The great scholar and social scientist Dr. W.E.B. DuBois once said, “The first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state … came from the Negro.”
As an African-American educator and the great, great grandson of slaves, I carry the burden of knowing my ancestors’ hope for education is being realized through me and that as a teacher of mostly black children, it is my duty to infuse my classroom with a passion for learning and academic excellence.
My desire to teach is fueled by the simple premise that people should be treated equally, regardless of their color or class, and everyone should have access to a free, high-quality education. There is an urgency to secure this hope, particularly for the people who birthed the idea.
Today, public education is under attack by “reformers” who seek to turn back the hands of time. While some seek to privatize public education, others simply want to destroy it altogether. Doing so will put more than 400,000 youth attending Chicago Public Schools, most of whom are black and Latino, at great risk.
On May 23, I joined nearly 10,000 Chicagoans committed to securing educational justice in a historic rally for the schools Chicago’s children deserve. Teachers joined with school nurses, clinicians, counselors, paraprofessionals and parents in a march to the Chicago Board of Education.
The Chicago Public Schools wants you to believe we marched for pay raises. Although it is well documented that CPS not only denied our contractual raises and it intends to impose a 20 percent increase in our work day without compensation, our demonstration went beyond our personal need.
If CPS has its way, class size in Chicago will continue to balloon. Despite the research, CPS believes, like presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, that class size does not matter.
Nearly 4,000 elementary students in the 28th, 29th and 37th wards are in oversized classes with some reaching nearly 50 students. CPS also refuses to address the 160 schools that do not have access to a library/media center; 140 of which are south of North Avenue.
In fact, Board of Education member Mahaila Hines recently went as far to suggest our students don’t need libraries and evoked the imagery of “one-room school houses,” saying in those post-Reconstruction facilities we all were “educated just fine.”
Ignoring all evidence of its worth, the district will not include art, music, physical education, social studies and world languages as a major core of its curriculum. CPS’ proposals will cause more experienced teachers, disproportionately older black women, to lose their jobs.
Without art, music, social studies and experienced teachers, black children are being denied the essence of cultural preservation. These factors clearly have value: The University of Chicago’s Lab School has seven art teachers on staff, and students are in front of veteran seasoned teachers daily.
The Chicago Teachers Union is advocating for more libraries/media centers, art, music, social studies, world language teachers, nurses (only 200 for over 600 schools) and additional paraprofessionals to support our children. Despite the overwhelming research, CPS has rejected all of these proposals and refuses to bargain over safe and reasonable staffing levels for the longer day.
Despite the gross negligence of CPS, black children in Austin experienced some of the greatest gains in the city. In a report released by Designs for Change, Emmet Elementary ranked 30th in performance of all Chicago’s non-selective elementary schools with 95 percent or more low-income students. Austin students, test at the same level and in many cases outperform low income students in nearby suburban Oak Park.
Despite this upward trend for many schools in Austin, students are served lunch in the hallways because no cafeteria exist; playgrounds are inadequate or do not exist; air conditioning is absent yet teachers are expected to teach and students are expected to learn.
These demeaning and humiliating conditions are constant reminder of just how far we’ve come. Apparently, we are still expected to pay in the front but enter in the back.
CPS has failed to live up to the expectations set by black people after slavery. My ancestors were very clear that the future of our race would be predicated on access to free high-quality education. We need credible solutions to the issues that plague our public school system.
As a teacher, I know what it will take to ensure student achievement in our classrooms, and it’s well past due that CPS recognizes me and the thousands of educators that serve these children daily as experts.
As a person with a vested interest in the way our public school system functions, I ask that you seek out the truth, be unfazed by propaganda and maintain an open line of communication with educators to fight for a public school system that properly invests in its students.
Blaming parents, teachers, students and community is misdirected and an offense to the legacy of black people. We must hold the system accountable, those that control and run it. CPS can honor the very public system conceived out of the hope of black people by fighting with us to provide the schools that all children deserve.
Brandon Johnson is an Austin resident, parent and five-year CPS teacher. He’s taught at both Westinghouse College Prep. and Jenner Academy of the Arts.