Sunday, November 27, 2005

Parental Involvement and the Jerry Springer Culture.

I have been having an interesting discussion this week with a few readers about the poverty factor and how it relates to education in large uban districts like Cleveland. Rather than keep it in the comments section, I figured I would continue the conversation here.

There is a gap in understanding between the educated, working, self-sustaining general population and the reality of the demographics of those who live in poverty. We in the first group tend to feel more comfortable with the poor if we can put a noble or romantic face on them. The laid-off factory worker, the single mother, and the person who has lost everything due to tragedy or illness; these are the poor we like to help, these are good people who have been dealt a cruel blow by the world.

When we assume these people make up the vast majority of Clevelanders who live in poverty, no wonder we are confused when we see some of the poor who don't help themselves, and when given the opportunity, why they don't get involved, or why they do not bootstrap their way into a better position.

Sadly, however, the culture of poverty is not always so honorable. There are many people who are unemployed because they are unemployable. They are the addicts, the sociopaths, the lazy, and the stupid. These people have children, and their children are raised in environments of perpetual dysfunction. If you want to get a glimpse of this culture first hand, simply turn on Jerry Springer or Maury Povitch. This is not a manufactured cultural phenomenon for television. We, the teachers in urban public schools, encounter people like these guests on a regular basis when we make phone calls home, or set up a conference with the parents of students who are having problems in school with behavior, attendance, or learning.

The foul mouthed, abusive, drunk-at-9AM, mother. The father who promised to beat the shit out of his son if the school ever calls again. The kid who needed to bring a parent to school for a conference, and each time would show up with a different one of mom's boyfriends. The girl who did her homework at the tavern where her mother worked turning tricks. The uncle who gave his nephew marijuana to sell at school. The girl whose mother walked into an eighth grade classroom after her daughter was suspended for fighting to beat up the girl her child fought with.
Each of us has more stories than we can recall.

Yes, parental involvement is crucial to a student's education, as long as the parents are good, loving people. Sadly, there are many parents who we would rather not see involved, who are detrimental to to the child.

Simple biology does not in any way insure capability.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Silent Culture of Cleveland Drop-outs.

Fellow NEO blogger, Jeff Hess, at Have Coffee Will Write responded to my last post concerning the lack of Cleveland parents at Monday night's CEO search meeting, surmising:

"...Maybe they are just tired of trying to walk around in size 8 shoes with size 9 feet."

Jeff, I have to disagree.

My gut reaction is that exhaustion due to poverty is not the reason many city residents don't attend school events.

The apparent apathy of many Clevelanders who live in the city toward civic issues and the schools, has been on my mind for quite some time.

It bothered me when I first began teaching in Cleveland back in 1988, and very few parents would show up for school open houses or parent/teacher conferences. The abysmal turnout of Cleveland voters at the polls and the mere smattering of parents, and the people living in the city neighborhoods, who attended school district functions and civic forums, prompted me to begin asking questions and drawing some of my own conclusions.

The common responses I receive from folks (students, parents, and former students) when I ask why they didn't participate in an event or vote in an election are:

"I wouldn't make a difference"

"I don't know anything about that stuff."

"Nobody really wants to listen to me."

"Let the people who understand those things make the decisions."

"I never heard about it."

"Why bother? The Big Shots already made their minds up."

" I don't get it. What do all those issues mean?"

"I don't watch the news. It's boring."

"Where do you find out about these things? You must read a lot."

These conversations lead me to believe this inner-city demographic of Clevelanders, who have been labeled apathetic because they do not participate in the civic process, are not absent because don't care or because they are working too hard. They aren't getting involved for a completely different reason.

Many Clevelanders are not comfortable in the civic realm due to a lack of education.

The district has been hemorrhaging drop-outs since the busing mandate was enacted in the '70s. In the mid 1990's only 25% of Cleveland students graduated from high school. At the last census, fifty thousand Cleveland families were headed by parents without high school diplomas. What has evolved over the past thirty years in Cleveland is a generation of Clevelanders who have disengaged from education. The children of these people are the students I teach. I have talked on the phone to parents who are very uncomfortable inside a school, and try to avoid coming in, if at all possible. There are even those who have never again stepped into school since they flunked out, dropped out, got kicked out, or became involved with the criminal justice system. Some parent's status as ex-offenders makes them feel insecure and unwelcome, even though nobody at the school may even be aware of their history.

A culture has silently developed in Cleveland, of citizens who somehow became disconnected from both the educational and the civic process.

Many people don't know they even have a voice, others are afraid to use it for fear of sounding stupid, and still others assume the lack of education makes their opinions irrelevant. The power to make decisions is the sole realm of the wealthy and the educated...Why bother?

