The Predator, The Snake, and The Thief; Why I Couldn’t Wait to Get Away from Paradise

IMG_0287My name is Jeremias Arevalo. I am a junior at Lighthouse Community Charter School. I have always enjoyed writing in the forms of poetry, scripture and memoirs. I hope that my work shows you an insight into the life of a mixed-race, 17-year-old growing up in a turbulent time, in a turbulent place. I love the Bay Area and California so I hope to go to college in Santa Cruz or Berkeley. I don’t yet know of what I want to do with my adult life but hopefully it will be full of misadventures and success, so when I am an old man I can write my stories down to share with the world.

 

Snakes in the jungle, predator in the streets, thief in my home.

All were gathered under one roof and called me nephew. Guatemala is a wonderful place for a third world country: drinking age is never enforced; white folks are treated as walking banks, and reggaeton is the soundtrack to the lustful poverty.

The innocent boy visiting the jungle, the home of his father. If only the father was more of a wordsmith and could weave the wild acts committed in the depths of night to something not so shocking. Father told him one day, and quite by accident, he morphed him.

I was 15 during these events. My father called me into the guest room back in Oakland, a small quiver in his voice. I knew it was serious. I mentally prepped my mind for the worst. Divorce? Death? Adoption? What could it be?! I surely wasn’t prepared for what was said next.

My father began the compilation of stories about my uncles that I wish were fiction; new truths, new light shone on them like the sun’s rays through a magnifying glass on an anthill. One of them I didn’t know very well, one I despised and the last I loved. My family always branded the motto: Family is the purest thing and blood is thicker than water. Apparently ineptitude in life is thicker than blood.

The Predator

IMG_1683My father’s body language prepared me for the tale of the The Predator.

I dare not speak or write his name. He was a man of god, yet he committed such deadly sins, absolved of whatever promises he made to those he preached.

As a male lion entering his new pack, he devoured his children. The husks left behind, sacrificed to Moloch. My poor cousins. When my father told me what he did to them, I was in shock. That my younger cousins were raped by their father, while my aunty knew and didn’t do anything about it made me question the sanity of my bloodline.

This experience changed my opinion on family forever. I could no longer trust my most active muscle of blood to carry me through life, for it had been bitten by the predator.

The Snake

IMG_1681The snake arrived at my house the third day of my vacation in Guatemala. As usual he decided to slither into the house without us knowing.

“Hola guicho,” my dad said with a blatant air of disdain in his voice in spying the snake.

“Hi tio,” I said nervously, looking at my father expectantly.

“Holassss Jeremiassss,” the snake replied, engulfing me in the stench of alcohol while showing his yellowed fangs and flashing his vertical pupils at me, pot belly jiggling from his last meal.

“How are you? You have a lot of girls huh?” The snake interrogated.

“I’m fine tio, and no, no girl yet.”

The gruffness of the exchanges that occurred between my father and my uncle showed the true sides of the two: one a protective father, the other a slithering duplicitous reptile. My uncle then started begging my father for money to settle this enormous debt he had. Problem is he wouldn’t tell us how he racked up this debt. My father shooed him away after a while and he slithered out hissing his opinions on us under his breath.

The Thief

Enlight2He is Elder. My favourite uncle. Elder would take me on his motorcycle with his adorable baby son. We would walk down the Guatemalan streets and talk about life. Struggles, pain, pleasure. He was the only uncle I could talk with about serious topics such as family, love, and the types of people to worry about, the only uncle who would take me seriously. But bombas of crushing truths did not cease with the Predator or the Snake.

“You can’t talk to him anymore. If he comes close I’ll kill him.”

My father was in a fury.

“Elder has been stealing money from the people of Morales. That’s us. And the cartel. Jeremias, I  know you love him but I forbid you to talk to him or be around him. He may not be alive for much longer. I’m sorry.”

Elder’s job with the municipal government was corrupt. The job I would hear him talk about so much was actually his way of laundering money from taxes for himself and the mayor. Now he was being hunted like an animal.

Love: Is it the strongest bond above anything else?

I questioned whether I should still love my uncle after I found out that he is a completely different person when he’s not around me. Two personalities, double trouble, two lives, two polarities. One I activate with my presence, the other evident without me. Golden-toothed smile begging for family, missing thumb, broken spirit. The posture of a man exposed for his true self. No security, not even in life.

 
*     *     *     *
 

I was leaving Guatemala with the same amount of luggage, but tons more mental baggage.

I couldn’t wait to get away from the poisonous paradise. When we finally arrived back home there was a silent tension about the desecrated image of my kin.

