Friday, February 27, 2009

My Charter School Dilemma

After several years of frustrating delays, on Feb. 18, Eastern University received final approval from the Philadelphia School District to open its charter school in the Fall of 2009. At that same meeting, Arlene Ackerman, Superintendent of the Philadelphia School District, announced her proposals for school reform, which included granting many more charters and turning over some schools to the management of for-profit companies. In the same vein in his address to Congress on Feb. 24, Pres. Obama announced his plans for education reform, which included the starting of more charter schools across the country. So it seems that charter schools are all the rave, and for many political leaders, central to addressing the underperforming public school system particularly in economically depressed urban and rural areas. In fact when Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, approached the Chancellor of the New York City Schools about taking over a couple of public elementary schools in Harlem, he was advised that he would do better to simply start his own charter school than try to revive the failing public schools.

According to U.S. Charter Schools, charter schools are given public money to run programs independent of the existing public school system tailored to meet the needs of a specific group of students. In exchange for the freedom to innovate, charter schools are held accountable to provide students with a level of education equal to or above national standards. While charter schools cannot “select” their students (enrollment must be open to all), they often do not have the special needs programs required of regular public schools. Thus, by virtue of the fact that they are not designed to meet these needs, charter schools by default screen out children with some of the most difficult academic and behavioral problems. Also, because families must choose to apply to a charter schools, those children from the most dysfunctional families often don’t even know of the charter schools option. Also, charter schools usually can avoid teachers unions and some of the power politics involved in public school education. Thus, it is understandable why parents, students and politicians are attracted to the charter school option, as it avoids many of the problems and barriers faced by a people involved in the public schools.

As the Philadelphia and New York examples illustrate, the CEOs of large urban public school districts seem to have given up on the very system they have been charged to lead. Therein lies my dilemma. If the leaders of our public school systems and the President of the United States no longer believe in the public education system, what hope is there for true public school reform?

This issue has taken on a very concrete manifestation for me. Over the past 18 months, I have been involved with a group called the West Philadelphia High School (WPHS) Community Partners, a group of students, teachers, community members, business folks, and concerned professionals seeking to promote innovative changes to a vastly underperforming urban high school. Essentially, we have been asking that WPHS be given the same flexibility to innovate as a charter school, but have been informed thus far that our proposals are too expensive, and unrealistic.

As positive as they are, charter schools pose a significant challenge to overall fabric of communities. Charter schools’ focus is usually not geographical, so they draw from across a wider area than a regular community based school. Sociologists point out neighborhood schools are essential to the overall health of a community. Families with small children consider the quality of schools a major factor in choosing where to live. If schools are underperforming, parents will often send their children to private or parochial schools (if they have the means to do so), or move to a community with a better public school. Charter schools are a form of the private/parochial option without the cost to the family. While this option serves the individual students and family well, it undermines the potential of a community by draining the local school of capable students and involved parents. While this phenomena is most pronounced in economically depressed areas, I see it happening in my suburban school district as well. Nearly 35% of school age children in our suburban district attend a non-public school option. Moreover, this district continually faces the opposition of tax-payer groups not wanting to support the local school. If this trend gains strength, even in this middle class suburb, public school quality will continue to decline. Charter schools, like private and parochial schools, serve the needs of individuals but often at the expense of the wider community.

So, when a community group, such as the WPHS Community Partners, asks to innovate their local high school, why are they rebuffed? Essentially, our proposal has been to convert WPHS, a school of 1200 students, into four “small schools” within one building. Each school would be comprised of 300 students, have a particular focus (Performing Arts, Business, Auto Mechanics, Urban Leadership) and be led by its own principal who would have freedom to innovate. By sharing the same building the schools could cooperate in use of facilities and large group programs such as music and athletics. This model has proven successful in urban areas such as Providence, RI and South Bronx. While there are greater costs at the leadership level, those costs are more than made up in reduced need for security, discipline, and following up on drop outs. Students in small schools don’t “fall thru the cracks” and become a caring learning community. While we are stilling hoping for a more positive response, I suspect the reasons the Philadelphia district is hesitant get down to teacher union intransigence, intra-district politics, the traditional school distrust of community groups, and a fear if the model works, it might put pressure on the district to replicate the model in other schools. However, if the model works, and strengthens a community in the process, perhaps such a change is necessary.

