Archive | August, 2013

Thoughts on Horace Mann and the ACIC from a Nova Parent

21 Aug

As a parent of a recent Nova graduate and a returning Nova student, the issue of the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC) remaining in the Mann building is a critically important issue for me.

I respect and completely support the self-directed actions of the ACIC to create a model for education and engagement that works for young people of color in the Central Area.  (The current Seattle School district practices and the larger culture as a whole are clearly NOT doing that.)

I fully support the ACIC remaining at the Mann building because it is critical for communities to reclaim common spaces in the face of an increasing economic marginalization (economic violence) that has pushed people of color out of the way to make room for white-condo-rei-disneyland Seattle.

We have all seen this continually happen, and we need to stand together to resist.

No Social Justice Without Solidarity

I have strong feelings about this because as a parent, I have witnessed a ‘whiter’ school community steal a building from a community of color.

In 2008, at a meeting with a board member, I saw an Orca parent suggest that we move into the Whitworth school building, which at that time was home to a school with over 90% children of color.  Most disturbing was that the white Orca parent was the organizer of the school’s “race forums”.  As seemingly always happens, the more privileged community won.

Later, my family chose Nova because we believed that the model of horizontal, democratic decision-making would allow students to work on social issues in a way that is deep, authentic, and addresses the real conditions of their community.   We felt this would be a positive contrast to the hollow and abstract self-declarations of “social justice” that we had seen preached, but not practiced.

However, in addition to their inherent social privilege,  I believe that the Nova community has become negatively conditioned by a ‘siege’ mentality.  For 30 years, they have fought near constant threats of closure and hostility from the district for refusing to follow top-down mandates.   Unfortunately, the cost of this ‘siege mentality’ is high, and may be partially responsible for the extreme lack of solidarity with other communities that I have seen Nova exhibit in recent years.

For example, during the brutal 2009 closures, schools were clearly pitted against each other by the district.  One community had to lose for another to win.  Schools came to district HQ begging the district overlords to “close THAT OTHER school – not ours!!”.  Nova had opportunities to stand up for schools like Meany  (the building Nova now occupies), the African American Academy, Summit K-12, and others and they did not.   (In fact, Nova refused to consider merging with Meany, AS#1, or Summit – all of which would have given it the middle school that they now want to add!)

At a recent district meeting, students from the Center School gave impassioned testimony to try to prevent one of their teachers from being transferred for teaching an Anti-racism curriculum.  Nova students also appeared, but testified about recycling, without mentioning (or even seeming to notice) that the Center School students 20 feet away from them that needed support.  Just a passing shout out would have shown humanity and built solidarity.

I have been disappointed that this type of on-the-ground social empathy and solidarity has not been more ingrained in the school culture at Nova. I have heard at least one teacher and a handful of students and parents recently voice concerns that Nova is not doing enough to address the needs of ALL students in the district.

All of this is not to malign Nova, because Nova is in so many ways a wonderful school full of interesting students and many fabulous teachers.  I support Nova staying open, too.

However, it would be fantastic if Nova students reached out to the ACIC to learn the value of what the ACIC is creating. The principle of community-empowered and self-directed education that Nova espouses is what ACIC is DOING!   The return of public space to the African American community is the embodiment of the “social justice” that Nova claims to pursue.

I personally would hope Nova students could see this value and create an internal movement to show solidarity with the ACIC to stop their displacement from the Mann building.

Rejecting a Fabricated Crisis

No one can deny that the district has demonstrated sheer incompetence in managing school capacity and a callous disregard for the needs of communities of color. Their own assignment policy has accelerated gentrification in the CD, as wealthy whites rush to buy houses near Garfield.

I have no belief in the legitimacy of their authority over what happens to the Mann building.   They change rules at their whim because that is what power structures do.

During the 2009 closures, I addressed the school board and asked,  “In three years, when you realize that your demographic analysis was all wrong and you need to re-open these schools, which one of you will resign?”.  This power structure refuses to take accountability for its own problems, but instead forces this accountability downwards on their subjects. They use coercion and threats of closure to force communities like Nova do their dirty work.

The district has created this mess. It is the district’s problem to solve – not Nova’s.  Nova should reject this fabricated crisis and refuse to be the foil for the districts clumsy machinations.   Nova and other communities across the city should be standing with the ACIC to de-legitimize the authority of district.  Nova should stand in solidarity with the larger community, fighting the social and educational structures that funnel all of our young people into the role of either the oppressor or the oppressed.

