Making sense of Brown v. Board in light of today’s struggles over school reform

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In education there is no bigger legal challenge in history more famous than the Brown v. Board of Education case of 1954.

That suit, brought by the NAACP, was a largely successful strike against state sanctioned discrimination against black and brown students.

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson, daughter of Rev. Oliver Brown – whose name has become synonymous with the landmark legal case, joined the Rock The Schools podcast to talk about Brown v. Board, education, and school choice. You can listen to the discussion below, but here are some of her comments edited to make them easier to read:

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

Dr. Cheryl Brown Henderson

 

On her first recognition that her family had been involved in a groundbreaking legal case:

Coming home from school as an 8th grader and seeing a white man I did not recognize standing on the porch. We lived in an integrated neighborhood so seeing people of other races was not unusual but I didn’t know this man. I got closer and he noticed my reluctance to approach him, he stuck out his hand and said “Hi, I’m Charles Kuralt with CBS news and I’m doing an on the road show for the 10th anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education.”

On how the case came about:

In our city it began appropriately so with the NAACP and it’s leader at the time, a man by the name of McKinley Burnett. He decided that he was going to organize a challenge that would include Federal intervention in segregated schools. There were 11 school segregation cases in the state of Kansas before Brown vs. The Board of Education. Three of those early cases were also in Topeka so he was following a very long standing tradition when he set out in 1948 to convince the school board that it was time to really make a policy shift and desegregate the elementary schools.

On how the Brown family became involved:

The NAACP decided to recruit parents that had elementary aged children, which is how my father ended up getting our family involved. His participation was almost coincidental.A knock at the door. A friend of his who was one of the attorneys in the NAACP, part of the team recruiting asked my father if he would be willing to join their campaign as one of the Plaintiffs because it was a class action lawsuit they were putting together.

Meet the Brown parents:

My mom was 29 years old at the time. Dad was 32. They were young people. They were not activists. They didn’t belong to the NAACP. My dad ended up being the central figure because the final roster included 12 moms, homemakers, married women, so gender we believe is why he became the central figure in the Topeka case.

On the role and power of parents:

Parents really understand what’s going on because they have so little choice. Much like Brown parents, parents today need to align themselves with like-minded advocates, policymakers, and civil rights organizations so they can speak truth to power. We need to recognize, respect and honor the role of parenting. Parents know that education can help break the cycle of poverty but sadly what I observed as a teacher back in the 70’s, – and it’s also true today – the social economic status of the parents impacts how the system views them. There is a lack of willingness to fully engage parents as partners in their child’s education.

On the low expectations of teachers for black children:

The classroom teachers, some of my fellow educators who were white, were not as willing to engage with parents of color. And they certainly were not as willing to set the high standards that we all grew up with when it came to expectations for students of color. I watched that decline up close and personal. Our country had a major opportunity that we missed after Brown, after the civil rights movement. We missed that opportunity by not having the cultural competency training that could’ve helped a lot of teachers. Their biases came into the classroom with them and those biases often impacted the educational options that set outcomes for their children.
You know children have to believe you care about them. They have to believe they’re important. They have to believe that education is important. They must have high expectations and standards. It requires an awful lot of initiative.

On what really drove Brown v. Board’s push for integration:

Brown was about having access to the resources and equal educational opportunity. The money follows white children, let’s be honest. So it was about following the money, following the opportunity, following the resources, following the access to excellence moreso than the complexion of the person sitting in the seat next to you.

On her father’s concerns about the impact of integration on black educators:

His concern immediately after Brown was announced was what would happen to the teachers in the black schools? In 1953 the superintendent of Topeka Public Schools right before the court was to hear Brown sent out a letter to the African American teachers who had been teaching for 3 years or less, I guess what they considered non-tenure, told them in that letter that if the Plaintiffs succeed you will not have a job. In his way of thinking there would not be enough white parents willing to have African American teachers for their children for them to be retained. So before school started in the fall of 1954, he made good on that promise and released a lot of those black educators. When schools were integrated in Topeka the educators were integrated as well. And for one year he issued a policy that if I’m a fourth grade teacher in your school now, now you have a black teacher in your school for the first time, you have to call every white parent of fourth graders in your school to get their approval.


“Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.”


 On the opportunity charter schools offer:

First of all, we’ve lost so many generations fighting over how we do education. Magnet schools…is it neighborhood schools? Is it this? Is it that? Is it charter schools? Is it vouchers? Is it school choice? We have been fighting since 1954. If charter schools have the opportunity for flexibility, innovation, to be able to show a difference in improving math scores and reading scores; I don’t want to see more children languishing in traditional public schools while policymakers fight. I’m of the opinion that educational options have to be on the table. Our children are just as smart, just as capable, just as accomplished, or can be, as any other child.

