Oakland, We Are Failing Our Foster Youth. These Kids Deserve Better.

The system lies.  Rosy language disguises the routine inequities.  Promises made are seldom kept to some.  You can see this in black and white in OUSD’s recent report from the Foster Youth Advisory Commission, which shows how these youth are shortchanged.  These are some of our highest need and lowest performing students, and while they generated roughly $750,000 from the state’s funding formula, they received only $250,000 in services.  Something needs to change.

These are literally our kids, they are technically wards of the state, and the state is us.  We are failing.

Nobody contradicted the financial numbers at the meeting, and nobody promised to make it right.

Foster youth need and deserve our support

Through an accident of birth, some children end up in foster care.  These are some the strongest and most resilient children you will ever meet.  They have unlimited potential, but they face immense challenges.  They frequently change schools and lose learning time, face trauma and instability, are disproportionately disciplined, more likely to have special needs and a variety of other challenges that  show up in academic outcomes.

Only 4% of OUSD foster youth met state standards in math, with none exceeding the standard, and 9% met or exceeded standards in English language arts.  I think these are the lowest rates for any subgroup in the district.

Distinct needs for specialized supports

These youth often have distinct needs that don’t fit into the standard support structures.  They DO need a dedicated central office staffer to support and monitor programs and sites, and also more specific developmentally appropriate supports.

Because foster youth tend to be highly transient, as placements change, and also to have more constricted time, needing to check in at placements by specified times that may not align with afterschool schedules.  They need a different more individualized support structure.

And foster youth do get lost in the shuffle.  OUSD actually can’t even accurately say how many foster children it has, and many sites themselves are unaware and unsupportive of the foster children they have (which is also a charter issue).  Our youth deserve better.

The numbers don’t add up and kids lose

Despite the funding coming in, there are only two full time counselors for foster youth, both work at large comprehensive high schools.  There are no counselors serving middle schoolers or elementary schoolers.  There is almost no support for foster families.  And despite the real and substantial work that foster youth are doing themselves to listen, define, and propose improvements, they are volunteers, where they should be stipended, for doing the hard work that we have neglected.

I have to applaud the young people, the committee and the dedicated OUSD staff, and the brother who was leaving OUSD for Peralta Colleges that have been working on these issues.  It is clear that real work has taken place on the committee, with real committed folks digging in on it.  That work should be honored.

This is money dedicated for foster youth.  It is allocated to the district and to schools to serve them.  We owe this as an ethical and legal duty.  And if ethics aren’t incentive enough, I know there were some lawyers in the audience.

Hard choices, broke district

OUSD is in a financial crisis.  Money is short to come by.  Foster youth are not a power constituency in the district.  And in the shuffle for a piece of a shrinking pie, the big dogs usually eat first.  That is how politics work, despite pronouncements of equity.

These youth deserve better from us, and I hope we deliver.

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A Different Kind of Integration: Bringing Students With Mental Health Challenges Into Our School and Watching Them Thrive

I have written about John W. Lavelle Prep Charter School before. I helped start it as a middle school, built on the crazy idea that you must integrate students with mental health challenges with the general population for them to be successful.

Mind you, these students tend to have the highest dropout rate of any disability category. And not only were we reserving roughly a third of our seats for them, we were promising to prepare them for college.

As our students got older and the student population grew, we extended Lavelle to K-12. Last summer all of our seniors graduated with college acceptances and regents or advanced regents diplomas. This graduating class was 60 percent students with special needs and 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

Everyone doubted us when we applied to start this charter school targeting students with emerging mental health challenges, but nobody is doubting now. They want more schools.

One Track: The College Track

“We needed a level playing field for kids with mental illness,” says Dr. Ken Byalin, the founder of Lavelle Prep, as he explains the genesis of the school. “There were some special education programs, but there were big gaps in service as students got older.”

Sometimes these kids needed to be academically challenged, too. “There is also a set of kids who were highly impaired by mental health challenges, but academically high functioning, who again received little or no services.”

Dr. Byalin is himself a longtime social worker and program director in mental health services, and a founder of the Verrazano Foundation, which combats stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness. Having worked in mental health for decades, he was aware of some of the failed approaches. “Segregation has not worked in mental health,” he says.

Instead, he had very simple ways to do things differently. “Students need to be integrated in secondary school to be successful in college, and we need to create unitary programs, where everyone gets the same thing, and they all sit in the same classes and all learn the same things.”

That philosophy guided the school design: small classes of 17 or less, with a teacher dual-certified in both special education and a subject matter (such as algebra or English), along with highly-trained paraprofessionals. All staff get training on working with mental health challenges.

Often in “inclusive” classrooms, there are two teachers and really two simultaneous classes. Students may physically sit in the same class, but in fact different teachers are teaching different content. At Lavelle, it’s one class for everyone. As Dr. Byalin says, “There is only one program at Lavelle Prep, and everyone participates.”

Dealing With Your ‘Stuff’

All students and staff also participate in a robust wellness curriculum. We all have “stuff”—as the school lingo calls it—and we all need to learn strategies to deal with it. This begins the process of de-stigmatizing emotional challenges.

And once mental health challenges are de-stigmatized, students and families start to talk about them.

Traditionally, families are known to reject services for fear of being stigmatized, but at Lavelle families are more likely to talk about services and much more likely to accept offers of help. Sometimes they even ask for it.

What’s Next

I was an early funder, and I went on to work with the school as one of my original charter incubator clients and eventually joined the board. So I may be biased here. But the future is bright on Staten Island.

Here, the Lavelle Prep team plans on creating a network of charter schools, connected by the unifying theme of integrating students, but catering to different subsets of learners at different school sites.

The first new school has already opened and graduated students, New Ventures Charter School.  New Ventures targets students out of school, we re-engage them through internships, and again, an integrated and emotionally supportive program.

While all the schools would work inclusively with any student who applied, they would tailor programs to support specific populations. For instance, one school would cater to students on the autism spectrum, another would cater English-language learners—with more programs developing as more needs emerge that we have the capacity to meet.

Changing Mindsets

So if this integrated approach is so successful, why isn’t everyone doing it? The biggest challenge we have is one of mindset, according to Dr. Byalin. “We are still wedded to segregation, people don’t believe in integration…and there is always a resistance to change.”

This has all been very hard work with some missteps and stumbles, as at any school. There were times in the first year when I worried about making payroll, as we were just scraping by financially. And despite the mission, we weren’t attracting traditional funders. But a dedicated and seasoned staff really pushed the school forward and pivoted when we needed to, in the end providing a unique and uniquely successful program.

A few years back a potential funder visited Lavelle Prep and was unimpressed. I think they expected to see children who were struggling with their disabilities, confined to “special classes.” Instead they saw integrated classrooms where the students with special needs were basically indistinguishable from other students. To the funder these classrooms weren’t special enough—they looked just like regular classrooms.

And while our lack of buzzwords and shiny bells and whistles hasn’t made us the darlings of philanthropy, an integrated school where no student looks “special” is exactly the point.

Here’s the Test for Charter Schools Under DeVos and Trump

As school choice advocate Betsy Devos assumes the role of secretary of education, charter school camps have formed for and against her. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools supported her, while the coalition of independent charter schools in New York City (representing over 100 schools) opposed her. And in California, while school leaders have almost universally opposed her, the state’s charter school association is sending somewhat mixed messages.

This should not be a surprise. As I’ve said before, there is no unified charter movement. There are simply many different actors who see charter schools and the autonomy they promise as a means to an end. In the big charter tent you have liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. But as I will argue, the sector still has some interests, and this nomination offers immense risk and potential opportunity.

Support for Choice in the Community

Any credible poll will show that Black, Brown, and low income families support charter schools. Many communities of color also have long histories of alternative and private schooling in the face of segregated, subpar or no public options. And a likely increase in support for charter schools and school choice from the federal government through Betsy DeVos might help free underserved communities from sometimes weak neighborhood options.

Charter schools can be our FUBU schools (FUBU stands for “For Us, By Us”—a hip hop brand from the 90s), empowering communities to control local schools and deliver high quality, culturally responsive programs to our children. It’s not that simple, and it is incredibly hard work, but many of us have been frustrated by the lack of responsiveness of the traditional public schools and wanted to do something different. Given the devil and the deep blue sea—we jumped.

Choosers and Losers

School choice is not a panacea. Choice by itself doesn’t necessarily improve quality or equity and may make things worse. There are choosers and “losers”—those who don’t choose. And the schools themselves may also start to pick and choose students, sometimes taking the “easy” ones and passing the more challenging kids on.

