Monday, January 30, 2017

Buffalo Board Members Go on Record Opposing DeVos Appointment

January 30, 2017

Chairman Lamar Alexander, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee
455 Dirksen Bldg
Washington, DC 20510

Dear Senator Alexander:

The undersigned members of the Buffalo New York Board of Education are writing this letter to voice our grave concerns about President Donald Trump’s nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos as the next Secretary of the US Department of Education.  The undersigned acknowledge that this letter expresses our individual position on this matter as time has not allowed the passage of a Board approved Resolution.  Nonetheless, we believe that we have an obligation, on the behalf of the 34,000 children in our District, to make a public statement expressing our opposition to Ms. DeVos’ nomination.   We object to the appointment of Ms. DeVos as the Secretary of the US Department of Education for the following reasons:

Ø  Over 90 percent of children in this country attend public schools.  Ms. DeVos’ express disdain for public education coupled with her abject lack of academic and experiential credentials to lead this federal department raise troubling questions about the future of federal support for public education under Ms. DeVos’ leadership. 
Ø  Further, she has a long history of using her wealth and influence to undermine public education through the promotion of vouchers, private and for-profit schooling with little or no regulation, transparency, accountability or respect for civil rights in her home state of Michigan.  It’s likely that she will use her new position as Secretary of the Department of Education to expand these actions nationally.
Ø  During her recent confirmation hearing, Ms. DeVos displayed an appalling lack of knowledge about educational issues, e.g. the high stakes standardized test debate; the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known as IDEA, the Federal Law governing services to children with disabilities; and her refusal to commit to holding all schools receiving federal funding, whether public, public charter or private, to the same accountability standards.
Ø  It might be comical, if it was not so alarming, that Ms. DeVos refused to acknowledge that guns do not belong in schools, citing an obscure example of one Colorado school that might need them to ward off grizzly bears!

The foregoing is not an exhaustive list of our concerns, but these are significant issues that should be considered seriously by the Senate in making the final decision on this appointment.  We join hundreds of thousands of parents, students, educators and concerned citizens who oppose the nomination of Betsy DeVos as secretary of the US Department of Education.  Ms. DeVos has demonstrated a lack of commitment to public education and the fundamental values that historically support this institution as a critical component of a democratic society.  Senator Alexander, Ms DeVos’ record disqualifies her for this position and we urge your Committee to reject her appointment.


Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, President and Member-at-Large
Sharon Belton Cottman, Vice - President, Executive Affairs, Ferry District Representative
Dr. Theresa Harris-Tigg, Vice-President, Student Achievement, East District Representative
Hope Jay, Esq., North District Representative
Jennifer Mecozzi, West District Representative
Paulette Woods, Central District Representative

Cc:  Senator Schumer
Senator Gillibrand

Superintendent Kriner Cash

Monday, January 23, 2017

Secret and Unequal! Don’t Believe the Lie!

So, the Buffalo News has decided to take the six School Board member majority to task, as does Board member Larry Quinn, for supposedly holding  a “secret meeting” with our attorney.  But, where was the Editorial Board of the News in 2014 when the then Board majority, comprised of Larry Quinn, Carl Paladino, Patti Pearce, James Sampson and Jay McCarthy, hired Donald Ogilvie as Superintendent, without the involvement or the knowledge of the four minority members?  Mr. Ogilvie’s appointment as Superintendent was already à fait accompli when he was brought to the first meeting of the new Board and voted in by the 5 member majority over the objections of the minority members.  Not only did this appointment result from secret meetings of that Board majority, Mr. Ogilvie and a Board attorney but this unethical and illegal maneuver was never called out or condemned by the News. 

So much for the Editor’s irate observations and sham watchdog reporting when it comes to the ethical or legal actions of this current Board majority.  Secret meetings and decision making was a hallmark of the old Board.  Yet, even when pointed out, those Board members were not singled out, admonished for not playing fair or for “insulting the voters” as the News does in their January 23rd. editorial.

