Standardized Testing Opt-Out Letter California, 2019

Well friends/co-conspirators, unfortunately, it is that time of the school year again when we must show our solidarity for visions of educational justice and the schools all of our children deserve. Refuse to allow your children to participate in the spirit-killing test industry machine – opt your child out. Many more resources can be found online, but here is the template for the letter I used in California this year (2019). Previous letters used in Ohio can be found in my blog archives.

Peace to you, if you’re willing to fight for it. ~Fred Hampton 

April 25, 2019

School Name District Name School address (four lines)

Dear (school) Staff and (district) Administrators,

Please accept this letter as my submission, under California Education Code section 60615, which allows a parent or guardian to submit a written request to school officials to exclude his or her child from any or all parts of state-mandated assessments, to opt out my child, (child name), from all Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium tests administered this year.

Reimagining schools through an abolitionist framework, I am unequivocally opposed to standardized testing and the role it plays in perpetuating destructive and punitive practices in schools. Prepackaged state tests with stakes attached (whether high or low) undermine teachers’ autonomy, de-professionalize educators and are a mechanism for reproducing structural inequality. A FairTest fact sheet, “Racial Justice and Standardized Educational Testing,” states that young people of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most as the explosion of high-stakes standardized testing in U.S. public education has undermined equity and school quality. These tests provide no social or educational benefit, inflict harm on our most vulnerable young people, and contribute to corporate superpredators making billions through the testing industry, charter industry, and textbook industry.

In refusing standardized tests, I stand in solidarity with others pursuing a dream of educational justice in which schools are based on collective dignity, community, creativity, intersectional justice, healing, joy, radical love, and are spaces where every child feels safe and celebrated, and knows they matter.

Test scores from SBAC will not reveal anything to (child)’s teachers or other school staff members that they do not already know about (him/her), nor will standardized tests illuminate the many acts of kindness, compassion, and patience bestowed upon (child) by the staff at (school name) School.

In solidarity with abolitionists for educational freedom,

(Your Name)

(your phone number and/or email)

 

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Is UC Santa Cruz selling infants and toddlers to a cesspool of injustice while claiming to fight injustice?

Is UC Santa Cruz selling infants and toddlers to a cesspool of injustice while claiming to fight injustice?

     One of the reasons I applied to graduate school at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) was because of the commitment to social justice that the university boldly proclaimed and embraced with slogans like the one on the side of the campus bike-bus: “UCSC, the original authority on questioning authority.” Knowing there was a shared vision of fighting for what is right and standing for the most vulnerable inspired and comforted me. How did this revolutionary spirit descend into voluntarily expanding the profits of the barbarians at Bain Capital? It’s perplexing.

     Bright Horizons, the daycare mega-company that UC Santa Cruz is contracting to take over childcare services once the new facility is built, is owned by Bain Capital.  In an attempt to justify the move, one UCSC spokesperson seemed to be utilizing an age-old whining child’s tactic – everyone else is doing it. “We continue to believe Bright Horizons will provide our campus — the faculty, staff, and students — with quality child care, based on its performance at several other University of California campuses,” was written in a statement by a UCSC representative. In 2013, The New York Times offered a brief history of the way Bright Horizons took care of Bain Capital over the decades and how “Bain’s profits on the deal have been anything but child’s play.”

     In a 2017 news story in New York City, the local CBS station reported on a protest by parents when they discovered what those caring for their children at the Bright Horizons childcare center were making. They revealed, “Bright Horizons has a market value of more than $4 billion.” A parent in the story reported paying $30,000/year for childcare services there but learned those caring for infants and toddlers were only making $11/hour. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, 2012 presidential candidate and partial founder of Bain Capital (who also employed Bain Capital and Pioneer Institute members as part of his Massachusett’s executive branch staff), bragged about the low paying jobs created through Bright Horizons in response to criticism that Bain Capital was the private equity group of corporate vultures who destroy jobs. Meanwhile, as Executive Chairman, Chief Executive Officer at BRIGHT HORIZONS FAMILY SOLTN, David H. Lissy made $1,822,308 in total compensation in just 2017. Of this total $396,608 was received as a salary, $444,697 was received as a bonus, $967,960 was awarded as stock and $13,043 came from other types of compensation. This information is according to proxy statements filed for the 2017 fiscal year.

