No School, No Lunch

From NPR: When cold snaps and blizzards shutter schools, kids miss more than their daily lessons. Some miss out on the day’s nutritious meal as well.

Blue and I talked about this when the metro area shut down two weeks ago. Some folks were home when horrendous traffic and inclement weather collided in Atlanta, but thousands of others ended up stuck in the worst jam they’ve ever experienced.

People slept in their cars or abandoned them and hoofed it to nearby friends, restaurants and stores. But there were hundreds of students who had no such options – instead, they ended up at school over night when their buses were unable to maneuver the slick hills home.

For many parents, this may have been a nightmare. Many, but perhaps not all. For a few, knowing their child is at school with access to heat, running water and food, might be a comfort.

Over half of Georgia’s students live in poverty. I was a classroom teacher in what was then a middle class section of metro Atlanta. Even so, there were students who couldn’t always bathe at home and used makeshift facilities at the school, students who would’ve been cold without the socks, blankets and coats donated, or who were hungry but for free breakfast and lunch. We were never quite sure about their dinner. This was in the early 2000s and the poverty rate has increased since then.

So here we are, a mere two weeks away from the last winter storm, and kids are once again out for several days in a row. Parents with the resources to stockpile groceries did so, as evidenced by the numerous pictures tweeted from throughout the metro area earlier in the week. But still we wondered: What about parents who can’t afford take off work and are still expected to go? What about those who can’t stock up on food?

Summer Lunch
Hunger isn’t relegated to winter. When school is out for the summer, many students go hungry without community support. Growing up, I spent a good portion of my summer break in Savannah. In the afternoons, a truck would pull up to the park across from my grandmother’s house, and a throng of kids would crowd around. What are they doing? I remember asking once. Getting lunch, she explained. Grandma didn’t elaborate aside from explaining it was a special program and we already had lunch here. But given what I now know about some of the demographics of the area, I wonder if it was a free lunch program.

As The Washington Post has reported, one program in Tennessee retrofitted a bus carrying sack lunches and delivered free meals to kids in impoverished areas.

With Georgia’s slick, hilly roads, and kids who simply don’t have the wardrobe to brave the elements, we understand why schools and businesses close. But those in other quarters do wonder if keeping schools open isn’t the better response:

When schools close because of extreme cold, especially in areas where many families struggle to pay for heat as well, Alexander wonders whether closing schools is the best way to go.

“It seems to me the best place to be is in school,” she says. “At least we can get the kids a hot meal.”

Read the NPR article here.

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Restoration in CPS

I’ve been reading, writing, thinking about schools as sites of love. Nationwide, districts are moving toward less punitive and more restorative approaches to school discipline. This shift comes at a time when the civil rights arms of the Department of Education and Department of Justice released guidance to districts about minimizing discriminatory and exclusionary discipline policies.

I’ve read comments complaining that humane approaches to discipline mean ignoring misbehavior and allowing classrooms to deteriorate into chaos. This does not reflect the reality of schools that work to improve their climates nor the students and communities who are positively impacted by the changes.

Moving away from zero tolerance and other harsh discipline codes requires a multi-pronged approach including:

  • supporting teachers with classroom management,
  • helping faculty and staff unpack racial and ethnic stereotypes
  • eliminating zero-tolerance policies which by definition ignore context and mediation
  • regularly reviewing discipline policies for alignment with student achievement goals and common sense
  • reviewing discipline records for consistent application of policies
  • decriminalizing simple student misbehavior
  • devising thoughtful approaches to correct and redirect unwanted behaviors

Late last week, the Chicago Tribune published this piece about Chicago Public Schools (CPS) working toward restoration.

“Chicago Public Schools has one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates and the disproportionate use of suspensions,” {District chief} Byrd-Bennett said. “We are going to reverse that trend.”

Efforts are underway to collaborate with the privately run charter schools within the district, but challenges may be ahead:

The city’s charter schools have been criticized for pushing out troubled children with harsh discipline policies and fines. Charter leaders have maintained that tougher discipline has led to safer schools.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools said in a written statement that it takes “very seriously” the use of appropriate discipline, and looks forward to collaborating with CPS to examine the issue. 

