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PERSPECTIVE: Black Training Issues | Premium | gazette.com – Colorado Springs Gazette

Black lives matter, yet schools continue to leave Black children behind. The failure must end, say civil rights advocates, before racial justice can prevail. They hope the convergence of nationwide race riots, a pandemic that closed public schools, and Black History Month will lead to lasting and positive change.

Education equity is the low-profile component of the contemporary civil rights movement. While high-profile activists burned buildings, ransacked businesses and demanded governments “defund the police,” education reformers worked more quietly to bring improvement to public schools that leave too many minority children and poor white students unable to read, write, add and subtract at a level sufficient to obtain the American dream.

Until all children have the opportunity to learn enough to compete, they argue, racial tensions will persist and grow.

Civil rights leader Alveda King is working to establish the forthcoming Beacon Leadership Academy, an Atlanta charter school she hopes will improve competence in literacy, math and “social and emotional learning.”

The niece of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., and daughter of civil rights leader A.D. King, Alveda fights for the civil rights of unborn children as a pastoral associate for the nonprofit Priests for Life. Reducing the Black abortion rate involves reducing poverty and despair, which means preparing children to compete academically in an increasingly competitive society.

In the philosophy of Alveda King, mentored and brought up by legendary civil rights leaders, education is part of a meaningful life that celebrates beauty, joy and God’s creation. Education, she says, empowered her father and uncle to improve the world.

“The sanctity of life must include good education after the babies are born,” King told The Gazette. “We need stable families who can make good decisions about the educational paths of our children because America’s children and families are our greatest asset.”

She gets no argument from The Rev. Promise Lee, pastor of Relevant Word Cultural Center in Colorado Springs. Lee has been a prominent figure at protests of the violent killing of George Floyd under the knee of a Minneapolis cop. Lee has led protests against the shooting of De’Von Bailey, a 19-year-old robbery suspect who died after two Colorado Springs cops shot him in the back as he fled with a handgun in the summer of 2019.

Lee has fought for criminal justice reform. He lobbied successfully last year for the passage of Colorado Senate Bill 217, which forbids chokeholds by police and initiates greater law-enforcement accountability and training standards regarding lethal force. Now, he wants the public to focus on the role of education in the country’s seemingly intractable racial tensions and injustices.

It’s a ‘criminal injustice’

In a recent guest column for The Gazette, the Rev. Lee said the civil rights movement in education is “the one that may be most important of all” and is “yet to be fought.”

Lee calls the failure of schools to provide adequate educations to “Black and Brown children” a “criminal injustice.”

“While some of our children are gunned down, many multiples of those tragic numbers are being dumbed down, resulting in unconscionable levels of incarceration, single-parent homes, unemployment, criminal activity, and death,” Lee wrote. “Dumbing down Black children has been, and continues to be, a sordid chapter in our country’s history.”

Civil rights battles involving suspected police misconduct, including overt racism, grab the public’s attention like train wrecks. They involve dramatic life-and-death tragedies and crimes, picketers with provocative signs, and bold challenges to authority. They are, relative to education policy, easy-top-grasp conflicts.

Nevertheless, some of society’s most pivotal civil rights battles have involved K-12 public education and will continue doing so for the foreseeable future — with or without the public spotlight.

The Catholic Church opened schools to educate minority immigrant children turned away by public schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Public schools forcibly segregated minority and white children within the lifetimes of most baby boomers. They did so until the Supreme Court overturned Plessy v. Ferguson’s “separate but equal” doctrine with its 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, which ended segregation in Kansas and other states.

Denver Public Schools interim Superintendent Dwight Jones has devoted his adult life, spending 36 years in education, to promoting diversity and racial equity in schools. The former senior vice president of equity, inclusion & urban markets at McGraw-Hill Education, Jones has served as the Colorado Commissioner of Education and as superintendent of the country’s fifth-largest school district, in Las Vegas.

“Public education has room for improvement, certainly, to achieve equity among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Jones said. “There has to be a greater focus on how we can better educate Black and brown students and this would be a good time to make progress.”

