First Person

Voices: Motivating words from Malala – for her fellow 16-year-old girls

Veteran educator turned consultant Peter Huidekoper, Jr., finds inspiration in the story of a Pakistani girls’ education activist, and relevance for teenagers in Denver.

malala
Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani advocate for education, addresses participants at the 1st anniversary of the UN Global Education First Initiative in New York. September 25, 2013. Credit: GPE/Sarah Beeching <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/9968596084/in/photolist-gbTEjh-g9NP2D-g9g6ci-gbTREf-dj5JBq-fSRo9w-g9p9pK-fL3gvN-drFCYQ-drFur4-drFCLQ-drFCW1-ePx6mE-gbTFDw-8hEWth-8hBHm8-8hBHqg-8hBGbD-8hBH7e-8hEXsQ-8hBH5B-8hBGS8-8hBG5D-8hEWud-8hEVZd-8hBHtg-8hEWL7-8hEXWq-8hEWGQ-8hBHdH-8hEWmG-8hEY4U-8hBHDD-8hEXHd-8hBHGr-8hBHgn-8hEWrN-8hEXYS-8hBFZe-8hEXJu-8hBFL6-8hEXzG-8hEXXq-8hBHN6-8hBHop-8hEWCS-8hEXGq-8hBFWV-8hEW5o-8hBGeM-8hEWTw">via Flickr</a>.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a great speech 50 years ago that we honor and cherish.

Sixteen-year old Malala Yousafzai gave a great speech this summer that – in the same spirit as “I Have a Dream” – can motivate and inspire. Especially teenage girls like her.

If I were teaching high school this fall, I would love to spend class time asking students to read, discuss, and write about both speeches.

For sophomore and junior girls who are Malala’s age, her words will have a special power.

Martin and Malala: Both victims of assassination attempts.  Both courageous.  Both remarkably able to find hope—and, by their example, to give us hope.

Thank God Malala survived the attempt on her life.  Her family took her to England for emergency care, and for her safety.  Recovered, now back in school—at the Birmingham Edgbaston High School for Girls—she continues to speak out for the right of all girls to have an education.

As she did on July 12, 2013, her 16th birthday, at the United Nations, addressing nearly 1,000 young leaders at its first Youth Assembly. The U.N. declared it “Malala Day.”

Dear brothers and sisters, do remember one thing. Malala Day is not my day. Today is the day of every woman, every boy and every girl who have raised their voice for their rights. There are hundreds of human rights activists and social workers who are not only speaking for human rights, but who are struggling to achieve their goals of education, peace and equality. Thousands of people have been killed by the terrorists and millions have been injured. I am just one of them.

So here I stand … one girl among many.

I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys.

I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard….

Through tutoring with College Track in Aurora, I have been lucky to come to know a number of students at Rangeview High School.  More than half of the students who commit to the five hours a week at College Track, after school, are girls.  One struggled last year as a freshman—at times, receiving several D’s—but when I saw her last week she was beaming. Mid-progress grades had just come out. “I have a 3.0!”  I recalled her frustration and tears during ninth grade; here she was, so happy.  “I know now I didn’t really care that much last year.  But I do now. I’m really trying.”

Visit a session of College Track between 2:45 and 7:00 p.m.  You will see 40  to 50 students –most of the time—really trying.

Dear Friends, on the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullets would silence us. But they failed. And then, out of that silence came, thousands of voices. The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.  I am the same Malala. My ambitions are the same. My hopes are the same. My dreams are the same.

If we could bottle up ambition and motivation and pass it out, we would.  But it comes from within.  Wanting to learn, wanting to achieve.  Wanting to make the most of these high school years. Malala shows us that desire.  It is a thrill to see some of that desire in other 16-year-old girls, here in Colorado.

Dear sisters and brothers, we realise the importance of light when we see darkness. We realise the importance of our voice when we are silenced. In the same way, when we were in Swat, the north of Pakistan, we realised the importance of pens and books when we saw the guns.

The wise saying, “The pen is mightier than sword” was true. The extremists are afraid of books and pens. The power of education frightens them. They are afraid of women. The power of the voice of women frightens them. And that is why they killed 14 innocent medical students in the recent attack in Quetta. And that is why they killed many female teachers and polio workers in Khyber Pukhtoon Khwa and FATA. That is why they are blasting schools every day.  Because they were and they are afraid of change, afraid of the equality that we will bring into our society.

Equality.  The focus for MLK—and for Malala.  And a key goal for College Track.

College Track’s vision states: “In this country, there exists a persistent gap between the academic achievements of low income, predominantly African American and Latino students and their high income, white peers. … If we don’t focus on getting these students graduated from high school, with a clear pathway to higher education, this gap will widen, leaving historically underserved communities in worse shape than they are now.”

Dear sisters and brothers, now it’s time to speak up….

We call upon all governments to ensure free compulsory education for every child all over the world….

We call upon the developed nations to support the expansion of educational opportunities for girls in the developing world….

We call upon all communities to be tolerant – to reject prejudice based on cast, creed, sect, religion or gender. To ensure freedom and equality for women so that they can flourish. We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.

We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave – to embrace the strength within themselves and realise their full potential.

I often leave sessions with these high school students at College Track knocked out by “the content of their character,” to borrow a phrase.  Determined.  Kind.  Humble.  A number are immigrants, including Anicette, who grew up in the Ivory Coast; Diana, from the Ukraine; and Efrata, born in Ethiopia, who was recently featured in CT’s community newsletter.  Effie states:

Coming to America was an amazing thing, and I am just so thankful I have so many opportunities now that I am here. I think the fact that I know that I could have not come to America makes me grittier. I also have an ambition to have success in my life thanks to my parents pushing me to become that way. I thought they were being really strict when I was younger but now I am glad they were.

I have known Effie for two years; I suspect she would have made the most of her high school years without College Track.  Perhaps true for more than a dozen of CT’s students, for whom motivation—and family and peer support—are not issues.  But this is not the case for all.

And the odds still seem stacked against them.  Aurora Public Schools has among the lowest on-time graduation rates in Colorado—below 50 percent (48 percent in 2012).  The most recent data (for 2011 graduates) tells us that of those who then enroll in college, more than half (52.3 percent) require remediation classes.

College Track seeks to radically change those outcomes.  The program’s national office reports: “100 percent of our seniors graduate from high school, more than 90 percent are admitted to a four-year university, and 75 percent of our college students are currently enrolled, or have graduated from, college (whereas, nationally, the college graduation rate of low-income students is 22 percent.)

Malala would be cheering on our students—her peers.

Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future. We will continue our journey to our destination of peace and education for everyone. No one can stop us. We will speak for our rights and we will bring change through our voice. We must believe in the power and the strength of our words. Our words can change the world.

Because we are all together, united for the cause of education. And if we want to achieve our goal, then let us empower ourselves with the weapon of knowledge and let us shield ourselves with unity and togetherness.

Dear brothers and sisters, we must not forget that millions of people are suffering from poverty, injustice and ignorance. We must not forget that millions of children are out of schools. We must not forget that our sisters and brothers are waiting for a bright peaceful future.

So let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism and let us pick up our books and pens. They are our most powerful weapons.

One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.

Education is the only solution. Education first.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.