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‘Dreamers’ Find Allies Among Their Teachers

Posted on | February 9, 2018 | No Comments

Teachers in California, where 270,000 undocumented Dreamer students reside, have quietly formed alliances with their students as tension mounts over their ability to stay in the United States.

For the most part, these students were brought to this country as young children by parents who were fleeing war, civil strife, or poverty in Mexico or Central America.  They have been raised as Americans, but despite widespread support for a pathway to legal residency and citizenship they now fear deportation following Donald Trump’s announced intent to revoke the DACA program that gave them a legal toehold.

Teachers are these students’ first responders.  They are there when kids break down in tears, when they have anxiety attacks, when they simply don’t know what to do.  The PBS Newshour told part of the story recently (video above).

Last year, I watched as teachers from the Humanitas Social Justice Academy, in the Los Angeles Unified School District, sat in a circle around their former students who were now enrolled in UCLA.  These are kids who did everything right.  They studied hard, avoided teenage pitfalls, and gained admission to a highly selective university.  And they were sobbing.  In the middle of a public meeting, where they had gathered to talk about their high school experience, the emotional pressure of their clouded legal status brought them to the point of emotional collapse.  They cried for themselves.  They cried for their little sisters and brothers.  They cried for their parents.

They could cry in public because they knew that their teachers were with them.  Some of the teachers are them: about 5,000 California teachers have DACA status.

Now, these teachers have a place to gather, learn, and gain support.   The Claremont Graduate University, where I am an emeritus professor, has started an “Allies of Dreamers” certificate program for teachers.  The program, “seeks to fill the growing demand for trained individuals who are committed to ensuring undocumented students are protected, fully integrated into K‐12 schools, and have the necessary support and preparation to access college and successfully transition to graduate school and the workforce.”

The program is in major part the work of my colleague, Will Perez.  He has chronicled the lives of the Dreamers, and his book We Are Americans, published a decade ago, is one of the foundational documents in understanding these students.  And the fact that nothing has happened in a decade to address the situation of 2.7-million young people is testimony to the brokenness of our political system.

Perez has also written about the Dreamers who were deported.  These are kids who grew up American, who are now teenagers or young adults living in the land of their birth, which is not home but an alien place where they are not accepted or assisted.

I’m proud of the teachers who support the Dreamers, and I’m proud to be a part of a university that is trying to help them.  But couldn’t we just get Congress to do something decent…or failing that just get a different Congress?

How To Make the Next LAUSD Superintendent Successful

Posted on | January 30, 2018 | No Comments

The Los Angeles Unified School District is—once again—in search of a leader.  There have been nine superintendents in the last two decades, much more turnover and change in direction than a thriving organization can withstand.

The school board is rightly concerned with more instability.  In recent days, the notoriously fractious LAUSD board has been making nice, using words like “unanimous choice” and “partnership.”  There’s a strong instinct to rush toward naming a permanent superintendent who can keep a steady hand on the tiller.  But it’s the wrong instinct.

Before the nation’s second largest school district can create stability in its leadership ranks, the school board needs to create the conditions that will attract top talent and allow it to be successful.  Conciliatory words are not enough.

A Mediator Shouldn’t Be Necessary

The first prerequisite for making the next superintendent successful is to stop the trench warfare over charter schools.  The superintendent should not have to mediate between the rival factions as Michelle King was forced to do.

As long as the school board divides into pro and anti-charter school voting blocks, it will be unable to attract the talent it needs.  Only a fool or someone with a messiah complex would accept a superintendency in a district where the board majority is likely to change after each election.

The back and forth board divisions are a clear signal of dysfunctional and toxic politics.  School board races have become personal, petty, and very pricey: $114 a vote in one of last spring’s contests.  These bitter elections spill over into low trust day-to-day relationships among members.

Board members may think that continuing the fight is to their political benefit.  One might assume the interest groups that supported them will finance their next campaign.  Don’t be too sure.  LAUSD is not the federal government.  Here, continuing displays of dysfunction are likely to be punished in a “throw all the clowns out” election campaign.

