Author: Gwen Samuel

Fearing For Our Michael Browns

Life shows us clearly that parents, relatives, and communities are our children’s first teachers. Those of us who can read to our kids, teach our kids how to tie their…

Life shows us clearly that parents, relatives, and communities are our children’s first teachers. Those of us who can read to our kids, teach our kids how to tie their shoes, show them how to go “potty” for the first time, and, if you are parents of color, remind them to put lotion on them ashy knees and elbows. –

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2As parents in turn, we teach our kids to blindly trust schools to educate them equally and we even teach them to blindly trust law enforcement to protect and serve all communities justly, all because we were also taught these things. Especially when it comes to our police officers. In my town, I grew up in a time where kids were taught to like police officers because they are our friends. So we introduced our own children to Officer Friendly, too.

But as we have learned a long time ago about trusting traditional public education, we have now learned that we can’t trust our police officers either. And incidents such as the alleged murder of 17-year-old high school graduate Michael Brown have made mothers and fathers like me afraid of Officer Friendly, because he doesn’t seem to be so friendly to young black men that look like my son.

If you are white, you may ask why black parents such as I are fearful of law enforcement, and why we believe that law enforcement officials are enemies to young black men that look like my son.

The first reason is that as we get older, the lessons we are taught as a child are replaced by the history lessons about young black men like James Earl Chaney, who was murdered by police officers in Philadelphia, Miss., because he was fighting for equality. Then we watch news stories about young black men like Sean Bell, who was murdered by New York City police officers who misidentified him as a suspect in one of their investigations – and then watch how the officers get away with their crimes.

Then we watch how the police department in Sanford, Fla., initially let George Zimmerman off the hook after he murdered Trayvon Martin, a boy whose only mistake was to wear a hoodie, hold a can of iced tea, and eat a bag of Skittles. If not for the protests of black mothers and fathers like me, Zimmerman wouldn’t have even faced a jury trial for his crime.

For black parents like me, men and women who work hard every day to teach and raise our black boys, Officer Friendly is no longer so friendly. He’s a buddy of men like Zimmerman, who walked free after committing cold blooded murder of an unarmed young black man. He’s the comrade of Paul Headley, Michael Carey, Marc Cooper, Gescard Isnora, and Paul Oliver, the men who murdered Bell, an innocent man just hanging out at a club with his friends. He is the successor to Cecil Ray Price, the Neshoba County Sheriff’s Deputy who orchestrated the murder of Chaney and the two white men who were with him, Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner.

So we fear for our sons. We fear for our daughters too. But especially our sons, because they are no longer cute little tykes white people smile at. They are now the big black men that many of our teachers fear –and many cops fear them too. They are just young men. They can barely pat their heads and rub their bellies at the same time. But for so many people in authority, who have bought into myths about how black men are dangerous, our sons are to be feared instead of loved.

For me, I tossed out those hoodies I bought for my son right after the Zimmerman verdict because it isn’t safe for my son to wear one. Unlike white parents, we don’t get to only focus on “stranger danger”. We talk to our sons about the facts of life being black men, how they can’t walk too proud like Richard Sherman, or talk too loud either. I explain to my “husky built “son with deep mellon skin tone that he had to be careful about Walking While Black and Being Black in School. As with so many teenagers, my son says “mom, you are just overreacting”. He doesn’t think that what has happened to Trayvon and to Sean can happen to him.

Then our children have their Trayvon moments, their Sean Bell moments, and now, their Mike Brown moments. And that changes everything for them – and for their parents, too.

For me, that Mike Brown moment came this past winter, after a snow storm that hit Connecticut and the rest of the Northeast this year. That day, my son, my huskily built son, my 15-year-old son, walked home from school around 2:15 in the afternoon, was walking down the street behind some kids who moved slower than him. To get around them, he walked around the kids onto the street. But then, as soon as that happened, a cop car was coming fast toward them. My son got back onto the sidewalk as the cop car screeched to a halt next to him.

The cop called for him. The officer thought my son moved too slow in response. He then threatened my son saying “I swear to God if I have to get out of this car there is going to be a problem”. Once my son was next to the cop, the officer searched my son’s back pack without any probably cause. My son didn’t give him any consent for such a search. Then my son was placed into the back of the squad car, and taken to the police station. He wasn’t even read his Miranda rights.

