A Shift In Power: Unprecedented Victory At School Board

“It’s pretty clear that there’s a problem,” said Director Nelson Inz at last Tuesday’s school board meeting, “And it’s really disheartening to hear the things that people are saying about racism and practices taking place in our schools to silence teachers of color that we worked so desperately to get to work for our kids, because we know how important it is that they’re there. It’s crushing, really. I can’t believe I’m hearing it.”

At the Social Justice Education Movement (SJEM), our mission is to empower education workers to organize to fight for social and racial justice in their schools, as well as to fight for their own rights as workers. What we’ve found time and time again is that if we don’t do the second, we can’t do the first. In other words: if teachers can’t defend themselves, they can’t defend their students.

Unlike Director Inz, we were not surprised by the stories educators of color shared publicly at Tuesday’s meeting, about the various ways they were pushed out of their schools in a systematically racist school district. They are consistent with what we have heard, seen and experienced in MPS and beyond: staff who speak up for students, or speak out against administrators in any way, are pushed out of schools. We see this pattern hit staff of color the hardest, in large part because staff of color are often the ones to notice and speak up about practices that harm students.  In Minneapolis 66% of students are students of color, and yet our teachers of color only represent 15% of the teaching staff. A recent study shows that having just one black teacher in elementary school can dramatically increase students’ chances of graduating. In a district that claims to know how important it is to have staff that represent students, staff of color who face racism in their schools that goes unchallenged or is directly perpetrated by administrators.

Some of these stories were shared before the school board on Tuesday. We heard from a teacher who got positive performance reviews for two straight years, but was then told she would not be asked back for “poor performance” a month after disagreeing with the principal at a staff meeting. In another instance, a black Special Education Assistant (SEA) was fired for refusing to deny hot lunch to students as a form of punishment. Another black SEA resigned in protest over the way he and his students were being treated--then his former boss made it impossible for him to get another job in the district by calling him “unprofessional” in references. A Hmong social worker at Hmong International Academy was fired for “insubordination” after refusing to comply with administrative orders to unlawfully expedite a special education designation. These are just a few of the stories shared, and they are only a glimpse of what is happening across the district.

The board would like us to think this is a crisis of communication, a problem that results from them not “knowing the full story,” as Director Rebecca Gagnon put it. But do they really want to know? The board tried to block the community from entering the boardroom because of overcrowding; security guards were ordered to push us aside and close the doors. We had to push our way in, only to find ourselves in a room that comfortably fit us. Comfortable except for the heat, which the board repeatedly said was because the room was over capacity. Those of us who stayed after, however, heard the AC go on after the crowd left.

Do they really want to know? Superintendent Ed Graff began the meeting by framing all of the testimony to come as the sad consequence of necessary budget cuts.

“I want to acknowledge that we have a number of individuals coming forward tonight to speak about their personal situation, specifically as it relates to employment decisions and race,” he said “We know that this is a very difficult time for employees who are impacted by the cuts and organizational restructuring that is taking place.”

Not a single one of the educators speaking that night were excessed due to budget cuts, and the board knew that. They read our emails, and promised a meeting with the fired educators, which they canceled the day of. But it’s certainly easier to be sad about budget cuts than  racism, or staff fired for advocating for students.

Do they really want to act? The board responded to the testimony with outrage and a promise to look into it later--then prepared to move on. We were ready for this with a fully-written, legally sound motion that we requested the board vote on. A motion to rectify the wrongful firings of educators who spoke that night, as well as prohibiting food punishment in the district. Though the discussion mainly consisted of board members saying that this was not the proper process, that they needed to investigate further, and that this didn’t set a good precedent; they were looking at a room of 200 people on their feet, holding signs in support, who had pushed through guards to be there. They passed the motion unanimously with two abstentions. Seven dedicated educators of color can work with our students again.

Do they really want to act? In the face of the budget deficit, the cuts the board is choosing to make are telling. The Davis Center and central administration, which primarily “oversees” (rather than assists) us, has a $43,000,000/year budget for salaries alone. Yet only a small percentage of the total cuts will come from the Davis Center. Yet massive cuts are coming from programs that our students of color rely on the most, including Check and Connect.  They’re also coming from massive pay decreases and work increases for the engineers who make our schools clean and safe, most of whom are people of color. And whose budget remains untouched? School resource officers, who mostly get paid to be on their phones, and often make school a criminalizing and traumatizing place for students of color.

The fact is, we’re being given a tired story: that we just need to give the people in power more time to fully understand the issue and then they will fix it. But the solution is not to rely on the nine people sitting on the school board to understand what is happening in every school - that’s impossible. Our schools are somehow supposed to prepare students to live in a “democracy” while being run as dictatorships, where administrators hold all the power. Our schools are somehow supposed to be able to fight racism when the administrators who run them with unilateral power benefit from avoiding controversy. In the same way it is in the board’s best interest to silence us, it is in the principal’s best interest to silence staff.

