Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Seung Ok: What Drives Us

Seung Ok, delegate from the soon to be vanished Maxwell High School, wrote this brilliant piece at the NYC Education News listserve. He will be appearing on WBAI's Education at the Crossroads on Thursday night at 7pm. Seung has been one of the leaders of the fight back at Maxwell and has also stood up to Michael Mulgrew at the UFT Delegate Assembly. If Unity had a couple of hundred fighters like Seung, we wouldn't be in this position. I'm just glad ICE and GEM has him. Seung will be running for a Vice Presidential position in the upcoming UFT elections.

For all my anger, I will straight out say, that it's not malicious intent on Bloomberg's part nor those of the billionaire boys' club to propose the closure of community schools for replacement with charter schools.
Charter schools and "small schools"are nothing more than a theft of all the talented students of district schools and putting them in one place. So these billionaires walk into these charter schools - and they say to themselves, "Oh my god, black and brown kids can learn? ". We at district schools have always known that there is a core group of students in every grade level of every neighborhood that excels - those that become surgeons and engineers and lawyers.
It is not the new paint of charter schools, nor the potpourri they put in bathrooms - nor the first year teachers whose energy and fortitude is burnt out within a few years working in a charter school. The secret of it all is the top level students that they privately entice from our neighborhood schools. Charter schools get a list of all the level 3 and 4 students from the data banks of the DOE. But these billionaire hedge fund managers who fund these charter schools are clueless of that fact. To them, they see black faces - and based upon all the negative stereotypes in movies that they viewed in their lives - the fact that minority students can excel at all seems a miracle. But, how much time did they ever spend in a neighborhood like East New York or Harlem - it could be counted in a matter of hours. They leave a charter school feeling exuberant as if they discovered some fountain of youth - that the rest of society somehow overlooked.
The following is the reason why small schools and charter schools devastate regular district schools. Let's use common sense...... people are followers; there is positive peer pressure and negative peer pressure. The more years I spend as a teacher dealing with kids, the more I'm convinced, that kids and adults are very much the same....people are followers. Kids buy the latest sneakers, even though it's way overpriced. Adults buy BMW's even though it's the most expensive to repair, and their reliability is worse than other cars. When you take the top students from district schools, you are in essence, removing the positive role models of students who need that extra push to say - hey, this is what I should strive for. You are removing the student leaders, the positive middle class and professionals from a neighborhood that offer a growing child an alternative to the gloom and doom of negativity: gangs, drugs, teenage pregnancy, and drop out rates.
Because Michael Bloomberg and his billionaire's club have a perspective that if you are not the elite 1% of society, graduated from a four year college, and able to cash checks with a multitude of zeros following are a failure - that the majority of inner city students- who face hurdles unimaginable to Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Klein....and yes - President Obama too (who has grown up in Hawaii and attended top private schools) are failures as well.
The reality is that education benefits those at many levels of what society deems "successful". If we only considered those successful, as reaching a certain data driven endpoint - this would mean that Donald Trump has reached nirvana That Mr. Trump is the ultimate goal of what every human society has deemed worthy of representing human kind as it's zenith. If that's true, then the majority of us folks living happy and product lives are losers.
The main argument for closing a school, is that less than 50 percent of the students graduate in 4 years. USA Today has documented that only 53 % of all 4 year universities graduate their students in 6 years. Should we phase out these universities as well? The era of the data driven religion is among us.
What happened to the carpenters and barbers, to the plumbers and fireman, to the janitors and to the sanitation workers - to whom each day of our lives, we depend on to make up this grand society? And what about the artists and musicians that we ask to remind us that humanity has a unifying and loftier goal than increasing our stock portfolio. How many of us turn to a Mozart, a Bob Marley , a Dylan, a Marvin Gaye - every day we ride the trains or crawl through traffic to remind ourselves that there is something other than data driven bottom lines. Well, under Bloomberg's world, where arts and music programs are cut for a schools to stay intact and meet its math and English data criterion - the reality is only .......numbers, numbers, numbers!
Can we remember that Woody Allen dropped out of film school, and that Einstein dropped out of college? Can we remember that Mr. Obama had moments of doubt as a young high school student - doing drugs and cutting class and that a strong mother had to be there for this insecure youth - to guide him to his potential? In the cold business world of Mayor Bloomberg: NO - either you make the mark now in the prescribed path, or risk phasing out.
Well, Mr. Bloomberg represents that cold and unfeeling bottom line. The same logic that made decent folk sell mortgages to people they knew could not afford it. It is that same logic that made people lie about revenues in Enron, in the biggest accounting fraud known in our history. It is the same logic health insurance companies use to deny coverage to millions of Americans.
The truth is, that Michael Bloomberg is only one man. And the fact that one man has so much sway in public policy has nothing to do with his ideas nor his morality than the massiveness of his money. The reality is that the percentage of Americans with college degrees in the 2005 census is 27 %. You know what that means? The majority of us live fulfilling lives even though we don't meet Mayor Bloomberg's Orwellian version of society. The majority have wonderful families, own homes, and live our lives - without a college degree - and yes, maybe - can you believe it, without graduating high school in 4 years.
We have to stop accepting mind numbing data as if they were infallible. After all, a 100 percent of humans who drank milk eventually died. Why do we all assume that a high school degree in 4 years, is exponentially greater than one attained in 5 years. Do corporate interviewers ask whether a college grad took 5, or 6 years to get their degree? If students in our public school system live in shelters and foster homes, living below the poverty line, and struggle to attain a high school diploma in five years - doesn't that deserve even more credit than a Bloomberg or Klein that was all but expected to go to college in four? Doesn't that child show even more character, drive, and unhoned potential than a Bloomberg? Or, are we going to end up as that society that vacuously praises the dollar amount of a Paris Hilton, a George Bush, a Bernie Madoff, and yes.....a mayor.
Seung Ok

Ed Note: I only have known Seung since last April, but have rarely met someone with a more impressive fighting spirit. And he brings so many skills to the table as an organizer, writer and speaker. That he was in the system for 11 years before emerging gives me hope there are lots more Seung Ok's out there.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully stated Seung. Your courage, intelligence, and dedication is noted. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

It's funny how Norm writes "and has also stood up to Michael Mulgrew at the UFT Delegate Assembly". Most everyone else would write "has constantly interrupted Mulgrew and other speakers at the UFT Delegate Assembly".

Anonymous said...

I can attest that the charter schools get lists of 3 and 4 level students from the DOE and advertise to them. Last year, my two children who attend the gifted and talented school on the Lower East Side, each, received in the mail, 4 to 5 glossy invitations to enroll in the Harlem Success Academy Schools. I have in no way inquired about the schools and was disturbed to learn that they had my children's names and addresses. As I looked at these fancy advertisements [I never received anything like this from the public schools], I wondered what other information does this organization have about my children. Interestingly enough, my daughter, who attends the local public school recieved no invitation. This proves that the charter schools cull the DOE lists and search for the best students to enroll in their schools.