     Professors at Cornell raised alarms in 2012 as their university contracted with Bright Horizons. Here is a quote from their local city paper:

     Bright Horizons provides daycare services to Cornell’s Ithaca campus and Weill      Cornell Medical College. In 2010, faculty urged President David Skorton to cut ties with Bright Horizons for violating 56 state child care regulations, overworking its teachers and overcompensating its top management. Skorton, however, decided to renew the University’s contract with Bright Horizons — a decision that some professors say they remain unhappy with.

    Citing past problems with Bright Horizons, Prof. Sydney van Morgan, sociology, said she finds Bright Horizons’ relationship with Bain Capital — which took the company private for $1.3 billion in 2008 — problematic. The University should not use the services of a corporate company when there are several other childcare institutions in the Ithaca community, he said.

    “Is that really the kind of company that Cornell wants to be working with, as opposed to IC3, the local childcare center, which is public, not-for-profit and run by a board of parents?” van Morgan said. “Why not have that model?”

Yes. Why not have that model? Hopefully, Bright Horizons remedied their 56 state childcare violations in New York, but they certainly did not cut their ties with Bain Capital. In fact, two members of Bright Horizons Board of Directors, Joshua Bekenstein and Jordan Hitch, are the Managing Director and Senior Advisor at Bain Capital Partners, respectively.  

     Why should anyone care about Bain Capital?

     In recent times, the most powerful education policy-making players in the arena have been from businesses and their foundations. Dell, Gates, Waltons, Broad, and private equity firms like Bain Capital have pushed for model legislation that requires high stakes standardized testing, merit pay for teachers, teacher accountability systems that link pay to test scores, retaining students for not meeting benchmarks, vouchers, charters, and approaches that maintain a system of segrenomics. Essentially, legislation that applies the principles of capitalism to education (which is notably not part of the business college because teaching is a social science that involves humans – not products) is the type of legislation Bain Capital supports in complete opposition to what education researchers at all of the universities worth anything have found to be best practices.     

     Some of you may be recalling your social studies lessons right now. Don’t legislators in legislative branches make laws? Sure, and Bain Capital has supported right-wing pressure groups such as the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research who are major drivers of the model legislation that has come from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and have been passed into law across the United States. Bain Capital helps fund ALEC initiatives. According to ALEC Exposed, “ALEC’s education legislation diverts taxpayers’ money from American public school children to for-profit education corporations, strips away the rights of teachers and their ability to negotiate strongly for small class sizes and other practices that help children learn better, and gives more tax breaks to rich corporations and individuals to pay private school tuition.”

     ALEC has also introduced legislation such as the “Stand Your Ground” law that allowed for the murder of Trayvon Martin to go unpunished, anti-immigration legislation, tough-on-crime legislation that nourishes and expands the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) (the PIC that UCSC Distinguished Professor Emerita Angela Davis has been fighting to abolish for decades), and environmentally destructive legislation.

     Bright Horizons is part of and funds Bain Capital. Bain Capital supports and funds groups (like the Pioneer Institute) that support ALEC and ALEC legislation. UC Santa Cruz wants parents to give their money for childcare to Bright Horizons, which will enrich Bain Capital. Bain Capital will continue to monetarily contribute to all of the unjust initiatives many of us at UCSC will spend the majority our lives fighting.

     What. The. Actual. F***?!?!?!

