If you go to Jesse Hagopian’s website you’ll find a lot of information about his book tours, media appearances, and thoughts about resisting school reform by supporting unions.
You’ll also find one of the most desperate-to-be-famous bios you’ll ever read in this lifetime.
What you won’t find is any penetrating commentary about Garfield High School where he works, a school that is the subject of a troubling story in the Seattle Times this week.
You have heard of Garfield because it was the site of a massive “opt-out” campaign where teachers, led by Hagopian, convinced students to ditch on testing day.
You probably don’t know it as a school where Seattle’s draconian form of student tracking sorts students so crudely as to have a place in the school called the “black balcony” which exists beneath the “white hallway.”
According to the article:
On paper, Garfield looks like a liberal utopia, a majestic, Federalist-style building in the center of the city with a broad mix of students and long history of academic and athletic success under Principal Ted Howard, a black man. Yet students of different races inhabit separate worlds. The school’s advanced-track classes are mostly white, as is its well-heeled parent fundraising group, and its annual crop of National Merit Scholars.
Meanwhile, on this year’s list of problem kids permanently removed from campus, 21 of 24 are black.
Talk about a “got-to-go” list. Jeez.
Not only do Garfield students face invisible fencing that isolates black students away from advanced course work, they also suffer a two-track form of discipline too.
Howard, the principal, admits to enforcing two lanes for student discipline. Black students get the no excuses by-the-book route, white students are coddled with the expectation that their parents will threaten legal action.
Howard recalls what a white parent said to warn him when taking the job at Garfield: “We run this school. You’re just a caretaker, and don’t ever forget it.” That kept him in check, for a while.
After visiting a correctional facility and meeting a former Garfield student who was incarcerated Howard realized his application of discipline policies had real life consequences mostly affecting students of color. He realized he had “pushed out hundreds of black children” in his time as principal.
Notice I didn’t say he discovered this problem after teachers – or the privileged opt-out parents who “run” the school – revolted on behalf of the disadvantaged students they often claim to represent.
Howard’s moral course correction didn’t happen after Hagopian led a big splashy campaign fulfilling his role as a “co-adviser” to the black kids who live a sequestered academic life in Garfield, literally beneath the favored white kids Hagopian teaches.
In the Times article there is a jarring story about Robert Robinson, Jr, a former student. He was accused of “petty crimes” and suspended after missing Saturday detention. Garfield requires the appearance of a parent before a student can return to school. Unable to get Robinson’s parents on the phone he was pushed out. He ended up at an alternative school before landing at a less desirable traditional high school.
Then his life ended tragically at age 17 from a drive-by shooting.
Howard says “there were decisions I made and people that were hurt. That’s the part I struggle with sometimes.”
That woke him up and caused him to rethink his practices.
One of the changes he attempted was piloting a restorative justice program as a fairer way to handle discipline issues. But he had to pause the project when the teachers entrusted with it hand-picked a nearly all-white group of students to participate.
It’s these details that are lacking in Hagopian’s advocacy as he builds a personal brand that paints himself as a social justice champion willing to call out the evils of school reform’s privatization, the horrors of charter schools, and the ill motivation of accountability testing.
This is a guy who wins settlement money after being pepper sprayed by police officers and righteously donates it to black protest groups, perhaps as a cover for also coaching black students to protest against plans to hold teachers accountable; rather than protest teacher complicity in a system that separates students by race, assigns some to inferior educational tracks, and greases their path to prison rather than prosperity.
With all due respect, that stinks of educator narcissism and opportunism. He’s building a career on raising issues for students trapped in a system that harms them, a system that pays his mortgage.
That might be harsh, but is it harsher than the fact that Hagopian’s employer, the Seattle Public Schools, have been dinged for poor service to students with disabilities, high rates of suspension for black students, and unequal treatment of schools in the city’s poorer South side?
Given the troubles of his system, why would he travel to discount other schools? It’s grandstanding and it looks like a perverse form of plastic activism, the kind educators use when they want to be an authoritative voice on everything but successfully educating children.
Granted, I may not be his best adviser because I propose a total restructuring of the system he defends. It’s easy to write me off as one of the evil doers who fails to pray to the union gods. But, as a matter of conscience I would hope he might someday redirect his activism to cleaning up his own house before throwing rocks at others.
He might consider suspending book tours, speaking engagements, and union-paid fellowships long enough to address inequity where he actually has some insight and influence, on his home court.
Click here for a list of Hagopian’s media appearances. Most of them feature him regaling his victory over standardized testing. Teachers nationally cheered his bravery. Given all the pictures of himself, he seems to enjoy that sort of thing.
Good luck finding much on how the school where he works – when he’s not on tour – is actually a den of inequity.
Glass houses indeed.