2008-04-04 / Columnists

School Scope

Race on the Table - Globally and Locally
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott Barack Obama's speech on race has opened up a long-needed area of discussion, not only on the national level, but out here in Rockaway.

Howard Schwach's editorial on March 28 on the Democratic primary being about race and gender touched a chord. Sure, 50 percent of white voters voted for Clinton and an even higher percentage of black voters are for Obama. We should also say that in Italian areas and Jewish areas, candidates of those persuasions also garner votes based on how people identify with them. So, yes, all political campaigns are based to some extent on race, gender and ethnics.

Schwach's presentation of how Geraldine Ferrara was forced to resign for "telling a political truth" as a comparison to Obama's relationship to his pastor is a bit simplistic. I detected something petulant in Ferrara's position along the lines of "look at all the advantages blacks have." Obama did address white backlash over these issues in his speech. Sometimes I don't get it. Obama is half white and half black and somehow the white half disappears when people talk about him.

PS 106 and Race

I bring up race because of PS 106 PA President Joyce Bunch's It's My Turn column in last week's Wave. She castigated PS 106 teacher Miriam Baum (unfairly, I believe) for her recent piece on the school where Baum expressed a certain extent of teacher dissatisfaction with Principal Sills. Let's not get into the details of whether UFT President Randi Weingarten called Sills a bitch at a UFT meeting (she probably did - but she's called me much worse and recently called a high school principal in Manhattan an A-hole.) Or Bunche's complaint about what she terms "slanderous" charges concerning Sills' alleged forging a teacher's signature on a faked observation - which I heard about literally the day it happened. Such "creative" observations have occurred in more schools than we want to imagine, especially with Leadership Academy principals - which leads us to wonder exactly what kinds of training these principals are being given. Joyce Bunch is defending Sills, and that's her right.

Of more interest to me was the anger she expressed at

attitudes towards kids and their parents in black communities. This touched a nerve, given the national debates going on about race and how that might affect the education process or the relationships between what is often white teachers and poor people in communities of color. The idea has been raised by some that black kids would be better served by black teachers. But some people in the black community have also talked about the attitudes of middle class black teachers being much closer to those of white teachers when it comes to poor kids. Achievement levels in communities with a majority of black teachers like Washington, DC, Chicago and Bed-Stuy have not been any better.

Bunch points out that the community around PS 106 is not homogeneous, stating that she is an attorney and other parents are also professionals. She says, "If someone receives a welfare check, so what?" I agree. As a white, Jewish young man who entered teaching in 1967 with a whole mess of preconceptions, I received a wonderful education by the children and their parents, most of whom were on welfare. I continue to learn, working with current and former teachers of various races to try to reform the system as a counterweight to the corporate, market-driven culture based on a ridiculous competitive model that unfortunately, all too many people like Bunch and Sills seem to have signed onto. When I mentioned Bunch's article to a young activist friend of the same mixed race as Obama, she said, "You cannot write about race and schools without reading Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children," which I immediately bought and will follow up with in future columns.

Bunch closes her article with an invitation for me to sit down with the PS 106 PTA to create a dialogue, and I would be happy to do so. (My email is at the end of this article.) But I want to get one more thing clear…

Bees in my bonnet

This column is aimed at teachers. I put 35 years in the system as a teacher/ activist/reformer in a Hispanic/ Black community in which I stood with community activists against an ethnic/ white dominated school board, so I have some sensitivity to the issues Bunch raises. I'm proud to have been a teacher and the overwhelming majority of my colleagues were decent, wellmeaning and competent. Bunch says I have a bee in my bonnet about Sills. Guilty! This is partially due to some of the things teachers (who I respect enormously) tell me about the way the school is run.

But it also goes to the one personal contact I had with Sills during the massive battle over the contract ratification that took place between the UFT leadership and groups opposed to the contract in the fall of 2005.

With the UFT doing everything it could to keep the opposition out of the schools, we went around the city with leaflets to put in teacher mailboxes to provide them with both sides of the issue. I went to a hundred schools and in just about every one I was given the courtesy of being allowed to reach out to teachers. And when principals felt uncomfortable, they were unfailingly polite. (For instance the principal of PS 114 asked to look over the leaflet and then said "OK").

Some said they would check and asked me to come back. Not Sills, who was nasty and abusive over my request, refused to listen to even a 10 second explanation, and ordered me off the premises immediately. (The person who escorted me out was horrified and said, "Don't worry, that's the way she treats people.") When you have contact with so many principals over so many years and you come in contact with someone so outside the norm (small "n"), you get an inking that something is not right. But maybe she was just having a bad

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