Contrary to this editorial or the comments of the oppositional Board members; the meeting was neither secret nor illegal.  In fact, Mr. Paladino knew about the meeting because one of his Board cohorts, who attended the meeting, breached confidentiality to inform him.  There was no attempt to hide the fact that a meeting was taking place; it was held in the Board room, during the day, with the knowledge of staff.  Members met with their attorney to receive legal advice in the matter of the petition to request Mr. Paladino’s removal from the Board.  Following their reporter’s research, the News’ article (January 22) had to admit that the members were following legal protocol in the conduct of this meeting:

 “When The News contacted Freeman, he said that elected boards are allowed to meet privately to seek legal advice without publishing notice of the meeting to the public.”  (January 22, 2017)

In spite of the facts to the contrary, a day later the News resorts to name-calling to bolster their claims of wrong-doing by the six Board members calling us “chickenhearts” and “cowards”.  Talk about being disingenuous!  The Buffalo News has never been supportive of the minority/Minority members of the Board.  This editorial is another in a series of editorials that have been thinly veiled attacks on our accomplishments, our competence, and our commitment to the children.  Chickenhearts!  Who even uses that word anymore?  Cowards?!  HARDLY!  We are six working class women, taking on men of means and choosing to seize and maintain the “moral high ground”.  Our wealth and our strength come from the support of thousands of men, women and children of all ages, races and backgrounds and national origins, who are standing with us, against intolerance, against racism, against misogyny, against homophobia, against xenophobia and against the distorted and biased editorials of news organizations masquerading as “fair and balanced” publications. 

We call ourselves, “Upstanders”, and will continue to confront bullying whether from individuals or mega organizations attempting to shape public opinion.

These comments are my opinion and not made in my capacity as the Buffalo Board of Education President.

Monday, December 5, 2016

After the Election: An Opportunity for Teachable Moments

The 2016 Presidential campaign was the most negative, divisive campaign in recent memory.  The winning candidate openly threatened groups of individuals based on religious affiliation, race, sexual orientation, immigrant status, and other perceived differences.  Citizens of all ages have been troubled by the demonstrated intolerance as well as real and potential threats to these groups.   Even as the campaign ended the election elicited not just hateful words but emboldened discriminatory and extremist groups and individuals to target racial, ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants and others.  All of these angry, threatening rhetorical and actual racist, bigoted acts have contributed to a climate of uncertainty and anxiety among Americans who fear that this movement will impose and normalize intolerant and hate-motivated behaviors against vulnerable populations.   Children are foremost among those who are most vulnerable.  

In April 2016, during the height of the campaign, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a 45 year old organization that tracks and monitors the activities of hate groups, surveyed public school teachers regarding their observations of their students’ reactions.  Over 2000 teachers responded.   Their experiences were alarming.   Students of all ages had a level of awareness of the positions of the candidates and their supporters, thanks to access to social media, electronic media and adults’ conversations.    Over two thirds of the teachers reported that children of color, especially, were anxious, confused and scared about what might happen to their families if Donald Trump won.  It was noted that immigrant children and children of undocumented families were stressed and even some African American children worried about being sent back to Africa. 

Over all the teachers felt that many students were discouraged and depressed by what they were hearing from the Republican candidate.  The problem was compounded by these children’s knowledge that some adults in the schools and fellow students shared the candidate’s views.  Teachers saw an increase in bullying linked to the tensions created by the political rhetoric. Since the election, SPLC has documented over 700 incidents of hate-related harassment throughout the country.   We’ve experienced some of those incidents, locally.  SPLC is replicating this survey post-election.

As educators, we especially shoulder the responsibility to ensure that our schools are safe havens for our students. After the election Dr. Cash and I talked about how to reassure our students, who are apprehensive about their future; how to let them know that we understand that some of them are feeling scared and anxious; that we support them and we value them and are committed to ensuring a safe space for all students.  Many of you have read the letter sent to the District community that resulted from our conversations.  But, Dr. Cash and I also talked about the next steps. It’s important that our actions not stop with a letter. 