 

  

 

St Paddy’s Day, Starvation & Public Education

In case you missed it last year…

Perhaps you’ll be recovering this weekend, along with many others, from the celebrations on St. Patrick’s Day which are full of parades, green clothing, Irish whiskey, green beer, and corned beef. Setting all of the green fun aside, the history of Irish immigrants is dark and rich, and should prompt all of us to question why we continue to allow those in power to starve the poor.
During the first winter of famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s, hundreds of thousands of Irish peasants starved, while landlords and the British exported 17 million pounds sterling worth of food that could have prevented the starvation. As those Irish who were able to migrated to other countries for survival, the British government and Anglican church did nothing on behalf of the poor in Ireland to stop the starvation.
In America, Trump’s recent budget proposal could cut programs that feed poor children and the elderly, and his Secretary of Education mocks our national free lunch program. Are we any better today than the capitalist and colonial forces that sacrificed Ireland’s peasants over 150 years ago? Looking at the deprivation, violence, trauma, and toxins that are allowed to surround the students I serve in Cleveland, Ohio, I’m uncertain that we’ve learned anything from history.
According to Feeding America, in 2015, 42.2 million Americans lived in food insecure households, including 29.1 million adults and 13.1 million children. What does it mean to live in a country where over one-third of the adults are obese, and a country that exports $131 billion in foods, feeds, and beverages, yet fails to provide its most vulnerable citizens with access to adequate nutrition? Maybe it is time to examine what it means when food remains a commodity, instead of a human right.
What happens when the same destructive global system of profit that pervasively commodified food is applied to education? We’re left with segments of the population starved of adequate learning materials, resources, qualified instructors, enrichment activities, and the arts, and a citizenry devoid of the ability to think critically. We’re left with colonizers telling certain demographics that they aren’t worthy of democratically controlled school boards or neighborhood schools, but that they are still good enough to pay taxes. We allow for fallacious ideas like competition, charters, vouchers, and the generation of standardized products formerly known as children to invade our common schools and devour public funds. We become victims of profiteers and eduperialists who legally plunder millions (billions?) of public dollars to inflate their personal wealth at the expense of educating all children. We manifest a destiny that empathetic future historians will surely reflect upon with shock, dismay and horror.
As we recover and rejuvenate from St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, we don’t have to let the dismal tragic details of Irish immigration get us down, but perhaps we can reflect upon our country’s obsession with capitalism and the commodification of things that everyone should have access to as human beings. Consider the words of Fintan O’Toole, a columnist for The Irish Times:
“We either wink at a racism that affords most of us the privilege of a white skin,” he wrote. “Or we honour the struggles of so many millions of Irish immigrants to be accepted as equal human beings.” … Will we stand “up for all of those who share the Irish experience of having to overcome poverty and prejudice in order to make decent lives for our children?

Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. (Gaelic)

Under the shelter of each other, people survive.

Not My Inmates

     When he stood up to sharpen his pencil at the sharpener on the cart directly in front of my desk, he spoke unprompted softly and reflectively while he gazed blankly at the classroom wall. “I have never been to school in an actual high school. That’s a dang shame, isn’t it?” I looked down quickly to fight back any tears that might involuntarily form in my eyes. “Yes. It really is,” I replied.

     I knew this student’s case had just been adjudicated to the adult system, and it clearly weighed heavily on his sixteen-year-old shoulders. All of his high school credits prior to arriving at our classroom were from another detention facility in the state, and he seemed to accept he wouldn’t be exiting the system any time soon.

     As an educator at our county’s juvenile detention center, it is difficult to witness the effects of multiple moments of disappointment and neglect on our city’s most vulnerable children. My heart splinters for their lost childhoods and obstacle-laden futures, but also for those in the community whom they may have hurt because the interventions these kids desperately needed as they were growing up were never provided.

     Teaching is a humanity. It is difficult to find more glaring examples of the need for human connections once you have had the misfortune of being immersed in experiences at a juvenile jail. This necessity for a human nexus continues once kids leave my classroom for their next destination. Ideally, that next destination is in the community because the juvenile justice system in conjunction with other agencies has efficiently and effectively performed its established purpose. Tragically, however, I often maintain communication with my students through correspondence with them at another incarceration facility.

     I optimistically expect most citizens to agree with the assertion that the United States’ justice and mass incarceration systems require abolition. Yet, unless someone is directly entangled in the system, most of us are oblivious to the many costs people incarcerated and their loved ones must pay.

