Monthly Archives: June 2016

“Touch, Touch, Touch”: Minneapolis Parent Reflects on A Year Well-Spent

June 20, 2016

Guest post! Today’s post was written by Minneapolis Barton Open School parent, Sarah Cooper Evans. Sarah has a great eye for progressive education–which is what the “Open” in Barton’s name is all about. As the school year ended, Sarah reflected on what made the year meaningful for her son, who is headed to third grade this fall. 

Hands-On

A chick is born

First, a few notes:

  1. Barton is a K-8 magnet school in southwest Minneapolis, built in 1915. It served as a neighborhood school for most of its 100 years, but has been an “Open” school since the 1980’s. This makes it one of the longest standing leftovers from the heady 1970’s, when experimental schools were offered throughout the Minneapolis Public Schools, thanks to a pioneering, district-sponsored choice program called Southeast Education Alternatives. The aim was to “decentralize administration” in Minneapolis, desegregate the city’s schools through choice (magnets) and promote teacher-led innovation. Sound familiar?
  2. What makes it “Open”? Nebulous things like multi-age classrooms, portfolio and project-based learning, an emphasis on social-emotional learning (the “whole child”), and dynamic programming for 7th and 8th graders. Read on for specifics, and check out the “Responsive Classroom” model, which Sarah credits for much of the positive, community-building work done at Barton.
  3. Barton is rapidly diversifying, but remains, for now, a majority white, middle class school. The challenge of how to be an Open school, and an open community, for all kids and families, and not just the historical Barton population, is right at the school’s doorstep. The push to prioritize racial justice, in addition to progressive ed, is happening, amid recent leadership turnover, large class sizes and an expressed need for more resources and support.

Take it away, Sarah!

As a parent at Barton, I am spending this small bit of time at the end of the school year reflecting on all that made my second grade son’s school experience progressive and beautiful. It is so difficult to choose where to focus because, as a parent, I felt as if my son was immersed in meaningful, collaborative, socially constructed, joyful, interdisciplinary learning every day of the school year. But I have come up with a shortlist of highlights.

Fall

  • In October, students wrote, illustrated and read their own books at an “Author’s Tea.” Students were both authors and audience members, supporting one another, helping other kids read their books, and giving each another child-driven feedback, as parents scribbled encouraging notes on yellow sticky paper. 

    Stone Soup

    Stone Soup prep

  • November brought a Stone Soup luncheon, held just before Thanksgiving. Students spent all week chopping vegetables, making soup, and then serving one another and their families in their classroom.  

Winter

  • Students made their own lanterns by gluing squares of pink, purple, yellow and green tissue paper onto Ball jars. Each jar had a tea candle glued into the bottom of it, making the tissue paper glow when lit. On a chilly Saturday evening, students and families gathered in a nearby public park. saying goodbye to fall and welcoming winter while singing together and carrying their lanterns through the darkness. 
  • Students in my son’s class let their own lights shine by completing a self-chosen project having to do with light–be it a historical person they admired because he or she had done good and added light to the world, a scientific inquiry into light and electricity, or how animals use light to survive and thrive (bioluminescence- my son’s beloved project).  It was up to them how they wanted to shine, and they all did so brightly.  

    Sampson LIGHT

    Light project

Spring

  • My son’s class did a bus tour of Minneapolis, as part of their “Timelines and Skylines” unit of study. As he got off the school bus that day, his excitement was electrifying. He gave me a report on the tour, and it was clear that my 8-year-old is much more knowledgeable about our wonderful city than I am, and I have lived here since 2000.  
  • In late spring the school hosted a “MoSaic” event,  where students and specialist teachers created a mini-museum to display the work students had done in media, art, music, and science, as it related to Dakota and Ojibwe cultures. The evening was complete with a Native drum circle, whose members shared their talents and then invited the students to create music with them, using buckets as drums.  
barton CAMP 4

Camping

If I must choose just one experience to exemplify the power of progressive education, it has to be the 1st and 2nd grade overnight camping trip to Baker Park in late May.  During that camp experience, students were not just learners.  They took on roles of campers, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, artists, biologists, singers, authors, athletes, teachers, field guides, and of course, friends to one another. 

