Something profound took place on Tuesday, November 6th, 2012. It was a true act of civic duty, an authentic exercise in democracy.

It was something that can change history and affect lives. It costs nothing. In fact, all a person has to do is show up.

It was on this day that a friend and I toured our City’s public High School.

Yes, there was also a Presidential election on that day, but a public school tour is no less important, no less dramatic. In fact, a sixty-minute walk-through of your local public High School might have more of an impact on your community than the person or the party who presides from the Oval Office.

To say that public schools are important would be an understatement of the highest degree. Our country has a unique system of instruction, one that has been called “the greatest American idea”. Unlike many of the world’s industrialized nations, our public schools are open to all children; free of charge and regardless of race, religion, income or learning style. They are microcosms of raw democracy; required by law to enroll all who apply and to provide the learning needs of every student — regardless of the space or complexities that are required to do so.

The reader may wonder how in the world a seemingly mundane school tour could be more dramatic than a Presidential election. The answer to this question can be found in the faces of Mr. Abdella’s History class, where we saw the diverse future of Meridian hanging onto his every word with laser-like focus, responding with intellectual comments and challenges that would rival the world’s greatest thinkers.

Indeed, it was dramatic to look into Mr. Berg’s Art class, where students were thoroughly engaged in the abstract creativity that is required of today’s modern, global economy; an economy that is based on scientific understanding while relying on the essential, complementary component of artistic innovation.

And, yes, it was dramatic to hear what was perhaps the most powerful lesson of the day, as Principal Victor Hubbard looked at us at the end of the tour and said, very thoughtfully, “Our students really do love to see visitors from the community.”

This wasn’t my first tour of a local school, but I left with the same, immeasurable impact that always occurs when I see “the greatest American idea” in action. I always tell people about these tours, and I do so with a profound hope that they, too, will visit one of our city’s schools and become inspired.

Inspiration is a powerful thing. It is larger than one person, even if that person is the President of the United States.

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Big Money In Washington State

Charter schools are currently not allowed in Washington State. However, that may change this November when its residents vote on a ballot measure that, if passed, will open the state up to charter schools.

There are people with a lot of money who really, really want charter schools in Washington State. They want ’em bad. So bad that they’re pouring in millions of dollars in an effort to pass the measure.

One of them is the second wealthiest person on the planet. Another is the eighth wealthiest in the United States.

Here is the complete list:

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Got School Choice? Yep.

In 2001, the United States Congress passed a sweeping piece of education legislation known as “No Child Left Behind”. The law established an unprecedented emphasis on the relationship between federal funding and test scores.

There has been much talk over the last decade about the law, most of which has centered around the pros and cons of tying dollars to test results. We often hear catch-words such as “accountability” and “growth”.

However, a new phrase has emerged in the education discussion — “school choice”. Many are claiming that too many of America’s children are “trapped” in “failing schools” when, in fact, according to No Child Left Behind, children who are enrolled in “low-performing” schools are free to leave at any time.

I’ve been familiar with this part of the law for some time, but I recently decided to dig a little deeper, at least from a local perspective. I wanted to know:

1) How many of my city’s schools qualified for NCLB’s “school choice” provision in 2011-2012?


2) Of the students who were eligible, how many took advantage of it?

I contacted MPSD’s central office and discovered the following:

— Two out of the District’s ten schools qualified for school choice in ’11-’12: George W. Carver Middle School and Magnolia Middle School. Each were labeled by the State Department of Education as “Low-performing” or worse for two consecutive years.

— G.W. Carver showed a total enrollment of 370 students. Nine(9) of these students chose to enroll in a different school; about 2% of the school’s total population.

— Magnolia showed a total enrollment of 371. Like Carver, nine(9) Magnolia students chose to enroll in another school; about 2% of the school’s total population.

— In a school district with 6,254 students,  741 were eligible for school choice. However, of that 741, only 18 individuals chose to switch(2%).

— Keep in mind that the school choice provision has been available since 2001.

— I went on to ask the person at central office if space was limited to students wishing to transfer. Her answer was  “No. We would be required to provide choice regardless of the capacity of the receiving school.”

My investigation was complete. I learned a lot from it.

However, nagging questions remain:

If “school choice” is so wonderful, and if it already exists as an option, why aren’t more families taking advantage of it?

Perhaps many of our children’s “low-performing” schools aren’t truly deserving of a “low-performing” label?

Perhaps some schools face bigger challenges outside of the classroom than other schools?

