Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Guest Blogger: Ferguson is About All of Us

by Tracey Dann

Please note: Tracey's post below marks the last in a series of guest bloggers that have accepted our invitation to reflect on the occurrences in Ferguson.  BVP Musings will continue to post guest bloggers with reflections around diversity throughout the year as we continue to keep the conversation moving forward.

The thing about Ferguson is this: it is not about Ferguson.    Ferguson is not about some tragic turn of events happening in some other state to some other people.   It is about all of us.  By divorcing ourselves, or even distancing ourselves from the drama as it plays out in Ferguson, Missouri, we fail our own communities.

The circumstances surrounding Ferguson are not unique. 

Before we expend all our energy on rage and blame, we need to own the fact that the same emotional tinderbox exploding in Ferguson sits within Rhode Island.  How do we make certain that the next Michael Brown is not our child, or our student, or our child’s classmate?

There is no religion or philosophy that cures violence.  There is no political plan that can eliminate crimes of hate.  There is no magic bullet.

But there is the slow, layered process of learning to value one another.

Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy is a community focused on college and beyond.  We believe our students and our children can do anything.  Yet to believe someone has an unlimited future, you must first value their present. 

Every morning a teacher shakes my child’s hand, looks her in the eye and asks “Good Morning.  How is your day?”  With each handshake, my child has a greater understanding of her own value.  186 layers of value added to her confidence every single year. 

The teachers value my children.  I value my child.  Valuing a child is easy.  They are cute.  It is harder to value our fellow adults.

As parents we can attend bullying seminars.  We can talk about diversity.  We can educate ourselves all day long.  But first we need to reach out our hands, look someone in the eye and say “Good Morning.  How is your day?”   We need to support one another in the struggle to raise our children.   We need to laugh together because parents make the same mistakes in English and Spanish.  Then, layer by patient layer, we learn to value one another for who we are.

If we are to divorce ourselves from anything, we should divorce ourselves from contingencies.  I will value you if... you turn right leaving the ES1 parking lot.  I will value you if… you attend an FLC meeting.  I will value you if… we are meeting face to face, but not on Facebook.  The value, we work so hard to earn is fragile. To keep it whole, we need to respect one another without strings and regardless of circumstance. 

I enrolled my children at Blackstone Valley Prep because I value a great education.  As a BVP parent, I’ve learned we cannot only value great education.  We have to value one another.

If the individuals involved in Ferguson, Missouri saw the value in each other’s lives their story would have ended differently.  Their story is our story and thankfully, we have time to rewrite our ending.  

Tracey Dann is the mother of three Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy Scholars.  Her twins are in the fourth grade at ES1 and their older brother starts at MS1 this year.  She spends her days as a student, a secretary, a short order chef and chauffer.  Tracey dreams of a better, smarter world for her three children and just a little bit of free time for herself.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Another Reflection on Ferguson from Team BVP

By Nick Mosher

The events in Ferguson, Missouri didn’t really hit home for me at first. It seemed so far away. But the protests and quick response from the media following the fatal shooting woke me up. From there, I became concerned and tried to compile the facts of the story, but even that has been difficult to do in the flurry of media  and with the police department keeping the investigation close to the vest. Until more of those facts are out, I cannot truly say how I feel about the shooting of Mike Brown except that it was too soon for him to leave our planet. No matter what the outcome, I am a firm believer in the goodness of people and that no one should be forced to leave in such a brutal way.

But this event has really exposed a bigger issue to the country, one I was not really thinking about--inequality. I admit, I thought we had come a lot farther in eliminating inequality in our country.  But the events in Ferguson have really shown me that we have a lot more to do. It’s not an easy task, but as I tell many of my scholars at BVP, a lot of the things in life worth doing are hard.

I think that schools like BVP are taking the right steps to end inequality in our country. Being a school that is intentionally diverse is vital to showing our children that we are all capable of amazing accomplishments. The sooner that each generation realizes that, the sooner we will be able to eliminate inequality.

