Public school teachers Jesse Hagopian of Seattle and Cristina Duncan Evans of Baltimore discuss the Feb. 5-10 week of action aimed at bringing social justice into classrooms across the country
JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore. We’re coming to you live on Facebook.
Black students in the United States often have lower graduation rates and test scores than their peers. They’re more likely to live in poverty. Classrooms in black and brown neighborhoods are as or more segregated as they were after integration. Many schools are being closed around the country, and there’s been a decrease in black teachers nationwide.
These are some of the reasons that students, educators and advocates have called for a “Black Lives Matter Week of Action” starting on Monday, February 5th. To learn more about this, we’re joined by two guests.
Here in our studio is Cristina Duncan Evans. She’s been an educator in Baltimore city schools for a dozen years, is currently an elementary middle school librarian, is one of the founders of the BMORE caucus of Baltimore school teachers, which believes in organizing teachers to advocate for social justice and the schools their students deserve.
Joining us from Seattle is Jesse Hagopian. Jesse teaches history, is the Black Student Union advisor at Garfield High, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013. He’s also an associate editor of the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine. Thank you both for joining us.
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Thank you.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: Thanks very much for having me.
JAISAL NOOR: Jesse, I wanted to start with you. This concept, this idea of a week of action in schools started in Seattle. I wanted to start off with a really basic question. Why not All Lives Matter? Why do you need to have a Black Lives Matter Week of Action? Describe how this started.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: Sure. Well, actually, I think that one of the lesson plans that teachers will be using across the country gets at that question. Why are we saying Black Lives Matter? Why aren’t we raising the slogan All Lives Matter?
I think an analogy is appropriate. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, we didn’t raise the slogan, “All Cities Matter” because we knew that there was a specific crisis going on in a specific city that needed attention.
Imagine if you went to the doctor and said you broke a bone in your arm and the doctor said, “Well, all bones matter.” and so he or she went about addressing all the bones in your body and not the one that was broken. What we’re seeing in public schools across the country is that the education system is breaking black youth. That’s why we have to actually rise up as educators to defend our black youth.
We see that with the school, the prison pipeline, when you look at suspension rates that are vastly disproportionate against students of color and black students, we know we have to defend them. Nationally, black students are suspended at some three or four times the rates of white students and actually black girls are the most disproportionately suspended at rates of seven times more than white girls.
We’ve seen it with black educators being pushed out of the classroom. Some 26,000 black educators have been pushed out of teaching since 2002. We see it with a whitewash curriculum, a corporate curriculum that denies the contributions and the struggles of black people in text books all across this country and that’s why we actually have to demand that Black Lives Matter.
And it’s just so inspiring to see how it started in Seattle with a One Day of Action last year and then spread to Philadelphia where they took it up as a whole Week of Action and now this year, seeing a National Week of Action with dozens of cities participating is truly inspiring.
JAISAL NOOR: Cristina, in Baltimore the school system is majority black, majority African American, talk about why have a Black Lives Matter Week of Action in Baltimore.
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Well, I think it’s really important for us to bring this message into Baltimore’s classrooms because everything that’s happening on a National level is happening here in Baltimore. And I think that the Uprising that happened in 2015, really gave Baltimoreans the opportunity to look at what’s happening here in terms of police brutality. I think that when we are having these conversations with our students it’s important because these are their communities.
Our students know where they were in April of 2015. They need to understand the context in which they live and I think that we, as educators have a duty and an obligation to protect our students. I think that means preparing them for the world in which they live, and the city in which they live. We need to have honest conversations about identity. We need to have honest conversations about racism and a classroom is a really important place for these conversations to happen.
JAISAL NOOR: And Jesse talks about the curriculum, which I’ve spoken to a lot of teachers and students and there was just a presentation to the school board by students in Baltimore that we have on our website right now at The Real News, but that is a big issue. Students find it as a Eurocentric curriculum. It’s not relevant to their history and their needs and it doesn’t describe their experiences as well. Can you talk about why that’s a challenge in the school system as well?
