Real community activists fight for change, not business as usual

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Community activists live inside of communities. Organizers come in from the outside.”

There appears to be significant confusion about community activism, so let me shine a light on the inconsistencies that may be shielded from the undiscerning eye.

Often, certain “activists” disguise themselves as community activists by relying on confusion, false data, and misinformation to protect their own interests. They believe that labor and collective bargaining rights of volunteering adults trump the rights of children and communities at all costs. They will fight for a member who they know is detrimental to students because that person’s job or contract is more important than the intellectual and spiritual safety of our children.


To be a community activist, one must put his/her own preferences in their back pocket and sit on them. In our city today, there are many folks who incessantly wave the community activist banner, yet readily refuse to acknowledge that what they promote doesn’t serve the best interests of our communities.

To help people avoid any further confusion, I am going to provide a brief guide to help errant folks who yearn to be something they are not.

  • If you steadfastly defend policies or people who are detrimental to the education of our communities, know that you are not a community activist.
  • If you tout the union line and choose the interest of labor over the interest of the children you purport to care about, you are not a community activist.
  • If you unequivocally stand against policies that best serve children and communities-like full site selection for every adult in the school-you are not a community activist.
  • If you tell teachers to not tutor children or write college recommendation letters for students because you are angry about your contract (or lack thereof), you are not a community activist.
  • If you swoop into neighborhoods from lofty perches and towers, espousing your community activism while calling decade-long failing schools “gems” and desirable places, you are likely honoring the status quo and protecting the jobs of adults, not fighting for the very lives of children.
  • If you aren’t honoring the Africanness of your Black students or if you are actively encouraging them to use education to escape their communities, well, you get the picture.
  • If you live outside of our communities and shout down Black and Brown parents who are demanding school choice, or if you ignore parents’ pleas for urgency in action to ensure their hopes and aspirations are educated at higher levels, you are not a community activist.
  • If you take a troll-like stance in the way of families having more choices than the usual; perpetually failing schools in their neighborhood or criteria-based schools, you are not only a false community activist, you may be an adversary to the community. Just because you are black does not mean you are Black. And just because you are loud and active or traverse a community from time-to-time, does not make you a community activist.
  • If you champion the opt out of yearly standardized testing movement, while opting your own child into test-based magnet or private schools, and/or if you secure tutors to prep your child for ACT/SAT exams, you aren’t a community activist. You, sir/ma’am are an active hypocrite.


Please do not be confused, I am not anti-union.  I was a former dues-paying, card-holding, small red calendar-in-my-bag-swag-carrying union member. I also served on my school’s union Building Committee (John P. Turner MS) until I grew too weary of the committee’s lack of focus on the liberation of children. I totally recognize the reasons for unions and the historic lack of good faith that districts and management have generated. As educators, we are indebted to some of the hard fought wins from union members of yesteryear. My maternal grandmother would roll over in her grave if she knew I was saying anything ill of unions, but one cannot side with children and unions at the same time, all of the time. And, not all causes fought for by our teachers’ union have been found to benefit our children and communities.

Certain caucuses give me cautious optimism and tentative hope in their desire to make intersecting and deeply rooted social justice issues central to their actions, policies, and strategies. However, if the best interests of children aren’t at the root cause of their work, then they won’t truly be about social justice issues and will eat around the edges until they lose their way like others. Today, we even have some historic civil rights organizations parroting union mantras and dogma, failing to remember that we are only here to fight for the causes of our children.


I know community activism when I see and hear it. I grew up surrounded by unabashed and unapologetic community activists. Their unyielding love for their community and their sacrifices for the children they served is forever imprinted in my brain. It is easy for me to see self-serving interests masquerading as community-serving. The hypocrisy of politicians who pose as community activists, yet boldly and arrogantly refuse school choice for our communities is alarming. These same “activists” ensure that they can exercise unfettered school choice for their own, yet demand that other families wait-despite the fact that my people have been waiting since they left plantations or participated in the Great Migration. Community activists would fight to ensure that Black families need not wait any longer. Far too often, our teachers’ unions are as focused on protecting the rights of children as police unions are.

Don’t get me wrong, one can be a union activist and community activist at the same time, but, from my experience, that is as challenging as finding an okapi in Cobbs Creek. It is okay to be an activist of your choice. The world, I am certain, needs all types of activism. Just don’t trick yourself into believing that your actions always jointly align to the priorities of our community’s children and to the interests of your adult membership.  I was raised to believe the needs of our community’s children trumps just about everything. And, when you actively side against our community’s interests, you are not a community activist. Be aware of what you are not. Be comfortable in the skin that you are not in.

