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What’s Good About Githens?

25 Aug

What’s Good About Githens?. Bryan Proffit, the newly elected president of the Durham Association of Educators, is crowing about the great things happening in public schools all over Durham. Contrary to the message that public schools are failing – here is proof of the good things happening.

Please consider this – teachers and administrators and parents are having to fight harder and harder to get wha they need to provide a quality education to every student. Would it not be easier of the elected officials in Raleigh to just fall out prioritize education? And consider this – Durham and Wilmington and Raleigh – these places are chocked full of people with the resources to prop up what the legislature won’t do. Imagine the difficulties of districts with few affluent citizens. The state legislature has a duty to provide adequate funding. Let’s hold them to it.

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Hats off to Chris Christie

2 Nov

My heart goes out to the residents of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Densely populated areas don’t often have to deal with the mad wrath of a hurricane, let alone one mixed up with an arctic cold front. So, when I heard our President offer his help and support, I wondered how all this would play out given the recent Republican stumping and stomping the Governor has offered to Romney. In his remarks today, Chris Christie won back my respect.

He had lost it with his remarks that “Obama is blindly searching for the light of leadership.” Honestly, I don’t think Barack was “groping in the dark” when he made the call to take out Bin Laden – a move I happen to disagree with, but one that showed incredible resolve and bravery when making the call. Leaders make the call. I don’t think Obama was “lost in indecision” when he negotiated the largest health care reform law in recent history – again, I personally believe he should have held his ground a little more to keep the mandate stronger, but it was a step. Leaders step. And I don’t think he was “the worse leader in history” when he decided to help the American Auto industry – though, I really wished he had crippled the banks and hope like hell there is litigation to bring the financial institutions to justice for how THEY caused the recession.  Ah, different rant.

So, when Christie took all these opportunities to berate and belittle my president who I think has accomplished much and stands for even more, I was put out with NJ’s Gov.

But this week, Christie stood up to the reporters and gave praise where praise was due, put partisan politics aside, and said that the people of New Jersey come first.  When he said he doesn’t “give a damn right now about a presidential election, and if you think I do, you don’t know me! ” –  he won me back – just a little.

Tolerating Durham

2 Feb

A couple of weeks ago, in honor of MLK Day, the Daily Beast (a part of the Newsweek online publication) ranked Durham, NC as the Most Tolerant City in America. Wow! As they say in Britain, I was gobsmacked. As a North Carolinian and Durhamite, how could my town – the one I worked in and lived around – be thusly ranked?

At the heart of my issue lies this: the first paragraph of the story boldly states “while segregated schools and lunch counters may be things of the past…” Hold on!  Did anyone from Newsweek actually step foot in Durham before making this declaration? So they skipped straight ahead to measuring other criteria.  By so doing, I am afraid that the Daily Beast is leaving readers with a false impression of an implied harmony that exists in the Bull City, at least from what I have observed and lived. All you have to do is step into the school where I worked in the heart of Durham, W. G. Pearson Gifted and Talented Magnet School, and see that the racial make up of the school’s children is predominantly black and brown. According to the Daily Beast article, Durham is nearly 85% white, yet Durham Public School are only roughly 68% white.

Is this what desegregated schools look like? So where are all those other white kids in school?

They are at Durham Academy, the Carolina Friends School, the Duke School for ChildrenTriangle Day School, or anywhere but Durham Public Schools, if their parents can manage it. Schools are segregated and getting to be more segregated each year that we suffer under No Child Left Behind. Charter schools, private schools and home schools are draining away families with means from the public school rosters in Durham and many other schools systems as parents become more convinced that public school is not good enough for their children – and unfortunately most of these parents are right. Magnet school configurations have attempted to lure affluent parents to struggling schools; and in some places, where a commitment to socio-economic diversity has been a driving force, the programs have thrived. Wake County is a great example. (Raleigh was number 18 in the Daily Beast’s rankings).

