“This is a test”: Educating to End the School-to-Grave-Pipeline in Ferguson and Beyond

“We were at graduation, me and him, and we were talking. He said he wasn’t going to end up like some people on the streets. He was going to get an education.”

Hershel Johnson, a friend Michael Brown’s since middle school.

MikeBrown_CapGown

Graduation portrait of Michael Brown from Normandy High School in Ferguson County, Missouri.

In the wake of the police murder of the unarmed 18-year-old African American high school graduate Michael Brown, and the ensuing uprising of the people of Ferguson, the Ferguson-Florissant School District announced classes would not resume for the school year on Aug. 14 as planned, and as of today, school is still not in session.

The unrest between police and protesters prompted Gov. Jay Nixon (D) to declare a state of emergency in Ferguson and then impose a curfew. Comedian John Oliver described Gov. Nixon’s curfew announcement as “patronizing,” and charged him with speaking in the tone of a “pissed-off vice principal” attempting to further restrict the freedom of the people of Ferguson. Oliver’s school analogy may have been prompted by Nixon’s statement that,

“…to protect the people and property of Ferguson today, I signed an order declaring a state of emergency and ordering implementation of a curfew in the impacted area of Ferguson… But if we’re going to achieve justice, we must first have and maintain peace. This is a test.”

For all of his authoritarian scolding, Gov. Nixon is correct about one thing: This is a test. But it isn’t one that will be scored accurately by a police force or a political class that sees itself as above the law.

Ferguson, like cities around the nation, has plenty of problems of race, class, and education to choose from. The schools in Ferguson—like to many districts across the nation—are still separate and unequal. 77.1 percent of the students in the Ferguson-Florissant School District are black, and some 68 percent of white students who live in the district attend schools outside of the district. Black students make up a disproportionate 87.1 percent of students without disabilities who receive an out-of-school suspensions, according to 2011-12 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection. And the black youth continue to be targets when they leave the schoolhouse and enter the streets.  Last year, black residents accounted for 86 percent of the vehicle stops made by Ferguson police and nearly 93 percent of the arrests made from those stops, according to the state attorney general. FBI statistics show that 85 percent of the people arrested by Ferguson police are black, and that 92% of people arrested specifically for disorderly conduct are black.

The city of Ferguson is 67.4 percent black and 28.7 percent white, yet five of the six city councilmembers are white and six of seven school board members are white.   The first African American Superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Dr. McCoy, was forced out of his position in March by the then all white school board. Normandy High School, the alma mater of Mike Brown, has a poverty rate of 92 percent. As Daily Kos related,

“The grinding poverty in Mike’s world only allowed Normandy High School to acquire two graduation gowns to be shared by the entire class. The students passed a gown from one to the other. Each put the gown on, in turn, and sat before the camera to have their graduation photographs taken. Until it was Mike’s turn.”

“Career and college ready” are the new buzzwords in the education reform world and every teacher certainly hopes their students achieve these personal successes. Yet to limit education to only these puny goals is to extinguish the true power of education. Education must also be in service of transforming our very troubled society.

Mike Brown was to have started attending Vatterott College on August 11, two days after he was killed, exposing the fact that the work of educators to help students achieve a diploma means little if our society succumbs to lawless police who gun down our unarmed children in the street. Many black youth have had their caps and gowns snatched from them and replaced with orange jumpsuits, as students are funneled into what is commonly called the “school-to-prison-pipeline”—a series of interlocking policies such as zero tolerance discipline and high suspension rates, overbearing police presence in schools, and high-stakes exit exams required for graduation. But increasingly it appears police are intent on constructing what I guess we now must term the “school-to-grave-pipeline”— a series of interlocking policies such as giving police weapons designed for war zones, the disproportionate policing of areas frequented by black youth, and incentivizing police to shoot black people by not arresting them and giving them paid leave when they do. The school-to-grave-pipeline is not only a problem in Ferguson.  Nationally, a study revealed that a black person is killed by police somewhere in the United States every 36 hours. When there are witnesses, or when onlookers are able to capture these murders on a cellphone camera, we get to hear about their case; people such as Eric Garner, Ramarley Graham, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, and many others. Yet too often, black people are shot down by police and discarded with little attention.

If education is not dedicated to empowering our youth to solve the problems they face in their communities, in our nation, and in our world, then it isn’t really an education at all—it is an indoctrination designed to reproduce oppression. As Richard Shaull explains in the forward to Paulo Freire’s masterwork, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

The way you know that those who control the education system—the many corporate style education reformers who push high-stakes testing and standardized curriculum—are not actually interested in nurturing black youth, closing the achievement gap, or supporting education that undermines oppression, is that you won’t hear any of them publicly defending Michael Brown or calling for the arrest of his murderer, Darren Wilson. (Or maybe Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and Michelle Rhee carpooled and got lost on their way to the rally in Ferguson?). On the issues that most deeply affect the lives of African Americans—mass incarceration, police terror, unemployment, housing discrimination—these education reformers and officials have nothing to say, content to prattle on with the exhortations about “accountability,” “career ready,” “21st century education,” and other hollow pronouncements devoid of the social supports that would make them a reality.

Thankfully, educators in Ferguson and around the nation are rising to the challenge of redefining the purpose of education with the intent of building a more just society in wake of the killing of Michael Brown. On August 17, Dr. Marcia Chatelain tweeted a call for resources for parents and educators to talk to young people heading back to school with the hashtag #FergusonSyllabus.  People from around the nation began collecting and retweeting articles, books, videos, and photos to aid educators in lesson ideas that engage students in a critical dialogue about the meaning of Michael Brown’s death and the mass uprising it has inspired.

Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D (@JackieGerstein) tweeting with #FergusonSyllabus, wrote:

 

And Caryn Riswold (‏@feminismxianity) tweeted:

Some of the best lessons ideas shared on #FergusonSyllabus include a link to the video, “Race the House We Live in”, about redlining and housing discrimination, a Rethinking Schools lesson on teaching about The Murder of Sean Bell (a young African American killed by New York City Police), Christopher Emdin’s essay, “5 Ways to Teach About Michael Brown and Ferguson in the New School Year,” and Teaching for Change’s, “Teaching About Ferguson.” Any teacher of American history or civics would do well to discuss Amy Goodman’s essay, “The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” outlining the case of the slave (buried just down the street from where Mike Brown was killed) who took his case for freedom to the Supreme Court, which subsequently ruled that African Americans had, “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

National Public Radio ran a story on August 19th, “Ferguson Teachers Use Day off As Opportunity for Civics Lesson” where they reported, “So this morning, instead of being in the classroom, 150 area teachers took part in some unusual professional development: picking up broken glass, water bottles and tear gas canisters from the street. “It says ‘Defense Technology’ on it,” says social studies teacher Arthur Vambaketes, showing off a busted canister from his trash bag.”

When the schools reopen in Ferguson, teachers would do well to close up the jingoistic textbooks, discard the bubble tests, and ask students what they think about the fact that our nation spends more on “defense technology,” militarized policing and mass incarceration than on education. It might not be on the new Common Core exams, but the killing of Michael Brown is a test for our nation’s schools nonetheless.

As I prepare to head back to the classroom, I pledge to Michael Brown and his family that I will do my best to foster a classroom that allows for the emotional intensity and critical dialogue vital to achieving a world that puts institutional racism in its final resting place and gives our black children a bright future.

—-

Jesse Hagopian is the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book (available for per-ordering), More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing. Jesse teaches history and is the co-advisor for the Black Student Union at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Jesse an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Follow Jesse on his blog at www.iamaneducator.com or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

12 responses

  1. Thank you for your well thought out response to this tragedy. I so appreciate your thoughtful call to action to do better for ALL of the children we work for. Know your words inspire me and I will take that energy into this school year.

    1. Debi,
      Thanks so much for the kind words. Hearing them makes me think we have a chance!

  2. Ferguson is the beginning of what will become more protests….and then you add all the guns that everyone can carry now…..and even the police will not be safe!! They better solve these problems in the poor neighborhoods or chaos and terror will reign. This is what happens when corporations keep all their profits on the backs of the skeleton workforce….there are no jobs. When people have jobs, it keeps them off the streets. There also needs to be places where these kids/young adults can go to play basketball, table tennis, soccer, etc. any sport where they can learn skills and have competition and fun! Corporations are sitting on billions of profits! They need to hire more people to get the economy going. I realize that there has been an increase in jobs, but they are minimum wage jobs. I blame the corporations who are running their workforce with 1 person doing 2 people’s jobs and stashing the profits off-shore. If business, citizens and politicians don’t get their heads together and come up with some supports and ideas, we are all going to be living in a war zone!!

  3. Thank you for sharing…TURNING STONEchoice touched on this topic as well – When Will It Stop? http://turningstonechoice.wordpress.com/ It is so important to make empowering and purposeful choices.

    1. Thanks for sharing your link!

  4. Darciann Samples | Reply

    I don’t know if this is the right place to say this, but here goes. I have ALWAYS taught my multi-ethnic AND my own anglo children to do whatever the police tell them to do. WHATEVER. I asked my hubby tonight if the police told us to drop our pants and jump around like monkeys should we do it. Our answer was a resounding yes. Is this really the type of fear I want my (and they are all mine, students too) children to live in when it comes to a police presence? No one believes something horrible will happen to them until it does, but I have always left an opening in my heart that our very own police force can and may kill my children for no valid reason.

    I’ve cried a lot these last few weeks, and I am crying yet again as I realize that my dream life never did and probably never will exist.

    Thanks for listening,
    A mother to more precious children that I can count after 28 years in the classroom

  5. Officer Wilson has not been found guilty of murder as your article states.

  6. Your description of “career and college ready” as puny goals resolves an unsettled feeling I’ve had in the pit of my stomach ever since the first time I heard that phrase. Administrators in my district use that phrase as a catch-all justification for all of the requirements coming down related to common core testing and adoption of inappropriate use of technology. For example, the use by kindergarteners of “virtual manipulates.” This is where children move blocks around on a screen with a mouse, instead of building with real blocks. At the high school level it means classes monitored by aides, while students progress through computer programs, with no teacher, or one teacher monitoring hundreds of students. In this case, the role of the teacher is to offer help with the technology, instead of the subject content. Coachella Valley Unified School District just adopted imath, a program just like this. My district, Desert Sands Unified School District has been using programs like this in English classes at the high school, and even elementary and middle school levels, for a few years. What this means is that subject content is chosen by corporations, not teachers. Not one of these programs will mention Michael Brown, that’s for sure.

  7. Brian Duncan, parent and former high school teacher | Reply

    Spot on analyis, well said, Jesse.
    Darciann, hope you can regroup and keep on working toward your dream life of a world that overcomes this madness. You’re in good company with many teachers and others working through their tears.

  8. “The city of Ferguson is 67.4 percent black and 28.7 percent white, yet five of the six city councilmembers are white and six of seven school board members are white. The first African American Superintendent of the Ferguson-Florissant School District, Dr. McCoy, was forced out of his position in March by the then all white school board.” Aren’t all school boards and city council members elected? Are voters this disenfranchised, feeling hopeless or what explains this?? There appears to be a politcally active populace demonstrated by the protests…

  9. Hurrah, that’s what I was searching for, what a stuff!

    existing here at this weblog, thanks admin of this web page.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,131 other followers

%d bloggers like this: