Quantcast

«

»

Mar 12 2012

Student Pushed Out of School for Noting Injustice

Jada Williams, a 13-year-old student in New York, also suggested that her fellow students needed to work to learn to read, but that doesn’t seem to have made a difference to the teachers and administration at her former school. Of course, it’s possible that it wasn’t her observation that teachers needed to teach the students that was at fault here.

We at the Frederick Douglass Foundation honored her because her essay actually demonstrates that she understood the autobiography, even though it might seem a bit esoteric to most 13-year olds.  In her essay, she quotes part of the scene where Douglass’ slave master catches his wife teaching then slave Frederick to read. During a speech about how he would be useless as a slave if he were able to read, Mr. Auld, the slave master, castigated his wife.

Miss Williams quoted Douglass quoting Mr. Auld:  “If you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.”

Miss Williams personalized this to her own situation.  She reflected on how the “white teachers” do not have enough control of the classroom to successfully teach the minority students in Rochester.  While she herself is more literate than most, due to her own perseverance and diligence, she sees the fact that so many of the other “so-called ‘unteachable’” students aren’t learning to read as a form of modern-day slavery.  Their illiteracy holds them back in society.

That’s right. Williams dared to treat illiteracy not as an abstract problem of resources and tests and lesson plans. Instead, she did something that few people tolerate well. She looked at it for what it is, a matter of social injustice:

“When I find myself sitting in a crowded classroom where no real instruction is taking place I can say history does repeat itself,” Jada recently read from her essay. “The reality of this is that most of my peers can not read, and therefore comprehend the materials that have been provided. So I feel like not much has changed. Just different people. Different era. The same old discrimination still resides in the hearts of the white man.”

Needless to say, it didn’t go well. That was enough for her teachers, who allegedly passed around her essay and who started giving this A-student failing grades while refusing to show her parents the supposedly sub-standard work. One teacher felt the need to personally tell Williams she was offended. Williams got in trouble for laughing in class, and her parents were told she was “angry”, though no one specified what had changed about her aside from the fact that she’d written the essay.

Williams’ parents removed from her first school, unable to get the administration to make changes. Then they removed from the school to which they’d been directed as a replacement, when this second school turned out to be warehousing for “problem” students. The school is still refusing to release Williams’ records. Finally, the local media has gotten involved, along with the parents’ association. So did the Frederick Douglass Foundation (see above).

That means that, finally, someone is being held to account. More specifically, it means that the district superintendent is taking official, public notice of what happened:

Late Friday afternoon, Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said the entire situation is unfortunate and offered an apology for what she is going through.

Superintendent Vargas said, “We could have responded better. This is a situation that was definitely not handled the best way.”

Vargas said he understands adult reaction, but school is a place where students should be able to explore ideas. When asked what action was being taken, Superintendent Vargas said while he couldn’t go into detail, but that they are addressing the situation.

If the purpose of a school district is to teach children, rather than to employ teachers, that’s a bit of an understatement. Enough so that I worry a bit about how this will all play out if the spotlight isn’t kept on the situation. To that end, I encourage you to keep an eye on this story. You can also let Superintendent Vargas know that you have an interest in seeing that this is handled well.

I did:

I note that you did your doctorate research in factors differentially affecting outcomes among high-risk students. I appreciate that the challenges of teaching students are higher at the moment than they have been at any time in my lifetime and that more students are at risk in our current political and economic climate. I appreciate that much of this stress is borne by teachers. I do.

However, there is no excuse for teachers to retaliate against a student who is bright and educated enough to know that the system is failing too many students and that the failures of the schools perpetuate the shameful injustices of our country’s past. There is no excuse for an administration to close ranks in the face of parents who insist their child be served well by the school system.

The situation faced by Jana Williams and her parents needs to be addressed directly and as quickly can be done while insuring justice. This needs to be handled “the best way” as soon as possible, not just for Jana but for other students and parents who will be watching. I will be watching, and I will encourage others to do so as well.

I trust that your attention to this matter will be prompt, professional, and in the best interests of the students your district exists to serve. For that, I thank you in advance.

Feel free to use as much of that as suits you, particularly if you think you’ll have trouble being polite. At this stage of the game, we should be polite. Action of some sort has been promised. We just need to demand that it be delivered.

