February 9th, 2015

For Sifford, golf’s racism made it easy to be hard

Golfing great Gary Player, when introducing his friend and fellow golfer Charles Luther Sifford at his induction into the 2004 World Golf Hall of Fame, said some people called Sifford mean.
Other people called him ornery and bitter.
But, Player said, none of his friends or fellow golfers did.
The more I read about the first black golfer to hold a PGA Tour card, the more I understand why he may have been that way and may have had the right to be. After all, how would you feel if there were organized efforts in place to keep you from fully using your God-given gifts?
Sifford, the man who broke the color barrier in golf, died Feb. 3, just three months after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the man who broke the color barrier in the White House. He was 92.
I didn’t know about him. Lee Elder was the first black golfer I ever heard of. But the more I read about Sifford, the more I understood why he would have a chip on his shoulder.

Charlie Sifford

Charlie Sifford

Born in Charlotte, N.C., Sifford began caddying at the Carolina Country Club for 60 cents a day when he was about 10. He taught himself the game on days when the club was closed.
After serving in the Pacific during World War II, he returned to the States thinking he could make a living as a professional golfer. That was not to be. Not for a long time, anyway.
Sifford was not the only black golfer at that time. In fact, there were more black golfers who could have qualified for the PGA Tour in the 1940s than there are now.
That didn’t bode well with members of the PGA. In 1943, members inserted “Caucasians only from North or South America” into qualifications for membership.
Sifford had to play on the black circuit and in Canada. He won six Negro National Open titles on that circuit, five of them in a row, 1952-56.
In 1952, during the Phoenix Open, where black and white golfers could play, there was human feces in the cup when he reached the first green. No one seemed to know how it got there.
On a traditionally quiet golf course, it became routine to have people yell out just as he began his swing, or to kick his ball away or hide it under trash. The N-word and other racial slurs became a part of the game, right along with death threats and intimidation.
I would think appearing mean was his defensive mechanism. He never went too far, though.
In 2000, Sifford told The Associated Press, “If I hadn’t acted like a professional when they sent me out, if I did something crazy, there would never be any blacks playing. I toughed it out. I’m proud of it. All those people were against me, and I’m looking down on them now.”
In 1959, he gained the attention of California Attorney General Stanley Mosk. Mosk demanded to know why the PGA would not allow Sifford to play on tour if it were not just because of his race. The PGA gave in and approved Sifford as a tournament player in 1960. He became a rookie that year at age 39.
Still, even with the card, doors didn’t swing open.
“To give you an example,” Sifford said in a 1986 interview with the Lexington Herald-Leader, Sifford said he kept playing and trying to play. “…I just wouldn’t quit. I couldn’t let them win. I just wanted things to change. Change has come slow.”
Very slow.sifford2
Sifford won the Greater Hartford Open in 1967, which usually included an invitation to play in the Masters. No invitation came. In 1969, he won the Los Angeles Open, which also usually brought with it an invitation to the Masters. Again, none came.
“When I won a tournament, they changed the rules for who was eligible,” Sifford said in 1997. “Same thing when I won another tournament. They had a group of people in charge who didn’t see where it was beneficial to let blacks play. From the very first, I had to be better and tougher than other players, so I kept bothering them and bothering them about it. Finally, when Lee Elder won a tournament in 1974, he was in.”
Elder became the first black golfer to play the Masters in 1975. Sifford never played in the Masters.
When Tiger Woods, who called Sifford his grandfather, won his first Masters in 1997, Sifford watched on TV from his home in Texas. Sifford said he would never set foot in Augusta and he didn’t.
Sifford became one of the founding members of the PGA Senior Tour, where he finally earned some of the money he should have in his prime.
“I don’t know how I made it sometimes,” Sifford said in a Herald-Leader interview. “The good Lord was with me, I guess. Sometimes it felt like he was the only one on my side.”
“Sometimes, I think what it would have been like if I could have played the tour when I was at my best,” he said.  “Don’t get me wrong. Golf has been good to me. It just could have been a whole lot better.
“But, you can’t dwell on that,” he continued. “It’s gone. It’s not important, I guess, that I didn’t make it real big. It’s important that I made it. At least, it did open the door for a few more blacks.”
Sifford never blamed the players; he blamed the golf establishment.
When Sifford died last week, Woods tweeted: “Terrible loss for golf and me personally. My grandfather is gone and we all lost a brave, decent and honorable man.”
Sifford may have been ornery and bitter because of what happened to him. I just hope the Hall of Fame induction and the Medal of Honor ceremony made up for a lack of accolades during his prime. Maybe, before he died, those old wounds were healed.

February 9th, 2015

Holocaust born from marginalizing minorities

Irma Rosenstein of Lexington called a few days ago with a request. She wanted me to change what I had planned for that evening to watch CNN and Voices of Auschwitz, a documentary featuring Jewish survivors of concentration camps in Poland that were operated by Nazi Germany in World War II.
“You watch it and I will call you tomorrow and see what you think,” she said.
I sensed urgency in her voice and decided to do as she asked.
I had met Rosenstein in 2011 and admired her passion for social issues and her willingness to act.
This time, though, she was burdened with sadness for those who had lost their lives in Europe because of intolerance and even hatred, as well as those who had survived the death and labor camps only to be haunted by horrific images and memories.