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Sure. When I think about curriculum, I think a lot about my classroom because for a long time I was a high school social studies teacher and when I looked at the state standards, I saw a lot of goals that didn’t really talk to my students about where they were, and it didn’t tell them about their place in the world.
We ignore a lot of American history. We ignore a lot of world history and so I think that students deserve to come out of school grounded in who they are and with a strong sense of where they fit into the world.
As a social studies teacher, I really believe strongly that even more than that, you have to prepare students to engage in the world, to change the world, to be civically connected to their community. Real authentic learning is largely absent from our curriculum because our state standards are based on a world that our students just don’t live in.
JAISAL NOOR: Jesse, we interviewed you during the historic boycott that was organized at your school, and it spread across Seattle and similar test boycotts have happened across the country but talk about how this testing regime you have all over the country where there’s such a huge emphasis on test scores. We know that socioeconomic background is the greatest predictor of test scores. We’re sort of setting up students to fail.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: Yeah. I completely agree. I think this hyperfocus on standardized test scores has really been at the detriment of authentic learning in classrooms across the country. I think it’s turned schools in the test prep factories rather than incubators of curiosity and civic courage and creativity. And that’s a shame, and it’s especially happened in schools that serve predominantly kids of color and black youth, where threats are made that the school will be closed or now increasingly graduation tied to these test scores. All of the teaching in the classroom is forced by public policy to be geared towards helping the student do well on a standardized test rather than helping them understand the problems that exist in their community and how they can be part of solving those problems.
We see that when you’re teaching to the textbook and teaching to the test, you’re missing so much. Let’s take a look at the scandal that happened in Texas a couple years ago where a student revealed that the textbook said that the Atlantic slave trade brought “workers” from Africa to the United States, and got rid of the word “slave” and put the chapter on slavery in the unit on immigration, as if black people were coming to the United States looking for a better life.
We see this whitewash curriculum just isn’t working to support our youth. I think in this era of increased hate crimes and in this era where we have a president who is comfortable using filthy, horrible language to call Africa and Haiti, educators have to be there to defend the humanity of our students and say, “No, you don’t come from a dirty, terrible place. You come from a beautiful land with beautiful people and a rich history of innovation and of struggle and resistance.” And that’s what we’re trying to do is bring that history back into the classroom.
JAISAL NOOR: Cristina, talk about the work you do as a librarian and what kind of resources teachers have access to in schools and in classrooms in Baltimore? I also wanted to ask you. There’s a whole Week of Action happening next week. What are some of the things that people can participate in or learn about?
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Sure. Well, I really love being a librarian because we have the ability to spend our time really asking questions and answering questions. So, in the library it’s all about teaching kids to evaluate information and real information literacy. One of the things that my students have been talking about a lot is the impact of social media on movements and media in general.
We looked at news coverage from the Civil Rights Movement. We looked at news coverage and social media posts that came out of Ferguson and the social media posts that were going around Baltimore during the Uprising.
And the lessons that educators have access to this week are really focused on the 13 principles of Black Lives Matter. So, for instance, one of the aspects that I really feel grounded in, in terms of the principles of Black Lives Matter, is this idea of empathy and loving engagement. We are asking teachers to reimagine their classrooms as empathetic spaces that are built around restoring students in the face of conflicts, rather than taking a disciplinary approach that we know just doesn’t further our students interest and ends up pushing them out of school instead of welcoming them into school and keeping them as part of our school community.
JAISAL NOOR: You always often hear about why attendance is so low. People have trouble, it’s challenging to get students to come to school but you understand the conditions and what they’re learning, and you start to understand a little bit of why that’s happening.
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Right. I think that when students come into schools and there aren’t doors on the bathroom stalls and there is not consistent heat throughout the building, and the books in the library are old, and they don’t have access to all of the other courses that kids in other areas are supposed to have, I think it says to kids what society thinks about investing in them. And I think that it’s very easy to become alienated from a space that physically rejects you and so when I think about the physical condition of our facilities in Baltimore, I don’t think the alienation some of our students feel is unwarranted or unjustified.
