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TheRootDC
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Posted at 11:28 AM ET, 04/01/2013

Affirmative weapons for education reform

I often talk on Know-It-All: The ABCs of Education about the need for Americans to change our collective mindset about students of color, about how we define and measure student success, and about
(Jahi Chikwendiu - WASHINGTON POST)
how we ensure equitable access to educational opportunity. Tuesday’s guests on Know-It-All were Malcolm Woodland, a psychologist and a co-founder and Director of Young Doctors DC, and Chitra Subramanian, executive director of MOMIEs TLC.

 Young Doctors DC and MOMIEs TLC provide extended learning opportunities for students of color in DC. Woodland and Subramanian were adamant that, in order to support and serve communities of color, we cannot operate from a deficit mindset. Instead, we must recognize the incredible assets of the communities we intend to serve and work to combine our strengths with theirs in order to combat the extreme societal and structural forces moving against them. Extended learning opportunities are another weapon in the education reform arsenal that activists must keep in mind as replacements for the systems they are protesting.

 Protests are growing as communities demand changed mindsets. In Chicago on Wednesday, hundreds protested the city’s decision to close 53 elementary schools, predominantly in black neighborhoods. On Friday, D.C. activists and civil rights lawyers filed a lawsuit against the DC public school system for its plans to close 15 schools, displacing 2,700 students almost 100 percent of whom are students of color. In Philadelphia, police arrested individuals who were protesting the city’s proposal to close 23 schools. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers, was one of those arrested. And, students in Colorado and Oregon and all over the country have walked out of school, refusing to sit for high-stakes standardized tests.

 As vocal as protesters have been about what they do not want in education, they have to be just as vocal about what they do want instead. As a former civil rights attorney for the Department of Justice, I know well that grassroots activism is what will bring about the changes in education that we seek. In a democracy, in order for mindsets to truly change, federal policy should follow public will rather than dictate it.

 We have seen before education reformers developing and demanding new systems to replace discriminatory systems of old. Take, for instance, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that, as Donovan Anderson reminded us last week, began as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act in 1975. A prime example of the federal landscape bending to public will.

For instance: A good friend of mine has a son who is autistic. She and her family have adjusted their everyday lives to accommodate their son's needs to make sure they can communicate with him, that he is comfortable, and that he receives the same opportunities and attention from the family as his sister. They first concentrated on adjusting their own behaviors and made room for their mindsets about autism and children with special needs to follow. They have created a family plan to support their son and gently correct his behaviors when necessary. And, they're flexible, changing the plan and their own behaviors as their son's needs dictate.

 This is the framework upon which the IDEA was built. Reformers developed a new system that would do what my friend and her family have developed organically at home to support their special needs son. This new system was in answer to the old one that left too many students with special needs without access to the most basic educational opportunities. And, the new system is slowly changing mindsets about students with disabilities.

 Unlike the IDEA, other federal civil rights laws related to education do not articulate specific affirmative measures that schools must utilize to provide all students equal educational opportunity. Instead, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, for example, is prohibitive and prohibits discrimination and harassment in education and other areas. As a result, the reform language of protesters that gets the most attention is language that speaks only of a prohibition against discrimination. Although this is an important starting point, reformers have to be prepared to promote a new system. Extended learning opportunities, early childhood education, meaningful parent engagement, alternatives to exclusionary student discipline, and other proven strategies should be the components of such a system.

 In high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, my girlfriends and I proudly labeled ourselves the "modified girls." We met up every morning before sadly waving goodbye to one another as we each went off to the all-white-except-for-us honors class to which we had been assigned. Book-smart as we were, we had no idea the intensely negative implications of the word “modified,” a close cousin of the by-then off-limits "retarded." All we knew was that the cool kids, many of the other black kids we knew and loved were in the "Modified" classes at school.

Though the “modified” label has since changed and special needs students are being provided the educational services they need under the IDEA, policy and mindsets still need changing about the black kids who populate such tracks. MOMIEs TLC and Young Doctors DC aim to do just that and reformers would do well to incorporate such programs in their protest and negotiation strategies.

By Allison Brown  |  11:28 AM ET, 04/01/2013

 
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