A picture is worth a 1000 words, or maybe more…

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to become aware of an amazing organization – Critical Exposure – who, through the art of visual storytelling, is empowering and training the youth of our fair city (Washington, DC) to become the next wave of community leaders. Critical Exposure, through partnerships with a host of DC public schools and other programs, encourages and equips youth to utilize photography as a powerful advocacy tool by which to spark and make real change happen in their schools, neighborhoods, and communities. This medium is thus a catalyst by which conversations can be stimulated… This powerful tool pushes vital conversations to the forefront by nurturing and building public support in a way that calls for solutions that are inclusive of community voice and input. That public support can then be coupled with the political will to make lasting change happen.

Critical Exposure is teaching our youth a valuable civic lesson through photography – a lesson that elevates their voices while also holding our elected officials, and current city and community leadership accountable.

This morning it was a pleasant surprise to see the article listed below on The Huffington Post – so…I just had to share it with you.  Enjoy!

Moving Student Photos Document School-To-Prison Pipeline

Posted: 11/03/2014 5:03 pm EST Updated: 11/03/2014 5:59 pm EST

In Washington, D.C.’s public schools, African-American students are almost six times as likely to be suspended or expelled as their white classmates. Students with disabilities are also disciplined at higher rates than their peers.

But a group of local students is hoping to use their artwork to change that.

Students participating in a program with the nonprofit group Critical Exposurecontend that disciplinary practices in the District’s public schools contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline, which pushes minority and vulnerable students out of school and into the penal system.

For the past two years, Critical Exposure has brought students together to document the problems in their school district through more than just data and numbers. The students use photography and multimedia projects to depict the difficulty their peers face in finishing school as a result of tough disciplinary policies. Some of the student photographers have been suspended at some point during their educations, and many have seen friends and peers suspended for minor infractions.

“They see what happens when students get 10 days out of school with suspensions, how students get in trouble with the criminal justice system and juvenile justice system and how it snowballs from there,” said Adam Levner, the executive director and co-founder of Critical Exposure, in a phone interview with The Huffington Post.

Scroll down to see the students’ photos.

Levner said that members of his organization’s 2012-2013 after-school fellowship class identified the school-to-prison pipeline as a problem they wanted to document. The 2013-2014 fellows then chose to continue the project, while other program leaders brought the idea to individual schools as well. (The current class of fellows has not yet decided what it will be documenting.)

Since then, Critical Exposure students have testified at public hearings about the issue and had a series of meetings with D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson. They also successfully worked this year to establish a pilot restorative justice program, which emphasizes discussion and conflict resolution over suspensions and expulsions, at a local high school.

Malik Thompson, 19, was involved with Critical Exposure throughout his high school career. He has experienced firsthand the impact of “school pushout.” Following his older brother’s death several years ago, when Thompson was in the ninth grade, he says he stopped going to his citywide, application-only high school. After several months of truancy, and what he describes as “minimal efforts” from school administrators to draw him back in, Thompson says he received a letter from the school informing him that he was no longer enrolled.

“Basically, I was kicked out,” Thompson told HuffPost.

The next year, Thompson became involved in Critical Exposure after seeing a flyer at his new school. He is now an intern at the Gandhi Institute in Rochester, New York, a nonprofit that helps promote racial justice and nonviolence education. There, he facilitates workshops for young people in schools while leading photography and videography efforts.

Thompson, who ended up finishing his high school career in a home-school program, also advocates for the expansion of restorative justice programs in schools.

Restorative justice, he said, “creates [a culture] where the entire student –- like what happened outside the school and during school — is acknowledged and taken into account.”

Thompson continued, “I think more programs like Critical Exposure should exist where young people have avenues to begin to experience their own power, to work collaboratively together with adult supporters in order to make change in their world.”

“Critical Exposure was essential to me becoming the person I am today,” he added.

Below are photos from Critical Exposure’s students, representing how they see the school-to-prison pipeline in their everyday lives, provided to HuffPost by Critical Exposure. All photo captions were written by individual photographers, but have been edited and condensed for clarity.