The question then, becomes what do we, as educators – parents- concerned adults -- do to help our children navigate the new reality that our country is facing?  I think that one of the answers is that we use the events or situations experienced by our students as teachable moment opportunities.  Ironically, too many of our students experience bullying and intimidation in their lives.   However, using these experiences as teachable moments, we have the ability to engage children in personal understanding of why respect is important in building positive relationships; why civility is important in the process of promoting dynamic dialogue; why being empowered is important in developing decision making, problem solving and critical thinking skills that offer the means for self-protection as well as the capacity to support fellow students who are being bullied.  This is not a new idea!  In fact, I know that it’s happening in classrooms every day.  Just last week, to the credit of the school’s administration and teachers, the Stanley Makowski Early Childhood Center held a school-wide anti-bullying series of events.

But, now more than ever I think we need to be intentional and inclusive in making anti-bullying a focus of a community-wide endeavor.  Two years ago, the District held an anti-bullying campaign to heighten awareness about forms/consequences of bullying and how to confront it; members of the Board of Education, the Mayor, the Superintendent and staff rode the anti-bully bus; and visited several schools throughout the District that shared their bully-prevention programs.  I was impressed by the enthusiasm of the students; by their creative responses to bullying and the attention that the District and the City gave this all important issue.   I also learned a new word that day.   I learned what it meant to be an “Upstander”; an individual who sees wrong and acts. A person who takes a stand against an act of injustice or intolerance; a person who is not a “positive bystander,” that’s the definition of an Upstander

Each and every one of us can be an Upstander, and consequently a role model for our children.  And as such, we become the teachable moments that I children learn from – outside of the classroom.  I urge all concerned adults to commit to making ‘Upstander” a word whose meaning becomes an integral part of this community’s vocabulary and visible actions.   

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Night a Reality Show Celebrity Became President of the United States of America

Election night! It wasn’t a very good night.  In fact, it was a very, very, very bad night – sleepless and filled with troubled thoughts about the future of our country.  And I’m not the only person on the planet to have experienced shock, disbelief, anxiety, and acute sadness.  For those of you, who know about the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance – Kubler-Ross), my emotions are running the gamut that approximate 4 of these stages.  However, I’m a long way from acceptance and I expect that I won’t reach that stage any time soon, if ever.  Already, news of racist, sexist and homophobic acts unleashed by the words and deeds of the “President-Elect” are being reported throughout the country.  Right here, in the city that wants to be known as “Buffalove”, a black doll was found “lynched” in a room on a college campus.  I’ve also gotten reports from teachers that many of their children of color, especially immigrant children are terribly frightened for themselves and their families.  They believe they’ll be harmed, harassed and/or deported.  How do adults justify scaring and intimidating children?

How is it possible that America elected a reality show performer as its next President?  A reality show?!!  Really?  a “fictionalized”, often scripted fantasy that supposedly depicts the life, trials, tribulations and triumphs of its stars is the basis for the next leader of the Free World?  The problem is that many people believe what they see on these shows is real and that the “stars” are genuine.  Throughout the campaign, there were many times when Trumps’ antics could only be described as appropriate for a reality show; name-calling, veiled and not so veiled threats, outrageous claims and lofty yet improbable predictions about what he’d accomplish as President.  And while these behaviors turned many of us off, they revved up Trump supporters.  “Believe me”; “It’s going to be great!”; “I know more than the generals about Isis”; “Trust me.”  On and on and on; this narcissistic man, talking about how great he is and how he would “make America great again”, never defining what he’d do to realize the “change” his voters said they crave.  But reality stars don’t need to produce concrete plans; they just need to entertain, excite, incite and project a fairy tale “reality” that many dream of achieving.

What will Trump’s America look like?  According to his vision, the reality of the Trump administration is bleak and frightening.  During his campaign he painted a picture of a dark America, lacking in capacity and will to celebrate its history of diversity or recognize the contributions of the numerous groups that helped to make America great.  He forecasted a country that devalues and threatens citizens and residents because their cultural heritage, racial identity or religious affiliations are suspect.  He demonstrated personal characteristics of a self-absorbed man who is petty and mean-spirited, shallow and vindictive, thin-skinned, intellectually superficial and mendacious. He inspired, sanctioned and normalized racist, misogynist and anti- LGBT-Q behavior. He’s a man, who will do anything to win – a role model that few of us would want our children to emulate.  Even Donald Trump’s legendary business acumen and successes are questionable.  His multiple bankruptcies are well-known, “The Art of the Deal” was written by a ghost writer and his refusal to produce his tax returns leaves us wondering about the extent of his wealth.