Irma Rosenstein

Irma Rosenstein

Later that evening, I also received a text message from a member of my Bible study urging the group to watch.
Rosenstein and members of my study group, who are mostly black, represent a time when the persecution and oppression of certain groups were sanctioned by some segments of society and ignored by others, allowing hate crimes to blossom.
When Rosenstein called the next day, she seemed even more depressed than the day before. She was astonished that more was not acknowledged locally of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet Union soldiers.
“I thought it was the demarcation of a very important anniversary,” she said.
So many people died, some say as many as six million Jews during the Holocaust, and about 1.1 to 1.3 million Jews, Gypsies, disabled people, gays, dissidents and political prisoners in the Auschwitz camps alone. We need to remember that, Rosenstein said.
Born and reared in New York, Rosenstein, now 92, still remembers the loss of innocence.
“We had never felt or heard anything like that in our lives,” Rosenstein said. “We were young, bright Americans. How could you believe something like that could happen?”
The anniversary serves as a trigger for waves of sadness and a reminder to people to never forget. Those people who died “would say please remember us,” Rosenstein said. “They died for a reason and the reason is still there.”
That’s true. Anti-Semitism is alive and well, as evidenced by the killing of four Jews in a kosher market in Paris last month by an Islamic radical.
“Have we learned anything at all?” she asked, rhetorically.
Some of us have. Others still use intolerance as a footstool on which we stand taller than others.
The lessons that should be learned from the Holocaust all hinge on acceptance of diversity, and tolerance of differences, Rosenstein said.
Trouble begins when ordinary citizens choose to remain silent while others are mistreated, which is what happened in Europe before World War II and seems to be gaining a foothold again, she said.
“News from the headlines about the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe have some clear connections to the themes of the Holocaust, but so do examples closer to home,” she said. “The rising intolerance against new immigrants (in the United States) and the stark disconnect between so many African-Americans and police serve as examples of how easy it is to create and marginalize minorities.”
The Holocaust is a case study of the moral consequences of citizens allowing those in authority to negatively label a group of people so that the group’s mistreatment seems justified. When we are willing to abandon our consciences, our sense of fairness, just to be accepted by the group in authority, we make the extreme palatable.
There is danger in seeing ‘us’ as individuals and ‘them’ as a monolithic mass, Rosenstein said.
“The murder of six million Jews could not have happened on such a scale without the participation of masses of ordinary citizens,” she said. “Killing Jews had no major political or economic justification; it was an end in itself.”
They were Jews. They weren’t seen as German or Polish or Russian. They were non-human and, therefore, OK to kill.
“That is such a stupid thing,” Rosenstein said. “That is stupidity. I can’t use any other word.”
That scenario should never be allowed to unfold again. We all must remember the lives lost in the Holocaust so that we won’t allow that to recur. Not to Jews. Not to blacks. Not to Hispanics. Not to gays. Not to anyone.
“The Holocaust prompts us to continually reflect on the role individuals have in shaping history,” Rosenstein said. “It teaches us that the choices they make every day — in thought and in action — can have an effect on each other and on history.
“The lessons of the Holocaust prompt us as Americans to ask what it means to be a citizen in a democracy,” she said, “and to understand how to exercise our rights and responsibilities to create a more compassionate world.”
While there wasn’t a big deal made in Lexington for the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, there will be a public observance of Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, on April 19 at 10 a.m. On that day, Lexington’s Jewish community invites all of us to Temple Adath Israel to join in the commemoration of the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.
The least we can do until then is study the mindset that allowed the Holocaust to happen so that it never happens again.
Thank you for reminding me, Irma.

 

February 9th, 2015

Book Project needs donations for India, Uganda

At one time, I was into wild birds.
I ignored my husband’s constant complaints about having to weed-eat around the multiple bird feeder poles I had pounded into “his” lawn in the backyard. And I dismissed as signs of gratitude the many gifts left by my feathered friends after they had filled their ­tummies.
I bought book after book about North American birds and have continued to dust them off even though I have not opened any of them for years.
Those books came to mind after I spoke with Chassity Neckers last week.
Neckers, director of development for the ­International Book Project, said the Lexington-based not-for-profit organization needs help in filling two sea containers with books. One container will be shipped in late February and the other in April.
Each container, one destined for India and the other for Uganda, can hold 20,000 to 30,000 books, so we need to get moving.
“What we need most are fiction and nonfiction, informational and textbooks,” she said.