For me personally, I was not raised in a diverse environment. Everyone looked like me and acted like me, and we all shared a similar background.  As such, I did not have to face inequality every day.  Realizing this now as an adult, however, I have worked to rectify that by trying to befriend people who come from different backgrounds and cultures than my own. But I know that I missed a vital opportunity to learn and share across lines of difference while I was growing up. BVP gives its scholars that opportunity to see the world through varying lenses.

The mission of BVP to put all scholars on a path to success in college and the world beyond means that they are pushing all scholars, no matter their race or background, to be successful. Every successful scholar can be a role model for those coming up and help build up their communities to end the inequality that may be there. As a teacher, I know that this is hard to accomplish, but BVP’s mission drives me every day to put in 100% for my scholars. Every day I put in 100%, my scholars get closer to being that role model, that positive difference maker that I know they can be.

About Nick Mosher:
Mr. Mosher went to school at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI in 2009 to fufill his dream of becoming a teacher. Immediately out of college, Mr. Mosher knew he wanted to work at BVP after learning about how much they did for their scholars. Then he began working at BVP last year at the middle school in the sixth grade. He enjoyed his time working with the sixth grade, but really wanted to return to working with younger students. Mr. Mosher is joining the team and family at Elementary School 2 beginning this school year. He is excited to begin working with the scholars at ES2!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

One BVP Team Member's Struggle to Find the Words

by Jen LoPiccolo

Earlier this week, I found myself racing to find the remote to turn off the news as my children walked into the room.  I was watching coverage of Ferguson and afraid they would start to ask questions that I didn’t know how to answer.  

I’ve been reading a lot of stuff online to try to better understand the various viewpoints of this emotionally charged conversation.  After all, words like racism, inequality, protest, police brutality, and white privilege are not easy words to unpack for ourselves, much less discuss with my children.  But I also can’t keep turning off the tv and somehow magically shielding them from it all either (and I know I really don’t want to).

As part of BVP’s August professional development, Leadership Rhode Island facilitated a StrengthsFinder session for the network leadership team during which I learned that one of my top strengths is empathy. I wasn’t all that surprised by the results that included a list of four more strengths and implications for how best to use these strengths to lead and work with others.  

Yet the shooting of Michael Brown and the protests in Ferguson have left me feeling I’m not nearly empathetic enough.

Thankfully, I also know I don’t have to find the words alone.  The BVP team has shown tremendous courage and camaraderie in the past, and I believe we will do it again.  With our shared commitment to put every scholar on a path to success in college and the world beyond as the backdrop, we will continue to help each other utilize our strengths to process the events in Ferguson these last two weeks. In turn, we will be able to grow stronger as a team as we focus on the work ahead.  

Jen began her career as an English teacher in rural North Carolina.  Prior to her current role as Director of External Affairs at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy, she spent more than 10 years between Louisiana and Texas working in a variety of roles in the non-profit and charter sectors.  Jen is a member of Leadership Rhode Island’s Theta II class, a Teach For America alum, and the proud mom of two BVP scholars.  

Friday, August 22, 2014

On Ferguson

by Jeremy Chiappetta

One of the key pillars of our program at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy is our commitment to socioeconomic and racial diversity.  Research bears out that an integrated school model can be a huge lever for improving achievement.  Fully leveraging our diversity, however, can be very difficult.

Over the past couple of weeks, I have watched from afar the events happening in and around Ferguson, Missouri.  I have been profoundly moved by the images, sounds, and words that have come across my television and computer screens.  I am deeply saddened that so many people in this country go through life treated so differently.  I am somehow ashamed that I and my own children will never have to experience the subtle and blatant evil that is racism.  I am thankful that my Uncle Paul left the police force several years ago without killing or being killed.  I am embarrassed to realize that I have family who care far more about the shooting of a deer out of season than the shooting death of Michael Brown - an 18 year old black man.  I desperately hope that we can come together and build a better society, because if we fail to do so I am afraid that a similar tragedy will someday occur for one of my scholars.

With these thoughts in mind, earlier this week I reached out to our BVP Team & Family asking people to consider sharing their views on this topic in live discussions and here on our blog.  

The first of several blog entries was posted last night.  Already, many in our community have responded to me and other leaders at BVP directly with appreciation.  Several have approached me to thank me for creating a space to learn more and reflect upon this difficult topic. 

Others have offered fair and thoughtful critiques.  Several have pointed out that Jonathon’s choice of the word “murder” may be inappropriate as it has yet to be proven.  While we know for certain that a young black man is dead from tragic circumstances, and we know that there there are many similar tragic events that have happened in recent years, whether this event meets a legal definition remains to be seen.

Other comments and messages remind me of the perils of social media and the huge range of views that encompass humanity.  Indeed, a colleague who shared the blog on Facebook received a message which attacked the post and threatened her.

Clearly, this is not an easy topic, but we at BVP are having open discussions about how issues of race and class impact our work.  Please stay tuned for more blog entries offering a diversity of views over the coming days.  As always, if you have feedback, I invite you to reach out to me or comment on our blog...and stay tuned for upcoming discussions on this and related topics in the coming year.

About Jeremy Chiappetta:

Jeremy has taught in Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City, worked in the Providence Public School Department, and in 2009 joined the founding team here at Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy.  He is married to fellow Teach For America alum and educator, Christie, and together they are the proud parents of three amazing yet terrifying children.

Note: For those social media savants, BVP has and will continue to “hide” comments on our public Facebook page.  (We even hid comments from Ms. Emet’s mom congratulating her on winning the Milken award!).  We will also continue to approve comments on our blog, largely to ensure ad hominem attacks and threats are not posted.  

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Reflections on Ferguson, BVP, and Our Path to the Mountaintop

I would like to start this post by commenting on how optimistic I am regarding America’s future. There is no doubt in my mind that it is an honor and a privilege to be an American. If I had to choose a country to live in from behind a “veil of ignorance” not knowing who/what/how I’d be born, the United States of America would be my number one draft pick. Today, we are appreciably different from the hotbed of racial, gender, and sexual discrimination that our country was 100, 50, and even 25 years ago. In a relatively short amount of time, we've made a lot of progress but admittedly our work is not done. I mention this because I think it’s important to keep these thoughts in the back of our minds when we discuss America’s vast shortcomings. There is always room for growth and America, like the people it’s comprised of, will never be perfect. Perfection is itself impossible, but the pursuit of it is essential.


I think it’s important that this event has sparked such outrage, but the truth is that murders like this have persisted throughout our country’s history. I sometimes feel disconnected from my humanity because the sad reality is that when tragedies such as this occur I’m usually not surprised. I fear that becoming numb to these events is a dangerous byproduct of their frequency and our lack of meaningful action. In my contemplation of the recent riots and militarization of the local police in Ferguson I can’t help but wonder what we could do differently when responding to events such as these. Killing the police officer from Missouri, the officer from New York, or George Zimmerman won’t bring back Michael Brown, Eric Garner, or Trayvon Martin. In reacting with violence we risk two of the things we should value most: human lives and our humanity. I frequently look to history to ponder what great people who have walked this earth might think of our times, and I realize that their sage advice should guide us:

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” – Dr. King

Anger and frustration are powerful emotions, so what we need to do is channel these into meaningful action beginning with conversations about why this tragedy matters. It is unacceptable to hear people in our country say that race was not an issue in this shooting. It seems to me that these people have never felt persecuted or threatened, but there is a profound danger in this type of lack in empathy and sympathy. For those of us who have a short term memory I implore you to consider the classic holocaust poem by Martin Niemoller:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
It is in our best mutual interests as human beings and Americans to recognize the evidence of our collective prejudices and shortcomings in Ferguson, New York, Sanford, and elsewhere so that we may adjust our policies and behaviors so as to conserve human life and preserve our humanity.