  • The Lockers
    “Coming in the building feels like turning in my stuff before entering a jail cell.” — Angel L.
  • Untitled
    “The teachers can go through the gate without being stopped, and students are stopped and asked to show a pass. Students are treated like they’re prisoners. They already have to be escorted by a teacher to get through.” — Karl L.
  • Ban The Scans
    “This photo represents what we have to go through before entering our school everyday. I think it’s uncalled for, and nine times out of 10, if any violence … would occur it would be outside the school. According to DCLY [D.C. Lawyers For Youth] high quality mentoring for every D.C. child between 10-17 years old would cost $63 million, versus … paying $305 million just to incarcerate them.” – Sean “Lucky” W.
  • The Blind Pipeline That Youth Cannot See
    “This photo represents how some African American youth are on a path to prison that they can’t see or don’t know when it’s coming. The reason I say that is because most of us are expected to go to prison sometime in life. Statistics say one out of three African American males will go to prison in their life. In elementary school us African American youth are predicted to go to prison or jail based on standardized test scores and suspension rates.” – Sean “Lucky” W.
  • The Jail That Surrounds Us
    “This is a picture of the black long gate that surrounds my school, with only three ways to enter and I know that this is a tactic that jails use to keep ‘criminals’ in or out.” — Mike
  • Rights
    “The American flag symbolizes the rights we are granted as citizens and the freedom we have to manifest ideas and expand our knowledge. The bars represent restriction and confinement. Two conflicting ideas. We should not feel like our school system is detaining us and preventing us from flourishing.” – Anaise
  • Troubled Past
    “My name is Jacqueline Smith I [have] live in Washington D.C. most of my life. Im 20 in the twelfth-grade and excited to graduate in 2013. It took until my last year to figure out how school and education was important. This year has really opened my eyes. Because back then even when I was little I didn’t understand why my mom woke me up early in the morning just to go to school because I never felt like it … In middle school I was suspended a number of times and got expelled from school. But when I was suspended I knew that I was free by staying home watching TV … I changed because I didn’t want to fail.”
  • The Everyday Routine
    “Everyday students have to enter through the auditorium doors and place their backpacks on the X-Ray machine. Then they walk through the metal detector to meet their bag on the other side and then must wait for the bags to be searched by a security guard. This makes students feel as if we’re going inside a jail to meet someone, or as if the staff sees us as criminals. Statistics show that 70 percent of students [who are] involved in ‘in-school’ arrests or are referred to law enforcement are black or Latino. If DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] wants to lower these numbers then why do we have the same procedures of entering a jail [instead of] a comforting environment of being welcomed to school?” – Mike
  • Untitled
    “This photo is of a young man who is sitting at a desk. The desk is in the school hallway and he is the only one outside. ‘My teacher put me out here.’ In most cases, the student is not at fault. Sometimes teachers do not know how to deal and give appropriate punishments. Restorative Justice should be implemented in our schools because, not only does it help students learn how to deal with their behavioral problems, it trains our teachers to deal with students in a correct manner that doesn’t allow their personal judgement to affect the student.” – Samera
  • The Box
    “Every morning for the past three months after walking through the metal detectors, 17-year-old Skinny has to explain to the security guards before being wanded why the machine went off. Skinny has an ankle monitor on, or ‘the box.’ With a curfew of 8 p.m. every night, he feels trapped and isolated from the world. Skinny is on probation and was told he would get the monitor off a month ago. When that did not occur he became disappointed. At times he refused to go to school due to his frustrations. D.C. public schools allow up to three unexcused absences until truancy reports are sent out. I am very concerned about his education and the consequences from the days he has missed.” – Samera

The quote says it all…

A new article posted on Greater Greater Washington, entitled “Should DC limit charter growth? David Catania says no, while Bowser and Schwartz say maybe,” can pretty much be summed up in one quote:

In 1965…the District [of Columbia] had 147,000 students [in the system] and 196 schools. Today, there are 85,000 students [system wide] and 213 DCPS and charter school buildings.


Let me get this straight… So, we have roughly a little more than half of the amount of students in the public education system today than we had in 1965; but, we pay MORE to educate each child; even though, we have yet to change the funding formula for schools [to ensure that there is equity, parity, and a baseline of things that SHOULD be housed and offered in a school]; yet, we now have more schools open than we did when the system was at its peak [in terms of students]. I know I am not a math whiz but something is bound to NOT add up!

Two words – enrollment and resources.

This simple, yet ‘slap you in the face’ reality check quote is another reminder of how we need to really start thinking more comprehensively about our system of public schools in DC, or the lack there of.

With this quote we are reminded of how the failure to plan, and to do so with a vision, is harming our most vulnerable students, families, and communities. Not only are we harming our most vulnerable residents but we are wasting our public dollars in a way that we cannot really afford.  Furthermore, such a lack of comprehensive planning DOES NOT breed competition but it leaves our system of public education lopsided and a confusing mess for families who just want to give their children the best education that they possibly can.