Chassity Neckers

Chassity Neckers

Informational books could be about insects, animals, planets, the body, countries and people, or perhaps weather phenomena. And they can always use children’s books.
“Once the shipments get to the destination, they disperse them, a lot of times for an entire village or multiple schools and libraries or universities,” Neckers said.
The book project relies heavily on personal donations, although some bookstores have also been generous.
“I am sure there are schools and libraries that would love to give their books and we’d love to take them,” Neckers said. “A lot of people don’t know we are here and that we take books.”
I wondered if the move to digital books was hurting donations.
“We haven’t found that to be a problem yet,” she said.
While a lot of people have embraced Kindles and other e-readers, they still have a lot of paper books. “I still like the feel of a book,” she said.
The book project has been promoting literacy, education and global friendship by sending hundreds of thousands of books each year to schools, libraries, churches, community organizations and Peace Corps volunteers throughout the world and the United States.
seacontainer(1)Harriet Van Meter started the organization after a visit to India in 1965, where she saw long lines of people waiting for books. She placed an ad in an English-language newspaper in India offering to send books to those who wanted them. She began shipping books the next year from her basement.
The organization now sends not only small shipments but also sea containers. The overseas partners requesting a sea container must have the resources to transport, clear through customs, and distribute a large number of books.
Knowing e-readers could be the future, the book project partnered last fall with WorldReader, another global literacy non-profit, to send 75 Kindle Paperwhites, each loaded with 106 mostly African-authored books, that would be shared by the 33,000 local residents of Bakubung in the North West Province of South Africa. That area does not have a library.
To help offset some of the shipping fees, the book project has a bookstore in the front of its warehouse that offers a variety of books at low prices. A half-price sale is planned for March, which might be good to keep in mind.
The book project is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays for donations or for shopping. There is a gray bin outside the office for after-hour donations.

IBP book store

IBP book store

“There are more than 300,000 people in Lexington,” Neckers said. “If everyone gave a book, we’d be set for the year.”
I’ll do my part with my bird books, and some gardening books that I have memorized and no longer refer to. Please look around your homes and offices and see what you can purge.
If we enjoyed them before, someone else might find pleasure in them now.

TO HELP
What: The International Book Project is asking for book ­donations to fill two sea ­containers scheduled to be shipped to India and Uganda.
When: Donations accepted 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays or may be placed in the gray bin in front of the building.
Where: 1440 Delaware Ave.
Information: Intlbookproject.org, or (859) 254-6771.

January 30th, 2015

Cliff Jackson to play piano at benefit

Watching and listening to Cliff Jackson directing the church choir on Sundays, I sometimes forgot how famous he is.
Jackson took early ­retirement from serving as vocal coach at the ­University of Kentucky in 2011, ­expecting to blend in with us commoners and to hide his gifts under a basket.
That was never to be.
Even though he became as dependable as a comfortable pair of house ­slippers, his musical prowess at church could never be ­denied or undervalued.
His retirement lasted a whole semester before he produced a concert ­featuring some of the students he had coached at UK. Bitten, he started playing for a few recitals and lessons for the students.
Last year, Everett ­McCorvey, director of UK Opera Theatre, asked ­Jackson to return, working in the opera department and stage productions only.

Cliff Jackson - photo by Rich Copley

Cliff Jackson – photo by Rich Copley

“I enjoyed working here,” Jackson said of UK. “I needed a job and I wasn’t totally out of shape. I had been practicing.”
Jackson was never ­musically out of shape, but now he is back in full swing. He will accompany soprano Karen Slack for a concert Friday that will benefit the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington at the ­Downtown Arts Center’s Black Box ­Theatre. The concert is billed as an intimate club atmosphere, complete with wine and food catered by Alfalfa.
Slack and Jackson are ­featured because they are based in Lexington and because they are superior musicians, said Richard Young, executive director of the Chamber Music Festival.
“This is very unusual thing for us,” Young said. “It is an amazing opportunity.”
Slack, he said, is a “fantastic artist who hasn’t really performed in Lexington.” She has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, ­Carnegie Hall and throughout Europe. She appeared in the 2010 film For Colored Girls and recently performed the title role of Tosca and as Leonora in Il Trovatore for the Arizona Opera.
She has also performed with the Latvian National Symphony, the Alabama Symphony and the West Bay Opera.
Slack and Jackson will be performing everything from traditional vocal pieces to Puccini, spirituals and Gersh­win. “It’s a pretty diverse program across the board,” Young said.