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Fate of Horace Mann, Class Sizes to be Debated at School Board on Weds

17 Aug

There are a number of important issues that will be debated at the Seattle Public Schools Board on Wednesday (the 21st) at 4:00PM at the John Stanford Center  (2445 3rd Ave., Seattle).  Please come out and show your support!

Teachers’ will likely be speaking in favor of smaller class sizes, in the context of the teacher contract negotiations currently going on.   The Seattle Educators Association (the teachers’ union) held a rally last week protesting district proposals to raise class sizes.  The district is claiming they need to do this in order to deal with the space crunch as enrollment in the district increases.  The union is saying they should find other ways to deal with the crunch.   As a teacher who works with youth who have dropped out of Seattle Public Schools, I can say that one of the main reasons my students often cite for why they dropped out was large class sizes and teachers being too busy to provide them with the support they needed to learn. We need small class sizes, and teachers and students should not have to sacrifice because of poor planning on the part of district administrators.

The space crunch is the same justification the district is using to try to move Black community members out of the Horace Mann building, where they have been developing educational programs for youth from the Central District community, called the Africatown Community Innovation Center (ACIC).  We had posted last week about the struggle over the future of the Horace Mann building, and supporters of the ACIC are mobilizing to attend the board meeting on Weds (see below for the call to action).

If you’d like to speak, here’s how you can sign up (info from the district website):

To sign up for public testimony, members of the public should e-mail boardagenda@seattleschools.org or call (206) 252-0040 and give their legal name, telephone number, e-mail address, and the topic they would like to address. 

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Here is a call to action that supporters of the More 4 Mann campaign put out regarding the future of the Horace Mann building:

Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/MORE-4-MANN/195014030579354

Website: http://umojapeacecenter.com

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A Seattle community is actively trying to protect its children from the school to prison pipeline. 

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They need your help Wed. 8/21 to stand with them at a Seattle School Board Meeting.

 

The black community around the Horace Mann Building at 24th and Cherry will attend a school board meeting with the Superintendent Banda in attendance at 4:00 pm to bring their plans and intentions.

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African American Longshore Coalition letter to Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda

12 Aug

Here is a letter from the African American Longshore Coalition delivered to the superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools.  It was delivered at the meeting described here, and it concerns the future of the Horace Mann school building and the Africatown Community Innovation Center.
Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 8.01.22 PM

To: Seattle Public Schools Superintendent Jose Banda,

Ron English,

Lucy Morello

Pegi McEvoy,

And whomever else it may concern

Cc: Wyking Garrett

August 8, 2013

Dear Superintendent Banda,

The African American Longshore Coalition (AALC) is an organization of Black longshoremen that stands for justice and equality in every port on the West Coast, and in every metropolitan city adjacent to those ports.

Let it be hereby known that the African American Longshore Coalition hereby fully endorses the Africatown Innovation Center at Horace Mann, hereby joins the More 4 Mann Coalition as an affiliate organization, and hereby proposes to sponsor a series of labor/community education workshops in the Africatown Center at Horace Mann.

The AALC has reviewed the video of the relevant commitments you have made to the Africatown Central District Community, and applauds you for these positive, logical and constructive commitments. Let it hereby be known that we are a part of the community that fully expects and looks forward to these commitments being kept entirely.

As a part of the labor community, we also stand in solidarity with all labor and community interests that have a stake in the equity and transparency of the distribution of all renovation and addition contracts for public buildings. We notice that the only electronically available copy of the July 3, 2013 School Board Motion to award such a contract in regard to the Horace Mann building contains only blank spaces for the amount of public money to be spent, the name of the contractor, the number of contract bids received, and the name of the entity deemed to be the low bid contractor. Please furnish us with that information, or if those details have yet to be decided upon, furnish us with the dates, times and places at which those decisions will be made.

Sincerely

Gabriel Prawl      for the AALC

5307 4th Ave. S. PMB #126,  Seattle, WA 98108

Parents and Students Self-Organize At the Horace Mann School Building

12 Aug

Africatown Horace MannOn Thursday Aug 8th, I attended a packed meeting at the Horace Mann school building on 24th and Cherry in the Central District of Seattle.  People gathered to discuss the fate of this building, which the African/Black community has turned into a vibrant educational facility called the Africatown Community Innovation Center.