I saw the power in this type of experienDisplaying IMG_3410.JPGtial learning as I helped a group of students find a good spot to embark on “pond study.” A student was making her way down a well-trodden path, joyfully exclaiming “touch, touch, touch!” as she grabbed at all the green life surrounding her while she followed her friends.  I am not sureDisplaying IMG_3410.JPG there is a better example of hands-on, sensory filled, meaningful, child-directed learning within a class community than observing that first grader that afternoon.  

Sometimes people wonder what progressive education really is or really looks like. My response is to consider a series of questions. Are learners active participants, problem solvers, and planners? Are teachers fostering critical thinking and inquiry?  Is the community an extension of the classroom?  Is knowledge constructed through play, direct experience, and social interaction?  Are subject areas integrated to make the learning meaningful to students?  I can say very confidently that my answers to those questions are an emphatic “YES!” when reflecting on this school year in my son’s classroom at Barton Open school.  

City Tour

–Sarah Cooper Evans

 

Minneapolis Public Schools Shows Growth, Restores Teacher’s Job

June 14, 2016

After being threatened with losing her job, Minneapolis theater teacher, Crystal Spring, learned today that her position at Washburn High School has been fully restored. Spring’s friend and supporter, Minneapolis writer and teacher Shannon Gibney, spread the word this afternoon on Facebook.

Earlier this afternoon, Crystal Spring received a voicemail message from Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), stating that she is removed from administrative leave effective immediately, and that her status is now as an active MPS employee. The voicemail included a personal apology from Barrett.

“I want to thank you, this community, for standing up for me,” said Spring, in response to the decision. “Thank you for the texts and letters and phone calls and messages of supporters—I read and listened to every single one. The community’s voice helped make this change. You ensured that I didn’t lose my livelihood, my career, my life’s passion.”

Barrett had sent Spring a letter on June 8, informing her that she was slated for termination, due to her arrest on May 19. On that date,  police rounded Spring up for allegedly interfering with another arrest; Spring has said she was simply observing that arrest, as the man involved was calling for help.

Questions have been raised about how the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Human Resources department found out about Spring’s arrest–which occurred at night, off school property–and why the district would attempt to remove a teacher without due process, and, seemingly, without allowing the criminal justice system to first decide her case.

As soon as word of Spring’s situation hit social media, a vocal and growing community of supporters rallied on her behalf. Students, colleagues, parents and other devotees of Spring’s work have been planning to show up at tonight’s regularly scheduled school board meeting to demand answers from the Minneapolis schools.

As of now, those plans are in flux, with interested people being told to check Facebook for further updates.

Organizers are still deciding if they will go forward with the rally planned at the school board meeting tonight, if it will instead be a celebration, etc.

A quick look at the reaction to this news, on the Facebook event page for tonight’s rally, shows a determined but relieved crowd:

This is a wonderful happy ending for a bad situation that no one needed to be put through. I hope Mr. Barrett and the school board will address what happened and how they will ensure such an ordeal doesn’t occur again.

FANTASTIC! Strongly encourage the rally to go ahead to demonstrate the power of our community! Let them hear this lesson.

Great job! But… I would like to see MPS define more specifically what activities would constitute grounds for discipline (including termination).

Should we still show up and lift up the message that students and their community want more teachers like Crystal Spring?

Tonight’s school board meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at Minneapolis’s Davis Center headquarters.

Celebrated Minneapolis Teacher Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

June 13, 2016

The Minneapolis Public Schools unleashed a fresh round of outrage on June 8, when district administrators informed popular Washburn High School theater teacher, Crystal Spring, that she was being terminated. (This action came just a few weeks after the district honored Spring as one of six Washburn teachers who have had a “significant impact on students.”)