Karen Slack

Karen Slack

That suits Jackson, who comes from a diverse musical background. He graduated from Oberlin College, but not before getting kicked out for a semester for academic reasons.
“I wasn’t a very good student,” Jackson said.
All he wanted to do was play music while someone sang. That wasn’t what music appreciation was about.
So he switched majors to piano when he returned to Oberlin and fell under the guidance of a teacher who urged him to move to New York to audition for the master’s program at the Manhattan School of Music.
“My mother didn’t want me to go to New York, but she didn’t stop me,” Jackson said. “A lady told my mother his talent is too good to come back here. The world needs to hear him.’
“I say that with all ­humility. I can’t take any claim for that. We have to get God in this article.”
Not only did he get into the master’s program, he landed a job playing at a church in Brooklyn.
Perhaps the church jobs helped him hone his mastery of being able to anticipate when a vocalist will sing each note. Perhaps it was accompanying classical singers.
He has served as pianist for internationally renowned artists on stages such as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden. In 2008, Classical Singer magazine named him Coach of the Year.
Jackson lived for 10 years in New York and five years in Miami before McCorvey lured him to UK in 1992.
“When I got here and saw the Singletary Center and Commonwealth Stadium, I knew I would come,” he said, adding that he’s not a sports fan but that the stadium represented a college town, and that’s where he wanted to be.
Between now and May, Jackon’s dance card is full, starting with the benefit concert, followed by rehearsals and performances of The Tales of Hoffman by UK Opera Theatre, and 10 to 12 student recitals thereafter.
And I’m sure he’ll play the organ and the piano at Wesley United Methodist Church on Sunday mornings as well.

IF YOU GO
Chamber Music Festival of ­Lexington presents soprano Karen Slack and pianist Cliff Jackson in a benefit concert
When: Jan. 30; 6:30 p.m. ­reception, 7:30 p.m. concert
Where: Downtown Arts Center Black Box Theatre, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $150 cabaret seating, $100 theater seating.
Information: (859) 233-3056 or Chambermusiclex.com/tickets.

January 30th, 2015

Young entrepreneur brings Booiaka to Lexington to shake things up

A co-worker, who used to be my friend, urged me to take an exercise class she had found that was “fun and different.”
I’ve never described exercise as fun. Those two words should not be used in the same sentence as far as I’m concerned, I said.
Booiaka is different, she said.
I went.
What I saw was a room filled with women of various ages and body types who did seem to be having fun. It was more dance than exercise, complete with ­music that made standing still quite difficult, even for me.

Tara Johnson -  Photos by Mark Cornelison

Tara Johnson -
Photos by Mark Cornelison

Booiaka, pronounced boo-ya-ka, is a dance fitness program that takes bits of several dance styles and fuses them into something you might find yourself doing when no one is watching. Latin, Brazilian, Jamaican, hip-hop and old-school R&B beats encourage the body to follow carefully ­choreographed movements that have the same results as a fitness class.
These participants were following the lead of Tara Johnson, owner of Exalted Fitness at Imani Baptist Church, who is a certified master Booiaka instructor.
“Booiaka is basically a dance-fitness class,” Johnson said. “It allows people to release themselves. It allows me to be me. I am a free-spirit individual.”
She had us twisting, twerking and moving our bodies in ways mine hadn’t moved since I used to go to clubs. OK. Maybe I was simply attempting to twerk. Still, it was indeed fun.
Booiaka was created in 2008 by Italian choreographer and dancer Tatiana Tamai after she moved to Los Angeles. It is an intense workout, but the moves are repeated frequently making them easy to remember and follow. Booiaka takes the intimidation factor out of dance. Each class builds on the previous one, with at least one new move added each time. After about a month, new choreography is started.

Dana Branham

Dana Branham

“I love it,” said Dana Branham, who has attended Johnson’s classes for about two years. “It is hard to make fitness fun for me. The dance part is really probably what keeps me coming, and I get the benefit of being fit as well. Or trying to be.”
Johnson was on track to become a financial adviser when she realized she felt trapped and needed something more, she said. Johnson had run track for Dunbar High School, anchoring the state champion 4-by-100 relay team in 2006. She attended the ­University of Kentucky, studying economics while working at a local bank.
The athlete in her wanted more. She began teaching Zumba and loved it, as did the 60 to 70 followers she had.
So she took the “leap of faith,” she said, and studied for a year at the Lexington Healing Arts Academy, after graduating from UK, to get her personal training certificate. She opened Exalted Fitness in 2012 and recently received the Coretta Scott King Spirit of Ivy Young Entrepreneur Award.
booiakaWhen she learned of ­Booiaka, she traveled to California to learn from Tamai and eventually earned a master trainer certificate. Only two people in the United States hold that distinction, and both live in Kentucky.
She helped Tamai present Booiaka to the Idea World Fitness Convention last year in Anaheim, Calif., and she’ll travel to other states this year, teaching Booiaka to those who want to be certified instructors.
Tamai will be in Lexington in April and will, with Johnson, teach a master class for Booiaka, which lasts 90 minutes and teaches an entire choreography in that one class.
“She has asked me to start choreographing my own stuff,” said Johnson, who is working on doing that.

Janis Reed

Janis Reed

Janis Reed, a woman close to my age, said she joined Exalted Fitness to have access to the walking track. When she asked what classes were available at night, she was directed to Johnson’s Booiaka class.
“I’ve had a blast,” Reed said. “I love to dance. I haven’t gotten all the moves down, but I laugh, and the stress has been removed.”
Reed has attended only four classes so far, but she likes it. “It has helped me fee less inhibited. This is fun. There is no judgment. You just do the best you can do.”
Aleah Mayfield has attend since October when she switched from Zumba. “I like the high energy and the high impact,” she said. “I just don’t feel like I’m working out.
“My first time, though, I thought I was going to die,” Mayfield said. “My socks were even wet.”
All Johnson asks is to let loose and enjoy, the way she does. Timid participants may start out on the back row, but they gradually move closer to the front row and the unyielding wall of mirrors as they gain confidence.booiaka5
“It doesn’t feel like work to me,” she said. “It’s all about changing people’s lives for the better.”
It was fun and it was an intense workout that I still felt in my hips a couple of days later. Johnson said a new choreography will begin on Tuesday.
I am tempted to try it again. I also might forgive that co-worker.