     In addition to having to purchase cheaply made and easily broken “j-players” in order for incarcerated people to electronically communicate with those outside of the prison system, each electronic message sent requires payment equivalent to or more than the cost of a U.S. postage stamp. Each picture attached to an electronic message sent through JPay also requires an additional “stamp” purchase in order to digitally send it.

     For example, a former student I maintain contact with asked me to send him a picture of his high school diploma because he was taken from our facility before his graduation could be certified. In order to send the picture, I paid .50 cents for the electronic message and an additional .50 for the digital picture attached, for a total of $1.00 for the one communication.

     Securus, the company which owns JPay, yields over one hundred million dollars per year in profits, with a gross profit margin of 51 percent, by exploiting already disadvantaged citizens. Although the profits generated as a result of people’s suffering are sufficiently abhorrent, the pit in my stomach the first time I became a JPay consumer was not initially spurred by the money I was spending. Rather, it is the way in which JPay and multiple other prison industries, in collaboration with various established institutions in our society, have successfully dehumanized people who are incarcerated.

     Going to JPay’s website, users can see how to do an “inmate search.” I am never looking for an “inmate.” I am searching for a young person who was a student in my class. They are sons. They may be brothers, uncles, nephews, or fathers. Whatever their worst deeds are, “inmate” should not be the summary of their existence.

     The over two million people incarcerated in the United States are human beings. Redacting their humanness and reducing them to their prodigious mistakes is a practice utilized by the inhumane to erase their humanity. Just as the revolting practice of referring to enslaved human beings as “slaves” was once embedded into our culture, attributing the term “inmate” to incarcerated human beings is similarly repulsive to my sensibilities.

     I often quote Desmond Tutu when I am concluding public presentations about my students and our classroom at the county’s juvenile detention center. He said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” We must all remind each other of our innate worth as living beings on this planet, and seek the humanity that connects us. Discarding dehumanizing language that transforms people into negatively implicated nouns may enlighten our perceptions of the people many would rather not know or name.

     I may refer to the young people in my classroom as my students, but they are not my inmates.

Women’s March in Cleveland,Ohio,1-20-18

I made the following remarks at the Women’s March in Cleveland, Ohio, on January 20th, 2018. I was honored to be part of an amazing series of speakers. 

A video link to the speech is available on youtube thanks to Toni Jones.

Before I begin, I’d like to take a moment to honor the Erie Indians who lived on this land long before any of us arrived. They were an Iroquoian tribe of the northeastern woodlands, who spoke an Iroquoian language similar to Huron and Seneca. As we continue to confront those who oppress, may we never forget those who have been embroiled in a struggle to exist for centuries.

I am honored to have this time here with you today, and honored to be representing Ohio’s Badass Teachers Association (BATs), and thousands of educators who are fighting for the public schools ALL our children deserve.

When government officials and the business community attack teachers and the public schools that over 90% of school-age children attend, you can believe that it is an attack on women, who make up over 75% of the teaching profession. It is an attack on our children. It is an attack on our democracy.

As a mother, as an educator and as a woman, I recognize that it is this alliance among women and our friends that is the worst fear of those holding power in (what I like to refer to as) our system of “electile” dysfunction.

And how can those in power who oppress and disenfranchise maintain their power?

Part of their plan includes an attack on and the starvation of the foundation of our democracy: our public schools.

They defund education and steal tax dollars to promote a for-profit education system, particularly in the urban neighborhoods of our most vulnerable citizens.

Those governing Ohio are still out of compliance with a twenty-year-old state supreme court decision mandating that they fix the way we fund our public schools.

We must hold public officials accountable. Budget bills must equitably and fully fund education –  not mass incarceration or deportation.

As we gather here today, there are young people whose civil rights are being violated right now at our county jail, not too far from here. These young people have been identified as individuals with learning disabilities. And even though federal law demands that these young people be offered services for their specific educational needs, the county and city that detains them continues to violate federal law by not offering these already disadvantaged young people access to education.

Perhaps those in power restrict access to education because education is essential to human liberation. An uneducated or poorly educated populace is much easier to manipulate and control.

