“Training Ground”

I watched this video/TED talk a while back and came across it in a friend’s Facebook newsfeed today.  This is a powerful commentary from a Chicago student’s perspective on how high school  is a “training ground” for society.

From TED:

Young poet, educator and activist Malcom London performs his stirring poem about life on the front lines of high school. He tells of the “oceans of adolescence” who come to school “but never learn to swim,” of “masculinity mimicked by men who grew up with no fathers.” Beautiful, lyrical, chilling.

Michelle Obama Tuskegee Commencement Address

I found her speech (starting around 7 minutes in) to be incredibly inspirational to me as a black woman who has served in a variety of leadership positions.  There is a lot of noise when you sit in those roles with that identity/background.  There are a lot of people who make surface interpretations of your leadership based off of their own limited awareness of the world because you are a black woman.  Some folks choose to succumb to and fear those interpretations, while others (such as Michelle Obama) choose to actively disrupt them by silencing the noise and staying true to their inner compass.  I am so grateful to Michelle Obama for speaking her truth and illuminating the truth of many people who don’t have her platform and unapologetically dream for a better tomorrow, first by silencing the “noise”; second by following their own truth.

I think that it is so indicative and clear that when systems struggle to embrace leaders of color who are clear on their purpose/why which is deeply rooted in their community, we should not be surprised when those same systems struggle to embrace children of color and the unique gifts that they have to offer.  There is nothing surprising about that parallel reality.  And we shouldn’t shy away from the truths that this reality illluminates.  Thank you Michelle Obama for your courage in beginning to speak your truth.  We should all be inspired to do the same.

“Are You Still Dreaming?”

The events of the past few weeks (Baltimore) leave me largely speechless and still processing… as I process I am purposefully feeding my spirit/soul/mind with words of wisdom, strength, and hope.

Last night, I re-watched this speech by Susan Asiyanbi (Executive Vice President of the program continuum at Teach For America, where I work).  I had the opportunity to see this speech in person in January at a conference.  Her words moved me to tears then and again last night.

Susan’s words remind me that in the midst of our most challenging moments, we must keep dreaming.

I’m still dreaming….are you?

Early Childhood Educator Views on Children A Powerful Force

Read this.

With 14+ years in education, this is nothing new to me.  There are so many amazing teachers and administrators doing the work…but unfortunately, there are also those who we entrust our children to who do not believe in their worth/potential.  And it’s a big enough trend to be surfaced through formal research.

As a parent of three children of color, with an insider lens into how public schooling works, this research terrifies and energizes me.  I know that as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and director, I always advocated for kids beyond what most would find to be professionally safe.  I also know that approaching the work in this way is hard to do without potentially damaging one’s career in some way (particularly if you are an educator of color).  I am so grateful that this was not the case for me and I am still reflecting on my own protective factors- deep belief in higher purpose, clear vision for what is possible, access to external network/theory of change, ability to politically “read” people quickly and accurately, courage to act…

As a parent and fellow educator, I am so incredibly grateful to those educators who speak up, out, and advocate for children on things that we/parents would not necessarily be privy too (like a teacher inconspicuously picking on our kid, an administrator viewing and talking about our kid through a deficit lens, etc.).  I just want to tell those educators who are passionate, deeply committed, and mission-centered….thank you!

The most critical time for our babies is when they first enter school and begin to form their identities at school.  We need more educators who see the best in our babies and who are courageous enough to challenge the status quo.

New ISBE Chief Named

I hope that everyone is paying attention to this.

From the Tribune:

Rauner, who does not directly hire the state school chief but appoints members to the state board, has been focused on putting in place a “transformational” leader over Illinois’ education system.

What that means remains unclear.

But board Chairman James Meeks said: “Well, I think that his reputation is for fighting for and having a compassion for kids who are underachievers. The biggest mark about Tony Smith, and when you talk to him you will discover, that he has a passion for kids who are not quite achieving. He has a compelling story, and when you guys get to hear about his story and get to know him and know where he’s come from, you’ll love him.” 

Interesting.  Will watch how this unfolds.

I’ve Been Neglecting This Blog…

So…so much has happened since I last posted!

I got married (amazing; about time…lol), registered my brilliant almost-kindergartener for kindergarten (excited/interested to see how schools of choice plays out), treated my family (including parents and sister and nephews) on a vacation to Puerto Rico, and have been absolutely buried in work.

