Friday, April 21, 2017

The Great American Experiment

By Jon Dunnemann

My biggest reason for lending my voice to integration in all its forms is because I have directly experienced the many benefits that it can produce. From my childhood education, my church membership, my community life, my college experience, my involvement in intercollegiate sports, my travels to other countries, my professional career, and my regular reflection I am reminded of the vital ingredients that are required to build compelling value at the individual and group level. In each one of these familiar settings, I was part of a small minority of people filled with common aspirations, self-determination, and spiritual willpower. I too believed as did my grandparents, that when given a chance and backed by the same amount of resources and encouragement as the next person that I could climb any mountain, sail across any sea, and accomplish any specific goal that I set my mind to. 

For the most part, this has proven over an extended period of time to be true for me and others alike. Sure, there were a few things or people that stood in the way. While at other times, the biggest impediment to my forward progress was actually myself. Nevertheless, because of where and how I was positioned, the general company that I was surrounded by, along with the ongoing support that I received, my prospect for achieving a successful life has been much better than that of most kids with only a single parent, being in foster care, and unable to afford a college education without assistance from the federal government. Without a doubt, I am indebted to all who have positively participated in my "becoming" as it equipped me to conduct myself as a responsible husband, father, neighbor and member of society. I am a product of the Great American Experiment here to tell you that it worked.

Consequently, it is my strongly held belief that all of the advantages that were made available to me were not provided just so that I could one day live the "good life" inside of my own little bubble of comfort and safety but rather because the way that this incredible system of caring is supposed to work is that for he or she that has been given much, much will be required. The guiding and unprecedented principle behind this Great American Experiment is meant to remain continuous. Such that in the arduous and ongoing process of being helped by others, learning how better to help oneself, that this all serves as an essential preparation and training ground for the vitally important work of engaging in helping others who are confronting similarly exasperating circumstances so that they too can make steady progress and ultimately become capable themselves of growing out from underneath potentially limiting situations and thereby experience bright new horizons and more promising tomorrows. 

Of course the difficulties and troubles that I faced in my youth will not be the same as those of others that I may have the rare honor and privilege of meeting along life's journey. However, what I do share with many others is having actually tasted the grit and gravel of poverty and I have also been made soiled by the stench of pain, struggle and unpleasantry. Yet with God's grace, and all manner of assistance from numerous people early in my life, I've managed to escape defeat, despair, desperation and repeated disappointment. That my friend, is a great victory for their collective generosity of spirit, inclusion, and loving-kindness.

There is absolutely no question, that without these many gifts that today my life would only amount to small potatoes. Instead, both my heart and my potential has been enabled to reach its fullness and I also have the added blessing of having accumulated plenty of healthy seeds of prosperity to now freely share with others.  

Friday, April 7, 2017

The New Champions of School Integration

By Richard D. Kahlenberg

This post originally appeared in The Atlantic on April 6, 2017

The Department of Education killed a federal program supporting diversity efforts, but the fight to desegregate the nation’s classroom is far from over.

Policies that promote school integration by race and class took a significant hit last week when the U.S. Department of Education announced that it was killing a small but important federal program to support local diversity efforts. The initiative, “Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities,” was slated to provide $12 million to school districts to boost socioeconomic diversity. The brainchild of President Obama’s Secretary of Education, John B. King Jr., the program had attracted interest from 26 school districts across the country that believed kids would be better off in schools that educate rich and poor, and white and minority students, together rather than separately.

According to the Washington Post, an Education Department spokesperson said the program was nixed because “it was not a wise use of tax dollars, in part because the money was to be used for planning, not implementation.” But supporters of the plan rejected that view.  Representative Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said, “Continuing this important program would have been an easy way for the Trump Administration to affirm its commitment to civil rights.  Unfortunately, the Trump administration missed that opportunity.”

By coincidence, as the news of the program’s discontinuation broke, proponents of school diversity, including King, were gathering at the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a strategic-planning conference on school-diversity efforts. The day-long meeting, sponsored by Harvard’s Reimagining Integration program, the National Coalition on School Diversity, and The Century Foundation (where I work), brought together 50 scholars, civil-rights activists, and educators to plot out new strategies for school diversity in the age of Trump.

The decision by Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, to kill Opening Doors was a reminder, if any was needed, that proponents of school diversity need to look beyond the federal government for support during Trump’s administration. The decision on whether to proceed with the Opening Doors program, Philip Tegeler of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council told Patrick Wall in an Atlantic article last month, was “going to be a real test of her commitment to school integration.” And now she had failed.

