Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Beyond the Poynt

Note: I am a former Camden school board member and current graduate student. There will be postings about the public schools and other urban issues posted throughout the summer. Please share and comment.

The smell stung my nose. The air was so thick I could barely breathe. But I had to see what was in there. The window was cracked open as dry air blew through dusty vents. Profane images were drawn on the wall. You can see the pictures that I took with my cell phone that day.

I went to other bathrooms and saw different versions of the same things. I was very angry, but very glad that someone suggested that I should take a look at the bathrooms while I was at Pyne Poynt. This was in 2012 as the school board was going through its first steps of engaging the community for a new strategic plan.

Minutes later, I asked if the principal was in the building that evening. He wasn't, so I talked to the vice principal. I showed him what I noticed in the bathroom and alerted him that I would share my observations of the disgusting conditions of the bathrooms, as well as information about the engraved words and graffiti found throughout the hallways. He looked nervous and stammered his words as he talked. Through his thick and smudged glasses, I could see that he was upset. They had bathrooms for special guests in the school that day. Maybe he didn't expect anyone to walk past them and into a stall that hundres of middle school students used everyday.

At the next school board work session, I and another board member that was with me at Pyne Poynt described our observations to the entire board and central office leadership. In his usual way, Mr. Mills, acting superintendent at the time, stoically said that he would address the issue. Although I believed him, I also knew that he made the same promise about a dozen other equally disturbing issues. At the meeting, the director of facilities said "that the principal had a responsibility to tell the maintenance department about what he saw".

A picture I took at Pyne Poynt in 2012.
I wanted to say "So let me get this straight director. In your view, if a student draws a penis on a brick wall, the principal has to tell the janitor so that the janitor knows about the graphic image. I thought that janitors were in the bathrooms everyday to clean them?". I didn't say that because I didn't want to cross any lines of governance. But many of us thought it.

School takeovers do not fix problems like that. Leadership does. The problems with Camden, its schools, its government, and many of its non-profit organizations is its leadership. I am not sure anyone that has done work with this new team could legitimately claim that the bathroom would still be funky.

Although it is a hugely unpopular opinion in some education circles, from my observations and tours I am confident that Mastery would not have any school bathroom like the putrid smell and profane images that I saw two years ago. Now of course it is simple to respond that no school should look like that, but the reality is that too many do. Too many principals and inept supervisors have allowed conditions in urban schools for too long.

The governance of schools matters, but the conditions of schools and quality of curriculum matters more. I think we should all be skeptical of any "outsider" that comes to a poor city, because history has taught us that many people have ulterior motives that are not in the interests of students. The debate around Mastery, Uncommon, other charters, and the current 27 public schools has been odd to me because its lack of intellectual honesty. Even some respected academics have missed the point. The quality of education and things like safety and graduation rates matter to parents and school culture matters to students.

Paymon Rouhanifard is the State Superintendent. He is the person with the power. The best way to have discussions about the future of public education in this community is to do so respectfully and with facts and ideas that can help guide the future. There are many people that agree. Young Urban Leaders, an organization I founded in 2009, met with him and some of his staff in February and discussed the strategic plan known as the Camden Commitment. As about a dozen of us gave suggestions and feedback, he was honest and truly listened to what the attendees had to say.

I do not agree with all of his decisions. This current school year, too many students are still suspended for five days or more. The research and common sense are against this practice. Students are suspended for being truant. Fighting students are suspended for ten days without any mediation. Special education students are suspended against the rules in their IEP. The discipline code is outdated, unfair, and often not followed by some principals. This is a completely unnecessary crisis that the superintendent now has the power to fix with one email. He has not made this a priority, but the community can - and should.

From my experience in this community and on the school board, curriculum is the biggest problem in the district. The classes offered at some schools, the lessons taught in some classrooms, the amount of testing at all schools, and the role of the Regional Achievement Center and their "model curriculum" are all critical issues because they get to what students are actually learning. I see students' homework, their report cards, and discuss the lessons that they are learning with them. Too many students are not being prepared for college or careers that require decent writing, basic research skills or critical thinking. If you ask some recent high school graduates that are now in college, they will confirm that they struggle more than many of their peers. This is not because they are poor or because Camden is violent. It is because some of their teachers had low expectations or poorly delivered lessons. Should a high school student have "fill in the blank" as homework? Why are seniors taking Environmental Science at Medical Arts and not Anatomy or Biology II? Does it make sense that students from Medical Arts will take Chemistry for the first time in college?

The Needs Analysis done by UPD clearly stated the problem with curriculum in 2012 and as a board member at the time, I never heard their assessment credibly challenged. They wrote:

In assessing curriculum and instructional practice, the district lacks a board-approved curriculum and a clear, coherent vision for instructional and school improvement. Implementation of academic programs, including those intended to support students with disabilities and English language learners, varies widely across schools with little monitoring or evaluation, and instructional rigor and student engagement are low across the district. While schools have great autonomy to implement programs, principals have very little authority over budget or personnel decisions. At the same time, the district lacks a talent management strategy that is linked to district priorities and fails to strategically recruit or place high-quality staff, leaving schools with teaching vacancies and staff who are not well suited to their school. (Camden City Public Schools: Needs Analysis, Page 5)

At my first school board meeting in May 2010, I was quickly exposed to what the next three years would be like. There was no room for me to use the school board to pursue radical ideas I had about public education. I learned very fast that I would have to find another platform to discuss anything that would be considered radical. Ideas like not closing schools for Columbus Day, so that we do not celebrate colonialism, would have to wait.

At the first meeting, the chairman of the policy committee recommended to the board an update to sports eligibility. I thought it was perfect, with one exception. Throughout the policy, the term "C Average" was used. I mentioned that it should be changed to a specific number based on the 4.0 scale. What does C Average mean? Is it a 2.0 or a 2.75? I didn't care about the specific number, more so that there should be a number to give the Athletic Directors and students clear guidance without any unnecessary ambiguity. It was not changed. Not one board member, superintendent, or director spoke up. Maybe it was too late, maybe they didn't understand or care. My suggestion was practical, easy to incorporate, and important to students that want to play. It had nothing to do with George Norcross or Chris Christie.

Some ideas, including some of the most important ones, transcend politics. The debate right now about what is happening in the Camden schools needs to go beyond the personal insults, myths and unproven theories. Charter schools are not bad. Some are better than others. Hundreds of parents chose to apply and send their children to those schools. For many of them, they are happy with their decision. No true advocate should vilify those parents and students because of disagreements with the public school leadership.

Paymon understands the test data. Obviously. But, of all the people Paymon hired, the Academic Leader should have been his first, not last.

Let's get beyond petty schoolyard fights and get into debates about what is happening in the classroom. What's really happening.

Below you see a meme that is making its way around social media. The message is not new, but it is certainly relevant. The education system of the United States and many other Western nations is broken. The culture of valuing education is also a problem - one that begins at home.

If you are interested, watch the video to learn more. In case you don't watch it, the speaker explains how limited we are in our discussions. Our schools operate much like they did in the 19th century all over America, with very few exceptions. If we are going to debate, let the ideas include 21st century ideas that prepare students for the global economy. But if nothing else, let's always have clean toilets.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This article is inspiring that these issues are being raised and at the same time frustrating to see how they are handled. More voices are needed.