Sorry, Mom-Mom.

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan. He blogs at Philly’s 7th Ward.

Don’t Demiansplain TFA to DeRay & Other Rules To Live By

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First, there was mansplaining.

Then, there was Damonsplaining.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I feel it necessary to add another entry to the painfully awkward list of ‘splaining terms: Demiansplaining.

The term refers to Demian Godon, a software engineer from Seattle, who likes to attack Teach For America during his free time on social media and on his blog, Reconsidering TFA.

Godon also happens to be a white guy, which is why I found it ironic that he thought it was a good idea to write a blog post on Sunday -“Does Teach for America Leave Black Lives Behind?” – chiding DeRay Mckesson and other Black Lives Matter activists for their affiliation with Teach For America. In the post, Godon asks:

“[G]iven the role of the financial backers of corporate reform and TFA in the growing inequity facing communities of color, should black lives matter activists be partnering with TFA and corporate reformers?”

He then goes on to cite two statements from teachers union-aligned activists who argue (unsuprisingly) that “TFA actually threatens the black lives matter movement.” In short, he’s Demiansplaining to Black Lives Matter activists why Teach For America is antithetical to the Black Lives Matter movement [insert headsmack here].

As a white guy, this is the type of statement that makes you cringe at how clueless and self-righteous other white guys can be. So I’ve come up with two simple rules that other melanin-deficient fellows like myself can follow to avoid falling into the same trap:

1. Don’t use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda

I would have thought this rule was self-evident, but apparently not, so let’s spell it out: If you’re trying to use the Black Lives Matter movement to push your personal political agenda, you’ve totally missed the point. BLM is not about you and your beef with TFA or other perceived boogeymen.

2. Don’t tell Black Lives Matter leaders what’s up when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement

Imagine some random person walks into your house, looks around, and then proceeds to tell you that you’ve furnished the place all wrong. This person isn’t an interior decorator or Feng Shui consultant you’re paying to tell you that your “corporate, neoliberal sofa” doesn’t belong in the living room where you put it. You would probably stand there thinking, “Who in the hell does this person think he is telling me where my neoliberal sofa should go in my house?” Then, you’d promptly boot him out the front door. Get it? Same logic applies when it comes to telling folks like DeRay Mckesson that their affiliation with TFA puts them “on the wrong side” of the BLM struggle.

In conclusion, if you follow these two simple rules, I promise even obsessed Teach For America critics can look (slightly) less foolish.

When negotiating with teachers, don’t shut community out

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by Kenneth Eban

I recently started reading the book, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you haven’t read it yet, quick spoiler alert, it is a letter to his son. As he is detailing his time in Howard and understanding how to live in a black body in this society he reflects on the connection between word and thought. He says, “loose and useless words were not separate from loose and useless thoughts.”  That is to say, our language and words informs our thoughts. However, I’d like to extrapolate that. I would say words inform thought, and our thoughts inform our actions, which have real-life implications on people.

A few years ago, Students for Education Reform-Minnesota (SFERMinn) took on a campaign called Don’t Shut Us Out. It was a campaign aimed at school districts and teacher unions to keep their negotiations open to the public throughout the entirety of the negotiation process. Blah, Blah, Blah. The real reason why this issue is important is because a family sends their most precious asset through those schoolhouse doors and into a classroom full of children eager to learn. The leader of that classroom and the person that spends the most time with your child outside of your house, their teacher, is standing in front of them. Do we as community members ever think about the way that teacher ended up being the leader of your child’s classroom and the terms under which he or she leads that classroom?

It is not just random. It starts and ends with those contract negotiations that SFERMinn fought to keep open to the public two years ago. We had to fight hard to keep those negotiating sessions open. We learned how important that is from observing negotiations a few times, and seeing the school district leadership and teacher unions are deciding the terms of how teachers would work in the worst performing schools. There were many loose and useless informing the process of negotiating how teachers end up teaching the most vulnerable kids.

The big lesson for us: contract negotiations are not inconsequential. The teacher contract between a school district and teacher union is a policy package that directly impacts your child.