Crystal Spring

Although the case is still unraveling, sources say Spring was faulted for “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” after she was arrested by Minneapolis police in May. The police say Spring was interfering with an off-campus arrest on May 19; Spring maintains that she was cooperating with police and simply bearing witness to their arrest of an African-American man who was calling for help.

The district moved to fire Spring before her case was decided in court (some have speculated that Spring’s “crime” may have been not reporting her arrest to the district). Acting presumptively, Minneapolis Human Resources director, Steven Barrett, sent a scolding, June 8 letter to Spring, according to Minneapolis writer and teacher, Shannon Gibney:

Spring’s termination letter was signed by Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at MPS, and CC’d to Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean, Mike Leiter, MFT; Human Capital; and Employee Relations.

In the letter Barrett writes, “…the District became aware of your arrest on Thursday, May 19, 2016. In that incident, you allegedly approached police officers involved with taking someone into custody. You parked your vehicle near the incident and confronted the officers on several occasions despite being told to step back. You then proceeded to follow the officers across the street and began to confront witnesses who were being interviewed by the officers, telling them not to cooperate with the officers and accusing the officers of being racist. Witnesses at the scene corroborated the officers’ account of your behavior. You were arrested and charged with obstruction of legal process and disorderly conduct.”

“This behavior is especially troublesome on multiple levels,” the letter continues. “You had no connection to the parties involved in the police action. You did not know the circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody. Yet you determined that repeatedly confronting the police officers, and shouting accusations about the officers to potential witnesses to the police investigation, was necessary.”

Barrett’s letter makes it sound as though he was there the night Spring was arrested. If he was not there, then would he know, any more than Spring, the “circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody”? Could he know for certain that Spring “repeatedly” confronted the officers, and shouted “accusations” about them to “potential witnesses”?

How does Barrett know that Spring was not doing the right thing by attempting to document the actions of the Minneapolis police?

Questions like these matter less than the devoted community of students, colleagues, and supporters that rose up quickly on Spring’s behalf, demanding she be reinstated. A headline-worthy Facebook event, called “MPLS Teacher FIRED for Cop Watch!,” burst to life, along with a planned rally for the June 14 Minneapolis school board meeting, where Spring’s official status was to be presented to board members.

Then, on June 12, the district buckled under mounting pressure (and action by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers). According to Gibney, Minneapolis officials agreed to place Spring on leave rather than fire her:

MPS sent the following text to Spring and her union rep late this afternoon (June 12): “After reviewing the matter with the Superintendent and senior staff, we are pulling Ms. Spring’s discharge off the board agenda. We will place her on administrative leave pending adjudication of the charges.”

Placing someone on administrative leave pending the outcome of a legal matter is provided for under district policy. Union leadership viewed this as a positive development in the case.

Acting superintendent, Michael Thomas, is also said to have asked for a chance to further review Spring’s case before deciding her fate. Still, Spring’s supporters are planning to turn out for the June 14 board meeting to protest the district’s seemingly hasty and confounding actions. A sampling of comments on the above-mentioned Facebook event page reveal a stunned community:

It is the phrase “behavior unbecoming for a teacher” that gets me. For an urban teacher who must continually be aware of diversity, culture, inequality and social justice, I think Crystal’s behavior was courageous.

…Why are they accepting only the police version of events in making their decision? I presume it’s because MPS, like many public institutions, is so afraid of further scrutiny of its own shortcomings that it expects its employees to be in complete solidarity with all government agencies. What’s next–firing teachers who get arrested as part of a peace demonstration or other public protest? 

Even if the police report were true, and she was vocally challenging an arrest, how is political/social activism unbecoming conduct for a teacher?!

If the district wants to close the achievement gap, this is the worst thing to do. Crystal Spring’s black box program is the SINGLE BEST THING THAT COMBINES STUDENTS OF ALL BACKGROUNDS I’ve seen as a 13-year MPS parent. She treats all students equally according to who they are. Fire her for a MISDEMEANOR? Outrageous.