I believe there is a way to end the fight and claim the huge peace dividend of a redesigned public school system.  Oddly enough, stopping the fight and claiming the peace dividend can be accomplished with the same three policies, all of which can be put in place by the board without the permission of state or national governments. Read more

Go, Visit the Whitney Plantation

Posted on | January 17, 2018 | Comments Off on Go, Visit the Whitney Plantation

I’m delighted to see that the Whitney Plantation, just upriver from New Orleans, is getting the attention it deserves.  Shortly after it opened, I wrote about the plantation devoted exclusively to telling the story of slavery in my EdWeek column ‘On California.’

Now the Whitney is making lists of “must-see” places for 2018.  “These destinations may inspire you,” the L.A. Times headlines.

Cast aside thoughts of soft-accented guides in period costume providing testimony to what promotional material calls the South’s Golden Age.  At the Whitney Plantation there is noromanticism, no glorification of the Confederacy’s “lost cause”.  Expect to be moved, educated, horrified, and perhaps motivated.

Long before #MeToo, the young lady represented standing by her master’s bed became the origin of the dual family tree of the plantation’s 19th Century owners.  One family tree is black; the other white.

This story, and many others, await you.





Nomadland: Exploring America’s Mobile Army of Older Workers

Posted on | January 8, 2018 | Comments Off on Nomadland: Exploring America’s Mobile Army of Older Workers

Jessica Bruder’s superbly-crafted book about wandering workers pitches itself as a mixture of resilience and economic fragility, of strong wills and empty gas tanks.  It is that, certainly, and more.  It’s a jumping off point for a reflection on how America got to the place that a RV army of at least 20,000 roams the country in search of often unpleasant temporary low-wage jobs.  For them, bad jobs and insecurity are replacing retirement as we have idealized it.

There are younger people who live in their cars, families who raise their children without a permanent address, and those who use cars, vans, and trucks as stations on the way to or from living on the streets.  These are all important parts of a larger economic story, and Bruder’s reportage brilliantly links economic insecurity with older Americans who put a lifetime of work into an economic system that failed them.

We don’t meet any bums or shiftless septuagenarians in the pages of Nomadland.  Linda May, the protagonist, was a small business owner and held many other jobs before being wiped out in the Great Recession.  Others had toiled for name-brand corporations for decades before being downsized, displaced, and often divorced.

The pages of Nomadland take us from National Forest campgrounds, where these mostly white senior citizens work as campground hosts for $9.50 an hour plus a free campsite.  For this, they check people in, validate their permits, clean up after they leave, swab out toilets, and undertake minor and unofficial police work.  The work force shifts to the sugar beet harvest in Minnesota and North Dakota, and in the fall run-up to Christmas it labors in Amazon fulfillment centers around the country, where what the company calls CamperForce is a substantive part of Amazon’s business model.

Housing is expensive

These folks are not living this lifestyle because of a lust for the open road, at least the vast majority of them aren’t, even though in first interviews people told Bruder that they “chose” vehicular vagrancy.  This mostly white, mostly over-60 work force, is living in RV’s, aging commercial vans, and vehicles of all descriptions because living on the road is their best option.  Housing is expensive.

As Arlie Russell Hochschild, author of Strangers in their Own Land, writes in her review that there are only 12 counties and one metro area in the United States where someone working full time for minimum wage can afford market rent on a one-bedroom apartment.  Leaving rent, utilities, and attached housing expenses behind is a shrewd response to economic disaster.  As the campers parked on streets in Silicon Valley cities, and even New York City testify, employed people, even graduate students, resort to rubber tired housing.

“So in ways, getting on the road is actually a kind of ingenious hack,” Bruder told NPR’s Ari Shapiro in an interview.

Ingenious, but inherently temporary.  Linda May longs her environmentally sustainable “earthship,” and at the end of the book she is building it.  But others exit harsh RV living the old-fashioned way; they die.  Some disappear.  Others talk about driving off a cliff Thelma and Louise style or just driving out in the desert and giving up.  “So while I think it does feel like an escape and there’s a degree to which people feel really liberated in the moment by it, it’s not – it’s not a long-term solution,” Bruder said.

In a L.A. Times op-ed, Journalist Candice Reed writes of loving the life she and her husband share in a 1984 28-footer, “The full-time RV life isn’t always easy, and things don’t always go as planned, but living on the fly has brought us closer together and given us an opportunity to wake up to something new every day.”  But the capacity to thrive is conditioned on, “a small nest-egg saved for whichever one of us goes into a nursing home first, and we don’t touch it — not for new tires, engine repairs or wine.”