Jones does not believe we can find a single means of improving minority outcomes. Private and charter schools, he said, have provided good results for some families who find just the right school for their children. In addition to charters, Jones hopes school districts will get more innovative with their traditional attendance centers. Denver schools, he says, are each implementing “Black excellence” plans that address the unique circumstances of their students.

Jones believes one sure way to help Black students, in any classroom setting, involves improving how schools teach history.

“Because of what they’ve been taught, some students believe the African American experience began with slavery,” Jones said. “We know that’s not true. We need to do a better job of just telling the truth in the classroom. When students see folks who look like them and see that in a positive light — when they see the great things people who look like them have accomplished through all circumstances and times — it can have a positive impact on the choices they make.”

Colorado Springs developer and education philanthropist Steve Schuck helps families, through his national nonprofit Parents Challenge, choose and afford the schools most appropriate for their children. He said the pandemic closures of public schools have a growing number of parents questioning and scrutinizing the system. Seldom if ever, Schuck said, has there been a better time to demand better school outcomes for low-income children.

“The Rev. Promise Lee hit the nail on the head,” Schuck said of the pastor’s public call for more focus on minority education. “Thank God we have a leader of his stature who is courageous enough to stand up for the children at a time when society is focused on the value of Black lives.”

The courage of Superman

To understand the need for courage, talk to Mike Miles — a veteran Army Ranger, former Colorado Democratic state legislator, and former superintendent of Harrison School District 2 in Colorado Springs. Miles won the job as superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District in 2012. He immediately worked to improve outcomes for underserved children in a district of 222 schools and 160,000 students.

Miles established the aggressive reform programs “Destination 2020” and “Accelerating Campus Excellence.” He initiated a pay-for-performance program that rewards teachers financially for high results in the classroom. He transferred the district’s highest-performing teachers to serve students in the lowest-performing most neglected schools. Children who struggle the most, he explained, need the most skilled and dedicated teachers.

Among Miles’ top priorities was reducing the performance gap between Black and white students.

The teachers union fought him on merit pay. It turned a pack of Texas media against Miles, which produced negative headlines and stories when he fired teachers or administrators who did not meet expectations. Critics said his pay-for-performance program would cause teachers to leave the districts in droves.

The Texas Observer in Dallas blasted Miles in an article titled “Working for Superman” — a reference to the 2010 film “Waiting for Superman,” a documentary that extols the virtues of school choice.

Miles recalls pickets in front of his home, including one that obstructed people trying to attend his son’s birthday party. His opponents tricked Realtors throughout Dallas into believing Miles was ready to sell his home immediately, probably at a bargain, under a state of duress.

“If anything about it was humorous, it was all the calls and emails I started getting from moving companies as my enemies tried to run us out of town,” Miles said.

The public pressure became so intense a group of business leaders — people seeking a better-educated workforce — rented billboards to assure Miles he was welcome in Dallas. His wife and children finally left town when the protests and controversy felt overly threatening.

“The easy thing to do as a superintendent is to go along and along,” Miles said. “You mostly focus on keeping the board and the teachers happy. You make a few minor adjustments that will get a 2% improvement in achievement over three years, you call it good and continue failing a generation of kids. You have to do significant things to get results and you have to sustain the headwinds — and lots of social-media crazies — to do right by the kids. Any time you get people out of their comfort zone, you get barraged with opposition. Great change is needed, but it does not come easy and anyone joining this movement needs to know that from the start.”

Miles withstood a campaign to fire him by a 5-3 vote of the board in 2013. He resigned in 2015 during a contract dispute involving compensation.

Eight years after Miles launched reforms in Dallas, the results speak for themselves. Test scores, graduation rates, and other indicators attest to promises Miles made when he took the job. The most publicized fear, the anticipated loss of good teachers, had no merit.

“Instead of seeing teachers leave in much larger numbers, the school district has retained far more teachers than it did before,” wrote Todd Williams last week in The Dallas Morning News.

