Progress – The American Way!

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. 

James Baldwin

I love public education!  Anyone who knows me, knows this.  I am a passionate and sometimes strident advocate for universal public education.  For this reason, I see it as my duty to perpetually criticize it.

The image above is American Progress, painted by a Prussian immigrant, John Gast, in 1872.  I vividly remember this image in almost every American History text I have picked up.  I remember one publisher was so kind as to include this image in the transparency collection that came with the teachers’ edition of the text, so that I could place it on an overhead projector, and have my students use visual thinking strategies to analyze it.  When I taught 8th graders at Urbana Middle School, my student’s discussion was rich with criticism about the imagery of light and dark. The problems with the concept of Manifest Destiny. My students inspire me to see the world through other perspectives.  

I recently participated in a Crossroads Anti-Racism workshop about dismantling systemic and institutional racism.  The facilitators projected this image, and participants used a variety of strategies to discuss the roots of racism portrayed in this image.  I was so familiar with this lesson plan, I leaned in. It had been 15 years since I taught American History. I was curious to see how adults responded to an image with which I was very familiar.  I was not prepared to be surprised.  

Joy:  “What book is she holding?”

Derrick: “No… It is not the Bible.”

If you have the ability, zoom in.  The book is labeled simply, horrifyingly, obviously, “School Book.”  From the first public (tax-payer funded, Colonial) schools in New England in the 1630s, the purpose of school has been to “Americanize” to “socialize” to “educate” to “assimilate.”  Schools as institutions, and public education as a system have, from the beginning been the standard bearer of White Supremacy. “Progress” is pushing this concept of superiority and oppression based on race across the country.  “Progress” is erasing aboriginal culture through genocide and… education! “Progress” is ensuring that the purpose is so entrenched that the “progressives” and idealists are unaware of how successful schools are at marginalizing, excluding, and perpetuating White Supremacy. 

I love public education! We must do more than invent more progressive programs that approach inequities through technical solutions.  We must examine our personal belief systems. We must study how those belief systems have been created and formed over time, specifically to perpetuate segregation, subjugation, marginalization, and indoctrination.  As individuals, we must continually question policies, practices, and long held beliefs. As a society, we must organize. We must change. Not progress, but radical change.  

Once a Tiger, Always a Tiger!

As my tenure as Urbana School District 116’s Superintendent draws to a close, I would like to take a moment to express my gratitude for the opportunity to serve this community.. When Meg and I moved to Urbana-Champaign, 30 years ago this summer, we did not expect to stay past the completion of her master’s degree at the University of Illinois. We also did not expect to fall in love with the community, school district, students, and families. We are proud that both of our children are graduates of Urbana High School, and we are grateful to the educators who challenged and supported them.

My inspiration has always been the students. Increasing opportunities, access, and positive outcomes for all students has been my primary objective. As a district, we have stated for years that “failure, for any student is not an option.”  Urbana School District 116 has been addressing the issue of racial inequities by challenging individual and institutional racial biases and starting to dismantle inequitable policies, practices, and systems. I am proud of the work we have done and the direction in which we are headed.

I look forward to continuing my career in Urbana School District 116. While I was disappointed that the Board of Education did not grant my request for a public hearing regarding my non-renewal as Superintendent. I wish that the larger Urbana community could have heard what was said behind those closed doors. My plan is to continue to serve the students and families of Urbana School District 116 in the role to which I was assigned by Human Resources: Restorative “U” Room Teacher at Urbana High School.

I am proud to have always led with honesty, integrity, and fiscal responsibility. During the last six years, with the support of professional and talented administrators and educators, the gap between White and Black students’ high school graduation rates is now insignificant, and both are now above the Illinois state average. We significantly reduced the number of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions between August of 2015 and December of 2018. We also saw the Education Fund Balance grow from less than $1 Million in 2013 to over $ 5Million in 2018. In my new position, I will be able to directly affect systems and structures that have lead to the racial disparities in student discipline. I have worked hard during my leave to support students and families, and I will continue to push the boards and the school districts in this community to ensure better outcomes for all students regardless of race or any other factor that has traditionally been used to oppress and marginalize. As we move forward, I will continue to ask the Urbana School District 116 Board of Education for complete transparency and accountability. It was truly an honor and a privilege to serve the students, families, educators, and community of Urbana as Superintendent.