IF YOU GO
What: Booiaka, an international dance fitness program.
When: 7:15 p.m. Tue. and Thur.; 9 a.m. Sat.
Where: Exalted Fitness in Imani ­Baptist Church, 1555 Georgetown Rd.
Cost: Tue. and Wed., $7 a class or $35 a month. Sat., $5 a class.
Information: Exaltedfitness.com.

January 30th, 2015

Instead of charter schools, improve the ones we have

Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, remains neutral in the debate on whether charter schools should be allowed a foothold in Kentucky.
“If you say, ‘Stu, do me a paper on why we should do charters,’ I can do that,” Silberman said last week. “If you said, ‘Stu, do me a paper on why we shouldn’t do charters,’ I can do that.”
But charter schools, pro or con, should not be the focus, he said. In fact, it’s asking the wrong questions to wonder about charter schools, he said.
“The right question, we believe, is, ‘What do we need to be doing to raise achievement and close the achievement gap?’” he said. “I have never run into anyone who said they don’t want to close the achievement gap. People want to do it. The intent is there.”

Stu Silberman

Stu Silberman

Talk of closing the gap has been around for decades. If everybody knows it exists and the gap between what poor and minority students learn and what more affluent students learn continues to grow, why shouldn’t we just try charters?
After all, some research has shown charters benefit poor and minority children more than their richer counterparts, black or white. Why not make charter schools available to those underserved students and close the gap?
There are four things that must be in place to close the gap, Silberman said. They include: extra time, support, strong leadership and intervention.
Children who are academically behind should be given more class time to catch up. Additional support should be available in those schools so that, “it doesn’t matter who walks through that door; it matters what we as adults do when they get there,” said Silberman, who is a former superintendent for Fayette County Public Schools.
The school’s principal has to be a strong leader who develops a strong culture in his school that staff and educators buy into. And there should be a means of helping teachers to understand cultures or other populations they have never worked with so they can be more effective educators.
“I don’t believe we have given teachers the right tools,” he said. “That is our next step, to provide a tool box.”
There are schools that have embraced those four ingredients and have successfully closed the gap. Harrison and Yates elementary schools are examples.
“We are doing it in some places,” he said. “We should be doing it everywhere.”
Charter schools would draw some students out of a particular school and leave the rest of the students to flounder. That’s not fair. But neither is leaving the schools as they are, failing to educate all the kids.
Instead, Silberman proposes leaving students where they are and turning the whole school around.
That turnaround model, which he calls Districts of Innovation II, would entail having an outside group — with a track record of closing the achievement gap — take charge of the school. The school board would select that group and then hand over the reins, letting the management group decide the length of the school day, the principal, and the direction the school would follow. The group would seek waivers for some state regulations so that creative programs could be developed.
That turnaround scenario would be started when the school had failed to meet goals for a certain period of time, he explained. The superintendent could then step in and start the process.
“If we focus on what’s best for students achievement-wise, then we need to do it for all the kids,” Silberman said. “It would work. It has worked.”
The difference between charter schools and the Districts of Innovation II, he said, is that students don’t leave the system, taking money away from a school and leaving the school or system struggling financially.
“The beauty is that it is all done under the current funding system,” he said, adding that the management group could also solicit more money from the community. No money would be taken out of the school system.
“There are alternatives out there that can work in the current environment if the focus is specifically on kids,” he said. “What do you have to lose here?”
There is some interest in the turnaround model on both sides of the aisle in Frankfort, Silberman said. If everything rolls smoothly, and a bill passes, the proposal could be in place by this fall. But politics seldom allows anything to run smoothly.
“Pro-charter people don’t like it and anti-charter people don’t like it, but people who really want to go in and impact what is happening to our kids do like it,” he said.
“If we go in and try some of the Districts of Innovation II, my gut reaction is that it is going to work,” Silberman said.
For Silberman, the answer is not charter schools or the status quo. It is fixing problems we have through proven gap-closing management groups, strong leadership, better training for teachers and enough wiggle room to try new ideas.
For me, the status quo is not an option. I’m going back and forth between charter schools and Silberman’s turnaround model.
“We know one thing,” Silberman said. “We can’t wait any longer.”
Surely we all feel the urgency in those words.

For More Information
The Prichard Committee on Academic Excellence has produced a report called “Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide.” It is available at Prichardcommittee.org.