Scene from Washburn’s Black Box theater, via TPT.

Gibney’s full account of Spring’s story–complete with a statement from the Minneapolis schools–is scheduled to be published in the City Pages today. For an overview of Spring’s work at Washburn, watch this video from a recent Twin Cities Public Television program. In April, the station featured Spring’s Black Box Theater, which she describes as a “social justice theater program based in youth voice.”

But it is clearly more than that. One student’s Facebook message might just say it all:

Crystal Spring has done too much for me and everyone else in the social justice community for me to not go and pour my heart out to that board…I’ll be there on Tuesday. We love you, Ms. Spring!

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Minneapolis Parents Question Administrator’s Ties to Principal, Nonprofit

June 9, 2016

On the front panel of a closet door in Norma Gibbs’s bright, open office is a smattering of inspirational sayings, including this one, from poet Maya Angelou:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

This saying might prove to be an apt summary of Gibbs’ first few months as a Minneapolis Public Schools principal. Since February, she has been the head of Whittier International School, a K-5 IB magnet in south Minneapolis. Almost as soon as she walked in the doors of the school, Gibbs has found herself embroiled in controversy over a number of issues, including employee relations, parent concerns, and her close ties to her boss, Minneapolis Associate Superintendent, Lucilla Davila. 

Lucilla Davila

Davila invited me to Whittier to interview Gibbs, after a tense May 19 meeting–called by parents–brought many of these controversies to the surface. (Davila and another district employee, Deb Anderson, sat with Gibbs during our interview.) The parents who spoke at the meeting were upset over Gibbs’s alleged attempts to remove a popular community education employee, Jeff “Nacho” Carlson, as well as her handling of the mostly Latino parents who had tried to advocate for Carlson. 

Whittier parents such as Patricia Almaraz tell stories of being angrily confronted by Gibbs, simply for gathering in the school’s cafeteria to discuss soccer sign-ups and, they acknowledge, the latest news about Carlson. (The parents I spoke with say they were shocked to hear he had been told his work wasn’t satisfactory, a claim Carlson supports with district emails Gibbs sent in March, but a claim Gibbs did not admit to.) 

Almaraz is a Whittier site council parent whose story shows what a tightly woven community Whittier is. She says she knew nothing about what was going on with Carlson, a Whittier parent and employee who speaks several languages, including Spanish, until her sister called in early May to tell her that parents were standing outside of the school, gathering signatures on Carlson’s behalf. (Almaraz says she has known Carlson since 2004, when she was a high school student at Minneapolis’s Wellstone International High School. Carlson was then a classroom assistant.)

Almaraz says neither she nor her sister had any idea what was going on, and so they agreed to meet at the school the next day, to see what they could find out. What happened next is an incident that still upsets Almaraz. She says that, once she met up with her sister at Whittier, they proceeded into the school’s cafeteria to talk, and were joined by two more mothers, whom Almaraz says she did not know.

Here is Almaraz’s story:

We moved to the lunchroom, and around 5 minutes later, Mrs. Gibbs arrived. She saw us. We were sitting at a table, and she started saying, ‘I’m tired of this.’ Tired of what? parents asked. Gibbs said she was tired of ‘rumors, lies, and gossip,’ and said she knew we were talking about her.

She said her staff told her that there was a Latino group meeting to talk about her, and that, in her culture, this was an attack. I told her we were not going to fight with her, and that we were not talking about her. I did tell her that we were talking about Jeff, and she said she was tired of talking about him because he wasn’t her employee. She said he only worked five hours a week for her, and the rest for community education. She then said Jeff had been disrespectful to her, and that she knew he was telling us parents to come to Whittier and make trouble. 

That’s when I felt sad, because he never told me anything. I told Norma (Principal Gibbs) that I was there by my own feet. I told her that I don’t need anyone to tell me where to go, what to think, or what to say. I told her this and she said, ‘Come on. It’s so obvious.’ People asked me why I didn’t take out my phone and start recording this, but you are in your kids’ school. You don’t expect this. You don’t expect a principal to act this way.

