The Evolution of Education-First Annual Democratic Education Symposium at Medgar Evers College

Today, I woke up with the intent to sit quietly as I do every morning. But on this day, all the thoughts and impressions of yesterday’s symposium were swirling around my head. Intense emotions in relation to some of the things I learned, and some of the problems that I have been fighting against my whole life brought into the light for a short time. Ideas were passing through my mind on why our little school is so important in relation to the bigger picture. That bigger picture being for now, the New York City School system. And the first thing I hate about that phrase is the word SYSTEM.

Students, student teachers, parents, administrators and others all gathered yesterday at Medgar Evers College here in Brooklyn. We were there to discuss Democracy in Education, but we from the “free schools” were there to discuss Democratic Education. Now you may think that I have just written the same phrase twice but I will tell you that by taking out the “in” we are talking about two very different things. Two different things that need to be related, but currently do not because we are kept separated by a SYSYEM.

The symposium kicked off with opening remarks by Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz who was rather polite and to my surprise stood with the group’s view, which is critical (to say the least) of public education. Marty was careful not to criticize the mayor, although his discontent could be felt behind his diplomatic tone.

Our first Keynote speaker was Chris Mercogliano who as my contemporary and now friend, I have spoken with on numerous occasions. I have promoted his book on this blog, as well as our shared view of the need and benefits of democratic education. His 35 years as the go-to man at Albany Free School make him one of the best choices to speak to this subject. In saying that, I am not going to report on his speech, because honestly I cannot remember it verbatim, and second, as I do remember it, it was in the tone of everything I have written on this blog and more. Returning the love of learning to children, and allowing them to find their way are key ideas expressed on this blog. But the second keynote  speaker, Dr Jean Anyon, a CUNY professor in education painted for me the larger picture. A picture that as a founding parent of the Brooklyn Free School , I have been somewhat removed from in the last few years, but as you will see, a picture that affects all of us and everything.

Dr. Anyon mapped out 5 specific policies that have affected public education and the way our society runs, that in order for any real sweeping change to take place, would need to be reexamined. As I remember them, here is the list although not in the order she spoke of them: Minimum Wage Policy, Tax Legislation, Zoning, Transportation and Housing. There may have been one or two more, but my recorder failed me so I could not record it.

Minimum Wage: As I heard it, minimum wage policy was instituted in the 1930’s, by the FDR White House. It was enlightening to know that in the mid 1930’s, the minimum wage was set at $3 an hour. Take that to where we are today at $7.25. 75 years have past and we have only increased it by $4.25. Just a note here: my numbers are most definitely inaccurate. I tend to work with Steven Wright’s assessment that 85% percent of all statistics are made up on the spot. Unless you are a professor and you have notes to work from. We are just making the point here on how we keep the poor, poor. And how does that serve the greater whole, namely us.

Tax Legislation: Now this really pissed me off. How naive I am. The change in the tax bracket percentage has shifted drastically in the last 60 years. Wealthy Americans went from paying 80% to pay about 15% presently, whereas I have to pay 25-30%. Adding insult to injury was the fact that Corporations, who used to pay the lions share of taxes in this country now get away with paying basically nothing. It was stated that many large corporations pay as little as $1,500 whereas my tax bill for 2007-2008 was 18K. $18,000 Dollars! “Honey, where is my gun?”

Zoning and Housing: I cannot say much about this, but the truth is, people are kept separated, and therefore poverty is maintained. Transportation figures largely into this because if you cannot get to the places where the jobs are, your options are reduced as well.

After the keynote speakers, there was a brief clip from the documentary “You Cannot Be Neutral On a Moving Train” as an homage to the late great Howard Zinn. I began looking around the room to see if I could identify the FBI informant disguised as an attendee. LOL.

There were some presentations at lunch which I won’t go into, mostly because I realized that from what I was hearing, the divide between my understanding of Democracy was different than the majority of the attendees and that some educating would have to happen. When we gathered in the rooms, I chose to hang with Roger Dennis who worked with BFS in its very earliest meetings and Jonah Cannar, director of the Fertile Grounds Project, which aims to bring democratic teaching ideas into public schools. What was clear from the attendance, which besides the 2 moderators, were Alan Berger, Danial Schaeffer and myself as the only representatives of free school education, having to explain what the process of Democratic Education is. Many student teachers were hearing this for the first time. Indeed a revolution in education is clearly what is needed now.

The second gathering was a parent led discussion. I went to support Wadea, a.k.a Jaqueline Abhur-Rahim, one of our tried and true founding parents and now a Teacher Candidate at Medgar Evers. The other moderator was firey Tamika Sykes also a Teacher Candidate and very passionate on change in inner city schools. Some of our students came as well. When Wadea spoke of her experience as a free-school mom, whose children were beginning to lose hope in the public schools and why she chose to move them to BFS, we had to field many questions on how our school had anything to do with the SYSTEM which others found themselves up against. This went on for a while but I was beginning to understand the other parents perplexity and frustration. To understand the problems that face the poor in general and people of color of any class, is still something I need more encounter with. The fact that I chose to take my mixed raced son away from the public influence is already an indication that I am not totally unaware of the problems. But after about 30 minutes of fending off challenging questions from the rest of the group I let my anger show when I said this: Let me make one thing clear to you. Something that EVERYONE needs to understand. Corporations have bought and sold every part of you. Drug companies own your body. Media companies own your mind. Every facet of our lives has been taken over by a business interest. Until YOU begin to liberate yourself from the influences of television, pharmaceutical medicine, fast food, junk food and much more, you will not be free to pursue or learn in the way that you are asking for. Nor will your children. Especially your children. Their options are being diminished. Not increased. And what you need to recognize is that we at BFS or Albany Free School or Manhattan Free School, felt this too, and we decided to get together and do something about it. We started a school. And if you are interested, we will likely be there to help. But YOU need to do it. And YOU need to feel that it has to be done as I already know that you do. We all recognize that something is terribly wrong!

It was a good day that I did not piss anyone off. I came away feeling that our city, our country, is way too divided. We are all in front of the same problems. We have been separated by the illusion of race and religion. Policies of spreading fantasy and division and only when we begin to realize that we are all human and have the same problems. The only difference between poor and middle class is one paycheck. We are living in a time when many aspects of our first world, our lives, is melting down. The economy is crashing. Who will pick up the pieces? And how is it going to be repaired if we do not have independent, problem solving individuals dealing with these issues, when my bony white ass is laid in the ground. If we continue to warehouse children in classrooms, what are we preparing them for?

I should mention that it was some of our own high school students who helped put this wonderful event together. There are reports that there are more in the works. If my schedule permits, I will be there.


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One Comment on “The Evolution of Education-First Annual Democratic Education Symposium at Medgar Evers College”

  1. Diane says:

    Great blog. Of course, there is another block in the way of fixing our education “system” and that’s the Teacher’s Union. I’ve always been pro-union but that particular one is way too powerful and seems to have lost sight of their true purpose. Ultimately, education has become less important than teachers getting what they want. At any rate, I’m encouraged to hear that there are actually people in the “system” who realize how messed up it is. And I hope your outburst woke up some people because most of them don’t see the bigger picture. They want an easy fix but they don’t realize that so much of what needs fixing begins with themselves.


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