Monday, August 8, 2016

New Jersey Parents of Color Unplugged

"You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes."
Do you recognize this quote from the “The Matrix?” In the 1999 film, a character named Morpheus confronts a computer technician named Thomas Anderson (aka Neo) with the disconcerting truth that the life he lives is an elaborate computer-generated facade created for the purpose of placating humans into submission. Morpheus gives Neo a choice: take the blue pill and continue to wallow in the blissful ignorance of illusion or take the red pill and confront a painful reality of deceit and manipulation.

I heard this cinematic reference several times this past weekend at the first-ever N.J. Parents Summit where 140 parents, mostly from Newark and Camden, trekked to Woodbridge to attend sessions that included “Why Engagement is Critical to Student Success,” “How Race and Class Impact Student Learning and Development,” and “Racial Autobiography: Exploring Your Identity and Its Impact on Your Role as an Advocate.”

During Saturday night's keynote address Dr. Steve Perry told the audience that the blue pill is the one swallowed by the NAACP (“bought and sold by teacher unions") when last week the once-upon-a-time civil rights organization called  for a ban on charter schools and the perpetuation of the status quo. The blue pill, said another attendee, is public unions and aligned special interest groups denigrating accountability and higher standards, The blue pill is parents complying with coding instructions to  believe what they’re told to believe.  The blue pill is bromides like “we can’t fix education until we fix poverty.” The blue pill is the tranquilizing belief that our traditional education system serves low-income minority kids just fine. The blue pill is that black lives already matter.

Do these energetic education advocates choose the soporific simulation of the Matrix or are they brave enough to unplug themselves and confront the disconcerting truth that many traditional public schools in Newark, Camden, and other urban inner cities fail them and their children?

Over and over again  this weekend, parents demanded the red pill.

Ron Rice, former Newark city councilman and current senior director at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, told a rapt audience that he got straight A’s in his Honors classes at his traditional Newark school, transferred to a high-achieving private school through a series of fortuitous circumstances, and discovered that he was two full years behind his new classmates. That’s the red pill.
Camden Principal William Hayes
A Newark mother told me that she was summoned to her twin girls’ traditional school and informed that both had “failed” kindergarten. (As twins, they had their own language and unusual communication skills.) She was advised to have them both classified for special education services and to lower her expectations for their academic competence. Instead she transferred them to a Newark KIPP school where the girls (never classified, by the way) both excel in mainstream classrooms. That’s the red pill.

At the session on “Race and Class,” a parent asked moderator Derrell Bradford, “what do you think of the NAACP’s call for a moratorium on charters?” Bradford replied, “I think it’s bullshit.” The full conference room erupted in cheers. That’s the power (and burden) of the red pill.

Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform 

Over and over again throughout this weekend I heard parents, in public sessions and in private conversations, famished for straight talk about the failures of the status quo and furious with those who would limit their children’s school options. They chanted at Friday night’s reception, we’ll  “take our souls to the polls!” and we’re “fired up and ready to go!”

Red pills for everyone, washed down with Red Bull.

A few other notes:

  • During several discussions of N.J.’s intensely-segregated schools, parents were less concerned about segregation and more concerned about school quality. “We don’t care where they go to school as long as the school is pushing them to excel,” said one parent. Ron Rice noted that charter schools tend to be segregated because the communities they serve are segregated.
  • There was less of a consensus on teacher diversity. Several parents said that their children, especially African-American boys, needed teachers “who looked like them.” William Hayes, principal of Mastery’s East Camden Middle School, agreed: “Schools can’t reach true excellence,” he said, “until they represent the community they serve.”  But more parents agreed with this mom: “I don’t care what color the teachers are. I just want my child to learn.”
  • In one session a presenter noted that white suburban parents and union leaders get angry over new Common Core-aligned assessments (PARCC in N.J.) and “the world ends.”   This, he said,  “tells you who has the power.”
  • The Newark School Board was the subject of  withering criticism. “They don’t know anything,” said a parent.”  “It’s all fixed,” said another. “You just run on the mayor’s slate. They don’t know anything about running a school system.”
  • How many times did Summit organizers Shennell McCloud and Gerard Green hear, “you have to do this next year!”? Too many to count. 

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