I only learned about what the cop did after the police department called me. The good news is that he wasn’t charged with any crime.

Clearly, what happened to my son is better than what happened to Mike Brown, to Sean Bell, and to James Chaney. At least my son was not shot down in the street like an animal, his body left there for hours uncovered. But the officer didn’t treat my son like a human being worthy of respect. The officer didn’t behave like Officer Friendly. He behaved like a man looking for a reason to arrest any young black man. And as a black mother, who knows the stories all too well, it scares me.

Listen, I try to be fair and open minded, I try to believe that we don’t live in a country in which significant numbers of people don’t believe that the lives of black children have no value. I know that there are teachers who want to nurture our black children. I know that there are also police officers who follow the law and behave justly for all people regardless of color.

But as I help black (as well as Latino) parents every day fight for high-quality education for their children, my hope is slipping. After my son’s incident, and now, the savage murder of Michael Brown, my belief that we will all be treated equally under the law is slipping as well. It is increasingly clear to me that many who work within our public education and law enforcement systems do not believe that black boys like mine are even worthy of life.

What is a black parent to do? Seriously, what is a black parent to do. The only answer is to keep fighting. Because our sons deserve better than this.

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Gwen Samuel: Stop Insulting Families with Anti-Common Core Rhetoric


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Over the past few months, I’ve read plenty about Common Core reading and math standards — and even more from those who oppose the standards. And I have to say, I am…

Common Core foes are telling families that their children shouldn't read Ovid. Or much else.

Common Core foes are telling families that their children shouldn’t read Ovid. Or much else.

Over the past few months, I’ve read plenty about Common Core reading and math standards — and even more from those who oppose the standards. And I have to say, I am insulted by their misinformation campaigns. By failing to be honest about the standards and about the challenges our children — especially those who are black like mine — and attacking a reform that is needed for our children to gain much-needed knowledge, Common Core foes are not using their time to take on the problems of public education today that have been around long before the standards came into place.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngCommon Core opponents like to say that the standards are incomprehensible. Yet I, a mother, can understand what it means to “Ask and answer such questions as who, what, where, when, why, and how to demonstrate understanding of key details in a text”, and “Identify the main purpose of a text, including what the author wants to answer, explain, or describe.” Contrary to what Common Core opponents say, the standards can be understood by parents, and there are resources that can be used to learn about them. The exemplar texts in literature and nonfiction are also helpful. If implemented properly, they will help our children, especially mine and yours, become ready for the adult world.

I take issue with the misinformation about Common Core from its opponents as well as with the condescension toward parents inherent in their cynical campaigning. But I have two even bigger issues with Common Core opponents: That they blame standards that are just being implemented for the problems of an education system that has been unaccountable at all levels for decades; and that foes of the standards don’t seem willing to join with school reformers and Parent Power activists to take on those problems.

Long before Common Core, taxpayer dollars were poured into public schools regardless of whether or not they performed effectively for our children. Even now, amid school closings and turnaround efforts, districts and schools failing students get money no matter how bad they are the same way districts and schools serving students well. Where are Common Core opponents in addressing those issues?

Before Common Core, taxpayer dollars were spent on programs that were poorly overseen, and didn’t improve student outcomes. More importantly, neither politicians nor administrators nor teachers’ unions or teachers were expecting or demanding those programs to be successful. Again, where are Common Core foes in demanding fiscal and academic accountability?

Long before Common Core opponents complained about the standards, school systems were hiring teachers and school leaders who were incompetent and ineffective in working with our children. Those ineffective teachers and administrators, in turn, came out of schools of education that never took responsibility for properly instructing them. Will Common Core opponents take action against any of this?

Before Common Core became part of the national conversation, our districts and schools have been staffed by men and women who don’t believe black and brown children are capable of college-and-career learning, people who do not think highly of Latino and poor white children, and through social promotion policies, evade their obligations to teach all children well. What are Common Core foes willing to do about it?

Common Core opponents should be more concerned about biology teachers who can’t teach being hired in classrooms than about whether children are finally being given the opportunity to learn what is needed in order to think critically, analyze rationally, and read at levels expected of them when they become adults. Common Core opponents should take on practices in schools that limit the possibilities of all children, not become part of a status quo that works daily to stymie their potential. And if Common Core misinformation specialists truly want the best for every child, they shouldn’t stand with the status quo in giving them the worst.