This system does not provide real choice to the assurance of quality and access for all of our students in the District of Columbia.

So where is the comprehensive plan for our system of public (both traditional and charter) schools in DC? Well, the answer is – we DO NOT have one but we are in DIRE need. It is our duty to push our elected officials to genuinely, collectively, and directly address this matter and to do so in a way that engages all stakeholders in the strategic planning and implementation of such a plan.  The future of our fair city depends on it.

The coalition is thriving…

The DC Mayoral Candidate Education Forum, hosted on October 22nd, was a HUGE success! The organization that I am president of (the Ward Five Council on Education), along with a host of dedicated community organizations (listed below), sponsored an engaging forum focused on education that was not only well attended but also allowed us to hear from each of the mayoral candidates on their education platform. If you were not able to make it never fear! The education forum is online for you to watch: http://www.dceducationelection.org

In addition to the forum, the mayoral candidates were asked to fill out a education questionnaire. All three mayoral candidates completed the questionnaire and you can read their responses at http://www.dceducationelection.org/mayoral-candidates-on-education/.

It was truly an honor and pleasure to have sponsored the Mayoral Candidate Education Forum with such phenomenal organizations. I am grateful for our ability to continuously work in coalition with the following groups:

Also, click here to check out the Washington Post article about the event.

If you want to see some of the tweets from the forum, check out the hastag #EduDCision14.

This IS an election about education! We have to be informed and make the decision that is right for us. We MUST be prepared to step into the polls on November 4th ready to move our city forward.

Making real strides to ensure quality and the future of DC public education…

Last night the District of Columbia Public Schools Chancellor, Kaya Henderson, gave her annual State of the Schools Address in which she noted that the school system is on track to make more gains and improvements in the coming year. Even with such gains, though minimal or with widening disparities in some instances, on the horizon, I have been truly honored and blessed to work in coalition with more than 40 education activist and advocates from around the city to make more concrete strides in holding our public and elected officials, and aspiring elected officials, accountable. Over the course of several months we have worked to develop Six Principles for Public Education that we believe are vital to the success of public education in Washington, DC.  Below please find more details about our work and see how you can also get involved.

Education Activists from Across the City Endorse Principles for the Future of Public Education in DC
(brief press release excerpt)

Over 60 education activists from across DC are urging city leaders to adopt six principles to ensure an excellent public education system that equitably and effectively serves all of our families and communities. The diverse group includes representatives of Ward Education Councils, PTAs, LSATs, alumni associations and education advocacy organizations as well as supporters of each of the major candidates for Mayor.

Website is available at http://www.dceducationelection.org/, citizens are invited to sign on and comment.

Organizers are asking candidates for elected office, including the mayor and council, to comment on the principles as part of a necessary civic education component.

Six Principles for Public Education in Washington, DC

Building a public education system that is fully responsive to community input and meets the needs of all our citizens continues to be a critical challenge for our city. This year’s election offers a chance to debate and formulate a vision for the next stage in improving our schools. We believe that to reach our goal of providing the educational opportunities all children and communities deserve, our city must embrace the following principles:

  1. Ensure all families have matter-of-right access to high-quality DCPS schools in their neighborhoods – a predictable, matter-of-right path from pre-school through high school. The message from the public in the Deputy Mayor for Education’s (“DME’s”) Student Assignment process was clear: Families and communities in all parts of the city want the assurance of matter-of- right schools in their neighborhoods that are safe, academically challenging learning environments. While residents want the ability to select alternatives, they do not want to be at the mercy of a lottery for access to a high performing school that can fully meet the needs of their children and community.
  2. Focus resources on students and communities with the greatest need. Matter-of-right schools are thriving in some parts of the city and not in others. Schools serving children with the greatest need often lack the resources they require and face the highest staff turnover. To address these inequities, we must:
    • Fully implement the recently enacted “at-risk” weight in the funding formula.
    • Ensure magnet and specialty programs are available equitably and actively

      promoted across the city and encourage diversity in our schools.

    • Strengthen early childhood education through outreach to communities, wrap-

      around services, community schools and family resource centers.

    • Continually assess the resources needed and proven best practices to meet the

      challenges schools face serving children with the greatest economic, educational, and social needs.