At the conference, King called the decision a “heartbreaking signal” on an issue of utmost importance. Students of color represent more than 50 percent of public-school students, King noted, and “the fate of the country” will be determined by how well it decides to educate this new majority of students. School integration is also tied to “the fate of our democracy,” he suggested, because segregated schools allow politicians to scapegoat minorities, while integrated schools remind students of what they have in common as Americans. Research finds that school diversity reduces racial prejudice and improves academic attainment, which, in turn, is tied to higher voter participation.

The death of a small federal school-integration initiative is connected to a much larger concern that DeVos’s primary education-reform idea—using public money for private school vouchers—will produce poor academic results for students, and Balkanize students by religion, race, and class. As my Century Foundation colleague Halley Potter noted in a new report, “voucher programs on balance are more likely to increase school segregation than to decrease it or leave it at status quo.”

King reminded participants, however, that this was not a moment “to admire the problem,” but a time to engage in fresh thinking about new approaches. What options do supporters of diversity have? Could progressives capitalize on DeVos’s rhetoric around school choice—particularly, the compelling need to liberate kids from struggling, high-poverty schools—to encourage choice within the public-school system that is designed to bring children of different backgrounds together? Should progressives pivot from Washington to focus on progressive states and localities? What is the role of foundations? What about state courts?

Progressives in blue states appear to have a strong appetite for pushing against Donald Trump’s agenda on issues from immigration to climate change. Could this sentiment provide an important spark for school diversity initiatives? Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are required to devote 7 percent of Title I funds to improving the lowest-performing schools. New York state has a program (begun by King when he was its education commissioner) to use federal school-improvement funds to turn around struggling schools by implementing attractive magnet programs. Research suggests that low-income students in mixed-income schools—surrounded by peers who expect to go on to college, parents in the school community who regularly volunteer in class, and strong teachers—perform substantially better than comparable students in high-poverty schools that often lack those ingredients for success.

State charter-school laws, likewise, could set aside a certain proportion of charter-school funds—say, 25 percent—for schools that are diverse by design, using a weighted lottery to ensure that school choice promotes socioeconomic diversity.

Local school districts, as well, can forge ahead with diversity plans, with or without federal support. The day after Trump's election, for example, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, school board voted 9-0 to adopt a socioeconomic-integration plan for its magnet schools, a reminder that under the United States system of federalism, changes in Washington don’t have to spell the end of education movements. (I worked with the district on this project).

What should be the role of courts in pursuing school-diversity strategies today?

Nationally, the Century Foundation has identified 100 school districts and charter-school chains that voluntarily are pursuing diversity policies that consider student economic status in their student assignment plans. With philanthropic support, these districts could form a community of practice to support one another and expand the number of districts pursuing diversity policies by showing how it can be done in a politically palatable way that is also good for kids.

In growing the movement for integrated schools, participants at the Harvard conference discussed how various constituencies—civil-rights groups, business leaders, people of faith, students, and teachers unions—might support diversity. Sarah Camiscoli, the director of IntegrateNYC4me, a student group that is seeking school integration in New York City, suggested bringing in new constituencies, such as military veterans, firefighters, and police officers who are focused on the public good. A message that “integration is the fair choice that works for the common good and personal achievement” could resonate with people in these professions, she said, adding that veterans also have personal experience working in a diverse institution.

David Hinojosa, who works with the education department to provide school districts the technical support they need to promote civil rights, discussed ways in which low-income communities and communities of color can be reassured that integration does not suggest that they possess deficiencies but rather that they bring strengths that will add to a healthy school environment. Likewise, some participants asked, would framing school integration primarily around socioeconomic status unite the interests of working-class people of color who supported Hillary Clinton and working-class, white Trump supporters, thereby scrambling existing political alliances?

Finally, because the school-integration movement famously gained national attention with the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, it is natural to ask: What should be the role of courts in pursuing school-diversity strategies today?

In recent years, the federal courts have been an impediment, such as when the Supreme Court struck down voluntary racial-integration plans in Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle in 2007. But socioeconomic-integration plans are perfectly legal. And state courts have an important role to play interpreting state constitutions to foster school integration.

The best example is the Connecticut Supreme Court, which in the 1996 case of Sheff v. O’Neill ruled that segregation between Hartford schools and the surrounding suburbs violated the state constitution, whether or not the segregation was intentional. James Ryan, the dean of Harvard’s Education School, has been writing for decades about the idea of replicating Sheff-type state-level decisions in places where courts have found a constitutional right to a decent education. Given research suggesting that socioeconomic school integration is an even more powerful lever for boosting achievement than funding, he has suggested that state finance litigation be extended to integration. Now, at the conference, he wondered: Could the time be opportune, given that “courts have found their voice” in promoting democratic values in the age of Trump, resisting, for example, the ban on immigration from majority-Muslim nations? Might the courts be newly open to lawsuits that seek to encourage efforts to ensure that children of different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn together and from one another?