By spreading misinformation about Common Core, opponents of the standards are also keeping mothers and fathers and caregivers from being well-informed decision-makers who can take power in education for our babies. It is bad enough than in the 43 states where Parent Trigger laws don’t exist (and the states where school choice is not plentiful), parents are deliberately excluded from critical conversations and decision-making efforts. Even as many Common Core opponents say that families should be making decisions about the standards, their own efforts are no different than that of traditionalists who blame parents for their own shortcomings even as they exclude families from even choosing the brand of toilet paper in school bathrooms.

This isn’t to say that Common Core is being effectively implemented as it should be. You can’t provide America’s children with high standards without putting in place an accountability system centered on students that insure that they will be taught what should be learned. But no one can seriously blame today’s Common Core standards for our antiquated, fundamentally unaccountable educational system. And no one can see these challenges and say in an honest way that Common Core is the problem and not part of the solution.

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The NAACP’s Generic Education Agenda


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We need our civil rights groups to not only embrace school reform, but to embrace the idea that parents and communities should be at the head of the table of…

It is time for the NAACP to live up to its legacy. And it starts with embracing systemic reform.

We need our civil rights groups to not only embrace school reform, but to embrace the idea that parents and communities should be at the head of the table of decision-making in education. The NAACP’s latest agenda embraces none of this. While I will support the NAACP’s efforts on a holistic level, its agenda is too generic. It still gives the impression that only educators and politicians know what is best for our communities and our children.

Where in the NAACP’s agenda is the language that foster real family and community empowerment in making decisions that affect our children? This is important because far too often, teachers, administrators, and political leaders decide to put our children into unsafe and low-performing schools — and yet don’t have their own sons or daughters attending them.

Where is the language that recognizes that parents have the legal and moral right to choose the best schools that fit their children’s needs? Thanks to school residency laws and other forms of Zip Code Education policies, parents — especially and most often, black, Latino, and the poor — are arrested for choosing safe, high-quality schools for their kids.

The NAACP doesn’t seem to recognize the racist origins of many school residency laws. In Connecticut, the state’s Zip Code Education policies derive from the 1833 “Black Law” that prevented young black women from crossing state lines to attend a school run by famed educator Prudence Crandall, which what was at the time, the country’s only integrated school.

While extending school hours sounds great, the NAACP doesn’t dig into how this will work. Extended school hours without schools and districts taking responsibility for finances or personnel (and without communities and families holding schools accountable) only gives schools more time to maintain suspension and expulsion practices that lead young black men and women (along with other children of color) into the school-to-prison pipeline.

The biggest problem with the NAACP’s agenda is that it only thinks that teachers are the only stakeholders in education that matters, at the exclusion of families and communities. It only sees mothers and fathers in a support role instead of as being equal partners in student success. Everyone, including the NAACP, should be working to provide high-quality training and information for families and communities in order to be real partners in education. And should realize that families are the most-important partners and decision-makers. Because decisions in schools ultimately affect our children.

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For Connecticut’s Politicians (and Counterparts Elsewhere) Only Some Kids Matter


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Presently in Connecticut, we have over more than 220,000 children in Connecticut — or one out of every two kids — attend low-performing schools.These are children who do not vote,…

Presently in Connecticut, we have over more than 220,000 children in Connecticut — or one out of every two kids — attend low-performing schools.These are children who do not vote, do not sign medical release forms, and do not sign the educational contracts that govern their educational experiences. And if the parents of those children try to advocate for their child’s educational rights, they will, more than likely, experience severe push back and retaliation from the status quo.

One would think that with the futures of these kids on the line, and $300 million if taxpayer dollars at risk, Connecticut’s legislators would ensure that families, along with administrators, small businesses and other taxpayers would be at the decision making table to help turn around low-performing schools. This would seem to be logical. Yet the only stakeholders allowed in the lawmakers “private” back door “education reform” conversations are the state’s teachers’ unions.

As a parent of color, knowing the achievement is comprised of majority people of color and impoverished communities and after seeing the “secret” partnerships between teachers’ unions and lawmakers, I can only conclude that for these people, the educational needs of some of our children don’t matter.

