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Why Betsy DeVos is the Perfect Metaphor for Trumpamerika

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Of course Betsy DeVos was selected and approved to be the Secretary of Education.  She donated millions of dollars to the republicans that voted for her. That is really all that matters.  Politics aside, she was the perfect pick.

She failed to turn in her paperwork.  Failed to do her homework.  Failed the interview.  And even failed to get through the door at the first public school she actually tried to enter. And while it would have been interesting to hear her explain her views on assessments and accountability and the relative value of measuring academic growth over time… it really doesn’t matter. In trumpamerika, up is down and DeVos is the ideal charlatan to jump in and privatize our public schools. Of course, she will destroy the Department of Education, but that’s the objective.

422_devos_a_630She is a product of the right-wing, evangelical Christofascists that have been percolating up through homeschool networks, school boards and community groups for decades.  She may be nuttier than hell, she may be a zealot,  but when she figures out which end of the very loud  megaphone she’s just purchased, she could be a force. And not for good. If her history is any indication, she will be the messiah of Generation Joshua and a rock star for privately-run, for-profit charters, homeschool schemes, voucher initiatives and any other vehicle to stimulate the exodus of white kids and public tax dollars out of public schools.

She will be the billionaire’s model cabinet choice. Amongst an entire team of otherwise kiss-ass, rich white men– she is simultaneously the darling of the alt right– and public enemy number 2 of the NEA.

unknownShe is inexperienced and ignorant of the office she has purchased– so she’ll fit in well with the rest of her cabinet colleagues and her boss. As the heiress to Amway, she is a symbol of unfettered greed.  She is a beneficiary of one of our nation’s most successful ponzi schemes and brings (thankfully) few transferable skills to benefit her new constituents.

Fortunately, the Constitution (like the president and his Amway heiress) is silent on education.  So most of the responsibility for our public schools falls to individual states anyway. The power for oversight, accountability, standards (including the Common Core), teacher quality, school spending are vested in them alone.   Most of the day-to-day authority to manage curriculum, instruction, student safety, professional development, school culture, organizational direction, and innovation…all fall to local schools and school districts and the real educators that actually run them.

My two schools– Mueller Charter School and Bayfront Charter High School–  are both fiscally independent organizations with our own governing body.  We sometimes ask for forgiveness but rarely ask for permission– for anything, local or otherwise. We didn’t need DeVos’s predecessors to create “El Milagro”– and we don’t need her either.

Betsy DeVos has never run any organization– let alone one with the scope and gravity of the Department of Education.  But she wasn’t selected for her business acumen or for what she actually has to offer to our schools– she’s a metaphor and she won’t have the mandate, the reach or the time to destroy our public schools.

So who will DeVos be in the short time she has before the wheels come off the trump debacle and his house of cards?

She could be a champion for children but she won’t be. In her first opportunity to stand for kids that need us the most, she already failed.

She could be an advocate for educational equity— assuring that children do not suffer in ineffective schools as a result of their zip code or their family income.  But instead of being a conduit for best practices– she will circle safely above, dropping vouchers from a helicopter.   The challenges of overcoming the effects of poverty on learning are immense.  They are well documented on this blog site.  The skills and expertise and innovation and vision and commitment required to lift achievement in low income neighborhoods do not suddenly appear simply because parents are promised a golden ticket to a private school.

She could be a trustworthy steward of federal tax dollars and ensure that they are protected for the populations for which they were intended.  Many public schools– mine included– have made huge strides in supporting children from low income communities.  But we have depended on federal funding– promised primarily through IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. While less than 9% of our school funding comes from the federal government, it is critical in our service to populations with complex needs. But DeVos hinted as far back as 2001 that her world view of public education was steeped in faith-based philanthropy and the new world order: “There are not enough philanthropic dollars in America to fund what is currently the need in education…Our desire is to confront the culture in ways that will continue to advance God’s kingdom.”

Never mind how we might measure that advancement.

She could leverage the power of her office to seed innovation in schools across the country- but her experience in Michigan is with for-profit charters –not to be confused with organic, community-based, student-centered charter schools that grow from the collaborative efforts of parents and teachers.  President Obama was eviscerated for having the temerity to earmark $4 billion to stimulate innovation through his Race for the Top initiative. Trump bloviates about committing $20 billion for a school voucher scheme. There is nothing innovative about schemes to accelerate white flight.

She could serve as a model of competence and an absolute commitment to the power educators have in every community.  But nothing during the senate hearings suggested she knew the first thing about what it really means to teach or to run a school. In fact her responses were void of any substance at all-  as if she had been coached to nod and smile and commit to nothing.  And so she did. And for her efforts she was approved by the republican majority who evidently thought that having the ponzi lady at the helm of the Department of Education would be ok.