Now I am supposed to be ready with my cell phone, to record her? We were kind of arguing, and eventually she said, ‘I have emails and more important things to do than waste my time with you.’ Then, she opened the doors for us, like, ‘Hey, go.’

I’m worried, because I feel bad if she thinks Jeff told me what to say and do. What is she thinking of me? That I’m not self-sufficient, or independent? Then, I wonder what she is thinking about my kids, my children?

They’re not smart enough to think for themselves?

Almaraz says she was stunned by Gibbs’s behavior, but during our interview, Gibbs chalked it all up to panic on her part. She said she was obligated to look at “any timecard issue,” as the Whittier principal, and that’s what she did with Carlson. When the community found out, she said her true intentions–making sure everything at the school was being done properly–were “lost in translation,” and that she was rattled by parent pushback (another group had presented her with a petition on Carlson’s behalf.)

“I am a new principal,” Gibbs admitted, with chagrin. She went on to describe her actions at Whittier as focused, thus far, on tightening up a school she says was disorganized–with kids coming and going, bathrooms getting plugged up during after school programming, and a security system with dismantled, and therefore useless, cameras.

But parents like Almaraz, as well as some Whittier staff members, point to a handful of issues with Gibbs’s tenure at the school. Here is a short list of those concerns, along with responses from Gibbs and Davila, who was present throughout our interview.

Parent/Staff Concern: Davila and Gibbs are friends outside of school. Does this mean Davilla had her placed at Whittier?

  • Response: Davila says that, yes, she and Gibbs are friends, but insists that she did not “handpick” her for the Whittier job. Gibbs was one of three candidates for the job (the candidate pool was first thinned by Davila), and was the unanimous choice for the position, according to a Whittier parent and staff committee of ten. (Davila acknowledged that another friend of hers was made principal of Sheridan Arts Magnet School under Davila’s leadership.)

Parent/Staff Concern: Gibbs has pushed to bring a new after school program to Whittier called WERC (Windom Enrichment Resource Center).

  • The conflict? WERC is a nonprofit Davila started several years ago, while principal of Minneapolis’s Windom Elementary School. WERC now operates at several Minneapolis Public Schools sites–including schools managed by Davila, in her Associate Superintendent role. On WERC’s most recent tax return, from 2014, Davila is listed as the full-time president of WERC, making $11,000 per year (Davila was moving at this time, from her principal’s job at Windom to her current associate superintendent’s role). Blanca Raniolo is listed as WERC’s secretary, making over $60,000. In the past ten days, WERC’s website has been taken down, for necessary maintenance, according to Davila. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Richard Mammen, is a WERC board member.)
  • Gibbs’s role: Minutes from the March 14, 2016 Whittier PTA meeting announce a WERC “taskforce,” designed to help implement the fee-based program at Whittier in the fall of 2016. (Gibbs’s husband is the principal of Minneapolis’s Kenny Elementary School, which also hosts a WERC program. The program appears to operate on grants and program fees, and not on contracts with the Minneapolis schools.)
  • Davila/Gibbs Response: Gibbs maintains that she is looking at bringing outside programming into the school, such as the nearby Joyce Preschool, that would help Whittier more fully implement its IB and language programming. WERC fits this description, according to Gibbs, because it can offer students more exposure to advanced Spanish instruction, especially for the school’s Somali students (Spanish is taught at Whittier). Although WERC programs cost money (up to $220 per week for summer classes, according to a 2016 brochure), Gibbs and Davila both say students are offered financial assistance through grant money.
  • Davila also says that she has minimized her role at WERC since becoming an associate superintendent for the district, and that WERC is used in non-Minneapolis sites, such as Annunciation K-8 School and Hiawatha Academy charter school. Davila also mentioned that WERC “helped close the achievement gap at Windom,” but did not elaborate.