The federal government has a crucial role in setting some basic ground rules for equity and enforcing them. And because I don’t think we can trust local jurisdictions, those rules need to bend toward justice. Things like charter school admissions, charter authorizer behavior, as well as rules of the game in serving students with special needs or treating “minorities” with equal concern and respect. All of this can be influenced by federal spending and rulemaking.

And the secretary of education needs to be the secretary of all schools, given the reality that 47 of the roughly 55 million students in the U.S. go to traditional public schools, with 3 million in charters and over 5 million in private schools. Nothing D.C. does will change those ratios significantly. So the focus needs to be on that largest sector, and remembering the intent that charters would act as laboratories to feed practices into the traditional schools.

Evaluating the Secretary’s Reign-Quality, Equity, and Transparency

If, under this new administration, those of us who support charter schools sell our principles or forget who our master is, that stain will outlast any education secretary.

A rush to create more schools for more schools’ sake is an unwise one. Charters promise a set of academic and non-academic outcomes, and accountability is essential. Just opening the floodgates to more schools will likely reduce quality. And it won’t help families. (That seems to be the Detroit story, from my admittedly limited knowledge.)

Equity has to be at the forefront of accountability, for the sector to be credible and ethical. Charter schools have had some historical challenges in serving all students. This is a critique that hits some times and misses at others, but is equally applicable to the traditional public zoned schools or gifted-and-talented programs and specialized high schools. Authorizers and the public need to look hard at who is being served and who isn’t and why, with consequences for offenders.

Charter schools are public schools and need to be transparent with the public’s money and authority. I get that not all charters act like public schools, but they are and they should. And to build and maintain public confidence, we need to be transparent, and allow for public analysis.

The Charter School Final Exam

A school cannot serve two masters, to butcher a phrase. In this new administration, the charter sector faces new challenges and opportunities. But the real question that each school must answer is, “who is our master?”

In a time when many Black and Brown children and families are anxious, and immigration raids at schools are a real possibility, many schools and districts nationwide are declaring themselves “sanctuaries” that will defy the feds and won’t cooperate with ICE.

If that master comes calling, will the charters pick up the phone, or barricade the doors?

Charter schools were here before DeVos and will be here after her. The communities that charters draw their lifeblood from are here even longer, and communities have long memories. Charters sometimes are accused of not being of the community. If they want to assure their roots in the community, they need to pass this final test, and answer resolutely as to who their master is, lest short term gain turn to long term ruin.

This piece is adapted from one that ran in the Amsterdam News as Betsy DeVos’ Charter School Test on February 9, 2017.

If Our Protests Keep Looking Like This Then Can We Really Say the ‘Left’ Is Right?

The alleged assault on secretary of education Betsy Devos by a protester blocking her entrance to a DC public school, was just one in a series of recent incidents where the Left’s protests have crossed the line.  “Black bloc” anarchists used violence to shut down a troll at Berkeley, you can also see one of the frequent Oakland Unified BAMN protesters seemingly assaulting a trump supporter last year, and there was this viral video of a Nazi getting punched.

While I do get some inappropriate giddy feelings to see Nazi’s get punched.  It’s wrong, and I know it’s actually not helping.  In fact it probably hurts our cause, feeding the resentment and stereotypes that have created this reactionary moment in American history.

We should be on the right side of history.  This moment too shall pass. And these times will likely be judged by historians as dark days of the Republic.  Whether the Left emerges as just another bully or a principled opposition depends on us.

What language of protest?

Growing up I was more “the ballot or the bullet” from Malcolm than, the principled non-violent civil disobedience of Dr. King.  And I don’t rule violence out as a final answer, or self-defense.  As Malcolm said you need to answer in the language that the oppressor will understand, and at times when the naked violence of the State is exposed we need to fight back.

As Malcolm said, “(w)e will work with anybody, anywhere, at any time, who is genuinely interested in tackling the problem head-on, nonviolently as long as the enemy is nonviolent, but violent when the enemy gets violent.”

And despite the hyperbole in the media, that is not where we are right now.  Yet.

We are still in Dr. King’s paradigm, or should be, using non-violent disruption to expose moral truths.  As stated in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail,

“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue…I must confess that I am not afraid of the word, tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive tension that is necessary for growth… the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.”

Flooding the airports with bodies and shutting down the international terminals every time folks are detained, highlights the illegality and unfairness and showcases the stories of our brothers and sisters.  We need more strategic and coordinated direct action to continue to expose truths.  Breaking widows at a public university or attacking some peaceful but misguided crackers is a distraction that takes the debate away from our issues, and gives the moral high ground to those who really have no claim to it.