January 22nd, 2015

Teachers’ union president says charter schools a drain on public schools

Charter schools would be an option for parents seeking the best educational fit for their children, most proponents believe. But those who oppose charters believe the schools will suck money from an already financially strapped public school system.
Last week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association who wants Kentucky to become the 43rd state to welcome charter schools.
This week, I spoke with Jessica Hiler, president of the Fayette County Education Association, the local teachers union, who opposes charter schools.
“Charter schools have not lived up to (the promise of) higher achievement for our kids,” Hiler said.

Susan Hiler

Jessica Hiler

Instead, because federal, state and local money follows the student, a child enrolling in a charter school would take money from the existing system, she said.
Charters are public schools, but independently managed. So, buses to traditional schools would still have to roll even while carrying fewer students, Hiler said. Buildings would still need maintenance and upkeep even though the pool of money to operate them would shrink.
But isn’t that same scenario true for students going to private schools in Fayette County? Aren’t those students siphoning money from the system? Didn’t they leave because the traditional public school lacked something they wanted or needed?
Black and poor kids tend to do better academically in charter schools. In traditional public schools, the achievement gap for black, Hispanic and poor kids is growing. Clearly those kids are not receiving the same education as others in the system. Are they just supposed to stay with the system, undereducated, in order for a building to have a nice roof?
Public school teachers are doing the best they can with limited resources, Hiler said.
“As public school educators, it is our responsibility” to teach all children, she said. “It is every teacher’s want and hope that we close those achievement gaps sooner rather than later.”
Well, it looks as though later is winning.
“I sure don’t know what the magic wand or magic pill is,” she said.
I don’t either.
Some charters are better than traditional schools and some are worse. The rest are about the same.
Besides, Hiler said, Fayette County public schools have already come up with innovative programs to attract students and parents who are seeking a different education model.
“We already do much of the same things that charter schools want to do,” Hiler said.
Students can apply for a variety of magnet schools and special programs such as the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics) Academy; the Locust Trace AgriScience Center; The Learning Center at Linlee; and the Carter G. Woodson Academy.
Each of those has a special appeal and many have waiting lists, indicating a student or parental desire for something new.
And if parents want more autonomy for their schools, Hiler said, they could join the site-based councils or advisory councils which are set up to decide the schools’ direction.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of councils that still choose to meet when most parents are at work. I don’t think that is a viable alternative to the autonomy of charters and their governing councils which would be designed to follow a specific path.
Another reason charter schools are a bad idea, Hiler said, is that they sometimes hire inexperienced teachers, or teachers with alternative certifications. And the turnover of teachers in charters is worse than the turnover in traditional public schools.
“It’s really hard to get any momentum with that type of turnover,” she said.
But couldn’t all those requirements be put in the legislation that would allow Kentucky to establish charter schools? Couldn’t the mistakes that have occurred in the 42 states that have already created charter schools be avoided in our state with a well-thought-out and worded law?
Another problem, Hiler said, is that charters can kick out difficult students and send them back to the traditional system. Don’t we have a special school for children who have behavior problems? Isn’t that kicking the kids to the curb?
If the traditional public school has failed to close the achievement gap, if poor and minority students are being underserved in the current system, why should we force them to stay?
If they left, say, and went to a charter school that focused on their needs, that taught them in a different style that clicked, wouldn’t we all benefit? Teachers in traditional settings wouldn’t have to blame the child’s circumstances for his or her failure, and the child might find a place where learning is fun again.
We don’t know because the legislation has been supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, causing it to be bogged down in the General Assembly.
“Instead of dividing,” Hiler said, “we need to get on the same page and move toward the same goal.”
Amen.
We all agree the gap needs to be closed, so let’s do it. Not in a few years. Now.
I’m not married to the charter school concept, but if the gap doesn’t shrink soon, then the doors ought to be open to new ideas and new ways of thinking. If that is charter schools, then fine. If there is some other model, then let’s go with that.
What we have, despite the wants and desires of teachers, is not working. Something has to change.
I’ll speak with a third, unbiased party next week.

January 15th, 2015

Mustering the courage to change our world

One World Film Festival is hosting a free showing of the film Red Tails at the Kentucky Theatre in honor of Martin Luther King Day.
The film is about the courage and perseverance displayed by the Tuskegee Airmen before, during and after World War II. Though many in authority doubted their abilities, black pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and other support staff served with distinction despite racial discrimination in the service and at home.
We don’t often see courage like that on display any more. We turn our backs on doctors and nurses who choose to serve Ebola patients in Africa, wondering why they would risk so much for people so far away.
We demonize protesters for their public stance against police brutality.
Even now, some of us in journalism talk boldly about the weekly Charlie Hebdo’s right to poke fun at the Prophet Mohammed and satirize Islam, but have refused to republish cartoons that angered extremists in the past.
It takes courage to effect change.
Susan L. Taylor, the former editor of Essence magazine, and the founder of the National CARES Mentoring Movement, said finding that courage should be our focus on MLK day. Rather than coming together to listen to King’s speeches during the celebrations of his life, Taylor said we should be taking inventory of our own lives.

