Thursday, December 27, 2012

Latest Enclave donation supported the Cheatham Place Christmas Party for kids

I have a long-standing practice of donating any Google Ad revenue checks from this blog to worthwhile local non-profits who give so much back to the community. Past causes I've donated to include: Fisk University, Buena Vista Enhanced Option School, Cumberland River Compact, Second Harvest Food Bank, 88.1 WFSK FM, North Nashville Flood Relief Group, Nashville Jazz Workshop, Friends of Nashville Farmers' Market, and the Nashville Neighborhoods Resource Center.

My unpaid earnings with Google Adsense are getting to the level where I expect compensation soon, and I already turned that around and made a donation to a charitable cause down the street from where I live. Former Werthan Lofts resident, Kimble Bosworth, contacted a group of us and asked for donations to her chosen cause:

Y'all may know I have been making sure the children of Cheatham Place, across the street from Werthan, have gifts and food for their Christmas Party for the past 7 years. Every year, this act of giving fills me with that the holiday spirit. This year, even though I am no longer living in Werthan, I am just as committed as ever to make their holiday party a special event for these kids ....

In 2006, when Boz and I moved to Werthan Lofts, Germantown was new to us. I did not know anything about the public housing across the street - Cheatham Place. So, when I heard sirens there during our fist week in our new 'hood, I called MDHA to find out what happened.

Turns out, their housing office administration was just across the street. And a nice lady, Peaches Manning, offered to meet me and address my concerns in person.

She took me on a tour of Cheatham, introduced me to the on-site property manager and several members of the community association. She showed me the plaques announcing that Cheatham Place is on the National Historic Registry.

As we walked the grounds, I noticed that their landscaping was nicer than much of ours in the gated community across the road.

She waved at children as she explained there were currently 120 kids in residence. She also explained, "Honey, most of the sirens you hear around here will be ambulances. We don't tolerate misbehaving and we have a waiting list to replace anyone who does."

I learned a lot that day - about poverty, about judgment, about assumptions and prejudices. And I wanted to do something special for my new neighbors. So, when December came around and Peaches called to invite me to the Cheatham Christmas Party; I decided to bring gifts. Called all my Werthan neighbors and asked for donations. Gathered up about $1000 and headed out the day before the party to go shopping ....

I grabbed a cart and borrowed a few boys and girls and parents at Big Lots to help me pick things out. The manager even went to the back of the store and pulled 50 radios from inventory and sold them to me at a discount for the kids.

So there I was, standing in line with two carts full of toys, holding up everyone behind me at the checkout line. A lady behind me asked, "So who are you anyway? Why you got all those toys."

"I'm nobody." I answered.

The manager, who had been helping me and had heard the story of why I was doing this chimed in and told the curious shopper, "She's buying all these toys for some poor kids in her neighborhood who may not get anything this year."

"Well," the lady said, "They you ain't nobody. You're Santa Clause."

That's when I realized what Christmas spirit feels like. And I was hooked. The people who participate every year have learned, as I did, that the gift is really from Cheatham Place to us, not the other way around.

I was moved by Kimble's story, and so I sent $100 over to help her out with the costs of her project. She posted an update for her "Cheatham Place angels" last week on Facebook:

Your donations purchased food for the event which over 200 people attended. There were more than enough presents for all the kids and even some Kroger gift cards for the adults. Santa made an appearance with Mrs. Claus and got to catch up with the kids. They were so cute when he came in the room. They ran and hugged him. Some were afraid and stood at arms length. Others had their parents carry them over to him. But they all had a great time.

