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Not-So-Secret T-shirts…


by Kerry Macneil - 2012

A commentary on the special issue.

Sometimes at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), a public school in New York City, staff, faculty, parent/family, and student groups will open meetings or classes or study sessions with what we’ve come to call the not-so-secret T-shirt initiative. It’s a pulse-taker of sorts, an ice-breaker to feel each other out, some, before we move forward in our work together. Up on the fourth floor, in our shared, sagging 1960-something building that stretches out across a block and an avenue, on the corner of West 182nd Street and Audubon Avenue, we’ll go ‘round and offer that which (for reasons of time or personality or something else entirely) we might not quite manage to say otherwise. “…excited but wary…” was what my not-so-secret T-shirt could have read upon hearing from Barbara Beatty, my (back in the early 1990s) professor at Wellesley. Excited, because as I prepare to return to the same building I’ve entered for nineteen autumns, to serve in the same neighborhood, and, in some instances, the same families, I’m eager and grateful for cause to look back via the necessary, timely collection of musings on implications for compensatory early education policies and programs during the 1960s and 1970s that Barbara Beatty has assembled. Excited, because the daily-ness of the work of a school community requires thinking and theorizing and acting with an urgency that renders such would-be reflective pauses relatively (if problematically) few. Excited because the best way I know to consider these articles and their ambitious scope is through the lens of the work on-site at WHEELS. Wary, because of the precious specificity of the work of our school community and the ways in which interplay among the lessons of the assembled articles and the needs of WHEELS might speak in conversation with each other. Wary, because of some of the ways in which the everyday-ness of helping to make a school go requires a kind of focus on the needs of actual folks in our actual school that makes looking away from this work, even for a moment, to consider the that which has come before and its vital lessons, arduous if no less necessary. “Slow learner” is another T-shirt I could have, apparently.


I’m not alone in my wariness, it seems. Some recent would-be-slogans from founding students (now rising eleventh graders) and their families include:


…is secretly afraid her son won’t get into college…


…is secretly afraid he will not have the money to pay for his daughter’s education…


…is secretly afraid she will get into every college to which she applies…


These came in the spring of 2011 at WHEELS, an “irregular” public school, one without a charter, a school where ninety-eight percent of students are Latino, almost all of whom are, in varying degrees and directions, bilingual; where two percent identify as African American, Afro-Caribbean, and/or multiracial; and where ninety percent qualify for free lunch (one would-be T-shirt slogan was “…secretly eats the mozzarella sticks and hides the apple slices…”)—a school where a fourth of the students are English language learners entitled to support, and fifteen percent have individualized education plans. WHEELS is a fledgling, longed-for school that professional friends and I opened in the fall of 2006 after years of working in the neighborhood together with our adolescent students and their families. Fall 2011 marks our first year at capacity, with grades six through twelve totaling 616 at last count; our twelfth graders will be the first cohort to graduate in the spring of 2012. I note this identifying information not because it is the sum of who students are but because it is some of who they are. Most students are Dominican. Most live (or lived when they started at WHEELS) within walking distance of our building. Most will be first-generation college students.


In “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” Barbara Beatty’s framing of the collection urges me (as she has for years, first in her own classroom at Wellesley and then via a voice that may as well be hers in my head) to ask: Why this now? What is it about compensatory educational programs that speak to this historical moment? Here, international and national implications for compensatory programs, even concerns that cross state and city lines, feel too big; my t-shirt might also read: “…is grateful but cannot think too much about this in everyday-ness…” As such, I reframe the question into the decidedly more modest ask of: What does/could/might these articles mean at WHEELS? Beatty reminds me in her introduction1 that the history of the establishment of and subsequent (often almost simultaneous) critique of compensatory programs and policies has been steeped in a dizzying we-must-pay-the-rent-but-we-can’t-pay-the rent spiral from which the (relative, modest) successes of some schools, some students, some families emerge. It is the possibility of this would-emergence from the effects of historic racism, sexism, and classism (at least) that makes schools, WHEELS among them, exist, work, go, and, sometimes, thrive.