These examples are either evidence of Davila’s ability to create and maintain close, successful relationships in the Minneapolis schools, or, as some parents and staff members have alleged, they are evidence of relationships that seem too cozy and convenient, if not perhaps, a direct conflict of interest.

So far, Davila has maintained that Gibbs will not be leaving Whittier, as some parents and teachers have requested.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Parents United Says Goodbye and Good Luck

June 6, 2016

Who would have guessed that Muhammed Ali and local education advocate Mary Cecconi would have something in common? Ali, of course, died on June 3, at the age of 74. He is most fondly remembered, by many, as a true champion–of human rights, that is. More than just a swift pair of hands in the boxing ring, Ali was a radical advocate, or, as Dave Zirin put it in The Nation recently,

“What Muhammad Ali did—in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin—was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage.”

Mary Cecconi

How does this relate in any way to Mary Cecconi? Let me explain. On June 4, I sat in a crowded conference room at the Roseville, Minnesota library, listening to Cecconi give her final legislative session wrap-up, as head of the grassroots advocacy group, Parents United. 

Parents United began in St. Paul around 2002, as a way for parents to keep tabs on the important education funding and policy decisions made at the state capitol every year. Cecconi, a former Stillwater school board member, was asked to lead the organization a couple of years later. Since then, Cecconi has been a fighter in her own right–staying late at the Capitol, tracking legislators and breaking down complex info so that parents and other public school advocates can grasp it.

Here is Cecconi’s problem: she can’t be bought.

Parents United is a nonprofit, and for years received funding from local foundations and grants. About five years ago, that stopped. The foundations–I won’t name them, but anyone can search Parents United’s tax records and find their funders–began diverting their money directly to organizations, such as MinnCAN, that have an agenda–driven from the 1 percent on down–that the foundations agree with. Such as? Pushing for alternative licensure (seen by many as a door opener for Teach for America), clinging hard to test-based accountability measures, and advocating for “scholarships” (or, vouchers) as a method of privatizing preschool.

Side note: For an actual look at how far to the right education policy “groupthink” has swung in Minnesota, watch this brief video–compiled by one of my readers–from an April, 2016 “Almanac” show on PBS. And, consider this power couple: Republican House Education Finance Chair, Jenifer Loon, is married to Doug Loon, president of the MN Chamber of Commerce, whose legislative agenda for education sounds a lot like MinnCAN’s, and pairs well with the House’s recommendation for no new education funding this year.

What Parents United has offered, in contrast, is not an agenda but an exercise in civic engagement. Cecconi has always maintained that the needs and interests of parents are what drives her organization’s work; others may have wished her to take a stronger stand against the local market-based ed reform movement, but my sense is that Cecconi wasn’t comfortable in that role.

Education spending is the second largest state expenditure.

Long story short–Parents United is folding. When the foundation money dried up, the group tried to switch to a funding model that relied on fees for services (such as community engagement training sessions for school board members) and member support. It hasn’t been enough. The work Parents United does is high quality and labor intensive, and driven from the ground up. It is expensive and unsexy.

This is our collective loss. At yesterday’s farewell gathering, several people in the audience were near tears as they described the valuable role Parents United has served, in guiding many people–including state legislators–through the gnarled ins and outs of education policy. The two big sheet cakes at the back of the room–one with a school bus on it, the other with Parents United’s signature phrase, “Childhood has no rewind,” painted on it–sat mostly untouched as Parents United devotees mulled over the gaping hole that must now be filled by an as-yet unknown person or group.

Yes, but what does this have to do with Muhammed Ali? Forgive me, but in Cecconi and the work of Parents United, I see a similar spirit. Ali obviously faced a much different world, as an African-American man pigeon-holed as just a boxer, but his indomitable insistence on speaking truth to power resides in all kinds of non-spotlight seeking people, such as Cecconi. 

As her presentation yesterday was concluding, Cecconi made a simple statement: If you want education policy and spending to look different, then vote, and know who you are voting for.

That reminds me of something civil rights legend, John Lewis, posted on Twitter on June 4, in honor of Ali’s memory: 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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