What will he do about education?  That’s only one of the many important concerns I have about a Trump presidency and share with others who are passionate supporters of public education.  Recently, Buffalo School Board member, Carl P. Paladino, a Trump surrogate addressed a national group of educators and promised that Mr. Trump would “encourage competition in the marketplace and eventually dismantle the corrupted, incompetent urban school districts that we have in America today.”  According to Paladino, Trump plans to severely downsize the federal Department of Education.  Further, the Office of Civil Rights, a unit of the DOE that investigates discrimination in school districts and described by Paladino as “self-perpetuating absolute nonsense”, would be greatly limited in doing its work.  According to Paladino, the job of the Secretary of the Department of Education would be turned over to a non-educator, probably a businessman who would run the department like a business enterprise.  An increase in charter schools and vouchers for private schools would replace public schools.
Public schools are already under siege and the prospect of an all-out war on public education will intensify under Trump and surrogates like Paladino.

Let’s face it, I’m still going through the four stages of grief and will be for some time.  But the last stage “acceptance” may never happen, especially when education is involved.  Our children’s future is tied to education so it is more important than ever that we continue the struggle to ensure that public education remains as a fundamental institution of our democracy.    As we ponder our response to Trump’s America, let’s remember the words of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The ultimate measure of a man (woman) is not where (s)he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where (s)he stands at times of challenge and controversy.  (I think Dr. King would allow me to make these minor additions).  I also think Dr. King would urge us to pray, remain hopeful but remember that each requires that we also, PUT In the Work!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Words Matter, Mr. Paladino!

This weekend a School Board member made national news when he went on the record to express his views/opinions about our President’s religious affiliation.  Carl Paladino cited patently false and repeatedly debunked accusations that President Obama “is a Muslim, not a Christian.” Further his remarks insinuated that President Obama, if not a Muslim is a “sympathizer”.  Although he leaves the listener to surmise with what or whom the President identifies, he clearly believes the President is un-patriotic, is only supported by the “uninformed” or the “elite” and doesn’t care about the average American. While these remarks would appear to be aimed only at the President, the covert message is that somehow, being a Muslim is a problem; signals un-American tendencies; is intolerable and sinister.   

I am appalled that an educational decision maker would make such remarks without consideration of their impact on the student population he serves.  And as a fellow Board member, I believe that silence becomes complicity in support of this behavior. It should be acknowledged that Mr. Paladino has freedom of speech to express his views.  And he is doing that as a citizen not as a Board member. Likewise, my comments are not made on the behalf of the Board or of myself, as a Board member. In fact, the Board is prevented by Education Law from formally admonishing or sanctioning one of its members.  However, as Mr. Paladino has, I also have the right, and the obligation, to exercise my free speech rights and do so as a grandmother, child advocate and educational stakeholder. 
Buffalo Schools serve over 34,000 students.  African American, Latino, Native American, Asian and Pacific Islanders comprise nearly 80% of our student population.  An increasing number of our students are immigrant children who come from countries where the predominant religion is Islam.   We also recognize that many of our students, American citizens, are Muslims.  Our country was founded on the belief that religious freedom is a fundamental right.     All of our children, regardless of religious preference, deserve and MUST see educational leaders/adults modeling behavior that demonstrates a valuing, respect and tolerance of difference. Our educational system actively promotes the goal that “All students will demonstrate the ability to live harmoniously and to cooperate with others, valuing the enrichment provided by diversity, and incorporating our democratic civic values of equal opportunity, justice, and peace.”  In other words, we message that regardless of race, creed, religion, national origin or sexual orientation we expect the ideal that all will treat each other with dignity, honesty and respect. That includes adults. 

Our students understand coded language.  They are more technologically savvy than most adults and they respond to social media in formats that we’ve never heard of.  Comments such as those made by Mr. Paladino are not confined to CNN or the Buffalo News.  Our students understand the hypocrisy of adults, who exercise situational ethics in their interactions. They reject the attempt to impose a set of standards for behavior on them that are not mirrored in the behavior of those who make the policies. They expect us to model the behavior, adhere to the ideals and validate the goals we’ve developed to guide the system. Yes, words matter, actions matter.  Our students are watching us Mr. Paladino.  What will you do or say next?

