Children’s Education and History’s Lessons

dr._steve_perryMany of you probably know of Dr. Steve Perry. For those who don’t, he’s become the new face of education reform in America thanks to CNN. The network highlighted the success-against-the-odds principal Perry and his Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a public school in Hartford, Conn. that he helped found, in its 2009 “Black in America” series.

And after listening to Perry’s speech at the African American Business Council’s recent annual luncheon, I understand why he’s been successful.

Foremost, Perry loves kids — he sees nothing but the best in them and wants nothing but the best for them and from them. And he loves them enough to fire teachers who aren’t helping his students live up to such high expectations.

The little black boy born into generational poverty to a teen mother from the projects has grown far his humble beginnings. Perry has become sort of an educational equivalent of Bill Cosby in describing what ails inner-city schools, and what it takes to fix them. His background gives him the moral authority to say what needs to be said, and the street cred to back it up.

U.S. News and World Report put Capital Preparatory among the nation’s best high schools. Perry’s school has sent 100 percent of its low-income, mostly Black and Latino, first-generation high school graduates to four-year colleges every year since it started in 2004. Since appearing on CNN, he has gone around the country with his message about saving inner-city children from an inadequate education system.
So Perry let the chips fall where they may in Birmingham when he declared, “I can’t sit here as your brother and tell you that you are delivering a high-quality education.”

That’s not startling news. But what he did was lay the responsibility for this state of affairs on many shoulders, largely on the teachers’ unions and those who would rather protect bad teachers than remove them from classrooms for the children’s best interests.

“You can’t call yourself a defender of children when you defend the ones who are stopping children from learning. There a lot of teachers who are good people. But teaching is an art . . . Teaching is a calling.”
Perry said teachers perpetuate the lie that inner-city children’s poor academic performance is the “parent’s fault” for not teaching at home. But that’s what teachers are paid to do, he said, and if they don’t do that basic job, they need to be fired.

He also laid blame at the feet of the larger community – particularly the leading elites and business folk — for allowing known “raggedy” schools to exist in the city.

Every child at these schools “woke up this morning with the expectation that they were getting access to a quality education. People come ask me to come talk to the kids at their schools and tell them, ‘You can be anything you want to be if you just try,’ knowing that I’m lying to them because they go to a horrible school! They go to a school that every single one of you is glad you don’t have to send your children to,” Perry told the audience.

Perry said he was appalled that children in Birmingham, of all places, don’t have options like children in other cities with school choice.

And this is the point that gets me. Birmingham’s singular history makes it the poster child of can-do- in-spite-of-all-obstacles cities. Perry made sure to point this out:

“I cannot believe a town such as Birmingham, a town that the rest of us look to … the rest of the country and the world remembers you. We know your heritage. We know your story. We are impressed by your power. You’ve overcome the greatest of all circumstances. You created a way to come together when it didn’t seem possible . . . you understand how to beat “the man.” You know how to identify the enemy. The problem, however, is that the enemy is us. It’s our own unwillingness to accept the fact that we have accepted failure for too long. It’s so easy to blame poverty and race — we got all these poor black kids in one place – But isn’t that the same argument that got you riled up before? How much worse does it have to get?”

If Birmingham, Alabama, can’t figure out how to get over its fear of the teachers’ union (‘What are they going to do, suspend you?” Perry joked), find teachers who don’t make excuses why children can’t learn (kids aren’t born dumb, he said), make more exemplary schools like Phillips Academy (apparently folks here touted it to him – a lot), and simply put kids first, well, who can?

This is why learning our history –and understanding its significance – is so important.

Civil Rights and Tommy Wrenn

I bet a handful of people in that dining hall knows meaningful details about Birmingham’s Civil Rights movement. Yes, the protests, the dogs and the hoses, racial discrimination and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – most everybody knows this.

But few understand that “The Civil Rights Movement was a scientific, spiritual movement. It was scientific because you had to study the behavior of your enemy . . . You didn’t just get out and march. You sat up and plotted how big a fool your enemy would act . . . And you operated on faith to project that which you discussed . . . Only the spirituality of a human being could face Bull Connor — his tanks, his dogs — and all his guns, and you didn’t have one. You had to have faith.”

This quote comes from my first interview with Tommy Wrenn, a long-time civil rights foot soldier who died last week. His funeral is at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church on Tuscaloosa Avenue.

Tommy Wrenn did more to help me understand the true meaning of the Movement than any book I’ve ever read. I’m honored that I talked with him on several occasions. I’m glad many of his stories live in the hearts and memories of people who hung out at the Civil Rights Activist Committee office on Fourth Avenue North.

Sure, they had to endure the near-constant cloud of his cigarette smoke in that cramped space. And they heard the same stories time and again. But that’s what a good teacher does. Repetition makes it hard to forget. And Wrenn was definitely unforgettable.

But more unforgettable are the stories of struggle and triumph of non-violent foot soldiers in the face of violent, hateful opposition. People around the world can relate to these stories. Wrenn shared them with such passion and truth. The kind of passion I heard in Perry’s voice. The kind of truth Perry let loose at the luncheon, although, he could say what he wanted and leave with a check!

There’s a whole lot more to say than time and space will permit. My bottom line is this – if we could stand up to Bull Connor and some of the meanest, baddest terrorists in recorded history, why can’t we stand up to some self-serving folks who care more about their jobs and the system than about loving and educating our children, thus guaranteeing a better future for us all?

If we can’t figure this out, maybe we need to go back to the School of Tommy Wrenn, and learn the true meaning of love and faith in action.

You can see and hear all of Perry’s speech at our YouTube Channel.

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