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…

Takeaways From the NAACP Task Force’s ‘Quality Education’ Hearing in Orlando.

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On Friday, January 27th, the NAACP continued their series of education hearings, held by a special task force to “to gain further knowledge, engage in debate, and take action” as a response to the backlash to their ‘moratorium’ on charter schools. After hearings in New Haven, Connecticut and Memphis, Tennessee, the third of seven hearings took place last weekend in Orlando, during the Florida NAACP state conference.

Held at the Rosen Centre Hotel, the event was lightly attended (<100 in attendance) and saw a format of rotating presentations and testimony to the task force, who would follow up with a few questions. After the greetings, opening remarks and presentations, the panel took a (very) short series of questions and answers from those in attendance.

Here are a few notes from the event:

The most important voices – stakeholders – were largely absent. 

While the NAACP claimed the purpose of the task force was to have a national “stakeholder convening”, those voices were nearly completely absent at this hearing. The event began at 2:00 pm in the afternoon on a weekday, leading one to question how said stakeholders would able to attend in the first place.

The most relevant voices of parents, students, and educators who see the inside of these schools daily, were mostly missing. Late into the proceedings, one of the few youth voices to be heard, Brendien Mitchell, a member of the Youth and College Division of the Florida NAACP, noted it was worth discussion that the younger voices were not heard until the end of the hearing.

If the NAACP is genuine in their desire to convene stakeholders and engage in productive conversation, they ought to reconsider their methods. Unfortunately, the format at this hearing was not conducive to that goal. Perhaps they should consider making the next gathering more accessible and open to parents, students and educators.

The lack of youth in the audience was reflected by the actual task force. At one point, the head of the panel noted “you should know that we do have a young person on this task force.. but he could not be here today”.

The NAACP showed a disturbing deference to AFT president Randi Weingarten and felt the need for a police presence. 

For some reason, American Federation of Teachers President, Randi Weingarten was treated as some kind of rock star or guest of honor at the hearing. Prior to her presentation, the head of the task force told the audience to stand, and give Ms. Weingarten a rousing ovation. This moment was odd to say the least, and suffice it to say, calling for a standing ovation for the teachers’ union head did not reflect well on the supposed unbiased nature of the hearing.

Midway through her presentation, educational advocate and former head of Black Lives Matter – St. Paul, Rashad Turner spoke out. He interrupted Weingarten in an attempt to counter her misinformation around charters. He also questioned the unique level of admiration that was reserved for Weingarten, after other presenters like the state’s recent Superintendent of the Year, Robert Runcie of Broward County, didn’t receive the same.

Turner was quickly shouted down, with the task force shutting off the lights and having him removed from the hearing by police. This isn’t the first controversy around the NAACP being called out for their moratorium. As they were ratifying the resolution in Cincinatti, families rallying outside had the police called on them.

Misinformation and Confusion abound. 

The task force sent to Orlando and tasked with the duty of weighing presentations and testimony seemed woefully confused and misinformed on many points around how charter schools operate. Specifically, the false dichotomy of “private charters” vs “public schools” persisted throughout the majority of the hearing which did lead to at least a few of the presenters feeling the need to point out to the panel that charter schools are in fact public.

Beyond that, there seemed to be confusion around what lotteries for enrollment are and how they work, as well as misinformation around accountability standards for schools, specifically in Florida. In relation to the state of charters in Florida, the task force heard in plain terms that they are in fact held to high accountability standards and are performing at high levels.

It is cause for concern that this long after the moratorium was passed, NAACP representatives are still so ignorant about what charter schools are and how they work. And it has to be frustrating for school and district leaders to continually have to explain the same basic truths over and over to a bunch of folks who quite simply, refuse to do their homework.

For more information and several videos from the NAACP education hearing, check the #WakeUpNAACP hashtag on twitter, and follow us @CitizenEd.


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.

Transportation is key if families are to access better school options

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Imagine you’re a student taking the city bus to school every day. You wake up at 5:30 a.m. to catch three buses and you still end up being late to school. The buses are often late, the weather and traffic get in the way, and you often don’t feel safe this early in the morning or when you’re coming back from school late at night. Your family doesn’t have enough money to purchase a car, so you’re left to rely on the IndyGo as your primary means of transportation. As a high school student, how would you effectively navigate this system?

This is the reality for some of our students in the Tindley Schools network, a chain of high-performing charter schools on the eastside of Indianapolis. We do not have a school busing system, so our families have two options for transportation: dropping their children off every morning or putting them on the city bus to school, regardless of weather, reliability, or safety.