Many public schools have become a quagmire of testing, retesting, and remediation, all surrounding performance scores on standardized tests. The dominant emphasis is on test-taking skills and test scores not on the needs, abilities, interests and gifts of individual children. True child-centered public schools (even individual classrooms) have become as scarce as hens teeth. Public schools represent, on the micro-level, the growing chasm between the haves and the have-nots in America. The percentage of black Americans living in poverty continues to be gravely disproportionate to the number of white Americans living in poverty. This plays itself out in the housing sector; even though there are strict laws about equal housing, most neighborhoods remain segregated. And churches in most of America – well, that’s another issue all together. My point being: the Daily Beast’s quick little declaration that segregated schools are a thing of the past helps us all feel a little better about the true state of things.

This accolade is a great example, also, of how research and solid fact finding can fail to tell the story accurately. The Daily Beast used statistics from reliable sources – empirical data, quantitatively ranked to place Durham ahead of San Francisco, New York, and Chicago. But then, if tolerance means live and let live, then okay; I can let Durham have the number one slot. If progress means that we all live side-by-side and don’t really bother each other, it works; but somehow, I don’t think this is what Dr. King had in mind. Since the rankings were posted in his honor, I must take issue. I don’t think “sitting down at the table of brotherhood” meant that we would have separate tables. In the Durham where I worked, the folks were sitting down at the Chicken Hut while the Durham they were talking about in the article, most of those folks were sitting down at Nana’s, or maybe Four Square. These two sides of Durham may tolerate each other, but they rarely intersect. Maybe that is why the superintendent of the Durham Public School, , Eric Becoates, along with the Board of Education have made the mission statement of the school district “One Durham.” I wish them well in this endeavor because where the two Durham do intersect, like at W. G. Pearson Elementary, there is discord, dissent, and resentment  – anything but tolerance- but that is the topic of my next post. If Durham schools can become One Durham, then and only then will I agree that Durham is deserving of the Daily Beast ranking.

My 2 cents on the Occupiers

10 Jan

The Occupy Wall Street Movement has happened during the most busy, hectic, full-on disruptive chapter in my life, so I have not followed it closely. My excuse (and I say this sheepishly) is that my most recent residence did not have a TV, my former residence was a hotel with only Direct TV and the three moves have left me little time to read intelligently about what is going on.  I now live outside the US and should have time to read and get caught up, but at the moment am more inclined to write than read. From the few snippets I have caught, I have to say that I am pleased that a group is trying to collectively find a voice about an issue that is close to my heart, corporate bullying.

As a public educator, I have a lot of experience with bullying.  In my work life back home, I saw plenty of it: kids bullying each other, adults bullying kids, adults bullying other adults.  The power plays and intimidation are demeaning for the victims and revolting for everyone else having to function in that culture.  Most experts agree that the best way to turn the tide on a culture of bullying is for the bystanders to stand up and say “Enough!”  One article that I did read about the Occupy Movement was calling attention to the fact that many of the people involved had not been directly affected by the recession and implied, “What business do they have in the movement?”  I would like to imagine that those people who may have considered themselves bystanders were standing up for those of us who have been the victims of corporate bullying.

Here’s my story:

In 2006, I had been a loyal Verizon Wireless customer for about six years.  My kids were turning teen-agers and it was time to “add a line for $9.99.”  I had added my oldest son with no problems, but when I went to add my youngest about eighteen months later, all hell broke loose.  For the first part of the debacle, I will take some blame.  I was trying to save a buck and thought that Sprint was offering a better deal.  I called Verizon to make sure I would not be breaking my contractual agreement by moving my number to Sprint and was assured that I had met my agreement and was free to leave.  So, I ported numbers over to Sprint, spent a week with little to no cell signal in the area I lived, went back to Sprint and said, thanks but no thanks and ported my numbers back to Verizon. When going back to Verizon I went to my local Verizon store and explained the whole story to them, got reassured that they were thrilled to have me back and that they were simply activating my former account.  In the week that followed, I received two separate bills from Verizon: one for over $300 which included cancellation fees and one for over $200 that included initiation fees.  This prompted a one hour phone call during which I was transferred to no less than three technicians and a member of management to straighten it all out.  As I said, I was willing to accept part of the blame at that point for bringing Sprint into the mix, and at the end of the conversation, whipped out my credit card, paid an agreed upon amount that included some of the initiation fees but still seemed a hell of a lot of money, and was assured that it was all straightened out and I could expect to pay just less than $90 per month for the three of us to have excellent cell phone service. Let me just mention at this point that Sprint never charged me a cancellation fee and they refunded my initiation fee since I decided not to stay.

