The Miseducation of Little Christopher

What follows was written about a month ago (10/20/16). I waited until now to post it because of certain legal issues surrounding the entire ordeal. I am sharing this now for the sake a building awareness and encouraging any parent or child who has had/is having a similar experience. Blessings. -CCT

Tomorrow our seeds will grow, all we need is dedication.
— Lauryn Hill

I’m not sure where to begin, but I believe I should start telling this story with the events that happened a long time ago. Nevertheless, I’ll start with tomorrow because tomorrow is the first day that my son, Christopher will no longer be enrolled in the Urban Academy of Greater Pittsburgh Charter School (formerly Urban League of Pittsburgh Charter School). Fact is, he has been officially enrolled in homeschool that has been approved by the Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) since September 30, 2016.

Tomorrow is also a very special day because at five o’clock the Education Rights Network and One Pittsburgh are putting on a rally as a part of a wider campaign to combat punitive, excessive discipline in the school system. As a matter of fact, this week is the 7th annual National Week of Action Against School Pushout. Now, I’ll explain it a little more in a bit, but I have to point out the staggering irony that this very week is the week that my son is being officially pushed out of a public school.

This morning I attended a hearing with lawyers from the Education Law Center, who provided counsel and representation for our family. This hearing was actually an expulsion hearing, wherein the administrators of the school intended to expel my son. Now anyone who truly knows my son probably has their mouth wide open at this point. For those who don't know little Christopher, I'll share a bit. I'm his dad, and so I have an obvious bias, but Christopher is one of the most inquisitive, reflective, insightful and perceptive six-year-olds you will ever meet.

When he was three he was asking me questions that I didn't know how to answer. In the last two weeks alone he has accosted me about visiting the Great Wall of China, Africa (at least twice) and New Zealand. He loves mental math and has a deep fascination with number patterns. He owns hundreds of books which he reads and recites regularly. And if you were to have a lengthy conversation with him, I'd bet that sooner or later, the talk would turn to some deep realm of science like outer space, viruses or dinosaurs. While visiting his cousin in Texas this past summer he shared with her that he wants to be a paleontologist when he grows up. To which she responded, “He doesn't talk like a normal six-year-old!”

The truth is, he is a normal six-year-old in that he loves hot wheels, trains and planes, but he is exceptional in that he is fairly advanced (academically) for his age. But he's a typical six-year-old in that he loves all things related to superheroes (especially Iron Man), and he has limitless energy. As an only child he plays by himself quite a bit, but there's never a dull moment during play time. He’s practically nonstop, full steam ahead, with sound effects, running and jumping and then some.

Well apparently, my energetic, exuberant, intellectual son is a "problem child," because Urban Academy sought to put him out today. He was first suspended for ten days and then the school decided to recommend expulsion. So I’m sure you’re already asking, “If you already had him officially enrolled in homeschool, then why go through the trouble of getting a lawyer and contesting the expulsion?” It’s a great question for which I have several very direct and specific answers. Here are just a few.

First, and most importantly, punitive, hypervigilant, excessive discipline is a national crisis. Our schools are being transformed into criminal justice system preparation factories for children of color. This is THE issue when people talk about the school to prison pipeline. And this is in many instances because teachers and administrators refuse to provide the kind of instruction and resources that children need to be successful.

Second, the way my son was handled throughout this entire process was inappropriate. The way that he was addressed and the way I have been addressed concerning his behavior was on several occasions inappropriate. “Christopher can’t sit down in his seat.” And this is why he was being put out of class. Even typing that just now made me a little upset. I corrected the statement immediately. "I think what you mean is that he isn’t sitting like you would like him to. He’s very capable of sitting quietly." A better question is why is he inclined to stand up? What makes him want to move around? How much movement is inappropriate? Also, I hate how there’s this criminalization of our kids in school. Infractions are referred to as if they’re crimes and children are treated like they’re criminals in court. Even the language that’s utilized is problematic; hearing, charges, assault, lawyers, etc. are all terms that have been utilized throughout this process.

Third, so many of the accusations leveled at him were ridiculous. Christopher received about five referrals on one particular day. One of them was for playing in the lunchroom. It’s helpful to add that the students get NO RECESS. So, given the fact that there is no established and scheduled play time, at what point do kids just get to be kids? But then if a kid is already having a bit of a rough day, at what point do we just accept that this day is pretty much awash and stop writing referrals? That is, unless you actually want to characterize him as a “problem child” for discipline sake. Then I suppose you would write as many ridiculous referrals to support your case. But I think you’ll agree that five referrals in one day is excessive for a six-year-old.

Also, I sought to contest the school throughout this process because it was obvious that they were not providing the kind of education that would help Christopher to be successful. Christopher was obviously bored and unchallenged (academically) in his class. Even though the teacher admitted that he had already tested proficient in the first-grade material (that she planned to teach through the year), there were no visible steps being taken to teach to the level that he was capable of learning on. In other words, there was no plan for individualized instruction. I requested gifted and talented testing, and though I was assured that paperwork would be sent, I never received it.

I could go on, but those are some of the primary reasons why I decided to engage the entire disciplinary process. On a day that Christopher happened to have a difficult day, my mom happened to be in town visiting. She reminded me that when I was in first grade I had an almost identical problem. I was having quite a bit of difficulty in my class. I was being sent to the principal’s office quite a bit. I actually remember having a strong dislike for my teacher. After taking some time to assess the situation, they determined that (having had a late birthday) I was a little too advanced for the first grade and thus they moved me up to second grade. I forgot all about that but my mom remembered. Thanks mom. I needed that. Shout out to the principal at Port Royal Elementary, Mr. Smith, my first-grade teacher Mrs. Ward, and my second-grade teacher Mrs. Sperry for facilitating my learning needs. I’m glad they recognized what the problem was and took the necessary steps to make my learning experience a positive one. The trips to the principal’s office stopped and my grades remained strong. That was almost 30 years ago. It’s amazing how history repeats itself.

