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Greatness on the ground

By Nijmie Dzurinko on May 8, 2012 05:18 PM

“We have to believe in ourselves and we have to speak with one voice,” said Maurice Jones, on the opening afternoon panel of the recemt Teacher Action Group/OneVoice Philadelphia Citywide Education Summit and Curriculum Fair. Jones was one of many speakers who addressed the crowd of more than 100 people on history, lessons, strategies, and victories of transforming our schools from the ground up:

  • Jones is the Home and School president of Lea Elementary School, a member of the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, and a member of OneVoice. He chronicled the consistent and committed work of parents and community members in bringing critical resources to Lea to beautify the school inside and out, to provide arts and music enrichment for Lea students, and to build a strong base of community support around the school.

  • Teacher Neil Geyette described a period between 2007 and 2010 when West Philadelphia High School developed a successful inquiry-based curriculum through the creation of an Urban Leadership Academy and turned around school climate, reducing violence by 70 percent through the implementation of restorative practices.

  • Temwa Wright of Supporters of Stanton provided a glimpse into the intensive process that parents, educators, students, and community members undertook to keep Stanton off the chopping block, highlighting the tenacity and unity it took to ultimately triumph.

  • Ahmeen Akbar from YouthBuild Philadelphia talked about YouthBuild’s success in turning around their school climate and building a supportive school culture for young people and adults.

  • Daesya Parker from the Philadelphia Student Union addressed the role that study and analysis play in developing a vision for reform that works for our schools and communities.

The summit was a great example of the kind of unity that it will take to help parents, educators, students, workers, and community members begin to steer the ship of education reform in Philadelphia. It is clear that unless we define reform for ourselves, it will be defined for us.

Too often siloed in our separate quarters, students, parents, educators, workers, and community members are fed misinformation about each other, which prevents us from working together and broadening our analysis and our vision. As we point fingers and blame each other (“The problem is the parents.” “The problem is the teachers.” “The problem is the students.”), we are undermining the unity of the people who are affected by policies that impact our schools.

The summit also provided the space to notice that we have had many successes.

Recognizing this poses the question of why our successes haven't been built upon and replicated. Instead, our successes are too often undermined and dismantled by changes in administration and bad policy decisions. In the 10-plus years since the state takeover, it has been the directly affected stakeholders, not the “expert outsiders,” that have actually made a critical difference for our students.

The divide-and-conquer strategies that have been used in the past to confuse and divide folks on the ground can only be combated through leadership development, relationship building, and shared analysis so that we can define the purpose of education and what a quality education looks like. Only then will we be able to define what true reform looks like. Luckily, as all the presenters demonstrated, we already have a lot of the answers that we need.

OneVoice imageThe day ended with a call to action to support a “Greatness on the Ground” movement that calls for educator and community-led transformation of our schools. Up until now, local school transformation has not been a viable option and the preference of decision-makers has been measures like closure or outside management. Educators, students, parents, workers, and community members have the knowledge, experience, insight, commitment and vision that it takes to transform our schools. We are the ones we have been waiting for. Will we have the tenacity to stop accepting "no" for an answer?

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Comments (13)

Submitted by Roger S (not verified) on May 8, 2012 5:49 pm

Another fantastic post, I was at the summit and learned so much about the true issues facing or schools." It is clear that unless we define reform for ourselves, it will be defined for us."I think that is such a true statement that should eco with all supporters of true reform. You got me hooked keep up the good work, and thank you.

Submitted by Nijmie (not verified) on May 9, 2012 9:04 am

Thank you!

Submitted by Bryan M (not verified) on May 8, 2012 8:50 pm

I agree, the next steps if we are to see an education system that works for this city and our communities is to create that change from the ground up. We know from too many examples that these outside management and closure models don't work. Those that don't have to live through the results of what happens with our schools too often are motivated by another agenda - their profits. And this is the same in not just education, but every public service and human right we have. We can't sit idly by and let it happen.

Thanks Nijmie for putting forward your perspective and sharing these examples and stories from those who are creating ground up solutions.

Submitted by Jeff Rousset (not verified) on May 8, 2012 9:58 pm

Right on! Why is the Boston Consulting Group, a business strategy firm, telling us how to structure our school system? Why is Harrisburg controlling what happens in Philly? Why are unaccountable, undemocratic outsiders determining our fate?

We have brilliant educators, students, parents, and allies in this city who have been working on education for years, they understand what our communities' and schools' needs are, and they're are vested stakeholders. THEY should be in control of THEIR schools!

The scapegoating of teachers, students, and parents for the economic and education crises that Wall Street and its cronies in office created must be challenged. Let's unite to hold corporations responsible for the mess they caused and not reward them with the takeover of our educational system, which they see as a giant and relatively untapped market to profit from.

Real greatness doesn't come from business consultants or executives. That's where crises come from. Greatness is in our communities, and that's who should have control of the schools. Our power is profound, we've got greatness on the ground!