Having good, reliable transportation is paramount to ensuring that our students can take full advantage of their academic opportunities. Hence, it is critical that the city council votes yes on the Mass Transit plan. If approved, the plan’s key components would allow our bus riders to both get to school on time and engage in the after-school activities, all while ensuring their safety.

First, allowing certain busses to ride in 10-minute intervals would result in more pick-up times. This would allow our students, some of whom now travel for more than two hours on several buses, to get to school on time. Being consistently late to school puts students at a disadvantage and eventually leads to them falling behind academically. A more efficient transportation system would ensure that our students are at the school before the bell and are fully prepared for their academic day.

An improved transportation system would also allow our students to take advantage of more after-school activities which, as studies have shown, result in many benefits such as improved academic performance, better school attendance, and higher academic aspirations. At Tindley, school activities don’t start until after 4:15 pm, by which time many of our city bus riders have to leave to catch their first bus of many in order to simply make it home. Having more buses run more frequently will allow these students to participate in extracurricular activities while still being able to catch a bus home at a decent time.

Passing the new Mass Transit plan would also go a long way towards keeping our students safe and healthy. With increased pick up times, students will have the opportunity to ride the buses later in the day, both during daylight and knowing that they won’t have extended wait times in the dark. Moreover, with buses coming more frequently, our students will have less waiting time at the bus stop during the colder months. This will not only keep our students healthier but alleviate the need for parents to stay home with their children during times of sickness.

Lastly, the approval of the Mass Transit plan will make it easier for families to choose better-performing schools for their children to attend. Families often send their children to schools where there is a bus available. A more effective transportation system will allow families to explore schools outside of their neighborhood.

The new Mass Transit plan is bound to have countless positive ramifications on our students’ academic, social, and emotional trajectory. The Tindley scholars and all other students who take public transit to school need the Indianapolis City-County Council to approve it. Teachers, school administrators, students, families, and businesses will all greatly benefit from a transit system that is more efficient, reliable, and safe.

ShaDe’ Watson is a special education teacher at Charles A. Tindley Accelerated School. David McGuire is the school principal at Tindley Preparatory Academy. Both are Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows. This article was previously published at the Huffington Post.

Our gifted students need school choice too

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In sports vernacular, one could argue that Maurice Duerson is a potential first round draft pick in the making. His stats are off the charts. The burgeoning star is a sixth grader at Frances W. Parker, Indianapolis Public Schools #56, a Montessori School. In the early 1940s, Francis W. Parker was considered the “Colored School” for African-American students in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood.

From the very first glance, it’s clear that this young man bears the potential to be a foundational piece for any team looking to rise in the standings.

But we’re not really talking sports, though he’s got some football skills. No, we’re talking something better. You see, if Maurice maintains his current trajectory he may not be on the field, but he will be calling the shots.

The oldest of three brothers, Maurice, 12, has been enrolled in year-round Edna Martin Christian Center Out of School Learning Activities since 2013. In that time, Maurice has flourished academically, showing real growth in his grades, Montessori evaluations and standardized testing results. In terms of attendance, Maurice seldom misses school–mom ain’t having it anyway!

Maurice poses no risk for suspension or expulsion. His worst offense is sometimes knowing he’s the smartest guy in the room. You will find him face-planted in a book or graphic novel every day–today’s book was The Hunger Games. In fact, if you overlook the occasional smart aleck antics that come with a 12-year-old that is seldom challenged, he’s the model of a young man bound for leadership.

Maurice’s mom has been looking a school that would challenge him more. It compelled her to choose a non-traditional model within the traditional public schools system, and it’s the reason she is choosing a different option now.

Despite his consistent honor roll status and exceptional scholastic performance at his previous school, mom chose to transfer Maurice to the Sidener Academy for High Ability Students. Sidener Academy, also in the Indianapolis Public Schools District, is one of the state’s highest performing schools.

In 2015, despite a state standardized test fraught with irregularities, 99.5 percent of the school’s students passed, down from 100 percent in 2014.

The national Blue Ribbon School is the envy of many traditional public, charter and private schools in the city, and draws from all corners of Marion County. Entry is not assured simply by application. Among other requirements, Sidener students are required to take aptitude assessments to ensure they are prepared to meet the rigors of a fast paced, diverse environment.

What is awaiting Maurice is different. In keeping with the sports analogies, what comes now is the fiercest competition he’s faced. It may humble him, may also confirm the genius he fully already believes himself to be.

In either event, it’s game on.

 wrote this for Indy Ed.