With guest, Louder Than a Bomb poet Nate Marshall

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

We're all "radicals" now

Even Cosby & Kenny

Okay, I admit it. I like Bill Cosby. No, I don't like his patronizing speeches aimed at fixing the poor and using a broad brush to denigrate urban hip-hop culture.  But he's funny and he grew up, like me, in Philly so I can relate to a lot of his growing-up stories. I think his heart is in the right place. He gives lots of badly-needed cash to black colleges and I like what he did in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

But there's one thing I know for sure, Cosby is no "radical" and certainly not a r-r-r-revolutionary. Neither is Harlem Village Academy founder Deborah Kenny, who made Oprah's 2010 Power List and who's paying herself  a hefty $450,000/year salary to manage HVA's three small charter schools. I doubt she ever joined the movement. So why are these two unlikely Che Guevaras touting HVA in this Huffington interview, as a "revolutionary" school with a "radical" curriculum?

I think this all began during the Bush years when neo-cons began pitching themselves as radicals who wanted to blow up the public schools and anything else that had the word "public" in front of it. School reformers, unions and civil rights activists came to be seen as status-quo-ers. Some of this may have been our own fault for not having a clear enough critique of the current system, its inequities, and our alternatives. But the trend continues with everyone from New Gingrich to Arne Duncan waving the red flag (metaphorically, of course).

From everything I've read about HVA, it sounds like a perfectly good school for the children who go there. Its test scores are relatively high. It's small (one of our favorite starting points here at the Small Schools Workshop) and heavily endowed with extra millions from the likes of  Jack Welch (GE), Dick Parsons (Citigroup), Brian Williams (NBC), and  former footballer Tiki Barber. With resources like that, why shouldn't it be good?

But unlike Harlem's neighborhood schools, HVA can and does push out kids who aren't high scorers. They don't have to take or keep kids with disabilities or whose native tongue isn't English, or who have serious behavioral problems.

Blogger Larry Miller took a more critical look at HVA's own 2009-2010 progress report, earlier this year. What he found was an eye opener:
– In 2006-07, HVA had a Grade 7 class of 42 students, but the next year’s Grade 8 cohort numbered just 31, another 26% loss of students that raises an eyebrow or two.
– One-third of the school’s classes in 2008 were “taught by teachers without appropriate certification” according to the DOE’s own data, and 42% of the teachers were reported either without certification (18%) or teaching outside their area of certification (24%). HVA did not report its teacher turnover rates for the DOE’s 2007-08 report, nor does it appear to have ever disclosed those figures for the DOE’s public reporting.
– In 2006-07, HVA had zero students out of 200 classified at Limited English Proficient (LEP); in 2007-08, that number was still only three out of 233. By comparison, PS/IS 210, located just eight blocks away on West 152nd Street, had 173 LEP students out of a student population of 360 in 2007-08, or 48%.
Kenny brags about the school's "rigorous" curriculum and neither she nor Cosby can understand why other schools don't copy it. But it seems pretty traditional to me. Test scores are high but Kenny says they're not what's important, "It's teachers."  She's right on that score. She says all the right things about not treating teachers as "factory workers" with a prescribed curriculum. Of course that also means that HVA teachers have no union and no collective-bargaining rights and therefore we don't hear their voice in this conversation.  Kenny can hire lots of teachers who aren't certified---something no wealthy community would allow for its children. She can also fire any teacher who she doesn't like, without due process.

Sorry, but I don't see anything rad or revolutionary here.  I do wonder why they feel the need to pitch the school that way.

Have to run now. I'm meeting some friends over at one of my favorite watering holes--Revolution Brewing Co. on Milwaukee Ave.

1 comment:

  1. Good follow up story in the Times. "Lauded Harlem Schools Have Their Own Problems"


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