One heart-wrenching story came up this year. A mother of two boys was struck and killed by a car driving at night with no lights as she crossed the street a week before the party. Her boys, 9 and 4 years old, are left with no mother. They are now living with their grandmother, who recently lost her job as an in-home caregiver. They have so little. Well, now they have a little more. Thanks again to your generosity, they each have some warm winter clothes, shoes and a few other necessities. And more help is on the way. Tonight, after an impromptu invitation from Kia Jarmon to join her at an event; I met another angel - Yuri Cunza. He asked if anyone knew some deserving children to receive some of the collected donations of toys from the event. Yep. I do. And tomorrow, we will be bringing some new angels to meet these two boys. You cannot imagine how grateful I am to Yuri and the Nashville Area Hispanic Chamber of Commerce for making this possible.

Thanks for clicking on the blog ads and making my modest donation possible. I hope that you will keep Kimble Bosworth's Cheatham Place party in mind as Christmas 2013 approaches. It is a worthy effort organized by an invested leader who expresses care for needy kids and families living in our diverse North End community.

Friday, December 21, 2012

All Hale the power of teachers

What stands out to me in this year's Nashville Scene Person of the Year is not the admittedly excellent individuals they selected to honor but the way the individuals served the writer's tidy triangulation by casting plagues on both the seeming monoliths of charter school supporters and charter school opponents:

the Scene would like to refocus the discussion of public education not on differences and squabbles, but on the enormous asset that charter and public schools have in common: the teachers who are the most active, direct agents of hope Nashville's children will face outside the home.

Reporter Steven Hale is not being any more postconventional about public education than is either the Nashville Chamber of Commerce or Jesse Register's school administration. Both of the latter strive to get the news media to frame school reform, a.k.a. privatization and tax wealth transfer, as a "bold" partnership that weds market-model charters with public mandates for education.

Hale frames the issue exactly as they have. Following two teachers as illustrations to soften the debate merely supports the dominant line in the district now.

The fact he's merely echoing their drive to privatize education is made clear by the high fives they're giving him for what amounts to free advertising for their project. Federal, state, and local governments fund what Hale is advocating. Democrats and Republicans already agree on it (to the point that Democratic officials, sustained by Gates and Walton family wealth, are abandoning teachers unions across the country). To overplay rancor on the subject among powerful elites is disingenuous. His editorial advocacy hits dead center of the power matrix of education policy. Wealth flows to that center like iron filings line up in a magnetic field.

Hale's framing mechanism is symbolic: teachers, that is, "the enormous asset that both charters and public schools have together". About the only exception that charter school advocates would have to that value-framing is to insist that charter schools are thoroughly public schools.

Otherwise, education reformers are consistent and evangelical in the emphasis placed on the role of teachers in the education process. I have found them loath to talk about the role of parents, the difference that socio-economics and income inequalities have on learning, or the simple matter of children getting enough food for breakfast before they come to school in the morning. They put their speculative, peppy views of the influence and optimism of teachers on such an unrealistic plane that it often defies logic and detracts from the real impact of more profound, everyday drags on student performance. That idealism fits hand-in-glove with the emphasis on calls for "quality teachers" and on demands that testing be the stick by which quality is measured.

Within Hale's writing, current school board member and former Bredesen henchman Will Pinkston pays lip service to the teaching pedestal Hale erects (Pinkston's claim that the "teacher-quality camp" has been missing from the debate is disingenous. I've heard that saw spouted by reformers constantly for years as well as in PTO meetings and in the halls of my kid's elementary school).

The Pinkston seal of approval.

Hale's writing seems like it strives to amount to Pinkston's "teacher-quality camp" myth and to provide an echo chamber for education reformers who scale up the influence of teachers and downplay other factors that affect achievement. Hale also neglects the irony that counsels that if we have or hire high quality teachers they should be proficient enough to organize for their own self-interest without being criticized as self-serving by reformers. More importantly, they should have more influence in determining student achievement than testing does.