Things were fine for about two weeks and then I again received two bills from Verizon.  One showing a credit balance of $87 and one showing an overdue balance of $87.  This seemed easy enough.  I explained it to the representative, got transferred to billing, explained it again, 30 minutes later, I was assured it was  golden.  Fine.  Three days later while I was rushing from work to soccer practice, I dialed my husband to make sure he had the other kid on his radar and I get a recorded message – “Your phone service has been disrupted due to non-payment.  Please call  blah, blah, blah with your credit ready.  You will be charged a $25 fee on each line affected.” Really?

The next phone call with Verizon was held on speaker phone with my husband and myself, and we used a recording device to catch all the details and promises. Again, it took well over an hour, we walked back through every detail of every charge, and Verizon again concluded that I owed over $150 to reset our accounts and get it all working again.  Do you get the sense here that I am the kid having their lunch money taken?  Okay, I said, but I want you to say it – this pays up my account for this month, and hereafter, my bill for these three numbers will be predictable?  “Yes, Mrs. Mahaley, this should clear everything up and I am so sorry for your inconvenience.”  Cheap words from Bombay.

One week later, I was about to get on the interstate starting out on a one hundred-eighty mile trek to be with my mother who was having surgery, and called my husband to go over the intricacies of all the schlepping for the week to come.  Imagine my utter rage when guess what my phone told me?  Yep –  “Your phone service has been disrupted due to non-payment.  Please call  blah, blah, blah with your credit ready.  You will be charged a $25 fee on each line affected.”  What the?  Who has the time or energy to deal with this?

I had three hours to think about it.  Clearly, at this point Verizon is the one who has broken their contract with me.  I paid (and paid) for a service that they are not providing, have twice inconvenienced me, wasted hours of my time on the phone trying to straighten it out and I had spent over $300 in the last month for cell phone service I still did not have.  ENOUGH!

I gathered all my records, wrote a letter chronicling my endlessly frustrating saga ending with “I am done with Verizon.”  I made three copies of it and mailed it to Verizon at their billing headquarters, their corporate headquarters, and my local billing address.  I went to Alltell and opened  a new account with all new numbers.

A little over a week later, I got a call on my home phone.  “Hello, Ms. Mahaley?  This is Dan Orsibel from Verizon Wireless Headquarters.”  I have your letter here and I want to apologize for all this.”  Just as I was about to give a little exhale and accept his apology, he went on.  “And I want you to know that I am willing to let you out of the contract if you agree to pay half of one of the cancellation fees – $175.”  Even though I was seeing red, one of my strong suites is to remain calm in the moment.  “Mr. Orsibel, I won’t be paying Verizon another dime – you see I did not terminate my contract, you terminated my service without cause.  You broke the contract, not me.”

“Ms. Mahaley, I am making a very generous offer.  Believe me, you don’t want to take on my company.”

“Seriously, Mr. Orsibel.  It sounds like you are threatening me.”

“No, I am simply saying that you will regret this decision. Best wishes.”

After we hung up, I was blind with indignation.  How dare he?  I went into our office and looked at the phones. They were all lined up, dead as door nails on the credenza where I had laid them to rest after signing up with Alltel.  Suddenly, they came to life – all three showed bars on their antennae indicating service.  For three months, I got regular bills from Verizon charging me with service, late fees, cancelation fees, finally totaling around $780. Each month, I copied my manifesto and sent it off to the billing department.  The last bill I got warned me that the matter was being turned over to a collection agency.  “Bring it on.”

I had never been late on a bill before.  Even in the darkest of times, I have always managed to pay my bills.  A couple of times, due to an oversight or carelessness I have been charged a late fee, but never ever had a utility cut off or been referred to a collection agency.  It started with a semi-threatening letter which was easy enough to ignore.  The next was a phone call from a woman who was pleasant enough.  I stopped her midway through her speech and said, I am not paying it.  I told her a shortened version of what had happened and she apologized for bothering me.  I enjoyed a few weeks of being left alone, then a new collection agency started in.  I consulted my brother who is a lawyer.  He wrote a letter to Verizon and the current collection agency telling them to back off or I would file harassment charges.  The second collection agency handed it off to a third collection agency.  This one was more ferocious in its approach and started calling me at work, harassing the school secretary.  This is a long story, and I can’t make it any shorter except to say that this went on for three years.  I copied and mailed my manifesto no less than ten times.  During this period, I bought a car, got credit cards, even refinanced my house and was assured by my bank that they could care less about my dispute with Verizon because I am an excellent customer.