Update: The superintendent responded briefly. The substance: “Thank you for your concern.  I am afraid that what you have read or heard is not correct regarding this student.” I’m not sure what portions of what was reported–or what he apologized for publicly–he considers to be incorrect.

22 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    smrnda

    I saw quite a few similar things happen when I was in school; the kids who realized that the school wasn’t really trying very hard to educate students were punished for making correct observations because they weren’t flattering to the authority figures.

    I attended mostly black and underclass schools, and what I found teachers wanted to ‘teach’ was that a few kids were ‘gifted’ and the rest were just destined for failure; it was a divide and conquer tactic to make sure that you made kids think their sense of worth came from being magically ‘better’ than most of their peers so they wouldn’t criticize the school for failing most of their fellow students. Occasionally someone would realize that it was just a cover for teacher and school laziness – the teachers would just hand out an A to the kids who filled in the right bubbles on the standardized tests who were probably doing a bit better owing to better educated parents or some other factor, and would just give up on the hard work of educating disadvantaged kids.

    The idea of teachers failing a kid for being bright and making a point they don’t want to hear is nothing new. Though I know there are many good teachers, I think a lot of them just like the power trip of having authority over ‘little people’ and the support of a bureaucracy who likes making it hard for the ‘little people’ to fight back.

  2. 2
    Worldtraveller

    We need to see if we can get the FFRF and NAACP and whatever other organizations are willing, to get a scholarship fund started for this young lady.

  3. 3
    Stephanie Zvan

    fastlane, the Frederick Douglass Foundation is already involved in this situation. I’ll drop them a note on the idea and let people know what I hear from them.

  4. 4
    WilloNyx

    I am glad to see that the school is finally attempting to address the problem. I was worried this would end up going unnoticed. Adolecent and adult literacy is one of the most important things to me. I am astounded by Jada’s grasp of the book as well as her ability to establish meaningful connections to her own world. Those teachers should be ashamed. And while i have seen with my own eyes how absurdly prideful teachers can be I was still shocked at the level this school took it to. Was there not one voice of reason, who said, “Maybe, just maybe fellow teachers we are not doing our best by these children or maybe our best simply isnt good enough. Maybe we can try and do better.”

    I want to teach. I love adolescents but I am not sure I can handle working along side teachers like this.

  5. 5
    WilloNyx

    I do know someone involved with the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy who may know organizations that can help.

  6. 6
    julian

    That was enough for her teachers, who allegedly passed around her essay and who started giving this A-student failing grades while refusing to show her parents the supposedly sub-standard work.

    That’s disgusting. These are teachers.

    Even if your student is failing, you do not withhold the supposedly sub-par material from them. How are they going to improve? These people behaved without a drop of professionalism or concern for this student.

  7. 7
    scenario

    Teaching at risk children is very difficult. Typically they grow up in an environment that is apathetic about education at best and hostile to education at worst. They frequently have very troubled home lives. By the time they get to middle school, they are frequently 3 or 4 grades behind. I can be difficult for a 7th grade teacher to find the time to teach his or her students 3rd grade reading skills.

    I can understand a teacher who tries but cannot help every student. I can even understand a teacher whose burned out from fighting the good fight for too long. I cannot understand a teacher who punishes a student who points out the obvious. Jada may have overstated her case but she is obviously an intelligent middle school student and her point was valid. I can understand one teacher being this petty, but a whole group of them.

  8. 8
    D. C. Sessions

    How often do we hear that it’s not the schools’ fault that kids aren’t learning, it’s the home environment. I know that there are bad home environments (the ex spent some time doing home health visits, trust me I’ve heard the stories) but then you see something like this: the parents not only raise a bright (good grief, she knows how to write! At 13) studious child, and when there’s trouble go to serious effort to find a better school for their daughter.

    And she’s being flunked?

    So much for blaming the home environment.

  9. 9
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    But, but, but, according to S-M-R-T white atheists like Bret, the problem is that those silly black peoples don’t wanna “educate themselves”!

  10. 10
    Aliasalpha

    Am I the only one who really can’t process the sentence “The reality of this is that most of my peers can not read”? Thats honestly something I never thought I’d see in my lifetime, how rare is this?