Ayn Rand once stated that the rights of individuals aren’t subjected to a vote. And this is especially true when it comes to the rights of our children to opportunities for a great education. Yet we as families struggle to give our kids the same opportunities to a better life as we did back in the civil rights struggle against Jim Crow in the last century.

Martin Luther King once declared that the law can’t force men to love me, but it can keep them from killing me. Today, we need laws and policies in education that allow our children, especially children of color and those who live in poverty in rural and urban areas, to get the high-quality education they deserve.

Yet we have teachers’ unions who essentially want to deny our kids opportunities for high-quality education. What they do is the 21st century of lynching. It leads our kids from schools to prisons, where we as taxpayers spend $41,000 a year to incarcerate men and women who could have been kept out of jails if they received a great education. And we have political leaders who support this 21st century form of lynching because only some kids matter to them.

As families, we must vote for people that are willing to pass laws that end 21st-century lynching and keep our dollars from being spent on ineffectiveness teaching and schooling. When more than 40 percent of our children are condemned to prison and poverty, and $300 million dollars of our taxpayer dollars are wasted, we as families, homeowners, business owners, and college students cannot afford for this to continue.

It starts by demanding our legislators to support Gov. Dan Malloy’s SB 24, which will start our efforts towards giving our kids high-quality schools and teachers. We know that the law, as Gov. Malloy originally drafted, will not solve the entire states crisis. But it will help level the playing field towards equitable access to opportunity. And it is the most comprehensive education reform plan produced by any leader in this state.

It must be paired together with efforts to help our kids read, overhauling how we teach our kids how to read. Certainly the “universal reading” bill being proposed could help reduce the nation’s worst racial and economic achievement gaps by retaining third graders that don’t make the grade. But it will not work without passing SB 24, which will hold teachers and principals accountable through comprehensive evaluation of their performance as instructors and school leaders.

Yet other legislators want to support the universal reading law without passing SB 24 as originally crafted. How can our house speaker and senate leaders implement this effort at improving literacy without holding those who teach our children and lead our schools responsible and accountable?

The fact that they stood before teachers’ union leaders this week and pledged to not hold them accountable boggles the mind. What these legislative leaders have said is crystal clear: Teachers’ unions are more important than one out of every two kids who attend our schools. And that they will allow teachers’ union leaders and those who support them to bully families and other taxpayers who only want the best for all of our children.

This is why the uprising among families to protect the rights of their kids to high-quality educational opportunities, both in Connecticut and across the country, has only just begun. We are tired of political leaders and teachers’ union officials who make education all about their interests and not about the children we love.

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Gwen Samuel: Parents Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Challenging Status Quo Defenders


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As parents, we are often attacked whenever we dare to express a view on education — especially when it opposes those of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers…

Photo courtesy of Linda Braucht

As parents, we are often attacked whenever we dare to express a view on education — especially when it opposes those of National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates who have long-controlled discussions about the direction of schools. We are disdained as being “less-knowing”. We are expected to stay silent, except when asked to stand up for protecting ineffective and incompetent teachers.

So when we speak, dare to join rallies, and support efforts such as Gov. Dan Malloy’s teacher quality reforms contained in Senate Bill 24, we are attacked. Our parents are intimidated by teachers and principals who don’t want the best for our children. They are criticized as being “dupes” and accused of not thinking for themselves. And they are chided for not knowing the language of education — even when that language covers up abuses to our children such as putting them in “scream rooms”.

Certainly, I agree that Gov. Malloy could have done a better job of balancing the messaging of SB 24. He has put much emphasis on teachers. But if you were Malloy, you have no choice. The union machine that protects incompetent teachers makes lawmakers hide under their desks — and throw children under the bus — because they are fearful that of the machine, especially during election time.

As parents, we can no longer stand by and accept the state of affairs perpetuated by NEA and AFT. Especially after seeing the anger displayed by some teachers at these town hall meetings Malloy has held throughout the state. I’m a little afraid for the children in their classrooms because   teachers are human too and can be subject to mental break downs just like the private sector.

I know it’s a tough job being a teacher, principal and administrator. My hat is off to all the effective ones. But I ask you to put yourself in the shoes of the parents of the students that are in your class, especially urban, poor and rural districts.