I think that we’re lucky in Baltimore to have an amazing group of educators who work so hard and so tirelessly to rebuild community in their classrooms and to make sure that their classrooms are spaces where students can feel welcome, can feel valuable. Adding to this idea of a welcoming space, one of the things we’re asking teachers to do is post the 13 principles of Black Lives Matter in their space so that when students walk into a classroom, they see an affirmation of their value, and they know that even though the building’s shabby, the people in this room care about you. The people in this room are about building you up, not tearing you down.
JAISAL NOOR: Jesse, offline, we were talking about how this week’s actions might even be unprecedented when you think about the fact that these unionized workers from around the country are coordinating these events together. I wanted you to talk about that.
Also, what the range of responses have been around the country from PG County in Maryland to Seattle? Some school boards have endorsed this Week of Action and you have some unions, the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates, voted to support this but you have others like the UFT, which is the Union in New York City, which refuse to take a position. They refuse to endorse it according to media reports.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: Yeah, absolutely. I am inspired by this action because I’m not sure that anything like this has ever happened in US history. As far as I know during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, I’m not aware of a time when thousands of teachers across the country coordinated an actual effort where they collectively issued demands of the school system that were about opposing institutional racism and then went into the classrooms and taught lessons all that week about structural racism, intersectional black identities and black history. And that kind of Nationwide coordinated uprising is really exciting. I think we’re just at the beginning of a new movement.
This movement has issued three National demands. The first is to hire more black teachers. The second demand is to end zero tolerance discipline and replace it with restorative justice practices and lastly, to implement and mandate black history and ethnic studies K12. I think those demands are just so critical right now to meeting the needs of our black youth in this country. And I’m really glad that so many unions, local unions, have stepped up and endorsed this. The Seattle Education Association, the LA Teachers Union, the Chicago Teachers Union and many more have stepped up in support.
It’s sad to me that one of the largest unions, the New York Teachers Union did not pass a resolution in support of this action. I think it shows there’s a lot more work to be done in the struggle and I think what I’m excited about is how many teachers though are committed to keeping this going. I think that educators and families will also come to see that when Black Lives Matter at school then and really only then can all lives truly matter in the schools.
I think one of our demands locally here in Seattle is to fully fund education because we don’t believe that black lives will truly matter to our school system unless our school system is fully funded and kids have the counseling services, the tutoring services, the health care services and the wraparound services they need to be successful in school.
Building a struggle to fully fund the school will definitely help our black students but I think it’ll also help every single public school student in this city and across the country. That’s a vision for a public school system that I think we’re all committed to fighting for in this movement.
JAISAL NOOR: Cristina, what Jesse was talking about will resonate in Baltimore because Baltimore schools, most people agree, have never been adequately funded, especially after white flight and, in the seventies and the eighties when Baltimore lost half its population.
Courts have repeatedly ruled that schools here are inadequately funded and yet, still that money is still lagging behind. Along with this Week of Action, it’s Black History Month but obviously, the challenges that the city and the school’s face go far beyond a week or a day or a month. Talk about what teachers here are doing to help address those fundamental problems, the fundamental issue with the school system and starting with the lack of funding.
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Right. The lack of funding is a key example of how systemic and structural, the disinvestment in our students has been. The term “adequate” gets used a lot, but I don’t think there’s really a clear understanding of it. So, adequacy means that it’s about basic fairness.
If we’re gonna say that a high school student has to do X, Y and Z in order to graduate, then it is only reasonable to give that student the education that can prepare them to cross that hurdle when it comes. There’s an amount of money that it cost to provide a student with that education that’s going to allow them to go on to the next level. When we look at what it cost to actually prepare a child for 12, 13 years, what we find is that over the last decade, Baltimore City has been short-changed by about three billion dollars.
So, we’ve been going entire generations without students in Baltimore City having the resources that they need in order to make it to the next level successfully. The ways that teachers are fighting back against this include we’re doing so by crafting legislation.