Are we getting played?

Back in the day, when I was a more active protester, we knew there were agent provocateurs in the crowd.  They would say the craziest shit, challenge the legitimate leaders, and were planted to actually derail or delegitimize the protests.

When I see a bunch of seemingly White folks covered in Black, playing right into the hands of the right wing media, while claiming to speak for Black and Brown folks rights, my Spidey sense starts to tingle.

These are not folks who are down like John Brown.  They are not there volunteering with kids or espousing Black liberation, they are throwing rocks, often at Black and Brown folks who are at work trying to make a living.  And in Oakland or Berkeley the cops probably agree with the sentiments of the crowd.

For those long in tooth like myself, you may remember COINTELPRO, the government’s largely successful effort to discredit social movements in s the 60s.  Here are a couple of the key tactics, from Brian Glick’s The War at Home

  1. Infiltration: Agents and informers did not merely spy on political activists. Their main purpose was to discredit and disrupt. Their very presence served to undermine trust and scare off potential supporters. The FBI and police exploited this fear to smear genuine activists as agents.
  2. Psychological warfare: The FBI and police used myriad “dirty tricks” to undermine progressive movements. They planted false media stories and published bogus leaflets and other publications in the name of targeted groups. They forged correspondence, sent anonymous letters, and made anonymous telephone calls. They spread misinformation about meetings and events, set up pseudo movement groups run by government agents, and manipulated or strong-armed parents, employers, landlords, school officials and others to cause trouble for activists. They used bad-jacketing to create suspicion about targeted activists, sometimes with lethal consequences.[43]

Whether this actually is a new kind of COINTELPRO or not, we need to shut it down.

The troll won at Berkeley, gaining a national stage for drivel.  Betsy Devos went in to  a side door of the school and the meeting still happened.  You can punch a Trump supporter, but he won the election.  Those tactics aren’t working, except to elevate trolls, Trumps and neo-Nazis.

New rules

First, these “Black Bloc” folks need to change their names to the “White Bloc” we don’t want to be associated with you.  From what I see you aren’t Black, and you aren’t asking the Black community what we want or even pretending to listen.  We want nothing to do with you, even in the coincidence of the name you chose.

Second, we need to police our actions and protests, even if there is no leader.  If peaceful actions are disrupted by idiots, those idiots need to be disrupted by the community.  If people are afraid to show their face, they should be confronted in the crowd, if folks start breaking shit or attacking peaceful people, we should conduct a citizen’s arrest and hold these idiots for the cops.

Third, they need to know they aren’t welcome at community events if they can’t be part of the community.  If they want to do their own violent protests at Trump Tower, or out in Walnut Creek (BofA’s home office) or Wells Fargo or wherever—they should do those themselves not hijack the legit protests of the community.

We need to stand together in resistance.  And we need to act. But if we sacrifice our principles in the process or allow ourselves to be manipulated, we will definitely lose the battle, and may lose the war.




Taking Action in Black History Month-Support Albert

The more I meet our young people, the more I am impressed.  Despite challenges, we grow champions, but even champions may need a lift from the village.  And I hope you will support this young man’s GoFundMe page and send him on the trip of a lifetime.

Meet Albert, an 11th grade honor student, who happens to play football, at McClymonds High School located in Oakland,California (if you aren’t local), with dreams.  One dream was accomplished when Mack won the State football championship, but another deeper dream is around better understanding his identity, learning internationally, and challenging some of the stereotypes we grow up with.  These are critical experiences, rites of passage that some can afford, but many cannot.  I could get into the strife and drama of growing up in Oakland, but we shouldn’t need that, we should help this young man because we can.

In Albert’s own words,

As a child, I would always see commercials about African babies needing food, water, and shelter which gave me the idea that Africa is filled with poor, suffering and unstable families. Now that I am older, I have been told that the commercials I used to watch do not symbolize the whole African continent. I am determined to go to Africa to experience living in Africa myself instead of feeding into rumors. I would like to interact with everyone, children of my complexion and age group so that I can compare my lifestyles to theirs. This trip is very important to me because it may be the first big step to my growth as a young black man.

So in a time rife with complaints, and people searching for meaningful action, here is one you can take, if we all give just little we will have a lot.  And the value and of a journey like this for the young man is priceless.

Please donate