Perhaps these challenges are partially reflected in test scores?







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I am not a film critic. But, after spending some time in recent years visiting with the students and teachers of my City’s public schools, I feel compelled to give my take on a film I saw this week called “Won’t Back Down”.

The movie opens in a stereotypical inner city school named Adams Elementary, which is “failing”. It is grey and lifeless. A teacher is texting instead of teaching. The class is running wild. A dyslexic student named Malia, who is the daughter of the main character, Jamie(Maggie Gylenhall), struggles to read the words on the chalkboard while the teacher ignores her.

Not only is the teacher lazy, she’s downright evil. She even shuts little Malia in a closet at one point in the movie. This teacher is a monster. She makes Stalin look like the Easter bunny.

With this character, we, the peons who live in the non-Hollywood world of public education, are immediately introduced to a glaring lie; a deeply offensive misrepresentation of the school teachers whom we entrust our children with.

The film and I were not getting off to a good start.

Later, we are introduced to another teacher, Mr. Perry. He, on the other hand, is the greatest thing since peanut butter. He plays the ukulele to his students as part of his lesson plans. His classroom is an educational utopia. Each of his students are engaged. They adore him. He is young and handsome.

He is the perfect teacher, stating that he came “straight to Adams from Teach For America”, which is, in fact, a real-life organization that provides a six-week summer training program to non-education majors who, in turn, enter public school classrooms as licensed teachers.

On the other hand, most of the other teachers at Adams Elementary are career educators. They are initially portrayed as washed-up and selfish; caring more about a paycheck than the well-being of their students. Here, the film offers yet another false portrayal.

To be sure, all of us probably had two or three mediocre teachers in school. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize the essential sales pitch of “Won’t Back Down” , which is that the majority of teachers are bad and that it is their fault alone when students struggle, regardless of outside factors. It is a sales pitch that is not based in fact, and one that clearly shows the film’s creators’ lack of long-term experience in having anything to do with public education.

Anyway, Jamie finds out about a parent-trigger law in which parents and teachers can petition to “take over” a school. She builds support from other parents and convinces the majority of Adams’ teachers that the new school will be perfect and wonderful.

The unions fight this effort. They even offer Jamie an under-the-table scholarship for dyslexic Malia to attend the private school across town, which is also portrayed as perfect and wonderful. Indeed, Jamie thinks long and hard about this seductive offer, and something else becomes clear to the viewer; that the film’s creators hold the assumption that suburban, private schools are inherently superior to urban public schools.

Jamie turns down the union’s offer. The film climaxes as she and the other “Parentroopers” arrive at the school board hearing that will determine whether or not Adams can be taken over and converted to some other type of school(the film never specifies exactly what type of school that would be).

At the board meeting, the parents are met with stiff opposition from union protestors, one of whom is holding up a sign that reads “Public School Advocate”. Thus, the film’s creators choose to label “public school advocates” like myself and the millions of other Americans who are willing to fight for our children as the enemy. If standing up to the stereotypes, lies and false premises of “Won’t Back Down” makes me and people like me the enemy, it is a label that I wear with honor.

The film concludes as the school board votes to approve the take-over of Adams Elementary. The parents are happy. The unions are mad.

The teachers who choose to remain undergo a puzzling transformation by buying-in to Jamie’s ridiculous assertion that they are the problem. They decide to try harder because, of course, they weren’t trying very hard before Jamie came along.

What a joke.

To say that I didn’t like the movie would be an understatement. However, I was glad to see that the film touched on the importance of parental and community involvement in our public schools.

Indeed, hopefully, some will see the film and be inspired to get involved, albeit in a constructive fashion that doesn’t pit parent against teacher, as the film would have them. More community-minded volunteers are truly needed in our schools. Our teachers and students will, in fact, be happier knowing that they have the full support of the communities which they serve.

And, yes, a misinformed few will likely go and see the film, believe its false and misguided suggestions, then demand new laws that will allow the creation of more “perfect and wonderful” schools, where every teacher is just like the young Mr. Perry and there are no problems whatsoever and everything is just so fantastic and so incredible that it’s just too good to be true……literally.

In this age of accountability labels, “Won’t Back Down” gets an F.


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Prayers of the People

Every Sunday, we read the “Prayers of the People” aloud in church.

Today’s “Prayers” were specifically written for the fiftieth anniversary of James Meredith’s arrival to the campus of Ole Miss.

