May 9, 2013
I am part of the teachNOLA 2013 cohort of idealists trying to change the education system one standardized test at a time. Last weekend I attended a hiring fair to get my first taste of the New Orleans charter school network. At the same time I was preparing my interview answers, I have also been working on a long list of educational models to present to the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES) as part of my job as a Research Fellow at the Anna Julia Cooper Project. IWES is a nonprofit community based organization in New Orleans dedicated to improving the physical, mental, and spiritual health and quality of life for women of color and their families, especially those who are socio-economically disadvantaged. I worked with IWES to expand their Collective for Healthy Communities initiative, focused on investigating protective factors and other assets that promote emotional resiliency for black women in New Orleans.
At the school fair, I walked around the edges of the Xavier University student center ballroom, trying to observe the other applicants and assess which school’s table to approach and why. Not only was I unsure of which schools wanted a first-year, inexperienced sociology major for a teacher, but I was also unsure of which school would be the best fit for me. Granted, my pedagogical philosophies are in the early stages of development, but my outlook on the public education system has evolved a lot over this year. Part of that evolution has been a result of the work and research I’ve done with IWES.
Before delving into surveys of 1960’s Freedom Schools and articles on citizenship education, I attended an IWES wisdom circle. Furiously taking notes for a class paper, what I learned and heard from the women in attendance guided my research for the rest of the semester. The discussion group that day was composed of African American women faculty from local universities. Their conversation was based on concepts from Professor Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen about how black women navigate pervasive stereotypes and understand themselves as citizens. The women spoke openly and honestly about how they experience the “crooked room,” the lopsided world of pressures and stereotypes that meld black women to its expectations and assumptions of blackness and womanhood.
As I weaved around tables at the job fair, I attempted to match what I have learned from Septima Clark, Myles Horton and Anna Julia Cooper with the school choices around me. In New Orleans, however, the traditional public school system has faded in favor of private charter groups controlling individual or sections of schools. The dissonance I experienced was overwhelming when I thought back to the needs expressed through the Wisdom Circles. When I read through IWES’s four Wisdom Circle transcripts, one of the most common critiques I found was the lack of physical community women felt. One comment that stuck with me was when a female professor expressed, “we’re doing it to ourselves.” Women recounted stories of their parents telling them to stay out of the sun, straighten their hair, or to otherwise alter their appearances or affects. The participants nodded in unison when they expressed the ways peers, especially at younger ages, pass judgments on one another based on physical characteristics like sex and color. When we do not know our own neighbors, we judge them based on schemas we do know, and the crooked room is built.
Charter schools extract children from their neighborhoods and spread them throughout the Greater New Orleans area, forcing a child who grew up on a playground in Algiers to attend school in Gentilly on the other side of the city. Parents suddenly lose a network of neighbors to help with carpools, afterschool activities and general emotional support. They are dependent on buses and far away school nurses and counselors in a foreign part of town. On the other end, a school may be physically located in a community, but no longer have ties to that community as it draws primarily from students in other parts of the city. When a school ceases to be populated by neighborhood students, it creates one fewer space of unification in neighborhoods.
A few weeks ago, in a commercial for MSNBC, Professor Harris-Perry stated, “we have to break through our kind of private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families and recognize that kids belong to whole communities.”
Despite the criticism targeted at this so-called “socialist” philosophy, our country used to pride itself on a public education system that offered free, quality, public education to all children. The charter school movement utilizes capitalist ideas of competition and survival of the fittest, privatizing what used to be a public institution. As long as we compete for one school to function better than the other, we miss the bigger picture of providing all students with equal opportunity and access to education.
As a naïve soon-to-be college graduate I still like to believe that as a country we strive to make life better for everyone, not just those who figured out the right economic formula. By keeping schools tied to the communities around them, perhaps we could realize a neighborhood model centered around an institution everyone’s tax dollars already contribute to. With a neighborhood-centric model, schools can better serve the students who attend it, as well as all of the community members it belongs to.
Rachel Rubinstein is graduating Tulane with a BA in Social Policy and Sociology. Next year she is participating in teachNOLA where she will teach middle school english in a New Orleans public school. Rubinstein hopes to channel her experiences toward a career in education policy and reform.