She could strengthen and promote the Office of Civil Rights, which enforces federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination in programs that receive federal financial assistance from her Department of Education.  She could stand up for our most vulnerable children who are bullied, tormented and victimized enough that the OCR is their last line (or only line) of defense.  She could uphold the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and stand against discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Or she could stand for children protected by Title IX— especially youth from the LGBT community.  Or she could stand for the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990if only she knew that that law too comes under her direction.

imagesShe could fight to preserve the office of Civil Rights in the face of so much conservative pressure to scrap the department altogether.  But she withered in her first test when trump’s new attorney general, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, raised the stars and bars over the US Capital building and struck down Obama’s protections for trans children in public schools.

DeVos should have learned from the courage of Sally Yates that advocating for children is not a hobby.  When you join the fight to protect them, you fucking fight with everything you have. You protect them with you words, your actions, your job…your very life. Or you stay out of the way. And that is Lesson #1 in school leadership.

Or maybe this newly appointed Secretary of Education could just stand there and do nothing but provide some buffer against a  president who is bat-shit crazy.  But of course, we’re not likely to see that either.

In speaking to a friendly CPAC audience this past week, DeVos said: “it’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can and also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility about how education is delivered and how education is experienced and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”

Fortunately, our children aren’t actually depending on her for protection at all.  And we don’t need permission to exercise our flexibility or autonomy.

Today we can thank the Founding Fathers for leaving public education to the states.  Betsy Devos is an empty suit.  An empty chair.  A checkbook.  A diversity pick.  A lost opportunity to actually lead.  A metaphor for the dangerous path our nation is on. The perfect choice for trumpamerika.

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Filed under Betsy DeVos, bilingual education, California budget, California charter schools, children at risk, education spending, El Milagro, innovation and change, public education, school reform, the Dream Act, Trump

Learning From Lucero: Another Face of the Dream Act

249026_166056856898935_354667876_nIn thirty-some years as an educator, I have never seen a child quite like Lucero Chavez.  My first recollection of her is not just her dark eyes, wide open and ready to learn.  Not just her extraordinary drive– that silent motor that hummed somewhere from deep inside her.  Not just her willingness to push mountains of assignments and projects and papers and essays and school tasks faster than her teachers could assign them. Not just her manners, though she has those in abundance. Not just her excellence.

Instead, my first recollection of Lucero Chavez is of her indescribable grace. I clearly remember, mostly as she got older, that she was a presence, in any room or gathering.  A very quiet presence. Even mysterious.

At Mueller Charter School, we have had thousands of children blessed with many different gifts and talents– some discovered but most still incubating.  The longer they are with us on their journey from kindergarten through middle school, the more we become aware of them: kids that are funny, or athletic, or bright, or troubled, or loud, or musical, or demanding, or engaging. Leaders, followers, drivers, entertainers, statesmen.  Individually, they emerge from their self-imposed shadows on the strength of those unique qualities.  Indeed, the great joy of teaching is watching a young person begin to flower and evolve.  And we have had so many students who were blessed in so many different ways.

But none of those were the gift that set Lucero apart.

It was her grace; an almost-haunting presence that was part intellectual, part spiritual.  Inside any classroom, and in the hundreds of weekly assemblies in which Lucero participated over the years– even gatherings outdoors– I can still see her.  Always as close to the front as she could get, always sitting up straight—not for the sake of perfect posture—but so that she could more efficiently absorb every word that was spoken. No matter how crowded, no matter the climate of the room–wherever you stood or walked or paced, if you were speaking– her eyes were riveted.  Eerily attentive.  As if she were dependent on every syllable and teaching for her very breath—no matter how nonsensical, or vapid, or routine, or insignificant.  As if you and Lucero Chavez, were the only two people in the room.

Lucero Chavez has an extraordinary desire to learn from people and places and events around her.  Her thirst for learning is both palpable and insatiable.

It would be so easy to mistake her devotion to learning as simple compliance, or a young girl’s blind obedience to authority.  But from the moment Lucero Chavez first realized that she had a power within her to literally change the world—somewhere back in her first years at Mueller Charter School—she has been on her own remarkable journey.

In her junior year of high school, while the ever-shifting economy was grinding down so many families across America, it was grinding down Lucero’s family too.  Soon they lost their home and a place in the market.  All the while, in tragic and silent dignity, she endured.  Endured the ambiguity that poverty creates—the uncertainty of the train derailed.  Endured her parents’ pain and the loss of her room and her kitchen table and the hallway lined with her honor student certificates and photos dancing in the ballet folklorico.

But she embraced homelessness with the same dignity and attentiveness that she embraced all her other learning experiences.  She sat up straight, her dark eyes wide open and fixed on going forward, and she continued her journey.

UnknownBy midway through her senior year, she had been accepted to every college and university to which she applied.  Her first choice was Dartmouth.  And because her family was still reeling from homelessness, she would need financial assistance to go so far away.    So like thousands of other high school seniors, she began the process of applying for financial assistance. And in piecing together her life history in response to the many prying questions written to ascertain whether Lucero Chavez was diligent and deserving enough to pursue her dream of attending such a prestigious Ivy League college – she discovered something about herself she never knew.  Something her parents had never told her.  Something potentially more debilitating to a kid than sudden homelessness. Something that in the present light of divisive national politics and racism—would destroy a weaker person and all her dreams.