My brother didn’t need to know; some secrets are best kept in the dark, where they came from.

I thought that seeing my family would make me feel more complete. Instead, the realities of man, the cruelest animal, were shown in my blood.

#MyBlackHistory: My Parents Decided to Go Back to College 30 Years Later. Here’s How My Story Inspired Them.

Here is a great guest post from North Oakland’s own Charles Cole III. Check out the story about his parents and why he works for better education for boys like himself.

Recently, the story of my parents, Renate and Charles Cole, went viral after I tweeted on social media: “My parents went back to college together and they graduated today. Together #salute.” After years of battling drug addiction, it wasn’t easy but from watching my own education journey they also knew it wasn’t impossible.

HERE’S HOW MY STORY INSPIRED THEM TO GO BACK TO COLLEGE
I attended more than 10 schools before the fifth grade and I had an attitude problem in each and every classroom.

I was born in Chicago to young, drug-addicted parents that had a penchant for moving and staying in and out of jail. I moved from Chicago to Paducah, Kentucky to stay with my grandmother and then back to Chicago and then back to Paducah, you get the point: I moved a lot. Which also meant I transferred schools a lot. I was always the new kid trying to catch up on coursework, make new friends, all the while knowing that I wouldn’t be at that school for long.

When my grandmother passed, my father rounded me and my siblings up, and we moved to Oakland, where my father’s sister lived. At the time, my mother was in jail, so the rest of us hopped on a Greyhound and took the three-and-a-half day bus ride to the Bay. My mother eventually joined us.

Despite the move to Oakland, my parents would continue to struggle with drugs, and as a result we lived in several shelters.

THE TEACHER WHO CHANGED IT ALL
Once I got to junior high, I had an algebra teacher named Mr. Brown—this tall Black dude with an imposing stature.

But he was able to connect with me and build my confidence in a way that no other teacher had. He was hard on me. He told me I was responsible for me, no one else was. I had to choose success. I had to choose to be different than what I saw.

At the end of the school year, I got the highest grade in his class, and it felt amazing. After that, I never looked back.

THE COMMUNITY THAT MADE ME WHO I AM
The hard truth is that the majority of teachers I had either couldn’t or just didn’t try to reach me.

Fortunately, a lot of my education came from folks in my community—like my barber shop, my church, the donut shop, the bookstores and my friends. For instance, my mom had a friend who was big on Black Power and understanding where we, as Black people, come from. She inspired me to read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and that changed my life.

I learned early that education was going to be my way out of poverty. With the help of Mr. Brown and my community I saw that doing well in school could open other opportunities.

North Oakland helped me. It raised me. It taught me that I was resilient. It taught me that even when public education “failed me,” I could learn how to navigate the system and use it to create a better life for myself.

And that’s what I did.

That’s why I work within education now, to help other students like me overcome their circumstances. I know the impact a great education can have on students, their families, their community and the world. We all we got, so I’ll fight for my people until I no longer can.

Too often, students of color and students who face challenging circumstances don’t receive the support and encouragement they need to succeed. They are held to lower standards because of a Belief Gap between what society believes they can achieve and what they truly are capable of when we believe in them.

Visit BecauseTheyCan.com to find out how to close the Belief Gap.

An original version of this story appeared on Education Post. 

Ending Separate and Unequal Schools in Oakland

Most everyone says they want integrated schools.  Maybe not “too integrated” if you know what I mean, but “diverse” schools.  There is a significant body of research that says it’s good for kids too.  But integration ain’t happening.  Schools nationwide are more segregated than they were decades ago and nothing will change until we affirmatively act.

This issue was highlighted in a well-done series by KQED that initially looked at two Oakland families, one White and the other Black in the shared attendance zone of Peralta and Sankofa, schools with starkly different student populations, circumstances and outcomes.   Check out the graphs at the end.  One school is largely White and not low income, the other, largely Black and low income.

And I know.  I know.  We aren’t racist anymore.  Of course race doesn’t affect the experiences of children.  But the data says differently.  The most disturbing graph of the year can be found in the NY Times.  It shows the persistent racial and economic gaps in achievement in cities—and it’s a universal picture.  Black kids always do worse, even with similar income, and poor kids pretty much always do worse.  This is not coincidence or destiny, it is historical legacy, and current practices.

Separate and Unequal in Oakland- Parent Stories

I really appreciated the honesty of the White mother who initially chose the Black school, this is a snippet but she was thoughtful in her reflections overall and highlighted some of the challenges,

Her family felt welcome at the school (Sankofa). But there were challenges common in schools that serve mostly low-income kids. Eero had an inexperienced teacher the first year, frequent substitutes the next.