  11. 11
    Radi

    Here’s what I sent to the Rochester City School District (most of the text is Ms. Zvan’s, of course, since I took her up on her most generous offer :)

    Dear Dr. Vargas,

    I was horrified at the extreme unprofessional conduct of some of the teachers in your school district – and left aghast at their retaliation against the brilliant, mostly self-taught and self-starter student Jada Williams just for pointing out an uncomfortable truth! Why is it that we have schools, if not to teach young people – the unquestioned future of our country? I certainly don’t think it is for the sole purpose of employing “teachers”; may I point out that I absolutely hate having to put quotes around the word, thanks to your employees’ shameful misconduct?

    I note that you did your doctorate research in factors differentially affecting outcomes among high-risk students. I appreciate that the challenges of teaching students are higher at the moment than they have been at any time in my lifetime and that more students are at risk in our current political and economic climate. I appreciate that much of this stress is borne by teachers. I do.

    However, there is no excuse for teachers to retaliate against a student who is bright and educated enough to know that the system is failing too many students and that the failures of the schools perpetuate the shameful injustices of our country’s past. There is no excuse for an administration to close ranks in the face of parents who insist their child be served well by the school system.

    The situation faced by Jana Williams and her parents needs to be addressed directly and as quickly can be done while insuring justice. This needs to be handled “the best way” as soon as possible, not just for Jana but for other students and parents who will be watching. I will be watching, and I will encourage others to do so as well.

    I trust that your attention to this matter will be prompt, professional, and in the best interests of the students your district exists to serve. For that, I thank you in advance.

    Sincerely yours,

  12. 12
    smrnda

    I would agree that factors outside of school affect student achievement a lot and even the most dedicated teachers can’t necessarily put a dent in problems that are beyond their control. Kids can’t succeed in school if they are living in stress, poverty, and getting substandard nutrition and they aren’t getting basic medical care. Even the most dedicated teacher can’t fix that.

    At the same time, don’t punish kids for pointing out the fact that the current solution isn’t working. An adult should have thick enough skin to handle a student criticizing the school that is obviously not helping their peers, even if the school can’t be held 100% accountable. The teachers and principal in this question are showing a serious lack of professionalism.

    If anything, they should have turned it into a teachable moment, explaining why their power to affect student achievement is limited to a student who clearly already understands quite a bit about how schools and society fail so many kids.

  13. 13
    JoeBuddha

    I find I must take issue with the idea that the entire situation is “unfortunate”. The fact that I didn’t put enough spice in the spaghetti squash I had for dinner is “unfortunate”. This is a travesty.

    I’m always open to being proven wrong, so I’m looking forward to the superintendent’s explanation of why that point of view is misguided. However, I refuse to hold my breath.

  14. 14
    ischemgeek

    Almost the exact same situation (only substitute “Native” for “black”) happened in my high school, when the student in question chose to write a history essay about how little has changed with regard to Aboriginal Affairs since the days of the smallpox blankets.

    So, while this situation gets my blood boiling, it does not surprise me one bit.

  15. 15
    lordshipmayhem

    Being pushed out of school could turn out to be the best thing for this intelligent, thoughtful student, should she find herself in a better school, with better teachers.

    The lesson she’s learning right now is one all of us should learn. Schools need to teach, not babysit. Parents should demand more from the schools, and from their own kids, than to just go through the motions. And those who wield power over your life need controls placed upon them.

    Good luck, Jada. Keep working hard, keep thinking and keep learning, and you can go far.

  16. 16
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Reminds me of this old joke (hope its okay to tell it here, apolgie s& pleaeslet me know if not) :

    Its the end of the scholday day and the first grade teacher tells her students she’ll let them go home if they can spell a word and use it in a sentence about what they’ve done earlier that day.

    Susie says ” I was playing cards with John earlier this morning – that’s c-a-r-d-s, cards.” Teacher says very good you can go.

    John then says : “Yeah we were playing poker, p-o-k-e-r, poker.”

    Teacher says ok you can go home too.

    Then a little black kid, Jefferson, speaks and says “Well I wanted to play with John and Susie but they wouldn’t let me because they said I was a black and then they called me names!”