When one-third of Connecticut’s elementary school teachers can’t pass the reading test, should we as parents allow them to teach? When 58 percent of 4th graders are reading below grade level, should parents not hold teachers accountable for not teaching effectively? And how come some schools can successfully educate the same child you called poor and unable to make it?

For decades, teachers’ unions and less-effective instructors blame parents and students all day every day for the failings of teachers who don’t belong in classrooms. They have also controlled and intimidated legislatures, allowing those teachers who are ineffective remain in their jobs, while they blame parents and students for their inability to teach.

But now we know better. We can no longer let ineffective teachers, principals and superintendents remain unaccountable. In the business world and the rest of real life, we’re not allowed to remain unaccountable in spite of poor performance. Why should ineffective teachers and principals be treated any differently? It is time for opponents of reform to face real life with real people, like you, like me, facing tough times and tough decisions.

There are great teachers, principals, and administrators in Connecticut and throughout America. Their reputations precedes them and they will do fine and probably get merit pay. There are some teachers, principals and administrators that need some help. They will get extra taxpayers dollars to get the help they need to be more effective. Then there are those that should have left education a long time ago. If we won’t tolerate parents abusing the bodies and minds of our children, we shouldn’t tolerate educators doing the same to their futures.

I am sorry if some teachers feel as if they are under attack. If you are doing great work, you shouldn’t feel that way. At the same time, welcome to my world and that of my fellow parents, especially those of us who are people of color. Every day, our children and ourselves are constantly attacked for daring to demand high quality education. All we want is to know that teachers and principals will finally be accountable for doing their jobs for our children. And we will no longer accept anything less.

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Best of Dropout Nation: Gwen Samuel on the Need for Caring School Cultures


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Tuesday’s Dropout Nation commentary on why student surveys were more effective in evaluating teacher quality that classroom observations by adults hits upon one of the most-important issues in American public…

Tuesday’s Dropout Nation commentary on why student surveys were more effective in evaluating teacher quality that classroom observations by adults hits upon one of the most-important issues in American public education: The need for cultures of genius in which high quality caring teachers and principals nurture the potential of all children in their care. What we need for schools to do is embrace the approach of children’s hospitals, who work hard to help children succeed and treat the parents and caregivers who love them with the respect and candor they deserve.

In this Best of Dropout Nation from last May, Contributing Editor (and Connecticut Parents Union President) Gwen Samuel recounts a hospital visit and wonders why schools can’t be so compassionate to kids and families.

Several months ago, my daughter’s teacher and I noticed that her leg was starting to bow. Puzzled about why my daughter’s leg was growing crooked, we began the immediate medical journey of diagnosing the problem and putting the needs of my child first.

From day one, the first moment my daughter’s ailment was noticed, the school took immediate action. We developed an educational and physical needs plan to support her. She went from walking the stairs to riding on the elevator to get to class.  No long meetings, or stalling tactic. They put my child’s needs first.

As my child went through the rounds of CATScans, MRI exams and trips to the doctors to diagnose the ailment, the school and I worked together at the school and home level to keep her educationally engaged.

Then the hospital came into play. Weeks before the surgery, our family met with doctors, who gave my daughter support and prepared us for outcomes after the operation. On the day of the surgery, nurses showed us pictures of the operating room and presented the actual items that would be used n surgery, including the oxygen mask and gowns. And they created a welcoming environment in which my daughter and our family could ask questions and get answers. We also played “I Spy” with the nurses and we had a spelling bee with the key word being anesthesia.

My daughter got to choose how she traveled to the operating room; she road there in a Barbie Car. And I got to stay in the until she was sleep. When I cried, a nurse consoled me and walked with me to the family lounge.

In the family lounge, I was given a phone for updates, a tracking ID number for my child and up to the minute progress reports. A big LCD screen constantly updated families about the progress of procedures. A nurse called me during surgery to give an update. WOW!  It was all about my child and her well being, with the family role clearly defined and supported.

My daughter is doing fine and still recovering. And our experience makes me thrilled to have health insurance and caring hospitals. I wish the same can be said for many of our schools. Teachers and administrators need to realize that parents aren’t the enemy. If schools were as supportive of families as our children’s hospitals, we would accomplish so much for our kids.

The Children’s Medical Center is just another example of a family-centered welcoming environment that can be replicated in our schools.  Working together is clearly the path of least resistance thus placing all the adult stake holders in a better position to meet the needs of our children.

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