“Chicago charter public schools have a history of adopting proven and innovative approaches to creating a school culture that works to avoid the most punitive responses to behavior issues,” the statement said.

As I read this, I’m wondering about the relationship between “tougher discipline” and “innovative approaches” that “avoid the most punitive responses to behavior issues.” Tough is associated with punitive and retributive, not restorative.

Read the piece in full here.

The undoing of schools as prisons

I have a post in draft form that pulls together a couple of recent articles related to schools as sites of love, but I didn’t want to let the day pass without sharing this piece from the Atlantic.

Last year I wrote for The Atlantic about a notorious North Philadelphia junior high school known for years as the “Jones Jail.” Its rambunctious students wreaked such terror on the neighborhood that the police put the streets surrounding the school on lockdown every day at dismissal. Nearby shop-keepers locked their doors and porches as 800 of the city’s poorest kids streamed out the doors, often reportedly climbing over parked cars in their unruly rush to get out of school. When the John Paul Jones Middle School was taken charter and reopened as the Memphis Street Academy, the new administration decided, to the mystified dismay of the police department , that they would strip the school of metal detectors and window gratings, get rid of the security guards, and instead utilize nonviolence based restorative practices.

The number of violent incidents dropped 90 percent in a single year.

Since Memphis Street Academy initiated restorative practices, the police department says they no longer need to send the 11 patrol officers they used to send every day to oversee the hectic and potentially explosive dismissal time.

The writer, a social worker with experience in schools and criminal justice, makes the case that punitive measures sans restoration can serve more harm than good. Restorative practices, which are designed to repair harm rather than cause it, are mentioned in new guidelines released by the Department of Education and Department of Justice (.pdf). I’m excited to read them and I’ll share my findings here. My goal is not simply to report on schools as sites of love, but also to advocate for their creation.

Read the rest of Jeff’s piece here. Don’t miss his original piece on “Jones Jail,” the Philadelphia school that bet on restoration over retribution, and won.

Schools as sites of love

Love is one of my favorite topics. Especially love as it plays out in society. Since it’s something I speak about and highlight often, even without provocation, I’ve decided to write more about it this year.

Love is a broad idea, so I’ve been brainstorming ways to approach it in meaningful slices. Given my professional background, it seems a good place to start would be schools as sites of love (or not). With my concurrent interests in prison abolition, the school to prison pipeline, and restorative justice, love is perhaps a natural lens through which to consider those intersections.

To that end, I’d like to share this piece from yesterday’s Washington Post. School leaders in Alexandria agreed to implement a restorative justice program this school year. The school year is halfway over, and the program has yet to begin. Students are upset. They believe school is a place of learning.

“I think school can be a place where you learn from your mistakes,” said Ana Diaz, 16, a junior at T.C. Williams. “We should be taught how to be a better person and how to do things better. [It should not be] a place where you did something wrong and so you got kicked out.”

Restorative programs focus on healing and repairing harm done. They provide an opportunity for all involved in a given incident – the offender, the victim and the community – to participate in justice. Everyone can learn. Everyone can grow. This premise, that students and teachers are human and may benefit from healing rather than payback or vengeance, is loving.

Such approaches are not quick fixes. They are not “off-the-shelf” programs one can just disseminate in a school. They do require research and professional development. According to officials, this is the cause of the delay this year:

Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for Alexandria schools, said officials agree with the principles of restorative justice and are committed to introducing it at the high school. “We are attempting to gather good information before we take the next steps,” she said.

Read the article in full here. Beware of the comments.

Ask questions

As a graduate student, one of my favorite topics of discussion and research was inquiry. Asking questions, conducting investigations, and building knowledge through exploration are powerful tools for thinking and learning. As I continued in my studies, I learned of critical inquiry, which expands the idea of questioning to include a political or sociocultural lens. Developing conscientização, or critical awareness/awakening, is akin to taking the red pill. You start to ask sociopolitical questions and suddenly  you are hard-pressed to see anything as flat, uncomplicated or devoid of nuance. This isn’t a negative thing, but it makes for interesting conversations.