In spite of all of this, I have been closely following how things have unfolded in Champaign with the newly elected school board.  I am interested to see how things play out moving forward, and am looking forward to being a critical friend to the district and community.  I do have a story to share.  Early morning, the day following the election, I was flying out of Willard airport for business in New Orleans (by way of Dallas) and as I checked in, I heard a loud, white male, bragging about the defeat of all of the “incumbents” on the school board.  I turned around to look at him and did not recognize his face, but could not help noticing how he appeared to be wealthy, old, and out of touch.  It was jarring and sobering…   While there was a part of me that wanted my community to get a wake up call (stop co-signing on folks who are really about their own political status and don’t give a damn about your kids; stop thinking that playing the role of “safe black” will save you, politically or otherwise; be strategic about your endorsements and leadership priorities– ie. the endorsements of the NEBC essentially split the black vote and relegated black candidates to political doom)….I am hopeful that equity is not pushed to the side to satisfy the privileged segment of the community who set the tone, and from my perspective, set the political path to ensure election for the newly elected Board members.  I am hopeful that Board members will use their critical thinking skills in their new positions and find the strength to push past peer pressure to make the best decisions for the most vulnerable children being served by our school district.  I am hopeful that those who didn’t get re-elected, but who championed equity as a cause, take time to re-organize and press forward.  In fact, something that I’ve been throwing around in my head is the idea of pulling together a community equity group focused on examining district outcomes and engaging in political activism to push real equity forward.  Email me (cheryl.camacho@courage3.com) if you are interested in being a part of this movement.  I’d like to hold the first meeting for this group by 6/1/15.

One thing that dramatically stood out to me, as I reflect on the election outcomes, was the lack of real strategy.  Moving forward, I envision a powerful group of people with diverse experiences/ideas who work together to put the real issues back on the table:  achievement/opportunity gaps, discipline disproportionality, and the desperate need for courageous leadership (from administrators and teachers) in our schools and district.  People who question and hold accountable those who claim to be leaders of our community….This painful but hard look at leadership is 100% necessary in our community.

In honor of getting this blog back together; I want to share a post that speaks to the anti-testing movement that has erupted in the past few months.  I know from my attendance at several BOE forums pre-election that several BOE members who got elected were anti-standardized testing.  I provide here a counter-narrative from Tenicka Boyd, an African-American parent in NYC who is warily eyeing this movement.  I’m right there with her.

The Belief Gap

I came across this post entitled “The Belief Gap:  Stop Blaming the P’s” this morning and it resonated with me so deeply given my own experiences as a student of color, a parent, a teacher, and leader.  The belief gap is real.

Pedagogy.  Preschool.  Professionals.  These things should be our equity focus as educators..

The author Chris Stewart writes of successful traditional school systems and charters:  “It isn’t magic or miracles pushing them above other schools. It’s more boring than that. In these schools, “reforms” focus intently on instructional leadership, relationships with students and their families, using data to improve instruction, and fostering a culture of achievement.”

In Unit 4, I see a big need for a focus on each of these things.

Instructional leadership:  All principals and instructional leaders should be able to demonstrate that they were successful teachers.  How can you lead a team of teachers to successful outcomes when you can’t speak to those outcomes in your own professional past?  A high premium should be placed on hiring principals and leaders who have had demonstrated success with African-Americans, English Language Learners, children with learning disabilities/special needs, and children living in poverty, given that these are the groups who have pronounced achievement gaps in our district.  Principals and leaders who have deep instructional expertise and knowledge should be actively recruited and developed.

Relationships with students and their families:  This is a huge area for growth.  As things currently stand, there are surface-level attempts to “involve”.  There needs to be a bigger focus on engaging and empowering.  Parents need to be engaged to have a stronger voice in important decisions that impact the lives of their children.  When parents complain, bring a concern, or advocate on behalf of their children, it shouldn’t be viewed as them trying to manipulate the system or get over.  Ninety-nine percent of parents deeply care about and love their children.  The thing that makes a teacher/leader great is an ability balance high expectations and rigor with a high level of relationship.  Master teachers and leaders view the children in their charge as people, with feelings, fears, hopes, and dreams…not as obstacles to success, or things to control/manipulate.  The beliefs that teachers and leaders hold are powerful and directly influence their ability to build strong relationships with students and families.