Please don't misunderstand; I am not opposed to charter schools. I am only concerned about the trend they represent. My concern is if public school districts simply farm out their problems to independent groups, the very purpose of public education (to equitably educate citizens for the common good) will be undermined. Avoiding the necessary reform of the very core of public education cannot be accomplished by working around that system. To do so is to relegate many potential star students, dedicated teachers, concerned parents, and community residents to a second class, inadequate education. We will serve the interests of individuals but further undermine the health of struggling communities while we are doing it.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Reflections From a Jail Cell

Nearly a month has passed since I was arrested for blocking the entrance to Colisimo’s gun shop (see January 18 blog). In terms of the overall experience getting arrested was easy; the difficult part was the 25 hours I spent in jail. Many people have asked me what it was like to be in jail, and until very recently, I have not been able to talk about it because the experience showed me some things about myself that I am still trying to come to grips with. Even so, I will try to describe what that experience was like for me.

Fred Kaufmann, Kemah Washington and I were arrested around 3:30 pm on Friday, January 16, handcuffed, and taken in a paddy wagon to the Philadelphia Ninth District Police Station. Over the next 25 hours I saw the inside of a jail from the vantage point of a prisoner, and got a tiny glimpse of the degrading, dehumanizing nature of the criminal justice system.

“Therefore I urge you… to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God…” (Romans 12.1)

I am not a mystically oriented person. Praise, prayer and worship for me are largely outward, physical acts. So for me, participating in the civil disobedience action that day was an act of faith and worship to the God of peace I seek to follow. As such I was generally prepared for the physical discomfort of the jail cell.

Fred, Kemah and I were put in a cell about 6 feet by 10 feet, with battleship gray walls on three sides and bars in the front. There was an open toilet on one side of the cell and a hard metal bench on the other. A narrow passageway ran in front of the bars across from which there was a rough gray-stone wall. A radio played softly all the time on a station that give neither time nor news nor weather. A few dim lights lit the semi-dark hall. Day or night the light, the music, the cell had this same general feel. In two of the three cells I stayed in, the toilet did not flush, so that over time the cell smelled like an oversized outhouse. While I could hear the inmates in the adjoining cells, I could not see anyone. Because of the hard cement floor and metal bench, as well as crowded conditions, sleep was difficult. I drifted off a few times, but only for a few minutes.

The essence of our experience was waiting. Four hours after we were put in the cell we were photographed and fingerprinted. Four hours later we talked via video camera to a bail bondsperson. Then for me it was another 16 hours waiting to talk to a judge and be released. If the guards knew anything, they pleaded ignorance when one would ask when they would be let out. It was an experience of complete sensory isolation.

“When I was in prison you visited me…” (Matthew 25.36)

While the cell was uncomfortable, the experience was bearable during the time I was in the cell with Fred and Kemah. However, at 4 am, about 12 hours after we had been locked up, Fred and Kemah were released. Rather, I should say from my perspective, they were taken out of the cell and did not come back; at that point I felt abandoned and forgotten. About two hours after they left, a young man was put in my cell with me, but shortly after was taken out. For a brief time I was put in with two other guys from our group, Sam and Jim, who had been arrested after us, but then an hour later, they too were released. The last couple hours I was squeezed into a one person cell with guy shivering in the corner, coming down from a drug high. However, the bulk of those 12 hours I was more or less alone.

Without my companions I began to be overwhelmed by two feelings: boredom and loneliness. To counteract the boredom, I made up games, seeing how close to the wall I could pitch plastic water bottle caps, and I played the alphabet game with the graffiti on the walls. I sang songs and recited passages of scripture (now realizing how few I actually remembered). However, despite my best efforts, soon the boredom crossed over into loneliness.