The Meaning of FreedomI mention all of this to introduce a quote by Angela Davis. I’m currently reading The Meaning of Freedom and Other Difficult Dialogues,  a compilation of speeches she delivered between 1994 and 2009. One thing I appreciate about Dr. Davis’ work is her constant admonition to reflect upon, reconsider, and rethink long-held ideas about “normalcy.” In her speech titled Race, Power and Prisons Since 9/11, she discusses the embodiment of evil and its requisite opposite good, xenophobia, militarism and the ever-expanding punishment industry. Although this is the context for the excerpt below, it’s a salient word, and useful for all serious thinkers reflecting on the world.

Things are never as simple as they appear to be. It is incumbent on us to think, to question, to be critical, and to recognize that if we do not interrogate that which we most take for granted, if we are not willing to question the anchoring ground of our ideas, opinions and attitudes, then we will never move forward.
~Angela Davis

Ken Robinson: How to escape education’s death valley

If you enjoyed, Sir Ken Robinson’s epic 2006 TED talk on creativity, you’ll find this one equally satisfying. For those who require an introduction, a brief excerpt as Sir Robinson discusses the alleged ADHD epidemic facing American school children:

If you sit kids down, hour after hour, doing low-grade clerical work, don’t be surprised if they start to fidget, you know? Children are not, for the most part, suffering from a psychological condition. They’re suffering from childhood. And I know this because I spent my early life as a child. I went through the whole thing.

Kids prosper best with a broad curriculum that celebrates their various talents, not just a small range of them. And by the way, the arts aren’t just important because they improve math scores. They’re important because they speak to parts of children’s being which are otherwise untouched.

We Wear the Mask | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
~Paul Lawrence Dunbar

I sit down with two other women present for the two-day workshop. We are instructional coaches – former classroom teachers – in Orlando for professional development in literacy. Our conversation drifts to “the kid.” Who was the kid? The one who was the pivotal in your career? Lillian tells of two, beginning with ‘Eric.’

That kid was always grumpy. On edge. He was likely to pick a fight or get in trouble for some reason or another. It wasn’t long before I discovered he simply couldn’t read very well.

She explains to us how she won him over through small, daily successes. She was blown away by how sweet this boy was, hidden underneath an angry, defensive exterior.

Then she tells us of ‘John.’

John was a bit more outspoken in his dislike of the school environment. Not only vocal, but also physically violent at times. He required restraints if triggered. Educators who provide special education services would recognize his EBD label.

One day was particularly bad. He began shouting. Raging. I had to grab him and bodily place him in the time out space. He demanded to get out but he couldn’t.

A plank stood between him and freedom, with the teacher’s body pressed against it. Just in case. When yelling didn’t work, he threw himself again and again against the door, determined to force it open through sheer will.

I, on the other side, barely 100 pounds, I mean look at me even now, body against the door, praying it remained shut until he calmed down. Items sailed over the top of the door. Shoes, socks, pants. He was stripping, maybe this could buy his freedom. When that didn’t work, suddenly it was splat, splat against the wall. You can imagine what he was throwing (feces). But that kid is the reason I went back to school for a master’s degree. In the end, it was all a mask.

He, just like Eric, was wearing a mask. Neither one of them could read. Here they were – middle and high schoolers – angry they couldn’t read and scared to be found out.

Many classroom teachers can pinpoint students who were angry, or otherwise picked fights with the other students for the express purpose of getting thrown out of class. Trouble was their mask, hiding their inability to read.

These masks, along with zero tolerance policies, and cultural disconnects between students and school, contribute to the school to prison pipeline. How can we discover these masks earlier? When will we develop policies and curricula that make it safe for students to discard their masks? Can we create a system that alleviates the need for masks at all?

I remain hopeful, but hope, in and of itself, is not a strategy.