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Listening to Parents

June 05, 2013 By Kokayi Nosakhere, Guest Commentary

Today Minnesota 2020 continues its series on student discipline with a recap of a recent meeting between parents and the Minneapolis School District. 

The email from Anthony Newby, Neighborhoods Organizing for Change’s (NOC) executive director piqued my interest.

"Parental listening tour. Why this matters:

In 2012, 3,036 students were suspended from Minneapolis Public Schools. Of these, 2,276 of these students were African American.

Compared to:

281 white students
240 American Indian students
177 Hispanic/Latino students
71 Asian students

Come and help be part of the solution. Below is the Facebook event page with details."

I'm an active member on NOC's email list, where I receive a steady stream of opportunities for social justice themed projects. I’m a radical, transplanted Alaskan with community activism experience. Issue driven campaigns, however, lack the complexity of social justice issues, like the foreclosing crisis. So, I am in the midst of a learning curve. Slowly, through the organic classroom provided by NOC structure, I am receiving what cannot be communicated in a book.

30 minutes into the event, a District employee encouraged those gathered to tell the truth, due to the nature of the subject matter. If the parents shied away from speaking the Truth, the District could not improve. And the point was to hold the District accountable to their mission.

I fought my bias. Institutional bureaucracies tend to think in terms of inputs and outputs, not organic people structures. Thanks to the federal grant-funding cycle, school districts are orientated to produce test scores, not intelligent American citizens.

While small plates of pasta were consumed a tall grandmother stood up and stated she felt suspensions were caused by poor classroom management. Administrators focused teachers to follow the disciplinary flowchart, not de-escalate the children. Students were being sent out of the classroom for their behavioral problems to be "fixed" by parents.




Pushback was immediate. A NOC board member asked the membership to stick to describing systemic problems and not fall into the "parent-vs-teacher" paradigm. A teacher took the opportunity to eloquently defended his profession. The goal in his classroom was to establish and maintain a safe learning environment. That wasn't happening, against his wishes.

The parents complied. Instead of focusing on teacher personalities being the problem, they spoke to systemic solutions the District could put into place. The student/teacher ratio was off. Cultural-sensitivity training was needed. Acknowledge that pre-teen students naturally resisted authority. Take police out of the school as they intimidate the children.

The meeting continued with a 22 year old NOC member confirming the suggested solutions. He described his high school experience as confused and confrontational. It was the awkwardness of adolescence. This echoed the experience a mother with two boys was having with the District.

Breakout sessions ensued. Facilitators, who were good at capturing the parental stream of consciousness, filled up large wall sheets. The parents participated wholeheartedly in the exercise. When I left at 9 pm, the discussion was still lively.

Still, by how the meeting was conducted, against the will of everyone present, the processing model was going to create preordained inputs and outputs. The listening tour came across as a genuine response to a problem a bureaucracy cannot address as fast as parental emotions would appreciate. A listening tour is a good way to reduce parental frustration. However, what about the students? With everyone in the room, maybe a creative space that makes for change will form.

As the 22 year old tried so hard to communicate, students are human beings. Ultimately, suspensions do not serve them or the District, as it means students miss 3-5 days of instruction. That’s not right. That’s also not completely the District’s fault.

Kokayi Nosakhere is a member of Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.

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