Williams, CEO of a Dallas-based educational advocacy group, said the merit pay program has lowered teacher turnover from 22% to 13.5%.

“The district’s retention rate for its highest-rated teachers — rated as master or exemplary — is in the high 90% range,” Williams wrote.

“Its retention rate for its lowest-rated teachers — rated progressing I or II — is in the low-to-mid 80% range.”

That is exactly what Miles hoped for. He wanted a district that would retain the best teachers, placing them in the worst schools, and encourage low-performing teachers to improve or reconsider their career paths.

“This is how it works in organizations of all kinds that succeed,” Miles said. “You invest in your best human resources, in the people who are helping achieve the mission. In education, it always has to be about the kids. We should invest most heavily in those who are best at teaching the kids.”

After returning to Colorado, Miles became the founder and CEO of Third Future Schools, a charter network with campuses in metro Denver and Colorado Springs. The schools have remained open throughout the pandemic, and student outcomes have continued to improve.

‘Black Lives Matter’ matters

Civil rights activist, community leader, and author Bob Woodson hopes the Black Lives Matter movement and pandemic school closures will provide a wake-up call for society. He fears nothing substantial will change if minorities don’t fight for better results from schools.

“As long as powerful interests focus on institutional racism, as the teachers unions do, it relieves them from the responsibility of having to produce good results,” said Woodson, based in Washington, D.C. “Instead of finding a way to improve test scores and graduation rates among minorities, you simply blame institutional racism and accept things as they are.”

Woodson refers to the poor performance of Black children in multiple urban school districts run by predominantly Black school boards and administrators.

“If the problem is institutional racism, how do we support that when the institution is run by Blacks?” Woodson said. “It’s almost like the educational establishment tries to glamorize a sense of inferiority among minorities. The message is, ‘I can’t make it unless white people give me a pass.’ I tell white people not to go along with this. Don’t be polite, be honest. I would rather you hate me than patronize me.”

Woodson co-founded the “1776 Unites Curriculum” to help students of all backgrounds understand “how they can be architects of their own future by embracing the principles of education, family, free enterprise, faith, hard work, and personal responsibility.” Like Jones, of Denver Public Schools, Woodson believes Black and brown children have for too long been denied information about the great achievements of ethnic minorities who have overcome obstacles. He is concerned schools have emphasized victimization over triumph and the rewards of success.

Dedrick Sims believes the time is right — with COVID, George Floyd, and the general disruptive state of the country — to promote education as a civil rights issue. Sims founded the Sims-Fayola Foundation in Denver in 2014 to improve education for “young men and boys of color.”

“I was that kid who we serve now,” said Sims, who grew up in Pine Bluff, Ark. “My mother was on drugs and she was abusive because she was on drugs. Teachers saved my life. They showed me something outside of my four-block radius. Teachers took me to my first opera, ice skating, and made me enthused about learning vocabulary words. I owe everything to my good fortune with teachers when I was young.”

Sims graduated second in his high school class and went on to earn multiple college and graduate degrees. Today, Sims launches and leads charter schools in Colorado and other states and advocates curriculums and teaching methods designed to reverse reduce dropout, suspension, and expulsion rates among minorities.

“People like me have been working behind the scenes to make fundamental changes happen in education so it can stop failing minorities,” Sims said. “What much of the rest of the country knows today is what we have always known. There are systemic, pedagogic inequalities in discipline, curriculum, and cultural expectations in schools. Now that the nation is more awakened, I think people are making genuine attempts to get this right. This is a time of great momentum.”

Miles agrees, maintaining cautious optimism for an unprecedented focus on education in the coming spring and summer months.

“Right now is a good time to really sit down with key stakeholders and leaders in every community,” Miles said.

“Let’s commit to returning to school in the fall in a way that addresses systemic inequity with the intent of not returning to normal. We can do better than normal. This would be a great time to make good on the meaning of Black History Month and Black Lives Matter.”

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