What was so striking to me is that I knew I had people on the “outside” who were monitoring my situation and praying for me. I knew that there was a lawyer who was trying to get me out. I knew my daughter and wife were aware and concerned for my condition. In terms of personal support, I was wealthy compared to the other folks in the jail. One of my cell mates was a 26 year old nurse assistant who was going to miss a job interview because of his arrest. His only support person was the roommate with whom he had gotten into a fight, the reason he had been arrested. There were others in adjoining cells who talked of not having anyone. I had an entire network, yet it didn’t seem to matter. I felt totally alone and abandoned and soon that loneliness turned to fear and hopelessness.

I realize now that the trauma of jail is not the physical dimension, but the feeling of being pushed aside, forgotten and alone. All of us in the cells that day shared the experience of fear and frustration. Regardless of the reasons that had landed us in the jail, all of us in the cells felt forgotten and abandoned. The lack of human contact and concern sucked from us any sense of dignity and worth.

“When you did it to the least of these my brothers and sisters…” (Matthew 25.40)

Before he arrested us, the police captain tried to scare me by suggesting that we were going to be put in jail with a whole host of “bad people.” In the end I found a sense of solidarity with the other inmates; it was the “good people” who made my life difficult. Apart from my fellow protesters, I also spent time in a cell with a guy arrested for fighting, and another for possession of crack cocaine. In the adjoining cells were guys arrested for a variety of misdemeanors: assault, weapons possession, vandalism; and one woman arrested for writing bad checks. The other inmates referred to me as “the protester.” While a few of the guards were personable, for the most part they were aloof, arrogant and demeaning. Any request was treated as an imposition, and often they did not even come to a place where we could see them; they simply shouted from the room outside of the section where the cells were located. I am sure the questions we asked (about when we would be let out or when we see the judge) were questions they were asked 100 times a day. I suspect they hated their jobs and took it out on us.

As the hours dragged on and I did not know when I would be released, I began to feel intense anxiety. However talking to my fellow inmates calmed me down. In fact one of the nicest things one guy said was “The protester is still in here! This is messing with my mind! It’s not right!” In retrospect I don’t think he spoke those words in support of me, but rather as an expression for how frustrating the whole process was. However, at the time I took his comment as a recognition of my dignity, and it comforted me. Help came not from the guards, but from one of those “bad people.”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me...” (Psalm 22.1)

From the inside of a jail cell, I learned what it is like to be regarded as less than human, and to be regarded as society’s refuse. We wonder why people often come out of prison, more violent and anti-social than when they went in. After only a day in a holding cell, I can understand why. People often live up or down to the way they are treated. A police station holding cell is mild compared to prison, and U.S. prisons, while terribly overcrowded, are much more sanitary than prisons in other parts of the world. In that jail cell, I was a nobody, someone unworthy of respect; someone not owed a piece of decency. People treated like animals will respond in kind, and prison treats people like animals. Yet, we wonder why prison doesn't set people straight.

People often “find God” while in jail; that may be so. However, I have never been in a place so devoid of hope and meaning as that jail cell. Perhaps, if I had stayed longer, I would have experienced what the writers of the lament psalms realized as they cried out in despair, and what Jesus found on the cross; that on the other side of hopelessness is the God of love. Frankly, I am glad I didn’t have to stay that long. I find it hard to believe we call ourselves “civilized” and yet treat people with the indignity that pervades our prison system. In my 25 hours I got only a tiny glimpse of that indignity, so small that it may not even be worth mentioning, and yet what I saw rocked me to the core of my being.

I doubt I will ever fully recover from those 25 hours in jail; I saw life from the perspective of hopelessness, and I did not like what I saw. May I never forget how many people slog through life from that perspective, and may I never let go of my resolve to be a person who works for hope, change and the dignity of every human being.