It may be the worst of times for school integration at the federal level, but could this be the best time for progressive school boards and state courts, newly energized by the national political scene, to embrace an education reform that will strengthen American democracy?

Related Video

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Why I Love Working Class Folks

By Jon Dunnemann

My grandparents William (Kayo) and Elisabeth Greene were working class folks. While a young man, my grandfather became a licensed barber and my grandmother attended finishing school. In the early years of their marriage they decided to leave South Hill, Virginia and come north to Montclair, New Jersey. In time, my grandfather would open Kayo’s Barber Shop located on Bloomfield Avenue in lower Montclair, New Jersey. Grandpa successfully ran his business in that section of town for a good number of years until later moving to the current location at 224 Bloomfield Ave where both he and my Uncle Junie continued to be considered two of the best barbers in town.

Nana and Grandpa would eventually save enough money to purchase a ranch style home on a small parcel of land located at 28 Melrose Place in West Caldwell, New Jersey right down the street from the West Essex First Aid Squad. To furnish their home and provide all the other amenities that come with private home ownership my grandmother became a housekeeper to a very wealthy white family in upper Montclair. My grandfather also made house calls on Sunday afternoons to the homes of older well-to-do gentlemen to cut their hair. 

West Caldwell is a township located in the West Essex area in northwestern Essex County, New Jersey. It is located approximately 16 miles west of Manhattan and 6 miles northwest of Newark. As of the 2010 United States Census, the township's population was reflecting a decline of 474 (-4.2%) from the 11,233 counted in the 2000 Census, which had in turn increased by 811 (+7.8%) from the 10,422 counted in the 1990 Census. (Source: Wikipedia)

In our early youth, my siblings, cousins and I spent many weekends, holidays and summers at my grandparents home where we were always welcome, well-fed, and safe. It is there that I gained my first and most significant 'sense of community'. Melrose Place has always been a dead-end street.That made it even safer for the children that lived on it. The half dozen or so other families on this street were mostly black with a few white families already living there as well. The average household income was low but everyone who was old enough to do so was expected to work and contribute to the unmet needs of one another. At different times over the course of many years a number of the grandchildren lived with our grandparents either to lessen the existing economic burden on our parents or to be afforded an opportunity to have access to a much better school system than the one where we currently lived whether in Newark or elsewhere. 

There were only two maybe four streets where Blacks either privately owned homes or rented in the entire town in the early to late 1960's. Even as kids though we knew that we were not welcomed everywhere. For example, there was a famous ice cream parlor in town called Grunnings Ice Cream Parlor on Bloomfield Avenue that I once went into alone as a kid and where I was told that I didn't belong inside and was asked to leave despite having the money to purchase ice cream. On another occasion, I was sternly scolded by a older man for picking up pears that had fallen to the ground on his unfenced property and unabashedly shown his KKK (Klu Klux Klan) membership card and thereby cautioned to beware should I ever attempt to steal a pear from off of his property. 

Despite these infrequent slights, more commonly doled out by adults than between kids, I gained a fondness for all of the kids in my neighborhood because although unstated it was transparently understood that it is, must, and always will be first and foremost, the safety of all of us against the rest of the world. A big part of growing up was being 'interpersonally vulnerable' and getting emotionally closer to each other. This banner of loyalty that emerged amongst Black, Catholic, Christian, Danish, Female, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Jewish, Male, Muslim, and Puerto Rican represented something special that can only be hard won on the playing field of accidents, birthdays, breakups, classrooms, disagreements, field trips, fights, forgiveness, hikes through the woods that were directly across the street, loss of loved ones, school yards, sleepovers, and the interdependence and respect that develops through competition in school sports, at local festivals and through other extra-curriculum activities.

In conclusion, my being reared by working class grandparents in a diverse immigrant community taught me not to be cruel, indecent, judgmental, overindulgent, prejudice, selfish or unforgiving. I would certainly not trade the invaluable lessons learned or the positive benefits like the sense of belonging and identification that I gained from ultimately being unconditionally accepted as a full and equal member of the community for anything else in the world. For in the increasingly comfortable space of my local community I had the good fortune of learning what it means and what it takes to be rigorously made into a grateful American.

Kayo's Barber Shop

Total Pageviews