I first visited the World of Opportunity in Birmingham, Alabama (the WOO) in March of 2003 with a group of thirty parent/teacher/community activists from around the nation who were organizing ACTNOW (Advocates for Children and Teachers National Organizing Workshop) to create a strategy for the opposition to high stakes testing. We were treated to two days of intense discussions on the negative impacts testing and the brand new No Child Left Behind Act was going to have on education, an impact that has only increased by leaps and bounds over the past three years.
The students and its supporters at the WOO, led by its director Steve Orel, gave us a lesson in dedication to an educational ideal that many of us were not finding in our schools. We each were asked to tutor someone and I spent two hours teaching math to a young woman studying for her GED's, one of the most intense learning experiences for me as a teacher (I can't vouch for what she learned).
One-on-one learning allowed me to explore the boundaries of her knowledge of fractions and I was able to find an entry point where I could see that what I was teaching her was making some sense. I came away convinced that working with students in this way on a regular basis could have an impact and would love to see it tried, no matter how expensive, in at least one school as an experiment.
ACT Now gave Steve Orel and The WOO the first annual "Courage in Education Award" for their work in attempting to rescue students who had been pushed out by the school system because of the potential that their scores would lower their schools' ratings. Steve had been fired by the Birmingham school system for exposing this practice and they closed down The WOO. The community came to its rescue to reopen it and it is now in its tenth year of existence, all under Steve's directorship.
I recently revisited the WOO when I hitched a ride with friends driving down south. We were on the highway following our sketchy Mapquest directions to the WOO, which is in a remote high poverty area on the edge of Birmingham across the street from a housing project (with buildings no more than two stories tall) when a van cut in front of us and the driver started gesturing to follow.
Not sure if this was a carjacking or someone with a barbecue restaurant looking for business (we had been doing our share of damage to our cholesterol counts), we hesitated until out popped a yellow piece of paper that said "The WOO" on it. The driver was Steve Orel, who just happened to come across our van. "You think I couldn't recognize three Jews from New York," Steve, who is Jewish and a civil rights activist (which must go over real big in Birmingham - he has had his house shot at) told us later.
We had filled the van with donations of clothing, kitchen supplies, books and a few computers and while we were unloading there was a staff meeting taking place (the WOO was closed for spring break.) We overheard discussions about how to address issues facing individual students - discussions that should be taking place in every school but so rarely do.
Despite the fact that Steve has been ill recently, we got to spend some time with him, always a refreshing experience. He told us that in the early days their operating budget, funded solely by donations and grants, was two days away from closing the place down. Now they are nine months ahead of the curve. Steve has an amazingly rational way of dealing with struggling students. Everyone is accepted. No one is thrown out. All ages are welcome as students or to contribute skills in any way possible.
At times he is criticized over the issue of students' appearance, especially the pants-hanging-down syndrome. Steve is often asked how he can allow that "look" in the WOO since these students will be looking for jobs. He responded, "They're not looking for jobs yet."
"But what happens when they do look and go in dressed that way?"
"Then they won't get the job and maybe figure out the reason and dress appropriately the next time," he said.
Call this the "let nature take its course" approach. I used to find so many school rules created problems with students that interfered with our primary focus - to reach them so we could teach them - and doing that effectively required some level of trust. I didn't want to waste time trying to get them not to chew gum or take off their coats if they didn't want too.
We spent the next day touring Montgomery - Jefferson Davis' southern white house and the Civil Rights Memorial Center with exhibits on the martyrs of the movement. With the passage of time it is good to have a remembrance of things past. With all the current talk of terrorists, frightful images of the KKK, with its ability to strike fear and terror in the hearts of so many, certainly has an impact. That so many people stood up to them speaks volumes for the human spirit.
"You Can't Make This Up"
1. At IS 172M Principal Curtis Andrews was removed by the DOE when it was discovered that two days before he got the job he had been indicted on federal fraud charges connected to a failed charter school he had run in Philadelphia. Andrews came from BloomKlein's expensive boondoggle, the New York Leadership Academy , where principals are taught how to harass and intimidate employees and break the union. Horror stories have been floating in from around the city as NYLA grads are sent to run schools while alienating teachers (Lafayette HS in Brooklyn is a prime example). Hmmm. Being indicted for educational fraud may be the perfect resume for entrance to the Academy. IS 172 by the way is the school that was deemed so unsafe that Teach for America withdrew all its teachers, the first time it had banned a school in its history.
2. The UFT is involved in trying to keep charter schools out of public schools while - guess what? - having its own charter school occupy space in a - public school.
The parents at PS 154 in Manhattan, a recently redesigned school, found out that one entire floor of their school, due to rise in enrollment from 730 to 1100 students, was being turned over to the Harlem Success School which is to be run by former City Council Education Committee chairperson and UFT nemesis Eva Moskowitz who was defeated for Manhattan borough president in the last election. Of course Moskowitz neatly fits into the arrogance of power grid of "Anyone can run a school but teachers" and her efforts to take space away from a public school should be opposed. (Could it be the DOE wants to pay her back for trying to embarrass the union?)
The UFT jumped into the fray, which led to immediate charges from Moskowitz that Randi Weingarten was engaging in a vendetta - a potential public relations gaffe by Weingarten who will surely be attacked for having UFT charter schools occupy space in a public school in Brooklyn.
Major political power broker Shelly Silver has spoken out in opposition to placing the Ross Global Academy charter school into a school in his district on the Lower East Side. He laid some serious cards on the table when he told the Times these schools "cherry-pick students with the most involved parents because as a practical matter, only parents who understand that admission is by lottery, will enter for their children."
Silver "suggested ... that the [DOE] reliance on charter schools is an indication that Mr. Bloomberg was having trouble turning around the city schools. I'm interpreting his message now as 'I failed, and I need some other entity to be able to educate children.' "