Susan L. Taylor

Susan L. Taylor

“What I’m doing is looking in the mirror and I’m asking each of us to do the same thing,” she said. “We should muster the courage for all of us to become activists.”
That’s what the Tuskegee Airmen did. But how do we get that type of courage?
Taylor, who is the keynote speaker for Lexington’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Freedom March and Celebration at Heritage Hall, said first we should change our thinking.
“The mind is the destroyer of courage and joy,” she said. We all are innately talented and each of us has what we need to not only make ourselves whole, but also to reach out and become a healing source for our communities. But we have to address our primary responsibilities first.
With mental and physical wellness, with “ensuring our thoughts are right,” we can overcome any fear of taking charge of our lives and our communities, Taylor said.
“The Holy Spirit is calling us, people of all races, to do a mighty work,” Taylor said.
That work would be to “ensure there (is) equity and healing, balance, and fairness in this world. We need to have respect for people of all faiths. We’ve got to be looking in the mirror to see what we can do to ensure peace in the world.”
A good starting point would be with our young people. When children in poverty look around at the opulence that exists just beyond their communities, and hear in the media that “you have to have these things to be happy,” Taylor said, then they become sad and angry.
To break the back of intergenerational poverty, Taylor said, NCMM recruits mentors and deploys them to teach young people about their history, about forgiving those who have angered them, and about a life beyond where they live.
NCMM has launched a pilot program, “A New Way Forward,” in four cities that features intensive workshops and a curriculum that promotes mental and physical healing in black communities. Once the initiative is evidence-based, the program will be replicated in various regions in a “plug and play model,” she said.
“This is my highest calling,” Taylor said. “This is what I’m supposed to do.”
It is not reasonable in the wealthiest country in the world, she said, that students and teachers in some poorer neighborhood schools aren’t as well-equipped as those in richer districts, or that their facilities aren’t as functional.
To fix that, as King would have us do, it will take community. We all have to work together to make things better. And that takes courage. The Tuskegee Airmen knew that. The young people who protest police shooting of unarmed black men know that. King knew that.
It’s time for the person in the mirror to understand that and act on it.

If you go: 
One World Films: Free screening of Red Tails.
When: 2:30 p.m. Jan. 19.
Where: Kentucky Theatre, 214 E. Main St., Lexington.

The Freedom March at Lexington Convention Center: 10 a.m.

MLK Commemorative Program in Heritage Hall: 11 a.m.

January 15th, 2015

Obama’s community college proposal could help Kentucky

I couldn’t believe the ­proposal from President ­Barack Obama last week didn’t get more traction.
Obama said he wanted to offer two years of community college free to adults who want to improve their chances of getting a ­better job and earning higher wages.
Who among us who have paid mightily for those first two years of college wouldn’t applaud that?
I wasn’t focused during my first two years and had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. And yet, those years cost as dearly as the last two, when I was zeroed in on a career.
In fact, after those first two years, I dropped out, worked, became a single mother and then returned several years later with debt I had to clear before I could enroll again.
Obviously, my venture shouldn’t be used as a glowing example of adult students who want to get ahead. I didn’t consider myself an adult at 18 and definitely wasn’t interested in getting ahead of anything.
But real adults, people who realize they need a certificate or associate’s degree to get a better position, could use that leg up. ­Chances are they’ve been in the work force, already struggled to make a paycheck last longer. They would be ready to focus on their futures. The president calls them “responsible adults.”
Why shouldn’t we be eager to help them?
America’s College Promise, as the president’s proposal is called, has two requirements:
1) Students must attend school at least half-time, earn at least a 2.5 GPA and make steady progress toward completion. They then can go to a four-year institution or take their ­associate’s ­degree and find better employment.
2) The community colleges must offer programs that can transfer to a four-year institution, or they must offer programs with proven graduation rates in areas in which employers are looking for employees.
Kentucky Community and Technical College System President-elect Jay Box hasn’t seen all the details of the proposal but, at first glance, America’s College Promise looks like a winner for Kentuckians, he said.
“What we understand is that it is based on the Tennessee Promise model,” Box said, adding that KCTCS officials have been studying that model for a few months.
Obama’s proposal goes a little further and shows “quite a bit of promise,” said Box, who will take over the reins of the system, which comprises 16 community colleges, after founding president and chief ­executive officer Michael McCall retires Thursday.
The Tennessee Promise covers any tuition or fees that aren’t covered by other grants, scholarships or funds for high school graduating seniors starting this year. Students will be given mentors to help them navigate the admission process, and they will be required to maintain a 2.0 GPA and perform eight hours of community service each semester.
That program is funded by the state lottery, giving about $1,000 to each student annually.
“Obama’s promise is much broader,” Box said. “It is for working adults who need the opportunity to come back and get an education.”
About 90 percent of Kentucky students in community college qualify for some ­financial aid, he said. But that help isn’t always 100 percent of the money needed.
“Many of them have to take out loans,” he said. “We’d like to see that go in the other direction. It would certainly fix that loan issue or deter it a little bit.”
Students who thought higher education was out of their reach would benefit from Obama’s proposal. Box likes the accountability part, putting responsibility on ­students to perform. “It’s not just free money,” he said.
It will also come with a high price tag for the federal government, to the tune of $6 billion annually. And some are complaining that textbooks are not included in the promise, which could be a deal breaker for some low-income adults with families.
The White House estimates 9 million ­students could be eligible. The promise would save each student about $3,800. The cost details will be included in Obama’s 2016 budget.
Some already are predicting the proposal’s demise in a Republican-led Congress because of the price tag.
Obama will offer more information during his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, so we’ll have to wait and see. But if more adults get access to better-paying jobs, that definitely would help Kentucky.