How do we begin to engage this lost generation of Clevelanders? Can we?

Or do we simply write them off, and hope their children will be different?

When more than 50% of Cleveland's 70,000 students are currently still dropping out of school, the future of the city does not look too bright.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Search for a CEO: CMSD Style

The room was nearly empty at 6:30 when I arrived at the community meeting. The Jergens Manufacturing Company located in the Collinwood Yards is very easy to spot from the Shoreway, but apparently a little tricky to find if one is not familiar with the neighborhood. Eventually the search comittee, CMSD administrators, and several Board of Education members came in and introduced themselves, along with two other teachers, a woman who was filming the event, and a journalist.

Where were the community members who were supposed to be giving their input?

The meeting finally began, about twenty minutes late with not quite twenty people in the room, when the facilitator, who was coming from Chicago, arrived. Only one of the people present was a parent, and even she was a school employee.

The first question that was asked of the group was "What does the district need?". The immediate answer, of course was "Money!". Nothing like stating the obvious.

I raised my hand and asked , "Where are the community members? Where is the neighborhood? Where are the voters? Why aren't they here?"

"Well, we publicized the event. We sent flyers home with the kids. Apparently people just aren't interested."

"Hmmm..." I said. "Maybe it would be a good idea to find out why. Why don't Clevelanders come to these forums? Is because they don't know about them, or do they feel their voices won't be heard? Do they feel their opinions don't really matter, and the meetings are just a formality? The disconnect between the school district and the community is a glaring issue, evidenced by lack of voter turn out and the failure of the past two levys. Addressing this problem should be a priority for the new CEO."

Newly re-appointed board member Shirley Hawk spoke, "Adelphia cable has money for a public access cable channel dedicated to the Cleveland schools. I want to know why it is no longer being used. In the past they broadcast school board meetings and good news about the schools."

CMSD administrator Julian Bond replied that the monies for communication were drastically reduced over the past two years with the massive district budget cuts. The sudden absence of good news from the district and lack of communication with the residents seemed to coincide with the decline in Barbara Byrd Bennett's popularity. Since good news doesn't sell, the major media news stories focused on the district's problems and scandels.
A lot of the ensuing discussion focused on the community's access to technology, why the district hasn't taken advantage of it, and what needs to be addressed in the future.

The lone parent sat silent for most of the meeting, but when she finally spoke up, she vented her frustrations. Her complaints focused on teachers and administrators who didn't seem to care about kids or parents. The employees who came across as selfishly only interested in collecting a paycheck and doing as little as possible to earn it. A recent newcomer to Cleveland from Savannah, she complained about the black hole of the district voice mail system, and the general public's inability to find anyone who could answer a question in a reasonable period of time. She predicted the exodus of more children from the Cleveland schools into parochial and charter schools for precisely that reason.

The meeting concluded at 8:00.
My hope is that this was not simply a sham forum to appease a mandate for public input, that someone will pay attention to the concerns that were expressed. Wouldn't it be nice if a new mayor and a new district CEO would usher in a new era of communication?

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Nothing Stops A Bullet Like A Job

My friend Margaret Bernstein from the Cleveland Plain Dealer sent this notice to me today and asked me to pass it along.

Nationally recognized gang expert Father Greg Boyle, SJ will deliver a talk on gang activity and preventing youths from joining gangs on Friday, December 16 at 7:30 pm at Gesu Catholic Church. Gesu is located at 2450 Miramar Blvd. in University Heights. The telephone number is 216-932-0617.

Father Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is founder and executive director of Jobs for a Future/Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles employment referral center and economic development program. The progam provides at-risk and gang-involved youths training, work experience, and an opportunity to work side by side with rival gang members. The slogan of Jobs for a Future is "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."

Father Boyle, who is the subject of Celeste Fremon's book G-Dog and the Homeboys, serves on the National Youth Gang Center Advisory Board.

This looks like a great presentation. I plan on being there.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Frank Jackson v.s. the Cleveland Board of Education

Today's Plain Dealer ran a story about mayor-elect Frank Jackson's first public attempt at school reform. He will be asking the school board to resign and then reapply for their positions. He would like to have a school board who has a real life connection with the schools, people who have a personal stake in them. He wants the new board members to be public school graduates and have kids who are in or went to the Cleveland schools.

Practical grassroots reform. Makes sense to me.

I find it rather disturbing that a number of the current board members would refuse to resign and reapply. The voters have communicated their lack of confidence loudly and clearly, voting down two levys, withdrawing support from the CEO, and ousting the mayor. The message reflected the perception of disconnection with the political and educational hierarchy. They want a board who they can relate to, someone who knows the problems of the schools first hand, people who are intimately familiar with the district, the streets, and the neighborhoods, not merely occasional visitors. People who are not afraid to send their own children to the city schools.