    And the teacher says “Oh Jefferson, that’s terrible, that’s racial discrimination – and now if you can spell ‘racial discrimination’ I’ll let you go home early too.” ;-)

  17. 17
    eric

    smrnda @1:

    what I found teachers wanted to ‘teach’ was that a few kids were ‘gifted’ and the rest were just destined for failure; it was a divide and conquer tactic to make sure that you made kids think their sense of worth came from being magically ‘better’ than most of their peers so they wouldn’t criticize the school for failing most of their fellow students.

    I really doubt your teachers were being intentionally malicious. But you do bring up yet another problem with the system. AIUI, current testing practices don’t really incentivise getting passing kids up to C’s or B’s. It incentivises getting kids to pass, and it incentivises getting already good kids to do better (i.e., increase number of kids who qualify for AP and honors classes), but not the in-between. Not surprisingly, this results in teachers focusing on getting the low end to pass and the high end to excel, because that is what the feds and the states have told them are the priorities.

    smrnda @12:

    If anything, they should have turned it into a teachable moment,

    Yes, absolutely right. Here you have a kid who took the first step on making a real contribution: seeing a problem and understaning it well enough to describe it. Encourage her to take the next step, and try and figure out realistic solutions. To think deeply about how the current system might be improved and what are the pros and cons of various options for fixing it. Because (IMO) this is in fact a difficult problem to fix, and any simple one-liner solution such as ‘teachers should work harder’ is probably not going to actually solve anything. We need bright young minds like Jada’s to think about solutions. But they won’t do that if we punish them for bringing up the problem.

  18. 18
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Oh, Eric.

    If you knew the people with whom I work. Yes, punishing us for describing the problems creates barriers to communicating the problems and suggested solutions, but no, it doesn’t cause “bright young minds” to fail (or refuse) to think of solutions when such minds are punished for bringing up the problem.

    All that does is make it the problem of the bright young mind and not of her peers who can’t read. It makes such a mind take things personally and increases motivation. No, for me and for many, experiences of this kind (if not always of this extremity) have been formative of our commitment to change, not of an aversion to dreaming solutions….

  19. 19
    left0ver1under

    That girl should be made an example of, all right, but as an example of a brilliant mind capable of learning and observing and an example for other students to follow. She should have been praised and celebrated for her brilliance, but was instead punished for “speaking truth to power”.

    Those who can, do – like Jada Williams.

    Those who can’t do, teach.

    Those who can’t do or teach, administrate.

  20. 20
    smrnda

    Given that I was there, I’d say that my teachers were being intentionally malicious, or that they were ignorant enough to believe the notion of ‘innate ability’ as the absolute determinant of what you will achieve that they shouldn’t have been teaching. Teachers should understand that a lot of factors affect how students perform in school, and that circumstances – particularly early ones – have a huge impact on student achievement.

    Another thing – I talk with a fairly thick and obvious East Coast accent and can be hard to understand, though I never remember teachers pretending they couldn’t understand what I say or telling me I was pronouncing things wrong. They did, however, subject all the Black kids to this treatment, even when I’m pretty sure that they were easier to understand than I was.

  21. 21
    Pen

    Miss Williams personalized this to her own situation. She reflected on how the “white teachers” do not have enough control of the classroom to successfully teach the minority students in Rochester.

    This quote seems badly worded in the light of everything else. It implies that the teachers’ inability to control a class causes the literacy problem. But a correct analogy with the piece of literature also quoted is that the literacy problem results from the teachers’ need or attempts to control the students. What am I missing?

    Obviously, that’s beside the point that the school’s behavior towards the student seems way out of line.

  22. 22
    felicis

    I would just like to, for a moment, point out that we don’t know most of what’s going on here. If this is the whole story, then certainly young Jada is being unjustly treated. However, there was a recent controversy that made international news about a boy forced to mow the lawn to stay awake in class. The school’s side of the story was never told. I happen to know it because my wife teaches at that school and knows the student – and what was reported bears no resemblance to the reality of the situation. Is that the case here? The superintendent says we don’t know the whole situation, and is probably prevented from publicly giving details about a student’s record – perhaps our perception, filtered through news items, is not correct.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>