Lucero discovered she was not an American citizen.

She had been brought to the United States illegally as an infant.  Brought by parents who could look beyond the border walls and see Unknown-1the lights of America and know that that is where they wanted to raise their little girl.  And so they came.  Like your forbearers and mine.  Not for their own gain, but for Lucero.

And she has consistently rewarded her parents and family and teachers and friends– giving back to them through her remarkable academic and personal excellence.

In June of 2013, Lucero Chavez represented the 700 graduating seniors of Hilltop High School as their class valedictorian, and delivered her message of resilience to the world.

It was extraordinary in what she didn’t say.  She didn’t describe her struggles through poverty.  She never once mentioned her acceptance letter from Dartmouth or boast about her extraordinary academic achievements in multiple languages.  She didn’t mention that she opted to attend University of San Diego– partly out of fear that, as a result of her now-public dilemma,  her parents could be deported.  She didn’t rail on our policy makers for their inability to deliver a definitive message or compassionate safeguards through the so-called Dream Act.

Instead, she delivered a hopeful and familiar message that spoke for the common and routine experience of every high school kid in the room: the insecurities of adolescence, the joy of Friday night football and prom, the relative accomplishments of student leadership groups, and of course, the relationships.

Grace.

Beyond that, for Lucero Chavez at least, the future is less certain.

I sat at the edge of my chair and listened.  I hung on every word.  And as she spoke, I could not take my eyes her.  Could not fight back the tears of pride and regret that I was not more of a light for her– this extraordinary young woman grown before our very eyes.

Twelve years ago I wrote the vision statement that defines our school today: “Our Children Will Change the World.”  It was not meant to be a just another cheesy slogan with which to decorate school stationary.  It is our collective vision.  It means that these children– mostly Latino, mostly from high poverty homes where parents sacrificed everything for the education that they never had—these children who are easy to ignore and discount and write off and deport—will have the capacity and opportunity to literally change our world for the better if we position them to do so.  If we provide them with the caring and support.  If we maintain high expectations.  If we provide them with opportunities to fully develop their gifts and their voice.

imageIn the weeks leading up to her Valedictorian speech, Lucero was beset with media outlets requesting interviews and longing to tell her story.  Even CNN.  She is the face of homelessness.  The face of an immigration policy in desperate need of a champion.  And ironically, the face of American excellence.  She is single-handedly changing the world.

And now, after thirty some years in education, and tens of thousands of students– most now grown to adults—my own personal mission is fulfilled.  By none, more remarkable, more courageous, more resilient, more blessed… than Lucero Chavez.

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Filed under bilingual education, California charter schools, children at risk, El Milagro, Fighting for Ms. Rios, gifted children, immigration, President Obama, public education, resiliency, spiritual intelligence, the Dream Act

RESURRECT A DREAM

A new study from the Center for Research and Reform in Education at John Hopkins University has concluded that “Spanish-speaking children learn to read English equally well regardless of whether they are taught primarily in English or in both English and their native language.”

In other words, bilingual instruction does no harm as it relates to the acquisition of English literacy skills; we can reintroduce the goal of bilingualism  and Spanish literacy – without any negative consequences to English reading acquisition.

In still other words… if it does no harm… and thus there is no adverse impact on test scores… then the advantages of bilingual instruction now outweigh the disadvantages… according to the latest research on the topic!

The director of the report, Dr. Robert Slavin, noted that

“Here’s a study that gives more solid information than has existed before that quality of instruction is important. The idea that the language of instruction is going to be decisive just doesn’t come through. You can succeed in either language. You can fail in either language.”

We have always said that it’s the quality of the teaching and the passion for promoting biliteracy that makes the difference!!!

Of course at El Milagro, we have stretched to squeeze every point we can from the California Standards Test.  Our student mobility and the drive to stay out of Program Improvement forced us to abandon dual language instruction.  But next year we are eliminating those external pressures by

• Dramatically increasing the number of multi-age classrooms on our campus

• Developing a rich, integrated curriculum for those multi-age classrooms

• Placing students in grade levels according to their performance level (and not according to their age)

• Promoting students only when they demonstrate mastery of their grade level standards

Not only does this allow us to satisfy all the AYP demands, it will allow us to reintroduce the arts, health and fitness, science and social study.  We can teach children to think again.  We can promote creativity and performance and  problem solving and innovation.  The multiple intelligences!

But it also suggests that it is time to resurrect our dual language program… and our dream of biliteracy for all children.

Joy. Authentic learning.  Dos idiomas.  El Milagro.

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Filed under bilingual education, charter schools, El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, school reform, teaching