The only difference was that this time, the teachers and administration refused to modify the instruction to ensure a positive learning experience for my son. After observing the class and several situations within the school and class environment, it was fairly clear to me where and how changes could be made to the learning experience, but it was clear that there was little to no desire to make those changes. Nevertheless, the intent was to make Christopher out to be a problem child that needed to be dealt with.

I recognize too that to some extent, some of what was being punishment aimed at Christopher was actually directed toward us (his parents). On the third day of school, they insinuated that Christopher’s “behavior problems” had a more serious source; and that he should have a full psychological evaluation. We refused due to the fact that they hadn’t even had the chance to get to know Christopher and because we know that mental and emotional dysfunctions are very often overdiagnosed in schools these days. It was obvious that they didn’t like that and they made it crystal clear to us that our “noncompliance” was making it hard for them to do their job. But I suspect that the suspensions were intended in part to punish us for being unwilling to agree to the testing.

A friend pointed out to me that the school stands to benefit directly from having Christopher diagnosed. Whereas each PPS school receives $17,000 for each student, for each student with a disability, the school receives $28,000. Thus if the student proves to be even slightly more difficult than the other students, then it actually benefits the school not to stretch the energies of the staff, but rather, have the school psychologist diagnose him, design an individualized education plan (IEP), gather some additional resources, bring in some contract staff person for extra help and then have the right not to include this child's performance along with statistics related to the performance of other students due to the IEP. It’s a no-brainer.

Part of the problem is that this is the third school that we have tried. We tried a local catholic school that was highly recommended, but we realized really quick that their discipline philosophy was not one that we could accept. We then went to our neighborhood school at the advice of a friend who is a school principal. He said, "go to Miller and ask for Mrs. Reddy." Shout-out to Mrs. Reddy who did an excellent job helping Christopher to transfer to kindergarten, having been homeschooled up until then. After a few weeks, Mrs. Reddy commented that she felt Christopher needed to receive gifted and talented testing. But after the first semester, Mrs. Reddy was transitioned to K-2 literacy specialist and a new teacher was hired to teach Christopher’s class. No test was administered. And then the drama started.

Along with the teacher change, the school principal who had been on sabbatical returned to work. Before then, there was an interim principal. During the first semester, Christopher wasn’t suspended once. During the second semester, it seemed as though Christopher was being suspended every week. He was suspended without appropriate written referrals on more than one occasion. As a matter of fact, I received a phone call one night from the principal to inform me that Christopher was not to come to school the next day. It’s helpful to note that the principal once commented that we should take our son to Winchester Thurston (a majority white and very expensive private school in town) which is in itself a subtle form of push-out. Funny thing is, I got the same suggestion from the principal at Urban Academy.

Yet, while at Miller, I spent significant time volunteering with Christopher’s class to give the students some additional physical exercise given the fact that they were only given about fifteen minutes to play (remember we’re talking about 5-year-olds). I requested that the students not be allowed to watch movies during the school day due to the fact that Christopher regularly came home and reported having watched Wreck-It Ralph, Inside Out and other cartoon movies during the school day. There were countless fights and staff members who were terribly antagonistic towards the students. These along with several other issues were obvious examples of deficiencies in the school, but instead of dealing with these issues, Christopher was made out to be a “bad kid”. As a matter of fact, this administration also recommended a full evaluation. One PPS psychologist(?) even insinuated that Christopher may need inpatient psychiatric care. I wish I were making this up.

It’s really sad that our children are often subject to this kind of treatment and classroom wrangling. It's really sad that children are not taught according to their skills and abilities, but rather they are herded like cattle and treated like criminals. What’s more is that these kinds of tactics really seem to be the norm. Meanwhile, lobbying organizations like PennCan suggest that schools like Urban Academy represent the solution for education in Pittsburgh, but this is just not the case. For example, a recent PennCan report claims that Urban Academy had ZERO out of school suspensions last year. Well, I would certainly hope that the 2016 report doesn’t say zero suspensions because my 1st grader was suspended twice in the first 14 days of school.

Why am I writing this? This is a national crisis. By pushing children out of school, we’re ensuring that black and brown children have a subpar, negative and fruitless educational experience. A subpar educational experience leads to unemployment, poverty, drug abuse and crime in the future. We must ensure a bright future for our children, by delivering them a quality education. We need teachers and teaching that’s culturally relevant, culturally responsive, cutting-edge and student-focused. I’ve recommitted myself to making sure my son and every child in my community has a quality education. I don’t know what to do next, but I’m sure we must do something.

But hey, I suppose one way to start is to support programs and events like the one tomorrow night at the Grayson center. I'm a fan of Jasiri X, but I'm not going simply to hear him. I'm going, because I believe student push-out is a real serious problem, and I want to figure out more ways to be a part of the solution.

Epilogue: I want to give a special shoutout to Thena Robinson-Mock and Nancy Hubley from the Education Law Center. I also want to say a special thank you to Pam Harbin and the Education Rights Network. Also, big shoutout to my man Evans Moore, who made some connections, and gave me major support and encouragement throughout this entire ordeal. All of you should be celebrated in a major way for who you are and what you do. The city of Pittsburgh would be such a dark place without people like you who shine bright like lights. Thank you. Much love.