In the spirit of liberation, we must all continue to fight to dismantle oppressive practices like high stakes standardized testing in schools; practices placed upon us by legislators and corporate interests without any regard for what is best for our children.

Ohio is one of only 14 states in the country that still requires students to pass tests not created by their classroom teachers in order to graduate or be promoted.

We must continue to fight for curriculums and classroom practices that are culturally relevant to every child.

We must support local democratically elected school boards. Because if you can vote to have your taxes raised to support a school district, then you should be able to vote for the board controlling the money used in those schools.

We call for an end to harsh zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, and instead call for the implementation of restorative practices that do not disproportionately put children of color on a school-to-prison pipeline.

You can’t say you’re a pro-lifer and then refuse to fight for every living human being to have an equitable opportunity to enjoy safe quality schools, safe communities, safe water, safe housing, safe neighborhoods, and to have police forces who protect and serve.

When I became pregnant with my eldest son at the age of 17, it was education that helped remove me from a life otherwise destined for dependence on public assistance. There probably isn’t anyone who understands and relates to my passion for justice and equity in education more than my sons. Thus, it is with tremendous pride that I am able to share with all of you that my oldest son here today, Cassimir Svigelj, is running for the 16th district house seat in the Ohio legislature, which includes Bay Village, Rocky River, Fairview Park, North Olmsted & Westlake, with my full support.

Not only do education activists take their power to the polls, but sometimes their kids are inspired to actually get their names on the ballot.

Before I go, I plead with all of you to remain vigilant and diligent in the fight for our public schools. Liberty and justice for all depend upon it. Thank you.

 

Twas the First Night of Break

‘Twas the first night of break, when all through the school

Not a creature was stirring, except a privatizing ghoul

A public school teacher was sleeping all snug in her bed

While visions of happy students appeared in her head

As the papers she graded slid off of her lap

She had just settled down for a long winter’s nap

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter

The teacher dragged herself from bed to see what was the matter

And what to her tired eyes did appear?

But a bunch of self-righteous folks who were

billionaires

“O’ Waltons, O’ Broad, O’ DeVos , O’ Gates

What are you doing here on my lawn so late?

Do I even want to know your latest plans to deceive?

Seriously, winter break is supposed to be a reprieve!”

Unfortunately, to her front porch the billionaires did dash

Wearing their contempt for public schools like an itchy red rash

Down the stairs she went to meet them, as if in a trance

She thought maybe she could reason with them, if given the chance

A backpack full of cash was flung on their backs

And they looked smug and condescending in their tailored slacks

The teacher presented research about what kids need to learn

But their only care was the money they could earn

“Students are children; not products,” she tried to explain

“Your lack of knowledge and meddling are causing great pain”

She added that teaching is a mix of science and art

“It’s a humanity,” she said “Not a business with no heart!”

The vacant look in their eyes and tilt of their heads

Soon gave her to know she had much to dread

They spoke not a word, disregarding her work

She feared inequity would continue to lurk

Then away they all flew in their extravagant jets

Forgetting to thank her for cleaning up their mess

But they heard her exclaim, as they drove out of sight

“This isn’t over! We’ll continue to fight!”

 

Happy winter break to all and peace to those willing to fight for it.

 

Figure Out My Color

This poem was a result of the collaborative effort of three of my students.

This is from The Urban Youth Collaborative’s Facebook post:

**POWERFUL** Yesterday, our young people in UYC participated in a National Day of Action with the NYC Coalition for Educational Justice calling for racial justice in our classrooms! Watch youth leader Estefany Valera, recite a poem written by 3 young men currently in the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, in Cleveland. The poem was written to be read on Columbus Day, soon to be known as #IndigenousPeopleDay #NYC#Education4Liberation

The Video: The Urban Youth Collaborative Event

The poem:

Figure Out My Color

The police thought I had a gun one time and they asked me

“where’s the gun, where’s the gun?”

I didn’t have a shirt on

so it was obvious that I didn’t have a gun

in my waistband

and they checked my pockets

and they thought I had a gun

but I didn’t.

Now think for a minute…

What if it was you

Stopped for being brown

For being in a certain part of town

For being too poor

to afford

To be free?