They are so powerful, so eloquent, and so timely that I had to share them with you:

In peace, we pray to you, Lord god.

For all people in their daily life and work, remembering this day all those with the ever present burden of racial intolerance, and those who are in bondage to their own fear and prejudice.

For this community, the nation, and the world, remembering this day the tragic legacy of segregation through much of our history, for James Meredith, witness for justice, and the redemptive and healing work of those who have offered themselves as instruments of reconciliation.

For the just and proper use of your creation, remembering this day those who continue to suffer because they are powerless and invisible, and the prophetic witness that gives them hope.

For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble, remembering this day the toll that racial hatred has taken on all of God’s people, and those who have suffered as they have sought to ease the burden of hate.

For the peace and unity of the Church of God, remembering this day the historic racial divisions that have scarred our church, and for those who have dared to dream of the reconciliation of all God’s people.

For Katharine, our Presiding Bishop, Duncan, our Bishop, and for all bishops and ministers, remembering this day the silence of the church in too many times and places, and the witness of Jonathen Daniels, Martyr, and all others whose faith has called them into the struggle for justice and equality.

Collect — For the Human Family

O God,  you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son; look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord.


— The Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi

Footnote: Johnathen Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian, murdered at the age of twenty-six for his work in the American civil rights movement.

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Fifty-two years ago today, James Howard Meredith was escorted onto the campus of Ole Miss by federal marshals. He wanted to be a student there.

Hell-on-earth in the form of tear gas, bulldozers and gunfire would ensue. Two people would die. Many others would be injured. A quaint Mississippi village would soon be the scourge of a nation, an affront to civility and the rule of law.

The next day, however, Meredith would be admitted. And, now, instead of  an embarrassment and because of these events, Ole Miss is viewed by historians as a proving ground of American democracy.

Others would follow Meredith, and not just blacks.

Indeed, any of us who, as students, had the privilege of learning and interacting with large numbers of classmates whose customs and cultures differed from our own are beneficiaries of James Meredith and those who fought for his admission in 1962.

While some would still continue to resist change by refusing to send their children to integrated schools, Mississippi’s public school classrooms of the 70’s and 80’s were largely diverse. There were healthy numbers of both white and black students.

However, fast-forward to 2014 and we have lost much of what Meredith and so many others fought for a half-century ago. While there are still wonderful examples of racially diverse schools in our state, too many have essentially returned to segregation and cultural homogeny.

Today, too many of our children are missing out on the right and privilege of racial diversity in the classroom.

Fifty-two years later, how will we honor James Meredith?

Will it be by words or actions?

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My Response to The Sun-Herald Editorial

The editorial board of the Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi Sun-Herald recently wrote a scathing, unfair critique of Mississippi’s public schools. The piece is repugnant in its simple damnation of our state’s public school students, teachers and parents.

Who has gotten to the S-H editorial board? Why is this group of newspaper professionals bent on convincing us that the sky is falling when it comes to public education?

Here is my response. I submitted it moments ago. We’ll see whether or not it gets published:

To the members of the Sun-Herald editorial board:

I am profoundly disappointed in your recent condemnation of Mississippi’s public schools in the August 26 column, titled “At least there’s method to the madness of public education in Mississippi.”

In it, you call for “legislative hammers” that “need to come down until something gets nailed”. You go on to ask “How much more embarrassing, disgraceful, and disastrous must education become in Mississippi before the situation in our public schools becomes tolerable?”

I feel sure that there are many Mississippians who, like me, disagree with this ignorant, overly exaggerated assessment of the public schools in which our children are educated. Yes — regardless of what the flavor-of-the-month is in accountability systems and no matter what our kids’ bubble sheets look like during one week in May and no matter what Jeb Bush or anyone else outside of our state says — a lot of us still believe in our local public school districts. And, yes, we get downright livid when people throw stupid, hurtful comments our way.

Indeed, your column was nothing more than a putrid string of insults and dense generalizations, the very opposite of the collaborative dialogue that is increasingly absent in today’s policy discussions, yet is required in order for our democracy to work. The editorial board of the American newspaper is supposed to be a body of high-minded thought and discussion, a catalyst of a forward discourse between all parties; one that encourages partnerships and enlightenment, progress and understanding.

On Sunday, August 26th, however, the Sun-Herald editorial board exhibited no such qualities. The embarrassment and disgrace are all yours.


Michael A. Van Veckhoven

Meridian, MS


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