“It was like the bottom-of-the-barrel substitutes. Sankofa did not have the resources to retain like a full-time sub,” said Wohlfeiler. “What I saw of it when I volunteered was real disrespect for the children as a form of crowd control. I was watching the children just shut down.”

Peralta was a different experience.  And this isn’t to blame the school.  It’s the system, and the way privilege is formally and informally apportioned.  It really is a powerful article, so please actually read or listen to it.

A second piece in the series had similar sentiments

(the parent) was convinced her kids are not receiving the same quality education as kids in the wealthy Oakland hills. One of the most frustrating moments for her was last year, when her son was a junior in high school. She said he had a substitute teacher in one of his classes for months.

“He would say, ‘They’re not even teaching me anything. Mom, come get me, I’m not doing anything,’ ” Muñoz said. “How are we going to send our kids to college if we don’t have well-trained teachers?”

Segregation Hurts

Segregation hurts kids.  Low income and Black and Brown children lose academically.  And all children lose socially.  This threatens to continue our segregation and division as a society.  And Oakland is very segregated, both by race and income and usually both at the same time.  From the article and experts within it,

According to data compiled by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, the average white student in Oakland goes to school with 37 percent low-income classmates. In contrast, African-American students in Oakland attend schools where 72 percent of fellow students are low income; for Latinos, it’s 84 percent.

When you concentrate poverty and wealth like that, it creates separate and unequal schools, like Sankofa and Peralta. In fact, the larger the difference in the poverty rate at schools for kids of different races, the larger the racial achievement gap, according to some researchers.

And further, better off children and White kids don’t lose academically by attending more diverse schools, generally.

So beyond historical legacies, some comfort level issues, and practical issues of transportation, enrollment and site responsiveness, why don’t we do something?

We Can Change This

Will is the main obstacle to changing this.  I was a little shocked by the statement from the District’s new enrollment guru, in a good way.  Normally this crap starts with a bunch of excuses, and devolves into the haze of bureaucratic rules- equity never to be seen, buried beneath heaps of well-meaning words.

This is what the new guy said—I hope he sticks around—smart, incisive honest commentary is usually frowned upon and oft punished,

“The system is broken and diseased,” said OUSD’s director of enrollment, Charles Wilson. “If everybody went to their neighborhood schools, then we might see greater mixing, but there is sort of this pantheon of five or six schools that everyone wants to get into, all above Highway 13.”

Wilson said the district is looking into ways to integrate the schools socioeconomically, including redesigning programs at schools like Sankofa to make them more appealing to middle-class families, and changing the priority system to give kids from higher-poverty Zip codes more of a chance to enroll in high-performing schools. But that’s still in the planning stages.

In the second article he also floated an idea about capping the percentage of high needs students at particular sites—which again is an interesting idea.  But there is an elephant in the room and her name is privilege.

Limited Supply of Quality Seats Means Someone Loses

I really hope that Wilson does not get run over by the privilege train.  When you are asking folks above the 13 to maybe go to a slightly lower performing school they may revolt, and they have a lot of time energy, bandwidth, and cultural capital.

Of course everyone will say we need to expand the number of quality seats—which I obviously agree with—but practically, we won’t have nearly enough soon enough no matter what.  And reform can’t hang on future hypotheticals.  Someone will have to give up their seat.  A seat that they thought they bought when they bought that 7 figure house.

But neighborhood attendance boundaries are not God’s law or the Constitution—they are creations of the school board, and can be changed.  And the basis of housing segregation is racism and what are now illegal housing practices.  Things I don’t think we should honor or continue.

I would go even further.  The Supreme Court in Fisher v. University of Texas affirmed the ability of schools to use race as a factor in admissions.  And OUSD should.  I don’t have all the answers here, but we should include race and class as plus factors in enrollment, and also understand and address some practical issues.  This is up to us.

Transportation, Information, and the Hustle Factor

Choice systems (yes this includes charters) tend to advantage the relatively more advantaged.  And we need to understand and consciously counteract this.  As the article described,

“Middle-class parents are experts at gaming things,” said Janelle Scott, associate professor of education at UC Berkeley. “They have benefited from their own higher education, but also families who have taught them how to navigate complex systems. School districts have to be pretty savvy to make sure there is not this sense that one school is not dramatically better to get into, because parents will find a way to game that.”

Any system needs to account for student transportation, which already is problematic for students, really work to spread information more evenly and actively engage the unengaged.  We also need to make schools welcoming places for more diverse families.

So we need to listen to families throughout this process and also tailor supports to the challenges they are facing.