Using data to improve instruction:  The key here is using data to do something with it, instead of collecting data, or analyzing data and continuing to do things in the same way.  This should be happening at a systems level, a school level, and a classroom level.  Professional development is needed so that people can build and develop skill.  Time is also needed.  I used to be so frustrated as a building principal because contractually (per the agreement between the district and teacher’s union), I could only formally meet with grade level teams for 80 minutes/month (40 minutes/every two weeks), which after teachers dropped kids off for specials (art, music, PE, etc.), really was more like 30 minutes every two weeks.  Many teachers agreed to meet outside of this time- but it was uneven.  Faculty meetings could only take place twice/month.  I used to run faculty meetings from 3:30-5:00pm, on the first and third Mondays, but a few teachers complained about the length, and I was encouraged to reduce faculty meetings to no more than one hour on the first and third Mondays… Given the time constraints, it was really hard to provide the time for us to analyze and come up with plans using the data.  It (time to use data to improve instruction) was a critical lever for school improvement and as a building principal, I felt like my hands were tied.  These agreed-upon constraints/barriers are unacceptable.

Fostering a culture of achievement:  A culture of achievement is a culture that expects all learners to achieve and all adults working in the building/district to keep this expectation central to their work.  I don’t believe that there is a strong culture of achievement in the district.  Foundational to the weak culture of achievement are the beliefs held by adults.  I have engaged in discussion with many staff/leaders (school and district) who express deficit views to explain away the achievement gap.  Let me be clear, there are some good people who lead classrooms, schools, and the district; this is not about personal attacks- you can be a nice person with a good heart and still hold deficit beliefs…you may not even be aware that you do.  This is about the power of those beliefs and how they influence practice and impact children and families.  One big solution that would have high impact to strengthen the culture of achievement would be to increase the rigor of the hiring process (for school/district leadership and teachers)…once strong instructional leaders are in place, decentralizing professional development to allow schools to deeply focus/engage on key improvement strategies relevant to their schools.  Right now the district has a centralized professional development structure (I will speak to the elementary level, because that is what I have direct experience with).  This means that central office has contracted with experts to provide professional development to all teachers on the same things (right now, guided reading and close reading).  While I am passionate about literacy and the need for educators (teachers and school leaders) to improve their knowledge and skill around this, there are some foundational things that need to come before skill and knowledge building (like belief work).  The centralized professional development means that principals and teachers are told when they’ll receive training and then on that set of days, they leave the building to receive training, away from their classrooms. Substitute shortages (another district system) really interrupt the flow of the school day/week/year because subs don’t always show up (this is particularly common in buildings on the north side, which serve a higher percentage of kids living in poverty/minority children…another indicator of adult beliefs about certain children).  With all of the external professional development that takes teachers out of classrooms and then results in subs not showing up to take classes, what results is internal substitution (where a teacher who has remained in the building takes over the class or adds students from the class with no teacher to their class.  This is incredibly expensive; would love to see a report on the costs related to that- used to be 32.50/hour for a teacher to cover a class in addition to their base pay/salary)- another union/district agreement.  It also results in over-sized classes, which absolutely impacts the culture of achievement for the day/week/year.  Job-embedded professional development is the best model; where teachers and leaders learn and build skill in their classrooms/buildings with the support of whoever is leading the professional development.  Job-embedded professional development supports a strong culture of achievement.  The current model does not.

Beliefs are powerful. They influence what we see and don’t see.  What we find problematic or not.  What we do and don’t do.  They impact whose perspective/experience we choose to pay attention to.  They impact everything.  I would love to see a stronger focus on belief work in our district.

Stop Awfulizing Kids


Interesting post.  The one point that I take issue with: “I don’t want to think about their backgrounds too much…There are twenty-three pearls in my classroom. I don’t want to scratch them.” I agree; don’t pre-judge your children or limit their potential…but as a teacher, I obsessively thought about my kids and their backgrounds, because it deepened my knowledge of them and the strengths that they brought with them to school. Deeply knowing a child’s background does not equate to lowering expectations.