Do we even know what we celebrate today for?

Is it just celebrating more

Of the punishing of the poor?

Enslavement, rape, disease, genocide

Are these sources of pride?

History lies

Mothers cry

For those who’ve died.

Living in a country

Where the flag waves

For the home of the brave

“Don’t flee!”

“Get on your knees!”

Police scream at me.

Does anyone hear my plea

To end painful legacies?

For people who will stand

For their fellow man?

~From students being held at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center in Cleveland, Ohio, in Melissa Svigelj-Smith’s classroom. 

 

Cleveland Truth Commission on Poverty

I was honored to have my son represent us at this event while I was at #NPEOAK17.

His presentation:

Hello.  My name is Angelo Svigelj-Smith, and I am here today representing my mother, Melissa Marini Svigelj-Smith, who is in her 20th year as a high school teacher in Cleveland Public high schools. Currently, she is teaching at our county’s juvenile detention center. She is also a community activist and advocate. It is her students’ voices that will be heard today from recordings made at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center. Before those statements are read, my mom had a few things to share about poverty and education in Cleveland.  

From my mother, Melissa:

As a long time advocate for social justice, I became dismayed and disillusioned a few years ago as I was told by those in higher administrative positions to do things that I did not feel were beneficial for my students, and sometimes even harmful;  all so that they could pass high stakes standardized tests.

And so that later those tests could be used to call students, schools, or teachers “failing.” Then, those with a profit motive could come in and get a slice of the $800-900 billion dollar education spending pie.  

Instead of quitting the teaching profession entirely four years ago, I decided to take a position at our county juvenile detention center, and to fight the system from within. In my new position I have been privy to and witness to an egregious exploitation of our city’s children all in the name of education privatization and profits.

Each week I document the educational atrocities committed against our children because of a culture of profit and competition. Treatment and conditions my students must experience, policy makers and others with privilege would never accept for their own children, but because the great majority of my students are from low-income households and brown, they are subject to these episodes of educational malpractice.

My students have had art, music, physical education, library time, foreign languages, and vocational classes taken from them. They are often in buildings with extreme heat or extreme cold. They walk to school, or stand at RTA bus stops, in neighborhoods filled with violence, crime and abandoned houses. They have the latest fads or trends tried out in their classrooms, even though there is no research to support these latest trends, but someone is always making a profit off of them. They are more likely to have temporary teachers instead of career professionals. Their neighborhood’s public schools are too often demolished or sold to private real estate holders, so that they can be used for profit-making charter schools.

I have students who were enrolled in ECOT, Regent, Bridgescape, and Lake Erie International (just to name a few) who arrive to me without making any progress towards graduation after months and years at these charters, but those charter schools have been paid with state tax dollars just because my students’ names were on their rosters, and no one is holding the charter schools accountable.

I have students who have never been in trouble before, but after one fight, triggered by a traumatic event in their life due to the poverty and violence that surrounds them, they are expelled from school and given no other treatment or consideration for their true issues or the sources of their pain.

In the most extreme and sorrowful cases, I have attended wakes and vigils for my students, and I’ve visited students in prisons across the state who are sometimes the cause of those wakes and vigils. It is a sick and vicious cycle that we would do everything in our power to stop if these kids had different zip codes, or if they were visitors at a republican convention, or part of a sports franchise.

For these reasons, I am part of the #WeChoose campaign. “It is a declaration from hundreds of thousands of parents and students in cities across the United States with a clear, yet profound message – we refute and resist corporate education policies that are inflicted upon our children without our voice.

The failure of previous administrations to respect the voices of all Americans has set the tone for this perilous moment that we are in now.

We reject appointed school boards. We reject zero tolerance policies that criminalize our children. We reject mediocre corporate education interventions that are only accepted because of the race and socio-economic status of the children served.

We choose equity.”

I hope that you will consider joining us. You can find more information at https://www.j4jalliance.com/wechoose/ – the Journey for Justice website.

If you would like to read more about my work as an educator and advocate, please read some of my blogs on msvigeljsmith.blog.