But Hale's pedestal is beset by the same ironies that plague the reformers' arguments. It is notable in a tribute to teachers that Hale mentions teachers unions only once (and then as a foil). He also says very little about giving "great teachers" a freer hand in determining performance. While I can only think of one objection that reformers might have with Hale's framing of the issue, I can think of many that union members might have. One is precisely the point that he does not address the positive influence unions have for teachers and the civics lesson provided to students. Another is that part of the "innovation" that charter schools advocate is not really innovative at all: charters are not regulated to hire certified teachers and they are "free" to use practically anyone they deem as qualified. A third is the drag that flooding public education with less skilled, cheaper workers has on the salary and benefits that may attract qualified teachers who are skilled at navigating government bureaucracy to begin with. The list of objections could go on and on.

And most of these objections defy the Nashville Scene's oversimplification of their views of charter school teachers as "moonbeams". I may be a charter school opponent, but I'm not surprised by anecdotal evidence that there are good teachers in charter schools. But that is hardly the larger point that I am trying to make.

The tribute that Hale pays to teachers is consistent with the idealism of education reform driving both Register's office and the Chamber of Commerce lobby. I'm not saying that the two individuals he lauds are unworthy. They read like outstanding individuals. I do not deny Hale's grasp of their characters. But there are many outstanding individuals in the teaching profession who don't fit squarely in Hale's value frames that box out larger questions that matter in public education and the process of privatization, which he apparently has come to embrace (does he have children in public schools, by the way?).

Those of us who are not journalists rely on reporters to write more level-headed, critical and investigative analyses than Hale's narrational, sentimental riff, which triangulates as if it actually departed from the school reform project. It does not. In spite of his claims, separation is never really achieved, which is exactly why Metro and Chamber flacks have not shivered his commentary. It frames their values perfectly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How do we know the Chamber of Commerce poll on charter schools is legit?

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce has made a habit of introducing its yearly "report cards" on Metro public schools with terms like "bold" to the point that it means very little: when every report card is bold, then no report cards are bold. Nonetheless, the special interest group whose main purpose seems to be to lobby and leverage policy favorable to it from Metro agencies trotted out another report card with rather interesting "poll" numbers:

Armed with a poll taken in May, chamber officials insist Nashvillians want “school choice” in the form of charters. A survey of Nashvillians, featured in the report, found that 43 percent of respondents believe the city should have as many charter schools as possible, and 39 percent say it should operate a limited number. Eleven percent believe charters are not necessary here.

Any marketer know that you can call just about anything a poll, because there are no rules governing the Chamber when it gathers its "findings". Too bad the journos at the Tennessean do not seem to heed it enough to probe into methodology.

We can assume that the "poll" was paid for by the Chamber, which makes it suspect to begin with. Money changes everything, including claims to objectivity, which brings me to my next point. I searched high and low for information on a polling agency that the Chamber could have contracted to conduct the study, but I could not find that information. Assuming that they hired a pro polling agency (I give them the benefit of the doubt that they did not just phone bank a bunch of their own volunteers asking leading, push-polling questions), I would like to know if that agency acted independently to cull these numbers in the same way an independent auditor would turn over objective balance sheets and neutral assessments. I would also like to see sample questions to test their objectivity. It is only fair. The Nashville Chamber of Commerce has not been bashful about questioning the methodology of more objective media polls at odds with their priorities.

Otherwise, I have serious doubts that nearly half of Nashville would like as many charter schools as possible. If the numbers are accurate and based on operationalized data gathering, then I can only feel sorry for a city that seems bent on going from foundering public education to mediocre privatized education that hands over tax dollars to entrepreneurs who have little or no obligation to taxpayers.

UPDATE:  Local reporter J.R. Lind tracked down the info that I could not find initially on the MNPS website. Appendix A has the questions asked and the results, but J.R. underscored the following paragraph in response to this post:

The following graphs represent results from a telephone survey commissioned by the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce. The survey was designed, written and analyzed by McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations in Nashville. The Parker Consulting Group of Birmingham, Ala., randomly surveyed 545 Davidson County registered voters May 8-9 and 13-14, 2012. The survey has a margin of error of approximately plus or minus 4.2 percent for the total sample.

