Day on September 12th, 7 p.m. at Fairfield University. After working with several young men of Upward Bound on an Op-Ed piece: Young Men of Bridgeport Must Stand for Integrity,  Dr. Williams offered support and feedback. As a man of integrity himself, Williams quickly shared news of this important day on Fairfield's campus.

Yesterday, I thought about NDRD all day, especially as I conducted two workshops on writing the college essay for seniors at Bassick High School in Bridgeport. Before the school year began, I hosted a back-to-school kick-off for their teachers where Fairfield University's President, Jeffrey P. von Arx, gave an opening address. The most obvious take-away from the professional development day was that Bassick Principal, Dr. Wayne Alexander, the administrative team, and the faculty, are extremely devoted to the young people at their school and are willing to work tirelessly to bring the best education to students. Even with this dedication, the frustrations they experience daily in Bridgeport are real, the obstacles are tremendous, and much of it is out of their control.

It's very early in a new school year for students at Bassick High School and at Fairfield University; in the first week of a new semester I've spent 50% of my time at each. The obvious racial differences between our two educational institutions are glaring. I've written before about Jonathan Kozol's Shame of the Nation and have declared my love of Alan Paton's novel Cry The Beloved Country. Johannesburg, in South Africa, and Bridgeport, in Connecticut, are hauntingly parallel and I wonder why more of us in the United States aren't alarmed. At first, I wrote 'pre-Apartheid' South Africa above, but this summer I learned from my guest, Beauty Makinta, an educator from Pretoria, South Africa, that what can be witnessed in Connecticut is parallel to the divisions they work with there. Young people in both nations who are impoverished, and more often than not Black, are disproportionally located in schools with limited resources, controversial top-down management (that has become big business within urban school districts), and current trends of blaming teachers for all ills in society. High drop out rates and low test scores result from inequity and not from our teachers who dedicate to their careers to unraveling Gordian knots in, sometimes, alarming conditions.

I know I am always questioning where I stand and this is why a dialogue on race and race relations is important. They go hand-in-hand with K-12 schooling. I have questions:
  • What responsibility do educated people (from all disciplines) have to countering global trends of ostracizing anyone who is poor? 
  • How culturally sensitive are we to students who attend urban schools AND teachers who may or may not have cultural sensitivity, especially with the framework laid out by Common Core State Standards - a reform that virtually ignores the heterogeneity of American society within a homogeneous "core" that ignores the beauty of multicultural pastiche?
  • What else can we be done to support college and career-minded youth in local schools? Better yet, what are we willing to do to assist young people who are NOT college and career-minded? Can it be that the institutions they belong to (family, religious facilities, government, and school) are not meeting their rights and needs as American children?
Yesterday, when I left Bassick High School I was, once again, impressed by the teachers and young people. Was it a perfect experience? Of course not. But it was a reminder of the difficulties of working in high needs districts. In each class, the vast majority of students wanted to learn, had high aspirations for their lives, and were focused on what needed to be done. Similar to all groups I've ever worked with (adults included), there were a few who were distracted and who worked tirelessly to ruin it for others. I could use another word, but distracted describes these kids best -- they have made it to their senior year distracted from what it will take to really find success in a complicated, always-changing world. It will take dedication from many: families, k-12 schools, higher education, and government officials (who we, as voting citizens, put into office) to make that happen. Alas, I worry we are too late. Those we've put into office have been terrible for education. They've been terrible to teachers.

That is why a National Dialogue on Race day is needed. The dialogue walks side-by-side with fairness in schools. Right now this is non-existant. Even if there is only one race - the human race - we have done a horrible job of being humane to one another (zip codes, cost of higher education, access). Until we get there, the conversation must continue. Young people deserve our proactivity. They deserve our willingness to fight for equity between those Sneetches (in reference to Dr. Seuss) with and without stars on their bellies.

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