The solution is not to be patient with our “leaders.” The solution is for the workers, students, and families in schools to have the power. To shift power from positions that benefit from quieting dissent to people whose first priority is the students and the health and happiness of the school community. The solution is to organize for social and racial justice in our schools, and to protect each other along the way. An SJEM organizer who spoke at the meeting framed the night as a “test” for the board, but the real test was for us: could we build the power to defend each other? All it took was connecting educators across the district who wanted to fight, and an organizing strategy to do so. Now that we see the power we have, it’s time to expand it. It’s time to continue the fight. Time to get organized Will you join us?

Come reflect and celebrate this Thursday, 5-7pm at the Waite House Community room: facebook event here. Or contact us at SJEMiww@gmail.com.

Dedicated Teacher Latest Casualty in Pattern of Staff of Color Being Pushed out of MPS

Eduardo Salgado Diaz is a dedicated 7th Grade ESL teacher at Andersen United Community School in Minneapolis, who was recently told by administrators at Andersen that they are not re-hiring him for next year. In the long-standing pattern of staff of color unfairly being pushed out of Minneapolis Public Schools, stories like this are an all-too familiar occurrence. Read more about Eduardo’s story in his own words below, and stand with him and other staff of color this Tuesday at 5pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/

Eduardo.jpg

 
I first became a part of Minneapolis Public Schools in 1996 as a student and I remember going to Jefferson Elementary School to learn English. My life has led me in a variety of directions but I found myself teaching English to students who were just like me in the same school district where I was once a student. Unfortunately, I may not be a teacher with Minneapolis for much longer.
 
A list of staff for the following year was published and my name appeared on it. It is because of this list that I thought that I would be coming back to Andersen for the 2017-2018 school year. This was, however, not the case. I was told by my administrator several weeks ago that there were two possibilities for my future with MPS: The first option was to not be recommended for rehire, meaning that I will be blacklisted from a teaching position in MPS for the rest of my life. The second option was to resign, meaning I could potentially return in the future.
 
I was told that I was not making the progress that they expected to see in a second year teacher. I was made to feel inadequate, not good enough,  and a bad educator. I found it odd that MPS advertises that it wants teachers who think differently and go above and beyond for students, yet they seem to get pushed out of the district at alarming rates.
 
The number is even greater when you analyze the number of teachers of color that were let go at Andersen over the last 10 years. At least 17 out of 62 or 27% of teachers let go were teachers of color. 27% may not sound like much, but considering that roughly 17% of the teachers at Andersen are teachers of color it does seem to happen at a higher rate than normal.
 
I do not mean to say that the reason I was let go was because of my skin color but I find it hard to think that MPS would want to get rid of a male, veteran, immigrant, natively bilingual Spanish speaker. I have flown in MEDEVAC UH 60 Black Hawk helicopters, been on food stamps, done geological research in Chile, been a teacher in Japan, and have had first-hand negative interactions with local police officers in which my citizenship was questioned. It is these experiences that I bring to the classroom in order to show students that someone that looks like them can be more than what they may be accustomed to seeing in mainstream media and understands what issues they may face in the future.
 
Students in my classroom have learned about me and I have learned about them. I have visited over 30 homes of students and eaten with their families at their dining table, listening to them speak about why they came to this country as well as the hopes they have for their students. I have responded to calls at night from parents asking to help them sign up for toys-for-tots because they know that I will help them. I have been intertwined with the Andersen community for a long time and will continue to be so out of the classroom. Students and their families shop at a store owned by my aunt, a restaurant owned by my uncle, and frequent other establishments owned by more of my family.
 
While this is my second year at Andersen, I was not always an ESL teacher. Last school year I was placed as the 6th-grade social studies teacher because my administrators needed someone who was natively bilingual in Spanish for their Spanish Model UN class. I found it odd that they would place someone who was not licensed in social studies to teach it but I did my duty and completed the mission as the Army had taught me. I worked hard as a social studies teacher my first year and then was excited to move to teaching ESL this school year.
 
This school year ended up being the first year that I actually taught what I was licensed for, and while as a new teacher I always have more to learn and improve on, I do believe that students benefited from having me as their teacher. I talked with them about their feelings during and after the presidential election. About how safe they felt about what they saw in the news regarding police and people of color. About racist comments they have heard from the outside regarding their religion or ethnic origin. I think it is harsh to judge me on my first year teaching the content area that I am licensed for and push me out of the school rather than allow me to continue developing as a teacher.
 
I believe that I have contributed to a positive environment for students as well as staff because of what I bring to the table. I wish to continue making more positive connections with students which is why I am asking the School Board to reconsider how staff is let go, especially when we need more teachers of color as well as positive male role models for students. I am committed to the Andersen community and want to be able to return as a teacher at Andersen next year. I know that the next few years will be tough but I want to make the school district that I went to as a child better for future students.