The people on the board who refuse to resign have none of these qualifications.

Which makes me wonder...

Why are they holding on?
What is their stake?
What are they getting out of this appointment?
What's in it for them?

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Forgiveness is the answer to the child's dream of a miracle, by which what was broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean."

Dag Hammarskjold

"In search of my mother's garden, I found my own."

Alice Walker

A November Remembered

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of my mother's death.

A decade ago, I drove through the snow, to the hospital in Chardon, with my oldest son, Ben, after receiving a phone call from my sister that Mom was in intensive care... possible stroke... no need to rush.
We arrived, just as the doctors put the paddles away, and gave up on the attempts to revive her.

Behind the steering wheel that evening, heading home to Cleveland Heights, my tears were angry.
How dare she die? We still had issues to resolve. I needed to know things.
I was afraid she was still disappointed. I wanted to talk about the hurt feelings, the guilt, the rejection, the forgiveness, the love , the understanding, the new relationship that was finally evolving. We had not finished healing the hurts accumulated during my rebellious twenties and stubborn thirties.
Now, those conversations would never take place.

Mom had spent years ignoring her doctor's advice. She refused to spend money on the medication he perscribed to treat her high blood pressure because she "felt fine". An undiagnosed pulmonary aneurysm developed, and finally burst, that Friday afternoon.

The relationships we have with our parents are the most profound of any we develop in our lives. When I was a teenager, I couldn't imagine two people more different than my mother and me. As I've gotten older, I've begun to notice at least a few similarities. The altruism, forever champion of the underdog, the over-analyzation of situations, people, and motives, the accidental green thumb, the interest in philosophy and theology, the ability to recognize potential, and our chosen careers in education. Both of us became Cleveland teachers.
She taught kindergarten at Harvey Rice Elementary School. Being a different temperment, I chose to teach high school.

As much as I emulated my mother, I was also very cognizant of her not-so-admirable traits, which I strove to reject:
The passive/aggressive martyrdom, the use of the "silent treatment" as punishment, and holding on to perceived hurts and sleights.

Yesterday, I stopped at Lakeveiw cemetery on my way home from work. The gray sky and the lonely sound of an unusually warm November wind, moved me to park my car and wander among the headstones.

My mother is not buried there. Her grave is in Shadyside; a small, country cemetery in Auburn township. My father, disconcertingly, had my name and those of my siblings engraved on the back of her tombstone.

Ambling along the paths, I recognized the names of famous historic Clevelanders, surrounded by the markers of the long forgotten.

There is nothing like a symbolic reminder of death to help one recall the essence of life. The memory of my mother and the anniversary of her sudden death, already a decade past, is a welcome prod to push myself, and make the most of the time I have to live.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Milking the Cash Cow

Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland's rapidly gentrifying Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood was slated for a 27 million dollar "make-over", paid for by the capital improvement tax money which Clevelanders approved several years ago.

For two years, big teams of consultants and architects, from Middough Consulting and Braun & Steidl Architects, roamed the halls, meeting with administrators, instructors, and advisory groups. Drawings were submitted, and resubmitted. The consultants came back and told us that what we wanted to have redone couldn't happen... there was not enough money.
The too-small gym would have to remain too small, and wish list items were eliminated.
Finally, the remodeling schedule was announced. We were advised to get ready to start packing up our classrooms on the third floor, because the construction crews would be starting on the top. I began to clean out my store room.
At the end of May we were told the remodeling was being put on hold. The start of the 2005-06 school year would be back-to-school as usual.

Yesterday, our principal announced to department heads that the school was not going to be remodeled. He was told it would be cheaper to build a new school than to remodel this one. There is no new location picked out. The consultants suggested it could even be built in our current parking lot.
Incredulous as to why it took these companies two years to figure out how much money the remodeling would cost, as compared to a new building, I began having visions of a big cash cow named "Max".
I asked about plans for the new building.
The principal blinked and said, in all innocence "I think they are just going to use the plans they already have for this building."

I'm guessing the dear man has not had much experience with building contractors.

Does somebody besides me sense some chicanery going on here?

I remember that a capital improvements oversight committee was convened as a watch dog group for this money. Does anyone know what happened to them? Who was on that committee? Do they ever really meet? Are they even paying attention?
Are the records of the consultant fees public? How much money will be left for a building and a new site after the architects and consultants are paid off again?

Do I see some very creative project management going on here, or is it just business as usual in Cleveland?