Barbara Beatty nudges me in her article, “The Debate over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Preschool Intervention, Developmental Psychology, and Compensatory Education in the 1960s and Early 1970s,”2 to consider that in electing to participate in school communities that seek social justice, WHEELS, and others like it, reject the notion that students come to us with lacks and deficiencies because of who they are and who their families intend for them to be. Communication with students’ families at WHEELS begins early and occurs often. Ideally, this reliable, predictable back and forth about students’ progress (academic and work habits-related) happens via our assessment, grading, and reporting policies, ones that all stakeholders know well and to which we have access in ongoing, ideally multidirectional ways. Indeed, as an Expeditionary Learning (EL) School, our strategic partnership with EL means that we can rely on the expertise and shared vision of a network of schools, some actually close by (downtown, in the Bronx, in Brooklyn, or on Staten Island), some ideologically close by (like King Middle School in Portland, Maine, where folks tirelessly have mentored us). Another not-so-secret T-shirt would allow me to announce a multitude of affiliations with our partner organization, EL, and other EL schools locally, regionally, and nationally. Maybe I would include color- or font- coded affiliations with Teach for America (TFA), an organization with which many of our teachers, most of our teacher leaders, and all of our school administrators have served. If the T-shirt wouldn’t be too crowded, I would also want to include other organizations like the New York City Writing Project, the Cahn Fellows Program, and the Cahn Allies Project, whose work has helped to shape our growth. Presumably, other folks would have similar T-shirts, too. All would help to broadcast our (increasingly) self-elected affiliations in our shared work on social justice-related goals through compensatory educational work on-site, in schools.


In “From ‘Culturally Deprived’ to ‘At Risk’: The Politics of Popular Expression and Educational Inequality in the United States, 1960–1985,” Sylvia L. M. Martinez and John L. Rury offer that that we are, in sociolinguistic terms, what we speak, so how we talk with and about kids and families matters.3 Martinez and Rury’s work helps me to recommit to the endeavor of student-led conferences wherein students, in conjunction with their advisors and family members, offer metaphors for themselves as learners and talk through where they are in their own efforts. That these conferences sometimes feel out of step with the practices of some neighborhood elementary schools students have attended means that parents and families assume key roles in sharing the rationale for our school community’s rituals and routines, particularly when and if we collectively call for an unfashionably high level of familial involvement in the school/lives of middle and high school students in ways that sometimes stand outside neighboring high school norms. That these student-led conferences happen in both English and Spanish with as simultaneous a set of translations in both directions as we can muster bears noting, maybe.


John P. Spencer’s work considers what it means to deliberately seek to create and to replicate school-specific cultures of success.4 His look at the work of Harlem Children’s Zone schools and KIPP schools in “From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education” addresses the essential work of the replication of viable school models that is happening elsewhere via the establishment of charter school options. At our own, irregular public school, rising juniors kicked around the notion of making a limited-edition, written on-the-back series of “…is not waiting for Superman…” T-shirts with the WHEELS logo where an S might otherwise go, on the front.


In Barbara Beatty’s “Reliving the History of Compensatory Education: Policy Choices, Bureaucracy, and the Politicized Role of Science in the Evolution of Head Start,” an interview with Edward Zigler, the pair offers an elegant set of possibilities for a school’s role in the larger realm of social justice work when they suggest, that “ to have an impact, high-quality programs must be directed synergistically at four systems: families, health care, education, and child care.”5


Here, I have to wonder, then, what if? What if we are able to invite families into our school community through judiciously tended, respectful relationships with office staff, counselors, teachers, teacher leaders, and administrators, and with our parent/family coordinator? (We do.) What if we have a school-based clinic partnership with New York Presbyterian Hospital on site? (We do.) What if we have a dental clinic? (We do.) What if we believe that love makes a family? (We do.) What if, as such, we welcome students’ family members of all ages to all events? (We do.) And, what if this is still not enough?