We recently with the help of our members created a piece of legislation that is going to create additional funding for students statewide, not just in Baltimore City because when Maryland voters approved slot machine gambling several years ago, they thought that that additional revenue would be added to the budgets of school systems. That that would be money that would be going to education. That never actually happened because instead of that money going to education, it was used to replace money that was taken out of the education budget. We’re trying to right that wrong at the state level.
Then I think that we are also working really hard to make sure that teachers know about what we can do that students know about what we can do and that we’re present at the table when these conversations happen.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. And Jesse, let’s end with you. We’ve talked about underfunding. We’ve talked about how unfair assessments and test scores are when you’re talking about high populations of students that are living in poverty and schools that are underfunded. At the same time, there is a big movement around the country to privatize public education. We see it in Baltimore, reported on it extensively. Talk about your response to that, as well, because if schools are being set up to fail, privatization through vouchers or privately-run charter schools, they do provide an alternative. That is appealing for a lot of parents and students and communities.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: I can understand individual parents who have challenges with the public school system believing that they want to send their kids to a charter school as an alternative. I can understand a black parent whose kid was pushed out of school with these high suspension rates or saw a curriculum that wasn’t valuing their black student and looked to a charter school as a way out of that problem because there is a crisis that needs to be addressed in supporting black students in the public schools.
The problem is charter schools have been shown over and over again not to be that solution and that’s why the movement for black lives policy platform has opposed charters. That’s why the NAACP nationally came out against charter schools because they’re not a solution.
They actually in recent studies have been shown to push kids, black and brown kids, out of school at higher rates than the public schools. They have been shown academically to perform no better or even worse than public schools and what’s most damning about the charter school movement is that they siphon off funds that are so desperately needed from the public school system into a privatized network.
Here in Seattle, Green Dot is getting ready to open a charter school right next to Rainier Beach High School. Rainier Beach High School is in the south end and serves predominantly kids of color and black students in Seattle. It’s the only school in Seattle that has not had renovations yet in decades and so if we were able to actually put public funds into renovating Rainier Beach High School and providing those kids with the wraparound services they would need to be successful, then we could start to see real achievement rise with our students of color but instead we’ll have more public money siphoned off into a nearby charter school that hasn’t been shown to be any better and I think that’s a losing strategy, but a winning strategy is what the teachers across the country are doing in raising this Black Lives Matter at school movement.
Teaching to the 13 principles of the Black Lives Matter movement next week is going to be one of the truly joyous experiences, I think, in my whole teaching career.
On Monday, we’re teaching lessons about restorative justice and loving engagement. On Tuesday, we’re teaching lessons about globalism and the African diaspora. On Wednesday, we’re teaching lessons about trans affirming and queer affirming, and uncovering the history of black LGBTQ leaders and activists such as Bayard Rustin, such as the queer women that started Black Lives Matter. That’s going to be exciting. On Thursday, we’re going to be teaching about black villages, black families in intergenerational and looking at the way the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration has negatively impacted that. Then on Friday, we’re going to be teaching lessons about black women and the long legacy of leadership they’ve had and struggles for social justice and unapologetically black.
We’re going to have thousands of teachers wearing these shirts to school all across the Nation while we teach these lessons in an unequivocal message of support for our black students and black colleagues and I couldn’t be more excited. So, I appreciate the time today.
JAISAL NOOR: Okay. If people want to learn more about what’s happening in their school system or in their state, where can they go to find that information?
JESSE HAGOPIAN: They should go on Facebook and look up the “National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action” and get involved. They can wear shirts to school or work all next week in solidarity with this movement. If you’re an educator, you should be teaching lessons around the themes of Black Lives Matter. I think we’ll send a clear message that this movement is growing.
JAISAL NOOR: All right. I want to thank you both for joining us. From Seattle, Jesse Hagopian. He is an educator, an author, a member of Social Equality Educators. He blogs at IAmAnEducator.com and here in Baltimore, Cristina Duncan Evans, a long time teacher, activist and part of the BMORE caucus of educators in Baltimore school system. Thank you both for joining us.
CRISTINA DUNCAN EVANS: Thanks so much.
JESSE HAGOPIAN: Thank you so much. Great to be with you.
JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for joining us at The Real News.