Thank you for this opportunity to have a voice for educators and students confronting the impact of poverty every day in their classrooms across America.

 

Address to Cleveland Mayoral Candidate Forum August 22nd, 2017

I meant to publish this in August, but didn’t get to it, and I had one for September also, which has turned into two for October and quite possibly even three or four for October. I’ll catch up! 

From Facebook: Thank you to Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith of OH BATs for this Badass speech at a Cleveland Mayoral Forum: https://www.facebook.com/meryl.johnson.3/videos/10207704256283174/?fref=gc&hc_location=ufi

The words: Thank you to all of you for taking the time to be here today and for listening to our questions and concerns, and thank you to Kathy and the other organizers for planning and preparing for the event today.

My name is Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith. I just began my 20th year of teaching in Cleveland Public High Schools, and my fourth year of teaching young men at our county’s juvenile detention center. Like most folks in this room, I stand here today as an activist; fighting for the education equity all our children deserve.  

There are so many issues surrounding education in our city, state and country that it is difficult to narrow the scope of the topic. For our purposes this evening, I have narrowed it down to three issues.

The first issue is poverty in our city. Over half of our city’s children are living in poverty. In February I published a blog titled “My Students Pay Every Day for Their Free Lunch.” In it, I shared the effects of poverty on students according to the  American Psychological Association. I listed things like inadequate nutrition and food insecurity, lack of access to health care, being at greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, behavioral and socio-emotional problems, physical health problems, and developmental delays. Additionally, chronic stress associated with living in poverty has been shown to adversely affect children’s concentration and memory which may impact their ability to learn. Poverty also perpetrates a violence upon our young people that leaves educators like me spending weekends or breaks visiting students in state prisons and attending wakes. This pattern of violence should not be replicated in our schools with zero tolerance policies and the policing of our children, excessive testing, a dulling down of the curriculum, and the elimination of classes and activities that make schools a place kids want to be.   

Furthermore, our schools should not be blamed for the poverty that our society allows to continue to exist, nor should they be expected to treat society’s ills without the necessary resources and services needed.

The second issue is charter schools, whether they’re labeled “for profit” or “nonprofit.” The unregulated charter industry in this state is costing our most impoverished districts the most financially and academically. I deal with charter schools across our county as I search for student records and piece together student transcripts. As the charter schools siphon millions of dollars from taxpayers throughout the state, the great majority of the time they are NOT outperforming our public schools. In fact, they offer less academically, place profit over what is best for children, and are chronically negligent, unreliable and inconsistent with regard to my record requests. During our first week of school, Invictus School sent me a transcript for a bright and curious student who has been enrolled with them for over a year. He has only earned half a high school credit. This is just one example of the educational malfeasance that I document every week. Children deserve equity in education, not the illusion of choice.

Finally, I question takeovers and mayoral control of schools in largely urban and economically disadvantaged areas where there are concentrated areas of people of color. When democracy is stripped away from any citizen, all of us are more susceptible to tyranny and despotism. Soliciting citizens to vote for tax levies to support the schools they aren’t able to democratically participate in governing is just a supplementary insult.

With this information in mind, I humbly submit the following questions for your pondering and response:

  1. How can we use our funds and resources to protect and nurture the most vulnerable children and families in our city just as well as we protect and provide for visitors to our downtown? Or our sports teams?
  2. How can we protect our tax dollars and citizens from predatory charter schools and vulture education profiteers?
  3. How can we halt corporate control that deletes democracy and treats our kids like products and numbers instead of the resilient and brilliant human beings that come to my class every day?

Thank you again for your time and attention.  

 

Hope Happens When Opportunities for Hope are Created

I was honored to be asked to write a blog post for Education First’s blog site, which I am also sharing here.