I have been asked about my proposed solutions.  Here they are:

1) leadership (school and district) that really believes that all kids can be successful

2) improved and intentional hiring practices that get the right people in front of kids (teachers and school leaders)

3) professional development and professional expectations that set a high bar but provide support for people to learn/get there

4) school boards that emphasize equity and don’t cave to political pressure of people who have no real vested interest in equity in public schooling, who send their own kids to private school ……………… I could literally speak on this for hours.

Notice, none of my solutions focus on “fixing” kids and/or families.

PARCC….My Thoughts

Jumbled post tonight…lots of thoughts on this topic.

So…I stopped by my son’s school today during lunch.  During my time talking with my little guy, I asked him how PARCC testing was going.  He said “fine”.  I asked him how he likes the test (fully expecting eye rolling, groaning, dramatics)… he said “it’s cool, I like it. It’s on the computer”.  I was surprised.  But I was also happy to hear that PARCC testing is not the demoralizing, horrible experience that I have read about in a variety of articles and blog posts.  Exhale.

I have to admit, given the many aspects of my own identity (racial minority, mother, former teacher, former administrator, etc.), standardized tests have a funny place in my own heart… On one hand, standardized tests give us important data about how children are doing, particularly when disaggregated by race/income.  They push us to see “ability” in kids who we never considered, beyond using our biased and privileged beliefs and mindsets (and subsequent perceptions).  They also push us to see trends among groups.  To see who is faring well and not, in our current way of operating.  On the other hand, they don’t and can never give us the full story about any child (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value), or even the full story about any school or district (hopes, dreams, aspirations, challenges, value).  They should direct our attention to more fully and deeply understand the story, which should inform our response (if the story should be challenged or affirmed).

When I was in 5th grade, I was given a standardized gifted test to see if I qualified for gifted services.  The results stated that I was not gifted.  As a result, I did not receive access to gifted enrichment services.  I also remember taking the Illinois Prairie State exam in elementary (I think that is what it was called) and testing off the charts in language/reading/vocabulary, but dismally under-performing in math.  Those test results made me feel really smart, albeit not in math…  Those test results spoke value to me, particularly when I saw my grade level equivalents (high school for some).  They also spoke of my value to my parents and teachers.  When I immigrated from Canada in 4th grade, I was placed in the lowest reading group; this was in spite of my native English language ability (English in an official language in Canada,..lol).  It was also in spite of my ability/strength as an avid/fluent reader.  I read voraciously at home; I literally kept a flashlight on the side of my bed, so that I could get lost in books at night after everyone had fallen asleep.  My teacher didn’t know any of this about me (“home life” can be conceptualized in one-dimensional ways).  She knew what I looked like, where I came from, and assigned me the lowest reading group.  It is 100% true that kids know who is in the “high” “middle” and “low” groups in any given classroom; I remember the shame and insecurity that came with being in the lowest group.  However, after my high language/reading/vocabulary scores, I was moved into the high reading group, and stayed there.  I was grateful for that.  Tests can never fully define anyone… that to me is obvious.  As I shared earlier in the post, I was not “gifted” but if you were to talk to my high school honors English teachers, they shared different and essential feedback with me. If you were to talk to some of my college professors, or the literary journal that published my work, or my mother :-), those standardized test results did not speak to my value or to a full definition of who I was.

I am acutely aware that much of my success (particularly as a female racial minority) has come from my ability to navigate systems that have been defined by white dominant culture.  One of those systems is standardized testing.  The opt-out movement will not help my children (who are racial minorities) gain access to social capital/power, which they will need to navigate society in a way that doesn’t leave them completely powerless.  I am not ascribing to assimilation here as I want them to be able to navigate society with their sense of self and community in tact.  Even if I fundamentally disagree with PARCC (design, process, purpose), my children need to know how to navigate that aspect of the system, as they need to know how to navigate many other things (as I have navigated) to have access to a fuller range of life choices/opportunities.  It is hard enough for racial minorities to gain access to college; there are so many hoops to jump through.  If I opt my children out of standardized testing, how am I really preparing them to effectively navigate these and other hoops?