Over the course of the summer, various organizations such as the Umoja P.E.A.C.E Center and the Amistad School have reinvigorated this dormant building, and have welcomed parents, educators, and youth from the community to organize programs in the school, teaching everything from how to raise bees to how to program computers.

At the meeting, youth of all ages spoke about the benefits of these programs, and how they were learning vital skills they would not be able to learn anywhere else, including in Seattle’s mainstream public schools.   They also spoke about the sense of confidence, pride, and self-awareness they found learning from folks who understand them and where they’re coming from.

Parents spoke about how they had struggled to find culturally relevant summer programs for their kids, and had eventually decided to pool their resources to create their own programs at Horace Mann.  They described the building as a “village” where they could collectively support each other raising their kids to face all the challenges Black youth face in this racist society.

All of this is a testament to the creativity, resourcefulness, intelligence, and self-activity of the Black community in the historic Central District.  It reminded me of a point that my friend John Garvey made –  students are able to learn better when there is trust between parents, youth, and the school itself.

It was clear from this meeting, that such trust does not currently exist between this group of parents and the leadership of the Seattle Public Schools.

Wyking Garrett, who chaired the meeting, reminded everyone of the urgency of the issues of the table, considering that the Seattle Public Schools are currently being investigated by the federal government for racism against Black youth.  Black students are three times as likely as white students to be suspended from Seattle schools.

Parents and educators who spoke had various perspectives on how their efforts to build the Africatown center relate to the issue of racial equality in the public schools as a whole.  Seattle Public Schools superintendent Jose Banda and several other SPS staff sat in the front of the room listening to the various speakers who addressed them. One person put the issue pointedly: “We believe you want to educate our youth.  We are not confident you know how to educate our youth.”  Omari Tahir-Garrett,  a former teacher in the district,  outlined a long history  of corruption and racism in SPS, situating the current efforts to build the Africatown Community Innovation Center as part of a much longer struggle against white supremacist institutions that  have systematically denied an education to Black youth.  He held a banner honoring Trayvon Martin.   Other community leaders spoke about how the programs in the Horace Mann building could be pilot programs, examples of what is possible, which could then be spread into the public schools themselves.

Port worker Leith Kahl read this statement from the African-American Longshore Coalition supporting the Africatown center.  He also emphasized that public education itself was started in meetings like this one; people who had been denied an education by the system organized themselves to educate their youth, and launched a movement demanding free education for all.  He said that Horace Mann was part of that movement, and ended by asking “What would Horace Mann do?”

The very existence of the Africatown Community Innovation Center poses these questions to any observant listener.  However, the contradictions are sharpened by the fact that the bureaucrats who run Seattle Public Schools want to take the Horace Mann building away from the community.  In a recent letter, they had imposed an August 15th deadline, saying that the community needed to be out of the building by then.   As superintendent Banda reported on Thurs night, they plan to renovate the building so that Nova can reoccupy it. (Nova is an alternative school that serves a majority white student body) .

In his attempt to explain why it is necessary to displace Black students to make way for white students, Banda described an elaborate Tetris game of funding and management.  He said that Seattle Public schools are facing growing enrollment, and overcrowding.  He said Nova needs to be moved from its current location so that  location can be expanded as a middle school, to take the pressure off of the currently overcrowded Washington Middle School.  SPS reps encouraged the parents and educators present to find private funding to pay rent to house their programs elsewhere.

In response to these points, Wyking Garrett pointed out that Nova is a commuter school; its students are not primarily from the Central District, they come from all different neighborhoods and are used to commuting long distances.  In contrast, the Africatown Community Innovation Center primarily serves people from the immediate neighborhood.  Another person emphasized that the community was not going to leave the building – period.  He said that he’d be willing to aid superintendent Banda in pressuring Olympia or the corporations for more funding to deal with overcrowding, but that this problem could not be solved by displacing the Africatown Community Innovation Center.

This is all happening in a neighborhood that has rapidly gentrified, going from majority black to majority white in recent decades.  Black parents and community members are attempting to reverse the tide of displacement of Black people from the neighborhood by focusing their programs at Horace Mann, in the heart of the Central District, turning it into a Black/African community hub.