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Revisiting ELA and Math 2016

It’s that time of year again.  Last Friday, the New York State Commissioner of Education released the results of the annual English Language Arts (ELA) and Math standardized tests.   The results for Buffalo’s students showed an increase in proficiency, 4.5 points in ELA over last year’s tests (11.9% to 16.4%) and a 1 point increase in the Math proficiency (15.1% to 16.1%).  These scores exceed those of Rochester and Syracuse but they’re still low compared to our suburban counterparts.  Buffalo’s scores also reflect a similar small increase noted in the overall state numbers; ELA scores moved from 31.3 %  to 37.9%, a 6.6% increase, while the State Math scores increased by 1%, from 38.1% to 39.1%).

Aligned with the Common Core Learning Standards these tests have been in place since the 2012-13 school year.  A review of four years of test results shows that only about a third, at its lowest 31.1% (both ELA and Math) to 37.9% and 39.1%, of students this year have tested proficient.  Alterations in the 2016 tests such as a reduction in the number of questions and removal of the time restriction on the testing session gave students an unlimited time to complete the tests.  Did these adjustments contribute to the increase in scores?  At this time the State has not studied the impact of these significant changes on the overall test results. In announcing this year’s results, the State Commissioner acknowledged that State Ed could not determine reasons for the increase in test scores and cautioned making comparisons to last year’s test.   The reality is that the State will have difficulty making valid comparisons between this year’s tests and previous ones given the substantial modifications made to the 2016 testing cycle and the apparent failure to build in a method to determine the influence of the changes.   What else is there to learn about the validity of these numbers?  

However for those who profess belief in the sanctity of these tests, Buffalo’s results demonstrate a positive trajectory, are better than two of our Big 5 colleagues and in line with the statewide percentage increases.  Nonetheless in many instances the response to these numbers is the predictable labeling of our students, schools and District as failing and in need of reform.  Most often these calls for reform propose more charter schools, school takeover, e.g. receivership, parental choice strategies, or school closure.  There is little understanding and less dialogue about the substance of the standardized tests, the unfair weight, in the name of accountability, assigned to test results or about the human toll associated with standardized testing.

Opponents of the ELA/Math standardized tests, including myself, have cited the recurring assessment problems of these high stakes tests;

These tests:  1) are not developmentally appropriate – reading levels are far above the grade level being tested 2) are not diagnostic; they don’t provide information that helps the teacher target individual student learning needs 3) are not differentiated by student need as almost all children take the same test, regardless of their cognitive ability or their English language proficiency; it’s a one size fits all approach  4) encourage teaching to the test at the expense of time for other subjects  5) demoralize and frustrate children.

This year, however, I also heard from parents and staff in our District about other ways in which these tests negatively impacted our students’ sense of well-being and self-esteem and contributed to a culture that could impugn the integrity of our District.  I heard of students who were anxious about the tests to the point of getting sick in their classrooms; children who were crying, demoralized and frightened;  and children who sat for these tests for 6-8 hours!  As alarming, I also heard stories about administrators and teachers who sent subtle and not too subtle messages about the critical importance of these tests, not just to the student but to the school:  who convinced parents who were thinking of refusing the tests to change their decision to opt out; who planned school activities that either rewarded students who tested or punished those who didn’t.  To their credit when I brought these incidents to the attention of the administration, these situations were quickly rectified.  Yet, that these incidents occurred at all is disturbing and the ones I heard about were not likely the only ones of this kind.   

The 2016 testing cycle is a pivotal one, not just because of changes made in the testing conditions by the Commissioner but also because these are the first tests given since the Governor’s Common Core Task Force issued its report.  The Report judged the Common Core implementation along with its aligned curricula and tests as flawed.  In an over-due official statement the Report also agreed with many of the concerns expressed by test opponents, e.g. that the “one size fits all” standardized testing system is unfair and in need of an over-haul.  The Task Force recommended more “flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities” and the elimination of “double testing for English Language Learners”.  Importantly, the Task Force’s final recommendation proposed that “the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards…. shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performance of individual teachers or students.”  The State Board of Regents accepted the Report findings and recommendations.