When I stepped into the principal position at Garden Hills, one of the many labels that was ascribed to the school was the honor of having some of the lowest test scores in the district at the elementary level.  We also served the highest percentage of children living in poverty, the highest number of children identified as homeless, and one of the largest populations of children living in the foster system.  I was excited by this context.  To me, if you couldn’t be successful in this context, then  you could never claim to be a master teacher or an effective leader in the public school system.  I didn’t care about the stigma or professional risk involved in taking over a building that many were afraid to attach themselves to professionally.  Once starting, I quickly surrounded myself with a powerful administrative and instructional leadership team, rolled up my sleeves, and got to work.  My first year at Garden Hills was one of my most challenging yet triumphant professional experiences (in so many ways).  I could literally see the school begin to transform.  I could see the adults transforming, in such beautiful, courageous, and powerful ways.  No standardized test score could capture the courage, resilience, and growth that was developing in my building.  Knowing this, I tried my best to educate perspective parents and community members about standardized tests and the dangers in choosing a school for their child/creating a story for the school solely based off of test scores.

I see a movement towards anti-testing on a national, state, and local level, which concerns me, because I believe that it is a movement steeped in privilege.  I see a lot of privileged blind spots in that movement.  For one, it is difficult to identify achievement gaps (opportunity and access gaps) without this kind of testing accountability in place.  Continuing to disaggregate the data by race and income-level is absolutely needed.  I am 100% confident in saying that, given my experiences in education (now for over a decade), that I generally don’t trust the people who are leading schools, systems, and classrooms to acknowledge these gaps and to do something about them without this accountability measure, no matter how poorly designed the measure may be.  We need an accountability measure.  I also want to share that when groups of children do poorly, that if we interpret that as innate inferiority (biological or cultural), that this interpretation is a lazy and convenient one.  Gaps should inform where we focus energy to develop true understanding of root cause before designing strategy for improvement.  The ways that we respond actually skirt root causes and contribute to the continued widening of the achievement gap.  A close examination of the most recent data for all Champaign Unit 4 schools (I’ll focus on elementary) along racial lines points to a persistent and dramatic achievement gap with black children (45 percentage points in reading/ 47 percentage points in math), English language learners (41 percentage points in reading/20 percentage points in math), and low-income children (45 percentage points in reading/ 41 percentage points in math) solidly at the bottom.  The data has shown perpetual, continued increases/widening since the 2008-2009 school year.  The conclusion that some have come to (whether they’ve voiced it or not) is that these children and their families are inferior (biologically, socially, culturally, etc.) and that the results are simply evidence of that.  The conclusion that I’ve come to given my own experience working in high-poverty schools across state lines is that schools and districts haven’t really made the commitment to adjust the way they serve children to meet their needs.  An inconvenient truth is that schools and districts operate in this way directly because of the operating principles, values, and norms of larger mainstream society.  The truth is that surface level-interventions (my God there are so many in this community, state, and nation) and status-quo policies and practices (ie. self-contained gifted programming/suspension/expulsion) produce no results (or limited results) along equity lines.  Yet we continue to pursue them for fear of disrupting the status quo that keeps inequities solidly in place.  We have been doing this for so long that we now have generations who have come to expect that schooling be perpetuated in this way, because it is what we have known.  We have leadership (classroom, school, district, society in general) that is not courageous/empowered enough to challenge those norms in the best interest of the groups that need it most.

My hope for my son who is taking the PARCC test this week…. I hope that he understands that he can do it.  That he must do his best.  That even if he does his best, that the test won’t being to speak to his value.  It won’t begin to speak to his potential.  It won’t begin to speak to his dreams.  It will speak to a snapshot of his knowledge and his ability to navigate this hurdle (one of many hurdles that he will face as a man of color), at this moment in time.  I want him to know that I expect him to do it. That he must. That he represents himself, our family, and our community in what he demonstrates (whether that is fair or not, which is another life lesson that I want him to internalize…life isn’t fair…you must pursue life in the best way you can in spite of the cards that you’ve been dealt, and the things that suck about it).  I want him to know that he has ancestors who triumphed in much greater ways.  Who persevered in the face of more explicit struggles.  That he is not alone in our experience, and that he must continue to pursue life, with a passion and purpose that he has defined for himself (ideally in collaboration with God).   I want him to know that I love him and that I will be in his corner.  Always.   ‪#‎ungiftedbutsuccessfulmom‬ ‪#‎mykidwilltakethetests‬‪ #‎mykidwillalsoknowthetestsplaceinhislife‬ ‪#‎notopposedtoPARCC‬