One of the white SPS administrators completely ignored this context, and the long history of  community struggles around education and gentrification in the neighborhood when she said that the Africatown community had “not been present yet” when SPS had developed its multi-year plan for the neighborhood schools.   She flippantly disregarded community members’ attempts to defend their neighborhood from displacement when she suggested the programs in the Horace Mann building could just be parceled out to other schools as after-school programs.

This is typical of bourgeois Seattle thinking, where everything can be redesigned at whim to fit some  abstract macro plan for “development”, ignoring the wishes, desires, and concrete, real-life activities of everyday people, especially Black people, who actually live in this city.  The histories of entire communities become “not present” in the imaginations of these bureaucrats.  And these are the people we entrust to run a school system that is supposed to teach history to our kids!   If they can’t even recognize what’s been going on in the Central District in recent years, how many other aspects of Black and African life will they erase from their history books?

In this technocratic, bureaucratic Seattle, everything  becomes standardized, from the architecture of the condos and the coffee shops that move in, to the pacification plans of the police who defend them, to the curriculum and testing in the schools where Black students are three times as likely to be expelled.   And of course, it’s not just Seattle, the same problems are going on in different ways across the country and around the world.  Capital colonizes everything it touches.

As a teacher who is forced against my will to implement these bureacrats’ “plans”, it was particularly interesting to watch the district administrators stumble  over themselves, attempting to answer basic questions from such a well-organized and thoughtful community.   They  try to count and measure everything via standardized tests and rubrics.  And yet, it seems like they simply had not accounted for the possibility  that folks from the Black community might have their own, well-organized plans.  They seemed  overwhelmed by the militancy and resolve of people in the room.  As a teacher who interacts with young intellectuals from this neighborhood on a daily basis, I was not at all surprised – I was cheering folks on.

I’m sure the administrators are now working overtime to prevent the outcome that was in the back of everyone’s mind in that meeting – the possibility of the community refusing to leave the building.  This would mean that if the SPS officials want them out, they’d have to rely on the police to try to force them out, and the Seattle Police are not exactly a popular institution these days, especially in the Central District.  Of course, if it comes to that, all of the contradictions of race, class, gentrification, differential suspension rates, etc. would come right into the forefront of Seattle politics.  It might be hard to start the school year with business as usual.

In the end, Superintendent Banda offered to delay the eviction until the 31st, and to form a task force to negotiate with Wkying and other community members about the fate of the building.

Of course, this does not resolve anything, it simply gives each side more time to organize and prepare for the next encounter.  Whatever the outcome of that encounter, it will have historic implications for anyone connected to education in this city.  The Africatown Community Innovation Center has already become a  focal point for the community to self-organize, to figure out how to challenge racism throughout the schools and to brainstorm concrete alternatives to the forms of teaching and institutional organization that are failing Black students.  The community that has gathered there seems intent on making sure this project is not repressed or dispersed, and teachers, parents, and students throughout the district should support their efforts.

High School Students Self-Organize

2 Aug

Here is a video of the Youth for Justice rally that high school students in Seattle organized last week, in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. This video shows some great spoken word poetry and hip hop; in several of their poems, students spoke about the school system and how it needs to change.

Unfortunately the video only covers the beginning of the rally, not the end where students lead an un-permited march through the streets and a blockade of a major downtown intersection. They defied several police dispersal orders and engaged a crowd of onlookers coming out of their jobs and out of the mall. There were no arrests, probably because the police realized that to arrest such a defiant group of people, they’d have to mace them – and it would look really bad to mace a bunch of youth of color in front of a crowd of onlookers with cameras, especially in the midst of all the anger about Trayvon Martin’s murder.

This rally was unique because it was youth led and it was militant. It wasn’t simply a matter of adults organizing and facilitating it, then prioritizing youth voices. It was a matter of youth organizing and facilitating it, and deciding which adults they would allow to speak during the open mic. Often when there are defiant actions like this, some activists will claim that those who disobey police orders are putting youth of color at risk. Noone said that this time around, because the action, from beginning to end, was clearly lead by youth of color themselves.

Several of my friends were remarking how the youth were better organized than many adult organizations, and they were able to invite the crowd to participate without letting adults take over or talk down to them.

Teachers: how can we teach in ways that support this kind of student self-organization, instead of thwarting or coopting it?  I am out of town right now visiting family, but I will share my insights on this question when I get the chance.  In the meantime, if anyone has thoughts, please feel free to share them in the comments.