On the push of today’s NAACP to halt the growth of charter schools:

Before you take such a public stance on something you point out that you worked on yourself, historically to give African Americans options to school improvement, better options, better access for their children, let’s have a sit down. Let’s examine the Stanford University studies on charter schools. Let’s talk to the people that are charter school administrators. Let’s talk to the parents who have children that are succeeding in those schools. Let’s talk to the parents who are on the waiting lists. Let’s have a sit down before you do that. We were not afforded that opportunity to sit down with the leadership with the NAACP before that vote was put before the membership. I’m kind of heartbroken about that.

Listen to the podcast with Dr. Brown Henderson…

Audit finds thousands of Colorado educators lacked appropriate background checks

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About 3,000 Colorado school district employees have been or will be told they must get new criminal background checks after a routine FBI audit found incomplete records in the state’s licensing database.

The state Department of Education began sending out letters about 18 months ago requesting that educators with incomplete files submit new fingerprints to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation so new background checks can be conducted. Some educators have done so, but department officials said they haven’t tracked that number and don’t know how many remain. The educators include teachers, principals, administrators and other kinds of staff.

The letters encourage recipients to submit fingerprints within three months, but require them to do so before renewing their state licenses, which are good for one, three, five or seven years depending on the type.

Of the 3,000 educators who had incomplete files, some were missing state background checks, some were missing federal background checks and some were missing both. State officials say background checks were conducted for the employees, but for unknown reasons the results didn’t transmit to the education department’s database. This was discovered only during a 2015 FBI audit.

“This is more record-keeping than anything,” said Colleen O’Neil, the department’s director of teacher licensing.

Read the entire article at Chalkbeat.

PODCAST: The sexual assault case that spurred the Civil Rights movement

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On September 3, 1944 a car full of white boys pulled up and demanded that Recy Taylor come with them. She was involved in some crime and they intended to straighten it out, they told her. She was a 24 years old, a mother, and a wife, walking home from church with a friend.

Recy Taylor case gets recognizedThey took her to a secluded place, raped her, then threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

When the case became widely known in Alabama, Marvin White approached the Taylors with an offer: A $100 settlement for each of the white men who raped Recy. White was the attorney representing the rapists, and he was insulted when the Taylors turned down his offer.

“Nigger — ain’t $600 enough for your wife,” he asked Willie Taylor, Recy’s husband.

Ms. Taylor’s case was not rare, in fact, there were similar sexual assaults occurring across the South. But this case reached one very special NAACP staffer, Rosa Parks, and she was dispatched to investigate the case.

In 2011, Ms. Taylor told NPR how her ordeal began:

I was – went to my friends house. Then she decided she wanted to go to church that night. I told her, yes, I would go. We went on to church and came back. A car running around outside of us, six young men jumped out with a gun and said that – you’re the one that cut a white boy in Clarkton. And the police got us out looking for you. You get in the car and we will take you uptown to the police station.

And they got me in the car and carried me straight through the woods, but before they go where they was going, they blindfolded me. After they messed over and did what they were going to do me, say, we’re going to take you back. We’re going to put you out. But if you tell it, we’re going to kill you.

So, first person I met was my daddy. And he said, where in the world you been? And I said, some white boys took me out and messed with me. And then the next person I met was Mr. Louis(ph), was the high sheriff. And he asked me, he said, well, Recy, what in the world happened to you tonight? And I told him. So Mr. Louis said, let’s just go back to the store and said, when we get down to the store, I’m going to go and see if I can find them.

On a recent Rock The Schools podcast with Citizen Stewart, Danielle McGuire (author of “At The Dark End Of The Street”) and Beth Hubbard (producer of “The Rape of Recy Taylor”) provide a powerful history lesson on how Ms. Taylor’s case became a critical piece of Black history, and contributed to the Montgomery bus boycott.

You can hear this podcast below:

Trump’s new education secretary will inherit a growing number of civil rights complaints

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The US Department of Education’s overburdened Office of Civil Rights must be sweating as they face leadership changes in both their department and in the White House.

Especially when that new leadership will come from Donald Trump’s pool of people not terribly concerned with civil rights.

To be fair, we don’t know what Trump or Betsy DeVos (his education secretary) will do. He said so little about education on the campaign trail besides “common core is a disaster,” we need school choice, and appeals to local control.

He also returned to an old Republican canard: getting rid of the Dept. of Education.

“A lot of people believe the Department of Education should just be eliminated. Get rid of it. If we don’t eliminate it completely, we certainly need to cut its power and reach.”

As a practical matter expect that to amounts to nothing. But, the department’s OCR could be in real trouble under Trump’s new regime.

