CPS Conference Unites and Inspires Those Fighting for Public Education

by Lisa Guisbond

“The reality is that under NCLB and MCAS, schools don’t want disruptive children.” —The Honorable Leslie E. Harris

The Honorable Leslie Harris (Photo by Larry Aaronson)

Judge Harris, a Suffolk County juvenile court justice, minced no words about what’s happening to kids who behave exactly the way he did when he was a schoolchild in Chicago. While his roughhousing meant weekly calls to his mother, who had to come to school to hear about her son’s behavior, similar behavior today lands too many urban students of color in court, face-to-face with Harris. A former teacher, Harris is working to reverse a trend to criminalize ordinary childhood behavior. It’s an uphill battle against a mindset focused on the test score bottom line, just one of many fights worth waging for our public schoolchildren.

Harris was one of many speakers who shared powerful and informative presentations at the 2010 Citizens for Public Schools fall issues conference at Bunker Hill Community College on October 16. The conference provided a forum for more than 75 parents, teachers, students, and administrators—a broad spectrum of active and informed, but too often separated, constituencies—to share their experiences, deepen their understanding of the mounting attacks on public schools, and craft strategies to defend public education.

CPS President Ruth Rodriguez Fay (Photo by Larry Aaronson.)

CPS President Ruth Rodriguez Fay opened by inspiring us to reject the misleading hype of the documentary film Waiting for Superman and work to improve the traditional public schools that serve most of our children (see Rodriguez Fay’s remarks below). FairTest’s Monty Neill stressed the need to reform the federal No Child Left Behind law—especially its insistence on high-stakes, standardized tests to assess student and school progress—in order to move ahead with authentic school reform. Melissa Colon, Associate Director of the Gaston Institute, shattered myths about Latino students, including the widespread notion that “Latino equals English Language Learner.” The truth is that this large and growing component of our public school population encompasses a tremendous variety of students whose particular needs must be understood and addressed. And Jose Lopez, co-chair of the Boston Coalition for Equal Quality Education and a teacher at the Curley School in Boston, shared the efforts of his group to bring together different groups—parents, teachers, custodians, bus drivers, nonprofits, and others—to fight changes that would hurt Boston schoolchildren, such as a student assignment plan proposed several years ago that would have increased segregation in Boston’s schools.

The opening panel of speakers prompted a series of excellent questions and comments from participants, including Paul Phillips, president of the Quincy Education Association. Phillips spoke for many when he characterized the the federal No Child Left Behind law as “the most ironic title since the slave ship called Esperanza.” Phillips added, “Let’s dump the tests and save the kids.”

After the strong opening presentations, conference goers broke into groups to explore and discuss a range of critical issues affecting our schools: privatization and profiteering, MCAS reform, closing achievement and opportunity gaps, and school budget cuts. By the day’s end, there were the beginnings of concrete plans to be carried out in the year to come.

CPS Treasurer and Conference Chair Jonathan King closed the event by reminding us that efforts to restrict access to quality education began early in history and continue to this day. While daunting, the challenges we face are not really new. But CPS offers a vehicle to bring together a range of constituencies with no agenda other than promoting, preserving and protecting public schools. Special thanks and kudos must go to the extraordinary team that pulled together a successful conference, led by Jonathan: Ann O’Halloran, Paula Parnagian, Louis Kruger, Julie Johnson and Executive Director Marilyn Segal.

Lisa Guisbond is the co-editor, with Jackie King, of the Backpack. She is on the board of directors of Citizens for Public Schools and is a longtime public education advocate, activist and author of many articles and reports on issues in public education.

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