The nest egg is small

But the egg in the nest is small.  As Teresa Ghilarducci reminds us in When I’m Sixty-Four, her book about the undermining of traditional pensions, the average 401k of someone near retirement age is about $50,000.  About 70 percent of Americans will rely on Social Security for the majority of their retirement income.

Retirement is a relatively new concept.  Self-sufficiency in retirement newer, and an age in which retirees enjoy wealth and celebrate the fruits of their labor on cruise ships newer still.  But the goal of universal self-sufficiency in retirement appears lost, and it is entirely possible that the nomads that Bruder writes about are the leading edge of old age living and not temporary fallout of the 2008 economic collapse.  Recent polls indicate that only 17 percent of Americans think that they will be able to afford to stop working.  And 10,000 of the Boomer generation reach age 65 every week.

In retirement, as in working income, America has become profoundly less equal.  Instead of a dream of a modest but universal retirement—those two-bedroom houses that dot St. Pete and other Florida cities—the gap grows between RV nomads scraping to fill their gas tanks and those weighing which travel brochure to respond to.

Bruder’s book presents a picture of resilience and the kind of economic self-sufficiency long characteristic of Americans, but eventually all of us, even the most resilient need help.  Minds and bodies decline, and we all become dependent.  Eventually, we will need the social safety net.  The systematic elimination of traditional pensions and the underfunding of alternatives throws the spotlight back on the social safety net of Social Security and Medicare.

So, do not be surprised if the nomads converge on Washington this year.



Here’s The Peace Dividend In Los Angeles Charter School Wars

Posted on | December 28, 2017 | 1 Comment

Learning from L.A., our book about institutional change in public education, was published a decade ago.  Then, we saw charter schools as a logical force in the transition of an institution built for the industrial age to one designed for the 21st Century.

Instead, in the space of a decade, charter schools in Los Angeles morphed from a highly popular innovation to a political wedge issue.  One’s favorability toward charters has become a political litmus test for school board elections, and efforts to regulate them have become front-page news. Plans to replace traditional, district-run schools with charters have been characterized as bringing the district to a tipping point.  The question is “tipping to where”?

In the case of the Los Angeles Unified School District, “where” depends on how the ongoing battles over charter schools intersect with two realities.

First, the nation’s second largest school system is in the midst of profound institutional change.  LAUSD is not a failed school district.  It is not an unchanging monolith.  It is an institution that is struggling to reshape itself, moving from early 20th Century assumptions about how to organize teaching and learning to a form better suited to our times.  Often it does this unknowingly, because for the most part people within LAUSD have a strong institutional culture but a very weak institutional memory.  They don’t spend a lot of time trying to understand how they got to where they are.

Second, the politics surrounding the school district are dysfunctional.  Simply put: the politics we’ve got won’t get us the schools we need. Instead of crisis resolution we have gridlock, obscenely expensive trench warfare, and politics that turn our attention away from solutions that are staring us in the face.

Because charter schools have become the wedge issue in politics, it is through the politics surrounding them that a new district will emerge.

The linked paper develops this theme of working through the charter school politics as a way of finding a way forward for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and perhaps by extension for American public education.  Also, see this ‘On California’ column and others linked to it.



Meditation on a Hand

Posted on | November 28, 2017 | Comments Off on Meditation on a Hand

A few weeks ago in France I looked at a 30,000 year-old outline of a human hand, not unlike the ones that children in school draw today. This hand had been carefully placed on the side of a cave we call Pech Merle in the Lot Valley. Then someone blew red ocher through a hollow bone to airbrush one of the earliest deceptions of a human.

Pech_Merle_mainSomething caused these early humans to wander deep in caves, paint pictures of animals, and then pause to give recognition to themselves. Was it worship as some have suggested? Our guide Magen O’Farrell cautioned us that it is impossible for contemporary humans to know the minds of the people we call Cro-Magnons.

Still, hands carry part of our story. Recently, I took a picture of my hand and wondered at the age spots, the bumps from arthritis, the places where bones had been broken or bent, and the little spots that might turn to cancer.