January 15th, 2015

Charter schools: inside the debate

After successfully avoiding the debate on charter schools for many years, I’ve decided it is time to find out what all the fuss is about.
I plan to talk with proponents and opponents of charter schools as well as an unbiased third party. My goal is to gather enough information to form an opinion. I’ll share it with you in upcoming columns.
This week I spoke with Wayne D. Lewis, board chairman of the Kentucky Charter Schools Association, author, and former school teacher who is now an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky.
I know Lewis and his wife, but neither of them has allowed me near their newborn daughter, so I don’t know how much of a friend I am.

Dr. Wayne Lewis

Dr. Wayne Lewis

I chose to speak with Lewis, a proponent, first, because the legislature is once again looking at the possibilities of allowing some form of charter schools to be set up in Kentucky. We are only one of eight states that haven’t gone down that road. Charters would be a change from the status quo that we are familiar with.
With the help of Lewis and “Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide,” published by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in November, let me try to define charter schools.
A charter school is a public school, funded by taxpayers, and independently operated by a group of teachers, parents, non-profit organizations, or businesses that is contractually obligated to meet student achievement goals. The difference between them and what we have now is that charter schools are allowed more freedom to be innovative. Charter schools have control of their staffing, curriculum and budgets. The amount of freedom varies from state to state.
No tuition is charged and there are no special entrance requirements. The only restriction might be a waiting list or admissions lottery if the school proves successful, Lewis said.
OK. That is what charter schools are. Why do we need them?
“I believe that parents in Kentucky want additional public school options,” Lewis said. “I have never talked with a parent yet who told me, ‘I don’t want additional options for my kids.’ Who would say that?”
A charter school could fill the need for a curriculum option that fits a child’s special learning needs or aspirations, Lewis explained. Some charters specialize in technology, some in the arts, some in teaching at-risk children. Some have extended hours, and some develop special themes.
A charter school is not necessarily a successful learning institution. The 2013 National Charter School Study from the Center for Research on Educational Outcomes indicates charters tend to benefit economically disadvantaged students more than those not living in poverty. Special education students improved in math, but not in reading; and white students overall showed a significant loss of performance.
Seemingly, that indicates charter schools could close the achievement gap for poor and minorities students.
“There is no magic,” Lewis said. “If anyone says there is, they are full of themselves.”
But the assumption is with greater autonomy and governance structure, students in some schools could show improvement. And with the added freedom to be flexible, the schools should have no excuse to fail students.
If a charter school does not hold up its end of the bargain, does not show improved academic achievement after a set period of time, it should be closed, Lewis said.
That should be mandatory.
“A traditional public school can fail until the cows come home and no one will shut it down,” he said.
Charter school parents could remove their child at will because it is the parent who chooses the school and not vice versa. Accordingly, high standards should be in place for those seeking to open a charter school, he said. Many should be denied. And there has to be adequate monitoring to ensure quality.
That sounds like a win-win.
So why is there such great opposition to charter schools?
Lewis said it comes down to politics and money. In Kentucky, Democrats, who are the majority party in the state House of Representatives, oppose the charter school concept. Republicans, who are the majority in the state Senate, support it. Legislation allowing charter schools has been approved in the Senate, but blocked in the House education committee.
Some think charter schools would siphon money from the existing school systems. But, Lewis said, state, federal and local dollars that are designated per child should follow the child, just as they would if the child were to move to a new district in a new county. Each school system would have to adjust.
I will explore the opposition to charter schools more thoroughly Sunday.
But for now, let me say I think the whole point of schools should be to educate our children. Some of our schools are failing that benchmark and some of our children are paying dearly. We cannot continue to tolerate failing schools.
And, if we are saying more flexibility and freedom from the restrictive rules of school boards would allow all teachers to blossom into exceptional educators, why can’t we simply change the governance of all traditional public schools to bring that about now?
I have no school-age children, thank the Lord. When I did, they attended both public and private schools. A lot of people don’t have that freedom. If charter schools, as Lewis thinks, will bring more choice, more options for parents, I can go along with that.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
To learn more about charter schools, visit the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence website and read “Exploring Charter Schools in Kentucky: An Informational Guide,” which was published in November.
Also, information is available at the Kentucky Charter Schools Association website, Publicchartersky.com.

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