You may be thinking, if it is such a big deal, why don’t we hear much about it. The answer is that it is such a big deal that they do not want you to hear it. I’m reminded of Jon Stewart’s last episode where he talks about the 3 types of bullshit. One of those types of bullshit is taking very simple sentiments and making them complicated. Tell me why the Minneapolis teacher contract is over 230 pages as opposed to the Saint Paul’s which is 108 pages. Tell me why it is difficult find out when and where contract negotiations are taking place? Tell me why contract negotiations are happening in the middle of the day when most people are at work? Finally, tell me why the community never gets to hear what the priorities are from both sides? Why is it hard to find a summary of what was discussed, and what are the contentious points of the negotiations?

Our school districts have not shown us that they deserve our blind trust to handle these decisions without any spotlight or accountability. Some of the most recent decisions made by Minneapolis Public Schools in particular does not build confidence about their commitment to children, especially children of color when they have such important implications regarding how a teacher ends up standing in front of children of color. It is important we understand. It is important we demand for an explanation, clarity, and transparency. It is important that we eliminate the loose and useless words they use that forms their contract and deeply affects our children and our community.

AFT Doesn’t Want To Export New Orleans’ Reforms, But They’ll Export Its Critics

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It’s clear that the American Federation of Teachers doesn’t want New Orleans-style education reform to spread. After all, the teachers union has poured millions of dollars into the Bayou State to fight Louisiana’s reform efforts over the past twelve months. Plus, they’ve also waged a considerable public relations campaign aimed at discrediting the academic progress witnessed in the Crescent City over the past decade.

On the other hand, AFT hasn’t shied away from exporting critics of New Orleans’ reforms to the union’s other battlegrounds across the country. I was reminded of this while reading an article in The Progressive on a recent protest held by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) at the opening of the Broad Museum in downtown L.A. UTLA is all in a huff about the recent revelation that the Broad Foundation is backing a plan to enroll half of the students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in charter schools by 2023.

A recent UTLA flyer attacking Eli Broad.

A recent UTLA flyer attacking Eli Broad. Charming, right?

While I expected a recounting of UTLA’s usual protest tactics in the article (i.e., UTLA President, Alex Caputo-Pearl, going on and on about “philanthrocapitalism” and the threat posed by “unregulated” charter schools), I was surprised to see a video of none other than New Orleans’ own Karran Harper Royal at the event screaming into a megaphone about the evils of Teach For America and the Recovery School District. Apparently, AFT saw an opportunity to advance two of their objectives – blocking charter expansion in Los Angeles and denying New Orleans’ academic progress – and decided to fly Royal out to “cry wolf” about charter schools.

However, outside of the echo chamber of reform critics and their union supporters, Royal’s admonitions about New Orleans’ charter schools ring hollow. As Tulane’s Doug Harris recently noted in an essay in Education Week, “There is not much debate that the New Orleans’ school reforms improved student outcomes. The evidence on that point is strong.” Likewise, UTLA’s warnings about the dangers of charter schools don’t seem to carry much weight with LAUSD parents either. As Catherine Suitor, chief development and communications officer for Alliance College Ready Public Schools, noted earlier this spring: “Every year, we have more applications than available seats.”

So if charter schools are benefitting low-income students in places like New Orleans, and parents in Los Angeles are flocking to enroll their children in charters, why is AFT fighting against them? Good question. Perhaps it’s something you can ask Karran when AFT sends her to protest in a city near you.

No, Poverty Isn’t Destiny…Or An Excuse

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by Pete Cook

When the Democratic candidate for Governor, John Bel Edwards, met with the Editorial Board of Lafayette’s Daily Advertiser on Tuesday to explain how “things would be different in an Edwards administration,” the two-term State Representative had a lot to say about the state of public education in Louisiana.

Some of the points he made were commendable, like his support for a stable higher education funding model that would avoid the fiscal nightmare our state’s public universities suffered through earlier this spring. However, as we’ve seen recently, when the subject turned to K-12 education, Edwards – who believes he’s “the engineer who can put the engine back on the tracks” – instead went off the rails. For example, The Advertiser reported:

“Edwards said he embraces the state’s push for higher standards for K-12 education, but not the process the state has chosen to pursue them. He said he’s for accountability, but believes letter grades are unfair to schools with high percentages of impoverished children. Teachers are too often compelled to teach to the test, he said, and who can blame them? Their jobs depend on it.”