  3. Require coordinated planning between the District of Columbia Public Schools (“DCPS”) and the Public Charter School Board (“PCSB”) to build a core system of stable DCPS neighborhood schools with a complementary set of alternative options.
    • Currently there is no overall strategy for how we will meet the educational needs of our children and communities and how we will spend nearly one fifth of our tax revenue each year to do so. We must have coordinated planning, overseen by an accountable city agency, with active community input, to consider proposed modernizations, expansions, closings, and openings of any school.
    • Build on the recently opened DCPS office of planning to strengthen strategic planning, including vertical planning within feeder systems.
    • Collect and disseminate successful policies, programs and practices identified in both the DCPS and charter sectors to facilitate both sectors learning from each other.
  4. Responsibly manage our financial resources

    • Use coordinated planning to avoid duplication of functions between DCPS and the charter sector, and between the school systems and other DC agencies.
    • Improve transparency of the DCPS budget, and commence budget planning in the fall so that individual schools can thoughtfully set priorities by the end of spring.
    • Require full transparency of charter school budgets, including how dollars paid to private entities are used and require that all payments are subject to LEA audits.
    • Commit to provide DCPS and each charter LEA the funding required to meet the needs of their students. The compass point is adequate funding, not mathematical parity between schools and LEAs with dramatically different needs.

    5.   Broaden assessment measures to focus on student growth and use multiple measures to assess a quality education. The District should follow the lead of other districts that increasingly rely on diverse measures of student achievement and teacher and school effectiveness in order to provide parents with accurate information and enable the city to provide targeted support where needed.

    • Ensure all students have a well-rounded curriculum in all matter-of-right schools.
    • Reduce the emphasis on snapshot measures of proficiency toward measures that focus on student growth. Schools must be judged on the breadth and depth of subjects taught, their engagement of students, and the culture of learning they foster.
    • Make public data disaggregated by income, race and geography, with actual scale scores, so it can be better used to determine whether all groups are making progress and focus resources most effectively going forward.

    6.  Ensure families and community members have reliable ways to exercise the right to participate in public education decision making. The research is clear that community engagement and ownership are key to improvement.

    • Strengthen and support mechanisms such as Local School Advisory Teams (“LSAT”) and School Improvement Teams (“SIT”) to engage communities in school planning.
    • Support or create parent/teacher or home school organizations at all by-right schools.
    • Build on mechanisms such as the Budget Taskforce, the DCPS Parent Cabinet, the elected school board, the PCSB Community Advisory Group and DME taskforces to secure ongoing oversight and community input in decision making for our schools.

      For a full list of the 50+ people who have signed on to the Six Principles, see dceducationelection.org/sign-on

Moving past procrastination…

My writing seminar last night was really an eyeopening experience for me. It was a reminder that I am a procrastinator.

This month is the start of my fourth, yes fourth, year in my PhD program. At times is has seemed that time has moved slowly, while at other times it is hard to believe that three years has already flown by. 

My coursework in now behind me and now comes the really hard part – my dissertation.  As I start to think about where to go next the first hurdle that I have to cross is my Capstone B article. Everyone who knows me knows that my passion is rooted in public education. From the first time that I stepped foot in my classroom at Lake Shore Middle School in 2003 until today, public education has been at the very core of my personal and professional pursuits. Even in the midst of working to attaining this degree, public education has been a major focus and hence the area of concentration for my article.

Finally getting to this point, although its been a journey of struggle and self-discovery, has been a process that has been pretty straightforward until I had to really focus on my own research and that is when the procrastination, and feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt, started to take hold.  Can I really do this? Am I intellectual enough? Is what I have to say important? Am I meant to be here? The list could go on and on… and honestly it does.  The list of self-doubt, which is ultimately grounded in procrastination, lives on in my head and I have to just tune out the ‘noise’ and focus on what I know – I HAVE TO FINISH THIS PROGRAM and I CAN FINISH THIS PROGRAM. I can’t let my procrastination, which thus breeds self-doubt, keep me from what I know God has for me.

I am not the first mother/wife to pursue a PhD… My accomplishments are not my own – the way was being paved for me long before I was even born. I look at my grandmother, my mother, my aunts, my sisters, my friends, and know that this is possible. I look at them and I am constantly inspired.

So…now is the time for me to move past my procrastination, self-doubt, AND make it happen. I am starting with the first word and moving to the second. I am trusting in God and my amazing system of support. This process is totally up to me, my success lies in my hands. Hold me accountable my friends – this is the homestretch!  Here I go…