The rub, however, is that I did end up sending Verizon my money after all when they bought Alltel!  Oh, the wicked irony!

My point in all this is that as an individual I was powerless to stand up to Verizon.  Lucky for me, the damage they tried to inflict was minimal, but had I been just a bit more precarious in my credit standing, it could have been much worse.  As consumers, we are all really powerless to stand up to any large corporation unless we have laws on our side that protect us.  The current policies are insufficient and the political climate is not headed in that direction.  If Occupy Wall Street is bringing this issue to the forefront, if people are really willing to say, “Enough!” then I think we all have something to gain. I liken a society fueled by corporate greed to a school that is ruled by bullies.  Would you want to send your kids there everyday? Isn’t it time we all said, “Enough!’?

Is love stronger than fear? – a commentary on public education

21 Oct

Do parents love their children more than than they are afraid for them? Do children love learning more than they are afraid of not being liked by their peers? Do teachers love children and teaching them more than they are afraid of “getting into trouble” with their supervisors for speaking out? What does it take to be brave and stand up for the right thing?

I work with a whole bunch of people who are scared. They are scared that they will get pushed, punched, kicked, slapped, or worst of all – ignored. These are the fears of children, but I also work with a bunch of frightened adults. My colleagues fear that they will be judged, misquoted, verbally attacked, sued, fired, or worst of all – ignored. And last, but certainly not least, I work for a whole bunch of scared parents. They are terrified that their children will come to school and get bullied – by either other children or by the teachers, treated unfairly, or worst of all – ignored. For parents with resources, this is frustrating at its worst, but they can find ways around it with private tutors, lessons, or simply by providing enrichment activities for their children. Many parents with means have found a way around it by choosing private or home schools. But for parents with no resources, this fear is blinding because if their children are ignored, what chance do they have to learn? Children who cannot read by the time they leave elementary school are astronomically more likely to never graduate high school, never have a decent paying job, and most frightening of all – to go to prison. These parents at my current school, most of whom are black and brown, know that if their children get ignored at school, the price is huge. The saddest part about my job is this: all these fears are totally warranted. Our prisons are full; our school systems spend thousands on lawyers; teachers and administrators are exhausted and leaving the profession in droves.

After 13 years in this business, I chose to work in an inner-city public school in Durham. Durham is in the heart of North Carolina in the deep South of the US. When people think about the South, especially people who are not from the South, they immediately think something along the lines of “Gone with the Wind” – or so I have been told. There is an awful lot of baggage that comes with having been a former slave state that seceded from the Union and then lost The War. And in some small part, all that is here, but there is much more to the story and certainly much more to the complexity of the current state of public education. The “much more” or remaining part makes NC just like every other state in the US. We are struggling to fund public education; struggling to fight crime; struggling to employ our citizens; struggling to trust our politicians in a very disparate reality where those with money (and power) are arguing very loudly that we cannot increase government revenues; that we should not regulate banks, but we should absolutely regulate the hell out of public education – which is just what the No Child Left Behind Act did. In a way, the NCLB legislation shined a bright light on the shortcomings of public schools who were failing to educate children with disabilities, on children from low economic status, and especially on children of color. What it did not do was provide answers to the institutional racism that plagues public schools. Yes, I said it – racism. While most will argue that the issue is about poverty and generational illiteracy, blah, blah blah. Study a little slice of African-American history and you begin to understand why the number of blacks who are poor is so disproportionately high. Discrimination lives on and it plays itself out daily in public schools everywhere. The Achievement Gap is about race and it is the water we swim in. With a black man in the White House, at least people are starting to have the race conversation openly, but effective action still feels unusually far away to this public servant.

When I decided to go into public service, I did it to serve all children. I love teaching and learning. There is nothing more exciting to me than to watching the ah-ha moment when someone “gets it.” I have two degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel. I studied Middle Grades Education back in the 80’s, and I earned high marks in my Master of School Administration program, which was ranked 5th in the nation the year I graduated (2008). I am Highly Qualified (HQ) in three areas and licensed to be a principal. I know what I am doing in public school. Yet, like everyone else, I am afraid that I am being ignored or that I will “limit my career” by speaking out about its current state. In fact, I am sure my fears are true.