 

Eduardo’s story is not an anomaly. A Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request filed with the Minneapolis school district this year reveals that 62 probationary teachers have been released or resigned at Andersen school over the past 10 years, and 17 or 27.4% were teachers of color. Since only 17% of teachers at Andersen are currently people of color, this represents a disproportionate exclusion of teachers of color.  Furthermore, of the 9 probationary teachers who were released or resigned so far this year, 4 or 44% of them were teachers of color, compared to about 24% of the probationary teachers at Andersen this year being teachers of color.

For a school district that says it is committed to racial equity, it is strange that teachers of color are consistently being disproportionately pushed out of the school district. In addition to being a dedicated teacher that is well respected by staff, students, and families, Eduardo is also the only Latino middle school teacher at a K-8 school where over 50% of the students are Latino. Andersen needs Eduardo and the district needs to stop disproportionately pushing out educators of color. Come to the school board this Tuesday April 18th at 5pm to stand with Eduardo and others as we urge the school board to do the right thing! Let Eduardo continue to teach at Andersen! https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/

Fired For Protecting Students' Legal Rights: We Want Lor Back in MPS!

Here is the story of a dedicated social worker, wonderful with the elementary kids he works with and why he is so needed in our schools. The story he tells is familiar to so many staff of color and social justice minded people in our schools - staff getting disciplined and fired for advocating for students. Administration bullying staff rather than supporting them. We all deserve our rights, and need staff like Lor to have our schools be what they can be. 

Please come out this Tuesday to fight for Lor and others like him! https://www.facebook.com/events/1901032760176615/ 

"I have been the school social worker at Hmong International Academy for the past two school years. I was born in Thailand in 1980 and came to America in 1981 with my family. I lived in Minneapolis and attended Kenwood elementary until I was nine years old. I am also a product of the Minneapolis Public School system. I see myself in our students and our families and I work hard at providing them a fair and appropriate education. I believe in doing what is right for our students and our families. 

I was recommended not to be rehired in the district and I was trying to have my case reviewed because I believe that this "no recommendation for rehire" was in retaliation from my administration for not expediting a special education evaluation for a student and for reporting the incident to the special education director. I was asked to develop an evaluation plan for the parents to sign off on. Legally, a parent would have to request an evaluation or the school should have had interventions in place and collected data to show that the student needs special education services. We did not have any data nor did the parent give us a request for special education services. The parent denied special education and did not believe that his student needed special education services. 

Initially, I declined to expedite an evaluation without intervention data, and administration stated that my actions were considered “Insubordination and grounds for termination.” Myself and a case manager were forced to illegally develop a special education evaluation plan and have it ready to be presented to the parents. I believe the plan was to go into a parent meeting without the appropriate procedures and have parents sign off on an evaluation plan to assess the student for special education services without thoroughly going through the intervention process. Administration stated that my initial refusal to expedite the evaluation was considered insubordination and grounds for termination. 

The administration forced me to log into my EdPlan account and she entered an evaluation plan for the student with my log in. I notified administration of appropriate steps to have a student evaluated for special education but I was told that they had previously developed evaluation plans for students without previous interventions or parent requests. I told them that I was trained to do evaluation plans differently. I emailed the special education director and copied administration to confirm to clarify the special education evaluation process. The director confirmed that I was correct, in terms of how to initiate an evaluation. The next school day, administration calls me to the office and asks me why I sent the special education director that email. The administration denied having asked me to expedite a special education email. 

A week later, I was notified that I was not going to be rehired for the upcoming school year. 

The week I went to ask for my release paperwork from my School Administrative Manager. She asked me to go back to her office at the end of the day. When I returned to her office, she accused me of being rude and demanding. She stated that she was my superior and I could not be demanding things from her. I reminded her that she was the one who asked me to come back to her office at the end of the day. I stated that I was not sure what she was trying to do but I was not sure why it was an issue for me to ask her for a copy of my release paperwork. I asked her if they were trying to change something on the paperwork but I just wanted a copy of it. She leaves her office and returns with a copy of it. I was fired the next day and asked to leave the building immediately because the School Administrative Manager reported that I was being rude towards her. My actions were deemed unprofessional and my employment at HIA was terminated. 

I have been dedicated to my work at Hmong International Academy and have advocated for creating a positive environment in our building for our staff and students. I care deeply about our students and families. I have always believed in the power of positive relationships. I work hard at developing great relationships with staff, families, and most importantly, our students. I believe that I was wrongly let go from Hmong International Academy. I have been a positive part of the school and would love to continue to be a part of it. I do not believe that I was allowed a fair and appropriate due process. I was also notified that employees are supposed to receive an exit interview with the school board when their employment has been discontinued. I was notified that employees of color are supposed to receive an exit interview when their employment has been discontinued and I have not received one. I would like to receive an interview to discuss my situation and the possibility of retaining my employment at Minneapolis Public Schools. Thank you for your time."