Education and Our Role

I can say wholeheartedly that getting an education has irrevocably changed my life for the better. It has allowed me in many ways to transcend, albeit not necessarily escape, the narrow confines typically placed over people from my socio economic and racial/ethnic station. With an Ivy League college degree I can confidently say that I will never be homeless or low income again. This assurance relies not just on the degree, but also on the experience attained through its pursuit and the introduction to various social networks in the process. Being in college challenged my preconceived notions of other people and vice versa. There were many instances in which I was approached with what some people would consider a compliment: “Whoa, I appreciate what you said in class. I didn't expect you to be so articulate!” To the untrained ear this should’ve been pleasant, but I knew that there was veiled prejudice in those statements. There were also the days when the girls in the lunch line would clutch their backpacks tighter when they saw me approaching (and I don’t even look good in Ferragamo).

These instances aside, I truly feel that the people around me and I grew in our humanity because of the diversity we lived in. For many of us it was the first time around people who didn't look like, talk like, or come from a background like us. I know that if tough times were to come, I could pick up the phone and call various people for emotional or financial support. I also know that my resume will stand out just a little bit more because of the school name bolded in the education section. It was these immeasurable benefits that drive my mission of ensuring that all kids have a chance to go to college. While this inspires and drives me to create the same opportunity for others, I am well aware that under the current education paradigm most kids growing up like me are slated to fail.

Recently, I watched a documentary on Miami about its growing music scene and its position as one of the few viable options for legitimate success in my city. A man in the video offered that kids in our neighborhoods aren't getting the education they require to be successful and so they are forced to rely on alternative paths for economic solvency. As a former teacher for Miami Dade County Public Schools that taught several of the kids featured in the video I must admit that the man is right. At a psychological level I understand that we naturally fear the “unknown.” The schools we serve in Miami are hyper segregated by both race and class, which only serves to exacerbate an existing societal structure akin to life in the “separate but equal” Plessy v. Ferguson (the irony here is unavoidable) days. Frankly it is obnoxious that we have been unable to realize today what we realized in 1954; there is nothing “equal” about living or being treated as “separates.”  

Blackstone Valley Prep is one of few education organizations that actively values, pursues, and attempts to promote intentional diversity. If we want any shot at living in a society where we want people to see and treat each other equally then we first need to make sure we raise a generation of people who are comfortable around each other. At its most basic level, that is what we are doing at BVP. Intentionally educating kids from diverse economic and racial backgrounds is one of the first steps in deconstructing preconceived notions of people. It shows that we can in fact learn, play, grow, and eat together on our paths to success. In this way, I feel that BVP is a microcosm for one of the long term solutions to many of our social issues.

The generation of people who lived through and promulgated inequality is still alive today. The remnants of the past are not gone and have in fact passed down many of their prejudices and hatred to their children and followers. It is our responsibility as educators, parents, citizens and human beings to nurture and raise the generation of kids that continues the path towards Dr. King’s mountain top. He acknowledged, as many of us will inevitably have to, that we may not be there to see America’s dream fulfilled but it is our duty as Americans and human beings to do our best to contribute to it.

About Jonathon Acosta:

Mr. Acosta is the Dean of Culture at the Blackstone Valley Prep Mayoral Academy Middle School. Prior to his role as a Dean, he served as a 2011 Teach for America Corps Member in his hometown of Miami before relocating to Rhode Island to teach 8th grade math at BVP. He is a graduate of Brown University with a degree in Political Theory and Ethnic Studies. His passions and intellectual interests revolve around a fight against racial and class inequality. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Pro-tip of the day: Mindset matters

As I'm re-reading/browsing (or reading for the first time - shhh...don't tell anyone) the summer prep list for new hires to BVP, I came across this video on Carol Dweck's study on praise and mindsets.  I had read about this study before, but the video here powerfully and simply conveys a message that is urgent for all parents, teachers, and anyone working with young people.

Please take five minutes and watch this video on the power of mindset:

As a parent, I know that I too often break this rule - I tell my children that they are smart and beautiful (they are!!).  And while seemingly counter-intuitive, telling them how smart they are is actually a terrible thing to do.  Instead, as Dweck suggests, PRAISE EFFORT!