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Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk”

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What does community engagement mean? In particular, how does community engagement work for a “takeover district?” It doesn’t really.

Community engagement is a euphemism for “how to deal with black folk.”

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I never use certain metaphors. Immediately after Katrina and the breeches in the levees, I added “hurricane” to a list that includes “slavery,” “rape” and sometimes “war.” I’ve also become very alert to people who use euphemisms to conveniently rob words of their history and meaning.

Standards of decency should rise above poetic license.

Nevertheless, education reformers look to post-Katrina New Orleans as a model to increase the percentage of charter schools, remove attendance zones, take over failing schools, close schools, dissolve teachers unions and decentralize bureaucratically thick school districts.

I’m constantly asked, “In lieu of a hurricane, what can be done to radically reform school districts?” Hurricane has become the unspoken metaphor or referent that reform strategists muse upon to build apparatuses that can initiate the aforementioned strategies. The turnaround/takeover/portfolio district has evolved to become the hurricane of reformers’ desire. As a result, community engagement has become euphemism for “how to deal with black folk in the aftermath.”

This month, I participated on a panel discussion titled “Achieving a New State: A Look at Turnaround School Districts” at the Education Writers Association national seminar. Journalist John Merrow moderated a panel that included Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement District, Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, and me.

The discussion reinforced what I’ve come to know and experience. In talks about education reform, where you will find the hidden metaphor of hurricane, “community engagement” will soon follow.

Merrow led the panel through a series of questions that explored the practices, promises and lessons learned from the Achievement School District (ASD) in Tennessee, the Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) in Michigan and their theoretical mother, the Recovery School District (RSD) in Louisiana.

Each of these turnaround or “portfolio districts” gained state authority to oversee a unique arrangement of traditional and non-traditional schools. Turnaround districts establish conditions to implement varied innovative strategies not otherwise achieved in typical settings to positively transform failing schools. The aforementioned districts may have a penchant for three-letter acronyms, but their features differ. How they receive schools vary (cut-off score v. percentage of failing). The ratio of direct run and charter will differ. Enrollment management, level of shared services, human resource management and discipline policies will all differ. Nevertheless, each seeks to the “wipe the slate clean,” “start from scratch,” or “find a silver lining” like a hurricane.

In their implementation of what can be innovative, pragmatic approaches for change, these districts struggle to endear black and brown families, teachers and elected officials. What actually inspired this essay was our inarticulateness around race on the panel. We kept using the euphemism of “community engagement.”

In New Orleans, post-Katrina activity tore the scab off the ulcer of chronic racial inequality. Pre-storm teachers filed a class action suit, which led to a judge to rule that Louisiana illegally fired 7,500 teachers. Heavily backed by teachers unions, reform friendly candidates lost mightily in Boston, New York and Newark. The public voted against viable strategies as well as change that is ostensibly needed. In Detroit, the EAA has lost student and political support. Is there any question? “Community engagement” will always be a problem when a “hurricane” is used to radically reform a district.

The consummate journalist, Merrow pressed us on the subject of race and turnaround districts. “Who was fired? What is the racial makeup of the teachers? What percentage are from Teach for America (which has also become a euphemism for white reformer)?” We failed to simply describe how and why inclusion is not considered a viable strategy to enact change. We didn’t reveal a question that is only shared in private funding and planning rooms.

Should reformers “engage with the community?” The ostensible answer has been no.

Local community groups, alumni associations, teachers unions, parents and non-profits may be part of the problem, but they are the undeniable part of the solution. Turnaround districts should incubate local talent to apply successfully for charter schools. In most cases, the benefits of changing the name of a school don’t outweigh the ill will. Districts can recruit teachers from a diverse pallet of prep programs. If building a positive school culture contributes to the disproportionate expulsion and suspension rates of black and brown children, use another strategy. Ensuring that parents and neighbors are represented on charter school boards heightens trust. Demand that diversity be a key performance indicator for faculty and staff hires. Work with local civil rights organizations to help conceptualize a community relations strategy. There are too many different ways to facilitate authentic community engagement.

Nevertheless, funders and reformers don’t want to work with the community because hurricanes don’t negotiate.

Andre Perry, founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich., is the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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