Essentially, a special interest lobby group commissioned a survey designed, written and analyzed by a public relations firm (which itself has ties to local election and policy campaigns, most notably those of our pro-charter Mayor) and conducted by a marketing consulting business. The matter of whether the framing of the questions as well as of the answers offered to subjects is a legitimate one that I do not want to pass over lightly (for instance, it can be leading to frame the "unlimited charters" question by mentioning state legislative action), but more important for me is the fact that at no point along the process is the research conducted by neutral, independent firms that would be more exhaustive about objectivity and fact gathering.

The Birmingham consulting firm markets their phone surveys to get "accurate information" from their client's "target audience" and to "manage to specific quotas" in the target audience. What the appendix does not say is how the target audience was selected. It also does not delineate controls in place to keep callers from phrasing questions in leading ways or straying from a strict protocol of asking the same question in the same way to each subject in the target audience.

In my opinion a more neutral and objective survey of attitudes about charter schools should be formulated and conducted by a research (not marketing) firm without skin the game or financial connections to a local special interest group that has invested years and money clips on getting answers it expects. If the results are legitimate and objectively gained, I would like to see more qualitative data on what the 43% who support unlimited charters schools believe they are supporting and why they support such a market model for public education when running government like a business has not consistently worked.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Sale of Werthan Packaging to developer finalized

An Atlanta developer, who has proposed a huge mixed-use apartment complex with preservation of some of Werthan's historic structures, closed on the property:
SWH Residential Partners has closed on its $7 million purchase of a 13.75-acre site at the historic Werthan complex in Nashville's Germantown neighborhood. SWH Residential Partners plans to kick off a 282-unit, $40 million mixed-use apartment building on the site at 1515 5th Ave. North. The seller was Werthan Packaging Inc.

Memphis education reformers make a mint

The blogger who "keeps an eye on the corporate education agenda" observes the very lucrative business of privatizing public schools in Memphis, in spite of neighborhood opposition:

Less than a year into the New Orlean’s style rephorm-over, the Achievement School District’s numbers are off the charts. By numbers, I’m referring NOT to student test scores at the 6 ASD schools —they ranked in the 16th percentile in reading and math —but the eye popping salaries that district personnel are pulling down. Tennessee may be called the volunteer state, but in Achievement land, the “sweet salary state” might be a more accurate nickname. District head and TFA alum Christopher Barbic takes home nearly $18K —a month. A little perspective: that’s more than the governor of the state makes, and, believe or not, a hair more than Kevin Huffman, TFAster turned former Mr. Michelle Rhee turned chief rephormer for the state of Tennessee ....

Within the next few years, the Achievement School District will swallow up schools all over Memphis, eventually covering more than 20,000 students. And there in lies the dry spice rub. You see not everyone is cheering the rephorm train as it speeds down the tracks. The neighborhoods whose schools are being targeted for takeovers have responded with protests—even anti-ASD billboards. Tomorrow, parents and other supporters of the Treadwell School, a one-of-a-kind dual language school located in the heart of Memphis’ Hispanic neighborhood, will submit a petition signed by 1,000 people, all saying “¡keep your manos off our escuela!

There is too much private money and powerful influence in the education reform industry for it to be anything other than a get-rich-quick racket funded and legitimized by elected officials, themselves beholden to wealthy campaign donors. Talk about a vicious circle. It will take massive community organizing to turn back this wave of young hipsters--many with Teach for America backgrounds--coming into a struggling education market with designs on huge salaries at the expense of old-guard, experienced educators. I am not sure enough people are angry at how corporations are daily looting the state budget to muster the mass organization required to turn off the money spigots before the young and the restless reformers parachute out to other endeavors.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Legal loan shark" to occupy prominent North Nashville intersection

I was disappointed to read that a development going in at the corner of Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard is Advance Financial, a payday loan business that profits on working-class desperation and houses itself in tedious buildings:

“We’re trying to rebrand and reinvigorate a community,” Kwame Lillard, a community activist and owner of property off Jefferson Street, said. “That’s a sign of regression.”