While Edwards’ equivocal positions on high academic standards and accountability pose a problem, I was more disappointed that he proceeded to trot out the old “poverty trumps education” argument, one of the teachers unions’ favorite talking points:

“For example, he said, his own son’s school, where his wife teaches music, drew an ‘F’ letter grade from the state, but he said poverty, not teachers, was what undermined that public school. Teachers there were ‘fine,’ he said, but most of the students came from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

In effect, Edwards is saying we we should lower our expectations for certain children just because they happen to come from poor families.

Let’s examine John Bel Edwards’ statement for a moment. It’s true that Amite Elementary Magnet School, where his wife Donna worked until recently, does serve a high proportion of low-income students. In 2014, over 95% of the school’s students were eligible for free or reduced lunch. On the other hand, Amite Elementary received a “D” in 2013-14 (S.Y. 2014-15 haven’t been issued yet) and a School Performance Score (SPS) of 54.7 (out of 150) – i.e., the school is not designated as failing as Edwards claims.

However, the more important question is whether a “D” grade and a SPS of 54.7 is the most we should expect from a school where the students are nearly all low-income. To test that, I decided to look at 2014 data of New Orleans public schools where 95% of students were free/reduced lunch eligible. Here’s what I found:

LEA School %FRPL 2014 Grade 2014 SPS 2013 Grade 2013 SPS
Tangipahoa Amite Elementary Magnet School >95% D 54.7 F 49.6
RSD KIPP Central City Academy >95% B 95.2 B 96.9
OPSB Mary Bethune Elementary >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
OPSB Mahalia Jackson Elementary School >95% B 93.7 B 88.1
RSD Martin Behrman Elementary School >95% B 93.3 B 92.1
OPSB Robert Russa Moton Charter School >95% B 86.7 D 61.9
RSD Esperanza Charter School >95% B 85.6 C 75.3
RSD Lagniappe Academy of New Orleans >95% C 82.3 B 85
RSD Lafayette Academy >95% C 81.7 C 79.7
RSD ReNew SciTech Academy at Laurel >95% C 81.6 C 75
RSD Arthur Ashe Charter School >95% C 81.2 B 90.2
RSD James M. Singleton Charter School >95% C 80.8 D 56.9
RSD Akili Academy of New Orleans >95% C 80 C 71.6
RSD KIPP Central City Primary >95% C 78 C 75.2
RSD Langston Hughes Charter Academy >95% C 77.6 C 81.3
RSD Edgar P. Harney Spirit of Excellence >95% C 75.9 D 64.1
RSD Samuel J. Green Charter School >95% C 74 C 78.4
RSD Sophie B. Wright Learning Academy >95% C 73.9 B 88.5
RSD Cohen College Prep >95% C 72.9 D 63.5
RSD Mary D. Coghill Charter School >95% C 69.7 NA NA
RSD Nelson Elementary School >95% D 67.3 C 79.5
RSD McDonogh City Park Academy >95% D 66.4 C 77.6
RSD Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep >95% T 66.1 NA NA
RSD Fannie C. Williams Charter School >95% D 64.8 T 75.7
RSD McDonogh #32 Elementary School >95% D 64.4 C 70.9
RSD Harriet Tubman Charter School >95% D 63 T 72.7
RSD ReNew Dolores T. Aaron Elementary >95% D 62.5 T 64.4
RSD Arise Academy >95% D 58.3 C 72.5
RSD McDonogh 42 Charter School >95% T 58.3 T 39.4
RSD William J. Fischer Elementary School >95% D 56.8 C 76
RSD ReNew Schaumburg Elementary >95% T 55.7 NA NA
RSD ReNew Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak >95% D 55 D 60.1

In short, there were 31 public schools in New Orleans that scored higher than Amite Elementary in 2014, even though nearly all of their kids were low-income. What’s more, some schools in New Orleans, like Mary Bethune Elementary, are knocking the cover off the ball. Nearly 80% of Bethune students were performing at or above grade level in 2014, as opposed to only 46% of students at Amite Elementary.

Schools like Mary Bethune refute the “poverty trumps education” argument.

Now, I’m not raising these facts to denigrate the hard work of Donna Edwards or her former colleagues at Amite Elementary Magnet School. I’m also not saying that poverty doesn’t present considerable challenges for educators – as a former teacher in New Orleans’ public schools, I’ve faced those very challenges.

Nevertheless, it’s clear there are many public schools in Louisiana’s low-income communities where students are beating John Bel Edwards’ low expectations hands down. We live in a state with one of the highest levels of child poverty in the country and we can’t allow our politicians to simply those write those kids off because it’s politically expedient.

This post was originally published on PE+CO on September 17, 2015.