Under President Obama that office gave continuous guidance to states and education officials encouraging them to stay in compliance with civil rights laws. It wasn’t always well received.

Republicans argued that the guidance letters overstepped the authority granted to the Department of Education (which isn’t much) and attempted to regulate how schools approach discipline, gendered restrooms, and teacher salaries – all things they say should be determined locally.

The “local control” argument in education is an American standard. So is federal intervention when people’s civil rights are violated. In the past few years civil rights claims in public schools have grown explosively, and it’s uncertain how those claims will be handled if OCR is substantially weakened.

Consider this from a recent Ed Week article: “The number of annual complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights more than doubled since the start of President Barack Obama’s administration, increasing from 6,364 in fiscal 2009 to 16,720 in fiscal 2016.”

The article cites a government report detailing “ongoing civil rights issues the department [of education] sees…ranging from teacher and staffing inequities in schools, to chronic absenteeism and racial disparities in school discipline policies.”

In just one state, California, the feds settled nearly 100 cases of discrimination. According to a story in EdSource “in fiscal year 2016, the office reached 99 resolution agreements with school districts across the state.”

The claims resolved in settlements like these aren’t trivial. EdSource says investigators “found that African-American and Latino students in the Lodi Unified School District were disciplined more severely than white students for similar offenses, a special-needs student from Oakland Unified School District was denied his education because of harassment and excessive punishment, and female and male athletes in the Los Angeles Unified School District must have access to comparable facilities.”

Similar cases can be found across the country.

In East Hartford, Connecticut the OCR found district leaders “failed to ensure that LEP parents/guardians had comparable access to information that was provided to non-LEP parents/guardians in English during the enrollment and registration process.”

Minneapolis Public Schools were found to discriminate against black students by maintaining a two-tiered system of disciplinary consequences based on race. The resolution letter from the OCR offers multiple examples through the district.

Here’s one, “At Sheridan, a white kindergarten student was assigned to an alternate instruction room for repeatedly wandering around the classroom and leaving the class, while a black kindergarten student received a half-day out-of-school suspension for leaving the classroom and running through the school.”

While these cases aren’t new (as mentioned above, they have grown during Obama’s presidency), there is fear that Trump’s campaign rhetoric, heavy on racialized sentiments against Mexicans, immigrants, and Muslims, let a new genie out of the bottle. Schools are starting to encounter that genie and expressing fear.

We will have to wait and see how Trump and DeVos approach civil rights abuses in education, but if past is prologue, it isn’t looking good.

In the video below students and educators from one of the most diverse school districts in the country discuss how racial attitudes have changed in the past year.

 

This hard working grandmother of 12 is graduating today with a Bachelor’s degree, at age 57

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File this under “never give up, never give in.” Darlene Pitts, a Virginian mother of 5 and grandmother of 12, has earned a bachelor’s degree from Norfolk State University at the age of 57.

Her path wasn’t an easy one, but by all accounts, she was determined. It started with a comment from her manager at Kroger’s grocery store in 2007.

“Is this what you want your grandchildren to see you doing? Working two jobs?” he asked.

Her answer was no.

Back in 2011 The Virginian Pilot profiled Pitts struggle to get her Associates Degree.

There were days when she wanted to give up.

Like the day she was diagnosed with a learning disability, or the days she had to miss class for rotator cuff surgery. Or any of the cold nights when the bus brought her home late, and she knew she’d have to get up at 5 a.m. to finish her homework before catching yet another bus to work.

But Darlene Pitts is no quitter. And that’s why, at 52 years old, this mother of five and grandmother of eight will be handed her associate degree at Tidewater Community College’s 53rd graduation Friday night.

With her AA degree in hand she pushed forward, enrolling in Norfolk University, where more challenges emerged.

During the course of the program, Pitts, who was working two jobs, was placed on academic probation. At one point, she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to complete the coursework.

“I came to work in tears because I got a letter saying I was on academic probation,” Pitts told The Virginia-Pilot. “Some of the classes, they were really rough. I was ready to throw in the towel. I just wanted to call it quits, but I just hung in there.”

But instead of giving up, Pitts quit her job at a Kroger grocery store and focused on her schoolwork and her job as a special education teaching assistant at a local high school. She started working with a tutor, too.

“It was a rough four years,” Pitts said. “But I still hung in there.”

dpitsPitts is graduating today. She’s a step closer to her dream (she wants a Masters Degree).

And, wait. There is better news. Pitts wants to be a special education teacher and pursue her passion for working with students who are misunderstood. She says when she sees students acting out she can relate, and she never blames them.

She says “That child’s wings were not broken by themselves. Something broke them.”

Fly on, Ms. Pitts!