And because we carry an urge to communicate our story to others, sometimes excessively (see Facebook), we can look back perhaps 1,200 generations before a Christ and feel kinship with someone else who pictured her hand. Because the language of the artists is unknown to us, all we can do is wonder and be captured by a sense of awe and connectedness.

Unanswered questions linger. The world was cold then, how did you keep warm? Were you happy? Did you have kids? Am I one of them?

Retirement 075, a Remedial Course

Posted on | September 13, 2017 | Comments Off on Retirement 075, a Remedial Course

Retirement 075

This is a remedial course for students who have previously experienced a lack of success with retirement.  It is to be expected that an intensive review of the basics will be necessary as well as modeling and intervention by those who have been successful in separating themselves from employment.  This is a year-long course, and it can be repeated if necessary.

The course meets on Fridays at 4 in whatever watering hole I choose.

It covers such important topics as: shedding prior commitments, listening to your muse, and the proper construction of a bucket list.

The full syllabus.Retirement 075

Tracking Tracy Lum in Outrigger Canoe Race 2,500 Miles Away

Posted on | September 2, 2017 | Comments Off on Tracking Tracy Lum in Outrigger Canoe Race 2,500 Miles Away

We’re home bound in Claremont, hunkered down in the 105 degree heat today tracking our daughter-in-law Tracy Lum as she and her crew from the Newport Outrigger Canoe Club race in the Queen Lili’uokalani race between Kailua and Honaunau off the Kona coast of Hawaii’s Big Island. It continues over four days and is billed as the world’s largest long distance canoe race.

Race startI’m wowed by Tracy’s stamina, and that of the other racers.  I don’t know what the ocean conditions are today, but on any morning paddling 18 miles at sea is no small deal.  And I’m also a bit impressed with the technology that allows us to sit in air-conditioning and track their progress.  Each of the boats has a geo-positioning device that works in a system developed by a French company, DotVision Motion.  I can track Tracy’s boat—moving up, falling back, moving up…pass out those power drinks—and text our son, Charles, as he rides toward the finish line to meet his wife.  (Screenshot below, along with race beginning and ending photos courtesy of CAK.)

Tracy Finish Screen ShotMeanwhile, Charles is phoning in pictures.

Technology is a mixed blessing.  But today air conditioning and GPS technology plus the Internet are allowing us to experience a boat race 2,500 miles away.Race end

Five Days in La La Land: Hiding in plain sight in Hollywood

Posted on | August 14, 2017 | Comments Off on Five Days in La La Land: Hiding in plain sight in Hollywood

Leanne and I have explored Paris on the #69 bus that goes to the Pere Lachaise cemetery and Florence, where the #7 bus goes up the hills for a view of the city.  We visited Berlin when we were young, before the Wall went up, and when we were old after it came down.  We got to know London and Melbourne well, came to love Venice.  But in 40 years of living in Southern California, we’ve never spent a week in L.A.

Leanne and our Hollywood cottage retreat.

Leanne and our Hollywood cottage retreat.

We corrected that oversight, spending a delightful week in a cottage, formerly a stables behind a 1906 house in Hollywood.  Los Angeles has the reputation for being a hard city to visit, with its sprawl and vast distances.  Around the intersection of Hollywood Blvd. and Highland Ave., a tourist magnet draws the curious to the sidewalk embedded stars, a couple historic theaters, and frequent media events.  But, hiding in plain site are streets where people live and where interacting with them brings the same spontaneous delights as talking to an old schoolteacher in Italy or a Black Cab driver in London.

Our Airbnb, was billed as Idyllic Hollywood Cottage Oasis, and it was as good as its ad.  We settled into the cottage, which architect and owner Jeff Smalley had redesigned.  The old barn door slides to close off the bathroom.  That evening, we walked a few blocks to The Pikey on Sunset Blvd., a Brit influenced pub and restaurant with good beer and an interesting menu, including vinegar chicken and a side of thrice cooked fries.  A bit like landlubber’s fish and chips.

