My Inspiration and Anger: One day Gary disappeared

Gary reminded me me allot of myself. He was a 4th grader with big brown curls and caramel colored skin. In class, he was a very energetic, precocious and intelligent. Gary even shared his first name with my father. One day Gary disappeared.

I come from a family of educators. My grandmother was a librarian in Houghton Middle school in Saginaw Michigan for decades. I remember going to her library and being amazed by all of the books and wanting to have enough time with her to read them all. My Aunt Pat was a Buena Vista School District middle school and high school principal and then superintendent  (now closed due to urban decay and millions in budget cuts from the state that crippled the district that was already working on slim margins). My Aunt Roberta was a high school counselor and treasurer for many years in Saginaw Buena Vista. So perhaps I have advocacy for education in my blood.

My first experience with children was working as a day care teacher as a part of my duties at a summer camp in Grayling, Michigan. I changed many diapers, visited fire stations, and made snacks during parts of two summers. The other weeks I was a counselor for kids aged 7-16. In college I started volunteering in elementary schools. One experience that I particularly treasure was spending my spring break in a Hmong-serving charter school in St. Paul, MN.

After I graduated from college, I realized that I wanted to focus on education. I had always enjoyed politics and mathematics, so I was drawn to work on a degree in educational policy. I spent a year in the Gerald R Ford School of Public Policy and then a year in the School of Education for a masters degree from the University of Michigan Ann Arbor. After grad school I had three jobs on the horizon. First was the CIA. That is a story for another day. Second, was an interview with the Houston Independent School District. Texas was in the midst of an education miracle and Superintendent Rod Paige was leading the charge. Also a story for another day, actually, this is chapter one in the book I am working on. I also had an interview and test to work in the research area of the LA Unified School District. When Houston made an offer soon after my visit, I left my CIA interview and then notified LAUSD that I was not going to interview.

There is too much that happened in Houston for me to discuss in this blog post (check out my forthcoming book), but suffice to say that I marveled at the public discourse around testing and accountability relative to what I was aware of in the data I had access to on a daily basis in the research and accountability office of the district. What really troubled me was that nearly 50% of African American and Latino students were being held back in the 9th grade and thus were often not given the opportunity to test in the 10th grade (See Accountability Texas-style: The progress and learning of urban minority students in a high-stakes testing context). Which meant that they would never graduate because a battery of exit tests were/are required to graduate in Texas. This hidden pushout that was an unintended consequence (or perhaps intended, see Walking Away From High Stakes Tests, A Noble Lie) of high stakes testing and accountability.

What made me angry (yes internet critic who has been emailing, tweeting and Facebooking me all last week) I was angry. I get angry when faced with injustice in education policy.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 10.52.09 AMStanford, despite its lurking conservatism/neoliberalism/postpositivism, gave me the tools during my PhD in Education Policy Analysis to engage in the research to display these inequities in the academic and public discourse. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity. Go Cardinal!

At the end of my doctorate I was hired as a 21st century classroom instructor to teach math and reading at a charter school in East Palo Alto. While the area has gentrified somewhat over the past decades, when I was teaching in East Palo Alto it could be a little more dicey. I remember driving to school and seeing a dead body in the street that had been marked off by the police as a crime scene. The young black man’s shoes were in two different places in the street. Haunting.

I was not trained as a teacher. I never had the hubris, even in my 20s, that I could teach in an urban area without being properly prepared. I did have curricular roles each day around math and reading only. I also had typical aide roles such as taking the kids out to recess. Perhaps Teach For America corps members would make great aides that could later segue into teaching roles. Food for thought.

Gary was assigned to sit in the back left corner of the classroom. I had to move him around some to get the right fit with the peers surrounding him. Just like my elementary teachers would have to do with me at the start of each year. Gary was really bright. Math came very easy to him, as well as reading. In fact, so quickly that he was often ahead of the other students and that was when he would find a little trouble. Also, reminding me allot of myself. I never really had any serious behavioral issues with the Gary, he was bright and respectful. But, around the margins he was occasionally disruptive. Then Gary disappeared. I went to the charter school principal and asked where Gary was. She let me know that there has been too many incidents and he had been expelled from the charter school. She let me know there were lots of kids on the waiting list and his spot would be soon filled. It was. A new student joined the classroom whose name and face I don’t remember. But I’ll never forget Gary. So yes, I am angry. I am angry that a child so bright and promising like Gary can be so easily expunged. Which is why I wrote this Is choice a panacea? An analysis of black secondary student attrition from KIPP, other private charters and urban districts and this Reframing the Refrain: Choice as a Civil Rights Issue and this Letter to Civil Rights and school “choice” advocate (p.s. neoliberals skip this).

Early in my career at UT Austin I was called into a meeting with my department chair and a vice president of the university. Apparently someone had complained about this peer reviewed piece critiquing high stakes testing and accountability. I told them “There is more where that came from.”

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