Black Caucus discusses school closings, teacher diversity

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Lorretta Johnson

The AFT co-sponsored two panel discussions during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual legislative conference in Washington, D.C., Sept. 18-21. One session addressed how school closings affect African-American children and the community; a panel of teachers and union leaders came together for a frank discussion of how deep-pocketed foundations—often doing the bidding of for-profit interests that operate under the guise of school reform—have goaded communities into shuttering hundreds of school buildings. The second panel focused on efforts to diversify the teaching workforce by, among other things, encouraging more minorities, especially males, to pursue teaching as a career. In addition, the conference's exhibit area featured a booth where AFT members and staff distributed materials about Reclaiming the Promise and signed people up to join the effort.

Profit is the real goal of those seeking to close traditional public schools and reopen them as for-profit institutions, several speakers warned during the session on school closings. And many of the so-called reforms imposed on school systems—closing schools, cutting wraparound services, and launching test-based accountability systems that turn education into a low-wage, revolving-door career—are means to that end.

Politics cannot be divorced from the school-closing crisis, warned panelist Stacy Davis-Gates, political director for the Chicago Teachers Union. Too many local, state and national officials are intent on "creating an environment where we can't succeed even if we try," said the veteran Chicago teacher. "We have to recommit as citizens who vote to holding public officials accountable" for scorched-earth education policies in play in systems like Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago.

"Closing schools is not the answer," said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson (pictured above), who introduced the panel discussion. "Many schools have been underfunded, understaffed and overburdened for decades." These problems, she stressed, are particularly acute in school systems serving large populations of minority students—the same systems being targeted by for-profit interests. "The evidence is clear: Disruptive interventions like school closings and privatization do not work."

"If we truly want to improve, look for implemented, proven solutions with adequate resources," Johnson said. Only then can we make "every school a place where parents want to send their kids, teachers want to teach and students want to learn."

Booth at Cong Black Caucus

One of the biggest casualties in this war for profit is the relationship between schools and the communities they serve, said Lanita Dominique, a California teacher who described how strong-arm tactics and millions of foundation dollars went into the effort to convert her building into a charter school under a "parental trigger" law. The atmosphere that these laws breed, she said, jeopardizes student success by corroding partnership between parents and the schools.

In his opening remarks to the session on teacher diversity, panel moderator and Howard University professor Ivory Toldson stressed the importance of increasing the number of African-American teachers in our nation's schools and classrooms, which he believes will benefit both white students and students of color.

The preparation of these new teachers could go a long way toward addressing the achievement and discipline gaps in the nation's public schools, Toldson and other panelists said.

Noting that the AFT is partnering with historically black colleges and universities to recruit and train black educators, Johnson said: "The AFT believes in facing challenges like teacher diversification and fighting for the tools that teachers need to succeed."

David Johnson, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, said his office was working directly with the AFT on an effort to recruit African-American teachers, especially males.

Anyone going into teaching, former District of Columbia Teacher of the Year Kimberly Worthy said, must "see teaching as a serious calling" and "must be aware of the cultural factors that impact teaching and learning." [Roger Glass, Mike Rose/photos by Michael Campbell]

September 24, 2012