Part of our plan was to visit bits of L.A. architecture not seen.  So, Tuesday, we headed to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Hollyhock House in Barnsdall Park, just off Hollywood Blvd.  But, as the friendly security guard told us, the house isn’t open on Tuesday.  Still, it was a nice encounter, and when we returned on Friday we were told that the interior tour was entirely self-guided.  Not so, we found.  Three feet inside the door, we were greeted by a docent who said, “the first thing you’ll find out about us is that we love to talk.”  Twenty minutes of stories followed, about the hollyhock theme—they were Aline Barnsdall’s favorite—built into the structure and the decorations, about Wright’s indoor-outdoor vision, including a stream that flowed through the living room, and in true Wright fashion, leaked. Read more

Retirement, Week 2: Driven to write about Boyle Heights protests

Posted on | July 25, 2017 | Comments Off on Retirement, Week 2: Driven to write about Boyle Heights protests

This isn’t going so well.  I am having news withdrawal symptoms.  I look at some of the Twitter feed and the email subscriptions I get every day and think them boring.  But my fingers want to be on a keyboard, and there are ideas out there that need exploring.

I’ve been fascinated by the Boyle Heights gentrification protests, particularly the specter of people in masks, more fashionista than Zapatista I think, protesting a coffee bar where one of the owners is white.

L.A. Times columnist Steve Lopez visited as the employees were sweeping up broken glass from vandalism.  Silly, he said.  The owners report that the protests are attracting  business.

Boyle Heights, a neighborhood just east of downtown Los Angeles, has always been a neighborhood in transition.  It was the site of one of the first Jewish settlements in Los Angeles, and the Breed Street Shul built in 1923 still stands, although the Jewish vanguard decamped to Fairfax Avenue and points west many decades ago.

Remnants of a Japanese community are still visible: some very old settlers, a large temple, and a cemetery.

These days, diversity largely means mixing waves of Latino immigrants.

Press accounts call this “vibrant,” and I suppose it is.  Unlike many older suburban areas, there were not many vacant storefronts on Cesar Chavaz (formerly Brooklyn Avenue) even when I worked in Boyle Heights 15 years ago.  There were people on the streets, and walking from the Breed Street School down to 3rd Street took you past front yards where chickens were pecking at the earth oblivious of their in-the-pot fate.

But there was also a lot of violence.  After an evening meeting, it was possible to hear the pop-pop-pop of gunfire as one walked to the car.  A reforming gang member was killed in a revenge shooting at the Smart & Final across from the school, one of the scores of Father Boyle’s Homeboys he has buried.

TV journalist John Merrow came to town to do a story on what he termed a gang-prevention program called the Society of Students.  (SOS was really much more a build resilience program, and I’m sorry that it hasn’t spread.)  Merrow remarked that the neighborhood looked kinda nice, not like the slums in older eastern cities, and he wondered what the big deal was about violence.  I told him to ask the kids to demonstrate the pancake drill. 

Elementary students at Breed were taught, “when you hear gunfire, make yourself a pancake on the ground.”  The students demonstrated.  Merrow was amazed.

The point of this is: let’s not romanticize Boyle Heights or other places that are in the process of gentrification.

It’s not like anyone with a half a foresight couldn’t see it coming.  Stand on a patch of land with a clear view to the west, and rapidly revitalizing downtown is clearly visible.  You could work there and walk home.

There had been a housing boomlet before the crash of ’08.  Now it’s back, with the help of the new light rail Gold Line that connects Boyle Heights and the rest of East L.A. to the city center.  Boyle Heights is simply too close to downtown to remain a real estate backwater much longer.

The question is: Can a rising neighborhood lift the people who are already there, and if so how does it do that?

This substantive problem comes to rest in schools, classrooms, and what school choice becomes for urban schools.  When we were writing about the Annenberg project in Boyle Heights, we started noticing housing transitions and posed the question, “what would Roosevelt High School do with 500 professional middle class kids if they showed up at the school house door.”

People looked at us in disbelief.  “Wouldn’t happen,” they said.  “No one wants to go to school with poor kids.”  But that’s exactly the problem will face Los Angeles schools.  If young middle class families move back into the city, where will they school their children?  If LAUSD builds itself around only being the educator of last resort for poor kids—the “chooser” kids having left for the charters—then it creates class segregation for itself and its students.



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Charles Taylor Kerchner is an Emeritus Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Claremont Graduate University. My daily musings appear in the blog. The archives of my EdWeek blog are available via link under the 'On California' head. Some of my photography can be seen by clicking on 'Gallery.' And numerous links to academic work and other research and commentary can be found by clicking on 'Projects.'


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