We have a chance to be a leader in balancing the scales for children and families in Oakland.

On one side are historical legacies and privileges and the other children and families who deserve more.  I hope we will have the will and vision to do the right thing.

2 Things You Need to Know about the “Charter Movement”

Everything you hear about charter schools is true.  And everything you hear about charter schools is false.  That’s what 20 plus years working with them has taught me.

They send high numbers of low income kids to college, they pick and choose students, they are safer.  They disproportionately suspend certain kids, they save taxpayers money, they are run by hucksters. They outperform traditional district schools, or they don’t.

It’s all true.  This duality was highlighted in the recent John Oliver segment, which was seen as critical of charters (and has twisted more than a few knickers), highlighting fraud and lax authorizing, but the segment started with boasting about the college going success of KIPPsters.  And both are true.

Whether charters tend to meet their promise of delivering innovative equitable education, depends nothing on the label, “charter”, but the plan and people behind it.  There is no essential ingredient to a charter, except independence, about the weakest organizing principle you can think of.

There is no common content in charter schools

Charter law varies widely between states, authorizer practices vary even more widely.  And the individual charters themselves run from end to end of the spectrum.  This is both in terms of program, and also in terms of outcomes.

Just within Oakland you have military schools, Waldorf, Montessori, arts schools, schools that emphasize testing, schools that don’t, schools that suspend a lot of kids, schools that suspend very few.  Many of these schools don’t necessarily like or even respect the educational methods of their “colleagues.”

Same with students served, some charters over-represent high needs students, some under-represent them, some outperform the district, some underperform.  It’s the gamut.  Outside of the label and resisting control—Charters don’t see themselves as some collective.  And there is no common genetic marker in the DNA of charters, just a shared birth story.

I have long argued there is no “charter movement” just a bunch of folks who want some independence from districts—for all range of motivations, most good, some bad, some the jury is out on.

So charter folks honestly need to lighten up when a comedian pokes fun at some real malfeasance (and clean the house).   I don’t defend “charter schools” some charter schools are horrible.  Look no further than Livermore.

I have lobbied for charters to be closed and others not opened.  There is nothing magic about the label “charter” that makes a school better.  Or worse.  More ethical, or less.

The charter=good and charter=bad worldviews are both wrong some of the time.  And they will continue to be because there is no essential content in a “charter.”  So we need a new paradigm.

It sounds trite, but we really do need to discard the content-less labels and look transparently  at school quality, ethics, and equity.  That is exactly what families care about—if anyone bothered to ask them.

OUSD Tax Measures Are a Step Towards Equity, a Leap is Needed in CA

Oakland’s schools are underfunded and need a permanent fix.  While it’s great to see local tax measures on property and developers moving forward, we really need to look hard at the statewide funding system if we are going to get to real equity.  The elephant in the room is Proposition 13 which capped all property tax rates, that needs to be reformed if we are really going to try to live up to the promises of equitable education.

Public support for the District and its administration are at historic levels, and I applaud Oakland’s new parcel tax proposal as well as its increasing developer fees, but our kids will never reach parity in funding with richer districts until we have a statewide structural approach to school funding.  Right now Piedmont, that little island in Oakland, gets 5K more per student than Oakland kids do.

If you want a recipe to increase inequality, you have it.  Richer districts structurally get more because they can tax themselves more, and poorer districts where student needs are higher get less, even with temporary additional state funding to support high needs students.

The math on local property taxes and facts on CA funding

Average home value in Piedmont is $1.7 million almost three times higher than Oakland’s at $616,000, so we would have to tax ourselves at almost 3 times the rate of Piedmont to generate the same revenue.  And really children with more challenges should get more resources, there is no way this will happen with school funding tied so closely to property taxes.

And as I have described before, it’s just not like this in other states.  New York basically funds schools in a way that is sufficient to meet student needs.  Let’s review the adjusted education funding data from Edweek, California was 41st overall, paying approximately $8,339 per student in 2013.  In NY, the per-pupil was $17,548.  And CA puts 2.6% of its total taxable resources into education, NY puts in 4.2%.

So yes, pass the parcel tax, make developers pay their fair share, but we also need to structurally invest more in the public sector.  There are plenty of individuals and corporations that can pay more, we could keep current caps for properties under $1 million, and/or split the rolls and have businesses pay market rates while preserving the cap for residences.  But we need to do something structurally Close The Loophole is one campaign.

So by all measures we need to take these small steps forward, but we need to actually change the tilt of the field if we are really going to move towards sufficient and equitable funding in California, and that means reforming Prop. 13.