You don't need a diploma to go to jail


root - Posted on 31 December 1969

Thousands of children of color are struggling to learn in West Contra Costa County. The people organize a Town Hall.

by Tiny

The windows of the cafeteria were blurred with a soft green film and the sick-sweet smell of ammonia wafted through the air as scores of youth, families and teachers testified on their struggle to educate and be educated at a Town Hall on student learning in Richmond.

“What you don’t need a diploma for is to go to jail,” Diana Ponce, mother of children attending Downer Elementary School in Richmond, called out to the crowd. She went on to point out that the current educational inequities experienced by poor students of color in her district actually work to build a school to prison track.

The green-hued cafeteria at Ford Elementary School in Richmond shook with the truth of Ms. Ponce’s words. She went on to break down the injustice experienced by low-income students of color in West Contra Costa County in 2006, a county in which over 14,000.00 students are currently struggling to learn under the threat of serious federal sanctions 12,600 of these students are children of color.

The Town Hall, dubbed REAL Schools Now!, was organized jointly by the research and policy institute, Justice Matters, and Youth Together, a grassroots, youth justice organization. Their goals were to give voice to unheard students and families and find solutions to the crisis of learning in the West Contra Costa County School District. According to youth, teachers and organizers, the crisis stems from rigid and narrow approaches to curriculum and teaching practices that have been implemented as a strategy to meet state and federal high stakes accountability mandates.

"The first part of the video we watched vividly illustrates what happens when so-called teacher proof programs like “open court” reading programs used in West County schools are rigidly implemented," Elizabeth Jaeger, one of five veteran teachers from Downer Elementary School in Richmond who publicly questioned the practices, said to the audience.

Ms. Jaeger was referring to a video clip shown at the beginning of the Town Hall; Testing Mrs. Grube and A Different Standard - two shocking documentaries by Ondine Rarey, which showed several classrooms of Black and Latino students in New York struggling with the high stakes testing mandates implemented since the passing of The No Child Left Behind Act

Open Court is one of two text-books/curriculums that districts across the state are offered which will supposedly bring up their students' test scores. Constant testing and assessments of children as young as five as well as the dreaded "Exit Exams" for high school students are other by-products of these policies.

One of the educational policy mythologies that the Town Hall shattered was that No Child Left Behind requires certain curriculum programs but No Child Left Behind does not have any requirements about which curriculum programs school districts use.

Ms. Jaeger continued, "These programs typically require the teachers to move at a very fast pace in order to cover all the material –the teacher in the video used a timer to make sure she was on schedule – this results in moving on in the curriculum even when students need more time to understand what they have been taught."

Ms. Jaeger referred to a process dubbed "the pacing police" which means that a state administrator will randomly walk through classrooms to check on the "pace" of each classroom and if each teacher isn't on the same page of the text at the same time those teachers will "be written up".

"I have never been a fan of tests, one size does not fit all," Jennifer Flores, 17, Richmond High School student and member of Youth Together, called out to the room. She continued, " Another example of how the system is messed up can be seen with the execution of Tookie Williams – just how they considered his life worthless- the state and the school district gives me the message the education of students of color are worthless."

"I believe the solution starts with me and the unity between us here today even if the solution means all of us organizing against Bush, the Terminator and the School District." Jennifer concluded to huge applause.

"Hundreds of kids in West Contra Costa schools won't be given a diploma this year. What's happening between kindergarten and 10th grade?" asked Raul Alcaraz, an organizer with Youth Together. Raul who works directly with low-income youth of color in Bay Area High Schools and also acted as emcee for the powerful Town Hall. Raul also took the room through the lists of demands included in the REAL Schools Now vision for education. One of them that was clearly understood by everyone present was “That Education is a human right, not a privilege!”

"I think the Town Hall is a great first step towards much needed change, as well it gave voice to the rarely heard voices of African-American and Latino youth and families from the District," said Dave Brown, West Contra Costa County School Board member. Brown attended the first part of the Town Hall and vowed to work with Justice Matters and Youth Together to bring about long-term change in the District. Creating more space for input from the schools and community is a priority that the district has said publicly needs to happen but has not yet been realized.

"Ahora, yo no se porque prefieren pagar para que estén jóvenes en la cárcel y no por una educación, "Guadalupe Espinosa, mother of two children attending Ford Elementary School asked the crowd softly in Spanish. "Now I can't understand why they would prefer to pay for youth to be incarcerated rather than pay for their education."

Ms. Espinosa's pointed question was a response to the scholarship she heard at the Town Hall. She concluded, like the other speakers, with a commitment to stay involved and, "make change happen so my children receive a real education."

Another demand of REAL Schools NOW! is that youth and family leadership is needed for strong schools! This first in a series of Town Halls in the district has already identified some of those fierce leaders.

To get involved in speaking at the next Town Hall please call Youth Together at (510) 645-9213 or Justice Matters at ( 415) 618-0993.

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