Submitted by RK (not verified) on May 9, 2012 9:23 am

You are right on. What is happening right now is illogical. Don't they consider our students to be "high performing" if they can replicate their success, if they can come up with a reasonable way to solve a problem, and then keep doing it until they have reached a solution? So why is community-based, educator-informed school reform being thrown under the rug...well, it's because we are competing with ideology over reason, corporate private control, over democratic coordination. This not an isolated event, and it is not just our public schools that are being ripped away from us and infected with neo liberal reform. All social services, all money that is used for the common good, for the general well-being of all the people is the first to go when the rich and powerful begin to see that "free-market" capitalism (free-market capitalism is the best oxymoron there is, because it is not free, it is regulated by governments and influenced by wealthy groups) is failing and slowly crumbling, they become scared and worried--for they are losing their power and grip. So what happens when the institutions of power realize that shit is going down...well, they keep the people down as much as they can, to prevent them from having the energy, will, or community to fight. They tax us, they beat us down, they take away the things we are dependent on. What is happening in Philly is happening everywhere in the country, and around the world. Nijmie, you are totally correct in saying that we need to REDEFINE what education is, what learning is, how it happens, and who should be doing it. Now is also the time to think about strategy, but that shouldn't be so hard, it's been done before, but we now have to come together, with our voices and our ideas, all around the city, and not just save our schools, but transform our schools and redefine education.

Submitted by Ms.Cheng (not verified) on May 9, 2012 10:56 am

The reason why the wonderful successes have been "brushed under the carpet" is that real power has never been given to the caregivers and community. Yes, although the latest proposal moves to correct this, until there is a counter or unbiased (as possible) organization that has veto/ability to affect hiring power, real power will remain outside the reach of these parties. The premise that caregivers can "vote with their feet" seems only to create upheaval and unpredictability that works against the overall good of the children. There should be a more direct method of recourse. Create that public database where criticism can be seen in the aggregate, then use this to hire/fire.

Submitted by Ron Whitehorne on May 9, 2012 11:47 am

 The summit was what democracy looks like.   Thanks for this report and welcome to the ranks of the Notebook blogging community.   

Submitted by Coalitions Matter (not verified) on May 9, 2012 11:45 am

Thanks for this post, Nijmie! It seems like so much of the frustration about our failing school system is wasted on ridiculous side issues: pitting charters against school districts, children against adults, unions against achievement, and parents against administrators.

Without relationship building and points of unity--and fast--we will surely witness the end of public education as we know it.

My two cents (or should I say $218 million?):

--charter or district, schools must be held accountable. Accountability should be support, not punishment for failing schools.
--HELL NO to the blueprint UNTIL we have an idea of what achievement
networks are. How can we be sure that the blueprint will allow more power for directly affected stakeholders in schools? What are the mechanisms in the new plan to prevent student pushout and drill-and-test curricula?
--We need more money to fund equitably distributed resources like teachers, books, and extracurricular activities. If there's money for prisons, we have money for schools. What kind of world are we building, anyway?

Submitted by Joe (not verified) on May 9, 2012 11:46 am

This is great. Thanks! I am a teacher at school that is trying new things with restorative practices and curriculum next year now that we have some more autonomy. Imagine if we had real autonomy and resources to back it up.

We can't have autonomy because it's cheaper. We need to have it because it's the right thing to do for our schools and our students.

Submitted by Coalition Or Bust (not verified) on May 9, 2012 11:40 am

Thanks for this post, Nijmie! It seems like so much of the frustration about our failing school system is wasted on ridiculous side issues: pitting charters against school districts, children against adults, unions against achievement, and parents against administrators.

Without relationship building and points of unity--and fast--we will surely witness the end of public education as we know it.

My two cents (or should I say $218 million?):

--charter or district, schools must be held accountable. Accountability should be support, not punishment for failing schools.
--HELL NO to the blueprint UNTIL we have an idea of what achievement
networks are. How can we be sure that the blueprint will allow more power for directly affected stakeholders in schools? What are the mechanisms in the new plan to prevent student pushout and drill-and-test curricula?
--Money is important. We need it to fund equitably distributed resources like teachers, books, and extracurricular activities. If the state has money for prisons, it has money to fund the school system it controls. What kind of world are we trying to build?

Submitted by Monica (not verified) on May 9, 2012 12:11 pm

This is a great post! The community has so much to offer, not just the students, but the parents, teachers and administration. I was publicly educated, and our teachers were not just employees of the district, they were caring mentors, committed to the education of their students. But what always stood out to me was their creativity in teaching. They brought in Joe Blow carpenter: who taught us how math connected with carpentry. They brought in Jane Doe crafter who showed us how to create beautiful things. They brought in painters, business owners, corporate employees all to show their students what the purpose of this process of education brings us to. These people didn't always have the letters behind their names, and sometimes, they didn't even finish school, but we heard their journey, which makes an impact! There are teachers all around us in our communities, and we don't need titles or degrees to be able to teach. Open these schools back up to allow our teachers to be creative, allow them to impact lives and allow us as community members to come in and teach the practical application of the book knowledge that creative teachers can present. Thanks for writing this!

Submitted by JoJoFox (not verified) on May 19, 2012 6:57 am

If we, as public educators are not an active part of public school solutions, we , most assuredly, will be considered an immense part of public school problems!

Submitted by JoJoFox (not verified) on May 19, 2012 6:30 am

If we, as public educators, are not an active part of public school solutions, then we, most assuredly, will be perceived as an immense part of public school problems.

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