The parents’ fears that their children are being ignored, are true, too. The children are being ignored by their teachers because the teachers are overwhelmed by their plethora of duties which include trying to keep the children safe. These children are literally punching, kicking and slapping each other. Why is this behavior so rampant? Well, the children have been taught by their parents, aunts, uncles, peers and in some sad cases even their teachers, that they must stand up for themselves and not take anything off anyone. “If somebody messes with you, hit’em back. Don’t let yourself be bullied.” They make sure they enforce the street rules that you hit back and never “snitch.” Yes, it is craziness. sadly, all this fear is fueling the reality that the original fear is based in. The kids all have hair-triggers. Every time they have to line up, if someone gets jostled, there is an incident. The punching and kicking happens. It takes all kinds of time to sort it out. There are forms to file and phone calls to make and not to mention, getting bags of ice for the bruises – and all this time, no one is learning. And to me, there is an even sadder part: no ones is teaching these kids to use their words. When you ask the kids about ways to handle their conflicts they offer, “Walk away” or “Tell a teacher.” When I asked “But what can you say?” a strapping young boy came up with, “Please don’t hurt me” in a soft and apologetic voice. I laughed out loud. That will not keep you safe here in an inner-city school. It is ludicrous.

What is not ludicrous, though, is saying those words forcefully, with conviction and volume so that everyone turns around and takes notice – especially the grown-ups. “Don’t hit me! Get out of my space!” Yet, no one is teaching the children to do this to simply stand up for themselves without making threats. Ironically, I learned about this tactic in a parenting class about how to keep my own precious and privileged children safe from sexual predators. Sexual predators, like all bullies, rely mostly on coercion and manipulation. Direct refusal, showing personal strength, standing up and saying, “No!” like you mean it, works 99% of the time. The problem is, in a culture of fear – and fear is the basis of racism – no one is standing up for themselves effectively. Everyone is afraid to stand up and say “No!” in a loud and convincing voice. Instead they just take it until they snap. Children snap with a push or a punch. Parents snap with a call to a lawyer or a supervisor, or the Board of Education. Teachers snap with a letter of resignation or a demeaning remark to a child. School leaders snap with another mandate and more testing. Wouldn’t a loud a convincing NO! be easier?

The children need to stand up and say NO to being bullied and NO to being ignored. All children deserve a quality education. They deserve to love school and to love learning. Love needs to win.

The professionals need to stand up and say NO to unnecessary testing; NO to bullying from parents; NO to bullying from colleagues and supervisors and especially NO to bullying from politicians, especially those who really don’t know anything about education. Teachers deserve to love their jobs because their jobs are so hard and so important. When teachers do their jobs well, everyone, our whole country wins. Changing a young person’s life for the better is the most fulfilling work there is. Love of teaching needs to win.

Parents need to stand up and say NO to overcrowded classrooms, to underpaid teachers, to substandard facilities, and to out-dated curriculum and techniques that leave children feeling ignored and depersonalized. Should your child’s teacher have to hold a second job just to be able to afford to drive a car to work? Parents need to say NO to testing that relegates their children to more of the same ineffective instruction that is punishing their children out of elective classes in the arts and humanities and places them in “remedial classes.” Parents need to love not only their own children but other’s people’s children enough invest in and support public education. Believe me, these children who are not finding success at school are angry and hurting. They exist and they will grow up and be part of our society one way or another. Love of children needs to win.

We all need to stand up and say NO to a society that continues to create a gulf between the haves and the have-nots. A society that does not put children first and allows precious resources to be lavished on certain groups of children but not on others is just plain wrong. The wider this gulf gets, the less safe we are all. The haves cannot continue to keep the poverty out of sight and out of mind. This current path is not sustainable for a peaceful society. Love for one another must win.

I don’t have any answers about how to help love win. I just know it has to. For the first time in a long time, I am short on hope for the state of the Union. I do know that for me personally, when I have searched my heart and said YES to love and NO to fear – things get better – a whole lot better.