I offer this information as backdrop because rarely does the public discourse include or acknowledge the full scope of the data and information on the subject of the New York State ELA and Math standardized tests.  Too often the dialog remains fixed at the level of the “numbers” and what they purportedly convey about the academic health of our schools.  The Common Core Task Force’s recommendations have not taken effect at this time, so in addition to all of the points I’ve made, the 2016 test results still reflect the high stakes “one size fits all assessment” that the Task Force cited as unfair.  Let’s talk, but when we do come prepared to discuss all aspects of the issue.

This article reflects the views of the author and does not represent a formal statement on the behalf of the Buffalo Board of Education or any other organization.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Journalistic Malpractice: A Few Observations About the School Board Elections

Day after day after day, leading up to Tuesday’s school board election, articles in the Buffalo News predicted an Armageddon if certain candidates were not re-elected or elected to the Board.  The headlines screamed warnings about the untenable and catastrophic consequences that would result from the seismic shift of power, if majority bloc members were not re-elected.   They bemoaned the use of the fairly common tactic of challenging an opponent’s petitions as endemic of the “hard-ball, bare-knuckle Buffalo politics” that had infected the electoral process, even though this maneuver was used by their preferred candidate in his first race three years ago.  They conveniently ignored the fact that Mr. Sampson successfully removed Mr. Hernandez from the ballot in 2013 or that Mr. Paladino attempted to knock Mr. Harig off the ballot this year. 

Using vague or few facts to substantiate their recommendations, they endorsed little-known, un- accomplished candidates over seasoned incumbents whose records they tried to trash.   Ironically, they attributed incremental academic successes, e.g. the increase in the graduate rates, to Board President James Sampson and North District Representative, Jason McCarthy.  In doing so, they contradicted their own assessment of the significance of this progress indicator.  They previously downplayed this accomplishment as this is an outcome of Dr. Pamela Brown’s Superintendency.   In this regard, they are consistent, however, in that they’ve never attributed credit to Dr. Brown for this achievement or acknowledged the fact that the schools which were removed from receivership earlier this year also made progress under Dr. Brown’s tenure.

Employing a documented propaganda strategy, the News purposefully published multiple daily articles in various formats, supporting their message of impending doom and gloom.   They lamented the demise of the majority bloc’s “reform” agenda and mused about the chaos the District would experience if the “status quo”, “union supported” minority succeeded in winning a position as the new majority.  One can almost picture the handwringing and hear the moaning of the editorial writers as they penned their fear-mongering opinion pieces. They touted the union’s support of some candidates as tantamount to that group taking control of the District.  Yet, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership’s bankrolling of the incumbent majority members and at least one challenger was framed as the business community fulfilling its civic responsibility.

The Buffalo News’ unprecedented coverage of the School Board, the candidates, and the issues (as they determined them) was intended to sway public opinion during an election season that had few public forums or other opportunities to meet the candidates.  In the end, voters saw through the ruse and refused to be influenced by irresponsible, biased journalism.  Rejecting the News’ arguments, they cast their ballots for the children.  The new Board-elect is comprised of new and returning Board members, who are united in an agenda that aims to re-focus the Board on the broad educational needs of all children in the District. 

I began writing this column two years ago because a) the Buffalo News marginalized and often demonized the minority women on the Board and Superintendent Pamela C. Brown and b) the 2014 “Vision Statement” advanced by the majority board members was exclusionary, divisive and proposed a “reform” agenda that threatened to “dismantle” our public schools.  Throughout this period I’ve often asked the question when is enough, enough?  Obviously, many of you have answered that question with your vote and the response is, NOW!  I believe that this Board will move forward, collaboratively and cohesively to develop a new vision, one that’s inclusive and puts the children in the beginning, the middle and the end of our agenda.

Barely a week has passed since the election.  And the new Board won’t take office until July 1st.  Yet I anticipate more propaganda from the News.   I urge readers to watch the Buffalo News reports.  Will they be fair and balanced?   If they’re not, call them on it!  We cannot be silent and allow journalistic malpractice to continue and to undermine the new Board before we even convene.