This ongoing, emergent establishment of alliances in school communities that exist to address notions of social justice prompts me to recall that when I was at the New School for Social Research with Professor M. Jacqueline Alexander (who has documented her own leave-taking of the university in Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred6), she taught me that we often don’t get to pick our allies. I think she meant that we find ourselves in coalition with folks because of where we are and that we forge our alliances in the shared struggle of the work together. The work assembled here prompts me to look back in looking ahead, to count folks in academia as allies. The considerations offered here affirm the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School’s collective mission to work with families to prepare each sixth- through twelfth-grade student academically, emotionally, intellectually, and socially to succeed in a college of her or  his choice and beyond. I imagine it does so for other school communities as well. I would do well to remember it.


I’m tempted to pull on that not-so-secret T-shirt that reads, “…is grateful but cannot think too much about this in everyday-ness…” again. Indeed, I offer my appreciation for the mountainous landscape of educational theory and the accompanying reminders of others who have travelled before. And, I’m overwhelmed, some, by the implications, daunted, some by what it means even to see these paths. Other not-so-secret T-shirts I liked in the spring were “…believes if it were easy everyone would do it…” “…believes it will be harder before it is easier…” and I’ll even admit to “…believes help is not coming…” It’s heartening, then, to remember that we can only walk one path at a time and that some things are simple, if not so easy.


And.


WHEELS high school students’ actual T-shirts are multicolored and bear the WHEELS emblem, an Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound compass with Minds in Motions underneath. High schoolers can wear either T-shirts with their cohort year graduation affiliation (class of 2012) or those T-shirts that commemorate WHEELS events (field day 2007, jazz band 2008, spring musical 2009, Washington, D.C., college visits 2010, track 2011). It’s unclear what students will wear to our first-ever graduation ceremony in June 2012, only decidedly not T-shirts. Though we know where it will be (we’re keeping it secret until the date is closer) and who will speak (also a secret; our principal, Brett Kimmel and a founding student, Danya Guitierrez, asked the mystery speaker at an EL event). I would be remiss, maybe, if I didn’t pause to remind folks that those of us in schools are there daily, with students and families. I expect a not-so-secret T-shirt that reads “…believes in being comfortable with being uncomfortable…” will make another appearance. That this year will be filled with challenges, including but not limited to the college application processes of our twelfth graders. That we will serve as an EL mentor school. That we like and want and need critical friends. Visit.


Notes


1. Barbara Beatty, introduction to “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.


2. Barbara Beatty, “The Debate Over the Young ‘Disadvantaged Child’: Developmental Psychology and Preschool Intervention in the 1960s and Early 1970s,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6


3. Sylvia L. M. Martinez and John L. Rury, “From ‘Culturally Deprived’ to ‘At Risk’: The Politics of Popular Expression and Educational Inequality in the United States, 1960–1985,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6


4. John P. Spencer, “From ‘Cultural Deprivation’ to Cultural Capital: The Roots and Continued Relevance of Compensatory Education,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.


5. Barbara Beatty and Edward Zigler, “Reliving the History of Compensatory Education: Policy Choices,

Bureaucracy, and the Politicized Role of Science in the Evolution of Head Start,” in “Rethinking Compensatory Education: Historical Perspectives on Race, Class, Culture, Language, and the Discourse of the ‘Disadvantaged Child,’” ed. Barbara Beatty, special issue, Teachers College Record 114, no. 6.


6. Jacqui M. Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory, and the Sacred (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005).





Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 6, 2012, p. 1-6
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16698, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 9:42:50 AM

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About the Author
  • Kerry Macneil
    Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School
    E-mail Author
    KERRY MACNEIL is a founding teacher leader at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School. Her work has been published in Beyond Survival: How to Thrive in Middle and High School. She has received the New York City Outward Bound McCown Excellence in Teaching Award.
 
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