In February I visited the Raleigh/Durham areas of North Carolina all by myself-not nearly as exciting as traveling with kids and teachers! I was hosted at two bookstores—Quail Ridge in Raleigh and The Regulator in Durham. Lots of books were sold in Raleigh! And, my picture was put in the bathroom (I hope near the photo of Tomie dePaola!). Many fabulous authors have been featured at Quail Ridge and the bathroom is where the author photos are framed and hung!
Alice Verstrat (watch a nice video about her here), who did her student teaching with us at Fenway High School many years ago, helped set up the Quail Ridge event, and the book store did tremendous outreach. There were over 40 people there; teachers, administrators, and other various interested folks (including someone who had worked at BAA years ago helping in Development). But the most exciting guest was current BAA intern Pete Shungu’s MOM! That was so cool. I usually open my talks by asking what has brought people to the event: are they a teacher, parent, alum, interested community member, politician or policy person? Mrs. Shungu introduced herself as “the mother of one of your interns.” The audience also included members of the North Carolina state-wide PTA, who asked excellent questions about ways we involve parents/caregivers at our school. I was impressed with their organization and determination to find new and innovative ways to involve parents/caregivers.
The next night in Durham, three of six local school board members came and asked excellent questions about issues related to achievement, student engagement, and development of a professional learning community. I was impressed by how seriously they took their elected positions as leaders, and had to wonder about the wisdom of our appointed school board in Boston. I remember being in favor of it back in the 1990’s when we abolished the elected school board because they seemed to be more interested in political-not educational-agendas. But, if done well, elected school boards are a way for a community to experience living in a democracy. It can be messy and consensus is hard, but if one understands ones roles (as they appeared to do in Durham), perhaps it is a valuable exercise. One of the best questions of the night came from a community member who asked: “Do you think there is such a thing as a good school SYSTEM? There are NOT systems for independent schools, or really even for Charter schools: is it an oxymoron to think of good school systems?” The question gave me pause and I am still thinking about it. Other folks of interest included a teacher from Durham School of the Arts which sits on a huge campus and includes 6-12 grades (edifice envy again!). It has lottery-based admissions as with the other high schools in Durham. There was also a person who had studied with Ted Sizer, and was a founding teacher at a local charter school.
I continue to be perplexed by the world of charters and public schools, and of course the role of private schools (though those seem clearer to me—you pay!). Charters don’t have to provide bus transportation, so in many instances their population ends up being skewed towards those able to get their children to the school (we saw this phenomenon in San Diego at High Tech High School). In addition, a lottery system means that those in the know pick the school and so there is no sorting down for special education, ELL students, etc… One charter in Raleigh is decidedly middle class and white. I thought that in a county quite mixed by race and social-class, this seemed wrong. How can you use public money and not reflect the district from which you draw? And yet, if I were there and fed up with the public schools, would I start my own charter, too?
As I wrote in my LA/San Diego reflection, I struggle with the balkanization of the community. But maybe, if excellent systems are so hard to come by, at least in urban areas, this balkanization provides good schooling for some…
I also continue to struggle with what it means to work in a non-union state, like North Carolina. Often one hears that it’s because of the unions that there is such entrenchment and that unions impede school change. But North Carolina doesn’t have a union and I wouldn’t describe school politics, policies, hiring, or curriculum as any more enlightened than in Massachusetts. Perhaps even less so.
The issues of segregation by race and class seem exacerbated in North Carolina because of how county school lines are drawn. There is some bussing across the counties, but folks also choose to send their kids to schools closer to home. So in the end, you get schools that are segregated by neighborhood. Sound familiar? This is the story of “desegregation” in Boston.
The story in North Carolina is a story of tobacco and slavery and more recently, the research triangle. It is a story of urban decline and attempts to bring vitality back to cities that have seen better days. It is the story of newcomers coming South and “old timers” wondering about better and worse times. It is the story of folks committed to improving their schools and longing for vibrant and workable ideas. It is the story of committed teachers like my friend Alice (who is Teacher of the Year in her school), who asks hard questions about practices that might not be good for kids and figures out ways to bring her colleagues into the discourse. It is the never-ending story of trying to find better ways to ensure that kids get a good education. But there must be some givens, and these givens may be eluding some of the state policy makers in North Carolina and elsewhere:
• If testing is the only way to deem knowledge and learning “stuff” worthwhile and important, we are in deep trouble;
• Accountability can’t just mean more tests;
• Teachers need time to work together collaboratively on curriculum and on issues of teaching and pedagogy;
• Huge schools of 3,000+ students mean that most students won’t be known well;
• If students aren’t known well by many adults, chances are they won’t feel particularly engaged in school (and therefore probably won’t do well);
• Teachers, parents/caregivers, students, school board members need to develop language and structures to talk about the inequities in front of them in their schools/classrooms/communities that polarize them by race, class, language and gender
I worry that the miracle Arne Duncan proclaims to have had in Chicago is not nearly as neat and wonderful and pretty as he claims. It’s like what we heard from Papa Bush about the Texas miracle, and that was a lie.