There’s not much critics can do because the Advance Financial site was already zoned for commercial use and the storefront will meet requirements under the historic district overlay for that area. [CEO Mike] Hodges hopes to eventually win over hearts and minds with the design of the planned building — which includes a glass-and-brick structure with 15 teller windows and a drive-through window ....

“Part of that is a perception issue — our industry has done a very poor job of curbside appeal,” Hodges said. “You’ve got a historically underserved Jefferson Street and we just think it’s a great location. We do well where you have high-traffic intersections.”

Some of their "high-traffic" intersections do not exactly have what I would consider "curbside appeal" (images via Google Maps):

Clarksville Hwy

Tusculum Road

Gallatin Avenue

The concept of a "glass-and-brick structure" does not sound attractive when I see pictures of Advance Financial structures of the same materials elsewhere. Bad enough, they are located on parking lots at odds with walkability but their strip-mall styling is out of character with high density urban character.

Contrast Advance Financial's status quo with the development scenario for Jefferson Street near Rosa Parks Boulevard laid out by the 2010 North Nashville community plan that many of us here helped formulate:

In this development scenario buildings are shown with shallow setbacks sitting close to Jefferson Street with parking placed behind the building. Parking is also located beside the building, and in some cases off-site in other parts of  the Community Center to facilitate shared parking between businesses. New buildings along Jefferson Street and Rosa Parks Boulevard should be among the tallest and most urban in the area. As a transition between mixed use development the existing residential development, new residential building types such as townhomes and multifamily are located on the edges of the Community Center.

How the community plan envisions Jeff St at Rosa Parks
Here's hoping that Advance Financial will not follow its standard practice of showcasing parking lots, especially on a corner dominated by a drug store and gas station with parking in front. However, the 2010 plan also recommends innovative building types compatible with existing residential patterns and increasing neighborhood density. I do not see Advance Financial offering much in the way of innovation given their low-profile, cookie-cutter, convenience-store layout with screaming signs disproportionately mondo to the modest size of their buildings.

In fairness, I have not seen any drawings of the new building, but the current Advance Financial holdings do not offer me much hope that it will fit the community plan or the character of the North End as it has developed. And frankly the existing outlets look trashy and unkempt. The last thing Jeff St needs is the scruffy and dirty look of what passes for "curbside appeal" on Tusculum or Gallatin.

Furthermore, council member Erica Gilmore's comments to journalists do not give me much faith that Advance Financial will bring the quality of life of our community up to what we expected in participating in the planning process: “You don’t want it to be predatory or whatever, but if other banks or businesses aren’t coming in, you have to have something at the end of the day. They’re not going to set up anywhere where people have adequate banking needs.” That's not exactly a ringing endorsement or assurance that the development is going to amount to what the major, historic intersection deserves. (Will the National Museum of African American Music ever be built so that its patrons can stop across the intersection and pick up an Advance Financial loan first for admission and souvenirs?) The fact that CM Gilmore cannot at least throw us a bone to discourage us from feeling like we are a leeward dumping ground for industries that prey on systemic poverty and community hardship is astonishing (Advance Financial will have a bail bonds business as a neighbor).

I do not know whether Advance Financial greased the skids for this deal by donating $7,000 a few months ago to Historic Germantown, Inc. for their October street festival, but I have not heard complaints coming from their affluent end of the community. I did receive a forwarded email exchange in which one festival organizer defended the donation to a critic who called the loan company a "legal loan shark". The festival organizer called the critic "assuming" and offered to send him an invoice next year with their expenses to see how much he could finance before they start soliciting other donations. Hence, I am not expecting bold opposition from Germantown leadership on this question, which means they may get the ugly that they deserve for $7,000. Some living there already complain about their Autozone.

The rest of us free from the Advance Financial dole deserve better, and by better, I mean something along the lines of the community plan that caters to people's everyday lives instead of scoring on their lowest moments.