While running on the treadmill, I notice an “inspirational” story about education reform. Though the volume is on mute, the videos present a clear message: African-American and Latino kids walking orderly down the halls, teachers with huge grins greeting them at the doors, desks in rows as students begin the learning process.
It’s set in a city forged by segregation, so the whole story begins with layers of a racialized narrative. A woman who calls herself the CEO of this charter school talks about higher standards, ten hour work days, a no-nonsense approach to discipline. She calls it an act of social justice.
Words flash over the propaganda report:
Gang Infested Neighborhoods
10-11 Hour School Days, plus certain Saturdays
Preparing Students for College
As they interview a teacher, I begin to read the subtitles and notice the phrase, “Help the students see that there is more to the world than this ghetto.”
This isn’t reform. This is colonialism. This is imperialism. This is Kipling’s “White Man’s Burden” in a minority neighborhood. It’s the story of outsiders who believe they know what is best for the community and who move in to try to fix something that is not broken – or at least not any more broken than those trying to fix it. The solutions lack humility. The relationships are not horizontal.
This is not a “charter school problem.” I see this issue in public schools as well and it bothers me. It’s the idea of stereotyping a community that you do not know on a deep level. If the school’s neighborhood is anything like the neighborhood where I teach, it’s more nuanced. Broken families? Perhaps. But also an amazing support network of extended families that look out for one another. High crime? True. But none of them stole millions from the American people and got a bailout as a result.
I’ve been in the homes. They can be a beautiful refuge of authenticity where my students learn to cook and clean and fix a car and solve a problem and read a book. Don’t assume that poverty always means people are of a lower moral standing or that families are completely broken.
If these students were middle class, how would people react to schools where students were gone for 11 hours a day? If these children were middle class, how would our communities respond to the wealthy using words like “infested” and “crime” and “a better way?”
Education reform cannot ignore issues of race and ethnicity, social justice and colonialism. Pundits cannot treat the topic of change as thought it occurs in a cultural vacuum. Reform cannot ignore the realities of racialized narratives and the history of systemic injustice in our schools. Reform has to begin with listening. It has to start with a conversation. And before we can even start to figure out how schools can change the surrounding communities, the conversation just might need to start with the words, “I’m sorry” followed by collaborative solutions that respect rather than demonize the community.