As an educator for 18-21 year-old boys at our county juvenile detention center, sorrow can often feel like a constant companion. There are days when the drenched weight of my students’ stories and struggles shrinks me to frustrated, unfeigned tears, but only when I’m alone at home much later into the day. It is my home and personal life that have shaped the educator and advocate/activist that I have become. Recently, when I was discussing with my 17 year-old son whether or not I thought it was a good idea for him to walk two blocks alone in downtown Cleveland, he provided me with a jarring reminder: “Mom, I look like the monster that other people are afraid of. Don’t worry about me,” he said, as if that was supposed to offer me a semblance of comfort. My thoughtful, polite, intellectual, kind, dedicated son is over six feet tall with keen brown eyes, beautiful brown skin and lovely tumbling dreadlocks. He could be mistaken for any number of the young men I greet in class at work each day, and none of them are monsters.

My son’s words still conjure a feeling of dread within me. They are foreboding and cause my stomach to contort and form a lump, which rises into my esophagus and threatens to appear as a burst of emotional moisture in my eyes. Yet, it also motivates me to keep working, because there is much work to be done on behalf of my son and all young men who may or may not look like him. Thanks to a generous grant as a  NoVo SEL Innovation Award recipient, this work that is so necessary has support and endurance.

Recognizing three years ago when I began teaching at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center (CCJDC) that social and emotional learning (SEL) was going to continue to be an integral part of my practice, I immediately reached out to many of the community contacts I had previously collaborated with while teaching in other public high schools. I planned to continue to provide multifarious SEL learning moments in a variety of modalities for my students. In addition to a trauma-informed classroom approach to teaching, incorporated into our daily classroom routine are the practices and concepts of gratitude, mindfulness, breathing exercises, growth mindset, short term and long term goal setting, and reflection.  A community partnership with SPACES, supported by the NoVo grant, offers an exceptional additional opportunity for students to interact with a diverse array of artistic mediums, facilitated by international, national, and local artists, that are then used as a component of our classroom’s community service and outreach. Written reflections from the young men overwhelmingly cited these artistic experiences, and the opportunity to do something kind for someone else, as their favorite activity in class.

Not only is it crucial for my students to be exposed to the talents and resources that surround them in the community, but it is equally as important that those in the community change their proximity to the young men in my classroom. I strive to plant seeds of hope in the young men who arrive to me, but we must also vigorously attempt to change the narratives surrounding them in our community. As an educator, neutrality simply is not an option. I am pleased to share that two artists who interacted with my young men valued and enjoyed their time with them so much, that they refused the small stipend that SPACES was able to dispense as a result of the NoVo grant. Thus, we were able to offer additional activities we had not originally planned.

Art is a natural medium for social and emotional learning. It allows for the exploration of self, which was quite evident when one young man explained his painting as a representation of the voices he hears. It improves self-management because producing art naturally de-escalates stress levels. Many of the activities, like paper making, screen printing and audio recordings, required a collaborative effort, which improves relationship skills. Having their art valued and appreciated contributes to their confidence and sense of self-efficacy. The empathy expressed and perspectives taken by the young men as they created place mats and cards for ill children at the Cleveland Clinic and pen cases for staff members, or as they decorated cupcakes and cookies for younger students and flower pots to grow milkweed in to help save monarch butterflies, are moments that burst the reality bubbles many people previously resided in.

During a printing activity, some students could not resist the urge to mark their art with street or gang affiliated tags. Although it is their reality, displaying art with gang suggestions would violate school policies. Not willing to throw their creations aside, I cut out the letters and they remained in a large envelope for weeks.  After reflecting on my students’ life stories, I used the cut out letters to create a message on a large poster that could be representative of the essential way my students may differ slightly from my own sons, or kids any of us might know: they haven’t been given opportunities or circumstances that instill in them a hope for their futures. The message I created from their letters for their gallery exhibit at SPACES read “Hope happens when opportunities for hope are created.”

Hope cannot be taken for granted or neglected. It is the beginning of every movement, every struggle, and every idea. It is also the origin of the art collaboration between my classroom of 18-year-old boys at the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Detention Center, SPACES, and the generous NoVo Foundation.  I keep hoping that one day we will make sure every child feels they have a future to look forward to. I am profoundly grateful for all of those involved in supporting and accomplishing that goal.

May we all find more ways to create hope for others.

Melissa Marini Švigelj-Smith, July 2017